The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Charley My Boy July 25, 2016

Although I got off to a late start last night, I did finally go out. There was a fundraiser for the New York City Ballet at which the bassist for the orchestra was leading a small band, and a local fellow was to be playing with him too – enough of a reason to find a dress that I could still fit into and put something other than work boots on my feet. My evening started off quite Cinderella-like, as I had to scoop the last errant members of the flock into the coop before I could be on my way, and by then the event itself was half over and the sun was already down. Half was better than none, I told myself as I waffled once more on whether or not to even go. My windshield was sticky with sap from the trees (the windshield spritzer motor long gone) and my skin was beginning to dampen in the warm, humid air (the AC was on its way out, too). My glasses were smudged, and I’d forgotten to don any jewelry of merit.  I hesitated another moment in the dark car, pondering. “Fuck it” I finally said out loud, turned on the ancient Marshall Crenshaw CD I had in the player, and started down the long, potholed driveway.

I had indeed missed the height of the evening, which was just as well. Before entering, I hung back and assessed the crowd from behind the glass doors. The fundraisers I see in the locally-published glossy magazines wouldn’t be affairs at which I’d be very comfortable. High fashion, low body fat with a smattering of trout pouts, those scenes were simply not me. But if that population had indeed attended tonight’s fundraiser, they had by this time satisfied their social duties, and had returned home on a Sunday night, retiring to bed at a healthy hour. No, this crowd did not look intimidating. I entered the party and filtered through the thinning – and aging – ranks of the guests, and shortly after I arrived found the leader of the band, whom I’d known pretty much only through Facebook. He was kind to introduce me to someone, and I was off.

My father’s 52-year long early music festival still lives in the memory of many here in town, and although that population is aging, there are still many of them about. I’m always grateful to hear my name received with such warmth and recognition; the Festival of Baroque Music was an important part of the arts scene in Saratoga for half a century, and its leader was not only one of the world’s foremost harpsichordists, but he was a gentleman of great heart and good humor – and it seems everyone who’d ever attended the Festival knew it well. Even shopkeepers to whom my father sold ads for the concert programs (yes he did the work himself!) remember dad with a great fondness. My father was an ambassador for goodness and integrity, and I’m always filled with gratitude when I see the impression he made on people has been so memorable and lasting. Last night his good reputation preceded me on several occasions. I met a handful of folks who’d known about the Studio through dad’s music, so I handed out cards and expressed my hopes that we’d stay in touch.

The charts were fun; the band was doing old-timey jazz, the likes of which I’d performed for years with my much-missed Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago (my God you never know what you got til it’s gone!) and in fact, I almost teared up when I heard Black and Tan Fantasy – and it’s not a tune to make one cry, but it immediately brought back vivid memories of a cherished time in my life that was now long over. My nostalgic jag didn’t last though, I was smiling by the time I heard that familiar final minor cadence. The sax player had a delightfully old-timey sound which was a relief to hear. So often when you bands play old-style charts, the players execute them with a modern sound, which to me, kinda spoils the whole thing. If you’re going for the historic tunes – and historically accurate arrangements – play em the way they did back in the day. Just sayin.

I walked the room, looking at programs, posters and articles from the NYCB of my youth. I recognized images of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, Gelsey Kirkland and Jacques D’Amboise – rockstars of my early teen years whom I’d sometimes followed through town when they made extremely rare appearances at the pedestrian joints on Broadway alongside the commoners. Peter Martins even put a cigarette out on my foot at the Adelphi Hotel once. Or almost.

We were standing in the lobby, enjoying a solo harpsichord performance when Peter took a final drag off his butt, then flicked it to the ground. It landed on my foot, which I retracted at the unexpected sensation of heat, and when I leaned in to assess the damage, I watched as the dancer’s foot slid towards mine in a motion meant to squash the ember on the floor. I withdrew my own foot and watched as Peter Martins finished the task, his eyes never once leaving the musician. He didn’t realize he’d hit my foot with a hot cigarette, and furthermore he had no idea he’d meant to step on my foot, too. Instantly I felt a mixture of horror, indignation – and awe. Because I was, after all, a thirteen year old girl standing two feet from one of the most exquisitely formed men on the planet. I wanted to be miffed, I’d wanted at the very least an apology. But knowing none was coming, the moment had passed and the point was moot, I decided instead to take the little event simply for what it was: a brush with ballet greatness, and an interesting little anecdote for the archives.

After the band finished, I greeted them and proceeded to pester them with a few questions, which I likely posed with too much enthusiasm. It was easy to get excited – this used to be my world after all, and I still miss it dearly, even a decade hence. The poor fellow who played clarinet, I caught him with cases under his arm and eyes on the door when I stopped to grill him a bit longer than I probably should have for some insight into the working music scene. We’ve met before, so thankfully he was patient with my inquiry. I appreciated what he had to tell me, which, as I might’ve guessed, wasn’t too terribly inspiring. There’s work to be had, but getting in seems the trick. And the money that these dates pay really isn’t much better than it was twenty years ago. Nothing terribly new or insightful, but I came away with some sense of possibility, and my mood was good enough to propel me to downtown Saratoga, where I thought I’d see for myself what a Sunday night looked like during racing season.

It was fairly quiet on the street, but to my surprise there was live music in three separate bars. I saw a fellow a little older than me sitting in the window at one place, playing guitar and singing. Good start. I found a place at the bar and began to jot down the tunes he was playing in my tiny notebook. I always do this when I hear musicians doing the cover thing, because I haven’t still quite gotten a handle on the repertoire. I’m convinced that the soft-rock hits of the 70s and 80s should do just fine in a town that caters mostly to a demographic my age or older – but I’ve come to see that there is a wide mix of ages partying side-by-side, and that a working musician pretty much needs a U2 tune or two in her bag of tricks, and much as it might make me want to weep, it seems that “Moondance” cannot be omitted from a night’s entertainment, no matter how many thousands of times it’s been played.

