By the latter half of the 1980s, harmonica player Robert Bonfiglio had proven himself a virtuoso equally comfortable with both the classics and the blues, and an artist who worked diligently to broaden the instrument’s range and image. His efforts, and most importantly his performance virtuosity, earned him the sobriquet “Paganini of the Harmonica,” after famed violinist Niccolo Paganini.
Bonfiglio was born on September 6, 1950, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but he grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, the son of an orthopedic surgeon. His first harmonica came in his Christmas stocking when he was a child. By the time he was in high school he had fallen in love with the blues and had already begun to copy his heroes—Sonny Boy Williamson and Junior Wells, among others. Upon graduating from high school Bonfiglio studied at the University of Arizona, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. But music was his true passion, and he moved to New York City to study composition at the Mannes College of Music (now part of the New School University). After receiving a bachelor of music degree from Mannes, Bonfiglio attended the Manhattan School of Music, from which he received a master’s degree. During his student days and in the early years of his career, Bonfiglio supported himself by performing in commercials, on soap operas such as Ryan’s Hope and General Hospital, and in films such as Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart.
At this time Bonfiglio had the good fortune to study with mentors who were highly regarded. He spent five years studying harmonica with Chamber Huang and was coached for 12 years by Andrew Lolya, principle flutist with the New York City Ballet. While at the Manhattan School of Music, Bonfiglio was under the tutelage of such renowned composers as John Cage, Aaron Copland, and Charles Wuorinen. In a 1993 Los Angeles Times article Bonfiglio told Chris Pasles, “Actually, Wuorinen was the one who said I’d do more with the harmonica than with composition, because of the special niche.”
That niche of classically trained harmonica players included such predecessors as Larry Adler, the father of classical harmonica in America, and John Sebastian (father of John B. Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful). Both had commissioned harmonica concerti from composers Alan Hovhaness, Henry Cowell, Alexander Tcherepnin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Darius Milhaud, and Malcolm Arnold. Bonfiglio incorporated all of their work into his own repertoire, as well as pieces by Gordon Jacob (Five Pieces for Harmonica and String Orchestra), Norman Dello Joio (Concertino for Harmonica and Orchestra), and Arthur Benjamin (Harmonica Concerto). Bonfiglio actually performed the world premiere of Cowell’s Harmonica Concerto in New York City in 1986 with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lukas Foss. The concerto originally had been written in 1962 for Sebastian, who subsequently became too ill ever to perform it. Bonfiglio also recorded the Cowell and Villa-Lobos concert!, the latter of which became his signature performance piece. Of his predecessors, Bonfiglio declared to Pasles in the Los Angeles Times, “(W)hat I do is pick up where Sebastian and Adler leave off. Like everything else, there have been technical and other advancements.”
Bonfiglio did not abandon his first musical love, the blues. Instead, he sought to broaden the repertoire of the harmonica by introducing classical audiences to great blues music. The formula proved successful enough that by the late 1980s Bonfiglio signed a two-CD deal with RCA. His first album, Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto, was backed by the New York Chamber Symphony. Reviewing the CD in the Los Angeles Times, William Ratliff wrote, “Bonfiglio plays with a sweet lyricism, grace, and vitality one rarely associates with the harmonica.” The CD was followed by Romances in 1990.
In a 1991 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Bonfiglio stated his desire to attract crossover audiences, especially the baby boomer generation whom he felt the classical music establishment had bypassed. “We need shorter programs, 35 to 40 minutes in each half. We need to promote audience participation, a hands-on approach in which people can come up and talk to the players. We need to get pop stars involved with classical music…. We need to get the New Age crowd, those people who buy Windham Hill
Born on September 6, 1950, in Milwaukee, WI; married flutist Clare Hoffman. Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, University of Arizona; bachelor’s degree in music, Mannes College of Music, New York City; master’s degree, Manhattan School of Music; also studied harmonica with Chamber Huang; coached by flutist Andrew Lolya.
Began playing harmonica as a boy and was a serious student of the blues by high school; studied classical harmonica in college; cofounded Grand Canyon Music Festival, 1984; performed world premiere of Henry Cowell’s Harmonica Concerto, 1986; released CD, Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto, on RCA, 1988; released Through the Raindrops, on High Harmony label, 1992; performed at Neue Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, 2000; formed Bach Porch, 2001.
