Cambridge write-up coming soon
When our dear friend Alison Forrest suggested I play the Berlin concert at the Capital City Grange (which, despite the name, lies just outside the Montpelier city limits) I was pretty sure that there must be fancier pianos elsewhere in town, but I knew I had to say yes.
For one thing, this is not just a one-time Grange Hall (I suspect I will play quite a few—there were once about 200 Granges in the state) but a living Grange organization, one of only 18 still active in Vermont today. And the Grange movement was founded to give small farmers a voice and political power so they could hold their own in dealings with (for example) the railroad companies, which were gouging farmers on freight rates, and the U.S. government, which was not providing free rural mail delivery. Kind of like ordinary people today trying to confront the power of fossil fuel companies and the governments they have captured.
Moreover, this particular Grange is home to an active music and dance scene, hosting (among other things) biweekly contra dances with large enthusiastic crowds and first-rate bands, which my family has attended ever since moving to Vermont. When an earlier generation of Grange members was starting to age out of active participation in the 1990s, they invited the contradancers and Church of Christ, who were then renting the use of the building, to join the Grange, with the result that the present membership and officers are mostly dancers and musicians (and/or Christians).
And finally: when the dancer-Grangers replaced the floor, Mike Ziegler, a dentist and amateur luthier, took some of the original maple floorboards and made them into a mandolin—which is now played by our daughter. Clearly, I had to play the Capital City Grange.
The Grange Hall (P of H = Patrons of Husbandry)
Sylvia Parker and I try out the piano
Stella tries out the limelight as Grange President Tim Swartz and I futz with the lights
The engaged audience of about 70 was our largest since Burlington
I want to say we exceeded capacity, but really these folks just liked chilling on the porch
So for this concert, I invited Sylvia to arrange some of the pieces of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos that already had a second piano part for piano 4-hands . (Bartok wrote some music for two pianos, but none for piano 4-hands.) I also programmed his Six Romanian Dances (funnily enough, during his time in Vermont in 1941 Bartok “worked diligently on preparing his now famous Rumanian folk music collection for publication”, according to Sylvia’s article above) and my own “Bela’s Blues”, which riffs on his time in the US.
Bartok on the balcony in Berlin, 1941
Selections from Mikrokosmos, arr. by Sylvia Parker
Bartok’s Six Romanian Dances, with intro chat
My “Bela’s Blues”, with intro chat
“Celebration Rag” by my former UVM student and Berlin native Preston Murphy
Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor, K.10 (preceded by 10 ii-V-I’s)
Alison Forrest and I perform the interpretive dance “Where Are We Now?” (as another David once asked in another Berlin)
Alison, who is Chaplain of the Capital City Grange, colors in Berlin
Alison is a great dancer and dances everything she does
Tom McNeil, an area piano technician whom we first encountered as the rebuilder of the Steinway grand in the Bryan Memorial Gallery in Cambridge, is active in the Capital City Grange. He got wind of this piano’s availability when its owner passed away, and recommended that the Grange exchange its tired upright for this one.
The newly acquired piano was dedicated to the memory of Bill Spear, who was a talented, versatile, and much appreciated Grange Musician. This does not, I learned, mean simply “a musician in the Grange”—apparently, Grange Musician is an official, and mandatory, Grange office.
However, Bob told me that the equally historic Brownington Congregational Church, just across the street, had a Steinway baby grand, and immediately volunteered to put me in touch with its music director, Mark Violette. Mark turned out to be more than a generous host and presenter. He offered the church choir as colloborators, and suggested I contact composer Sara Doncaster, music teacher at the nearby Lake Region Union High School to find a student participant as well. Sara, in addition to helping with publicity, asked Matthew Faust, a Brownington student, to perform, while Mark reached out to Darryl Kubian, a Brownington violinist also eager to play. It was enormously heartening to have so much enthusiasm and so much community support and participation for our very first away game, and a great augury for the project as a whole. (click images to embiggen)
Concert poster, bookended by handyman ad and majestic reflected white pine
Alexander Twilight, who built the school that is now the Old Stone House Museum, preached at the...
...Brownington Congregational Church, host of Concert #2
Mark Violette, impresario for this concert, did the honors filling in the town of Brownington on our map
The enthusiastic audience of 40 was well fitted to the small church.
Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K.2 (preceded by 2 ii-V-I’s)
Darryl Kubian joins me for the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs
The closer, “Stride Rite”, with a nice panning shot of the audience at the end
That’s me in front of the Samuel Read Hall House
A warm audience of 70 was present to see the project off. The first concert in this
251 252-concert series featured a number of firsts:
Beethoven’s first sonata, Bach’s first published keyboard suite, and Scarlatti’s first and also 251st keyboard sonatas, plus various ragtime and stride pieces.
My self-assessment of the performance is in this blog post.
Images and video follow—as well as the first installment of the about the piano feature. Every piano has a story, and for each venue, I will tell some of it here.
Bert Crosby set up the lighting to cast UVM’s Recital Hall organ in full green-and-gold splendor
A brief selection from the second half featuring the evening’s birthday boys, Tchaikovsky and Brahms
Post-concert, I address a coterie of young fans, who collectively brought the audience average age from over 60 down to the mid-40s
Reception goodies featuring Vermonty cookies! (on left), courtesy of Annelies McVoy
Pianists who play the UVM Recital Hall traditionally sign the frame. This snapshot highlights the signature of William Bolcom, composer of the Graceful Ghost Rag, which I played on this inaugural Play Every Town concert. (I was unable to locate signatures of other composers on the program such as Bach, Beethoven, or Scarlatti.)
When this project was in the planning stages, I spoke to my colleague Paul Orgel to get his feedback. He asked if I knew about pianist and Vermont native Adam Tendler’s similar endeavor in which, fresh out of music school, he played a program of 20th-century American piano music in each of the 50 states. I did not, so Paul lent me Adam’s excellent book about his adventure, 88x50: A Memoir of Sexual Discovery, Modern Music and the United States of America.
Then Paul told me that Adam was curating the inaugural concert season of the Frank Suchomel Memorial Arts Center, a series of solo piano recitals featuring Vermont pianists, and that I should ask to be on it. Which I did, and Adam and the Suchomel board were graciously accommodating, and this concert was booked.
Adam, who spends most of his time in NYC, could not attend, but he sent his mother, who is still in the area.
The road to Adamant
The Adamant Music School main building
Frank Suchomel was first a student, then eventually principal benefactor and president of the Adamant Music School, which has been hosting intensive summer piano workshops since 1942. The school is so called because it is in the village of Adamant, home to granite quarries that remained active until the mid-20th century. The village of Adamant is so called because some of its residents were unhappy with its original name of Sodom. The village of Sodom was so called, some say, because it had no church. I find this hard to believe. Even in the much churchier Vermont of the nineteenth century, a name as trenchant as Sodom must have been based on what was going on there of a Sunday (not hard to imagine given the population of mostly single granite quarry workers) rather than on what wasn’t. Anyway, in 1905, residents petitioned to change the name to Adamant, after the granite quarries and the hardness of their stone; as was supposedly said, “A name perhaps as hard but not as wicked.” The village is also noteworthy for the oldest (and smallest) still-active cooperative store in the state, the Adamant Co-op, established in 1935.
Frank passed away in October 2021 and the concert series (which is independent of the school) was initiated in his honor.
Granite sculpture in the sculpture garden
Adamant is big on granite
Even a granite doghouse; Stella grudgingly models
Jean Palmisano fills in Calais
As this was part of a solo piano series, I did not seek a local collaborator for this program. Though small (capacity ca. 50; attendance for my concert ca. 30) the venue was lavishly and expertly staffed with a tech/support crew of three plus Adamant Community Cultural Foundation/Suchomel administrator Jean Palmisano.
The Suchomel Center made its own professional recording of the entire concert, which will be on YouTube (I'll add a link when it’s up).
Sonata in G minor, no. 12 (preceded by 12 ii-V-I’s)
Guilford, which was the most populous town in Vermont in the state’s first census (1791), is home to not one but two Vermont music dynasties, the Serkins and the Amidons. The concert was in the Guilford Community Church, where Peter Amidon is choir director, for an audience of 50.
