Archives for June 2016

Remember Me: A Gentleman, a Steinway, and a Couple of Stubborn Ghosts

Hands

Photo courtesy of Julia Goldsby

It’s June, 2007. I am headed to Steinway Hall.

Manhattan, with its counterpoint of horn blasts, sirens, grumbles, whispers, and roars, performs a deafening sonata. I feel energized. I feel defeated. I feel inspired. I wonder how I ever lived here, or why I ever left. To celebrate the publication of my book, Piano Girl, Henry Steinway and Betsy Hirsch have invited me to present a solo piano concert and reading tonight in the famed Rotunda. I open the heavy door of 109 West Fifty-Seventh Street and step from the bashing, flashing, pulse of the city into an embroidered oasis of tranquility. The high-domed ceiling, hand-painted by Paul Arndt in 1925, seems to scrape the sky. Reach high, it says to me. Reach high, and you’ll touch something worth remembering.

Betsy hugs me. “Ready for tonight?” she says. We walk down a portrait-lined corridor to a practice room, so I can prepare for the main event. Irene Wlodarski, a fiery redhead who looks like she could have been a Rockette in a former life, jumps from her desk to greet me. I feel at home.

*****

Some buildings are haunted in a good way. Steinway Hall has always been such a place—a luxurious monument to the skilled artisans and musicians who have dedicated their lives to the complex mechanics of simple beauty. It’s not simple to build a piano; it’s also not simple to play one.

I met Henry Steinway last month, when I was in town to tape NPR’s Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. As Betsy escorted me back to Henry’s office, I felt my face burn and my hands tingle, the early warning signs of imposter syndrome wrinkling my newly pressed black suit. Back in the eighties, when I was working as a cocktail pianist in Manhattan hotels, I had been too intimidated to step into Steinway Hall. It seemed like a place where “real” pianists hung out—an elite club for the chosen few, a secret den with a painted ceiling that was home to the world’s best pianos and artists.

Betsy introduced me to Henry, a perfect gentleman with an affectionate handshake and a huge smile, and then left us alone to chat for thirty minutes. Henry quickly put me at ease. How I loved listening to him talk about making pianos! He maintained a deep respect for those on both sides of the piano business—the makers of pianos and the makers of music. Artists might receive standing ovations, but Henry made sure his craftspeople heard their own share of applause.

Henry had read Piano Girl, so we had a long talk about the hotel music business, the art of playing quality music when it seems like no one is listening, the joy of playing a great piano, even in a cocktail lounge full of chattering tourists and business people. “Music is so very personal,” Henry said to me. “Every skilled pianist has something unique to say—it’s up to us to give them the means to say it.”

We talked about craft and skill and talent. We talked about imagination and the critical role it plays in all aspects of the piano business. We talked about writing books. Henry told me he wanted me to meet his brother-in-law, the great author William Zinsser, a hero of mine, whom he would invite to my concert the following month.

P5160001

Henry Steinway

Henry Steinway, William Zinsser, Marian McPartland—I felt as if a golden triumvirate of nonagenarians had been appointed to guide my career. I discovered Steinway Hall was also entering its ninth decade. Perhaps ninety would be my new lucky number. I floated out of the hall that day after playing a dozen pianos, each one with a special historical pedigree, sensing that I had been dropped into a fantasyland of wood and wisdom, pins and hammers and perfect sound, all brought to life by an aging gentleman with an ageless vision, holding court in a regal office that seemed more like a home than a work place.

*****

“Here,” Betsy says, on the eve of my performance. “You can warm up here. It’s Henry’s special room.” The piano technician tweaks a few last notes and then, after wishing me luck with my concert, leaves with Betsy. This is hardly a practice room; it’s a small recital hall with a perfect Steinway B, a warm-hearted piano that makes an audience listen. It’s a piano with no wrong notes, a piano that takes a decent player and makes her music sing. I love it here. I love the carpets, the oil paintings, the smell of the wood, the mantle of hope that drapes over me as I sit down to practice. There’s a buzz in the air that’s comforting and energizing all at once. Ghosts of Concerts Past? Maybe.

