Monday, June 15, 2009

Altoona II

When I play in Europe, the instrument I am playing is merely one part of the experience. I'm inspired by the building (often a church) and the surrounding neighborhood. In some towns the local color is especially, well, colorful.

I don't need to describe the inspiring décor and ambience of the legendary Mishler Theatre. It's exactly what you want an old theatre to look and feel like. Yet no less inspiring was an eating establishment around the corner, named Tom & Joe's Diner ( Like the Mishler, the walls of this 1933 establishment seemed to talk. Talk -- they were downright kibitzing! There was not one aspect of my experience there that I would have changed. Not one! The place was mobbed. The waitress zipped from one table to another, not lingering a second longer than physically necessary. She practically threw my straw at me; she didn't have time to get close enough to the table to actually give it to me. By the time it landed she was already half-way to the next table. The food? Macaroni & cheese that I couldn't have improved upon. Fried haddock that I couldn't have improved upon. Plus a salad. The brusqueness of the waitress made it all taste even better. It was a perfectly authentic and an authentically perfect experience.

After eating I went to the register to pay. The cashier said, "$7.45."

I thought it was a mistake. "What was that?"


"For everything?"


"Oh. I guess I'm so used to Boston prices."

Another waitress passed by and, in a smoky basso profondo voice, said, "You can pay more if you want!"

I think it's fair to say: the concert was a great success. Soprano Jean Danton, whom I accompanied, is an all-around pro. She is a true performer, for a true performer performs even better when there's an audience. She took energy from the people and imbued her songs with life, but not in a way that distorted all that we'd rehearsed. She was just great.

As for my solo numbers ... Performing them felt like the culmination of the whole experience. The green, rolling hills; the city with its Cathedral, its diner, its theatre; the ambience of the hall; the incredible people from St. Francis University who waited on me hand and foot from the moment I stepped off the plane. These things all combined to become part of the sound that I made at the piano.

My schedule had been very full prior to my arrival in Altoona. I hadn't practiced in enough days that I was getting nervous. In Altoona my practice time was on the morning of the concert from 10:30 to 12. That was it. Other than additional warm-up rehearsals at 2 and 6:30, I had only the one serious practice session. But as a result, I focused like a fiend. I had to.

And in the case of the Gershwin, I was playing from a combination of Gershwin's written-out song arrangements, some arrangements transcribed from his 78 records, and some of my own ideas. The songs never came out the same way twice. I sat on that stage and literally was not sure what I was going to play. Something else that's good for one's focus: FEAR.

It's a great city, that Altoona. I believe someday it will have a renaissance and see some of its former glory. But I like to think that the renaissance has already started, and that Misher's great theatre is an integral art of it.