ON HEARING YAMASHITA

By Matanya Ophee (1984).

The name of young Kazuhito Yamashita is being heard often these days. One hears about his remarkable technique, about his poor choice of programs, about the lack of any “important” teachers in his Curriculum Vitae, about the implausibility of a Japanese performer “correctly” grasping the nature of Western music but more than any thing else, one hears about his performance of Modest Petrovich Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

I went to hear Yamashita in person on the occasion of the 1984 guitar festival in Toronto—Guitar ’84. With this article, I wish to bear witness to an event which in my opinion, more than any other event in our time, will determine the fortunes of serious guitar playing in the future. I am speaking of the advent of Kazuhito Yamashita.

Before launching into this discussion, I need to clearly state my bias regarding guitar transcriptions of music which, by any stretch of our learned and informed opinion, is not suitable for the guitar and does nothing to promote the cause of the instrument in the musical community at large.

As many of you, I have done a fair amount of transcriptions of music for the guitar. I even published some of these. My files, let it be said, are overflowing with things I have done in the past, and which, if I have anything to say about it, will never see the light. Church cantatas, piano works, symphonies and the like. Arrangements I have done in the spirit of Tárrega’s arrangement of the Pilgrim’s March from Tannhäuser, and José de Azpiazu’s arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in d minor of Bach. Solo guitar works, which as George Warren once said, are fun to play when no one is listening.

As one grows up and matures, it is easy to see the folly in these attempts. Particularly when one is equipped with a listening ear which enables one to hear music as an experience unmarred by the petty prejudices of the guitar aficionado. Thus, when I chanced upon a performance of Saint-Säens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, arranged for solo guitar and performed in front of a lot of people by one Byron Paul Tomingas at the 1977 Guitar Festival in Carmel, California, it was time for me to wonder at the extent of impudence to which guitar fanatics would allow themselves to go just so that they can demonstrate their unusual this or that. Mind you, had Mr. Tomingas satisfied his craving for glory by playing the solo violin part, and had he left the orchestral accompaniment to someone else, I would have been inclined to give him the benefit of a doubt. But no. This was, believe it or not, an arrangement of the whole thing—solo and accompaniment as well. For that marvel of marvels, the smallest of orchestras, the classickle guitar. If you ever heard any violin virtuosos such as Heifetz or Stern playing this Promenade Concerts favorite, you know well how ludicrous such an arrangement can sound on the solo guitar. Ludicrous it sounded and I wondered then if the standing ovation Mr. Tomingas received, was in any way indicative of the audience’s sophistication in matters musical, or lack of it.

All this said, it is no wonder I raised my eyebrows at reading George Warren’s review of the recording by Yamashita of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (RCA Red Seal Digital ARC 1-4203), which appeared in the now, Alas, defunct Guitar & Lute magazine. I have known George for quite some time now. He is one of those rare individuals who can see through the fog of commercial hype, and spot a fraud from a mile away. He is also known for his ability to call a spade a spade, which means that he is just as good at making enemies as he is at making friends. I am proud to be counted among his friends.

George and I have been conducting a running correspondence, which by this time runs to several large volumes. It contains some of the most hilarious episodes in guitar literature ever written, but unfortunately, it is too scandalous in nature and publishing it at this time, will land both of us in very serious legal trouble. Among other things, we argued a lot, we disagreed a lot, and shared some sweet jokes between us about the guitar and its personalities and about ourselves. Material for 21st century guitar researchers. And the money we both spent on trans-continental telephone conversations regarding the same subject—the guitar—will have bought us both a couple of nice and expensive concert guitars. All of which is to say that I know George Warren intimately well. I know his way of thinking, I share many of his likes and dislikes and on occasion, I find myself borrowing from him unconsciously. This one is conscious and deliberate:

...Have you ever heard the name KAZUHITO YAMASHITA before? Well, I hadn’t either. And then I ran, across a record called Romance de Amor (RCA RDCE-S) in a bin full of cutouts the other day, and bought it for almost nothing. It's a 1978 debut album by a 16-year-old Japanese high school student, and includes two student pieces (including the anonymous title tune) and the Sor Op. 14 and the Britten “Nocturnal.” There was no reason to expect much; but the Sor turned out to include some quite remarkable fireworks and, in the Allegro, a tempo so incredibly fast as to be totally out of style; I rather wished he hadn’t done it at the same time as I wondered how the dickens he did do it. The other side was as promising musically as the first one was technically, not only did the 16-year-old drew amazing technical command and control—particularly in a direct-to-disc album—but he unveiled a sometimes stunning interpretive gift. I told myself to make a note of the name and look for this Yamashita fellow in future: in about three or four years he ought to be a heck of a guitarist...

