Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Weekend in the Country

One day, some folks near Lawrenceville, Pa, saw fit to build a lodge above a lake, stock it with good grub, and decorate it with enough dead animals to score the 2004-2005 Taxidermy Professionals of America Appreciation Award (Pennsy Chapter).

As it turns out, if you stuff them, they will come--and play keen tunes. This weekend, many lucky 80's-era graduates of my high school convened, amongst the fur and horns, and were entertained by more musical talent than Tioga County might have reasonably expected to beget in the mid-late 60s. Two of these fellas have graced these pages before, and you can find an accounting of their musical stylings under Songwriter Buds The Second and The Third., respectively.

photo, Jill Sumner Ellison

Their sets were rousing and wonderful and inspiring in their own right, but for this blogsploitation, I'm focussing on the fairer musicians... the wimminfolk.

Obscenely gifted wimminfolk. photo, Ken Harris

Secret weapon Lori Barrett coordinated the homefront, played a set of her own hard-driving, yet funny tunes, accompanied another songster on bass, organised the sound-and-lights package, held a rehearsal in her garage and even "produced" a back-up singer in the form of her own daughter--gotta be a first amongst Mansfieldians in my extended peer group. When I was emerging from tweenhood, Lori was the star ingenue, "Following the Fold" as Sister Sarah, and putting jam on the cat, in The Fantasticks. Last weekend's show blossomed around her infectious enthusiasm, and the beaming pleasure she takes in music of any kind, and it was pretty clear that if you randomly sat her down with two strings to stretch, saw, strum or otherwise experiment with, she'd ignite into a small sun.

photo, Lonny Frost

Esther Friedman played the fiddle.

photo, Frost/Barrett

Someone ought to write a short story with that as the first line. She also said Yes to the fortunate Chris LaVancher and his proposal of marriage, and now they, well, make beautiful music together. And separately. She put an album out that's available on CD Baby, as well as Napster and you can find her stuff on Amazon, as well.

photo, Tom Willner

 I've already used the word "artisinal" to describe this kind of intricate song-making, so I won't do it again, but I will say this: If you were to trek out, on a high spring day, into the Massachussetts hardwood forest, and a tree fell in front of you at about the three-mile mark, not only would you hear it, but if you were to cut it open to count its rings, you'd find a teeny tiny little dryad with a hand-whittled lyre, posessed by the ghost of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, plucking out an Esther Friedman tune. Swear to God.

And finally, guest vocalist Gwen Walker, who tore the shingles off the place with "Down on my Knees." photo, Ken Harris
Gwen Walker, den mother of us all; Gwen Walker, operatic mezzo who not only put the "belt" in the Belt Parkway, but also put the "fist" in sophisticate; Gwen Walker, who will still have the porcelain skin of an early-thirty-something when the rest of us are clipping coupons for Pollident. Whatever deal with the devil Gwen Walker made, I want in. Gwen was always one of the older kids whom you wanted to be like. Sometime around 1985, she put together a pick-up group at Mansfield University and they did a "coffeehouse." I didn't know what a "coffeehouse" was, nor why one would hold it at the student union building, but I took notice, given that Gwen always projected the air of someone who knew what the hell she was doing. This was especially driven home when I sat in on a rehearsal and watched her bear down on a trombone player until he got the solo right in their cover of Chicago's "Hard Habit to Break." She also referred to a Billy Joel tune as "the Joel," as in, "Awright everyone, we're going through the Joel, now." Years later, I heard Twyla Tharp do the same kind of thing in rehearsal. "Andy!" she'd bark -- "Cue up the Meyer!" (Edgar Meyer, bassist/composer). So, there you go: Twyla, meet Gwen. Gwen, Twyla.