Soon after I sat down, I was joined by a large, well-toned man. He had a trim, slightly red beard, and wore a cap, which I suspected was used to cover a balding pate. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, and in fact, had he not been so many drinks in, I might’ve given him a bit more consideration. What I did like about this chap was that he possessed a sense of humor. A construction worker and hunter, he had practical life skills. But surpassing any of his merits on paper, he had a certain twinkle in his eye – that lively, animated sort of presence that I don’t come across all that often. I could tell he was clearly a decade younger than me, but owing to his mild inebriation and my low-cut decolletage, this wouldn’t have mattered at all to him, even if he’d known the truth. I stuck around for a few minutes because I found myself getting a kick out of him.

I’ve had a handful of men show interest in me since I’ve lived here, but I simply haven’t felt a similar interest in them. I wouldn’t say that this chap was all that different – only that his humor and that certain spunk he showed held my interest even after my beer was almost gone. In spite of the beers he’d himself already put away, I could still sense the goodness in him – regardless of his ultimate agenda. (With men – and especially the drunk ones – I assume that’s always where they’re hoping it goes…) Before I realized what was happening, he wrapped his enormous arm around my waist and said “Kiss me”. I suppose I coulda ended it right there with a slap or a shove, but he seemed like a big kitten, really, and there was no time to think before Charlie had pulled me in for a smooch. It wasn’t a lingering kiss, nor a romantic one. It was, in fact, more like the generic kiss I offer all those in my life for whom our parting warrants a quick peck. But the point remains, it was a kiss. By a man. And truth be told, dear readers, this is the first man from whom I’ve received a kiss since my husband kissed me goodbye nearly nine years ago. I paused for a moment to drink in the irony: Charlie was the baby that my husband conceived with his then-girlfriend which propelled us into our life here in New York. Charlie is the person responsible for our life in Greenfield. If my ex had asked for a divorce before Charlie’d come around, things might have gone very differently. Many times through the years I’ve whispered to myself “Thank you, Charlie” in a quiet acknowledgement of the critical role he’s played in our new life. And now look, here was a Charlie of my own to keep things moving along! “Charley, my boy” I said under my breath after the kiss, referencing a song I’d sung in that old timey jazz orchestra so long ago. My drunk friend, oblivious to the quote, just winked and smiled.

My relationship with Charlie did in fact end when the drink was over, because as that same time the guitar player was packing up, and I was on a mission. I gave Charlie another quick kiss of my own, before saying goodbye and leaving him no choice but to return to his drink alone. I introduced myself to the musician, and when I gave him my card, he stopped. “Is Robert your father?” he asked, with a tone of great surprise. I told him that he was, and before I could add anything, Jeff went on to tell me how much he’d thought of my father, how he’d sold him a couple of minivans (the Conants always needed extra long vehicles to schlep around harpsichords) and furthermore he went on to say that my dad was the only customer he ever hugged – and more than once! My father, my father. I know what a loving and kind man he was, I do, but I certainly never realized just how much he’d shone that love and kindness into the world. The night had been such a revelation to me, and a comfort, too. My beloved father was still preparing my path, even now.

My new friend and I enjoyed a chat as he wrapped cables and tucked things away, but the information I ultimately sought couldn’t be proffered in the minutes we had left; it was late, after all, and he wanted to get home. Thankfully he offered to get together sometime by the light of day, so we could compare set lists and talk gear (I’m an unintentional Luddite who, over these past 13 years of child-rearing, has become ultimately lost to the culture of Ipads and modern PA systems). My heart was happy and hopeful as I hugged Jeff goodbye. Finally it felt as if there might be a new chapter ahead. Getting up and running as a musician had proved to be a much bigger undertaking than I’d first thought it would be, but at least now I might have a little help.

I moved across the street to a joint that’s known for its live music all year ’round. I saw an act I’d seen before, but this time I stopped to check them out more carefully. They are a duo; the woman plays drums, standing up, and sings too, and the man in his shabby, indie-hip garb and road-worn guitar provides the harmonic component. I couldn’t see bass pedals, and it didn’t seem they were playing with a track, so the source of the bass was a mystery until afterward when I went up to say hi, I learned that the drummer was hitting a pad that triggered the notes. They had a sweet and tidy setup. The merch table was filled with stuff, and to my surprise (for they are primarily a cover band as are all the bands in this town) there was a small line of folks wanting to buy stuff after the show. I watched the woman as she graciously allowed pudgy, drunk tourists to take selfies with her, and I noted how ‘on’ she was; that professional thing that my ex turns on whenever in the presence of another person, that thing that I personally find a major pain in the ass to cultivate. I was never good at schmoozing. Me, I play – and I want to leave. Go have a burrito. Hang with friends, musicians. Not hang with drunk, idiotic bar patrons who wouldn’t turn down a Jimmy Buffet cover. But I watched as this woman did just that. And I thought to myself, ‘man, you are so good at what you do, sister’. It’s one thing to hold together – and front – a two hour show. But it’s entirely another thing to have the post-show hang down. Good for them. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that this really was not my world.

Drunk Charlie had also made his way across the street to hear the power duo, and I’d seen him in the audience singing along and offering his thumbs up of approval. Now he was by the door, and he had spotted me. He grabbed my hands and started to dance, and damn if this drunk behemoth wasn’t light of foot! He lead me around – the hand on the small of the back, the whole shebang – he turned me, dipped me, pulled me in, rolled me away – he had it. One of the things I’d so enjoyed about my ex husband was that he could dance. I’d made my seventh grade son take social and Latin dancing this past year because I insisted it was one of the reasons I had married his father. That got his attention. “Really?” he had asked me, with an open-jawed look on his face. “Really.” I’d answered. Yeah, I’ll go to weddings just to dance with a guy who knows how – or isn’t afraid to try to appear that he does. If the situation had been a little different, the drinks fewer and the night younger, dancing with Charlie might have held more appeal. I thanked him for the dance, made a slight bow, then dashed for the door before he could insist on anything more….

I grabbed two slices of pepperoni pizza and drove home to enjoy them with my last bottle of Fat Tire. Afterward, I tried a couple of songs on the piano, but it was beginning to sour in the midsummer humidity, and my results were less and less pleasant as a result. My night had come to an end, but what a sweet, enjoyable evening out it had been. And I laughed to myself to think that after all these years, I’d finally been kissed. Ha! Thanks, Charley, my boy.

