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Stonington Company Designs Traditional Harpsichords For Modern Musicians

Rhonda Miller

For more than 40 years, Zuckermann Harpsichords International has operated in the seaside village of Stonington in southeastern Connecticut. It’s a small business that restores vintage harpsichords and builds new ones.

The keyboard instrument played a vital role in the development of Baroque music between the 16th and 18th centuries. But the musicians and craftspeople at Zuckermann's want to bring the harpsichord into the 21st century.

At Zuckermann Harpsichords, Elena Zamolodchikova plays a harpsichord built in the Stonington workshop in 2006. It's recently been refurbished for a performance. She’s plays a Baroque piece, Allemande in A Minor by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

She’s one of two Julliard-trained staff harpsichordists who work in what’s called the “action” room, where the strings are put on the instruments and the precision work is done to get the best possible sound. She says being a harpsichordist and working in the Zuckermann shop is a wonderful experience.

“I love it. I think it’s a great place. The instruments are beautiful and I have a chance to work on them,” said Zamolodchikova.

Richard Auber is the owner of Zuckermann. He says they build harpsichords to satisfy professional musicians.

“It’s the musical finishing, the artistic finishing that we bring to the instrument that’s important,” said Auber.

He says Zuckermann is unique among American harpsichord builders because the company does repairs and restoration, as well as building new harpsichords.

“Our competition is individual builders who can maybe make three or four instruments a year, perhaps, but they can’t do every single aspect of it at the level that we can because we are a team of 11 or 12 people that is each consummate in our particular contribution,” said Auber. “In fact, my job is to bring it all together into a whole work of art.”

Staff harpsichordist Aymeric Dupre la Tour is one member of the team who makes precision adjustments to the harpsichords. He says one of the recent restoration projects was an Italian-style harpsichord built the 1950s.

“It was a lot of work and it has a deep, a very deep dark sound,” said Dupre la Tour.

The art of building a harpsichord begins with fine woodworking, from the large pieces that make up the body of the instrument to small critical parts, like harpsichord jacks. The jacks move up and down when the keys are played on the keyboard. Each jack carries a plectrum, kind of like a small pick, that plucks the string.

In the Zuckermann workshop, Mike Lynch works on some of the jacks.

“There can’t be a mistake. It has to be perfect or it won’t work,” said Lynch.

Staff harpsichordist Dupre la Tour says these precisely built instruments have lots of potential in the 21st Century.

“I don’t think that we should be building harpsichords here in order to serve the ghosts of the great masters of 17th and 18th century music,” said Dupre la Tour. “I think that we should build instruments that can be mediums for composers of now and of tomorrow, of classical music, contemporary, dissonant music, even rock or pop music.”

Dupre la Tour worked to bring the world premiere and recording of a new piece featuring two harpsichords to the La Grua Center for Arts and Culture in Stonington. It’s called Bridge of Souls.

At the premiere, composer Jose Bevia said he planned the debut in New York City, but he got an offer from Zuckermann he couldn’t refuse.

“They decided to provide the two instruments, which was extremely generous of them,” said Bevia.

The composer said he also decided to come to Stonington because Zuckermann’s two staff harpsichordists would play for the performance and the recording.

Bridge of Souls will be on Bevia’s next album. Some at Zuckermann are hoping the recording will shine a light on Stonington as a place where musicians can find a seaside oasis for performance and inspiration.