Monday, February 5, 2024

Partnerships and perfectionism

Just had a lovely concert (no. 49) in the Fairlee Town Hall. 

Including a collaboration with a town resident, which I thought of as an optional bonus feature when I started out, has become a vital component of each program for me. We haven’t had a concert without one since the early days of the project. 

I’ve also developed the habit of programming pieces relevant to key features of a town or key dates in its history. For instance, in Fairlee, I played Mendelssohn’s G minor “Venetian Gondola Song” because it spoke to the image of pleasure boats on Lake Morey painted on the Town Hall’s historic stage curtain. I also played Ernie Burnett’s “Steamboat Rag”, not so much because of the pleasure boating, but because the lake’s namesake, local resident Samuel Morey, built the first operating steamboat here* (yes, before Fulton’s Folly) and sailed it on the Connecticut River. And I played a variety of pieces from 1913 and 1914, the years the Town Hall was built and dedicated.

Such programming connects each concert to its town. But the most meaningful localization, maybe, and for me the most fun, are the resident collaborations. A couple of times it’s been with someone who lives nearby but works in the host town, and now and then a native son or daughter currently living elsewhere. But I’ve been strict that the connection has to be to the very town, not just the general vicinity.

In Fairlee, we had a couple of false starts in identifying a collaborator. But with less than two weeks to go, Deecie Denison (who also donated the Town Hall’s historic 1898 Chickering grand) connected me with a talented young songwriter, Robert McNelly, a high school senior who joined me on vocals and guitar for a couple of his own songs. I had already resigned myself to foregoing the collaboration part of the program, and I was delighted when Robert came through and kept us from breaking the streak. 

Then at the start of the concert, Kristin Post, the local emcee, introduced him as Robert McNelly, from Corinth. 

Not even an adjoining town, but one over. 

Of course I was still glad to play with him, and his songs were excellent, and he was a hit. Still, I thought to myself, rats, we didn’t quite check that box, oh well. 

Then I had the perhaps even more neurotic thought “but I don’t have to put that in the write-up, and no one else has to know...”**


*Actually I think Morey lived across the river in Orford NH at the time, but he later settled in Fairlee. And anyway the Connecticut runs between the towns so the boat voyage was just as much in Fairlee.***

**And you know what? I may have copped to it all here, in the blog, but I still might not put it in the “official” concert write-up. Instead I’ll probably finesse it: instead of saying “Fairlee” or “resident” in reference to Robert, I can use a non-specific term like “local”.

***But even that’s not so clear. The NH/VT border was long in dispute, and wasn’t settled until a 1933 US Supreme Court decision, which placed the border at the low-water mark of the Vermont side. In other words, virtually all of the river lies in New Hampshire (since 1933 anyway). Here’s a Seven Days article on the topic.

Monday, January 15, 2024

La Malinconia

Part of the reason tor the winter concert hiatus, beside the holidays and family gathering time, was a January composition deadline. I wrote Five Songs Without Words for the Stonybrook Contemporary Chamber Players, an ad hoc group of crack graduate students at SUNY-Stonybrook, for their annual premieres concert in April.

As the title promises, these songs have no words; they’re fully instrumental. But each carries a suggestive poetic epigraph. For the penultimate song, a pensive duet for violin and clarinet, I quoted a 19th-century Italian poem, La Malinconia, famously set to music by Vincenzo Bellini. This ode to Melancholy is not just a good fit for my piece, but also a remarkably apt description of my geographical life-arc—we spent years in the flatlands of the midwest feeling like exiles, aching to get to the mountains and to the northeast—and of my no-fly, Vermont-focused concert project and lifestyle. Fitting, as well, that the poet’s name, Pindemonte, appears to mean “mountain pine”.

Melancholy, gentle nymph, one who despises your pleasures is not born to true pleasures...
I asked the Gods for hills and springs; they heard me at last, I will live satisfied,
Never past that spring will my desires carry me, never beyond that hill.    

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Silver linings

To the tune of “NYC Has No Power” from Friends:

Things are looking bad for Boeing
Fuselages are exploding
But I have no fear of dying
Cuz I am no longer flying

Note for people of the future:

Federal officials order grounding of some Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliners after plane suffers a blowout (Jan. 6, 2024)

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Playing as the ship goes down

At the start of every semester, I ask my students to share a surprising fact about themselves. Two years ago, I learned that my theory class included the great-great-nephew of one of the cellists on the Titanic. Like approximately everyone, I’d always been struck by the story of the band playing to the very end. Impressive as it was, though, it had the soft blur of legend. The presence of this descendant in my classroom gave that existential fable a reality it hadn’t had before.

A few days ago, for the first time in at least 125,000 years, the average temperature of the planet was 2C above the pre-industrial baseline. Of course, this was a transitory high, not the sustained, possibly civilization-ending +2C that we’re supposedly still trying to avoid; still, until recently, the sustained +2C was not expected before the 2060s, and now we seem likely to get there decades ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, based on what we’re already experiencing at +1.2C, many climatologists now consider +2C too high for the maintenance of organized society. 