[review of several recordings deleted]

I was going to get back to my lead, though, and damn it, I still don’t know exactly what to say. Remember that 16-year-old Yamashita kid I was telling you about? Well, he’s four years older now, and he has come along, just as I thought he would, and...

But no. This is understating the case. Yamashita hasn’t learned how to play the guitar well. He seems to have taught the instrument how to do some things it’s never had the smallest notion of doing before. Hearing him en RCA Red Seal Digital ARC 1-4202 is a little like being used to Rococo politesse elegantly delivered on the clavichord by Philipp Emanuel Bach, say, and suddenly for the first time hearing Franz Liszt Play a 20th century Steinway.

No, I’m not kidding. Yamashita is something new, something sui generis. The matter at hand is the complete “Pictures at an Exhibition” of Moussrgsky, or Yamashita’s incredibly huge-scaled impression of it. It sounds like the stupidest damned idea you ever heard, playing this music on the guitar, which has, usually, a dynamic range from A to B. Well, tonight, my friend, you’ve got a surprise ahead of you. Yamashita gets that range up to somewhere around M or N, with the softest pianissimos and the most tremendous fortissimos you ever imagined on this instrument—and in the meantime gives you the distinct impression that he has no holes, none at all, in his technique anywhere. I have never heard such speed, such control, such...

Damn it. I am trying to hold this down and not let it run away from me. Some of what’s on this album I cannot imagine being playable on one instrument—and yet there are precise data on the recording session on the liner, and there is no mention of overdubbing. No matter. I don’t know what to think. He sounds, at times, like a koto band gone Western classical; at others, like an orchestra of Prestis and Lagoyas. Suffice it to say that even if he’s overdubbing and no other tricks are being added, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else in the world who could have played this as a duet.

I want to see him play this live. If he can do it, it ought to be the just plain flat-out God-damnedest one evening’s entertainment any guitarist could hope to give you. As a record, it’s exhausting to listen to. Try playing it all the way through for friends, with the gain turned up—and be prepared to shoot anyone who knocks the arrangement; it’s hardly more radical than Harold Bauer’s famous rewrite of the material for piano. Look around you as the second side progresses; by the time you’re halfway through Catacombae their eyes should be glazed over, and the sweat should be pouring down their foreheads. And neither you nor anyone else is going to believe the sonority he gets out of La Porte des Bohatyrs de Kieff. You couldn’t follow this one onstage with the finale from Dr. Lao’s circus. The silence afterwards is downright post-orgasmic. And it doesn’t seem worth mentioning that this sort of thing is, or was, not exactly what the guitar was supposed to be about. Yamashita writes his own rules. It remains to be seen whether there’s anybody else on the face of the earth who can follow them. 

(George Warren, “Recordings in Brief,” Guitar and Lute magazine, issue No. 22, May 1982. pp. 41-2)

Strong language. And knowing George, I also knew he meant every word of it. So I got myself the record. I also got the published edition of Yamashita’s arrangement. (Gendai Guitar, Tokyo Japan, 1981, No. C-3073 ISBN 4-87471-028-X). Looking over the arrangement while listening to the record, I had to reach the inevitable conclusion that even if anyone managed to learn the complex technical devices used by Yamashita, (assuming one was willing to believe him that he could indeed execute that which he notated) the whole project was doomed to failure since no one can be expected to execute the intricate scordatura changes required in the course of playing the work, and do so without missing a beat. To expect an attacca to occur between “Promenade” and the “Ballet of Little Chickens.” while the scordatura changes from 6th in D to 6th in E, is to invite disaster and the most out-of-tune guitar you can imagine. Any one who ever heard John Duarte’s lecture on this scordatura, knows well that the thing is next to impossible to execute instantly and we have all witnessed, at one time or another, the foolish guitarist who would program scordatura changes into a recital. How many fine performances turned to blobs of meaningless jelly because of a string out of tune! Oh yes, we all know that some famous artists are able to re-tune their guitars in mid-performance by executing brilliant sleight-of-hand. I even saw once, alive and on stage, a young man doing a fancy passage in mano izquierda sola while re-tuning his guitar with the right hand arched over his head. It didn’t get the guitar in any better tune, but it sure looked like a most amazing performance. . .

