A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 11, 2013
09:21 AMClassically Speaking
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Invites an Unexpected Guest to the Square
For anyone who previously thought that the notion of a harmonica collaborating with a classical orchestra smacked of an oil and water relationship, Andrew Sewell and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra had a surprise in store Wednesday evening for Concerts on the Square.
The surprise was the soloist, Robert Bonfiglio, and his vehicle was a harmonica concerto (yes, there are actually dozens of them!) by Arthur Benjamin.
But the event was no surprise to yours truly—in fact, I had all but counted the days until the concert, once I learned it was on the calendar. I met and interviewed Bonfiglio sometime in the late 1990s when he performed the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony. On that occasion I learned that the harmonica was a far richer instrument than I had imagined, and that its unique qualities can be marvelously exploited by any composer willing to think outside his or her creative box.
Arthur Benjamin certainly gives the soloist the same opportunities a violinist or pianist gets in the typical concerto: moments of great lyrical expression, a chance to show off their chops, a stretch of “me versus the orchestra,” etc. But the real delight comes in discovering quirky, engaging and lovely moments of the harmonica blending with the sounds of the orchestra.
And on a night when much of the remaining program had a patriotic tinge, it was fun to recall a fact that Bonfiglio shared with me years ago that doesn’t get into his official bio: Several generations removed, Bonfiglio had an uncle who was a piccolo player in Sousa’s band, who eventually settled in Iowa to teach music. Shall we call him the “Music Man?” Yes, he was the real-life catalyst for Meredith Willson’s celebrated musical, albeit by all accounts not the scallywag so beloved in Robert Preston’s portrayal.
Sewell filled out the evening with lots of plain fun, courtesy of the “Hoedown” from Copland’s Rodeo, medley arrangements of Calvin Custer based on cowboy songs, the Beach Boys and Duke Ellington, and Bonfiglio returned to close the evening (before a packed throng, by the way) in Eric Knight’s “Suite George,” a Gershwin pastiche. Bonfiglio closed with an encore of “Amazing Grace,” as if to remind us that the harmonica is a pretty special thing all on its own.