While warming up for the main event, I allow my mind to wander. My nerves jangle. I take some deep breaths. Decades of musicians have played in the Rotunda. Decades of edgy pre-performance tension, decades of genuine passion, decades of bravery. In an attempt to muster some courage for myself, I try to summon the Ghosts of Concerts Past. I tell myself the acoustic underpinnings of disappeared music—pirouetting silently down the staircase in double time or triple time—will carry me through the night. But musical ghosts don’t exist. Or if they do, the minute I sit down to play the Steinway D in the Rotunda, they’ll flutter away and leave me to fend for myself. No help from the Ghosts. Henry was right: Music is personal—that’s the glorious (and scary) thing about it.

I leave the practice room and stand on the balcony overlooking the concert space, peering down through the prisms of the enormous crystal chandelier onto the coiffed and stylish heads of the guests below. It is time. One hand firmly on the railing, I descend the long curved staircase, greet my audience, greet the piano, and begin. I say what I need to say, and I do it through the mechanics of this marvelous instrument, in this magical place. I am now part of a Steinway Hall Rotunda tradition that all of us think will last forever.

THE Piano Girl

June, 2007, Steinway hall Rotunda. Photo courtesy of Carole Delgado.

Years later, when I learn that Steinway Hall has been sold, I’m overcome with sadness, a grief deepened by the recent loss of Henry. If walls could sigh, if corridors could cry, if chandeliers could sing forgotten compositions and repeat familiar refrains, what would they say to us? Move on. Music doesn’t live in buildings, even the ones with fancy oil paintings and domed ceilings. Music is human. It lives in the craftspeople charged with making these pianos; it lives in the hearts and souls of the musicians who play them. I imagine the Ghosts of Concerts Past on moving day, teary eyed and a little belligerent about leaving, but eager to catch up to the parade of vehicles departing from West Fifty-seventh Street.

Remember me, they’ll shout. And then, dancing in time to piano music only ghosts can hear, they’ll follow the vans and trucks to Steinway Hall’s newest home. There, a little disgruntled and perhaps missing the swank of the hand-painted ceiling, they’ll do what ghosts do best—they’ll stop yammering, join the audience and listen to the music they helped create, hoping to hear a little of themselves. Music past and music present—all of it very personal, all of it worth remembering.

*****

Note from Robin: A special shout-out to Betsy Hirsch, twenty-one year Steinway veteran, wrangler of piano ghosts, and fabulous songwriter. Her new song, “Something’s Gotta Give” is a proactive and appropriate response to the Orlando tragedy. Good for you, Bets.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Brand new: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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Hold the Zucchini

Grill

Dear Fabian and Becky,

Thanks so much for inviting us to dinner at your apartment next Saturday. Steve and I are truly looking forward to your “June Moon” menu. A clever theme—you know how I adore a good clean rhyme! How kind of you to ask if we have any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Not every host bothers to inquire, and, after several recent trips to the emergency room (following meals at the homes of former friends)—we welcome your concern. You may have heard that South-North Airlines refused to let us fly last week simply because we complained about pretzel dust in the air. The incident was humiliating for poor, asthmatic Steve, who did not for one second enjoy being hog-tied and carried off the plane by security thugs. The sound of his wheezing still haunts me.

Potato chips are fine, as are GMO-free, organic Doritos (but not the Nacho Ranch flavor). We’ll discuss dip later.

Like most folks in our culinary circle, Steve and I follow a gluten-free, peanut-free, dairy-free, half-pescatarian, low-sodium, no sugar, vegan diet, except that Steve occasionally eats onion bagels and medium rare roast beef. I enjoy a donut now and then (rainbow sprinkles, please), but for the most part, I avoid all grains. I’m allergic to anything bland or boring, so  forget about rice, unless it’s the rare purple type found in the part of the Maldives that is not yet underwater. Purple rice (served on ivory china) dances off the plate when combined with root vegetables. No carrots, though—Steve hyperventilates and has “bodily fluid” issues when exposed to anything orange. Orange is the new death, at least for Steve. I’ve been told he is not alone.

A word about plate design: I like my rice choreographed. No overlapping, please, and make sure the grains are all facing the same direction, west to east, if possible. Poorly arranged food can trigger rage, depression, and the gag reflex. Why take the risk?

