But the plastic models used by fourth graders are a world away from the expertly carved instruments of the Von Huene Workshop. “Our focus is making handmade instruments that are exceptional,” says Patrick von Huene, pausing from work in his family’s eponymous Brookline shop, where hundreds of handcrafted wooden recorders in various stages of completion stand at attention on dowels atop shelves and tabletops, waiting to be brought to life by professionals who perform with the likes of Boston Baroque and the Handel and Haydn Society—or enthusiastic amateurs who aren’t deterred by prices that start at $1,100.
“You’re paying for handwork and attention and the real materials, the real deal,” says von Huene, son of the late Friedrich von Huene, a German immigrant who started making recorders in the front hall of his Brookline apartment before setting up shop in 1960 and becoming one of the most sought-after makers of his kind. His instruments found their roots in the craftsmanship of the Baroque and Renaissance eras, when recorders were used to entertain European nobility. At that time, orchestras were smaller, pitches lower, allowing the woodwinds to shine. But long after orchestras became bolstered for larger crowds by instruments like the piano, the von Huene family showcases a special appreciation for the recorder and its history, building a business that, 56 years after its founding, continues to be recognized around the world.
Many of its recorders are, in a sense, centuries in the making: Each European boxwood tree—the same favored by the original makers—takes 300 to 500 years to grow large enough to yield wood for just 10 instruments. (By comparison, a domestic maple generously gifts 100.) Once the wood arrives at the shop, von Huene says he and his employees spend 90 to 120 hours creating a stage-ready recorder, turning the block of boxwood until each of the instrument’s three components achieves its desired shape, carefully drilling holes, sanding the wood down with ultrafine paper of up to 2,000 grit and dyeing it (using boxed hair color, no less). Von Huene and colleague Roy Sansom, a professional recorder player whose credits include work with the Boston Pops and Emmanuel Music, then tune each piece, going through four or five rounds of edits during the course of several hours until the instrument meets their own standards and the customer’s specific preferences.
“Sounds like a lot,” von Huene says, noting that their record output during one particularly productive year was 360 instruments, “but it’s the detail. It’s the attention not only to the cosmetics but, most importantly, to the sound and how the instrument plays and responds. It’s the difference between a Lamborghini and a Rambler. Both will get you there; it’s just one will do it in a little more style.”
The von Huene style is one Patrick learned from his father, who died in May at the age of 87. After years of apprenticing and making his own recorders, Friedrich von Huene was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study historical woodwinds from around the world, measuring and playing the best instruments from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. That knowledge proved useful for mass manufacturers in Europe and Japan, who tapped the elder von Huene’s expertise, and for his own designs that have helped pros play the works of Baroque composers like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi on the instruments they intended.
“He took all of the best instruments that were available at the time,” von Huene says, “and he came up with his own design, which used the best attributes of the ones that were available and put them together. As a result, he immediately got orders and the most prominent recorder players in this country placed orders. It took off because there was nothing so good as that.”
At the same time, the U.S. was experiencing a resurgence of interest in early music. “Boston became the hub of early music performance and teaching in this country,” von Huene explains. “It still is, to a degree, the performance mecca of this country, but because of Boston, there are now places in California and in Texas, believe it or not, and in New York that are trying to be what we were in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s.” His father, who founded the Boston Early Music Festival in 1980, at one point established such a reputation for historical accuracy that he had a 10-year waiting list for his instruments.
Today, von Huene continues to strive for that sense of authenticity, though the shop does have a few modern luxuries not afforded to makers in the 1600s: “Sandpaper? They didn’t have sandpaper,” he points out. “They had shark skin.” And he acknowledges that there are certain technological advancements—custom computer-designed steel reamer guides produced by outside companies, for one—that would not only speed the process along, but potentially allow for even more precision. Now standing at the helm of the business, von Huene is cautiously exploring those options, though still looking to keep plenty of distance from the practices of mass producers. “People come up here and they’re amazed,” he says. “ ‘Where are the computers?’ No, don’t need them.”
Von Huene left a career as a chef to begin working for the business more than 30 years ago, bringing with him a set of organizational skills not necessarily possessed by his artistic father, who, he admits with a smile, “could be a little chaotic,” sometimes heading into the shop in the middle of the night to tinker with a new design. The younger von Huene began with basic woodworking; it would be eight years before he made an instrument from start to finish. “It was at least 10 years. My dad didn’t sit down and direct me per se and hold my hand. I blew a few instruments, which is not a happy thing and doesn’t happen often,” von Huene recalls. “It takes a while. You can’t be a painter like Michelangelo in five years. It takes time and practice and also focus on it.”
But the results are lasting, as evidenced by the fact that original designs are still gracing the stage as new orders continue to come in. “I’m getting instruments that were done in the early ’60s and even late ’50s that are coming back [for maintenance], and people are connected with it viscerally. They’re connected. Their soul, their heart, that’s why they play music,” von Huene says. “[My father] just passed in May, and I’m still getting letters about ‘how he touched my life.’ My focus is to continue that legacy in a way.”
So he honors traditions and makes them his own. With tools strewn about and yellowing newspaper articles hanging on the walls, von Huene’s sunlit back office looks almost untouched by time, save for the Bose stereo and a wall-mounted bookshelf full of CDs. During his favorite part of the process, carefully handcarving the front window of each recorder to allow sound to be produced, he listens not to Bach concertos, but to rock and jazz.
“I enjoy coming in every day because you’re creating something. If you do your job right, you’re making the performer happy, and if they’re performing for other people, you’re making an audience happy. It’s a win-win situation,” von Huene says. “I am personally connected to each instrument. It’s almost like a child—almost. I take offense when people mess with it. You spend a lot of time with it. You’re breathing life into it.”