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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 23, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Music Offers Second Sight

There are two story lines to the chamber music concert

at Princeton’s Unitarian-Universalist Congregation on Sunday, October

27, at 3 p.m. One is the appearance of a piano trio consisting of

highly-qualified chamber musicians with international performing experience

in a program of inviting classical works. No surprises here. The other

is the organization of the concert by Princeton resident Victor Glasser,

clarinetist, and amateur chamber musician, made blind by macular degeneration.

In a concert benefiting Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), a San Rafael,

California organization, Pianist David Oei, violinist Eriko Sato,

and cellist Ruth Sommers play pieces by Beethoven, Debussy, and Mendelssohn.

The artists are members of Westchester’s Festival Chamber Music, whose

summer schedule has flourished since its founding 15 years ago. Cellist

Sommers is the director of the festival. Among them, members of the

trio have amassed decades of study with distinguished teachers, an

archive of performance at celebrated music festivals, and a long list

of solo appearances with illustrious orchestras.

Guide Dogs for the Blind is the source of LaSalle, the black Labrador

Retriever that Glasser, 85, acquired less than a year ago. An incorrigible

optimist, and a natural problem-solver, Glasser drew on multiple strands

of personal history in order to devise the concert benefit. First,

music runs in his family. His older brother John had a big band. Both

his daughter, Karen, and his niece, Ruth Sommers, studied with renowned

cello pedagogue Leonard Rose. Second, Glasser was bowled over by the

quality of GDB’s services, and their generosity. He knew that it costs

$57,000 to train a guide dog; yet the dogs and the training for their

blind owners come gratis. Glasser wanted to give something back. "I

could have sat down and written a check," he says," but I thought

that would not be enough." (Glasser writes checks with difficulty,

using a closed circuit TV that greatly enlarges.) Finally, things

converged and Glasser envisioned a concert.

Cellist Sommers offered to come to Princeton and perform with her

trio. Glasser’s friend, jazz pianist and composer Laurie Altman, arranged

for the use of the Unitarian Church. GDB sent out invitations on cards

showing four huggable puppies that all but leap off the page. Everything

fell into place.

A retired dentist, Glasser talks about his life and his concert project

at the dining room table in his multi-level Princeton town house.

Beyond the glass doors is a leafy garden.. I have plugged the outlet

cord from my laptop into a wall outlet; it hangs about 15 inches above

the floor. With an easy conversational style, Glasser reaches out

and touches me from time to time. His wife Muriel (Miki) joins us,

and speaks up now and then to clarify a point. "Vic gets around

so well," she says, "that people who don’t know he’s blind

can’t tell."

"I’ve lived in this house for 11 years," Glasser adds, "and

I know it like I know my own name I know how many steps there are

to the garage, and to the other levels."

Glasser creates a moment of drama that shoots my heart into my throat.

Leaving the table to fetch a bonsai plant, he walks past my electrical

cord before I can move it out of his way. He returns safely, but I

am shaken. "How did you do that without tripping?" I ask.

"I just stepped over the cord," he says. Miki explains that

most blind people are not "black blind," but are capable of

seeing light and shapes. Glasser has some peripheral vision in his

right eye.

Born in 1917, he attended New York City public schools.

Victor Glasser’s older brother John, who also became a dentist, started

the young Victor on piano. When the clarinetist in John’s band bought

a new clarinet, John persuaded him not to throw away the old one,

but instead to give it to Victor. "I got a chart showing which

holes to cover," Glasser says, "and taught myself to play."

After graduating from Brooklyn College, Glasser trained as a dentist

at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with high honors

in 1941. Joining the U.S. Army Dental Corps as a First Lieutenant,

he rose to the rank of major. After his discharge from the army he

practiced dentistry in Great Neck, Long Island, for 30 years.

The Glassers brought up their two children in Great Neck. Son Michael,

a pianist, designs kitchens and lives in San Rafael, California. Daughter

Karen, a cellist, is a professor of psychology at the College of New

Jersey. She is married to John Howe, who teaches at the Princeton

Day School. The couple has three grown daughters.

As a clarinetist, Glasser found outlets in community orchestras near

his Great Neck home. In his 40s, and already a father, Glasser brazened

his way into clarinet lessons with Leon Russianoff, the prominent

New York clarinet teacher. Glasser remembers that the reluctant Russianoff

responded to his telephone request by saying, "Sonny, get your

mother to get you some lessons, and come around in 15 years."

He then tried to scare Glasser away by telling him that he charged

$30 a lesson. Glasser finessed Russianoff’s attempt at fear by finances

by telling the master teacher that he would pay $30 for a five-minute

audition. Glasser played from the Mozart Clarinet Quintet at the audition.

Russianoff gave him lessons.

In addition to music, Glasser also taught scuba diving in the Great

Neck Adult School. The better to pursue his interests in scuba diving

and underwater photography, the Glassers moved to the British Virgin

Islands in 1976, after retirement.

