Three-score and ten:
Celebrating Richard Kingston
Born June 6, 1947, Richard Kingston reaches his Biblical milestone of 70 years this month. Now he is widely celebrated as one of America’s most distinguished harpsichord makers, but when Richard and I both arrived in Dallas in 1970, the world was younger, and the harpsichord still quite exotic and unfamiliar to many musically inclined listeners. The circumstances of our meeting seem quite humorous in retrospect: Southern Methodist University’s music department secretary left a note in my campus mail box: “Some nut wants to talk to you about a harpsichord.” And yes, the “nut” turned out to be Richard. To celebrate Richard’s multi-faceted life and his many contributions to the visibility and viability of the historic harpsichord during our nearly 50 years of collaboration and friendship, I have solicited some comments from several of our mutual colleagues.
• Jan Worden Lackey was my first Master of Music in harpsichord performance student at Southern Methodist University. Of those bygone years, she writes:
There was much new in the music world in Dallas in the 1970s and much of it revolved around the harpsichord. A young professor had come to SMU to lead its new degree program. Soon after his arrival a young man who, at that time had completed only one instrument, opened a professional harpsichord-building shop. The faculty member was Larry Palmer; the builder, Richard Kingston. We three, together with some others, founded and served on the board of directors of the Dallas Harpsichord Society.
The city was ready for historic keyboards and early music. There was a lot of publicity for our events. The Dallas Morning News printed concert notices, reviews, and feature articles, as did other local publications, for there was considerable interest in these concerts, lectures, instruction possibilities, and instruments.
It soon became apparent that Richard Kingston was an excellent and talented builder of harpsichords who both knew the instrument’s history, and possessed the requisite technical skills and ears to produce beautiful-sounding instruments. As a frequent visitor to his shop I found him friendly, an interesting conversationalist, and one who was ever delighted to show his latest work.
A lasting memory is of an evening spent playing one of Richard’s early instruments: I had been asked to be the solo harpsichordist for the opening of an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. Richard moved and tuned one of his magnificent French double harpsichords for the occasion. Memorable was the enjoyment of being surrounded by beautiful art, music, and the instrument—all together producing something that, individually, would not have made such an impact.
After Richard closed his shop and moved away from Dallas I had no contact with him. A few years ago my husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of a Santa Fe colleague. Included at our table were Dr. Palmer and Richard, who was still the same delightful and interesting person, happily sharing conversation and stories.
After a decade of successful harpsichord building in Dallas, Richard followed some sage advice from George Lucktenberg, founder of the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society, who suggested that North Carolina had much to offer a harpsichord maker: namely its tradition of fine furniture making. Thus it was that Kingston’s 100th instrument, begun in Dallas, was completed in Marshall, North Carolina. Continuing his investigations into what should comprise a composite “eclectic northern European double harpsichord,” Richard developed a prototype during his first two years in the Carolinas. Important new clients, new craftspeople, and the soundboard painter Pam Gladding became his colleagues. At the apex of his sales, he produced 19 instruments in 1987, 14 in 1989—the final “big years,” as he noted in his shop history notes.
A beloved friend and colleague encountered at many meetings of the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society (SEHKS) was the late musical and graphic artist Jane Johnson, whose clever drawing celebrating the birth of Richard’s first son combines two of his major achievements of the 1980s: starting a family and continuing to produce instruments of technical brilliance and physical beauty. Jane’s witty announcement card is typical of her warm heart and steady hand.
During Richard’s first decade in the eastern United States I had very little contact with him. However, that changed considerably during the 1990s with our increasing number of collaborations during SMU’s summer harpsichord workshops at Fort Burgwin, the university’s idyllic property near Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Richard taught classes in maintenance and tuning and “well-tuned” his elegant instruments. The rustic annual gatherings were succeeded by meetings in Denver and Santa Fe during the first decade of the 21st century.
• Another of my outstanding harpsichord students from the early years at SMU, Barbara Baird joined us as a workshop faculty member for many of the summer offerings. She writes of her Kingston memories:
I first met Richard in 1974 when I moved to Fort Worth to teach harpsichord at Texas Christian University. Through the years he and I found ourselves working together in Taos and Denver at SMU summer harpsichord events. I have long admired Richard’s gifts as a builder, his easy-going manner with students and harpsichord enthusiasts, and his willingness to make harpsichords travel. He would load a half dozen instruments worth tens of thousands of dollars into the back of his van and drive across the Southwest to make these harpsichord programs possible. Fearless? Foolish? No: Delightful!
November 1991 found Kingston at Clayton State University (Morrow, Georgia), where their six-day Spivey International Harpsichord Festival included a harpsichord builders’ competition. Twelve American makers each brought an example of their craft. After careful examination, the five-person jury unanimously awarded the Spivey Prize to Richard Kingston. Indeed, the jury chair, the German master craftsman Martin Skowroneck, told his cohorts that Richard’s instrument was so similar to something he himself might have made that Kingston and he must be soul mates! Since I was present to play the opening solo recital and chair a symposium of the builders, I was especially proud of my younger colleague’s great honor, and nearly overcome with emotion, when, for his acceptance of the award, he requested my presence beside him on stage. We had both come a very long way in 21 years!