 

Cusp January 19, 2015

Two thousand fourteen was a tough year for me. Can’t say it was necessarily a bad year, but it was the year in which my father was newly gone, the year in which his concert hall suffered a flood (at my negligence; in order to save money I hadn’t properly winterized it), and it was the year in which I left the safety net of my part-time job at the Waldorf school in order to set about creating a new business. I did manage to get heating and cooling units installed in the Studio, and this past fall I spared no expense and had the place properly shut down for winter. At a glance, maybe not much. But progress, nonetheless. You might say I began to plant the seeds of change. And soon, we’re going to see them begin to sprout…

The biggest holdup – one that’s been in the works for nearly two years if you can believe it – is the logging of our family’s property. It’ll give us some start up money to get some basic fixes done to the place, not to mention a completely new floor (which still makes me sick to think of as the old floor was gorgeous…. and paid for) and some tlc on the weather-worn exterior. And besides that, we’re going to need a place to park all those cars. In the past, my parents only used the Studio in the summers, and parking on the expansive lawn worked out fine. Me, I’m going to need year-round parking, in a level place where I can clear snow and not worry about damaging the grass. Our plan is to create a parking lot in the woods just to the east of the building – in the very place that mom and dad had also initially intended for it to go when they built the Studio in 1974. Back then when they realized the cost – and saw that they had plenty of space for cars on the lawn, they shelved the plan. But now, needing access to my mom’s woods out back for the logging job, it’s become a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one proverbial stone: the loggers need a ‘platform’, or a wide space in which to park their huge equipment, and I need a parking lot. They’ll open up the space whether we use it or let it grow back again – so why not use it to our advantage? The loggers will also need to construct a proper load-bearing road into the property, complete with enormous metal culvert and lots of fill – another structure which will benefit us tremendously. And then, on top of all this ‘free’ infrastructure, we’ll get money from the lumber. It kinda seems too good to be true. Knowing what I do about life, and how the best-laid plans can quickly go awry, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on every step of the process. (In a few moments I’ll take a break from my computer and go to meet the crew for the very first time. So that makes today hugely significant in the re-birth of the studio.) As I noted to my son recently, I was eleven when I saw the Studio built, and he, at the very same age, is here to see the Studio re-built. Perfect.

As usual, other adventures continue, and recently Elihu and I went to a rehearsal of Haydn’s “The Creation” by the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. We got great seats up front by the basses. ! I feel so lucky that this beautiful campus, along with all the cultural experiences it provides, is less than five miles from our house. Talk about the best of both worlds: peace, quiet and privacy with nature all around, and yet within minutes we can be hearing world-class music or dining at gourmet restaurants. Lucky are we!

Along with all the activity and changes going on in my life, I’ve added another to the list: hot flashes. A couple of years ago I got an IUD in order to deter the near-unending perimenopausal periods I was experiencing, and since they’d finished completely, I’d thought I was over the hump. Honestly, I didn’t think hot flashes would come til after the device was removed, if they came at all (my hope was to avoid them altogether). And now I suspect that after I have it removed one year hence, the hormonal change will descend on me with a vengeance. So this may only be the tip of the iceberg. My mother suffered badly from intense hot flash episodes for well over a decade. Even after hearing about them, I would still think to myself “It’s just a quick sensation of warmth. Really, how bad can they be?”…. Now I get it. Yeah, I’m guessing they’ll be mighty unpleasant. The first one hit at night, and initially it was not only uncomfortable, but it was frightening too, and in that respect reminded me of a miscarriage; some new variety of discomfort was growing inside me, and while it had familiar aspects to it, something very different was going on. A bit of nausea came along with it as well, and that was unexpected. But I suppose, like everything else in life, I’ll adapt and eventually get used to it.

These days I’m becoming more receptive to the idea that nothing lasts. I’m not resisting change the way I used to. Absolutely everything changes, and the sooner you surrender yourself to that notion, the easier your life will be. So here I am, standing on the edge of tomorrow, waiting for whatever comes next…

IMG_5749The other day Elihu and I marked off the perimeter of the Studio’s new parking lot with flags. This photo shows how things have looked for the past forty years on this stretch of Wilton Road, looking west. My parent’s property is on the left. Mom’s house, Andrew’s house and the Studio are all just behind these woods (that’s our neighbor’s driveway in the foreground).

IMG_5753And this is where the new driveway will be going very soon (that’s our neighbor’s house behind the big tree).IMG_5756Here’s the old salt box my folks put out in anticipation of the parking lot they never made. You can see the Studio’s white roof to the far left, beyond the woods.

IMG_5765This interesting-looking tree will go. Behind to the right (red) is the Studio, on the left is mom’s house.

IMG_5676Now we’re off to hear some music – and hopefully fly some RC helicopters too.

IMG_5673This hall both looks and sounds beautiful.

IMG_5620Best seats in the house!

IMG_5623Love the conductor’s red cowboy boots.

IMG_5616Just look how close we are to the bass section! (Note the C extensions on the necks which allow the bassists to play even lower.)

This singer performed at dad’s Baroque Festival years ago. Elihu’s music teacher from Waldorf is also playing clarinet in the orchestra.

IMG_5644Elihu has to say hello.

IMG_5645Kinda like meeting rock stars.

IMG_5658Proving true to his love of all things super-low, Elihu makes a beeline to the contrabassoon.

IMG_5653Hard to imagine I grew up with several of these in my house. Seeing or hearing a harpsichord always makes me nostalgic.

IMG_5690The house manager was sweet and opened up a classroom in the music building for us.

IMG_5704Lots of vertical room to enjoy!

IMG_5713After a slight mishap Elihu made some successful, on-site repairs. This pic may seem fairly ordinary, but actually, it’s not. Elihu is wearing his new tinted contacts here, and therefore able to see in the bright, natural light without sunglasses. A huge quality of life upgrade. He doesn’t wear them often, but when he does his world opens up.

IMG_5737Later on that night Elihu continued to be inspired by the afternoon’s concert.

IMG_5746And the inspiration carried over into the next morning.

IMG_5770After letting the girls (and boy) out for the day, I headed over to meet the forester and the logger who’ll be working in our woods over the next few weeks.

IMG_5775You can see the Greenfield hills in the distance. It’s a lovely view down my driveway, so long as I don’t look off to the right and see the vacant, new-construction house that looms over the field.

IMG_5777They’re here!

