I have often contemplated introducing sports culture into the musical world.
After a successful completion, I would take the jog from the spotlight to the
greenroom where my teacher would chest bump me saying, “Killer Chopin Etude
Number Five, Dude!”. He would slap my ass and send me off. Unfortunately,
professionalism is always lurking around the corner like a high school soccer coach encouraging good sportsmanship. You don’t get to finish a concert where you were featured with others and talk smack. Instead of saying, “I really whooped your ass, didn’t I?!”, you smile and say, “Oh, you played so well.”
I truly do enjoy it when others play well, and I don’t like it when I have a bad night. However, there have been two times in my life when I wiped the floor with the featured artist on the concert. They were some of the most exhilarating musical experiences I’ve ever had. The first time it happened, the deck was stacked in my favor. I had returned to my high school to help out with a fund raising event for the chorus. It was a big, two hour concert with many guest artists. I was supposed to play a medley of Gershwin tunes. The chorus teacher had also managed to convince the Broadway star Ann Reinking to sing “All That Jazz” with two or three others dancing at her side. I was asked to accompany her on the piano since Annie and I had worked together before. When it came time to play the Gershwin medley, I took no prisoners. Everything went perfectly. My hands were doing exactly what I told them to do. I settled into a groove and notes flew out of the piano like a freshly opened pack of fairy dust. It was one of those temperate nights when the dust seems to settle in an even distribution over the entire audience.
When I am playing that well, and I get to the slower sections, I can finally hear the audience. If there is a rest in the music, I explore what the silence of the crowd is saying. There are different kinds of silence. I can tell if an audience is restless or stunned, moody or bored. I can discern the crowd’s spirit by what sort of silence is in the air. In that respect, a performance is really a dialogue and not a soliloquy. There was a slow silence on the night that a Bach Paritita fell on top of me. The audience quietly watched me struggle as if they were watching an animal slowly expire. There is a reddish, brown silence that can happen if you play a slow work that is beyond the grasp of the people that are listening. There is also a saccharine tasting silence. It happens when you play a piece that you don’t like that much. You play it because you know will make people lick salt out of your palms.
On the night when I was playing before Anne Reinking took the stage, the silence was flowing from the chairs to the stage in huge waves of merlot that were crested with cigar smoke. When I came to the slower section before the big finish, I could hear the pregnancy of the silence starting to have labor pains. I could tell that they were on the edge of their seats and all those seat edges were in the palm of my hands. When “I got rhythm” ended, the audience leapt to their collective feet and gave me a huge standing ovation. When I returned to the stage a little while later to accompany Annie and company, the performance was great, but I had already punctured the balloon that held the magic in the room. The audience applauded strongly, but there was no standing “O” afterward. When we came off the stage I said, “I just whooped your ass, and you’re a Broadway star!” in my mind. My mouth said, “Um, you sang so well, Annie. I really liked the choreography.” My heart sang, “Na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.” My mouth only managed the last word.
