How I lost a pianist and gained a best friend

From our diarist Anthea Kreston:

Concerts are underway – our final set (I count 23 more) with this configuration, before a double handful of joint concerts as a Sextet – new and old together. I am on the way back home from Geneva, where I stayed (probably for the last time) at the Hotel Cornavin, the hotel where Hergé used to stay (and where one of his most beloved characters, the absentminded but brillant Professor Calculus would sleep – room 122). I have stayed here 3 times before, but this time I requested his room, much to the delight of my daughters, who have every line of every TinTin book memorized.

The effervescent presenter, arms floppily waving around the space to the sides of his head as he spoke, was so charming, knowledgeable (he had to inspect every instrument, asking after string choice and inserting tidbits of interesting historical facts). Dressed in a wool patterned jacket, red silk hankie, blue and white checkered shirt and dark green (with dots) tie, it was motley done right – subtle enough across a room, but increasingly entertaining as the distance closed. He came into the hotel to pick us up, exclaiming “and who is it who used to play in a trio in America? We just had Andy Armstrong here with James Ehnes! Marvelous!” We quickly became entangled in a simultaneous double-talk about all things Andy Armstrong, his hilarity, big heart, depth of emotional message. How he ate, how he practiced (like a mad-man – hunched over the keyboard, crazily attacking, often over-tempo – never slow, never repeating – for hours on end, with devastating aroma consequences). His clarity of vision – references to everything from the highest art, most obscure (in Latin) quotes, to potty-talk and disgusting bodily functions. His kids, how he loved the home-made pesto at lunch, the way he started the Ravel Sonata – so soft, caressing, floating above the keyboard. Our cheeks were stiff from laughing and smiling.

I love Andy Armstrong. I miss him. When we were looking for a pianist, about 9 years ago, we had the good fortune to play with many incredible pianists – taking our time over the span of 6 months to rehearse and play small concerts with 5 or 6 top-flight players. Looking for a new member is always a mix of sadness and excitement. The sound which was developed with the existing configuration can never be re-created – you know that person inside and out – traveling, eating, personal struggles, quirks, hot-buttons. And yet, to have a fresh voice, new inspiration and a whole new life to integrate into your own – someone to challenge your assumptions, to push you to be better, to find new sounds and temperaments – it’s a wonderful time. In getting to know Andy, it was a whirlwind of energy, and his humor trumped anything I had ever (and have since) witnessed.

I have a personal fixation on adult onesies (you know the footie Pyjamas kids wear, but made for adults). I like to put on my huge, pink cat onesie and drag myself around the house on week-ends, and as a gift, I bought a blue confetti fleece onesie for Andy, just laying it on the bed in the guest bedroom (I didn’t know him too well, so I wanted to give him the option of ignoring the gift – it’s certainly not for everyone!). He didn’t mention anything about it that day, and as we were getting ready for our concert that evening (our first together – and a chance for us to feel if it was the right fit), he quietly said he needed to have the room to himself to perform some personal rituals. We cleared the room, and the stage manager came to give us the 5 minute call. Andy emerged from the room a moment later, the bright flannel onesie somehow stretched over his concert suit, saying, “ok, I’m ready!”. I didn’t even need to play the concert to know he was “the one”. That cinched it for me. Anyone who had the chutzpah to pull that off, straight-faced, for an “audition” would have nerves of steel and the ability to take things to the limit. He quickly peeled off the onesie (the horror-struck stage manager intently staring at his watch and slow-breathing), and played the concert with minuscule colorful fuzz stuck all over his suit.

What remained of our 5 years together was camaraderie, a shared vision, more good (and shitty) meals and flights than I could count, and a life-time of memories. When I told him we were leaving, he cried on the phone to me – he was happy for me, of course, but it felt like we were being torn apart. We had to part ways – I could not ask him to put his career on hold for me, when I knew I had to stop trio and cancel all concerts together.

So, as things settled, and we could once again start a little bit of trio, we were again looking at a new gift – a new pianist, Amy Yang – a formidable pianist with a generosity of spirit and a whole world of complexity and wonder. It is at these times that we grow, and learn. And appreciate again and again those tender, forever gifts that we created for one another.

 

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