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Elizabeth Township violinist to celebrate 100th birthday with a concert

| Sunday, July 17, 2011

Next month, composer, conductor, concert violinist and teacher Gene Reichenfeld turns 100. He will celebrate his Aug. 15, 1911, birth by performing alongside his two children, grandson and two great-grandchildren.

"There have been famous musician families throughout history, such as (Johann Sebastian) Bach and his 22 children. This is the Reichenfeld Dynasty," says Reichenfeld, with a chuckle.

He founded two symphonies, and for 26 years taught and developed string programs in the Turtle Creek and Penn Hills school districts. Reichenfeld holds the record of 28 invitations to conduct at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association. He is known for his mentoring style of teaching and playing his instrument alongside students.

"I remember when I was little, we didn't have baby sitters," says his daughter Gerry Schultz, 70, who conducts the 40-member California Red Wood Chorale. "I had a spot beside the oboe player in the middle of the symphony. My brother, who played the trumpet, sat behind me and my mother was in the violin section. I'd watch my father conduct. My ears got so trained sitting in the orchestra, I could pick out every note, every instrument."

The musical family includes Arthur Reichenfeld, a music director for 36 years in the Sharon Public Schools and currently a violinist in the Youngstown Symphony, his wife Janice, and their son Douglas, a band director at Mount Lebanon High School, and his children, Evan, 12, and Elise, 9.

A month away from his 100th birthday, Reichenfeld practices for the concert and teaches a dozen students a week in the studio of the Elizabeth Township home he shares with his second wife Katie, nearly 20 years his junior. They met while volunteering for a WQED telethon and married in 1982.

Two plastic-covered chairs sit side-by-side in front of a music stand with super-sized sheet music specially printed so Reichenfeld can read it. He is blind in one eye, and nearby are four pairs of glasses for his better eye. His studio has a large poster of pictures sent by students. Some are musicians in prominent symphonies, including the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony, as well as band directors in local schools.

Early lessons

Reichenfeld emigrated from Hungary at age 8. While his parents shopped, he followed the sound of violins to a gypsy camp near Braddock.

"People went down to just listen to them play," Reichenfeld says. "The lead violinist took a liking to me. He saw me every Saturday and said, 'Kid, would you like to play this?' I said, Yes, I would.' He taught me to play in the gypsy manner. The first song I ever learned was fascinating.

"When the weather turned cold, and they moved on, he said, 'Gene, don't keep playing the way we taught you. It's not the way real violinists play. I urge you to go and find yourself a good teacher.' "

That teacher was Markus Klein, one of Pittsburgh's finest violinists, and an "orphan boy himself," Reichenfeld says.

"He took interest in me and taught me about good books and about how to read, and philosophy and how to think and how to organize my life. He was a tremendous influence." When Reichenfeld didn't show up for a lesson, and explained the following week that he didn't have the money, Klein told him: "When you have the money to pay, I want you to pay so you know the value, but when you don't have the money, then it's my time to help you."

Reichenfeld continued that legacy. He gave free lessons, as well as violins that he repaired until into his 90s. He learned how to restore violins that had been thrown out. Although he was teaching violin by the age of 16, his first adult job was as a social worker. That's where he met his first wife, violinist Linda Palmieri Reichenfeld. During World War II, Reichenfeld worked as a machinist at Westinghouse Electric, and founded the Westinghouse Symphony.

"These orchestra members were machinists and laborers by day, who created beautiful music together by night," Reichenfeld says.

Lifetime teacher

Following the war, in his mid-30s, he earned his degree in music education and achieved his master's degree in his 40s.

Around that time, in 1954, he founded the Reichenfeld String Sinfonietta, often called the "Youth Symphony," because high school musicians played alongside experienced adults. Reichenfeld conducted it until 2003, at age 91, when Duquesne University awarded him an honorary doctorate of music education. He was also awarded the Pennsylvania Music Education Association's Citation of Excellence.

Reichenfeld doesn't plan to retire, and keeps looking forward.

"If you look backward, you will retard your own future," he says. "I only look ahead. I try to survive, so I can set out to do what I would like to do. I have a goal to do something each day."

When the Reichenfeld family performs together, a recording will be made to send to President Barack Obama.

"It is my gift for his 50th birthday that is also this August," Reichenfeld says. Original compositions include "Katie's Song," which he composed two years ago for his granddaughter Katie's wedding. Daughter Gerry composed the choral tribute "My Hero," and remembers sharing the stage with her father when it was performed shortly after his 93rd birthday.

"He came onstage with me in his white tuxedo," she says. "Always the teacher, he instructed the audience in what to listen for in the Bach he was going to play. Then he ripped into that Bach, and the audience was on their feet!"

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Gene Reichenfeld

Gene Reichenfeld

Next month, the composer, conductor, concert violinist and teacher turns 100. He plans to celebrate with a concert.

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