"We viewed wrecks and marine life in the British Virgin Islands,"

Glasser says, savoring the memory, and hoping to return. His doubting

wife says, "Well, we’ve put it in the back of our heads."

Glasser remarks, "I think we will."

In 1991 the couple moved to Princeton. Glasser became a member of

the Westminster Community Orchestra, first as a clarinetist, and then

as librarian. In 1994 his eyesight began to fail, but he continued

to play chamber music. In 2000 he lost most of his vision and learned

to use a white cane so he could remain independent. He is presently

treasurer of the Belle Mead Friends of Music, which puts on monthly

concerts in private homes.

"Vic does amazing things," says his wife. "He takes care

of financial matters of the organization, he gardens, he takes care

of his bonsai collection. He’s interested in everything. He interacts."

Glasser leaves the table and returns with a ficus benjamina saware,

one of the nine tropical bonsai plants he keeps in the house. Its

horizontal canopy of leaves hovers above moss-covered soil. Feathery

miniature ferns contrast with the gnarled trunk. "I have to prune

the foliage and manage the balance between foliage and roots,"

Glasser explains. "I have to replace the soil and clean the roots

to get a balance between the amount of water the plant takes in and

the amount that evaporates." Glasser likes to visit bonsai gardens.

"I feel the plants when I visit," he says. "I start talking

botanical talk to the docents, and when I use the Latin terms, they

know I’m a kindred soul, and they let me touch."

These days Glasser’s black Labrador, LaSalle, accompanies him to bonsai

gardens, just as he does to concerts, and elsewhere. "LaSalle

seems to love music," Glasser says. "He stays quiet the whole

time. Dissonance and plucking strings don’t bother him."

Qualifying to obtain the guide dog, and learning how to work with

him took several months. Candidates must demonstrate that they are

physically able, and must present character references. As part of

the qualifying process, Guide Dogs for the Blind sends a representative

to observe applicants in their home surroundings. Candidates must

demonstrate that they can manage in traffic with a white cane. The

traffic performance was no problem for Glasser. "I can do the

lights in Princeton," he says. "Miki and I used to go to Nassau

Street, then we’d separate, and meet again later." Glasser’s examiner

gave him the highest rating, and the seven-member admissions committee

of GDB in California accepted him for training at its 11-acre campus.

GDB maintains centers in San Rafael, California, and in Boring, Oregon.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the organization was founded

to help servicemen blinded during World War II. Funded entirely by

private donations, the organization provides its services at no charge.

Glasser turned to GDB after learning that he was too old for Morristown’s

well-known Seeing Eye Inc., which limits its students to those no

older than 75. At GDB there is no upper age limit. Robert L. Phillips,

GDB’s CEO, says, "One of our greatest challenges will be to reach

out to the aging population who are becoming or will become blind

later in life."

To travel to California for the 28 days of dormitory living, Glasser

used the round trip ticket provided by GDB. "GDB thinks of everything

necessary for a blind person," he says. "At the school each

student has a talking alarm clock, and a telephone with large letters

and Braille. They tell you to bring an empty suitcase for all the

stuff you will return with — medications, and supplies for the

dog for a year. It’s all free."

"They observed us for two days with no dogs," Glasser says.

"They looked into our personalities and our physical ability.

They asked about our lifestyle. They asked if you’ve ever had a dog

before. My wife and I have owned very big dogs, and we prefer large

ones. On the third day, we got our dogs. It was love at first sight."

"We were with our dogs 24 hours a day," says Glasser. "We

bonded with them. We would go everywhere with the dogs. Every one

of us relished coming to meals. There were six of us at a table, and

six dogs under the table."

"Our morning exercise was a mile-and-a-half walk. We had individual

trainers. We would go through curbs, traffic, and pouring rain. One

day we went to a mall. The dogs were already trained to go on the

escalator, but we had to be trained. We had to learn to give commands.

You always say the name of the dog first: `LaSalle, take me to the

escalator.’"

"At a curb LaSalle stops, and I feel with my left foot for the

curb. I wait for the traffic, and I hear parallel or cross traffic.

When I hear only parallel traffic and the cross traffic has stopped,

I say `LaSalle, forward.’ In many states a right turn is allowed on

red. If I say, `LaSalle, forward,’ he’s trained to disobey the order

when he sees a moving car."

"He’s a very smart dog," Glasser says. Then, since LaSalle

is in the room, he whispers. "We don’t say the word `out’ because

LaSalle understands it. We spell it. But still, when LaSalle is not

in the harness, he behaves like an ordinary dog. He’s a little frisky.

He’s two-and-a-half years old."

"We’ve had a lot of high adventure," Glasser says. "We’ve

sailed across the Pacific in a small sailboat, and visited all the

Mexican ruins. But getting to know Guide Dogs for the Blind was one

of the greatest adventures of my life."

— Elaine Strauss

Benefit Concert, Festival Chamber Music of New York

City , Unitarian Church, 50 Cherry Hill Road, 609-683-8332. Works

by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Debussy. $25. Sunday, October 27,

3 p.m.


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