DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. You do not usually hear the words harmonica and virtuoso in the same sentence, but really, it's the only way to describe Tommy Reilly.

(SOUNDBITE

OF JUDITH DURHAM AND TOMMY REILLY PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "BADINERIE")

GREENE: That is a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach originally written for the flute, but it's played on the harmonica by Tommy Reilly, who was born a hundred years ago today. Classical music commentator Miles Hoffman has this appreciation.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Tommy Reilly could do pretty much anything on the harmonica. He could play fast, flashy technical passages with ease, and in lyrical music, he could melt your heart with his beautiful sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY REILLY PERFORMANCE OF GOUNOD SONG, "AVE MARIA")

HOFFMAN: When you get to know Tommy Reilly's playing, it's not hard to understand why some 30 different composers wrote concert pieces for him. Reilly also recorded countless film scores and pop arrangements, and he played pieces by such famous classical composers as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, in fact, once said to Reilly, after hearing your interpretation of my "Chanson Russe," I would be happy to let you play anything of mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY REILLY PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "CHANSON RUSSE")

HOFFMAN: That's Igor Stravinsky's "Chanson Russe," or "Russian Song," played on a harmonica by Tommy Reilly. Reilly's first instrument was actually the violin, which he began playing at the age of 8. And even after he became a professional harmonica player, his musical idol was the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. Reilly said that Heifetz was his model for interpretation and musical phrasing. I think it's also pretty clear that Heifetz was his model for musical fireworks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY REILLY PERFORMANCE OF DE SARASATE'S "ZIGEUNERWEISEN OP. 20")

HOFFMAN: That's a famous violin showpiece, and Jascha Heifetz used to wow audiences with it all over the world - "The Zigeunerweisen," or "Gypsy Airs," by Pablo de Sarasate.

Now you might wonder, how does somebody become a harmonica virtuoso? In Tommy Reilly's case, unfortunately, the Gestapo had something to do with it. Reilly was born in Ontario, but his family moved to England in 1935. He had started playing the harmonica back in Canada when he was 11, and by the time he was a teenager he was already a seasoned public performer on that instrument. But Reilly decided to go to Leipzig, Germany, to continue his studies on the violin, and it was in Leipzig in 1939 that he was arrested by the Gestapo. He spent all of World War II as a prisoner of war, and its time in the prison camps that allowed Reilly to spend hour after hour practicing the harmonica and turning himself into a great player.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY REILLY AND MUNICH RADIO ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF "CONCERTO FOR HARMONICA AND ORCHESTRA (III. SCHERZO. ALLERGRO MA NON TROPPO)")

HOFFMAN: That's Tommy Reilly playing a portion of one of the many pieces written specifically for him, the "Concerto For Harmonica & Orchestra" by British composer Michael Spivakovsky.

Tommy Reilly died in the year 2000 at the age of 81. He spent his career determined, as one critic wrote, to establish the highbrow credentials of the harmonica, and he certainly succeeded.

For NPR News, I'm Miles Hoffman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY REILLY AND MUNICH RADIO ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF "CONCERTO FOR HARMONICA AND ORCHESTRA (III. SCHERZO. ALLERGRO MA NON TROPPO)")

GREENE: Miles Hoffman is founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and also the distinguished visiting professor of chamber music at the Schwob School of Music in Columbus, Ga.

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