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The rare and ethereal armonica is coming to Baltimore

MusicConcertsArtistsMusic IndustryMount Vernon Place

Dennis James, a heralded armonica virtuoso who lives in upstate New York, will visit Baltimore next weekend to be a soloist with two organizations.

The story goes that in 1761, when Benjamin Franklin invented the glass instrument he dubbed the "armonica," he kept it from his wife so he could surprise her by playing it one night after she had gone to bed. "Surprise" was the apt word. She assumed she had died and was hearing the music of the angels.

To this day, the sound of the armonica, created by rubbing the rims of water-filled glasses with wet fingers, remains wonderfully ethereal — when you can hear it. There are few masters of this difficult instrument, and opportunities to experience their work don't come around every day.

So it's doubly newsworthy that Dennis James, a heralded armonica virtuoso who lives in upstate New York, will visit Baltimore next weekend to be a soloist with two organizations.

He will provide the otherworldly accompaniment originally intended for the famous mad scene in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," presented by Baltimore Concert Opera. And James will perform one of Mozart's endearing works for the armonica in a program by the Concert Artists of Baltimore.

Given the reputation the armonica once had for causing deleterious effects, it's interesting that it survived at all.

One of the problems was supposed to be delirium tremens, said James, 61. "I'll admit I have an element of uncontrolled hand-shaking, but that is more a process of aging. The other famous disorders I don't exhibit. I don't have hair loss. I don't have blindness. And I don't have insanity. All those symptoms are traceable to lead poisoning."

Avoiding lead poisoning from glass is easy enough today, but there can still be risks in handling this delicate device. During a concert in Germany, as soloist with an ensemble that ignored his admonition to play super-softly, James tried to get more sound out the armonica.

"I played too hard and cut myself," he said. "Blood just flew everywhere. It was unbelievable."

Although people had been obtaining music from rubbed glasses long before Franklin became interested, it was his typically inventive approach that elevated the concept.

The earliest method simply involved wine glasses filled with varying amounts of water and set out on a flat surface. Our most colorful Founding Father figured out a way to mount more than three dozen glasses and bowls arranged by size on a spindle operated by a foot pedal.

Franklin, who named the instrument after the Italian for harmony, armonia (others gave it various terms, including "glass harmonica"), fashioned a music-producing device capable of considerable range and nuance. The mere sight of one got James' attention.

"My first uncanny encounter was when I was a child, seeing the instrument on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia," he said. "I am told I kept staring at it."

Years later, his interest was further piqued while studying organ at Indiana University, when a professor mentioned that the armonica was the first instrument invented in America.

"When I asked him what it sounded like, he said, 'Nobody knows. It hasn't been played in 200 years,'" James said. "That did it. It became pure obsession and fascination, a wonderful, strange passion."

After starting to teach himself to play what he calls "the ultimate footnote instrument" in 1981, James attempted his first public performance in 1988 as soloist with a chamber orchestra. When the conductor cued him, James could get no sound from the armonica. The performance was postponed until after intermission.

"Backstage, it took me 10 minutes to figure out that it had to be perspiration," James said. "I hadn't yet dealt with nerves. I knew that alcohol will clean oils off of hands, so I went to a drugstore and got some. And, by God, did that instrument play."

By his own admission, it took James until 1991 before he felt he had mastered the art of the armonica. Since then, he has maintained a busy concert schedule throughout this country, Canada and Europe.

He has also played on albums by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris ("That was fabulous," James said), as well as on film soundtracks, including "The Minus Man," starring Owen Wilson.

For his Baltimore visit, James will be focusing on two composers who left particularly strong marks on the armonica repertoire.

In Donizetti's case, that mark almost disappeared. He wanted an armonica to add atmosphere to the heroine's tragic mad scene in "Lucia," but crossed out the part and substituted flute just before the premiere.

In recent decades, attempts to re-create the composer's first intentions have become more common. One of those attempts was made at the Kennedy Center last fall in a production by Washington National Opera, although with some cheating — a synthesizer was employed as backup.

For the Concert Artists of Baltimore's all-Mozart program, James will play the gentle, haunting Adagio from 1791, the year the composer died.

"Mozart played an armonica at least once and was totally taken with the instrument," James said. "The Adagio is extremely well-written."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Baltimore Concert Opera presents "Lucia di Lammermoor" at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. March 25 at the Engineers Club, 11 W. Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $25 to $65. Call 443-445-0226 or go to baltimoreconcertopera.com.

Concert Artists of Baltimore presents "The Musical Life of Mozart" at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24, at Peabody Institute, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $22 to $35. Call 410-625-3525 or go to cabalto.org.

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