Addresses: Management —Joseph Pastore, 194 Katonah Ave., Katonah, NY 10536. Website —Robert Bonfiglio Official Website: http://www.robertbonfiglio.com.
records. It’s a huge audience hungry for something more sophisticated.”
In the early 1990s Bonfiglio formed the Robert Bonfiglio Ensemble with his wife, flutist Clare Hoffman, violinist. violist Coke Bolipata, and cellist Robert Albrecht. The ensemble performed classical, blues, and popular songs, many of them arranged by Bonfiglio himself. This was not the couple’s first venture into the business side of music; in 1984 they began producing the Grand Canyon Chamber Music Festival.
Bonfiglio and Hoffman also founded High Harmony, the record company for which Bonfiglio records. In 1992 Bonfiglio released his first CD, Through the Raindrops, on the High Harmony label. Billboard raved over Bonfiglio’s harmonica work: “Like Toots Thielemans (a famed Belgian jazz harmonica player) and other masters of the harmonica, Bonfiglio extracts surprisingly supple strains from it, demonstrating that in the right hands it’s as versatile as any wind instrument.” The CD, and the record label itself, proved to be part of the process of Bonfiglio’s musical evolution.
Through the Raindrops was produced by Tommy West, who in the 1970s had worked with singer Jim Croce. The CD successfully attracted the crossover audience Bonfiglio sought. In addition to his own compositions Bonfiglio included Django Reinhardt songs, Ennio Morricone (best known for his musical work on the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns), and compositions like “Sleep Walk,” the 1959 Santo and Johnny hit. The mix was successful enough to propel the CD onto Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart, where it remained for months. Bonfiglio’s subsequent High Harmony releases, also produced by West, followed in the same vein.
On February 20, 2000, Bonfiglio made his debut at Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus, where he performed the Villa-Lobos harmonica concerto, among other pieces. In that same year he added a new element to his concert repertoire—an Elvis Presley medley in which he strove for atmospheric authenticity by playing the music through a 1950s-era amplifier—to complement his usual harmonica concerti, blues numbers, Stephen Foster songs, and Sousa and Gershwin tunes.
After being compared to Paganini by the Los Angeles Times, Bonfiglio basked in the comparison, telling the Buffalo News, “Paganini basically dressed like Little Richard. He used to make his strings be really weak so they’d pop in the middle of concerts. It was a show!” But Bonfiglio never let mere showmanship upstage his performance skills. Reviewing a 2000 Bonfiglio concert for the Buffalo News, Mary Kunz wrote: “Bonfiglio, the ‘Paganini of the Harmonica,’ began ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ with long sustained notes, then, a line or two into the song, added single notes of harmony. His precision was breathtaking. For a moment there, that didn’t even sound like a harmonica he was playing. It sounded more like an exotic kind of wind instrument.”
In 2001 Bonfiglio formed a new group, Bach Porch, with whom he planned to tour the United States during the 2002-03 season. The classical harmonica concerti, however, remained his staple. By 2002 he had performed the Villa-Lobos harmonica concerto more than 250 times, and he had been backed by more than 70 orchestras.
Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto, RCA, 1988.
Romances, RCA, 1990.
Through the Raindrops, High Harmony, 1992.
Live at the Grand Canyon, High Harmony, 1993.
Every Breath I Take, High Harmony, 1994.
Love Me Tender, High Harmony, 1995.
All Is Calm, High Harmony, 1996.
Noel, High Harmony, 1996.
Live at Interlochen, High Harmony, 1999.
Billboard, January 9, 1993, p. 60; June 19, 1993, p. 63.
Boston Globe, October 14, 1989, p. 22.
Buffalo News, April 28, 2000, p. 2G; April 29, 2000, p. 8C.
Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1990, p. 71; March 10, 1993, p. F2; March 12, 1993, p. F29.
New York Times, April 12, 1986, Section 1, p. 12; March 3, 1996, Section 13NJ, p. 10.
St. Petersburg Times, November 8, 1991, p. 25.
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 27, 2001, p. 9.
Robert Bonfiglio Official Website, http://www.robertbonfiglio.com (December 18, 2001).
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