Remembering James S. Nicolson by Mark Kroll

A half-century of friendship and collegiality

I first met Jim in 1973, in his basement apartment in a large house on Pleasant Street in Belmont, Mass. I had driven down from Toronto, where I was living at the time, to possibly buy a harpsichord from him to take back to Canada, and my first impression was: “What are all these wonderful instruments doing in the basement, with a ceiling so low that even I (vertically challenged) could touch?” My concerns were misplaced. The harpsichords were indeed beautiful, and impeccably maintained. I was also fortunate to meet his father, who was living with Jim at the time. I remember him being quite elderly and a bit frail, but with an unmistakable sense of warmth and dignity — traits that he obviously passed on to his son.

I didn’t buy a harpsichord on that visit, but I did make a friend and colleague who would remain so for the next 51 years. Our lives would connect in many ways. Carol Lieberman and I were honored to be asked to play harpsichord and violin music at his wedding to his wonderful wife Chris, and the image of his ear-to-ear grin of happiness remains vivid to this day. And whenever we got together socially at his house in Belmont, we were always delighted to see on his bulletin board the photo he took of our two-year-old son (he is now 48) sitting on his motorcycle — the same one Jim used to tour with a homemade trailer attached, containing his virginal — pretending to ride this big machine.

As fellow harpsichordists our lives often intersected professionally, in ways too numerous to recount. Whenever I needed a harpsichord, or some help with mine, Jim was the person I called. He presented me at the Cambridge Society of Early Music, and I presented him in recital on the Boston University Early Music series. Since I was the harpsichordist for the Boston Symphony, I always made sure Jim was the only person to call to tune or maintain the harpsichords for rehearsals and concerts. I also gave him lessons. He admitted in an interview that he was a “late starter,” so I was delighted when he asked me to give him exercises to improve his technique and finger dexterity.

Jim reciprocated in many ways because, well, that is who he was. We also enjoyed working together at the founding of the Boston Early Music Festival, meeting at his house, the von Huene’s, or mine. Above all else, Jim was a cherished friend who Carol and I admired and loved. We will miss him. — Brookline, Mass., June 12, 2024

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