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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 26, 2011
Kastle’s work, in music and film, was spiritual, exploring man’s inner search for redemption
WESTERLO Leonard Gregory Kastle was an acclaimed American composer, pianist, and filmmaker who found his home in the Hilltowns.
“He didn’t have a business mind,” said Evan Copp, a student and close friend of Mr. Kastle. “He didn’t make extraordinary steps to promote his work and himself…He was happy to live in his beautiful home in Westerlo, and live a happy life.”
He died at his home on Wednesday, May 18, 2011, after a brief illness. He was 82. The son of Russian immigrants Samuel and Anna Kastle, Leonard Kastle was born on Feb. 11, 1929, in New York City.
“He was a world-class pianist,” said Copp. “He was a child prodigy, studying at Juilliard at age 11.”
Mr. Kastle also received training at the Mannes School of Music, studying with Frank Sheridan and George Szell. He studied with famed concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein from 1942 to 1952 on a piano scholarship.
He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950 from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he held scholarships in composition with Rosario Scalero, Gian-Carlo Menotti, and Samuel Barber, in addition to a piano scholarship with Isabelle Vengerova.
“His father’s dream was that Leonard would become a concert pianist,” said Copp. “When Leonard reached some fame with his movie, The Honeymoon Killers, it seemed that the film would make him famous, rather than being a concert performer. But Leonard took time off after the movie was made. He rehearsed for months and months, and he performed at Wigmore Hall in England. It was a sellout house, and he performed, and his father was there, and this was just before his father passed away. So, he actually fulfilled his father’s dream for him by being a concert pianist. But that wasn’t to be a long-term vocation.”
Mr. Kastle’s compositions have been performed throughout the Capital Region, and he has been recognized by the Albany Council for the Arts for his musical contributions in the greater Albany area. He taught music composition and music history classes at the University at Albany from 1978 to 1989. He received numerous awards, commissions, and grants, and earned first prize in the Leschetitsky Piano Competition in 1948. And, he performed his own piano concerto with the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
But Mr. Kastle is best known as writer and director of the 1970 hit movie The Honeymoon Killers, his only film credit, for which he received critical acclaim. The film is based on the true story of the “lonely hearts killers,” Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, a couple that lured lonely women onto dates with Fernandez to seduce, con, and kill them.
Chosen by the Museum of Modern Art for inclusion in its film archives, the film still enjoys success through revivals at film festivals, and was recently released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which Mr. Copp said contains a 30-minute interview with Mr. Kastle.
Mr. Copp said that he never explicitly asked Mr, Kastle why, of all stories to adapt for the big screen, he chose The Honeymoon Killers, though he said that the choice, for both Mr. Kastle and his producer, Warren Steibel, was influenced by the 1967 release of Bonnie and Clyde.
“It was sort of like a Hollywood glorification of killers,” Mr. Copp said of Bonnie and Clyde. “And they said, ‘That’s not the way real life is. They shouldn’t portray these people as heroes, or as beautiful Hollywood people. They should be portrayed as the dark and evil people that they are.’ And so, they made the movie as a real-life answer to the Hollywood-ized Bonnie and Clyde. What triggered that, I’m not sure.”
But Kastle’s characters were too multi-faceted to come off as pure evil.
“In the movie, the main characters who are killers are actually really sympathetic characters, and somehow you feel for them even more than the victims,” said Mr. Copp. “It’s a very strange thing how it happened. And I think it was truthfully because Leonard he wasn’t a one-dimensional person, and I think all of his characters came out that way. No one was purely bad, no one was purely good, so you saw the bad parts and the dark parts, but you saw their humanity and their humor as well.”
Though Mr. Kastle’s claim to fame was, in many people’s eyes, The Honeymoon Killers, it was not a major point of pride for him, Mr. Copp said.
“He said, ‘It’s a horrible movie; it’s about murder and death,’” Mr. Copp exclaimed. “He doesn’t want to be remembered by that. He definitely didn’t consider it among his best work.”
Mr. Kastle was most proud of his operas, his friend said. Under commission from the Wallace Scudder Foundation, his opera Deseret premiered on the NBC Television Opera Theater in 1961. Then, in 1966 he later received a Deerfield Foundation grant to compose The Pariahs. It was never produced, however.
“It was based on a true story, about a group of whaling men in the 1800s,” Mr. Copp said of The Pariahs; he recalls this being Mr. Kastle’s favorite work.
“There was a ship that was shipwrecked by a whale,” he went on. “In fact, that same incident was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.”
Survivors of the shipwreck were adrift on a raft for so long that they resorted to cannibalism.
“They actually drew lots to see who would be killed to sacrifice their bodies for the others,” Mr. Copp said.
Though they were eventually rescued, word of their cannibalism reached their hometown before they did.
“They were rescued months and months later,” he went on. “When the survivors came down the gangplank, each member of the town turned their back to them, letting them know that they were outcasts.”
While The Pariahs never found a producer, much of Mr. Kastle’s work was widely popular.
Mr. Kastle won the Baxter Prize for Choral Composition in 1963, a National Endowment of the Arts grant in 1974, two Meet-the-Composer grants between 1981 and 1985; in 1988, he got a New York State Arts Council Arts-in-Education grant for his children’s opera, Professor Lookalike and the Children.
“All of his works with the possible exception of The Honeymoon Killers are spiritual in nature, and explore man’s inner search for redemption and forgiveness, and communion with the creator,” said Mr. Copp.
While very few recordings of Mr. Kastle’s music exist, the sheet music for most of his compositions are archived at the University at Albany.
“What I’d like to do, and what I plan on doing, is to seek out performers who will make a recording of Leonard’s work,” his friend said. “I am a pianist so I can perform some of it.”
Mr. Copp hopes that Mr. Kastle will live on through his music, and through his students.
“He was so personally involved in his music, and the message of the music, it just brought it to life,” Mr. Copp said. “He was my mentor, and I’m not the only one. He has touched a lot of lives through his teaching… So, who knows? We may see a Leonard Kastle memorial concert one day. I’d like to see that.”
Mr. Kastle is survived by his sister, Norma Merker; his niece, Cecelia Levin; and devoted friends, Tina Sisson and family.
A gathering of friends was held on Sunday, May 22, followed by a memorial service at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Colonie, where Mr. Kastle served as church organist.
Arrangements are by the A.J. Cunningham Funeral Home in Greenville.
Mourners may express their condolences at ajcunninghamfh.com.