The second time it happened was at the Bach Bash, and it set a chain reaction into motion. It was like playing Mouse Trap. I watched the little ball roll around the game board. When the plastic dome fell at the end, I lifted it and found that the mouse had escaped. There was only the feeling that I had captured weirdness. When the evening was complete, I thought, “People who work in the insurance industry must never have a job related experience like this.” The American Guild of Organists is described by my friend David Matthews (not the famous one) as “an organization for little old ladies of both sexes.” The Tampa chapter organizes a wonderful evening of music on the Tuesday closest to Bach’s birthday. The concert takes place at three downtown churches. The audience walks from church to church in bar hop fashion to hear the music of J.S. Bach. It has become a cult classic in Tampa, and people pour into the final concert at the big Catholic Church downtown. It is a basilica style church that is extremely beautiful. The nineteenth century glass makes a constant attempt to bring sentimentality into the structure but is held at bay by the formality of the architecture and the seven seconds of reverberation. The church was also home to a large, eccentric organ that lived in the gallery. The music director of the church was out of town, and he asked me to sub for him on the Bach program. I was placed in the penultimate position before one of the best organists in town. I had always wanted to play the A minor Prelude and Fugue. I made sure that I knew the piece cold before I mounted the bench. The first Bach Prelude and Fugue that I learned was in graduate school. When I finally learned all the notes, I played it for Robert T. Anderson and he said, “That’s right, Kurt, but it doesn’t swing.” I made sure that the A minor was swinging hard before I climbed the spiral stairs to the loft. Once again, I had one of those evenings when everything went right. I took the fugue at a fast clip and even managed the big pedal solo at the end without error. When I finished, I stood to take my bow. When I looked down from the balcony, there were seven or eight hundred people standing up and applauding me. When the “closer” sat to play, he had been unhinged by my performance. He got nervous and hit a couple of clams. The audience applauded but was clearly not as enthusiastic as they had been for my performance.
I was not asked to return for Bach’s 318th birthday. When Bach turned 319, a new leadership had emerged in the local AGO chapter, and I was asked to close the concert. I had always wanted to learn the G minor Fantasy and Fugue. She is a surprising lady with many quirks and idiosyncrasies, but she is put together like a brick house. Eventually, as with all lovers, you begin to love her for her foibles and strangeness. That is not to say she is the sort of girl you can fully grasp on a first date. She makes you work to get to know her. The more time you spend together, the more secrets she will tell you. We had been out enough times for her to allow me to unbutton her blouse, but we hadn’t yet rounded all the bases; and the concert was quickly approaching. I really meant to call more often, but the obligations of supporting a family on a musician’s income sometimes interferes with the relationship I have with my mistress. I made sure we saw each other as often as we could the week before the Tuesday.
On Wednesday, six days before the concert, I broke the news to her. “I have to go.” “What?” she said, “It’s only six days until the concert!” “I know. I know, but I took a job.” “Where?” “Um. . . New York.” “New York?! For what? When do you leave? “I took a job accompanying for a choir in a national contest at the Riverside church in New York. I leave tomorrow.” “When are you coming back? Am I going to see you before the show?” “I’m coming back sometime on Monday. We will have all of Tuesday to spend together before the concert.” “I don’t like this. I mean, we were just getting to know each other, and now you’re leaving. You expect me to perform in front of others when you’re leaving me for five days?” “Look, I don’t like it either, but it is what it is. I’ll be thinking of you the whole time I’m in New York. When a relationship gets to this point, each party has to take some risks. In an ideal world, we would have had more time together. Then the trip would seem like a short interruption. It would be like putting a book down to answer a phone call. Because we are on the edge of something special, it seems larger than it is. I don’t know what is going to happen on Tuesday night, but I know I’m going to spend it with you. That may sound trite, but it is true. I’ll try to see you Monday when I get back.” When I returned on Monday, I was exhausted. I wanted the comfortableness of marriage and sleep. I didn’t even phone to say I’d returned. When I went to meet her on Tuesday morning, we spent five hours together on and off throughout the day. It wasn’t that it was not satisfying.
The Fantasy is always a surprise no many how many times you may have met before. It was the Fugue that was troubling. The Fugue was the part of her that always eschewed simplicity. Her sesquipedalian vocabulary always made me feel that I needed a dictionary just to have a normal conversation with her. We interacted throughout the day like lovers knowing that obligatory sex was on the horizon. It would be best to just get it over with so that you could spend time together, but instead we spent the whole day planning out the foreplay so that the evening would be perfect. When I left to grab some dinner, I assessed the situation. We had experienced some good romps. We had also had some awkward moments when things just didn’t seem to work properly. I knew her well enough, but I was going to meet her parents in a few hours. I was concerned that they would ask some unexpected question in the middle of dinner. “Did you know she has a B flat right in the middle of her forty-second measure?” “Well, I knew it was a B of some sort,” I would say. When I arrived at the concert, I felt that the Fantasy would go fine. The Fugue was going well about every third time I played it. I sat down at the organ bench, pulled the lever, and let the wheels spin. They all landed on jackpot. It was another scrumptious evening. The only problems occurred in a pedal passage in the last few measures. By that point, the audience was already mine. With the gas pedal all the way to the floor, no one on the bus paid much attention to a few bumps. I held the last chord a little longer than normal, to make sure that the sound would hang around the building for a day or so. As I leapt off the bench, the audience leapt to their feet, and I thanked the Fantasy and Fugue for treating me so well.
