The Segovia of the Harmonica

Written by Bob Riedel on . Posted in Posts.

The Harmonicat
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

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

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.