New London, Connecticut, 1981-85
After two years in Taos we moved back east and I went back to work for David Way at Zuckermann Harpsichords in Stonington, Connecticut. David had remade Wolfgang Zuckermann’s kit business into a quality instrument operation. We still made kits, but David had redesigned them on historical principles, replacing the slab-sided plywood boxes Wolfgang had produced with parts in the correct woods. Our new kits were much harder to build, but resulted in a much better instrument. In addition we were making custom instruments some of the top musicians, principal among them Trevor Pinnock. Michele had become a skilled decorator of harpsichord soundboards. My job was whatever David needed, from shop work to typesetting and later writing instruction manuals to running the office to packing kits and running the parts department to making Viennese piano actions. When I did not have anything else to do, I spent hours playing the instruments, which needed to be played to break them in and warm them up.
Somehow the word got around that I had previously been a newspaper critic, and I was obviously a musician. In the fall of 1981, by which time we were living in Westerly, Rhode Island, I was asked to review the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra for The Day, a daily newspaper in New London, Connecticut. Apparently the paper’s critic had offended the symphony board, and that first season it was the only thing I was asked to review. I had never written about music before, and it was very interesting to do it. It is nothing like theatre. Some concerts are better than others, but they are always good. Everybody can play their instrument. Plays, by contrast, are often simply terrible, with people on stage who have no talent or ability to act. I was clearly expected to write positive reviews, and it was no trouble to do it. I love concerts and tried hard to put my experience into words, often writing notes to myself during the performance that would go directly into my review. My deadline was stringent: I had to go back to the paper after the concert and type a review into the computer system. I had a little over an hour, and it came out the next day. I would often take Julian with me to the concert, buy us doughnuts on the way back to the paper, and he would fall asleep on the floor of the newsroom.
After the first season my assignments gradually broadened to include other concerts, art shows, opera, films, and plays as far afield as Providence and New Haven. I did not feel that my brief was to be as critical as I had been in New York. I now saw myself more as an advocate of the arts I wrote about, and tried to convey my genuine enthusiasm for what was good about what I saw. I needed the money and liked writing, but it was tiring to have to drive so much and stay up late so often. I had a good relationship with my editor, and I was pleased to be able to write about the Living Theatre in The Day when they came back from Europe in 1984.
from The Day, April 2, 1984
By Michael Smith,
Day Music Critic
WESTERLY — The Dutch recorder player Frans Brueggen came to the Center for the Arts Sunday night, and it was easy to see why he is regarded as the world’s foremost artist on the early flutes. On this program in the center’s Champagne Series, he was accompanied by American harpsichordist John Gibbons.
As player and as teacher, Mr. Brueggen is personally responsible for the full recovery of the art of recorder playing. He is one of a brilliant generation of mostly Ducth musicians who have spearheaded the revival of old instruments and old music in our time. Some of the work has been scholarly and musicological, but the impulse has been toward the life of the music, in the eternal present.
Early music may be something of a special taste, but there was nothing remote about the music in this performance. The effect of the music was immediate and heart-lifting.
The program moved backwards in time, opening with an unusually demanding work of the high baroque, the B Minor Sonata for flauto traverso and obbligato harpsichord of Johann Sebastian Bach, written in 1720. As Mr. Breuggen pointed out, this sonata is really a trio, with one part played by the flute, and the other two played by the harpsichordist’s two hands.
It is also, particularly in the first movement, Bach at his knottiest. The several angular themes are tossed around among the “three” players with an almost demented intellectual intricacy, the rhythms set against each other so askew you can’t always be sure you are hearing right, or making sense of what your ears bring in. Messrs. Brueggen and Gibbons did not always have the same phrasing in mind—it would be a wonder if they did—but persevered convincingly in this rather torturous expedition. The one-keyed early flute with its light transparent sound, allowing the harpsichord to be heard, was a revelation to those who hadn’t heard such instruments.
The lyrical Largo e dolce was everything it should be, and by the flashy springing finale the two musicians were warmed up and in the groove.
It was when Mr. Brueggen took up the recorder for a C Major Sonata by Corelli that the wraps came off, and everyone realized we were in the presence of a real magician. There is nothing tentative or careful in his recorder playing. He really blows the recorder. Breath is spirit, and the sound he makes is full and breath-filled, rough with enthusiasm when it wants to be, brave on the high notes.
He played the opening song with sublime directness. The recorder seems to dance in his hands. It almost seems the little pipe is flexible as his fingers flutter on the holes and the flow of melody twists and rises. The dance movements were vigorous, with the basso continuo idiomatically elaborated by Mr. Gibbons. The Sarabando with its dramatically odd leaps was a fascinating exploration.
Mr. Gibbons took the stage alone to play Handel’s F Minor Suite, No. 8. This work finds Handel nearly as knotty as Bach, if not so relentless, and this was a powerfully persuasive performance. There were wonderful contrasts between, for example, the ferocity of the fugal Allegro and the smoothly harmonious Allemande.
To end the program Mr. Brueggen went back to “the real inventors of the sonata,” explaining that only after 1600 did instrumental music begin to exist independent of the human voice. Works were offered by seven composers from the north of Italy, most of them from Venice, dating from 1613 to 1645. You might imagine this music would be dry, but in fact hearing Messrs. Brueggen and Gibbons play it was perfectly thrilling.