I descended the spiral staircase to greet the audience when a frizzy-headed Pole in a printed T-shirt and jacket came up to greet me. He was from Krakow, and despite living twenty years in the States, he had retained his Eastern European sense of personal space. He rushed forward placing his breath on my face and screamed, “You are fantastic piano player!” I thought this comment rather strange after having just played the organ for ten minutes. “Thanks,” I said. “No. I mean, Zer are talented people and zer are talented people, but you… you are…” At the exact moment that words failed him, his body kicked in to express his feelings like an emergency generator. He fell to his knees in front of me with hundreds of onlookers surrounding. He grabbed my right hand and kissed the back, immediately turned my hand over, and kissed my palm. I stood by helplessly as my central nervous system seemed to freeze. He jumped up and again placed his face far too close to my own. His face was now close enough that I would have normally said, “Look, either kiss me or back off,” but after the recent escapade with my hand, I thought that any rhetorical gesture might be taken a little too literally.
As he inched ever closer, his voice took on a slightly different tone. It still retained all of its ebullient enthusiasm, but a secretive quality began to work its way around the corners of his inflections. “I mean, you are fantastic. Not only do you play well, but … you are very good looking man. I don’t know if you are, perhaps, interested, but zer are business opportunities available for you. I could, perhaps, put you in contact wis my brozher, and you can make, perhaps, one hundred souzand dollars a year, if you are interested in zat sort of work. I can call my brozher in south Florida, and you can make, perhaps, one hundred souzand dollars a year as a gigolo in Ft. Lauderdale.” When one receives a job offer to become a gigolo, all the normal anxieties associated with the application for employment immediately arise. Do my job skills give me the credentials necessary to apply for this job? Is there an interview process like in a business job, or is it more of an audition thing? If it is an interview process, what is the HR director like? Should I bring a résumé or Curriculum Vitae? When I list my references, should I present the persons most familiar with my work or those most likely to give me a good recommendation? Are moving expenses included, and what sort of benefits package does the job offer? Are there casual Fridays and flex time? Does one have to make innumerable cold calls in order to build a clientele, or are leads provided? Are there opportunities for upward mobility? Is job related injury covered by Worker’s Comp? What is the retirement package? I emerged from a temporary catatonic state to find my left hand raised showing a model of a medieval poesy ring resting on the fourth finger of my left hand. The words “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” were written on the ring in Hebrew. “I’m married,” sputtered out of my mouth. He continued undaunted. “Well, perhaps you don’t have to do zat. Zey are very rich, old ladies. Perhaps, you can just go and play piano for zem and make, perhaps, fifty souzand dollars a year instead.”
