Hi, this is the second blog post giving background information about the stories in Piano Dance. Chapter 2 discussed learning piano tuning at North Bennet School, the Vendome fire, and the Boston Pops’ performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. While I was in piano tuning school, my hope was simply to be able to make a living by tuning pianos in homes. I did not realize that I was getting the premier education in the piano technology field, so that I could tune for major symphony orchestras and famous performers. When I heard the concert led by Arthur Fiedler of Copland’s music, it did not occur to me that I might someday cross paths with not just one, both both of them (Chapters 8 and 9).
In 1972, North Bennet Street Industrial School occupied its original 19th century building next door to Old North Church in the North End of Boston. Thousands of tourist walked by it every year without giving it a second thought. By 2013, North Bennet had rightfully gained the reputation and financial backing it deserved, so that it could purchase two new buildings that were up-to-date for all the instruction that was offered. For a link to read of the present day school, click HERE.
For more information about the history of the Vendome and the tragic fire, click HERE.
In this chapter, I introduced the importance of having a certified person to work on your piano. For a link to the Piano Technicians Guild website and their explanation of the certification test, click HERE.
For a link for more information about the Hatch Shell, where outdoor concerts are held near the Charles River in Boston, click HERE:
According to KUSC, in 1974 Arthur Fiedler was the first conductor to perform the 1812 Overture on July 4th with canons and church bells. I highly recommend the video of the 1812 Overture performed in Boston on July 4th with cannons. Please click HERE.
For a link to listen Fanfare for the Common Man, click HERE.
I hope you enjoyed all this extra information. I enjoy listening to the music every time.
This article is about Alfred Nash Patterson, director of the Chorus Pro Musica (CPM) of Boston. He is the reason Serge Koussevitsky, director of the Boston Symphony, called CPM the best chorus he had ever heard. Mr. Patterson had a unique talent for working with a chorus to create the greatest beauty of sound possible. It was a privilege for me to be part of it and watch him work. For decades CPM was the favorite chorus of Boston Symphony Orchestra conductors. CPM has a website which has greater depth of details about Patterson’s talent and the history of the chorus. It makes for fascinating reading at this LINK.
At that link, you can read of the next conductor of the chorus, Don Palumbo, who eventually became the Chorus Master at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. In addition to his studies all over the world, Don also was the assistant conductor of the chorus for years and watched Mr. Patterson work his magic with a chorus.
At the end of the story, I told of Don conducting parts of the Mozart Requiem at Patterson’s funeral. One of the important parts of that event was a poem in the program. It was written by the poet Jean Kefferstan, a good friend of Mr. Patterson. I searched for a descendant of hers in order to get permission to use the poem in my book, but I was unsuccessful. Copyrights cannot be infringed upon for poems, so I was careful not to print the poem in the book. If a descendant of Jean’s reads this, I hope you will not mind my writing here my recollection of part of the poem:
There is some solace in tides,
the gently rolling in and out.
It gives some comfort that a little boat
may carry this sleeper with his good dream
To his everlasting peace.
Chapter 5 told some of the story of Barry, an exceptional tuner I worked with at the piano store in downtown Boston. I told of one incident when I followed up on a tuning by Barry at a radio studio. Another time that I got to follow up on one of Barry’s tunings was at New England Life Hall. Barry had tuned a grand piano for a recital of the students of a prominent teacher. When he finished tuning, he started to leave. The teacher admonished him, saying, “Don’t leave yet, I haven’t checked the tuning.”
Barry replied, “You can check the tuning all you want. I’m leaving.”
The teacher was so irate on the phone to the owner of the store that the owner sent two of us out to placate her. I was along for show and for training. Bart, the head technician, was instructing me in how to deal with difficult and demanding people. He instructed me to watch how calm he remained and how he did whatever they requested. They were just asserting their authority and he beat them at their own game by never letting them get to him. In his mind, by acting submissive, he ended up winning. This teacher was complaining about a bass octave that Barry had tuned optimally.
Bart said to her, “I’ll just gradually change it, and you tell me when you like it.” Barry had tuned that piano incredibly well. I know it’s hard to understand, but usually it’s ludicrous for a musician to try to second-guess a great tuner. If a piano is tuned badly, a musician can tell, but at the level Barry tuned, only a tuner would have the training to be able to check it accurately, and then not completely. There are things that you could not tell without tuning it yourself to see if that was the best possible or whether it could be improved. Because of the slight variation in manufacture and therefore in overtone pattern of strings, there are many times where you tune the best possible, and perfect is not possible. You couldn’t tell that without tuning it yourself. That is not something a musician is capable of. Additionally, a musician does not have the technical training to separate the tuning from the tone, touch, inharmonicity, and overall sound of the instrument. The musician either likes or dislikes the sound, they can’t differentiate whether it is the tuning or some other aspect of the piano that led them to dislike it.
There were numerous prominent musicians who did appreciate Barry’s work, though. One was Neil Young. When he was in Boston for a concert, he rented a Steinway vertical piano for his hotel room, for practicing and for composing. Barry was sent to tune that. They got along so well that Neil invited Barry to go on tour with him, so he would always have a well-tuned piano. Barry considered it, but concluded that it wouldn’t work for him. His wife, his friends, and his singing group were all in Boston. Plus, he knew how to get around Boston. For him to be in new places all the time would be worse than sitting in the recording studio all day. He would be bored to death sitting around most of the time, being unable to get around easily in a new place. Still, Barry did appreciate that a musician as great as Neil Young thought that highly of him and of his work.