For most of us Plebeian Souls, re-tuning the guitar in mid-stream simply never works. That is why guitarists spend so much time tuning the instrument before the performance, and between pieces. Yamashita’s solutions for transcription then, depended on a technical device—repeated and precise changes in scordatura— which is simply not accessible to us and therefore, I had to conclude, it does not seem plausible that the recording was made of a live performance. It had to be spliced together. One could also discuss all the other devices used, but this would require an article in itself, if not a Ph.d. dissertation. Suffice it to say that I had to go and hear him live. If there was anywhere on this earth where I could procure for myself that “just plain flat-out God-damnedest one evening’s entertainment” George was talking about, I would be on my way!

I had my doubts about going to Toronto this year. But if I had any hesitation about missing an opportunity to meet with my friends, the booking of Yamashita at the event decided the matter for me. His concert took place on Friday, June 29th. Here is a facsimile of the program, autographed by the artist:

program.jpg (56599 bytes)

He walks on stage, a beat-up Ramirez in his hand. Sheepishly smiling and bowing to the audience Japanese style, almost like asking forgiveness for intruding on this august gathering of GG’s (Guitar Greats). Like a shy little boy asked by Daddy to play for the guests who came for supper. One almost felt sorry for him and wanted to pat him on the head. That’s all right young man, you don’t have to play if you don’t wanna. And as he sits down still bowing to the audience in the process, something unbelievable takes place right before your eyes. The shy little boy turns into a giant. Obviously, there is some internal process of concentration going on in the artist’s mind. The visual effect on the audience, perhaps not intended, is that we are made to partake in this transformation of the boy into a passionate and mature artist. Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. He hasn’t played one note yet, and already possessed each one of us, body and soul. There was no escaping him now!

The first item on the program . . . did I hear it a thousand times? Two thousand or three thousand times since I began playing the guitar some thirty years ago?

Oh God! to think that in this day and age anybody his right mind would even think of starting a program with this piece of inconsequential drivel! Mind you, it was, perhaps in Sor’s time, a pretty good piece. What has been done to it by generations of camp followers and rent-a-program enthusiasts, is, or was, to have definitely spoiled any flavor that it may have had and turn it into an unrecognizable mash of left-overs. I am thinking all this to myself with my brain, while my soul is riveted to this magical spectacle unraveling itself before my eyes. He finally sits down, and raises his shoulders like a vulture and with both claws digs into the guitar with the violence and power of a madman. That first chord of the Introduction comes out rolling like a thunder. Sharp, clear and with the voice of authority. What followed that first chord was a convincing argument that no matter what one thinks of the programming, the powerful grip of a master musician is enough to dispel any preoccupations with one’s own convictions and prejudices. He could have played Leyenda followed by Lagrima and topped it off by the first Villa-Lobos Prelude. Or he could have simply played the C Major scale in the first position. It would not have mattered. Here was a trite little theme with an equally trite set of variations, which have been the grist of guitar programming mill over the last 70 years or so, turned into Grand Opera in its purest form. The hero and heroine in their flight from the clutches of the old father who promises his daughter to the rich fat and vile merchant. Drama and pathos, poetry and lyricism, tragedy and romance. 1 am not sure I know how Kazuhito Yamashita, this young and inexperienced newcomer from the East, could have captured the flavor of nineteenth century Western Grand Opera so well and transmit it to us disguised as a guitar piece by Fernando Sor. I am not sure any of the 800 or so people in attendance, including some 450 guitarists-participants in the Festival, and some of the more important names in our business, had also any idea what happened.