Hold the zucchini. Or any type of squash for that matter. I’m not technically allergic to squash, but it gives me the creeps. And speaking of creepy, I can’t abide dried fruit, wasabi nuts, or anything in the “pudding” category. I’m not a picky eater, but I have my limits.

Most vegans refuse to eat fish, but, outliers that we are, we’ll occasionally dine on eel or steelhead trout, as long as it’s cooked in a wood-burning stove at precisely 483 degrees, Fahrenheit. Don’t try to get by with charcoal—that sneaky Sally Sutherland served us charcoal-baked eel last May and I ended up with spontaneous conjunctivitis, hair loss, and an infected gall bladder. All of this happened before dessert—a mousse of chestnuts and air that made Steve’s head blow up to the size of a pumpkin. That was quite a night. Steve and I, side by side in the ambulance, clinging to life, cursing Sally Sutherland, and swearing we would never again eat eel. Sad. Sally ruined eel for us for at least nine months. The lawsuit should bring us some comfort.

Note: Pumpkin—orange!—is also a no-go.

Really, is there a person alive who can tolerate chestnuts? I think not.

Crispy Duck is okay for Steve (another vegan exception!). I refuse to eat the “cute animals”—duck, lamb, or rabbit. But I will gladly slurp down that yummy Hoisin sauce, as long as it is MSG free. In 2013 I suffered from MSG-induced leg paralysis. The restaurant, Ho Ho Fu on the Upper East Side (now out of business), blamed my inability to stand on the two bottles of Riesling I consumed with the meal, but paid experts later testified in court that my hoisin-induced MSG levels were “off the charts.”

Steve likes Diet Dr. Pepper and I prefer to drink Mr. Tom’s Bloody Mary mix with Absolut vodka, once the wine has run out.

You might be thinking we’re complicated, but we’re not! Just last week Bruce and Gladys served a divine Sunday brunch. Except for Steve’s projectile vomiting (caused by a hidden piece of yam in what was supposed to be an orange-free dining experience) we very much enjoyed the selection of gluten-free, vegan delicacies alongside the roast beef, eel, and rainbow-sprinkle donuts on the bountiful buffet. Too bad Steve’s overly-enthusiastic spewing caused the other guests to flee earlier than planned—they seemed like nice people, especially the Bolivian taxidermist (we can gossip about him when I see you—tightest pants ever). Anyway, I suspect Steve ruined Gladys’s beautiful Swedish table linens, but she has only herself to blame. Everyone knows Steve suffers from yam intolerance.

Egg whites are fine, but quail eggs only.

Please, whatever you do, NO BREAD BASKET ON THE TABLE. This is very important. Steve has psychotic episodes when he senses an overabundance of carbs. A few months ago at Chez Norman (Michelin two-stars, so they should have known better) Steve attacked the basket, dug out the inside of a baguette and rolled the dough into tiny balls. This would not have been so bad, but he stuffed the bread balls up his nose and almost died of carb asphixiation. I rode next to him in the ambulance. Steve sneezed (what a mess that was), we veered into an Uber car, and I dislocated my shoulder.

When you see the cast on my arm on Saturday, please don’t mention the carb incident—Steve still feels guilty.

You’re probably aware I only have one eye—Lisalotte Lux threw a fork at me several months ago after I complained about her pesto. I told her about my pine nut intolerance, but she said she forgot. Forgot? Those hives felt like hamsters crawling up my butt. I refused to suffer silently, so I spoke up. Lisalotte got pissed and threw the fork. End of story. End of eye. Lisalotte has a few years remaining in her jail sentence, plenty of time to reconsider her pesto recipe.

Please note: because I’m half-blind, I prefer my meal to be visually balanced. Diligence can be a matter of life or death for me, and I can’t very well patrol my plate if I can’t see it. Candlelight? No, thank you.

French onion dip is fine. So are grilled raspberries, truffle enchilladas, and deep-fried baby asparagus (only the white kind, not the green!).

Steve will tell you he can eat pork rinds, but don’t listen to him.

Looking forward to Saturday! Let me know if we can bring dessert. My shoulder is still healing, but I can manage carrying a donut or two.

Hugs and kisses!!!

Kiki (and Steve)

*****

Note from Robin: A special shout-out to Drori Mondlak, Karolina Strassmayer, and John Goldsby for their culinary inspiration.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Brand new: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!