Wednesday, July 8, 2009

15. The Contraptionist

In June I spent nearly 2 weeks touring Ecuador as the accompanist for the First Parish Choir of Brunswick, ME. My friend and organ teacher Ray Cornils is the Director of Music there and in 2006 I toured Ireland and Wales with the same group.

Although I consider myself an above-average accompanist, going on these trips is really not about one’s ability to play a lot of notes or one’s sensitivity to balance and nuance. After 4 international choir tours I’ve come to realize that it is all about flexibility. With great anxiety I recall climbing the spiral staircase to one of the five organs at the Salzburg Cathedral and having not even a few seconds to test the instrument before the downbeat from the conductor. All the while I was receiving whispered instructions in German, which I do not speak, about when and what to play. On the trip to Ireland and Wales I was privileged to play a number of fine instruments, both pianos and organs. Although in most of these cases I had adequate rehearsal time, I never knew until I walked into the church what the instrument would be like. In some instances the organ was separated from the choir by the entire length of the church and I had to watch Ray via a video monitor. It all became somewhat of an inside joke between me and the choir, who peppered me with questions such as What’s it going to be today, Julia? Will we even be in the same building as you? How are those eyes in the back of your head?

As the trip to Ecuador became closer I asked Ray about the instruments I’d play. He wryly informed me that they’d be electronic keyboards as Ecuador had few good pipe organs and pianos, and those were usually out-of-tune and in bad repair. I innocently thought Fine. A piece of cake! The keyboards will be in tune and I’ll be able to see the conductor. Although I would never consider playing a concert in the US on an electric keyboard, I realized that I could not be such a perfectionist on this trip.

First stop: a beautiful village church in Cumbaya, a suburb of Quito. We were scheduled to sing for mass, then perform a concert. I marched right up to the side of the altar to discover the less-than-full-size keyboard with no music rack or pedal. Yikes. Not only that, but there was no chance to rehearse in the church because of back-to-back masses and the priest wanted the choir in the back of the church for the service. Ray made a quick decision to sing the mass a cappella, then bring the choir forward for the concert. I sat on a chair at least a foot too low, jerry-rigged my music against a mike stand and constantly reached for notes that were not on the keyboard. I was utterly frustrated! But as the concert went on I looked into the faces of the hundreds in attendance and saw that they loved the music. A deep connection between us gringos and the Ecuadoreans was forming and it did not matter that I was playing a crummy keyboard. They laughed, they cheered, they sang along. We all left that concert on a high note.

With variations, this experience continued at four other venues. At the Iglesia CompaƱia de Jesus in Quito I endured one of the worst rehearsals of my career, playing with the music in my lap until a wobbly stand arrived and trying to make music out of a contraption. At least it was full-size and there was a pedal (which wanted to walk away from me), but I just could not get an acceptable sound from it. This beautiful church is dripping in gold leaf and the US Ambassador to Ecuador was in attendance. Where was the Steinway grand?

In the city of Cuenca I was faced once again with a short keyboard, but this one had a bona-fide music rack and the pedal was taped to the floor! This instrument sat on a simple table, but that was not enough for the person in charge. She found a white tablecloth trimmed with roses and onto the table it went. Propped up on two thick pillows, I sat in an elegant chair. As this concert ended I found out that the next night I would be playing the same keyboard. Yes! I thought. I’ll know what I’m dealing with. Did I really think it would be so simple? This time the pedal stuck and could not be used, and even after carefully checking the settings the first chord I played sounded like an organ for a 60’s rock band.

At our last concert in Papallacta the keyboard was the best of the bunch: full-sized and with a working pedal. Ray generously gave me the single rickety music stand and gallantly conducted with his score on the floor. This location, though, had an electricity problem, and a few minutes after the program was scheduled to begin several men were still trying to plug me in to a set of bare wires! For the most part it worked, although in the middle of one piece which has a particularly nice piano part the power went out. Ray scowled in my direction and I just gently shrugged: What can I do?

Throughout the trip the choir often wondered how I could get through the concerts on these contraptions. And I even asked myself if perhaps I was compromising my musical integrity. With no exceptions, however, the concerts were packed with an audience eager to hear this American choir. They discovered such joy and meaning in our music- who was I to withhold that because of my distaste for electric keyboards? And selfishly, I, too, would have missed out on many rich, rewarding experiences.

On the bus one night after a program I announced that I was not the accompanist, but the contraptionist. And a kind, male voice replied I think that would be the Immaculate Contraptionist.

On a favorite jacket I wear a button that says Peace Through Music. Before the trip to Ecuador I believed that, intellectually, but now I believe it in my heart. Despite chasms of language, culture, economics and geography, the choir and the people who heard us made a powerful, human connection, thanks to the universal language of music.