As all this befell with next to no coverage in the major media, it occurred to me—not for the first time—that not only is my little project is not going to Save The World, the world may well not be saved. And even though the project has confirmed the claim of climate activists and psychologists alike that activism is the best cure for despair, paradoxically, committing to a cause can also make you more vulnerable to feelings of futility. It’s hard not to be frustrated by the at best miniscule effect of your efforts when they’re taking up a big part of your life energy. If instead you do nothing…then nothing you do is in vain. Nihilism keeps you from playing the fool.

Anyway, my starting thought here was that at my concerts, even those who share my dim view on the odds for a decent future express to me their enjoyment and their positive feelings about what I’m doing, and about being there. It's a feeling somewhere between playing as you go down and not going down without a fight.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Salisbury writeup


As I wrote there, this was probably the finest piano on the tour so far...even though I thought that I don’t believe there is such a thing, as instrument quality is not on a one-dimensional scale.

As I did not write there, I was not able to take full advantage of the piano’s crystal sound and exquisite responsiveness due to sleep deprivation. My wife and had been out until 2 am the night before: on returning home from the Ferrisburgh concert Friday evening, already played out but at a reasonable hour, we found that our recently spayed puppy had torn a stitch, and we spent the next several hours in the emergency vet hospital waiting to get her stapled back up. 

But an extraordinary instrument helps make everything sound good, so it was maybe lucky that I had such a fantastic partner to help me along in my dazed state. I just wish I’d been alert enough to really nail the Mozart Sonata K.545 (which I played entire, not just the Rondo as written on the program) because it was the ideal Mozart piano—I would have loved to get that on video. 

I also kind of pawed my way through James Scott’s Frog Legs Rag. I learned it as a gag because the concert beneficiary was the Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas. But it turns out it’s a classic for a reason—it’s extraordinarily catchy both to the ear and the fingers, and really merits greater preparation. Well, I’m going to keep working it up, and in fact I have occasion to play it in the Starksboro Piano Crawl this Friday because it was written in a year I needed, as I'm pegging my repertoire to the building construction and piano manufacture years, and I needed a piece from 1906. Two actually, one for the old Town Hall’s Witney piano and one for the Baptist church’s Albrecht. The other will be Charles Johnson’s Dill Pickles, the second rag (after the Maple Leaf) to sell a million copies of sheet music.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Ferrisburgh writeup posted.

Ferrisburgh was my first of Vermont’s seven “burgs”, and is one of the three that has resolutely held on the to final “h” in spite of the push in the 1890s from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to drop it. 

And at the end of the month I’ll play Starksboro, my first “boro”. To my knowledge no Vermont town has persisted in resisting the Board on Geographic Names to the point of retaining the three extra letters in “borough”—though if what George R. Stewart wrote in his 1945 classic Names on the Land is on the mark, those letters didn’t go down without a fight:

Vermonter or Missourian alike might not care a penful of ink between ‑borough or ‑boro. In fact, as a practical man, he might even prefer ‑boro. But if anyone told him he must use ‑boro, he was likely to invoke all the shades of the Founding Fathers in asserting his inalienable right to ‑borough.

In addition to accompanying resident soprano Helen Lyons, I yielded the bench to Ferrisburgh native David Oliveira to play two of his solo piano Nocturnes. This atypical “collaboration” made the grade because David was my composition student at UVM, and I’d even given some feedback on one of these nocturnes. I had originally thought to play them myself, but as the concert approached I knew he’d do a much better job. It’s not just that during the teaching semester I find myself pressed for time even with just 2-3 concerts a month; David’s rendition of his own music is amazingly sensitive and expressive.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Who Am I This Time?

When I told him…that I wanted him in my play, he said what he always said to anybody who asked him to be in a play—and it was kind of sad, if you think about it.

“Who am I this time?” he said.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Who Am I This Time?” centers on an introverted and unassuming hardware store clerk in a small midwestern town. Although completely characterless in life, when handed a script he has an uncanny gift for putting himself in character, a quality which makes him the anchor of the local community theater group, where he is perpetually cast as the leading male.

I not only have a knack for accompaniment; it gives me a particular pleasure and sense of purpose. As someone who wrestles with the existential question (particularly in matters of musical pursuit) “Why do something instead of nothing?” I find comfort in the sense of assignment that comes with the commitment to a collaboration. The external obligation removes any annoying optionality about my need to prepare. The sense that I am providing support, often a favor, to someone else makes my practice feel clearly purposeful, as the better I prepare, the happier my partner will be; and this feels like a more direct and certain correlation than “the more I practice, the more the audience will get from my playing”. This satisfaction in supporting others manifests whether I am performing with a brilliant mature artist or accompanying a nervous student in a jury or audition.*

Usually the repertoire is proposed by the featured soloist, so I am also relieved of the need to decide whether I should learn new music, and what. The serendipity factor, particularly in this project where I am thrown together with people of varied musical traditions and experience, also keeps me entertained while introducing me to lots of wonderful music I would otherwise probably never encounter.

I like to think that I don’t immediately turn back into a pumpkin the way the protagonist of “Who am I this time?” does the moment the curtain comes down on the play. But I resemble him more than a little.

*My friend Steve Sweeting had a ping-pong teacher in Shanghai who told him: “You should play a third of your games with players at your level, a third with players above your level, and a third with players below your level.” I have found this to be excellent advice in diverse contexts.

Partnerships and perfectionism

Just had a lovely concert (no. 49) in the Fairlee Town Hall.  Including a collaboration with a town resident, which I thought of as an optio...