IMG_5806Assessing things from the road…

IMG_5790…and then from the interior of the woods where the parking lot will go.

IMG_5792These trees will all be gone soon – the ones marked with green tape will stay as feature trees.

IMG_5813Got the signed lumber contract in hand! It’s real now!!

IMG_5826Heading back home down my driveway. Feeling good, and excited for the days ahead.

 

Gone One Year December 27, 2014

My dad died one year ago tonight. As I sit here, I try to remember the feeling of the day, the order in which things happened. I’ve lost track of some details – some things are fuzzy, and that bothers me. But I’m lucky to recall this distinctly: I remember most how normal the day had felt. For the first time in years, it was just we four Conants together in the house. All of us at our posts, a low level of activity and busyness going one which had created a feeling of normalcy and well, comfort. My mom was in the kitchen puttering about, my brother at the dining room table on his computer, my father was sleeping in his hospice bed in the side room, and I sat in between them, on the couch in the living room, taking it all in. Feeling how homey it was. I knew we were waiting for dad to die, we all did, but still, it felt good to be there. All of us together, one last time. I can’t know how mom and Andrew were truly feeling, but I remember that I was quietly petrified, but somehow doing ok. In spite of what we where there for, it was a good afternoon. One year ago today.

We were all touching dad when he went; mom and Andrew holding his hands, I was holding both his feet. After sleeping quietly for hours and hours, it was a little after eleven at night when dad uttered two loud vocalizations. I alerted my brother and mom, and then it began. The final half hour. And at the very end, he faked us out three times – we’d thought he’d taken his final breath when he’d take another breath in… By the third one we were actually laughing – and crying of course too – because here was dad, in his last moments on earth, taking a curtain call. When he finally passed, our cat Mina, who stays on dad’s desk in his office (and had gotten up on his bed earlier that day – a move very uncharacteristic of her) meowed twice, as if to confirm that dad had finally left us. Finally, we could cry. Mom, who I’ve seldom seen cry in my entire life, allowed herself tears. Andrew too. And after years of being at the receiving end of my brother’s hate and venom (it’s not his fault, he is not well), I hugged him, told him I loved him and that he was the best brother ever. So thanks, dad, for helping each of us find a little closure in your passing.

When you finally lose a parent, it feels like an initiation. Having two parents – especially two who are still under the same roof – feels a bit like a bonus these days. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures and videos of us all while we were together, and I’m tempted to indulge in regret. It just kinda felt as if it would always be thus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again more than a few times: this is a hard planet to live on. Even when you have it good, it’s still not easy.

My agnostic friends will think I’m making stuff up in order to feel better about the whole thing – but me, I know that we move on to another plane of existence after this. I know it aint over, and that I’ll see my dad again. I even know he’s aware of me here and now, and that when I think of him, I send him my love and energy through the ether, and he receives it where he is. I know this. For my friends who don’t believe there’s anything beyond our simple, earth-bound lives, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see the look on your face when we meet again…

Here are some photos I’ve been digging up all morning. I’m missing a chunk of time in between when Elihu was little and now – but for some reason, life must have taken over and I just neglected to take pictures for a while. I guess I just kinda forgot that it’s the everyday things that are more worth remembering than the exceptional. But I’m lucky to have these. And so lucky that I got to be the daughter of Robert Conant.

Some pics from dad’s professional life…

IMG_4697An early promo shot.

Early Promo Shot 001Dig this one. !

Fort Dix, 1951Entertaining the troops at Fort Dix, 1951. (I have this Challis harpsichord now here at the Hillhouse.)

the first Baroque Fest with mom and dadThe Conants start the Festival of Baroque Music at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

robert shaw choraleWorking with Robert Shaw.

dad and Paul DoktorThis may have been a bit beneath his dignity, but hey, a gig’s a gig. With Paul Doktor on viola.

IMG_4682Love this shot. Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College.

IMG_4685Henryk Schering and dad at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

IMG_4667The Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel, Switzerland was an important part of dad’s professional life for many years. (With August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller.)

IMG_4704Always loved this one.

IMG_4692Dad as conductor.

IMG_4668Taken from the balcony of the Studio.

IMG_4678Studs Terkel’s interview with dad on WFMT in Chicago.

IMG_4672Kenneth Slowik was a huge part of our lives growing up as well as a very important part of dad’s professional life, and we still count the Slowiks as family.

FBM's 50thThe Festival of Baroque Music celebrated its 50th season in 2009. At that time it was the longest running early music festival in the country.

_______________________________________________

Now some pics from dad’s personal life…

Dad as a young boy 001Dad as a young lad in Severance, New York on Paradox Lake, early 1930s.

mom and dad wedding

Before my time! Nancy and Robert are married in NYC, 1955.

dad and me at harpsichord in Hamden

1963, Hamden, Connecticut. Guess who’s on dad’s lap?

me dad afc at orch hallAndrew and me backstage with dad at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, early seventies.

Conants by the StudioWe four Conants in front of the Studio, Greenfield Center, New York, early eighties.

dad and me in the StudioDad and me at the Studio, early nineties.

IMG_5756A snapshot of the many talented young men who helped dad to run the Festival of Baroque Music through the years; they’re all really like family to us, and the Slowiks, Ken (far left) and Peter (3rd from the left) have been part of our family for over three decades.

IMG_6547_0001Dad and Mom in their spots. This is one of those things I kinda never thought would change.

IMG_6527Dad and Elihu, Christmastime of 2005.

IMG_0553This is how dinners looked for years and years. Many happy meals around this table thanks to mom’s amazing talent as cook and hostess.

Dad's 80th Birthday 103Since Elihu could talk, he and his grandpa enjoyed speaking to each other in this made-up, Eastern-European-sounding language, complete with hand gestures and lots of crazy nuances. It was incredibly funny, and amazing to behold. Dad himself was extremely gifted at doing impressions and speaking in accents, and was known for his ever-present sense of humor. There was a lot of profound hilarity through the years in this household!

Dad's 80th Birthday 112Grandpa and Elihu are having a good time.

elihu, grandpa and duckA few years later, Elihu shows grandpa a duck he caught at Congress Park.

IMG_4660I like this one of these three.

