The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Robert Bonfiglio: Hummin'

Far from suffering the preconceived limitations of his instrument,
one atypical soloist revels in pushing the boundaries of performance and repertoire.

By Rebecca Winzenried

To those who say that the harmonica is an unusual instrument, Robert Bonfiglio has a standard reply: More people around the world play the harmonica than the cello (20 million in the U.S. alone by his estimates), so who exactly is playing the unusual instrument?

Alas, the mere fact that so many people have a little Hohner harmonica stashed away in a drawer somewhere doesn't mean tat they think much about it beyond the occasional burst of improvisational music-making. And so, some 30 years after deciding to pursue serious harmonica performance, Bonfiglio still hinds himself virtually alone in the ranks of classical harmonica players. Even members of the orchestras with which he performs continue to express surprise at the soaring heights to which Bonfiglio can take his chromatic Hohner CBH-2016 harmonica (designed by his teacher, harmonica virtuoso Cham-Ber Huang) and by the number of classical works written for harmonica (estimated at about 60).

Along with pops standards like Stephen Foster tunes and an "Elvis Lives" medley, Bonfiglio's repertoire includes about a dozen of the more noteworthy concerti and other classical works. He's performed them with orchestras around the world and at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which he co-founded with his wife, flutist Carol Hoffman. He'll add another to the list with a new harmonica concerto being written for him by William Bolcom, scheduled to premiere in the 2005-06 season with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Bonfiglio reminds us that the harmonica, far from being an instrument of limited potential and appeal, bridges musical genres and generations. It is, he notes, the quintessential American instrument, evoking the sounds of freight train whistles and campfire sing-a-longs, of Civil War tunes and Chicago blues. It is also an instrument that benefits from the sublime control of a musician who spent more than a decade studying phrasing and musicality with the late Andrew Loyla, who played first flute with the New York City Ballet.

Besides, how many orchestra players can tuck their instrument in a pocket when they leave the concert hall?

Quick Questions:

So why doesn't the harmonica get more respect as a "serious" instrument?

Among people my age, the Baby Boomers, it's actually the symphony that doesn't get respect: it's viewed as boring and elitist. The harmonica, on the other hand, is the instrument of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, John Sebastian, Paul Butterfield, Clint Black, Bruce Springsteen, etc.

What challenges you about it?

The harmonica, like all instruments, is hard to play -- but when done right, it really can sing and project tremendous emotion. I did my Leipzig Gewandhaus debut playing the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto with a 60-piece orchestra and no amplification. I had to blow my brains out, but I sounded like a cannon. But then the acoustics there are to die for!

The harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler just died. He opened a lot of new avenues for your instrument, playing concerts and persuaded contemporary composers to create new works. Any memories of him?

He and I used to e-mail each other all the time and would meet in New York City or London whenever one of us passed through. It was a mutual respect society, since he was the only one who did what I do for a living -- play harmonica concerti with orchestras. We talked about the works -- the Vaughan Williams Romance, the Arthur Benjamin Harmonica Concerto, the pieces written for him.

How do you connect with audiences?

Every place I play the audiences go absolutely nuts. They stomp and scream and clap and jump up and down, sometimes while I am playing. At the Minnesota Orchestra a few weeks ago General Manager Robert Neu ran into a critic at intermission, who said to him, "Why can't all concerts be this fun?" I love when an audience member comes up after a concerto and says that they can play Red River Valley on the harmonica.

What music do you listen to these days?

Blues, Stravinsky, Beethoven quartets, Ella, Beatles, hip-hop, and some contemporary composers -- Corigliano, Bolcom -- and all the songs for my three-year-old son, like A, B, C, D and Twinkle, plus he loves Beethoven's Fifth.

Pretend we're the audience. Contrast a classical vs. blues/pop harmonica work for us.

In a classical concerto I have the singular advantage of performing without the audience having a preconceived idea of what to expect. This allows me to go out and play pure emotions, unlike the poor fiddle player who gets compared to Heifetz, Milsten, Zukerman, Perlman, Mintz, Mutter, et al.

What does your music have to offer symphony audiences?

The ability to bridge the gap into new audiences while keeping the mature audiences happy. My audiences are full of kids, families, Baby Boomers, and the "mature" audience, because the harmonica doesn't intimidate anyone.

How about orchestra musicians?

Most orchestral musicians are shocked at what a harmonica can do -- the level of emotions and dynamics plus the phrasing. But then, I love what they do.

If you didn't have this career, what would you be doing?

Playing the harmonica on the street with a hat in front of Carnegie Hall. But at least I would be playing Bach.

Reprinted from Symphony, the magazine of the American Symphony Orchestra League (Nov.-Dec. 2001)

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