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Harpsichord Craftsmen Really Go for Baroque

April 16, 1987|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

Across the street from a car wash and the enormous, concrete garage of the Eagle Rock Plaza, a little bit of the Baroque Age flourishes.

The car radios outside may be blasting the Beastie Boys' rap music, but the delicate and complicated sounds of Bach and Handel fill the air inside the Harpsichord Center.

There, in a small office building at the corner of West Broadway and Sumner Avenue near the border of Eagle Rock and Glendale, William Neil Roberts and Anthony Brazier assemble, decorate and tune reproductions of harpsichords, which were the rage of 17th- and 18th-Century Europe.

Roberts and Brazier are missionary-businessmen, plucking the strings of praise for the antique-styled harpsichord and its music. They are, admittedly, dealing in a market for very select tastes and pocketbooks.

To its lovers, a harpsichord sounds elegant and cerebral; but to some modern ears, it can be twangy and, because there is no way to change volume, repetitive. And the price tag, ranging from $3,400 to $17,000, can be daunting.

Yet somehow, with subsidies from teaching and performing, the partners have kept their business alive for nine years. They say they have built and sold about 60 harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments to individuals and schools around Southern California and the world.

Along the way, they have been criticized for being part of a worldwide network of builders viewed as a threat by outside artisans. They have also earned praise from musicians and teachers for helping to keep Baroque music alive in Los Angeles.

"We have not yet sold one to someone who is not interested in using it as a musical instrument. In other words, we've never sold one to someone as a piece of furniture. Yes, it is supposed to be as much a delight to eye as to the ear, but the visual is only half of it," boasts Roberts, who is 57 and has recorded eight albums of harpsichord music, including two albums of Scott Joplin rags.

Brazier, 35 and a professional flutist, said he loves the "transparency and expressiveness" of harpsichord music when it is played well. Playing the harpsichord, he explained, is a much less physical activity than playing the piano. Harpsichord keys have a shallow dip because the strings are plucked rather than, as in a piano, hammered. And there are no pedals.

"The harpsichord is a mind instrument, and it is a very simple instrument. But it is not an instrument for simple minds," Brazier said recently while he was carefully painting blue scalloping on the spruce top of a Flemish-style model.

Roberts and Brazier are the Southern California agents for Zuckerman Harpsichords Inc. which, according to its owner, D. Jacques Way, is the largest harpsichord-building company in the world. Craftsmen at Zuckerman factories in Stonington, Conn., and Paris cut and mill most of the wooden parts for about 10 basic models and for custom designs.

A Zuckerman kit arrives at the Eagle Rock shop in about 300 pieces, in addition to hundreds of pins to hold the strings. It takes Roberts and Brazier about two months to assemble, string and paint each instrument, with special attention paid to the customer's playing habits and the climate where the harpsichord will be kept.

Their work often includes gouging out the bottom of keys to achieve a balanced touch, shaving back the soundboard to improve the tone, carefully sanding the exterior and covering it with up to eights coats of paint and then elaborate patterns of painted flowers and birds. They divide the chores but work on one harpsichord at a time until the finishing touch: painting their logo, "Roberts & Brazier--Los Angeles."

'Develop a Sixth Sense'

"I like to keep all of my thoughts on the outcome of one instrument from the onset to the end," Roberts said. "It sounds very mystical, I know. But when you are working with wood, you develop a sixth sense about it as long as you keep your mind on one instrument."

Adds Brazier: "You can't be in a hurry."

The men keep five or six harpsichords and antique-style pianos to rent out and they sell unfinished Zuckerman kits to amateur builders. They both perform with the Los Angeles Baroque Players, a quartet completed with a viola and a violin. And, they run a concert series, which they moved this year from their shop to the ballroom of Castle Green, the elegant former hotel in Pasadena converted into an apartment building. The next concert, on April 24 at 8 p.m., features Karen Swietlik on an 18th Century-style fortepiano built by the Eagle Rock shop.

Back-Biting Business

The craft of Harpsichord building is one marked by backbiting and short-lived businesses because the sales volume is so limited, musicians and builders say. There are a handful of builders in the Los Angeles area, and some of them criticize the Eagle Rock men for not designing their own instruments and not cutting all their own parts. Critics claim the Zuckerman network is intent on killing off independent artisans.

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