IMG_6519_0001Grandpa, winding the Grandfather’s clock. ! (This clock is the same one behind dad and me in that first shot of me as a baby on his lap at the harpsichord.)

the Studio new signThe ‘new’ sign. Can’t believe it was four years ago now. Deep down I think that I just couldn’t bear to do anything with the place until he was gone. It still feels like his place; just putting up the new sign (replacing his Baroque Foundation sign) was kind of a big step.

the studioThe Studio that dad built in 1974 – architect, Michael Curtis. The place has looked a bit cheerier in years past, but it will once again. All in time.

Dad's 80th Birthday 050Dad and ‘the two Jims’ at dad’s 80th birthday. These guys have been around the Festival for over twenty-five years. The stories they retold at dad’s ‘living wake’ last year had us all but peeing in our pants. It was a perfect send-off for dad. (That’s Martha, seated at left.)

Dad's 80th Birthday 016And here is the only known photo of the four men in my life: Dad, brother, ex-husband and son. Goofburgers.

1231102110This is how dad spent much of his last few years, resting on the couch. The lamp in the background hung in his childhood home in Passaic, New Jersey.

Elihu with hand over heartAlmost as if a sign of things to come, young Elihu reverently puts his hand over his heart in the same room in which his grandfather would leave this world.

Dad's HeadshotThere is just never a good time for goodbye.

As Elihu said to you in his final parting: see you shortly…

Robert Scott Conant, January 6th, 1928 – December 27th, 2013.

Post Script: Here’s a recording of dad playing – granted, his is the 3rd of 4 harpsichord parts (I know, four harpsichords? Wow) and it’s impossible to know what exactly he’s playing, but nonetheless, he’s in there somewhere… 

 

Clean Slate February 22, 2014

For me this has been a day of very mixed feelings. From elation at the prospects of the future to intense pangs of sorrow at having lost something precious, now irretrievably gone from my life…

Today some friends and I cleared the Studio out of its contents. There was so much more stuff than I’d realized there’d be. And I do understand pretty well how stuff adds up – I’m rather a stickler for organization and pairing down to the most important stuff – but the piles and the boxes just continued to appear. It’s amazing how we humans manage to stash away objects. And when you finally do get around to excavating every last corner of the place and have set all the piles out before you, what then?  How do you let go of things when they’re so loaded with nostalgia, longing, subtle shades of regret? Where do you draw the line?

I regarded the boxes and when pressed as to whether or not they should go out onto the big trash pile I found myself sounding a lot like those poor souls on the show Buried Alive… “Mmm, uh, I might use those again, uh, maybe just put them here for now. Hm, um, wait, wait… I’m not sure, I don’t know…” Wait, me? I can’t let go? I myself used to help others let go of their stuff and organize their possessions long before it was trendy, long before places like The Container Store were even dreamt of. Under the informal moniker of “Assess a Mess” I’d go to people’s homes and help them throw away all of their crap or send it back out into the world. A combination of psychologist, personal assistant and trashman, I’d help them make all the hard choices. I employed what I called my “rule of two”: if you hadn’t used it in the past two years and didn’t plan on using it in the next two months, then out it went. I wasn’t cold-hearted about sending stuff away; I always tried to find objects a second life – and this was before the era of Freecycle, Craigslist or Ebay, yet somehow I’d make it through mountains of stuff, leaving a perfectly clean and organized joint behind. But now that it’s come to me – now that we’re talking about my recently deceased father here and all the tangible results of his life’s work – it just isn’t the same deal at all. And my mother’s hand is here too; it was she who kept the place running, made the videos of all the concerts, fed and watered the audiences at intermission, the musicians before and after concerts and rehearsals – her things are here too, and it’s troublesome to vote her things out when I know all the love and attention they represent…

Thankfully I had my partner Ceres and her kids here to help. It was far more work than it appeared to be at first, and I – physically or emotionally – couldn’t have done it alone. After getting a bit further into the job I discovered that the more I excavated, the more that I liberated the walls and corners of long-forgotten stuff, the more hopeful I became. I began to envision little future scenes of what one day happen here in this room. I’d been listening to the boombox I’d bought dad for Christmas last year (so he could listen to his favorite Bob and Ray CDs) to keep me going, and I heard violinist Andrew Bird on the local college station and wondered… might I host him here one day? I realize he’s become kinda big now, but I knew him in Chicago back in the day. Never know. And what of my other friends from my old life? I started imaging concerts, combinations of folks whose music I love… I didn’t want to spoil my fantasy with all the ‘yes, but‘ conditions, so I held back the sober voice of reality and limitation and allowed myself to continue to dream while I cleaned… Later on I heard jazz vocalist Janice Borla – also another fellow Chicagoan – and man, I though her recent recording sounded great. A totally different kind of music and crowd, but maybe, I thought, might I have something like that here too?

All manner of possibilities started to come to me, and I let myself fantasize for a bit as I worked. I loved music of all kinds – I just couldn’t see limiting the room to one thing or another. House concerts? Maybe that’s the route to go… Baroque Ensembles that are starting out and need a smaller venue? Hm. The jazz kids from Skidmore hosting small ensembles and including some of the high schoolers in town?? Stuff just kept coming. But then I’d feel a sudden wave of panic, when I’d look up from my task for a moment and see in my mind’s eye the room as it had been for decades… In an instant it was a late summer afternoon and the house was full of people, there was the scent of freshly cut hay in the air, and of course the music. The harpshichord, the gambas, violins, flutes, voices… The familiar sound of the chairs being scooched back on the wood floor as people got up to stretch and mill about… The dreamlike vision came upon me and with it all those subtle feelings I associate with my entire childhood. In my head I could still see so clearly the golden sunlight streaming through the western doors; I remember the flowers, freshly cut from the local roadsides, that my mother would arrange for a vase on the stage; I remember the murmur of the audiences’ voices as they chatted during intermission….

Baroque music and the scent of newly cut hay, the warm sunlight, low in the sky… The memories all swirl around my head, tugging at me to remain there with them, never to leave them lest they die forever… My heart wants things to continue to hear and see these very same things for years without end.  But of course, this is impossible now. Their leader is gone, that era has closed. I know I sure don’t feel like much of a leader myself, and I haven’t a clue what I’m in for. But I guess there’s no question about it. It’s my party for now, ready or not. Into the future we go, much to learn, much to do, and lots of great music and memories yet ahead. Thanks, mom and dad, for the great start. The Studio won’t be the same, but it will continue to have a lot of heart and soul.

