Making Music in St. Louis and Hollywood: Michael Casimir OPC '09

Young black man with a beard holding a viola.

The tourists and locals enjoying lunch in the ancient Greek amphitheater at Epidaurus, south of Athens, listened appreciatively in the spring of 2006 when a group of Penn Charter singers treated them to an impromptu concert. What came afterward, though, really got their attention.

When his classmates had finished singing, one of the members of the group, Michael Casimir OPC ’09, took out his violin and began to play. As the notes from the Hungarian folk tune, “Czardas,” drifted over the crowd, the venue fell silent.

“I’m telling you, everyone just stopped in their tracks,” recalled Debbie Kaesshaefer Hon. 1689, who was a chaperone on the trip.

Casimir also remembered that afternoon, with typical understatement. “It was definitely a cool experience being surrounded by so much history,” he said. “I can only imagine who and what was heard in that space over the years.”

Today, Casimir plays a different instrument—the viola—and recently started a new job, as a full-time member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Earlier this year, he also played on the soundtrack for Disney’s new Lion King movie.

As might be expected, jobs for orchestra seats are extremely hard to come by. Casimir, who had been playing with the St. Louis Symphony as a contract player, said that major orchestras typically receive hundreds of resumes for their violist openings. St. Louis auditioned 120 violists and eventually took three for permanent jobs.

The orchestra world is also a very tight one, which accounts for Casimir’s invitation to play on the Lion King soundtrack. A friend who had played in a competition with Casimir years earlier remembered him and recommended him for the job. Casimir says he even thought the invitation email was a joke when he received it but soon learned that it was real. He and his fellow musicians, from orchestras around the world, recorded the soundtrack at the famous Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif.

Casimir started playing the violin at the age of 2, taught by his father, a music educator for the School District of Philadelphia. He studied at Settlement Music School for 10 years while a student at PC.

Kaesshaefer, who has taught music for years, said she is used to hearing from parents who boast about their child’s musical capabilities but quickly recognized that Casimir was different.

“As soon as he put his bow on that violin, I thought, ‘Oh my.’ I had never heard a child violinist at his level.” Talented as he was on the violin, however, Casimir was always willing to help wherever he was needed, whether playing another instrument such as the piano, drums or xylophone, or singing. Whatever it was, Kaesshaefer said, Casimir’s enthusiasm would bring his classmates along with him. In Middle School, he and former band director Robert Wilson started the string ensemble, which they eventually expanded into Upper School. Casimir later sang a cappella in Quakers Dozen.

“I always loved music,” Casimir laughed. “Even if I was on the soccer field I’d be singing some tune in my head, which is probably why I didn’t play soccer very well.”

He attended Oberlin College and Conservatory for two years before transferring to Juilliard School of Music. Changing colleges brought an even more significant switch, from the violin to the viola. Casimir partly credits the switch to YouTube, specifically a BBC performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. Lawrence Power played the viola and Maxim Vengerov played the violin. Casimir said the performance changed his life.

Tight image of strings section of an orchestra, focus on african american male playing viola.

“That was the first time I heard a viola sound better than a violin in a side-by-side comparison,” he recalled. “Lawrence Power [on viola] was making sounds I’ve never heard on a violin or a cello. Once I heard it, I thought to myself, ‘I can do that, and I want to do that. I want to make those sounds.’”

Casimir studied viola at Juilliard for four years, then earned a post-baccalaureate degree in 2018 from the Curtis Institute of Music. In between, he won the grand prize at the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Competition in 2013 and was a laureate in the 2011 and 2015 International Sphinx Competitions, organized by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group dedicated to the development of young African-American and Latino classical musicians. While still in college, he played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and afterward as a principal and co-principal with the London Philharmonic and as a soloist in South Africa, Brazil, Japan and Spain.

Back in 2010, Casimir returned to PC to play a memorial concert for former student Antonios Thomas, who died in 2006. Thomas’s parents donated the Steinway piano in the Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts in their son’s memory. Casimir did not know ahead of time that his accompanist that afternoon would be the world-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax. With only a half hour of rehearsal time, the two performed the first movement of Brahms’s Viola Sonata in F minor, with Casimir playing the viola. Casimir called it, “one of those moments I could never forget.”

In a typical week when they are not traveling, Casimir said the orchestra rehearses together on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in preparation for concerts Friday and Saturday evenings. He also puts in at least two hours a day rehearsing privately at home, usually working on material for the weeks ahead. “You have to stay ahead of what you’re playing [in concerts] because if you’re only practicing the stuff that you’re currently playing you’ll always be freaking out during the middle of rehearsal,” he explained.

The viola is pitched lower than a violin and is a larger instrument, which requires more flexibility and finesse to play expressively. Casimir’s current instrument is modeled on the very best. He plays a 15 5/8” viola, made for him by Arizona instrument-maker Gabrielle Kundert. It is a copy of the viola owned by Roberto Diaz, president of the Curtis Institute of Music, former principal violist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Casimir’s former teacher.

One might assume that playing in a symphony was Casimir’s life ambition, so it comes as a surprise when he insists that it was not. Music is his life’s work now, but it is not his whole life. For example, he insists he can beat anyone in the video game FIFA.

“Honestly, I really didn’t like classical music for a long time,” he said, “and the orchestra world was new to me. It’s true! A lot of classical musicians have spent their whole lives at art school, where you think, live, eat and breathe your performance. I was never like that. Penn Charter provided me with a very diverse way of thinking and a diverse group of friends.” PC