I’ve been anticipating—and fearing—this year’s Orient residency, the eighth NYFOS@North Fork concert. I love sharing the beauty of our little town with my younger colleagues, and it’s always a pleasure to make music for such an appreciative, smart crowd. But I haven’t been in front of a live audience since early February of 2020. I feel oddly virginal as a performer, despite my decades of experience.
I have a few things going for me. I’ve kept my hosting chops alive on eleven NYFOS@Home concerts, honing my craft in front of a camera. I learned a lot in the last 14 months, dispensing charm and information to a camera lens, and then having to watch the results afterwards. An education I was not expecting.
Another stroke of luck: this week I am repeating a program I did recently. Even better, I was able to engage two of the original cast members, Nicoletta Berry and Samuel Kidd. Both are superb artists with staggeringly beautiful voices, and when they sing they remind me of what making music is all about.
We’re remounting the show we did at Caramoor, “Le tour de France,” only with two vocalists instead of four—and one pianist instead of three. So Nicoletta and Sam are learning the other half of the playlist, and I am doing the entire show on my own with no backup. At Caramoor I gave all the most pianistically demanding songs away to my guest co-director, Bénédicte Jourdois, and the apprentice pianist, Gracie Francis, while I sailed in with the popular songs and the slower-moving art songs. I knew that I’d be nervous for the livestream (and I was), and that they could ace the finger-y stuff with ease.
Playing all the music I’d ducked in March was a daunting proposition, so I devoted myself to working on these songs like a maniac over the past three months. Since spring of 2020, the pandemic has forced me to work at the piano in a more serious way than I ever had in my entire life. For the first time I had no onsite colleagues to accompany—just far-off musical partners who sang to my pre-recorded tracks. At my daily practice I got to know every lurch of my wrists, every recalcitrant knuckle of my fingers. I couldn’t always control them, but I learned ways to outwit them.
I guess you call that technique. I call it labor negotiation.
The big question was: would all my hard work hang together at the first rehearsal? It’s not a foregone conclusion that it will—ask any pianist. My gorgeous 7-foot piano at home makes me feel like the Jussi Bjoerling of pianists. The more modest—and quite aged—Mason & Hamlin at Poquatuck is a sterner mistress.
To my intense relief, I had an encouraging first day. I wasn’t riding a bucking bronco. I was driving a Rolls Royce. Occasionally over some bumpy roads, sure, but I successfully got over some hurdles where I feared I might stumble. It’s way too early for a victory lap, but I plan to sleep well tonight.