IMG_0370

The Studio as it appears from the South from just outside mom and dad’s house.

IMG_0448

This is the side of the Studio people see first, the main door and box office are here. Note the stuff already piling up out front.

IMG_0414

I really wanted to convey the size of this hump in the middle of the room. Seriously, right now we could rent the place out as a skate park! Look at this stool – all four legs are on the floor!

IMG_0384

A selfie with the ever-present tapestry on the back of the stage wall.  Dad and I once had a picture taken of us on this very same spot. I’m feeling a bit sad about things right now.

IMG_0382

See the tilt of the floor now? Crazy!

IMG_0438

I was hoping this might illustrate the drama of the mid-room bump. Kinda…

IMG_0441

Ceres’ son, Christoper, is being creative in trying to illustrate the big bump. In real life it looks much more impressive.

IMG_0415

This is the green room. None of us (mom and me, that is) ever liked dad’s ridiculous choice of green. Ich. Thank goodness I can finally get rid of it. This room served as a backstage area, holding pen for several harpsichords and apartment for musicians and their families while they played here at the Festival. Now my Rhodes lives here – but after sitting in three inches of water for over a week, it’s in need of some serious cleaning and looking-over. So back to my basement it’ll go. That’s grandma’s rocking chair on the left – in good shape. Anyone want it? It’s yours!

IMG_0393

More stuff.

IMG_0401

The box office jam-packed.

IMG_0410

Hmm. You can always tell a lot about a person by looking at their trash….

IMG_0459

The spiral staircase to the balcony. As kids we had loads of fun on this. Note the high-tech, ten pound cam-corder mounted to the balcony railing – mom recorded every last concert on it. (We’ve since had them converted to DVD.)

IMG_0449

The Studio’s sign came off the frame shortly before dad died, and it’s been sitting in a bank of snow. Lest it become warped and useless as the wood floor of the place, Ceres and son Brian moved it up from the road and into shelter. (The Conant’s summer cottage is in the background – it’s where my brother lives now.)

IMG_0483

Ahh, such a great space.

IMG_0485

Always loved this beam detail.

IMG_0462

Even with the damaged floor, she still looks beautiful.

IMG_0490

Had to take this pic from a distance so it’s fuzzy – but it’s from mom and dad’s very first festival in 1959. !

IMG_0458

Here the Zabel family is going home after an afternoon of hard work. Thanks guys! We’re on our way now!!

 

Better Plans Ahead February 20, 2014

Folks warn ‘be careful what you ask for’ – because as we all know, sometimes you sure can get a whole lot more than you bargained for. And sometimes you don’t even get what you asked for – you get a whole new situation which might even seem quite beside the point; the answer to your prayers comes in the most unlikely forms, trying your patience, provoking self-pity and other loathsome mental states…. You wish rain would come to save your garden, but instead a powerful storm comes and leaves things looking much worse than before, but then that inspires an inventory and cleaning-out of the space resulting in a new, more beautiful garden. You hope for a promotion at your boring workplace, but instead you get fired – but now you finally have the time to go out look for that job you really want. You drop a lot of cash buying the wrong color paint for your house and then it turns out to look even better than what you’d originally chosen… I think you get the point. Right? You ask, then you receive. But not always in the way you had planned. But that’s the thing about plans – some of the very best ones change, and go on to become even better ones still.

Maybe you’re in an incredibly unfair and miserable situation – maybe there’s a high level of fear or uncertainty, discomfort, lack of basic things like food, shelter, heat…. Maybe things truly are shitty right now. (I know a little bit about it. Not the nitty-gritty, honest-to-goodness down-and-out stuff, but down enough, thank you.) There is one consolation to be taken even if this is your current state, and that is: if you don’t want things to be like this, don’t worry, they won’t be. Things change – so you always have something to look forward to.  If you have the patience to keep the faith, stay as hopeful as you’re able, and wait it out – soon you’ll see where this new situation takes you (the old ‘fake it til you make it’ idea) – you might just end up in a much improved place in your life – a place that didn’t even show up on your list. Might be a nice surprise.

Without meaning to appear coy or too passive-aggressive here, indulge me if you will in the follow story lines (yes, this is my story): Your husband leaves you. You hadn’t for one moment ever considered this might happen, and yet now you have no choice but to deal with the situation. The only option is to keep moving. You’re hurt and angry and scared, but nonetheless you begin to make progress down that new, unforseen path (of course you may well be sobbing and screaming much of the way). And a coupla years later down that unexpected path, you find that you’ve just learned a whole lot of wonderful things and met a whole bunch of interesting people that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And your kid goes to a school he loves, heck, you even work at that same school. Now that time has eased up on your heartache, you can look back from where you came, look at where you’ve arrived, and now, only now can you agree with the universe that it did indeed give you just about everything you’d wanted. Ok, so you’re doing it solo, and sometimes that has you a bit down, but maybe even that plays an important role in the perfection of your current life. (If nothing else, you can make your very own rules, do things your way. Keep a clean bathroom and a tidy house. !) So maybe things don’t always happen the way you’d originally planned, but that’s only because you can’t see the good stuff down that other road… You haven’t got the advantage of seeing the landscape from above – but apparently, it seems, someone or something else does have the greater perspective. And ‘it’ has graciously given you a nudge down the fruit-bearing path. (To me it seemed more like a rather rude shove, to be honest, but sometimes I guess it takes a little extra muscle to get someone moving in the right direction. Especially for the more stubborn sorts.)  So thank you, universe. Nice of you to help out, I appreciate that.

