Interview with Robert Bonfiglio

Harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio is one of today's biggest Villa-Lobos advocates.  He has played the VL Harmonica Concerto more than 200 times, with symphony orchestras around the world.  I had a chance to interview Robert by email recently
DF: Your long string of performances of the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto is amazing - 225 times so far.  Do you find that the piece can still keep you interested after all this time?  Or are you relying on the world-wide
scope of your concertizing to provide the variety?  You've done this piece all over the world, from France to California...
RB: The Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto, like my playing in general, is a work in progress; it just keeps getting better and better.  There is enough of a technical challenge to keep my interest plus emotionally the piece is quite satisfying and I keep doing more and more with it.  I have played the piece from Hong Kong to California to Brazil; it has been a thrill to show people what the harmonica can do.

The nice thing is I can go out and just play emotions because nobody knows what to expect from the harmonica; playing a violin concerto must be like your 50th marriage with all the players with recordings that have gone
before you.


DF: How would you rate Villa-Lobos' concerto compared to the other concertos you play?: Vaughan Williams, Milhaud, Cowell, Hovhaness.  Which of these other concertos would you call favorites?  - as the VL concerto is obviously a favorite!
RP: The Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto is a beautiful melodic piece; the second movement is gorgeous.  It is in my opinion the best concerto for harmonica to date mostly because Villa-Lobos has a style of writing that is distinctly modern and yet melodic at the same time with out seeming trite or like movie music - this is after all the hardest niche to find for a contemporary composer.  For Villa-Lobos it definitely comes out of his
unique sense of harmony.  Only the  Tcherepnin Harmonica Concerto comes close to competing.
DF: Some critics have seen a drop-off in quality in Villa-Lobos' later years, or at least a tendency to re-compose his music.  Do you see that at all in relation to the Harmonica Concerto?
RP: I think the Harmonica Concerto is better than the Guitar Concerto or Piano Concerto in the late period; but a drop-off in quality in his later years - then how do you explain the late string quartets?
DF: Your Villa-Lobos CD with Gerard Schwartz and the NY Chamber Symphony includes many charming shorter pieces by VL.  The Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 has been arranged for so many different combinations,
from soprano saxophone to tuba.  It works well on harmonica, I think.  Tell us about this arrangement, and anything that's interesting about any of the others.  My favourites are the Samba-Classico and Xango.
RP: The Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 was Villa-Lobos' big hit; the real question is do you recap the Aria after the fast second movement which nobody plays anyhow.  My arrangement was with the 8 celli but I ended it
with the harmonica playing the melody two octaves above the solo cello for a haunting sound.  It works well on harmonica because all good melodic stuff sounds great on harmonica- the instrument sings well!  Actually the piece I like the best is "Song of the Sailor" also quite haunting and I did
a good string arrangement of Improviso No. 7 which violinists should look

Samba-Classico is a big piece and I wanted it faster, but the strings couldn't make the 16ths any faster at the session.  Xango is jungle music!

DF: Thanks, Robert - I'm off to listen to the CD again.  

People in many parts of the world will have a chance to hear Robert play the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto.  Coming in the summer, for example, he'll play the piece with the Minnesota Orchestra in Music Fest 2001.  In the fall, Robert plays it with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva.  For more information go to Robert's website, or to the Upcoming Villa-Lobos Concerts page.