One thing is certain: in thirty years or so of attending guitar concerts, I have never seen an audience give a standing ovation to the artist right after the first piece in the program. There they were, the Brouwers, the O’Dettes, the Holmquists, the Mercadals, the Sakellarious, the Russells, the Kassners. the Forrests, the Danners and the Ophees, standing there on their feet, cheering and clapping like mad with tears running down many a cheek. It took a long time for the audience to calm down. And understandably so. One is safe to assume that every single one among the 450 or so guitarists in the audience must have played this piece at one time or another. Many of them even recorded it. Yet, this was one performance which they will never forget.

Kazuhito Yamashita is a fast player. An easy statement to make, and in the proper, or improper context, even used as a put-down. One was soon getting accustomed to a simple fact. If Yamashita can play a run of notes at 200, he could also play at 300 or 400. Speed is of no particular significance to him. Some of us, particularly those who toil for hours with the metronome trying to catch up with known masters of digital velocity, were indeed overcome by a sense of awe at this technical facility. But facility implies a difficult thing made easy. If playing fast was ever difficult for this young man, there is no trace of this in his technical make-up today. Here is one performer who plays faster not because he is able to do what is denied to others, but because he is able to use speed as an expressive device, where and when required. This is the kind of velocity which is taken for granted in violin, flute and piano performance, and for the first time in guitar history, can also be heard in a guitar performance. A difficult thing to accept perhaps for those who make a living playing the guitar, but nevertheless, a fact to be reckoned with from now on.

The second item on the program, the Bach Chaconne, proved to us that Yamashita had never taken lessons with Rosalyn Tureck. He also never took lessons with Sharon Isbin and certainly had not read her articles on how to play Bach. His Bach by all accounts was dead wrong, improper and an insult to our self-righteous pompousness regarding our Bach. How dare a snotty little kid from Nagasaki tell us, bastions of Western scholarship and good taste, how the music of this most Western of composers ought to be played?

But he did. I’ll never forgive him for that because as much as I disagreed with his concept of the music, I found myself drinking the notes out of his hand like drops of dew after a long march in the desert. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it and if there ever was a “just plain flat-out God-damnedest one evening’s entertainment” I ever hoped to get from any guitarist, this was only the beginning.

I’ll better hurry and get to the second half soon, or the editor will cut this to pieces! His Takemitsu was a masterpiece in controlled sonorities, and his Britten... Oh well, I need another 10 pages to tell you about that. The last note of the Nocturnal was the softest of pianissimos I have ever heard. I am willing to bet he actually hadn’t played it at all. Yet, it was heard clearly above the pounding heart-beat of 800 transfixed listeners. Intermission time was a difficult period. One could see in the lobby people walking around in a daze, others engaged in loud discussion, nervously puffing on their pipes. One could see many of the guitar’s demi-Gods, the heir-apparents, the ladder climbers, the International Reputations and the Master-Class Givers walk around with long faces as if some one had rubbed their noses in camel dung. At the time, I felt sorry for them. But talking to George Warren soon after, he felt very strongly that Yamashita does not invalidate the work of Mikulka, Russell, Lendle, Barruecco, Holmquist and scores of other fine performers. Just like Franz Liszt did not invalidate the achievements of Hummel, Moscheles and Kalkbrenner when he appeared on the scene. And just like Paganini did not invalidate the work of Baillot, Lafont and Lipinsky when he appeared on the scene. It is not that Yamashita is a better or a faster performer. It is simply that he is different, a sui generis. Comparing other performers to him is to miss the whole point of his uniqueness. Virtuosity comes in many shades of glory. From the controlled excellence of Baruecco to the utter musicianship of Lendle, the audacious impetuousness of Mikulka to the wild and violent passions of Yamashita. What sets him apart as a breed in itself, is the simple fact that he is one performer who does not share a common ancestry with the rest of the pack. He does not belong to the Tárrega-Segovia clan, and he owes no allegiance to its progeny. Even if he did in fact participate in master-classes in Compostella.