I was thrilled and honored to perform “Spencer the Rover” with Peter and Mary Alice, with Peter’s charming piano arrangement. As for Serkins, cellist Judith was unavailable (Steve tried!). But Steve located yet another talented Guilford music family, so I had the pleasure of performing an improvised trio with the 10-year-old Banas twins Chloe and Daphne.
Guilford Community Church
Concert coordinator Steve Damon fills in Guilford
Scarlatti Sonata in G minor, no. 7 (preceded by 7 ii-V-I’s)
Untitled trio by the 10-yr-old Banas twins
Peter and Mary Alice Amidon sing “Spencer the Rover”
Steve Sweeting’s “Kitchen Rag”
I'd never performed on a Wurlitzer before. The company’s main claim to fame is the giant theater organs that were among the most advanced electronic instruments of their time. But they also made pianos, mostly entry-level spinets and consoles....plus (the Wikipedia article was a revelation) jukeboxes, coin-operated player pianos (a precursor to jukeboxes), high-end radios, kitchen appliances, carnival rides, and (during WW2) bomb proximity fuses.
While conversion of civilian factories to military production during wartime is not unusual, military procurement was also the source of the company‘s initial financial success; the company was “was an early American defense contractor, being a major supplier of musical instruments to the U.S. military during the American Civil War and Spanish–American War” (per Wikipedia).
Leah also arranged for me to play with her vocal music colleague, Mavis MacNeil, who sang Brahms and also her own setting of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”. Mavis’s music was beautifully suited to the poem: at once vernacular and modernist, natural and artful, just like Frost’s phraseology. It is taken from Mavis’ set “Early Frost”, which is one of the best song-set names ever. Mavis, in turn, put me together with Hazen student Sam Avery, who sang Ned Rorem’s “I Never Knew”.
Hazen Union auditorium. How do all 1970s U.S. school buildings look the same?
Soprano, composer, and Hazen vocal music teacher Mavis MacNeil
Hazen student soprano Sam Avery
Scarlatti Sonata in G minor, no. 4 (preceded by 4 ii-V-I’s)
“The Oven Bird” (Frost) composed and sung by Hazen Union vocal music teacher Mavis MacNeil
Poulenc, Sonata for Flute and piano, performed by Hazen Union instrumental music teacher Leah Gagnon
Her master’s voice. Stella was a respectful listener, kept happy by her new buddy Connor
Leah fills in Hardwick. Schoolteachers are good at coloring inside the lines
Post-concert chilling at the Lamoille River, which runs through Hardwick
Lake Memphramagog, view from St. Mary Star of the Sea
Lake Memphramagog, view from Newport waterfront
Newport United Church
Scarlatti Sonata in G major, K.13 (preceded by 13 ii-V-I’s)
Ryan sings Ciampi’s “Nina”
Marelle sings “Scarborough Fair”
Saigelyn sings her own “Something More”
This is a good place to mention another area composer and educator: Sara Doncaster, who teaches at Lake Region Union High School and who has been the champion supercontact for the northern reaches of this tour. It was Sara who put me in contact with Saigelyn and also with Danielle Carrier (choral teacher at North Country Union HS) who recommended Ryan and Marelle. Sara knows the area in and out—she ran a new music festival in the north country for years—and saved us an enormous amount of legwork by pointing us to the best places to play in several towns, as well as pointing us to local musicians for collaborations. She is seriously connected, and generous in sharing her connections.
Now I’m just being artsy
Six Preludes by Jim Romeo...seemingly artless
Cam Green, Saige’s mom, filled in Newport City
A long day
This was also the first concert since Essex Junction’s “divorce” from the Town of Essex became official on July 1, 2022–hence the change from 251 to 252 in the program.
Maryann McArdle, a counselor at Vermont Academy, invited us to play at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River (the town of Rockingham includes two sizable villages some distance apart, so people more often indicate location with “Saxtons River” or “Bellows Falls” than “Rockingham”). She suggested not one but two different young singers, Ruby Besson and Kaylee Desmarais, as local collaborators. Meanwhile I had asked our old friend Julane Deener if she would sing; she had to decline but recommended a young singer from just across the border in New Hampshire (nobody’s perfect), Alyssa Becker, who studied for many years with Julane in Bellows Falls. So this was also a triple-header as regards collaborations.