Continuing on with the story line… Sometimes you do want something really big to happen in your life. And instead of experiencing a dramatic, unanticipated, life-changing even, you experience what you perceive to be nothing at all. So you decide you’re ready. You plead a little with the universe, you make your case, you throw down the gauntlet. Your time has come, please, world, bring it on! You are sick and tired of things the way they are, you’re ready for something new, and you let the world know it. But your frustration is deep and you’re probably not seeing that the thing you’ve begged for is indeed making its way to you in mysterious, unpredictable ways. You haven’t noticed any of this yet, so you’re still pretty crabby… and you’re pretty close to convinced that it’s a done deal. Nothing’s coming your way. But hey – you kinda thought as much. Whatever. Slog though, keep making those to-do lists, keep on keepin’ on. At least you got a new mat for that little spot in front of the kitchen sink and a hyacinth plant for the table. Those are an upgrade of sorts. And maybe those’ll have to do. Cuz all this other shit – this big life shit, the real stuff – man, it’s way too much anyhow. I mean, can I see myself doin something so big? So ambitious? So, er, grown up? Naw – shit like that’s for those other people. Naw, I’m just gonna live my little life, do the best job I can at that, and be kind to people as I go along. That should do. That should take me on outta here. What else can I do? I’m not young anymore, aint got the tiny body, the full tank of non-stop energy, I’m not living in the epicenter of an uber cool music scene… Things are different.  I’m a farmer now. A mom who might also pass as a grandmother. Yeah, I’m the crazy chicken lady across the field who teaches piano lessons. Start a business? Take a huge leap into territory that I know nothing about? That shit just sounds crazy. Maybe crazy chicken lady aint so bad.

Lately, as in the past few months, I’ve been toying with some different thoughts about  who I am and what my role should be in this next chapter, and these ideas are growing, marinating, morphing and showing signs of something much, much larger waiting for me just a bit down the road from here…. It seems – fairytale-esque though it sounds – that in order to see a dream take shape, one must keep a vision, hold it dear, and then share that vision with the world… Like a snowball rolling down the hill, your idea collects more mass on its travels, and soon you have far more than you’d set out to create… And then, of course, you have just entered into yet another chapter in your personal and professional growth. Holy shit. But then it’s not a dream anymore, you can’t hide anywhere, and what if you’re not truly able to act on all these prophetic-like platitudes you’ve been broadcasting all over? What a disappointment you’ll be then – mostly to yourself, of course, but that’s still not going to be as bad as the embarrassment you’ll feel at your very public ‘jump and miss’. Oh oh. What have I started? Sheesh. Think I’m frightening myself here. I’m exhausted and I haven’t even begun. Gotta keep my focus…

You do know what I’m babbling about, don’t you? Life, death, the Studio and unforseen catastrophes…. Let me backtrack just a second… I’ve been formatting and printing out all my posts from the past three years, and I stopped to read some posts from the past couple months – the time before my father died, a time of great inner sadness and reflection. At some point I lamented that I felt I needed a greater purpose in my life – that I almost felt I had a calling, but I didn’t yet know what it was. And then of course there were dad’s enigmatic words shortly after that…”When beautiful January comes…” And then there was beautiful January – and with it, the great flood. The Studio was ruined. My vision for the future seemed dead before it had begun. And yet… Things have been happening with great serendipity; the right people appearing at the right time, kind offers being made, solutions appearing from nowhere, improvements suggesting themselves as we re-think our plans… All sorts of things are coming together like some sort of energetic groundswell coming to lift me up and push me into this next era.

In a way I’m glad my father is gone now, because I don’t feel I could have moved forward with a new vision for The Studio had he still been here, after all, this place was his baby. He created it with a very specific – and successfully met – vision of having a venue crafted with superb acoustics for his beloved eighteenth century music. That was his field of expertise, and it is simply not mine. (I feel I should add that while I do dearly love Baroque music, I don’t know enough about that world to make it my thing.) I not only feel freer to move into this next adventure, but I feel that somehow dad is energetically supporting me from wherever it is that he exists now. Oh this is tricky territory – I have some dear friends for whom this sort of talk verges on insane nonsense, some friends who may agree more than they’d ever let on, and some friends who wonder why I pussyfoot around here when clearly I’m talking about my dad being in Heaven, and that he’s still somehow connected to this world – and more than that – he’s able to assist me on some level. Hey, I don’t know the truth, all I do know is that a situation which had me wanting to hug my knees to my chest and rock back and forth in a dark closet has now got me excited to wake up in the morning, inspired to move, thrilled to follow where this all leads… Cuz I’m going somewhere. Not quite sure where, but that’s ok. I have a loose plan, and I’ll leave it that way, cuz things will be changing yet again, I’m sure of it. And I’m also pretty sure that whatever happens next will be paving the way for better things just over the horizon….

 

 

Sans Solo February 8, 2014

Not a single event, discovery or achievement has ever truly been a solitary endeavor. Whether someone’s climbed a treacherous mountain peak, invented something revolutionary or done something for the very first time – none of it happened in a vacuum, apart and unaffected by the world. No matter what Miss Rand claims, we people here on Earth are absolutely interdependent of each other. Our personal triumphs ride on the experiences of those who have come before. You can’t beat a record unless one has already been set. You can’t build something unless something similar has already been built (and likely failed, hence the innovative re-build). Coaches, teachers, guides, the opinions of friends, personal opinions, the disregard for opinions of any sort – all of it goes into the pot. (Kinda reminds me of that saying ‘if you decide not to decide, you’ve still made a choice’.) There aint no way an achievement of any sort stands on its own. In part, maybe, but certainly not entirely. Try to back-engineer, understand and then make for yourself the handful of items you use in the first five minutes of your day today. Nuff said.

And here is where I need to let go of the illusion that this burden is all my own. This is the thinking I need to assume this morning, at the beginning of the path immediately before me. Yeah, I have a lot on my plate, and yes, I will be ‘directing the troops’ as it were for the time being, and I understand it’s important to have a vision for the future, but I can also see that the project I intend to set in motion will be by no means exclusively my own baby. Even my father’s incredibly successful and long-running music festival was not his alone. It might have seemed it – he certainly did a hell of a lot of the grunt work on his own – but he could never have pulled it off had my mother not been there to feed the many musicians and their families, to keep track of who ate meat and who didn’t, who had allergies, how many beds needed to be made up, when folks were arriving, when they needed to be at the airport… Then there were the assistants – one every year – to help run the administrative side of things. And, of course, the musicians themselves who made great expenditures of time and energy to participate. One could say the whole thing was very definitely inspired by the vision of one man at its core – but in the end, the Festival of Baroque Music was a huge group effort. And from the get-go, I can see the same will be true of the Studio in its new incarnation.

