“I feel that I can express myself better now in classical music since I’ve played all of these other styles, like jazz, flamenco, Colombian and Argentinean folk, and gypsy music. New York is one of the few places where you can play all of these styles at the same time, and it fulfills me more than just playing one kind of music, because each style shows me a different side of myself.” Nuno said this as he gazed into the biggest Da Vinci book ever in the study of the UES mansion where he lives for free. Medieval paintings in ornate frames and old art books dominate the walls of the main salon where we were photographing him, as he reclined next to the grand piano on a floral seventies lounger. Then, he reached for his clarinet with an air of nonchalance and began an alternately whimsical and heart-wrenching rendition of Czardas, gypsy melody which is also the national dance of Hungary.
Nuno Antunes is from Lieira, Portugal. His first music teacher arbitrarily decreed, “Nuno will play the French horn,” but Nuno accidentally broke it and was forced to play the clarinet as a punishment. He practiced eight hours a day for nine years after that, but in Portugal his opportunities to perform were few and he was spending most of his time and energy teaching little brats to play. So, he came to the New York City to go to the Manhattan School of Music, and, during his second year, one of his professors asked him if he might like to live in a mansion with a wealthy patron of the arts, for free, indefinitely. The disarmingly kind 93 year-old woman who owns the house must have thought Nuno was a very nice boy from the enormous smile on his face as they met for the first time in the elegant second-story living room of her five story brownstone just off of Madison Avenue. The only conditions of the agreement are that Nuno practice at home and occasionally water the plants. And Nuno’s status as a ‘cultural treasure’ in the United States allows him to remain for as long as he pleases.
“Where is my beer?” Nuno then said. “Is there more beer?” asked Jacob. “Yeah, there is, “ I said. “This one is yours,” said Nuno, “It’s almost empty.” “I’m going to finish off that wine, actually,” I said, mostly to myself. “No, that’s his over there,” someone said vaguely. “Where is the more beer?” “It’s on the counter.” By this time, I wasn’t listening anymore. “So, you said that you can express yourself better with music than with words,” I said, somewhat gravely. He answered with a question, “Can you describe love with words?” Then he said, “Feelings are very much abstract, and language is precise, it defines the thing in signs, and you can use poetry, but the way you express feelings with notes of music is as subjective and unreal as the feeling itself.” And I have to admit, Czardas says more about love than I could ever hope to express, even with epic poetic flourishes.
I met Nuno after one of his many concerts at Barge Music, near the Brooklyn Bridge, two years ago. As he swayed about like a marionette while playing his clarinet, eyes closed, my friend Joe leaned over and whispered, “I wonder if he eats pizza like that.” He brings his peculiar panache to every concert; the last time I saw him, he was playing Mozart’s Solo Clarinet Concerto in A minor in a cathedral in the UWS. He cut a fine figure in his black Portuguese suit, with the collar of his black shirt amply unbuttoned and his hair tied back, fastidiously inspecting his instrument. The orchestra kicked in after his solos with tectonic rumbling from the string section, which Nuno accented with subconscious headbanging. However, despite the flare of his hair, his accent, the mansion where he lives, or the fact that the government classifies him as a cultural treasure, Nuno is not given to the excesses of rockstars or pomposity of intellectuals, but there’s no doubt that he knows how to enjoy the good life.