It was originally an Odd Fellows lodge
An evocative ghost barn sits across the street
Concert host Maryann McArdle fills in Rockingham
Scarlatti Sonata in F major, K.6 (preceded by 6 ii-V-I’s)
”Burn” from Hamilton,sung by Ruby Besson, a rising sophomore at Vermont Academy
“Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen“ (H. Isaac)
Alyssa Becker sings “Songs My Mother Taught Me” (Dvorak op. 55, no. 4)
“Who Else” and “Another Time” by Eve Beglarian
The old Bellows Falls hydroelectric plant
That last picture shows Stella and me at the Bellows Falls station of Great River Hydro, formerly the New England Power Association, which draws electric power from the Connecticut River. The 1928 buildings you see here are as abandoned as the ghost barn above (and clearly haunted) but the generating station is in service and the wires were humming as we walked by. Here's a historic photo of the station, which sits on an island in the middle of the river, halfway between Vermont and New Hampshire.
Scarlatti Sonata in D minor, K.9 (preceded by 9 ii-V-I’s)
Gables Activities Director Stephanie Coltey filled in Rutland Town
The Nordiska Piano Company was founded over 100 years ago in the Swedish town of Vetlanda. Soon after, Nordiska pianos were known throughout Europe for their advanced scale design and superior sound. In 1988, Europe was in the midst of a deep recession, and the Swedish piano manufacturer ceased operations. The Dongbei Piano Company, located in China, aspired to produce a superior Chinese piano and proceeded to acquire the scale designs, machinery, and virtually everything else from the Nordiska Piano Company.I wasn’t able to date the piano precisely, but I’m pretty sure it’s from the Dongbei era. It was very evenly regulated, but the repetition was oddly sluggish (as you can maybe hear from some kludgy trills in the Scarlatti above). The residents make good use of it, including a fine pianist who gives regular concerts for his fellow Gables denizens. One of them asked me what I thought of it; I said it was great to find a grand piano that was regularly played and tuned. She said “Well, we don’t like it!” Apparently, it was bought by a prior activities director who failed to consult with the many musical residents. That said, my real struggle was with the AC, which we had to leave on (it was a muggy day in the 90s) but which had a loud fan that really messed with my pitch perception.
The United Church of Strafford lies in the main (upper) village, which is almost implausibly picturesque, particularly on this bluebird day.
The Town House, 1799
The venue, 1832
We take Strafford, 2022
The post office in the old brick store
Inside the P.O. They also serve up free coffee!
Posted in the post office
Strafford was also home to William Sloane Coffin, a leader in the Civil Rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and later the nuclear disarmament and gay rights movements. The church’s community room had a display made by Sunday school students about Coffin and making difficult social choices. Funny connection: Coffin planned a career as a concert pianist and studied piano at Yale. His first wife was Eva Rubinstein, a daughter of piano giant Arthur Rubinstein.
This concert originated in an invitation by Cameron Speth, a climate activist and member of the congregation. About 45 people attended. Pianist Annemieke McLane is the church’s music director, and I was delighted when she agreed to join me in the Eight Czech Duets of my late composition teacher Karel Husa.
Annemieke and I rehearse the Husa
The audience, Annemieke in front. She cleans up good!
Cameron has filled in Strafford
Scarlatti Sonata in G minor, K.8
(preceded by 8 ii-V-I’s)
Eve Beglarian, “Another Time”
Constant companion and audience member Stella takes a break
At just under 5 feet, the GA1 model is the smallest of Yamaha grands. The touch was heavier than most Yamahas, and the action was a little unpredictable. Annemieke was glad my assessment matched hers, as it can be hard to be objective about a piano one is very used to, and she may recommend that the church have the action regulated.
*Noting the unusual spelling of Manheim, I followed up and realized that the Manheim’s son Dan, also an English professor, was my colleague in my first full-time teaching position at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Small world!
Because our daughter had a dance performance the day after the Strafford concert in nearby Corinth, my wife and I set up a tent at our son’s college roommate Bryn’s place in Chelsea. Bryn is active in clean energy work and works with U.S. PIRG, as does his girlfriend R.J. R.J., it turns out, is named for Rachel Carson, while her St. Bernard Ralph is named for Ralph Nader.
Our campsite at Bryn’s house in Chelsea
Bryn, Ralph, R.J.