But let me tell you about his Musorgsky. Of course, the first part of the program, and particularly, the choice of well known pieces, was a clever device on the part of Yamashita to set the stage for the Moment of Truth, the Pièce de Resistance, the “Pictures at an Exhibition” of Modest Musorgsky. One thing was evidently clear during the first half. Yamashita is ALWAYS perfectly in tune. He does not allow any of his strings to stray for a second out of tune and he is constantly busy re-tuning the instrument. Obviously, he is ever listening to the sound he is making, and even in the wildest outburst of fury, he is listening and making incessant minute changes in the tuning. His left hand is moving all the time between the finger-board and the tuning keys. If anybody ever got the impression from this unusual aspect of his playing that he is out of tune, they simply haven’t joined him in listening to his instrument. Strings do get out of tune no matter what you do. Most players choose, wisely perhaps, to grin and bear it and wait for the next pause to re-tune. Yamashita, it seems, must have made a conscious choice NOT to wait. For this, it was necessary for him to to develop a whole new skill in re-tuning while playing. I am not sure I clearly understand the technique. I need to watch him and hear him a few more times. For the time being, it is obvious to me that what he achieved is a unique way of keeping the instrument in tune, regardless of local conditions of the hall, without ever missing a beat, without the activity ever interfering in his technical facility and with his interpretative treatment of the music. And he is right on target every time!

So by the time he began to play the Musorgsky (stress on first syllable please—MOO-sorgsky!) it was clear that changing scordaturas in the middle of playing will not present a problem for him. And indeed, if it takes an ordinary guitarist 15 minutes to achieve a 6th in D scordatura with several re-checking of the tuning of the whole instrument in the process, Yamashita can do it instantly, and precisely, without re-checking. But then, he is not an ordinary guitarist.

As for his performance: please rest assured that whatever he notated in the printed edition, is precisely what he does live on stage. There are no hidden gimmicks. Everything is spelled out in detail, and the live performance follows the text letter perfect. But is it Musorgsky?

Before I drop on you the inevitably resounding affirmative, I wish to let you in on a bit of private matter: I am of Russian origin. I have lived and breathed Russian music from a very young age. It's in my blood. I am also married to a Russian music scholar, a graduate of Leningrad Conservatory and Russian is the language spoken in our house. Both of us, in our separate youths as well as in our married life together, have heard this work countless of times, performed by the greatest Russian interpreters. Richter, and Ashkenazy to mention two well known names. Many times we have heard the Ravel orchestral version of the piece and even the latest orchestration of Vladimir Ashkenazy. Both of us, sitting there and listening to the most unlikely interpreter, playing this music on the most unlikely instrument, had to reach the inescapable conclusion that this was, in its own special way, as authentic a Musorgsky as one could wish for. Of course, Yamashita’s approach is radically different than that of, say, Ashkenazy. While Ashkenazy takes the whole in one swooping development of grandeur, Yamashita concentrates on fashioning the work as an interconnected chain of delicate miniatures. What he manages to instill in the work, perhaps due to the instrument, or perhaps due to his particular cultural background, is a totally new palette of tone colors. New to the work and new to the instrument. His imitation of a Russian male choir softly singing inside the depths of a Russian church, as he did in the senza espressione section of “The Bohatyr Gate of Kiev” was so real and life-like, that if you ever heard this music, you had to turn your head and look for the choir!

No, the guitar was certainly never meant to do these things. No one told that to Yamashita, though. In the normal course of events, guitarists toil for years developing their technique, and then they try to figure out what to do with it. They select the music, original or in transcription, to fit their technical equipment. Those who do it successfully, go on to bigger and better things. Those who overstep their own limitations, end up getting a thumping from the critics. In the case of Yamashita, George Warren suggested to me recently, it seems that the process was reversed. He selected the music first, and then set out to develops the technique required for its execution. Not being bound by blind allegiance to this or that school, this or that mythology, this or that cult figure, he was able to think through a whole new way of eliciting sound from the instrument. Extensive use of the little finger, single finger tremolo, the ability to play with or without nails, left or right side of the nail, at will. All these devices are not really that new. They have been used at one time or another by many other guitarists. What is new and refreshing is the artist’s unrestrained approach to technique. No one told him that it is impossible to play dedillo with the little finger on the first string, while, at the same time, playing a complex three voice accompaniment on the inner strings. No one told him also that it is impossible to vary the dynamics of the singing tremolo in an opposite manner to the accompaniment. No one told him that it is impossible, so he went ahead and did it anyway.

