Not long ago, I went with San Francisco Opera
French horn player Bill Klingelhoffer
to A and G Music
in Oakland--specifically to its vast downstairs repair shop, Best Instrument Repair Co.
That's where I met Dick Akright
, "a giant in the field of horn-crafting repair," according to a long article former San Francisco Chronicle
columnist Ken Garcia wrote about Akright and his realm several years ago. At one point, Akright had a side business with trumpet player Doc Severinsen
--that's right, the guy who led the Tonight Sho
band when Johnny Carson
was the late-night king. Dick and Doc created custom Bel Canto trumpets.
Bill and I were there to pick up the orchestra's two Wagner tubas
(see previous post). Not every score calls for a Wagner tuba, so while Bill and the SFO orchestra were performing Aida
, and The Marriage of Figaro
lately--with Bill on co-principal horn, as usual--the Wagner tubas were getting the spa treatment in Oakland.
Lucky for me, only one of them was ready, because I got a great before-and-after view. One looked shiny and new. The other...you know how copper turns green when exposed to the elements? Brass turns orange with use, and the beautifully tarnished Wagner tuba that Ian Siverly showed us was solid tangerine around the valves and halfway down, trailing off into a scatter of paler fingerprints near the bell.
Siverly and his colleagues push something like a small metal balloon into the bell if they need to press out any dents, and use a soldering torch to fix broken braces. The cool thing, though, was seeing how these guys get the tarnish off instruments made of brass or a nickel-silver alloy: with an ultrasonic bath and a scratch brush. The bath entails filling a waist-high, rectangular metal sink with a gallon of biodetergent-acid concentrate and 90 gallons of water, then pulsing sonic waves through for a minute or two, max. "You could climb in there and get rid of all your gallstones," the deadpan Siverly said while showing us how it worked.
If the sonic bath is a kind of Jacuzzi, the scratch brush is the massage. It's a special mass of fine brass wire on the end of a long metal rod set in concrete; when you turn on a motor, the brush spins and buffs the brass instrument.
As I write this, the last miner
has just emerged from that half-mile-deep pit in the Chilean earth. It's been amazing to see the technology developed to save these 33 men, especially that skinny steel pod and the pulleys used to lower it and haul the men up into sun- or moonlight. It's been so heartening to see how hard so many people have worked to save them. The human mind is shockingly adept at thinking up ways to inflict torture and death. But it can also create such beautiful, soul-healing art and such ingenious machines. Right this moment, I'm thinking of Wagner's operas, the unique musical instrument he envisioned, and the creative techniques someone invented to clean it. Not to mention an awe-inspiring rescue capsule that may--we hope--never be used again.