Berl Senofsky, 77, celebrated violinist, Peabody instructor

June 23, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Berl Senofsky, a Peabody Conservatory violin virtuoso whose students play in principal positions in major symphony orchestras, died Friday night of complications from lung and heart disease at his Canton waterfront apartment. He was 77.

A musical prodigy who took his first lesson at age 3, he won an important musical award, the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium, in 1955. He was a member of the Peabody faculty from 1965 to 1996.

"He was one of America's greatest violinists," said Stephen Kates, a cellist and friend who lives in Edgewater. "He had a natural talent and was a top musician, pedagogue and mentor.

"He was a person who commanded respect by his mere presence. By devoting his last 30 years to his students, he touched everyone who came in contact with him. He was envied by many for his talents and gifts," said Mr. Kates.

"He taught things you can't learn straight out in schools. He taught the real art of playing, to play with a meaning that penetrates deep into the heart," said Jephta Drachman, a friend and president of the board of directors for the Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall Concert Series. "He was generous because he cared so much about his students. My father, [Russian-born cellist] Gregor Piatigorsky, admired his talents tremendously."

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Senofsky was the son of a Russian emigre who had studied with violinists Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist.

"From the beginning, his training was grounded in the grand romantic tradition," Noel Lester, a Hood College music teacher, said of Mr. Senofsky.

He studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He also was a pupil of master teacher Ivan Galamian.

In 1946, he received the first prize in the Walter W. Naumberg competition, and was assistant concertmaster with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1951 to 1955, playing under maestro George Szell. After winning the prestigious Belgian competition, he toured and performed widely in what was then the Soviet Union, as well as Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa and the United States. He also founded the First Tuesday Concert Society in Baltimore; its name later was changed to Opus One.

"His style of performance was straight from the gut, big-bodied and passionate. He produced a ravishing sound on the violin," said David Starobin, a Peabody alumnus whose Bridge Records released a CD of a live performance Mr. Senofsky gave in 1975 at the Library of Congress.

"To me," Mr. Senofsky said in a 1979 Sun interview, "music is a higher calling than just a profession or living. It is an effort in understanding something bigger than yourself - it is an effort at striving to be something bigger than you are. You can define religion that way too."

Friends recalled him as of medium height and athletic build - he played football as a young man - with large arms and broad shoulders. In recent years, he liked to spend evenings with friends at Bertha's in Fells Point.

"He was a huge presence - he loved Fells Point - and would sit and hold court," said Laura Norris, owner of Bertha's Dining Room on Broadway and one of his former violin students. "He loved people. He'd mixed with kings and queens in Europe and the people of East Baltimore, too. All of us were incredibly lucky to have known him."

"Berl did nothing in a small way. He truly was bigger than life," said Gordon Becker, his friend of many years. "He loved humor, he was always fighting his weight because he loved to eat. Onions and garlic were his aftershave."

Mr. Becker recalled that the violinist rode a motorcycle and did not like to wear a helmet. He would strap a rare Stradivarius instrument to the back of his BMW cycle.

"He was a man of many strong opinions. Everything was black and white to him. There was no gray," Mr. Becker said.

His wife, Kyung Moon Ahn, died in 2000. His earlier marriages to pianist Ellen Mack and cello player Shirley Trepel ended in divorce.

Private services are being planned.

Mr. Senofsky is survived by a son, Dr. Gregory M. Senofsky of Los Angeles; a sister, Beatrice Enson of Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.; and a grandson.

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