I began to move away from the strange Pole towards friends that had come to hear me play only to find that he was following me. I began talking with someone else when he burst in to the middle of the conversation with his face right next to mine again. “Let me ask you a question!” he blurted. “If someone were to offer you fifty souzand dollars to play piano in a studio, would you be interested? My brozher knows some people…” I, again, not so subtly removed myself and began to walk around the church toward the reception across the street. He followed and talked the entire time. I worked my way across the reception room toward a venerated organist in town that I call St. Margaret. He followed, talking to my sister and brother-in-law. “I mean, zer are talented people, and zer are talented people, but…” I managed to start a brief conversation with St. Margaret when he exploded into view so close that I couldn’t focus my eyes. “Let me ask you a question! Who’s a better piano player? You or her?” he said gesturing toward my octogenarian friend. I attempted to move away for the fourteenth time, but he wouldn’t let me pass. He gestured toward an approaching woman, and said in a voice loud enough for her to hear, “Let me ask you a question! You see zat woman zer? I tell her you are good looking man, but she says you are not good looking man.” The poor woman felt the need to speak apologetically, as if I would be offended at her opinion. “I didn’t say that you weren’t attractive,” she began. “I simply said that I found my husband more attractive.”
At this point, I bolted toward a conflagration of organists on the other side of the room. I hoped to extricate myself from my stalker amongst the eccentric people that make up the organ community, but this night included people so bizarre that the organists seemed like run of the mill convenient store employees. As soon as I arrived amongst the organists, a short man with glasses who had been sunburned beyond recognition began motioning toward me. His skin had an effervescent quality as it returned the heat it had collected from the sun to those of us standing around. He called six or seven of us into a small semi-circle because he had something to say. All of this was done with remarkable efficiency considering it was communicated with gesture instead of speech. We quietly waited for his speech to begin. It didn’t. He made an attempt to speak, and a little, sad squeak leaked out of his mouth. He held back tears and fought to regain control. He heaved a huge sigh. A second attempt was made at speech, which only found him looking up at the ceiling in silence. A third and fourth attempt failed. Some of us began to look at our watches. Finally, the fifth time met with a limited success. “You guys…” He had to stop. The “You guys” was so charged with emotional fervor that the damn began to burst. He again looked up to the ceiling. Again, he sighed. He took in a deep breath and said, “I’m a spot welder.” This time he looked to the floor to collect himself. The collective unconsciousness in the air was oppressive as we began to wonder where this was all going. He took a few more breaths and continued, “and I can weld anything. . . I. . . can run wire.” Here his lips pursed and his head jerked to the side as he worked to regain composure. “But, you guys. . . have a gift from God. . . and it was all so beautiful. . . and. . . HAPPY BIRTHDAY BACH.” At these last three words, the floodgates burst and tears were streaming freely down his sunburnt face. I couldn’t be sure how to respond.
There is a Norwegian folk tale that my children love. In it, a little boy is walking along a road when he finds a small nut with a hole in the side. He puts the nut in his pocket and continues walking until he meets the devil. He asks the devil if it is true that the devil can change his size at will. The devil answers in the affirmative, and the boy asks if he could make himself small enough to fit inside the nut. When the devil goes into the nut, the boy plugs up the whole with a little stick, puts it back in his pocket and continues walking. When he arrives in town, he takes the nut to a blacksmith and asks him to crack it open. The blacksmith makes the obligatory first two tries with a small and medium sized hammer. Finally, he takes out his biggest sledgehammer and gives it a whack. The nut explodes and blows the roof clean off the smithy. The blacksmith then turns to the boy in shock and says, “The devil must have been in that nut!” “He was!” exclaims the boy. When I saw the tears racing in little cataracts down the cheeks of the man who was so moved by the birthday celebration, I thought to myself, “The devil must be in this nut.”
Then, I wavered momentarily. He was hugging organists and thanking us all profusely. “Maybe he was really moved,” I thought. “I’ve certainly cried listening to Bach. Maybe the truth is in the middle. Maybe he is a few pipes short of an octave, and he was moved.” I was mulling this over and about to pronounce my judgment by shaking his hand. I moved toward him only to be cut off. “Let me ask you a question! I sink Billy Joel is, perhaps, top five piano players of all time. What do you sink?” As I made a B-line for my car, I saw him begin to follow, and I picked up the pace. I quickly opened the door and drove home. After recounting the events of the evening to Jennifer, her only response was, “You know, a year wouldn’t kill you. One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money.”