Fulfillment of a Dream
After 26 years, Lake Oswego's Nicholas Wheeler completes his hand-built harpsichord, which dazzles musically and visually
It took Nicholas Wheeler of Lake Oswego a long time to finish the harpsichord that he had long dreamed of making.
But it was well worth the wait.
Wheeler's wonderful instrument is so good that it inspires master musicians, like harpsichordist Bonnie Garrett, Wheeler's long-time colleague at Reed College, and renowned Russian pianist Anastasia Kitaev. Once they start playing Wheeler's harpsichord they find it hard to stop.
Yet even total novices who haven't played a keyboard in their lives can be transported to a wonderful place just by sitting down on the bench and hitting some keys. The low keys are so low they make you laugh, the high keys make you tingle, and all of the rich-sounding keys in the middle can make you momentarily think you are a musician and composer.
You don't have to be a great musician to love Wheeler's harpsichord.
'This is the baby,' said Wheeler in showing his harpsichord to an inquiring reporter for the first time, and he is as proud as a new papa of the instrument he completed after years of meticulous work.
As Wheeler's wife, Oya Kara, said, 'Every little detail, a lovely rosette, gold leaf accents, hundreds of strings, all added up to a beautiful piece.'
The harpsichord plays like a dream. Just ask Kitaev. She and her husband, Andrei, a noted jazz musician, were dinner guests of Wheeler and Kara on March 10, and it was truly a night to remember. The harpsichord was a revelation.
'Before, every time I played the harpsichord something was missing for me,' Kitaev said. 'Either the tone was too harsh, or the sound didn't last long enough or it was too monotonous.'
But at their dinner, Wheeler graciously allowed Kitaev the chance to sit down and play.
'From the first moment I touched its elegant black keys, this instrument enchanted me,' she said. 'It has a wonderful big and warm tone which fills the whole room. You can make a silver-like sound, then change the string set to a different one and get a very delicate, melodious sound.'
Even Kitaev's husband, previously no fan of the harpsichord, caught the fever.
'He got tempted by the magic sounds and improvised a very cute jazz composition which everybody loved, including himself,' Kitaev said.
It had taken him 26 years, but Wheeler had mightily accomplished his goal of building an 18th century French double harpsichord from scratch. However, for 20 years it seemed that Wheeler would be just another would-be harpsichord maker who caught the bug, then lost it. Wheeler was a professor of physics for nearly half a century at Reed, and he could never find the time to finish his dream project that he had started in 1985.
'I encountered a lot of people with half-finished harpsichords in the garages,' Wheeler admitted. 'A lot of people thought I would never finish mine.'
But not all of them.
'I always thought he would finish it,' Kara said.
Kara knew her man. After Wheeler finally retired from Reed in 2010, he dedicated himself to finishing his harpsichord and finished the job in 2011. It was Garrett who let Wheeler know just how well he had done the job.
'Bonnie came over and played it while it was still on the workbench,' Wheeler said. 'She was rhapsodic about it and wouldn't stop playing. I couldn't get her to go home.'
A great debut concert was scheduled Aug. 21, 2011, and Wheeler envisioned a humble affair with about a dozen friends showing up. Then Kara got involved, and the guest list shot up to 70 - 'of friends, musicians, and people who thought I would never finish it.'
'As a joke, I suggested that everybody wear costumes based on the French royal court of the 18th century,' Wheeler said. 'I didn't think Oya would take me seriously.'
She did. The ladies and gentlemen came in their best Louis XIV fashions. One dude even dressed like Benjamin Franklin. Kara's own high, fluffy, curly wig was quite astonishing.
Wheeler and Kara are now anticipating many future gala occasions featuring the harpsichord, and one of the most prestigious will be Reed College's centennial celebration in May. With the expert help of noted furniture mover Big Al, Wheeler's masterpiece will be taken to Reed's concert hall, where Garrett will surely render a stirring performance.
Once relegated to history's musical junk pile, the harpsichord continues its great comeback. And harpsichords don't come any better or more beautiful than the one built by Nicholas Wheeler.
Anastasia Kitaev said, 'Both me and Andrei are sure this incredible instrument will magnetize many more wonderful musicians and is going to have a brilliant life before it.'