Ralph had fun with my (fortunately cheap OTC) sunglasses
Stella on Wright’s Mountain in Bradford
View from the summit
At the trailhead
Camping by Bryn’s pond, waking up to three (!) kingfishers battling for this prime territory in the pre-dawn, hiking nearby Wright’s Mountain...it is hard to see this as self-denial.
In this Twitter thread, climatologist Peter Kalmus describes how reducing his fossil fuel use made his life immediately richer and more enjoyable. Drastic changes are necessary, and one way or another they are inevitable. But if we do it right, they do not have to be miserable.
Did I pre-empt ice cream?
The church, with OG Superfan Katherine Kjelleren on the right
Fortunately the kind folks at United Church of Underhill not only agreed to host the concert on just over a week’s notice, the sponsoring group United for Justice managed to scramble an appreciative crowd of 35, an impressive turnout for such a quick turnaround.
I talk as well as play. The beautiful organ is a Mason & Hamlin—I didn’t know they made organs
Sandy Wilmot, member of United for Justice and point person for this concert, fills in Underhill
Scarlatti Sonata in A minor, no. 3
(preceded by 3 ii-V-I’s)
Beethoven Sonata no. 1 in F minor, mvts. 1 & 2. I talk about playing “grand” repertoire on a small piano in this blog post
Joplin, Gladiolus Rag
Of Homer Rockwood, Gary writes, “He signed on November 17, 1878, the oldest dated signature there. He lived across the street, and was a druggist in the Underhill Drug Store. He also was a musician who played in the Underhill Citizens Band, and who played a concert in the church in February, 1889.” How about that?
After the concert, Gary invited me to sign. I signed just to the right of one of the largest inscriptions, which marks the end of World War I. Over a century later, you can sense the writer’s joyous relief in the script’s exuberant curvature and extravagant proportions, so unlike the frugal, tight hands of most of the old autographs. There was a catch in my throat as I signed. Our current situation is daunting and dire, its magnitude unprecedented in human history. But it is not the first time people have faced seeming doom.
The oldest dated graffito
The newest, as of this writing
My signature in context
Incidentally, the gorgeous Mason and Hamlin reed organ to the left of the altar was purchased in 1894 by the Women’s Fellowship of the church, each member having earned one dollar toward the cost.
The town of Westmore is home to stunning glacial Lake Willoughby. Robert Frost camped there and set the narrative monolog “A Servant to Servants” on its shore. This concert was on a clear, calm, warm day in late August, so we decided (along with hundreds of others, the majority from Quebec) to spend the time before the concert on the water. It is famously clear—we could see colored reflections and sharp shadows on the bottom even at several feet—and deep (over 320 feet). As I wrote in my recent Strafford concert write-up, renouncing air travel to tour within Vermont is pretty hard to cast as self-denial.
Portrait of the Artist as an Outdoorsman
Our terminal but stalwart Stella paddles along
Westmore Community Church (1894)
The concert was set up by Westmore Community Church organist Mark Violette, who was also the point person for the tour’s first “away” concert in Brownington, where he is likewise the music director. Another organist present among the audience of just over 50 was Stephen Morse, who completed a project not unlike mine: he traveled Vermont to play every one of its ~210 functioning church organs and wrote a book about them (I’ll add a link if I can). Steve also shared great tips about where to play in nearby small towns.
Scarlatti Sonata in C minor, no. 11
(preceded by 11 ii-V-I’s)
Six Preludes by James Romeo, my first composition teacher
Speaking of small towns: Westmore is in the bottom 10% of Vermont towns by population, our smallest host town so far. The official census count is 357, so I could say that the audience of over 50 represented about 15% of the town population. But that would be me lying with statistics, as the summer population is several times the year-round number.
Westmore violinst Peter Miller joined me for Corelli
Carol Davis fills in Westmore
Candelabra : Liberace :: Hydrangeae : Feurzeig
Swimming with kayaks is tiring
One of the 357 year-round residents is Carol Davis, who has “held every office in the church” at one time or another and who helped to make the concert happen. She did the honors of filling in Westmore on the Play Every Town map.
The piano is excellently maintained by technician John Young and was perfectly even and tuned, though as with most console uprights in my experience, it is difficult to produce a real pianissimo.