Landgrove is a tiny town both physically (see my blog post for its for its geographical history) and in population. Like most Vermont towns, its population had declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Sam Ogden of NJ decided in 1930 it would be a great place to relocate. He told all his friends and relatives, and now there is only one “old Vermont” family among the 177 residents. Despite, or more likely because of, its high proportion of adoptive citizens, its level of civic engagement is extraordinary.
Playing tag with the Landgrove grader en route. Only one mile of Landgrove’s 17 miles of road is paved
It did, in fact, rock
Town Hall (1874)
Sally Ogden and Robert Badger of Landgrove invited us to play at the Landgrove Meeting House on the historic pump organ. I thanked them, but said I was no organist. So they told me they could set up a digital piano instead. But meanwhile I’d Google-stalked the town and come across this WPTZ story about Landgrove’s commendation for having the highest voter turnout in the 2020 elections: 94% (see civic engagement, above). And for just a moment, the video revealed a painted-over upright in the Town Hall. Was it playable?
WPTZ video here
This feature usually comes at the end of the writeup, but today it’s front and center.
The Town Hall was originally the Farmers and Mechanics Hall. In 1931 it became the town’s one-room schoolhouse. The piano, built in the McPhail factory in Boston in 1893, was the school instrument from its opening until Landgrove consolidated its school district with adjoining towns and closed the school in 1968—which may well be the last time the piano had been tuned; the most recent tuning date noted in the piano is 1951.
The cabinet is painted over, but the frame reveals the maker
Serial no. 15780
(Landgrove founded 1780, hmmm...)
Possibly last tuned in 1951
Sally Ogden on the Town Hall piano
1893 is old, even for an old upright. The piano is older now than Landgrove was when the piano was new.
Rob and Sally had piano technician Don Dalton look it over. There were a couple of sticking keys, a broken bass string, and some dampers that didn’t sit right, but Don was able to put the instrument in working order.
An unexpected pleasure of this project is the “Where’s Waldo” search for pianos in small towns, and discovering all these big golden-era uprights from the late 1800s to the 1930s—the days before amplification, when pianos were the mainstay of public music. There were literally hundreds of piano builders just in the US, and even now-forgotten manufacturers made remarkably fine and solid instruments. If still playable (no matter how well built, steel strings rust, wood expands and contracts, leather cracks, and felt crumbles) these old behemoths often retain a range and depth of tone, and an individuality, surpassing that of many more recent uprights.
Time, tide, and teeth take their toll
The Town Hall TP, more tightly secured than the piano
The building was originally the Farmers and Mechanics Hall
A (cheer) full house
Held rapt by Michael Hammond’s music
It was a packed and enthusiastic house. Unsurprisingly, given the famous level of engagement in Landgrove, we had our highest audience/population ratio ever, by far: 62/177, or 35%! I had the pleasure of accompanying Michael Hammond, a relatively late arrival in Landgrove, in two poignant songs from his recent album.
Michael singing his truth
“To A Former Athlete Dying Middle Aged”
“Highballs in Heaven”
Joplin, Maple Leaf Rag
Ives, “The Alcotts”
Photographer Rob Aft took some great pics
also courtesy of Rob Aft
I was keen to program Ives, as he was born the year the hall was built, but I thought twice about uploading the recording. The expressive range of Ives’ monumental writing runs from the most delicate sentiment to triumphal heights, pushing even the finest piano to its limits. The 1893 McPhail upright, which was long neglected before being resuscitated for this concert by piano technician Don Dalton, can’t cover that vast acoustic territory. And yet it seemed in some ways perfectly suited to the piece, which Ives described as a portrait of the Alcott family around the family piano:
“And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony…
“…And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms – the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day – though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above) – a strength of hope that never gives way to despair – a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.”
Rob Badger colors in Landgrove: “I’ll be glad to color in the map. Geologists are good at coloring maps.” Photo by Rob Aft
The map above the piano
The roll-up map above the piano has no date. But it shows the Irish Free State (declared in 1922) while the Baltic states (annexed to the USSR in 1940) are shown as still independent. So this must have been the map that was there when Monk Ogden started at the school in 1937. (See the Sally Ogden video above. Really…if you haven’t viewed it already, you’ll love it.)
The previous two concerts were both in towns connected with two of Vermont’s remaining gores, in an interesting reciprocal way, as I discussed on the project blog. Extending the coincidence, Landgrove is an ex-gore, the rare gore that became its own tiny town. I blogged about that too.
One attendee wrote afterwards: “The 95-year-old who was in a wheelchair told me that she expected to doze off during the concert, but the music was so lively that she stayed awake. What a compliment!” Indeed.
The project videographer/photographer, rarely in the frame herself, seen here with me at our post-concert anniversary dinner