Play Every Town

251 252 Community Concerts for a Cooler Climate


Concert Forty-Two: 9/23/23 at the Salisbury Congregational Church

...donations benefited the Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas

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Glenn Andres invited me to play in Salisbury’s elegant and austere Congregational Church. Glenn is a retired professor of architectural and urban history, and has published on (among other topics) New England meeting houses and Vermont regional architecture, so he was able to enlighten us on the building’s history. Asahel Parkins, a local builder, who built just three notable buildings, apparently consulted with and likely bought the striking spire design from Burlington architect Ammi B. Young, who went on to design the Vermont State House, the Boston Custom House, and federal buildings across the country as architect for the U.S. Treasury department.

None of Young’s own buildings with this spire design survive, nor are there any extant plans, making the Salisbury church the only surviving example, along with the Stowe church that was copied from it.

Salisbury Congregational, Vermont’s first “Just Peace” church

The spire design is by Ammi B. Young, who designed the Vermont State House and prominent buildings around the country

Wooden donate-o-meter, against a backdrop of larger painting of the church

Another painting of the church, by Lorraine Crosby

The ascetic elegance of the interior also makes for beautiful acoustics

Glenn is also at the center of a forward-thinking civic-minded effort to preserve the church as a vital community space in the face of a small and shrinking congregation. He and a few others are launching a non-profit organization to maintain the building if the church is no longer able to do so, and the church is generously diverting a sizable portion of its endowment to the new group.

And Glenn is a point person in a special relationship between the church and the nearby Point CounterPoint music camp. The church has long served as the main performance venue for camp concerts. Beginning with just an upright piano, the church’s generosity was rewarded as Point CounterPoint repeatedly upgraded the piano in the church, permitting the church to use it for their own services and other performances. The current instrument is one of the most beautiful I have played on this tour; more about that in the About the Piano blurb below.

The Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas put up an informational display

The audience

Sophia Boise plays Handel

Glenn Andres fills in Salisbury

I played a handful of early Mozart pieces to mark the year of Salisbury’s town charter. These are the first pieces of Mozart we have, as notated by his father Leopold when little Wölferl was five years old. They are stunningly precocious, and one might think that the doting and ambitious father had tidied them up, were it not for the fact that the little guy turned grew up to be frikkin’ Mozart. But also, and more touchingly: these first pieces, though still bogglingly impressive for someone who was probably not done wetting his bed, have little quirks and corners that, while charming, sound to me more like the idiosyncracies of someone not fully familiar with the tradition, rather than like knowing deviations from the expected. They are playful, but genuinely childlike, not the witty “childlike” affectation of a grownup. That is, until we get to the Minuet and Trio in G, which I suspect Mozart wrote when he was closer to the ripe age of six. This is in the category of unimprovable gems, and to my ear could be a light-hearted third movement from a serenade written thirty years later, at the end of Mozart’s short career.

Four selections from Mozart K.1

The program

Lesson no. 11 from Lessons and Songs, op. 2 of Elisabetta de Gambarini

The concert benefited the Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas, an organization headed by Salisbury resident Jim Andrews, dedicated to monitoring Vermont’s population of these critters through citizen-scientist education and crowdsourcing. Amphibians are indicator species, highly sensitive to disruptions in the environment, so we felt the organization was a good fit to our project’s climate-centered fundraising focus. They took full advantage of the event not just to raise money but to educate the audience with an informative display in the entryway and books and other materials on sale. In honor of the concert beneficiary, I worked up the infectious Frog Legs Rag, the most popular piece by composer James Scott, who is counted as one of the great three “classic ragtime” composers along with Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb.

Sophia Boise, a junior at Middlebury Union High School, joined me for two movements of Handel’s Recorder Sonata in F. I had no idea until I arrived that her teacher was Keith Prescott, a recent UVM graduate who was a composition student of mine. This is hardly an astounding coincidence in a state that has fewer people than the city of Boston, but encountering a “grandstudent” always elicits a thoughtful resonance.

...about the piano

This Yamaha C3, serial no. 1733733, was made in 1973 in Japan. It found its way to France, where it was played by a young pianist who came to Point CounterPoint music camp in Leicester, not far from Salisbury village. He so loved his experience there that his family donated their piano to the camp, who so loved the piano that they selected it to be their concert instrument housed at the Salisbury church. So it’s crossed both of the planet’s major oceans—ironically for this project, not the greenest provenance, but at least it went by ship instead of by plane. (Teaser: in Plymouth, in September 2024, I’ll be playing on the first piano to have traveled by air, so they say, a hundred years earlier.)

People often ask what it the best piano I’ve encountered on this tour. I want to be diplomatic, of course, but more fundamentally, piano quality can’t be capture on a linear scale. Different pianos are ideal for different kinds of music. Also, a piano may have a magnificent sound but non-optimal regulation, or phenomenal regulation but an unremarkable sound.

But like love…sometimes you just know it when you see it (or hear it and feel it). Everything I just wrote about the incomparability of different pianos is still true, but if I had to name a best Play Every Town piano so far, this would be it. Or at least, this was the best overall piano/space/acoustics situation.

This surprised me a little, because the C3 is barely over six feet. It’s not that you need more sound: in fact, part of the problem with high-quality (and therefore usually large-ish) grand pianos in old churches is that they are too powerful for the space, which though it might be big, is usually also highly resonant, as these churches were built for sometimes all-day sermonizing in the days before amplification. Rather, it’s that the size of the piano is the limiting factor for the length of the bass strings; the shorter the string, the more heavily wound it must be in order to produce the necessary low frequencies; and the heavier the string, the less clear and “true” the lowest bass notes tend to sound. But somehow or another, this medium-sized Yamaha had both sweetness in the upper registers and clarity in the bass, all of it controlled by a superbly even and responsive action.

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last updated October 16, 2023