The story starts on a chilly winter night in 2010. I was playing baroque harpsichord music on an upright piano in a cafe. It was probably the first and the last time someone had played 17th-century harpsichord music at this venue, which has hosted regular performances, from jazz artists to songwriters, to classical musicians of the more traditional persuasion. While I played, people were eating, silverware was clinking, and the vibe was casual and friendly.
FezArt cafe near Prospect Park was a cozy little space with art-lined walls. The owner, Oleg Voronoy, formerly from Leningrad, created a welcoming ambiance through a warm color palette, beautiful lighting and live music nights. In the cordial salon atmosphere, musicians, songwriters and poets would entertain the cafe patrons. FezArt Cafe was truly a beacon of hospitality and creativity in the heart of Brooklyn.
I was introduced to Oleg by a mutual acquaintance. At that time, I was just starting out performing on the harpsichord in public and was hungry for places to play. In the reclusive world of early music specialists and venues, someone just coming onto the scene would be hard-pressed to find a place and an audience. I happily agreed to perform, though I pretty much swore off piano at that point, preferring harpsichords and pipe organs. It was a chance to take my hard work out into the world and I had to take it. Afterwards, I sent a message to a harpsichord aficionado email list, detailing my program and mentioning that I played it on a piano in a cafe.
This set into motion an avalanche of criticism from the purists and snobs who could not accept that I played a gig in a cafe. But one person rose to my defense. John Brodsky, a gentleman living in the Philadelphia suburbs, who practiced medicine for a living and built harpsichords for love, stood up for me and invited me to come play a concert on the harpsichords at his house. Within weeks, I was on a train to Philadelphia with a concert program at the ready and long black dress in tow, not knowing what I would see when I arrived.
John and his wife Ingrid’s house was a drafty but palatial Victorian mansion with a rotunda library, where they held regular “Candlelight Concerts”. The house was full of oil paintings and large format photographs, also passions of John’s. I found that John, although nearing 80, was very much full of life and creativity, curiosity about people and the world. He is a fascinating character and wonderful conversationalist. Ingrid is a violinist and the couple invited various chamber musicians and pianists to perform within the library, followed by a potluck dinner. It was very sweet– tickets were sold at the door, with all proceeds going to the musicians. And it so happened that, even though John had built several instruments over the years, no one came to play them in concert until I arrived. John and I, two enthusiasts, building and performing, had found each other. This was the start of a lovely friendship that’s going on eight years now.
John’s instruments were a little rough-hewn and did not work perfectly. But that was okay for me. In fact, through my experience of playing pipe organ, I have learned to adjust to and enjoy all sorts of idiosyncrasies that are just part and parcel of visiting instruments that are as different from each other as people are. The challenge of making music on these instruments and coaxing them to speak as you want them to is a fun one. There is certainly no factory standard of layout, size of the keys and mechanical action as you would expect with a regular piano.
Over the years, I played a few house concerts at John and Ingrid’s, staying the night each time in their lovely guest room, eating eggs from their own chickens for breakfast, and having at my disposal no fewer than four harpsichords at a time, strewn around the house.
These days John and Ingrid have sold the mansion and downsized to a much smaller home. There is no more room to do Candlelight Concerts and his harpsichords mostly live at friends’ houses. But one instrument remains in the attic, which serves as a guest room. When the summer comes, John plans to convert his garage into a harpsichord workshop. I am looking forward to visiting my dear old friend again.
As for the fate of the cozy FezArt cafe, it closed. We all miss it dearly, and miss Oleg’s generous hospitality and welcoming local and passing-by musicians, poets and artists. He inspired me to start holding annual harpsichord “salon concerts” at my house, with friends and food and good conversation.
Music and art should be shared with people wherever the people are — there is a place for Rameau in a casual cafe, just as there is place for him on stage of a hushed concert hall. From my conversation with John, when he expressed doubt that building harpsichords, that are not concert-quality but are the best that his hands can make, is actually worthwhile, I responded that there is enough place in this world for professionals and for amateurs, and following a passion is what makes life matter.
Lana can be seen and heard on her Youtube channel.