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Old Tavern Magic

July 3, 2011

“Old Tavern Magic”

Rummaging around in my trunk full of Old Tavern memories and reflections, I have found one that, while of no particular importance – or relevance – is, none-the-less curious enough to warrant a telling.

Just a couple of years after I founded The Old Tavern Concert Series (now some 25 years ago), I received a call from a musician whom I had known during the time I taught at The Putney School. Her name is Sarah Cantor – now a Boston-based recorder player of renown – who, at the time of this tale, was a graduate student at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague,  the Netherlands. Recalling our friendship at Putney, she was hoping I might be interested in booking her baroque music trio during their upcoming summer tour in the USA. Indeed I was, and we set a date immediately. When the date came we had a wonderful concert, but of special interest to me was one of the ensemble members, a Dutchman and classmate of Sarah’s  named Wouter Verschuren (do not try pronouncing this name at home, kids). Wouter (Vow-ter, well – that’s not too bad) was gracious enough to speak Dutch with me, and, at that time, I hadn’t had much chance to try this language in real-life situations. It was both exciting and gratifying and gave me a special sense of friendship with Wouter. As it happened, the same ensemble performed in Grafton the following year, and once again Wouter spent quite a bit of time helping me with my Dutch. As the third year rolled around, the ensemble members had all finished their conservatory studies and had thus scattered far and wide looking for employment. Sadly, no more concerts from that conformation were to be had.

End of story? Not quite. Allow the passage of another 3 years, and, during the spring closing of the inn, I took my vacation – on this occasion, a short trip to Holland during the 3rd week of March, the deadest time of the year for tourists (it can be especially rainy and raw, and the tulips do not usually bloom for another three weeks).

After landing at 7AM in Amsterdam, even before finding a room, I headed for the main concert hall to check-out the week’s offerings. Oh my gosh!

That very night there was to be a one-time performance of a re-creation of J.S Bachs’ Saint Luke Passion, which had been realized by Toon Koopman, the famous Dutch musicologist, organist and harpsichordist. What luck!! I rushed around to the ticket window, and in my best Dutch, ordered a ticket. “Oh, the concert has been sold-out for a month” was the reply. I was horrified, but I struggled on in Dutch, explaining to the  two ladies behind the window that I was a huge fan of Dutch culture, as they could probably hear from my impassioned brutalization of their language. They were shaking their heads, but I could not take “no” for an answer. As I got more and more worked up,  I think they became alarmed that I might burst into tears, and they suddenly turned to the seating chart behind them and did a lot of whispering. When they turned back to me, they grimly made this offer: there were no proper seats left, that was final – however, while being obliged to charge me the full ticket price (it was expensive!), they could give me one of the ushers chairs. This chair, they explained, was right next to the musicians’ entrance to the stage area, but from this seat, I could see nothing of the performance.

Well, what I wanted to do was hear the music – seeing was secondary. I took the offer, and they hand-wrote my special ticket. Thanking them profusely – first in Dutch as best I could, then in English to be sure they understood how truly grateful I was, I headed off into the city. In my celebratory mood, I made straight to a cafe, had a light breakfast and spent about an hour just drinking strong Dutch coffee and smoking a Schimmelpennick (NO! – don’t try this one either!)

After a most pleasurable day, all of which was enhanced by knowing what a special treat awaited me that evening, I made my way to the concert hall. The usher looked very strangely at the ticket and sort of frowned. “Oh lord,” I thought, “I’ve been given this guy’s seat.” He finally directed me down a side aisle, “All the way to the front, the seat is right beside the door.” Okay. As I approached the seat, the stage did vanish completely. I settled in, more than content with what I had, and began reading the program. I had just finished the notes when the house lights dimmed and I heard footsteps. The first of many musicians to come stepped through the narrow door and on up the circular staircase to the stage. They were so close to me that I had to pull in my feet lest I trip someone. Formal dresses and tuxedos only.

Faces seemed bright and eager. Suddenly I stiffened and leaned forward…A young man had stepped through the door with a bassoon in his hands. “Wouter?” I whispered, “Wouter??”

“Bill!” came the answer….

“What are YOU doing here?” And then he was gone. Yes, it was Wouter!

“What on earth! ” I thought to myself, “How can this be?”

Once the last musician had passed by me, I scanned the front rows such as I could see, and, indeed, there were a couple of empty chairs – no doubt reserved for season ticket holders who found themselves unable to make this particular concert.  Assuring myself that it would be criminal to let these seats go unused, I discreetly slipped into one and had the perfect view of the entire orchestra.  The music and performance were extraordinary, but no more so than the surreal circumstances that led me to that usher’s seat. Had I been anywhere but there, I’m sure I never would have realized that Wouter was part of that orchestra. During our merry reunion following the concert, we tried to make sense of how such a thing could have happened, and what was the only plausible explanation?? – the obvious one….Old Tavern Magic!

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