One thing he must have learnt thoroughly, from his father perhaps, is to listen carefully to his own playing. That is, it seems to me, the reason he was able to develop this fantastic dynamic range. Your average run-of-the-mill guitarist has a dynamic range which consists of various shades of mezzo-forte. The better than average is able to make some distinction between mezzo-forte and mezzo-piano while the virtuoso is able to finally show you a clear distinction between piano and forte. Yamashita had broken through these artificial limitations and his range extends from the softest of all possible pianissimos to a thundering fortissimo which drowns out everything in close proximity. Yes indeed, occasionally his fortissimos tend to be a bit rough. But this is not because he is forcing the instrument to do more than it is physically capable, but because he is consciously using roughness of sound as just another tone color.

To try and transcribe Modest Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and then dare to perform the transcription in public, does indeed seem to be “the stupidest damned idea you ever heard” if the technical equipment you have to work with, and the emotional attachment you have to the instrument and its culture is determined by a blind allegiance to the Tárrega-Segovia cult and its various offshoots and subordinate disciplines. If you are a believer in the sanctity of Segovia, if you are a believer in the superiority and justice of the Carlevaro School, if you are a believer and follower of the Lagoya School, if you are a son of Celedonio Romero and believe that he had invented the apoyando technique (as I recently heard Angel Romero tell an interviewer on station WCLV in Cleveland, Ohio), if you are of any of these persuasions, chances are that if you tried to do a transcription of the “Pictures,” and perform it in public, you will end up with a joke on the level of the Tárrega arrangement of Wagner's “The Pilgrim’s March” from Tannhäuser, Azpiazu’s arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in d minor or Byron Paul Tomingas’ insult to Camille Saint-Säens. But if you are a free spirit, a free creative spirit who is determined to do your own thing, then you write music like Nikita Koshkin and Wolfgang Lendle, and play music like Kazuhito Yamashita—FREE!

Do yourself a favor: buy borrow or steal the record and the printed edition. It matters not if you will ever be able to play it like Yamashita. I suspect that some will, and some will even surpass his achievements. But for the time being, this is going to be for you one hell of an experience, well worth the time and effort. It just might help you to see things for yourself, with your own eyes and listen to your own music and that of others with your own ears, and not with those of your teacher or current cult figure. You might want to go to Nagasaki and take lessons from Toru Yamashita, Kazuhito’s father and mentor. But don’t make a fetish of it. We certainly don’t need another cult figure. And if you can, and the opportunity arises, travel a thousand miles to hear this phenomenal guitarist. He is going to give you, whether you love him or hate him, “the just plain flat-out God-damnedest one evening’s entertainment any guitarist could hope to give you.” Thanks for the tip, George.

It is difficult to assess what will be the reaction of the general public and the musical community at large to this event. There will be those, for sure, who will object to it on the simple basis that it is an arrangement, not the original composition. These are the same people who have accepted Ravel’s orchestration, with all of its insipid additions and alterations of Musorgsky’s text, without worrying too much about its originality. Some of them even make a big deal from arrangements of the Branderburg Concertos for four guitars as played by the Romeros or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played on three guitars by the Amsterdam Trio, without worrying too much about the propriety of these transcriptions. Personally, I prefer original music. I have shelved all of my old transcriptions forever, and I do not accept new ones. But original or transcription, as a listener, my choice is ever directed towards good music, well played.

As a listener, I accept Yamashita’s arrangement of the Pictures on the same level as Koshkin’s The Prince’s Toys Suite, and Lendle’s Variations Capricieuses d’après Paganini. These works have broken new ground in guitar artistry and they will, all three of them and the many new ones to follow, promote the cause of the instrument by wiping once and for all the self-satisfied smugness from the faces of the guitar’s demi-Gods, composers and performers alike. They will serve notice on all of us that it is no more business-as-usual. We could then, finally, take the guitar’s First Ladies, its Kings and Queens, its Triple-Threat Performers and Double-Faced Messiahs, the New Escuela Writers and the commercial entrepreneurs who masquerade as scholars and wrap them together with the soothsayers and mink oil salesmen and dump the whole kit-and-caboodle in the waste bins of Madison Avenue. Having done what was needed to be done a generation ago, we could then, perhaps, grow up and start listening to the music!


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