A couple of luminaries in the audience ought to be mentioned--our childhood teachers. Bill Berresford was a major presence in the musical lives of many, many Mansfieldians (and Blossburgundians, too, and others, through a multi-school wind ensemble), and he was beaming all night long. Our beloved choral and theatre muse, Christine Wunderlich, conferenced in on someone's cell phone, and sent pleased-as-punch vibes from Pittsburgh. And there was another gent who took great relish at the evening's festivities--particularly Tom's rollicking, funny song about the ironies of modern conception--Jack Novak, our elementary school principal, who was as sharp as ever and remember us all, down to our bus routes. I always thought he was a terrific principal and it was a lovely surprise to see him.
photo, Lonny Frost

Everyone joined in a finale of Tom Willner's reggae chillax anthem "All Fruits Ripe," with lush harmonies and sweet syncopations. By that time, I had found the Zen of building the lavender hi-side light during a crescendo in the bridge. The controller I commandeered was a gutsy little 8-channel trouper, and faded the lighting to a blue mist at the end of each song.

photo, Ken Harris

And that's exactly what had happened at gig's end, when we walked out the door, tired and happy---a blue mist bathed the Tioga Hammond basin. Lycanthrope jug bands prowled the dirt roads in search of cheap whisky and a good time. The young shoots of corn dreamt of a time when they might tassle, and what that might feel like. And so we all made our way gingerly back to our parents' houses...

Going home as adults brings an inevitable regression to the old times, but in a good way, when we sang three-part harmonies in the school cafeterias, drove past endless pastures to catch the latest movies, and spent Thursday afternoons at the bowling alley. That's smalltown life for you. Many of us stayed in the area and are raising families, many moved away. Some have died... The thickets of Tioga County can still call back its own, and we delight in going back. So much the better, in this case, to gather around the musical fire, and tell each other a few stories.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Andrew - Thank you!
    I have been catching photos here and there on Facebook from this amazing night. BUT YOU have made a concise presentation. THANK YOU!

    Seeing each photo posted on Facebook here and there, and again in your blog, makes me more sad that I could not have been there. BUT our first family wedding in Rochester, N.Y. kept me away.

    Upon seeing each photo on Facebook and now your blog makes my mind swirl immmediately to all the chorus concerts, each musical/drama "MHS Theatre" production and even the General Music Classes I taught. It seems as if it were only 5 or 10 years ago. I left Mansfield after my last participation at the Graduation ceremony of 1984. Bitter sweet but I had to move on, BUT I have kept EVERY SINGLE student and musical moment and memory in my mind and heart.

    Fortunately, I have been able to catch up and visit with several of my students in the past few years. As you know Andrew, a few years ago my family and I caught up with you in NYC. You graciously gave us a tour of the MET. Andrew, the last time I saw you, you were a little bit taller than me!!!! WOW. What a joy to hug you and see the creative human being you have become. It is so "COOL" to think of where you came from.... those "bedroom" switches on Stage left in the MHS Auditorium to the MET! AIN'T BAD!!! I am SO PROUD.

    I also was able to vist with Delia Vayansky ( the best stage manager ever!) She stage managed my two MFA productions while I was a MFA candidate at the Drama departent at CMU. Delia was a Math major by day but an adopted theatre student at night. After I graduated, I learned that Delia continued to stage manage for several other grad. students until she graduated. Delia and I visited at Princeton University a few years ago. Amazing.

    I am running out of room ! (FUDGE!) ( FRIG!!!) ....there are several other student/friends I have been able to spend time with... Jonathan Uffelman, Gwen Walker Starks, Laurie Bowen Frey, Chris LaVancher (CMU apartment mates), and Amy Walker McCall!!!! Amy and I have never lost contact. Our children have grown up together. :)

    Each one of the above students/friends, that I have been able to see, have or have had accomplished careers in the theatre/arts. Amazing, truly amazing for me to be a part of their journey.

    Facebook has been so helpful for me in reconnecting with MORE of my students. It has been a JOY to learn of many of those that were a part of my Chorus/MHS THEATRE that have made music/theatre part of their lives in not only having careers in the arts but keeping the arts a part of their lives and their families lives. That time in Mansfield was a hot bed of talent and those talents continue on. What a legacy! I am so fortunate to have been a part of that time. YOU ALL helped me get my MFA and do what I do till this day.

    I am hoping that this Event that you blogged about may continue and that I will be able to attend. Andrew, I hope we can see each other again. I hope to see EVERYONE sometime in the future. Pittsburgh isn't THAT FAR.... the door is open. :)


  2. Chris -- you were there in spirit! Thank you, as always, for all the great formative memories and experiences. It was a great time to be an arts-interested MHS student.

  3. homegrown talent - obviously in the musicians, but also in the form of the storyteller!

  4. Many thanks, O chronicler of the Southern Tioga.