The Georgia reunion led directly to the acquisition of my own Kingston harpsichord in 1994. A stellar example of Richard’s Franco-Flemish doubles, its keyboards utilize an octave span of 6¼ inches rather than the usual 6½—a small, but vital difference when attempting to negotiate some of the wide stretches found in many of the contemporary pieces that I have championed throughout my career.
A very special example of Kingston’s craft is his “Millennium” Harpsichord, Opus 300, built to celebrate things both old and new for the new century! The instrument received an extensive dedication recital debut on November 3, 2002, in the Washington, D.C., home of Charles and Susan Mize. Basically the well-loved Franco-Flemish Kingston double, this harpsichord is visually striking in its black-matte finish, supported on three stainless-steel pylons. An optional computer screen is also available as an augmentation of the usual music desk, thus allowing digitally scanned scores to be read by scrolling through them by utilizing a foot pedal.
Honored to be the first of a cadre of harpsichordists to “open” the musical feast, I chose a program that began with John Bull’s Coranto Kingston and ended with a commissioned work from composer Glenn Spring, Suite 3-D. This work for two to play at one harpsichord celebrates the hometowns of the composer (Denver) and the players (Dallas for me and D.C. [at that time] for Dr. Mize, who joined me for this first performance).
In the audience was one of Richard’s major mentors, the celebrated Boston harpsichord maker William Dowd. Following consecutive programs by Virginia Pleasants and Brigitte Haudebourg, Dowd’s shop foreman Don Angle brought down the house with his extraordinary keyboard skills in signature pieces by Scott Joplin, John Phillip Sousa, and, of course, the remarkable Angle himself.
When the Mizes moved to New Mexico a few years later, Opus 300 travelled with them. By then it had acquired a stunning lid painting in colorful abstract style by artist June Zinn Hobby. According to the harpsichord’s owners, my compact disc Hommages (recorded in 2007) is the only commercially available recording of this uniquely beautiful instrument.
• A brilliant harpsichordist and recording artist, Elaine Funaro lives in Durham, North Carolina, where her husband Randall Love teaches piano at Duke University. She describes her friendship with Kingston as follows:
Upon graduating from Oberlin College in 1974 I did what many harpsichordists did at the time: I went to Boston. There I started working for the harpsichord historian and decorator Sheridan Germann. For the most part we painted the soundboards of instruments from the shop of William Dowd, at the time the most famous American builder. Sheridan would travel around the country and to Paris [where Dowd had opened a second shop] to decorate soundboards. I recall her returning from a trip to Texas full of praise for the work of a new, young builder, Richard Kingston. That was the first time I heard his name.
Throughout the next decade his instruments, robust and musical, appeared at conferences and concerts. I did not need another instrument since I already had a Dowd, but our paths crossed more often when my husband and I returned from studies in Holland to settle in North Carolina. In 2009 Richard visited me and said that he had the parts for one last instrument and that he would like that instrument to be mine. As I was quite involved in performing contemporary music [as the Director of the Aliénor Competitions] we both wanted to create an instrument that reflected a completely modern aesthetic. Thus Richard’s Opus 333 was conceived. Currently Richard drops by quite often to regulate both the Dowd and his own instruments. We are very fortunate to have him so close by.
From the many archival papers that Kingston has entrusted to me for safekeeping and historical research, I share the following heartfelt words from this month’s honoree himself:
I have had a fascinating life and rewarding career. Often, upon reflection, it seems all that was ever required of me was to get dressed and show up each day. Considering the folk that took time with me, mentored me, gave me direction, I could not be any way other than successful in undertaking a career in harpsichord making.
I was on fire for the subject from the beginning, and that has never ceased. I did not plan it as a lifelong endeavor; I simply went from one harpsichord to the next, each intended to be the best work I could do, each as exciting to me as the very first.
The thrill of getting to the moment when I could begin voicing each instrument, to be reassured by those first sounds, was the same for me from the first to the last!
The sun is happy when it shines, a pen is happy when it writes, and I am happy when I am working on a harpsichord. I would do it all again.
As the fortunate owner of Richard’s harpsichord, the magnificent “Big Blue,” I share his happiness every time I play this triple-transposing instrument with its incredible resonance, even in the uppermost range of a treble that extends to top G.
One of the most memorable of the 101 Limited Editions Dallas house concerts presented during 33 years was the third one in season 28. On Sunday, February 19, 2012, Richard Kingston joined pianist Linton Powell and me as the narrator for a live performance of Said the Piano to the Harpsichord, which he had encountered as a favorite 45-rpm music disc during early childhood. The skit tells a dramatic story, illustrated with musical examples, during which sarcastic rivalry between the two keyboard instruments ends in collaboration, as demonstrated by composer Douglas Moore’s brief but charming Variations on The Old Gray Mare: the very recording that first introduced young Richard to the sounds of the harpsichord, thus beginning his lifelong love affair with the instrument.
It has been a fantastic journey, dear Maestro. Welcome to the “Three-Score-and-Ten” Club! Now, shall we both aim for “Four-Score” status?