Chapter 6 told of Steinert Hall, an abandoned concert hall below street level in Boston, that I was able to explore in 1972. There are several videos now, so that you can get a sense of what it looks like. All of them have lighting, so it does not look near as spooky as the day we walked in with just a couple of flashlights.
Here is a link to a video that is fun to watch:
I hope you enjoy it.
Chapter 7 tells of tuning for Gladys Troupin, a fixture of the Boston music scene, and of her story of being engaged to George Gershwin at the time of his death. There is a new announcement put out by the Lenox Hotel about a tribute that was held for Gladys. Both the announcement and the video link it contains continue the story about the George Gershwin engagement:
That image in the announcement is of a later pianist. That is not how Gladys looked. I have not yet been able to find a picture of her with her white curly hair and beautiful dresses with matching hats.
Arthur Fiedler was 80 years old when we performed with him in 1974 at Christmas at Pops with Arthur Fiedler. He lived only 5 years longer. Conducting three performances in two days would be a major feat for a much younger person. Here is a LINK to information about him.
Also, here is a LINK to some pictures of him as the POPS plays their signature piece, Sleigh Ride.
It was a privilege to have worked with him, and to have seen how he managed an orchestra, both in rehearsal and in performance.
There is an excellent biography of Ozawa at https://biography.yourdictionary.com/seiji-ozawa. He was an amazing talent, who worked extremely hard, contributing to the world’s music. His commitment was obvious. Early in his career, he was criticized for having ascended so quickly that he was not conversant with the entirety of orchestral classical music. He worked for years to correct that, and he was entirely successful. He even went on to learn opera scores, as well, eventually becoming the principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera.
I think few conductors would have attempted to conduct the Oedipus Rex. With all the drama and problems with the Tanglewood performance, he was rock solid and confident that a great performance would result.
Pavarotti was 6’2″, but he seemed to not be very tall, as he was extremely wide and solid as a brick. Between scenes of the opera, he would consult with a coach in the side wings of the stage. The coach would express himself in a very animated manner, and strike Pavarotti on the chest with the palm of his hand. It was like hitting a brick wall. Pavarotti did not move a millimeter. He just stood there and engaged in the discussion, while this coach was hitting him with significant force right in the chest. I imagine they were discussing technique, but I do not speak Italian. Pavarotti has posted entertaining videos on technique, one of which you can watch HERE. Also, Ron Howard has made a documentary of his life, which is available HERE. Additionally, HERE is a very entertaining conversation about embarrassing moments in his opera career.
HERE is a summary of the career of Magda Olivero. I did not find any links for recordings of her singing. She seems to have been overlooked by the recording industry. One explanation may be that she was from an earlier era that valued melodrama, which did not go over well in the modern era.
The friend who hired me to be a Super in the operas was Don Palumbo. (I used a different name in the book, as I changed the names of most people who were not famous.) Don is the one who took over as director of the Chorus Pro Musica when Alfred Nash Patterson died. He put in years of work to improve his directing, working with the Dallas Opera, and traveling to Salzburg, Austria every summer to take part in the music festival there.
He also worked with the Boston Opera when they hired the Chorus Pro Musica to be the slave chorus in Aida. Part of the score calls for the chorus to sing off stage. The problem would be how to direct the chorus to sing in time with the orchestra. It was solved by having a video camera on the orchestra conductor, with the image placed on a TV monitor back stage. Don was standing on a step ladder, so the chorus could see him. As he watched the video, he directed us to sing in time with the orchestra. It is a very vivid memory for me, because I was so proud to see my friend directing as part of the Boston Opera. Little did I know how far Don would go.
I lost track of Don after I moved from Boston to California. Then one Saturday decades later, I listened to the credits at the end of the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, and they announced the Chorus Master of the Metropolitan Opera, Don Palumbo. I had no idea. I looked up on the internet, and sure enough there are videos of him teaching how to prepare opera choruses. HERE is an interesting recent interview.
For me, dressing up in a costume and being part of an opera, leaves very enjoyable memories. I especially liked being part of the Aida performance, because I did it with about 80 friends. It makes it a lot more fun to do it with a lot close friends. I have back stage pictures that were taken of us in costume and makeup, showing us having a great time.
Chapter 24 related tuning for a delightful concert by an extraordinary group of musicians. The pianist, Jon Kimura Parker, has many Youtube videos of him playing. I think the most interesting is a video of him discussing The Grieg Piano Concerto, and playing portions of the piece to illustrate his points. Here is the link:
The conductor, Bramwell Tovey, has a resume that is astounding. He has led all the major orchestras in the world and conducts opera in his spare time. Here is a LINK.
I found in the biography of Parker that he has played with Peter Schickele, who satirizes all that classical musicians hold dear.
My favorite piece by Schickele is his performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with two sportscasters giving the play-by-play and a referee enforcing penalties. Here is a link:
If you would like to watch other videos of Schickele, here is a link for a video of him playing with Itzhak Perlman:
Here is a link to another wonderful video by John Kimura Parker, this one about playing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninoff: LINK
I hope you enjoy these performances.
Chapter 25 tells of tuning for Peter Nero and giving him information about the premier of Rhapsody in Blue. Nero had always wondered what had happened to Aeolian Hall, where Rhapsody in Blue was premiered. I found the information on the internet for him. Here are some links to information on that premier and to a later concert that attempted to recreate the original performance, which is thought to have had more elements of jazz than later performances:
Here is a link to Nero’s biography:
It was an honor to visit with such an accomplished musician.