Minutes before the recital, we were in the green room waiting while he kept his fingers and arms warm playing on a regular piano. By this time he was in a world all his own, fright and elation dancing in his eyes like drops of rain on water. I went in search of a vending machine for the bottled water we forgot to bring along. "Do you have any Euro, darling?" Drat. I just used my last one on a key chain for my daughter. I rummage through my purse, I rummage through his. I check his coat pockets, pants pockets, and finally find a single one clanging around at the bottom of my briefcase.
The long halls draping La Fenice seem labyrinthian now, and I locate a very well-stocked machine in a most unusual place. I drop in my Euro and bring the bottle back to my artist. On the piano is a banana. This is the food of the music gods - bottled water and a banana. Don't be fooled - that's all you need to be world-class.
At five minutes to eight, the usher came to call us.
"No, darling, I think I won't play tonight," he says as his fingers continue to string out notes. "Please be so kind as to inform the guests that I won't be playing. Oh! You can play! Just play that little bit of Mozart I taught you. Don't you remember? Da-da-da-da-da-da----da-. Remember? Just go play -- you. Thank you, darling."
This is the kind of thing that happens two minutes before the brilliant come on stage.
I gently wrap my fingers around his arm (you can't pull on the arms of pianists like you do your kids ... this makes things more challenging). I push him gently from behind. The usher watches on in amusement. We nearly force him to the door.
The clock struck 8:00.
"Darling... I need you to turn my pages. In fact, I need you to manage my scores between pieces. As I speak to the audience, you find the next piece and get it ready for me, ok? Thank you, darling."
I don't know which pieces are in which book! What are you talking about! How will I find them? It's a little late to be telling me this, don't you think?
He motioned to the usher to bring a program while a room full of people waited for the recital to begin, scribbling "Blue book, page 3" - "Yellow book, page ?" beside each piece. I could feel the blood draining from my face - visualizing myself picking the wrong one, losing my place and not turning the page on time (this is million-mile-a-minute playing), or worse, dropping the book on his fingers.
He entered the great hall as I stood by the door, primed to take my place beside him at just the right time. My face must have been a nice shade of sheet white, for two lady ushers came beside me, muttering Italian words of encouragement as only women can, soothing in a way that is common to every female alive.
And then it began. And when it begins, well, I have no words for what happens then. Faster than the speed of light he plays - my eyes follow the notes, holding on to each one for dear life as if I'm being thrown off a cliff. Do - not - lose - your - place - Allison! There is no room for distraction. If I lose my place, well, there's no elegant way to say it - I'm screwed. I mean, what other words could I possibly say?
As the first piece rolled to a breathtaking end, as he bent over his hands in a final gesture of musical intent, his eyes met mine for a brief second. A smile. And then he was standing before his audience again.
La Fenice is that memory to me. It is not Vivaldi or the great mecca of operatic culture. It is not history or elegance or prestige. It is the moment his eyes met mine; the moment a smile burst from his soul. Bliss.