Classical Musings (long}

News from the world of
Classical Harmonica

by Robert Bonfiglio
On Sep 11, 12 and 13, 2002, I performed along with mezzo-soprano Lucille
Beer and the Albany Symphony with David Alan Miller conducting, the World
Premiere of Richard Einhorn's "The Spires, The Cities, The Field," a
cantata in memory of the victims of September 11th.

But the piece is a culmination of a lot of separate events that bring
people back together after many years.  See, I first met Richard Einhorn
when I was studying composition with Aaron Copland at Aspen in 1975.  I had
won the first Milhaud Scholarship for Composition (Milhaud wrote a Suite
for Harmonica and Orchestra for Adler and died in 1974) to study at the
Aspen Music Festival and Richard was studying electronic music with Michael

Richard and I ended up writing a great deal of music together for Modern
Dance in the late 1970's.  I was at Mannes College of Music and the best
Mezzo-soprano was Lucy Beer.  All of us composers were forced to sing in
chorus where Lucy would be one of the soloists.  Lucy ended up singing at
the Metropolitan Opera; Lucy is also a friend.

My Harmonica Concerto playing began in 1986 with the World Premiere of the
Henry Cowell Harmonica Concerto, written for John Sebastian, Sr., with
Lukas Foss conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic.  I then did the West Coast
Premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl with David
Alan Miller conducting, also in 1986.

But the real weird thing is that it took an harmonica event to bring all of
the above musicians back together again.  That event was the Harmonica
Summit in Minneapolis. Chris Matlek had been on harp-l with information
about the Summit and I emailed him as soon as Toots was going to come that
this appeared to be real gathering of active harmonica players and that
some classical representation was in order; he agreed.

But since I play harmonica concerti for a living and had never played with
the great Minnesota Orchestra, I thought I might be able to get a gig at
the same time.  I called Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York
Philharmonic and former principal of the Minnesota Orchestra.  She had a
few years before been recommended to come to our (I mean with my wife Clare
Hoffman) Grand Canyon Music Festival.  Cynthia gave me the names of the
principal violists in the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul's Chamber
Orchestra and Ken Freed was available to play the Mozart "Kegelstadt" Trio
with me at the Summitt. What nobody knew but me was that this was the
audition for a Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra.

The plan worked; we got a standing ovation for the Mozart and I got the
date with the Minnesota Orchestra for their new Summer MusicFest and David
Alan Miller was conducting!

Playing with the MO is amazing!  The Minnesota Orchestra is one of the best
in the world and playing Harmonica Concerti is where I am most at home
because I am absolutely comfortable in front of an orchestra.  I was
trained for many years to play Harmonica Concerti with orchestras and love
the feeling of soaring above an orchestra with a powerful solo voice that
only a harmonica can have.  Most people think only of the virtuosity of
classical playing as the important feature; but for me it's the sound and
the phrasing.  I like to think of this full, rich powerful tone with
nothing to disturb the smoothness.  I think of the surface of a lake where
the slightest ripple is a disturbance; it's trying to keep the lake
absolutely smooth.  Having the Minnesota Orchestra as the backup band makes
the job much easier.

 After three great concerts and great reviews, the Minnesota Orchestra has
offered to do the World Premiere of the new  Harmonica Concerto by Pulitzer
Prize winning composer William Bolcom in 2006!

But David Alan Miller wanted to work sooner than that again, so he said why
not do a Sep 11th tribute one year after the attack for Governor Pataki in
Albany, New York where he was Music Director of the Albany Symphony.  But
who should write it; I mentioned Richard Einhorn and he said it would be
great with this mezzo that lived in Albany named Lucy Beer.  I said that I
went to school with her!

We performed the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto written for John Sebastian,
Sr. along with the world Premiere of the new work by Richard Einhorn.
5,000 candles were burning in front of us for the Sep 11 tribute and the
moment was moving.  I played a solo 'Amazin' Grace' and people wept; I had
played it for the workers at Ground Zero many times.  We got good reviews,
but the reaction of the people was more important.

On Sep 15th I ran out to the Grand Canyon to play concerts with John
Sebastian, Jr.  and everything shifts gears to jug band music.  I played a
little classical tribute to his father thanking him for the Cowell and
Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concertos.

But big thanks go to Chris Matlek and the Harmonica Summit; some great new
music for harmonica got written and performed.

........"Einhorn used a collage of phrases (translated to English) from the
Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books to show that all religions stem
from the same source.  The music is evocative, mystical, mostly tonal and
quite beautiful.  Mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer sang the words in English with
lush rich tones.  Bonfiglio's harmonica seemed like a disembodied voice as
his lines interwove or punctuated."
"Bonfiglio is that rarity: He can play spellbinding classical lines with
superb technique but also knock the socks off anyone listening with his
downhome foot-stomping Delta Blues encores."
- -The Post-Star

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