A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 11, 2013
09:21 AM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Invites an Unexpected Guest to the Square

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.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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