Backstage view

Behind the curtain at a concert hall

Sitting in a concert hall right
before the artist walks on stage, no matter how big or small the venue, is a
very particular moment for the performer, of course. For the audience somehow,
as well.

The St. John School of the Arts
auditorium in the US Virgin Islands is a very cosy space, which fits about 100
tightly packed chairs spread over a dance-floor-like parquet. A humidity-defying,
exquisitely sounding Yamaha piano sits on the intimate stage with but a
partition serving as green room for the artist to wait behind, before revealing
himself to the audience. Unfortunately, the partition isn’t tall enough to
completely cover the artist, who has the choice of either showing off his
nail-bitingly cheery preconcert disposition (not pleasant), or crouching down
comfortably in a quasi-Turkish toilet position to avoid being seen (even less

The evening’s pianist, the
well-known Awadagin Pratt, who is being introduced by Sis Frank, chose the
former. I, on the other hand, was comfortably seated in the hall with many
smiling faces all around me. My performance the previous evening in the same
hall ended with a standing ovation. This, in turn, led to a generous offer from
Bill and Lee Morris to have me join them for a sail on their pride and glory,
the Janet Lynn. Sunburned and satisfied, I sat a bit nervously, waiting for the
concert to commence. 

Sis began by announcing Awadagin’s
much-awaited return on island, commented on a few of his recent achievements,
mentioned the exciting programme ahead, but then somehow veered off into
“Julian’s performance last night”. My initial train of thought, about how awkward
introductions listing your ‘wonderful achievements’ right before you sit down
to play can be, also veered off into one on how uncomfortable Awadagin must
feel standing just 25 feet away, clearly visible to the audience behind his
little partition, as Sis spun her tale about me.

Psychologically speaking, playing a
concert brings out all sorts of unresolved mental issues. I don’t know how it
works exactly, but having to recall thousands of notes, in a particular order,
in front of a large group of people inspecting you as you do it, probably isn’t
in the natural order of things for us humans. Imagine stacking all those notes
one on top of the other, as if they were crystal glasses. Now imagine
supporting them all on just one finger. Well, that is how sturdy your psyche
feels right before you go on stage. Not a great moment to hear about the achievements
of another pianist. Who played yesterday’s show. For the same people. In the
same hall. And just happens to be seated across the room.

People were starting to turn and
look at me as Sis went on about yesterday’s concert. Before I knew it, she had
me standing as everybody was clapping. For me. A reverse standing ovation, of
sorts.  And behind Sis’ beautiful smiling
face, I could just but make out the top of Awadagin’s head, and if I was not mistaken,
there seemed to be smoke rising from the top. It was a perfectly absurd moment,
and I couldn’t help but imagine what he must have been feeling with everyone
smiling and clapping for me, at his concert. I became completely flushed. This
only made everyone clap and cheer more. A part of me wanted to shout out about
the injustice of the situation. Another part of me was basking in this perfect,
but poorly-timed, moment of glory. There was even a small sadistic part of me
enjoying the implied irony of the situation. 

Then suddenly, a moment of clarity.
Everything that happened could be viewed from a myriad of different angles.
Yesterday I was where Awadagin is right now. Today I’m sitting back viewing him
from the other side. Sitting in the bigger theatre of life, we all more or less
go through the same things. Birth, death, joy, sadness, luck, tragedy, anger,
fear, and understanding. Sometimes we are the protagonists, sometimes the supporting
actors. Sometimes the audience members. And if we get really lucky, drinks are
served after the show.


Julian Gargiulo is a pianist and composer who lives in New York City
and tours with his new album, mostlyjulian. He also has a non-profit, For details, visit
or email: [email protected]

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