(Excerpted from the Guest Artist Interview with Howard Wagner, comptroller of Harpsichord Clearing House as published in the August 2018 edition of the Pro-Motion Music e-newsletter)
Jeannine: What was it like to meet the flamboyant and venerable Virgil Fox?
Howard: All of the participants stood outside on the church steps awaiting the arrival of Fox. Virgil arrived in his white Cadillac Eldorado convertible – no it was not pink as the folklore states, and he wasn’t wearing a cape – and looking out the open driver’s window said “How’re doin?” one of his standard greetings. I can picture this scene as if it were yesterday.
The Fox Master Class was both eye and ear opening for me. Virgil mentioned during the class that during the upcoming summer, he was taking on three private students at his home in NJ. I knew at that point that I wanted to study with him – probably the following year if possible.
Time went by, and several months before the next summer approached I told my father of my interest in studying the organ with Fox. He appeared to make a mental note of the request.
A few weeks later, my dad said to me at dinner, I spoke with Virgil Fox today and he will take you on as a student this summer. I was speechless, since Fox was like a god to me, and couldn’t understand how my dad was able to do this, so I asked, “how did you do that?” He replied I called his management, (Richard Torrence), and got his phone number, and called him up. I thought that was amazing.
And the rest, as they say is history. I studied for a year with Virgil, and it transformed my playing and understanding of music. My senior year English teacher at Poly Prep was Miles Kastendieck, who was a music critic for one of the major New York City Newspapers concurrent with his teaching duties at Poly. Even Kastendieck, who from his reviews never liked very much, was quite complimentary when I had a chance to perform at Poly during dome of the music programs.
Jeannine: After the tremendous life-changing experience as a mere high-schooler, I might add, what was to follow?
Howard: It was on to the University of Michigan, organ and piano study and the requisite music classes. However, it was at U of M that I was exposed to the harpsichord. The historical harpsichord revival was in its infancy – lots of kits – and few builders. There was a fellow named Randy who established the “Bach Club” and it often featured harpsichord performers which included Penny Crawford, who used to perform on her Burton kit harpsichord, and Bruce Gustofson, a doctoral student then, who performed on his own William Dowd harpsichord. So, it was early early on that I noted the vast difference between a kit and professionally built harpsichord.
Jeannine: Is this what drew you into the early music world?
Howard: Yes, at this point, I was hooked on authentic performance of early music. Anthony Newman, although not from U of M was a rising star and I became a big fan particularly of his pedal harpsichord recordings. BTW Virgil Fox sat on one of Newman’s juries for one of his degrees describing him as a madman and a genius. Similar personalities attract!
So that was the beginning of involvement in the Early Music World. I went on to get an MBA, and had a teaching fellowship, and with money I had earned and saved was able to purchase my first harpsichord from Eric Herz.