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Chamber musicians get what they wanted for Christmas: a harpsichord

The chamber musicians knew what they wanted for Christmas.

A harpsichord.

Not a common request, given that the instrument became obsolete in the 18th century.

On a harpsichord, the strings are plucked, not hit with hammers the way strings are on a piano. The resulting festive, twinkling sound is especially popular around Christmas. It lends that note of authenticity to centuries-old carols and figures in Baroque music, like Handel’s “Messiah.”

Which gets to the reason the Buffalo Chamber Players wanted one. The ensemble, which includes musicians from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, plays music ancient and modern. But it has a particular affinity with music of the Baroque era. And every time the musicians wanted a harpsichord, they had to rent one.

“Harpsichord rental can be a few hundred, even $500, depending on where you’re getting it,” said the group’s leader, BPO Principal Violist Janz Castelo. “If we wanted one even once a month, that’s a lot of money.”

Buying a harpsichord, however, would cost a lot of money. But one was waiting under their feet. The harpsichord languished, it turned out, in the underbelly of Kleinhans Music Hall, in a musty storage area Castelo calls “the catacombs.” They heard about it from Bob Sowyrda, who has tuned pianos at Kleinhans for years.

“He knew there was an instrument at Kleinhans. Right below the seats, actually,” Castelo said. “If you look through the floor, there are these oval-shaped metal grates. Those lead directly down to the catacombs. There’s a lot of weird, random stuff there, stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day for decades.”

The harpsichord is being restored by Bob Sowyrda, the piano tuner for the Chamber Players and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. In his shop in East Aurora, he works on the harpsichord. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The BPO occasionally used it during the '70s and '80s, but it fell into disrepair and vanished – so long ago, Castelo said, that no BPO musician remembered seeing it.

With hope in his heart, Castelo accompanied Sowyrda into the catacombs, and among the wardrobe trunks and other objects they found the answer to their prayers.

“It was wrapped in a cover, sort of like finding an old car in a barn,” Castelo said.

“It was pretty rough,” he admitted. “It had clearly been moved around a lot. A lot of the finish was scratched. Things like that. Sounds come out, but it’s not remotely in tune. You move the levers, it’s jammed.”

But such decay was expected, he added.

“That was the reason the piano replaced the harpsichord. Over time, harpsichords kind of implode,” he explained. “They have no metal frame. It’s wood for the most part. The soundboard of a harp is super-thin. If you leave a harpsichord on stage under bright lights without playing it, it’ll go out of tune just from the lights. Harpsichords are very temperamental.”

The Buffalo Chamber Players are raising money to complete the renovation of what for them is a dream come true. They acquired a harpsichord in poor shape from the BPO and h… 

This one looked as if it could be saved. And it looked as if the project would be worth it. It had two manuals, or keyboards. And beneath the dust, it appeared to be stately and ornate.

“It looked rough but it’s clear it was a quality instrument worthy of restoration,” Castelo said. “I was excited seeing it.”

Castelo struck a deal with the BPO. The orchestra would give the Chamber Players the harpsichord, free of charge. Once the instrument was restored, the BPO could borrow it when needed.

And so the harpsichord came out of the catacombs.

Sowyrda reinforced the legs, which were shaky, and sent them to Illos Pianos to restore their black finish. In October, he brought the harpsichord to his East Aurora home. It was, after all, like an old friend.

“I used to tune this harpsichord for the BPO when they owned it in the '80s,” he said. “It was always on the edge. It finally got to the point where it was unreliable. It needed structural repair, which they never had the money to do.”

Sowyrda, who is self-taught and learned his craft by reading and doing, found the harpsichord a textbook case.

“There was no unusual challenge – just normal,” he said.

A harpsichord’s days, he sighed, are naturally numbered.

“Harpsichords in general can’t take their own tension over time,” he said. “This one is Flemish style, made just as harpsichords were made 250 years ago. It’s giving under its own stresses.

“People try to build them to make them stable,” he said. “They put metal in them. But they don’t sound the same. In order to make an authentic harpsichord, you are going to build something that has a lifespan.”

Happily, this harpsichord has many good years left. The restoration is almost complete, and the instrument is living up to the hopes attached to it.

It also has a mystery attached to it, concerning its maker.

“The name on it is Richard Taylor,” Castelo said. “I Googled the name and the only information I could find was that there’s an art dealer in British Columbia who talks about his uncle, Richard Taylor, a retired schoolteacher who made harpsichords. I emailed him, and he replied just today that he contacted his uncle and that’s not his instrument. He said, that’s funny there’s two Richard Taylor harpsichord makers.”

Whoever made it, the harpsichord will be loved.

Bob Sowyrda pulls out one of the keyboards while restoring the harpsichord in his East Aurora shop. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“Having our own instrument is financially and artistically liberating – not having to rent one, not having to figure out when an instrument is available,” Castelo said. “It’s our instrument, and if we want to program something with a harpsichord several times in a month, we can. Because we have a harpsichord.”

The Buffalo Chamber Players hope to have their harpsichord in play by January 2018.

Meanwhile, the musicians have set up a donation page on the site indiegogo.com and is rewarding pledges with prizes. At last count, they had raised 58 percent of their goal of $4,800.

“If you give $20, we make cool BCP stickers,” Castelo said. Give $500, and a Buffalo Chamber player will give you a lesson. And for $1,500, the Chamber Players will come to your house and play. Castelo admitted: “We haven’t had any takers for that one yet.”

He suggested a middle ground: For a $50 donation, listeners may sponsor a key.

“Every time we play your key, we’ll think of you,” he said. “And in our mind, we’ll thank you.”

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