The Free-Reed Review
Critiques of Compact Discs, Books and Music Scores
CD No. 1: Robert Bonfiglio
Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto
total time: 63:30
Label: RCA Victor Red Seal
Order from: Out of Print.
Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto
Robert Bonfiglio, harmonica
All compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
CD No. 2: Romances
total time: 60:32
Label: High Harmony
Order from: The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Online Gift Store
Robert Bonfiglio, harmonica (with orchestra)
Review by Henry Doktorski:
Robert Bonfiglio has quite a reputation: he has been a concerto soloist with dozens of symphonies around the world. * In addition, he has an extensive classical repertoire including concertos by Villa-Lobos, Alexander Tcherepnin, Malcom Arnold and Alan Hovhaness. **
It was a real pleasure for me to listen to these CDs, as the Villa-Lobos Concerto for Harmonica (1955-56) and the Vaughan Williams Romance for Harmonica, Piano and String Orchestra (1952) are two of the greatest works in the classical harmonica repertoire. (For more information about these two works see Interview with Larry Adler and The Classical Harmonica.)
Truly both of these CDs are five-star recordings. Bonfiglio's technique and interpretations are superb. Such beautiful tone he coaxes from his instrument, a Hohner chromatic harmonica. The rapid scale passages and the lightning-fast arpeggios in the Villa-Lobos concerto were flawlessly executed. I especially enjoyed the 2 ½ minute-long solo cadenza in the third movement. Two-voice counterpoint on the harmonica is as rare (and as difficult) as double-stop counterpoint on the violin, but Bonfiglio tosses it off easily. I'm not surprised, as he has performed this concerto more than 160 times with orchestras throughout the world!
Considering my taste in music, my favorite pieces on the two CDs were the Villa-Lobos concerto and the Vaughan Williams Romance (the only two works on the program which were originally written for harmonica). The Vaughan Williams Romance is a powerful work; his composition is structurally satisfying and characteristically true to his style. One part in particular reminded me of the striking and original harmonies from Vaughan Williams' Symphony Antarctica.
The transcriptions, as well as the original pieces, are also beautiful works; several were arranged for harmonica and orchestra by Bonfiglio himself. (Bonfiglio studied composition with Charles Wuorinen and Aaron Copland and received a Masters degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music.) Certainly composition and arranging are valuable assets for a classical mouth organist—a performer of an instrument rarely heard in classical music circles. Due to the scarcity of material, it is not surprising that Bonfiglio wrote some of the arrangements himself. Bonfiglio's arrangements were every bit as convincing as all the other arrangements on the album; he is a multi-talented musician—well rounded.
If I have any criticisms, they are minor, and deal exclusively with the second CD—Romances. This CD—which includes several hits from Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies such as: Cavitina (The Deerhunter), The Last Night of the World (Miss Saigon), Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music) and Manhnã de Carnival (Black Orpheus)—is, with few exceptions, filled with meditative and relaxing pieces, stuff that tended to put me to sleep. The Villa-Lobos album, on the other hand, had a nice contrast in tempo and dynamics between the various selections. In Romances I would have preferred that the slow pieces be interspersed with some lively energetic pieces to relieve the monotony. It would have been nice to hear more than one movement (the slow movement) from the Mozart piano concerto. The other allegro movements would have increased the pace.
Of course, the choice of pieces on the program was probably up to the producer, not the artist. In any case, my personal opinions do not in any way detract from the beauty of Romances. The CD cover (the booklet notes are so short as to be practically nonexistent) does not claim to be any more than beautiful "easy-listening" music—romance music—despite the inclusion of the more serious virtuosic Vaughan Williams Romance at the end of the CD.
In conclusion, allow me to share with you the story of this RCA recording of the Villa-Lobos concerto, as it was told to me by Robert Bonfiglio himself. I believe this is important, as it serves to point out the unpredictable whimsy (and shortsightedness) of the modern music industry. If memory serves me correctly, this is how he explained it to me:
Around 1988, Bonfiglio was "discovered" by an executive of RCA Victor, who decided to record two CDs. The company spared no expense; they hired the New York Chamber Symphony and famed conductor Gerard Schwartz, and spent something like $250,000 in the process. Bonfiglio was suddenly a national celebrity and appeared on network radio and television. (Not only is Bonfiglio exceptionally talented, but also exceptionally handsome—an important factor in the commercial music business.) His Christmas album sold ten thousand copies in fifteen minutes during one nationally broadcast television commercial. (Viewers dialed an 800 number to order the CD.)
Bonfiglio appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning," "CBS Morning Show," "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee," "Larry King," and Garrison Keillor's "American Radio Show." He had feature stories and reviews in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. In a nutshell: his career skyrocketed like a meteor shooting through the sky.
Then disaster struck. The key RCA executive who "discovered" him, was either fired or transferred to another department. The new executive was not so favorable enamored of Bonfiglio (in fact, he was down-right hostile!) and decided to cut the harmonica virtuoso from their line of artists. They even recalled his CDs and stopped selling them.
At the time, Bonfiglio was devastated; he actually had to pay RCA thousands of dollars to purchase the rights to his CDs so he could sell them himself!
But Bonfiglio was not defeated; much to his credit, he continued to perform concerts all over the world and promote the harmonica. I recently had the pleasure of meeting him at a concert in New York City early last month (March 1999) and can personally testify to his enthusiasm and endurance.
The New York Post called him "America's leading harmonica virtuoso" and I do too! If you call yourself a classical free-reed connoiseur, you owe it to yourself to add these CD treasures to your collection. You will not be disappointed!
* Bonfiglio has performed as soloist with the symphonies of Indianapolis, Oregon, San Antonio, Tucson, Milwaukee, Wichita, Portland, Spokane, Santa Barbara, Knoxville, South Bend, New Orleans, Florida, Utah, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Columbia, North Holland, Bilbao, Seville under such great conductors as Gerard Schwarz, Lucas Vis, Jorge Mester, Theo Alcantara, Robert Bernhardt, JoAnn Falletta, Bruce Ferden, Giséle Ben-dor, Christopher Wilkins, Kirk Trevor and Lucas Foss.
** Bonfiglio's classical repertoire includes:
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