A couple find their calling in harpsichords

By Rona Marech
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 7:35 PM

Thomas Wolf was already a purist at 16. The piece he was supposed to perform on the double bass for his senior recital at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan called for accompaniment by a harpsichord, and, to his dismay, the school didn't have one. He could have just used a piano, but he was reluctant to tinker with the composer's vision.

So he ordered a pair of Zuckermann do-it-yourself kits and built two harpsichords.

The instruments worked - sort of.

"It was pretty terrible. . . . It was vaguely like a harpsichord," Wolf said. "But I was hooked."

Forty-seven years, more than 200 instruments and tens of thousands of small, perfectly crafted parts later, Wolf is still at it. In a window-lined workshop that overlooks the long fields and fences of rural Virginia, he and his wife, Barbara, meticulously reconstruct historical harpsichords, fortepianos and clavichords - all predecessors of the modern piano - one key, pin and string at a time. They think of themselves as archaeologists and historians and even, in a way, as poets who make it possible to hear works of art in the original language rather than in translation.

"We're like breeders and trainers and other people are the jockeys," Barbara tells their horse-country friends. "People we admire use our work to make something we couldn't do ourselves."

It can take 1,000 hours to build the most intricate fortepiano, and the waiting list for a Wolf instrument is four years. The price tag: $30,000 to $45,000. Some of the world's great musicians and institutions, from the Juilliard School to the Kennedy Center, own Wolf keyboards.

In a quick-fix age, it's rare to find craftsmen as extraordinary as the Wolfs, said J. Reilly Lewis, owner of a Wolf harpsichord and the artistic director of the Washington Bach Consort and the Washington Cathedral Choral Society. "Every piece has to be fabricated with devotion," he said. "And the goal is to create a living, breathing work of art."

In this country, maybe a half-dozen people make historic keyboard reproductions at the Wolfs' level, said Kenneth Slowik, musical instruments curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

The Wolfs met as high school music students - she was a piano player - and married soon after, while studying at the New England Conservatory. In the summer of 1969, they took summer jobs apprenticing for an instrument maker. Though they continued to work professionally as musicians, they quickly realized instrument-making was their calling. After five years of apprenticeship and a stint by Thomas in conservation training at the Smithsonian Institution, the couple set up their own shop in a Capitol Hill basement. Eventually, they moved to a 5,000-square-foot decommissioned firehouse in the Shaw neighborhood. They later bought the building from the city.

The Wolfs had caught the beginning of a harpsichord revival. The instruments had flourished for 300 years but were edged out by pianos in the late 1700s and largely ignored for more than a century. The Boston masters who trained the Wolfs in the early 1970s were among the first generation looking to old makers and trying to replicate historic models.

Things have changed considerably for period instruments. After years of neglect, they are no longer considered musty and peripheral.

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