The Segovia of the Harmonica

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The Harmonicat
When I was 10 years old my grandfather, normally a skinflint, in a moment of generosity gave me my first harmonica: a busted-up model he'd played himself during his service in World War I, on which only half the notes worked. It could be blown, but sucking produced nothing but dust and a bad taste. Still, I managed passable versions of "Taps" and "Reveille," enough to encourage Mom to stash a spiffy new Hohner under the next Christmas tree.

This was in 1972, when the exchange rate was good and $300 would get you there and back with a bed in between. It quickly became apparent that this was not going to be any sightseeing-under-the-guise-of-study trip. Huang proved to be a taskmaster, demanding strict attention during classes and encouraging a rigorous regimen of personal practice. Equal parts performer, educator and engineer, Huang started the first accredited U.S. harmonica program at Turtle Bay Music School in New York, and designed several instruments for Hohner before partnering with a Chinese manufacturer to lend his name to their product line. He was a stickler for pedagogical technique, much of which he'd developed himself (the story goes that Huang, after his first appearance at Town Hall in 1953, was asked to compare his playing with that of Larry Adler, the pioneer who first brought the harmonica to the concert hall in the 1930s. Huang said they were equals, but "the difference is I play it correctly.")

I was the kid in the group, by a long shot. Most of the attendees were more than 40 years my senior, of the generation that had seen the widespread popularity of the Harmonicats, the Harmonica Rascals and a slew of other novelty bands. The exceptions were Ellen?a girl a few years older than I was whose father had played in one of those bands and was no bad hand herself?and Robert Bonfiglio. Bonfiglio was then in his mid-20s, and was probably the first person I'd ever met who knew exactly what he wanted and pretty much how he was going to get it. He could also play louder than anyone I've heard before or since, and could get a blast out of a little Marine Band that would put most sax players to shame.

Born and raised in Iowa, Bonfiglio started playing with a string of blues bands in his teens. He soon switched from blues harp to chromatic, and began pursuing a classical music career with a vengeance?first attending Mannes College of Music, then graduating from Manhattan School of Music with a degree in composition. Throughout, he kept up private studies with Huang and later with Andrew Lolya, the longtime first flautist for the New York City Ballet who died last year.

For a few years Bonfiglio survived on giving private lessons and studio work. "Then in 1984, Tina Turner came out with 'What's Love Got to Do with It?' with the harmonica part played on a DX7, and the studio work went all to shit," he recalls. But in 1986, he premiered a concerto by Henry Cowell with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, then landed a deal with RCA, for whom he recorded Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' Concerto for Harmonica in 1988.

Bonfiglio will give a rare performance of that work?one of the best in the (admittedly small) canon of original works for harmonica?with the Westchester Philharmonic on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 12, at 3 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase. (There's also a free dress rehearsal at 10 a.m. Saturday). The program will also feature organist Robert Fertitta performing Aaron Copland's 1923 Organ Symphony, as part of the orchestra's Copland centenary celebration.

For Bonfiglio, the harmonica is unequivocally "the most expressive instrument on the planet"?though he admits he might be a tad prejudiced. "It has that wonderful, eerie, sad, lonely sound," he says. "All of a sudden you're a cowboy sitting out in the middle of the plains." As for the instrument's acceptance, or lack thereof, among classical music aficionados, he says, "It's a double-edged sword. If you're a violinist playing a violin concerto, it's like your 50th marriage?Heifetz played it, Stern played it, Menuhin and a whole string of others, and there's no way to avoid comparing your performance to theirs. But I can just go out there and blow pure emotion without looking over my shoulder."

On the other hand, the harmonica's basic familiarity has tended to breed, if not contempt, then at least the brush-off. "Almost everybody has played a harmonica; almost nobody's played a cello," he says. "The symphony audience represents about 2 percent of the general audience, and 1 percent are so snooty they won't listen to a harmonica concert."

It's a scenario that makes Bonfiglio's career path pretty sparsely populated these days; with the death in September of another of the all-time greats, England's Tommy Reilly, he may well be, as he says, "the only one playing the major works for harmonica and orchestra."

There's no tradition of instruction for the harmonica in the U.S., and it's hard for younger players to find direction and encouragement. There are a number of fine chromatic jazz players like Toots Thielemans, William Gallison and Mike Turk, and venerable pop artists like Alan "Blackie" Schackner and George Fields have made live and recorded forays into "serious" music. But only a handful of active players in the U.S. devote themselves primarily to classical music?Huang, Stan Harper, Larry Logan, Douglas Tate, Charles Leighton and few others?and for the most part they've gravitated toward chamber music, taking parts originally written for other instruments. Europe and Asia, where the harmonica's reputation as a folk and pop instrument is perhaps less strong, have a number of artists who attract the concert crowd. But compared to the horde of concert-level violinists out there, you still have to travel pretty far to hear a good harmonica.

"My goal," Bonfiglio says, "is to do for the harmonica what Segovia did for the guitar"?to raise its profile as a serious instrument, perform the classics and get new works written for it. He's also in the midst of trying to raise capital to produce his third PBS special, Harmonica America, that he says will trace the instrument's inextricable linkage to the development of country music, Delta and Chicago blues and rock 'n' roll?with a companion CD of what he calls "sophisticated...front porch music" played by the Bonfiglio Group, an acoustic ensemble he plans to tour with next year.

In a way, Bonfiglio is still fighting the same fight that the late, great John Sebastian Sr. did. Sebastian?father of the Lovin' Spoonful leader?had an uncanny technique and is perhaps the main reason there is any orchestral harmonica repertoire to speak of today (the Villa-Lobos work was written for him, as well as many others). Before his death in 1980, he used to rail against journalists who thought they were complimenting him when they wrote that he elevated a toy instrument to the level of the concert hall.

Like Sebastian, Bonfiglio has enough class to raise his performance above the level of kitsch and shtick, and enough savvy to still know he's there to entertain. Me, I'm still noodling, not sounding too bad, chipping away at getting better, with a few setpieces like "Harlem Nocturne" and "Well You Needn't" that I trot out for family reunions and anybody dumb enough to ask. But you can bet I'll be making the drive to Purchase this weekend to see the guy who's at the head of the class.

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