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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.

"Through the work of Tom and Barbara and people like them, there has been a slow revolution in the way that early music is performed," said Slowik, who also is artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society and owns two Wolf harpsichords and a fortepiano. "You have a much more dynamic idea of the music. It's like driving a sports car. You feel every bump in the road, and there's tremendous excitement."

This shift helps explain the Wolfs' frenetic schedule. In addition to their long list of orders (next up: construction of two fortepianos based on the ones Bach used), they repair, tune and rent out (and chaperone) instruments for performances. In recent years, Barbara has produced CDs, and Thomas has developed a side business making and selling basses.

They work in The Plains, in Fauquier County, in a 1900 schoolhouse they purchased in 1991, when they outgrew the Shaw firehouse. At the time, hundreds of pigeons were nesting in the deteriorating building, which was littered with old toilets, electric stoves and debris. The Wolfs rehabilitated imposing white building into a live-work space that's something of a shrine to their shared passion, down to the keyboard-related artwork and the coffee table made from a rejected fortepiano lid.

On a recent tour, the Wolfs explained in their chatty, charmingly obsessed way how the piles of local and European wood in the basement are transformed into instruments. They lay plans in their office, do woodwork in two downstairs workshops crammed with saws, clamps and workbenches, then head upstairs to varnish, paint and gild. In a room with spools of metal wire in neat rows, they add keyboards, jacks and strings. Finally, in their immense living room - a sometime concert hall currently housing nine basses, two fortepianos and an antique harpsichord - Barbara does the final voicing, making sure the instruments sound and feel right. "He starts things, and I finish them," she likes to say about their division of labor.

One of their proudest achievements is a copy of a 1722 piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who is credited with inventing that instrument. When one of three surviving Cristofori pianos was featured in a Smithsonian exhibition, the Wolfs spent months examining, measuring, tracing and drawing the instrument. Eventually, they documented the innards using X-rays and a video they made by inserting a tiny camera through a hole. They completed the copy five years later.

The reproduction took so long because of a serious accident Thomas had in 2001. While doing a simple task, he hit a flaw in the wood and ran his hand through a table saw, amputating three fingers. He was flown to a hospital, where his hand was stitched together in the first of seven surgeries.

Thomas had to put much of his work on hold, but, desperate to make something, he began building a double bass. It was a struggle, but he persevered, and one led to another. In 2009, one of his basses won an international prize.

Eventually, Thomas regained enough facility in his hand to return to keyboard instruments, though work that used to come easily is harder now. Not that he's complaining. The Wolfs clearly love what they do. It's apparent in the animated way they talk about the curve in a stand leg or compare their creations to the kids they never had.

"All these - they are our children," Barbara said. "They'll come back in 20 years and haunt you."

"Occasionally we lose track," Thomas said.

"But they always turn up," Barbara said.

In fact, they feel duty-bound to maintain their far-flung instruments and make them available for concerts. Otherwise, they say, what's the point?

"It's for the music," Barbara said. "If you can't do that, then you might as well make furniture."

Marech is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.

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