To be on a boat with Americans…

Our expatriate American diarist Anthea Kreston has been enjoying the perks of her musical job:

I still have sea legs from my eight days on the River Countess, traveling the Venetian Lagoon and beyond. I was the Artist-In-Residence for the Performance Today tour, lead by the much beloved host, Fred Child. With a weekly audience of 1.4 million listeners, a daily 2-hour show featuring all live performances and interviews, PT is the most listened-to classical music program in North America (and probably the world).

The trip to Italy was surprisingly cathartic. It has been over a year since I have been back to the States, and to be on a boat with Americans, with all of their quirkiness and openness, and ridiculous senses of humor, brought me back to an emotional place I hadn’t even realized I had left – a place of total acceptance, ability to be informal or informal, as the situation allowed, and to be myself entirely. 

I met nuclear physicists (there were three aboard), retired music teachers, couples on anniversary trips, presenters, doctors. I worked hard – the Four Seasons, an unaccompanied program designed around the idea of inspiration which I played at a villa on a hill built by Andrea Palladio (considered to be the most influential individual in the history of architecture), in the city of Vicenza. Thomas Jefferson loved his work, and the United States Capitol building is an example of a slightly modified version of Palladio’s style (named by the 111’th Congress of the United States of America as the “Father of American Architecture”).  

In all of the concerts, Fred and I worked together – although we didn’t know each other well, we have always had an ease, a comfort around each other. Fred would introduce the pieces, speak to the influence of Bach on Ysaye, Biber on Bach.  For an encore, I had the audience sing the Lament Bass which forms the basis of Biber’s Passacaglia – possibly the first unaccompanied work written for the violin – he has 64 variations written above these 4, simple descending notes. The audience sang, I sped them up, added an off-beat snap, a “what you say!” from Fred, and played “Hit The Road, Jack”, which is also written above the same Lament Bass. 

There were several “Performance Chats” as well – lighter fare, with Fred interviewing me between Kreisler showpieces, Meditation from Thais, etc. I had asked Fred before the tour if I could turn the tables and interview him once. It took him several days to say yes – I had never interviewed anyone before, and he had not been interviewed. He finally said yes, but I could feel his hesitation as our Whatsapp Chanel filled with his suggestions of questions and topics. I said – “don’t worry – I’ve got this one!”

I did research on Fred – even found the band he played with as a college student in Corvallis, Oregon (yes – the same small town where we moved from one year ago!) – I downloaded songs, transcribed and wrote out the words to a call-and-response song called “Oatmeal”, which we all performed together at the end of the evening.  We had a great time – a balance between serious and silly – and we relaxed into an easy banter. I found out during that interview that we agree on where to get the best nachos in Corvallis, disagree about the best chocolate chip cookie, and also got a nice description of the most embarrassing pair of pants he had owned. Also – his surprising path towards radio – his successes and setbacks. It was so fun that Fred (I still can’t tell if he was kidding) asked if I would like to be a guest host of Performance Today. Hooray!  Count me in!

Trips to Bologna, Padua, Venice, Ravenna, and plans for future collaborations – by the end of the week I felt like we had all been at camp together – we were hugging and exchanging email addresses – several people offered to help nanny for us in exchange for a place to stay in Berlin, and my daily turns on the tour busses with the microphone laid bare my life to this wonderful group of classical-music fans. 

The final night, after our farewell concert, Fred, Jeff (a hilarious member of the staff) and I went to find the rest of the staff for an after-party. The directions, in typical Venetian style, went something like this: ok – walk towards St. Mark’s, take a left, you will see the boat repair place across the canal, go one or two bridges, cross over, you will see a wine bar, and start to look around for a small opening in the wall. Go down there, and it will open to a large grassy area – we will meet you there. So – Fred, Jeff and I headed out.

We got lost, of course, but I spotted a little opening – about 5 feet high, and shoulder-width wide. I said – “should we try it?” – and we went in, stooped and single file. It went the length of an entire building before opening to a wild grassy area, unlit, with groups of people sitting in circles, rolling all manner of personal combustibles, a juggler (clearly a novice), a three piece band, and random stations with beer or fanciful mixed drinks. We all turned on our cell phone flashlights and made our way around – finding a home-made wooden stage, a circular wooden Stonehenge of some sort, complete with rugs and oversized pillows inside.  Only Italian was heard, and low and behold – we found the rest of the staff off to the side!  It was like Woodstock in there. Who knew something like this could exist in Venice?  The craziest thing was – the next day, after everyone else left, I wandered back to that area – trying to find that wild courtyard again. I did find it – but a miniature iron door was blocking the entrance, locked, and boarded up with a crude piece of plywood. Cut at eye level was a teeny square – I looked through to only see darkness. As I sit, waiting for my flight today for the next quartet tour, I wonder if the whole trip was a dream. 

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  • Sounds like a pleasant interlude in your otherwise busy busy professional life! Would love to hear the Fred interview too.

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