In a few hours I will meet some younger-bodied folks who are going to help us begin the long and un-sexy process of cleaning up. Not meaning this to sound like a sour grapes excuse for the way I let things happen, but I don’t think we (again, not me alone, but me and my artist partner, Ceres) would have ever made such a thorough cleaning-out of the place had we not been forced to. Many times I’d walked the place, shaking my head in frustration at all the stuff that needed to be assigned new homes. Many times I’d pushed it to the back of my mind. I’d made a few feeble attempts to remove an item or two – even tried to sell some paintings at local shops – but in spite of them having been hot tickets once-upon-a-time, I couldn’t find any current interest for the art. So I brought it all back, to languish in the Studio as I waited for a plan to come to me. I still have no idea what we’ll do with the contents of the place or where it will even live as I find homes for it all. In my basement, most likely. I have the space, but I don’t relish the idea at all. It’s ok, eventually things will sort themselves out.

There’s sentiment floating around some of this stuff too, like for my dad’s harpsichord tools. What to do with them? Which items do I keep, which should I give away? Posters of past concerts, expensively framed (a Christmas gift from me and my husband one year), certificates signed by famous, long-dead musicians, awards given to my father from local institutions, and many various original paintings. Not to mention my Rhodes, which lived here as I hadn’t the room in my own place. Guess I’ll have to make room now. (I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, but I had secretly hoped to learn how to successfully sell on Ebay this year – now might be a good time to take that project on.) Yeah, there are things here that could very likely find appreciative homes somewhere in the world, and while it’s hugely daunting to me to know how to find those homes, at least the process has begun. Here again, it can’t be just me. I don’t have these skills (yet), so the theme of the day has now become ‘delegate’. It’s time to enroll others in the mass project. Get rid of stuff, demo, choose new materials, rebuild. And then, at long last, move forward…

I still don’t know much about the future of this place. But I do know enough to recognize those first chills of excitement, hope, inspiration…. It’s a challenge for me to move past seeing this place as my father’s, to move past all those exquisitely nostalgic memories. The other day, when Ceres, mom and I were discussing our next move, when we got to the part about the floor, mom had said something about making sure to duplicate the amazing acoustics of the first floor… but suddenly aware of what she’d said, she stopped herself short. Ceres pointed out that mom, like me, had a hard time thinking about the space in a new way. (Ironically, the place had been too live a room in which to do any other types of music besides acoustic chamber music. Yes, an audience sops up part of the sound, and yes, it’s better to start a room too live than too dead, but still…) Our objectives are going to be different now, and for me it’s still a challenge to see this old building in a new light. I understand that where dad is now, it doesn’t really matter. He saw his vision come to life, and he saw his creation come to a perfect close. He surrounded himself with all the right people to realize his dream, and now it’s my turn to do the same.

This will be an ensemble piece, with just the occasional solo.

 

Maestro’s Finale December 28, 2013

Robert S Conant

Robert Scott Conant of Greenfield Center, New York, passed away in his home on the evening of December 27th, 2013 at the age of 85. He died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his loving family and cherished cats. He is survived by Nancy J. Conant, his wife of 54 years, daughter Elizabeth Scott Conant, son Andrew Frederick Conant and also his beloved ten year old grandson, Elihu Scott Conant-Haque, all of whom live in Greenfield Center, New York, as well as nephew David Conant of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania; nephew Douglas Conant of Champaign, Illinois; grandnephews Matthew and Gregory Conant and sister-in-law, Jean Conant of Holiday, Florida. He is predeceased by his father, Frederick Banks Conant, mother Bessie (Scott) Conant, brother David and niece Susan.

Robert and Nancy Conant were married at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan on October 10th, 1959, Fr. David Gillespie presiding. Though seven years apart in age, Bob and Nancy shared the same birthday.

Robert Conant was born on January 6th, 1928 in Passaic, New Jersey. His father was a judge, his mother a talented pianist. He attended Choate, where on a school trip to Manhattan to hear a concert by the iconic harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, he was first inspired to dedicate himself to the study and performance of the harpsichord. Mr. Conant went on to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University, class of ’48 and ’56 respectively, where he would later teach as well as become curator of the Yale Instrument Collection. Mr. Conant made his professional debut at Town Hall in Manhattan in 1951. He later taught at Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University under Rudolph Ganz, from which he retired in 1986.

Mr. Conant performed and recorded with many groups and individuals here and abroad including the American Bach Society, The Collegium Musicum, Robert Shaw Chorale, the Viola da Gamba Trio of Basel with August Wenzinger and Hannelore Mueller, the Alfred Deller Trio, Henryk Szeryng, Fritz Rikko, Paul Doktor, Janos Scholz, Renato Bonacini, Josef Marx and Kenneth Slowik.

Mr. Conant was a pioneer of the early music revival of the post World War II years, promoting the use of historically accurate instruments and tunings. Mr. Conant created the Foundation for Baroque Music in 1959, and began to host an annual concert series, The Festival of Baroque Music, the first several of which took place at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, NY, and which later moved to its permanent home in The Studio in Greenfield Center, NY, an open-plan concert hall designed for its superb acoustics. The Festival of Baroque Music ran continuously for 52 years, concluding in July of 2011. In addition to his love for early music he was an avid supporter of twentieth century music and commissioned several new compositions for harpsichord. He received a Lifetime Award from Yale University as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saratoga Arts Council. When appearing before an audience, Robert spoke with masterful eloquence as few can.

There will be no formal visitation; online remembrances may be made at http://www.burkefuneralhome.com. The family would like to express their deepest appreciation for the exceptional level of care given by hospice workers. In lieu of flowers, friends may make donations to The Community Hospice of Saratoga in Robert’s name.

Bob entertained friends and family with his great talent for hilarious, spot-on impersonations and will be remembered by everyone who knew him for his ever-present sense of humor, cheerful demeanor and endearing smile. Robert loved all things beautiful, sonorous and poetic, and he lives on through our enjoyment of great music and art.

Please note that the link to www.burke@burkefuneralhome.com may not bring up Robert’s page just yet, as there is still a bit of paperwork to complete before he’ll be represented on their site. Visit back soon and you should be able to leave a remembrance. Thank you all for your love and support.