Deep in the bottom of a dreary building in L.A.'s industrial district, Curtis Berak has created a haven for harpsichords. His warren of rooms is filled with keyboard instruments evoking earlier eras -- pieces he made, rescued or restored for both his own pleasure and use by the region's major ensembles.
Berak and his collection are "a Southern California treasure," says Patricia Mabee, principal keyboard of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. "He is a rare resource ...willing to go anywhere and do anything to make whatever is called for perfect."
These days, that resourcefulness is being put to the test. Decembers always are busy, packed with "Messiahs" and other holiday fare. Plus, this week, LACO is presenting Bach's seldom-performed Concerto in A minor for Four Harpsichords (Dec. 11 and 13).
"When they asked about it last year I didn't realize it was going to be at Christmastime," Berak sighs. "But we'll juggle."
On this rainy morning, he is in his basement workshop, juggling away. Fresh from a trip to San Diego, he is surveying his inventory, plotting his next moves as he reloads his minivan -- which is no easy task because the elevator is broken.
Artisan. Delivery guy. Feather forager. (More on that later). It's all part of the job. "One thing led to another," Berak says. "The harpsichord has pretty much taken over my life."
Curtis Berak built this Flemish-style harpsichord, top photo, and this Italian model / Photos by LA Observed
How it began
Berak, 64, got hooked on harpsichords while studying painting in college in San Diego. "I started listening to classical music and gravitated toward the Baroque -- and the harpsichord. As a visual artist, I liked the way it looked. And I liked the way it sounded. It was art and music together."
He assembled his first instrument from a kit in the early 1970s. Then, he began building from scratch, learning by doing, gleaning from others and developing his own theories about methods and meanings.
In 1976, Berak moved to L.A. and set up a painting studio downtown. Through a friend, he inherited work as a tuner for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. "They ended up renting one of my harpsichords. After that, other people started to call."
How he works
Harpsichords come in different styles and sizes, including small Italian jewels, more substantial Flemish models and expanded French designs. They were in full flower during the Baroque before being overshadowed by the piano and enjoyed a revival in the 1900s.
"Current builders generally find that it's better not to copy exactly instruments from before 1700 because they would have problems with modern use," Berak explains. "I begin with historical models and recreate them for the 21st century."
"Even so, the more you go back and find out how things were done, the better. For example, people were using plastic for the plectra. [A harpsichord's strings are plucked.] Then, they discovered the early practice of using feathers gives you a much better sound."
Hence, Berak always has an eye out for shedding birds. Quills are found in his version of a 1638 Flemish piece by the Ruckers family of master builders. He spent three years on the project, including its intricate inner workings and detailed decoration. "Everything on a Flemish instrument has to have a meaning," he says. In this case, the theme is death -- from the flowers painted on the soundboard to the Latin motto inside the lid: "'Sic transit gloria mundi.' (Thus passes the glory of the world.) "
Brash and blue
The harpsichord's sound, says Berak, "is intimate and expressive." This gives it a distinctive beauty, but also means it can have trouble being heard, especially in groups. "I decided to develop one that is more prominent visually. It's bright blue, a little brash." Too brash, for some. The Los Angeles Opera orchestra selected the instrument for one production, Berak recalls, but the designer wanted to tape paper over it. "They told him, 'Stay out of our pit!' The next time the opera called for a harpsichord, they said, 'Don't bring the blue one.' Now, I have a nice black one for them."
Berak hopes his collection, which also includes fortepianos, chamber organs and hurdy-gurdies, won't have to stay underground. "I'd like to find a nicer, more accessible home. It would be a keyboard institute, where people could experience these instruments in a personal way."