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Have horns, will travel: Hayward collector takes audiences on a musical journey around the world

Friday, November 14, 2008 | by andy altman-ohr

Bill Nemoyten ought to own a van instead of an economy car. Still, the 79-year-old can somehow cram 14 horns inside his little Toyota Echo — along with himself, his wife, Barbara, her wheelchair and an amplifier.

In goes his tuba, his French horn and his shofar.

He adds his 1938 collector’s-item Silvertone trombone and the Czech euphonium he bought in Las Vegas after a down-and-out gambler sold it for airfare back home to Germany.

Don’t forget that brightly painted didgeridoo from Australia.

And, yes, there’s even room for his Alphorn, a 12-foot long, swooping horn — the kind that was made famous in a Ricola cough drops commercial.

“It’s definitely scientific packing,” Nemoyten said of how he loads up his car before one of his gigs. “The hardest part of what I do is the shlepping.”

And what exactly does the two-decade resident of Hayward do?

Title it “Have horns, will travel.”

When Nemoyten retired in the early 1990s — after a long career of teaching music, running community arts organizations and serving six years as a synagogue administrator in San Mateo — he decided what he wanted to do with his twilight years: Focus on his lifelong love affair with horns.

Nemoyten, who grew up in the Jewish section of Cleveland in the 1920s and ’30s, wanted not only to collect horns, but to play them and educate people about them. After all, this is someone who played in big bands as a teenager, idolized bandleaders Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey (both trombone players) and went on to get a master’s in music education.

Thus his alter-ego, “The Hornman,” was born. Today, Nemoyten’s collection consists of 14 horns from five continents. Though it could be even larger, he’s putting on the brakes. “I can’t carry any more,” he explained.

Far from frail, but slowing down a bit due to his age and a triple bypass surgery three years ago, he is happy to play his horns pretty much anywhere — be it for a couple dozen kids on a weekday morning at a local library (backed by music from his iPod plugged into an amplifier) or in front of 6,000 people in a Florida performance a few years ago (backed by the Naples Concert Band).

He has also entertained seniors at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville and Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco. “I played ‘Hava Negillah’ on my pocket trumpet,” he said, referring to his smallest horn.

Nemoyten’s next performance will be one of the most momentous of his life. Just two weeks after his 80th birthday, he will appear at the stylish, 1-year-old Bankhead Theater in Livermore, playing his normal range of non-reed instruments — from a conch shell to a ran-dung, a deep-throated horn used by Tibetan priests — while backed by the Livermore-Amador Symphony Orchestra.

“One of the great things about being a musician that I always loved is that it’s a ticket to all kinds of places you would never get to in your life: hotel ballrooms, bohemian halls, Italian social halls, many churches,” he said.

A typical Nemoyten solo performance is a musical journey, introducing people to brass and other instruments they might not have heard before. He plays a song, or at least blows a few notes, from each of his horns, then talks about the historical, geographical and cultural aspects of each instrument.

As part of his performance, Nemoyten blows a shofar and then talks about the instrument and his history with it.

“I would go to synagogue and notice that the words in the siddur said, ‘Listen to the muddy sounds of the shofar,'” Nemoyten said. “But I noticed that the sounds I was hearing were not muddy, so it seemed to me that I might be able to do better.”

On a trip to Jerusalem, he scoured the shops of the Chassidic Mea She’arim neighborhood in pursuit of shofars. Sure enough, after a little practice, he could make his shofar, made from the horn of a kudu antelope, sound a bit like Dorsey blowing soulfully on the trombone.

In the 1990s, Nemoyten even entered some shofar-blowing contests at the JCC of San Francisco. “I won it three years in a row,” he said, beaming.

Nemoyten has performed at more than 40 venues in the Bay Area and another 30 or so out of state; he and his wife, who helps him tote equipment and set up onstage, often travel around the country in a motor home.

His wife is a founding member of Reform Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley nearly 50 years ago.

Now they belong to Albany’s Kol Hadash, a community for Humanistic Judaism, where he was the driving force behind the formation of a band called the Klezhumanists.

Even beyond the music, Nemoyten has had an interesting life. He grew up in downtown Cleveland, in the heart of the old Jewish neighborhood around E. 105th Street.

His parents, a Russian-immigrant father and Polish-immigrant mother, sent him to a yeshiva in his early years, but “I had an Old World rebbe very much into corporal punishment,” Nemoyten remembered. After telling his mother about being regularly slapped on the face and hit on the hand with a stick, he was allowed to change schools.

Amazingly, about nine years ago, Nemoyten had a chance telephone conversation with that former rebbe. On a visit to Cleveland, Nemoyten was picked up by at the airport by Mach Schnell (German for “hurry up”) Airport Transport, and the driver happened to be the rebbe’s nephew.

The two got to talking, and eventually realized their connection. The driver put Nemoyten in touch with his uncle.

The rebbe, an old man at that point, didn’t remember little William. But when Nemoyten mentioned that his maternal grandfather was Chaim Singer (a noted Torah scribe, or sofer, in Cleveland), the rebbe knew who he was, and the truth came out: “He had always expected me to be a scholar like my grandfather, and he took it out on me for not living up to those expectations,” Nemoyten said.

Another late-in-life revelation was even more astonishing. When he was 64, and his parents deceased, Nemoyten learned that his great-grandfather was Abraham Baer Gottlober, a prolific writer and poet of Hebrew and Yiddish who lived in Russia from 1811 to 1899 and has a full page and a half devoted to him in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

“He was one of the leaders of the Haskala [progressive] enlightenment movement of Russia in the 19th century. He had a publication [the Hebrew monthly Ha-Boker-Or] which was widely distributed, and he also wrote poetry and plays,” Nemoyten said.

“What a wonderful affirmation of how I had spent my life — as an artist — even though nobody else in my family was artistic.”

After Nemoyten got his bachelor’s in music from Western Reserve in Cleveland, he went on to get a master’s in music education from Kent State. He taught music in Ohio schools for 16 years, then took an administrative job with the Akron Symphony, which launched him on a long career working for music and arts nonprofits.

He eventually wound at the San Mateo Arts Council, but found himself unemployed when funding dried up after Proposition 13, the property tax reform initiative, passed in 1978. He then took a job as the synagogue administrator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

Nemoyten wrapped up his professional career by teaching band and music at San Leandro middle and elementary schools for five years.

Next week, he’ll celebrate his 80th birthday with friends and family and lots of music at Congregation Shir Ami. And shortly thereafter it will be Thanksgiving, a time of year often symbolized by a “horn o’ plenty.”

In Nemoyten’s case, better make it “plenty o’ horns.”

Bill Nemoyten, accompanied by the Livermore-Amador Symphony Orchestra, will perform in “Banjo, Horns and Symphony” at 2 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Livermore Performing Arts Center’s Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore. Tickets are $8. Information: (925) 373-6824 or http://thehornman.com.

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