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My European debut: First performance in Luxemburg

First performance in Luxemburg

My Luxembourg time was approaching. I made my plane reservation, ordered my Eurail Pass and reserved my room at the Luxembourg Cravat Hotel. Throughout all this, I kept Dean Spielman informed of developments and he, in turn, kept me up-to-date about upcoming Luxembourg developments pertaining to my recital.

I was going to be in Luxembourg a week before the concert. The cathedral closed every day from noon to 2 p.m. That would be my daily practice time. An interview and pictures with a reporter from the daily Luxembourg paper was scheduled from 6 to 7 p.m. on the recital day.

I flew into Schiphol (ships hole, named because the airport is situated on what used to be a lake bottom, where in ages past many ships had sunk). Many years ago, it had been pumped dry. Dykes were built around it and like the Dutch say, “Voila,” we now have land for an airport.

Directly from the airport, I took the train to the Main Station in Amsterdam and boarded an Express to Brussels, Belgium. From there another Express train took me to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. It is amazing how smoothly that all works in Europe. Too bad we can’t learn from other countries.

A taxi took me to the Cravat Hotel. By then my body said, “OK, Lamain, that’s enough for now; time for sleep. I took the hint and kind of passed out like a light. The next morning I was ready for work. I enjoyed a Luxembourg breakfast of freshly baked croissants, eggs, bacon and coffee (strong enough to put into my car gas tank).

By 11 a.m. I walked over to the cathedral. I wanted to “feel” the place in my heart and soul. Dean met me at 11:30 and we went up the stairs to the “hallowed ground,” the “organ loft.”

Dean explained the entire organ to me. In a way, all modern traditional pipe organs world-wide have much in common. I had played enough organs in my lifetime to be a quick learner. The console did not have the conveniences that I was used to. On the organ at Trinity, for instance, the organist can “pre-program” different settings (sounds) and store them in the organ’s memory to be recalled with the push of a button. It makes the changes in sounds quite simple. In 2020 we all work with these types of things in our computers, but this was 1985; it was 35 years ago.

The Cathedral organ had only two pre-set buttons. All the changes had to be made by hand. It meant that while I would be playing my recital, two assistants, Dean and one of his organ friends, would stand on either side of me, and make the upcoming changes that I had indicated in the music score. Obviously this took a lot of rehearsal time. There was no room for error.

It also meant that while I was playing one particular section, the assistants would be pre-programming upcoming sections. Nerve racking (at least for me).

I spent every day practicing. During my off-time I would explore the Luxembourg City downtown area.

On my first day of “going downtown” I saw something that took my breath away. There, displayed in one of the store windows was a huge Tourist poster for the summer “FESTIVAL de LUXEMBOURG” (the Festival in which I was one of the featured performers). It listed the various concerts for the summer; and there, for the first time in my career, there was my name in huge letters, with the pertinent information about my recital.

I had to find a bench and sit for a moment. Suddenly the whole recital thing overwhelmed me, and from my heart I said, “Lord, help me.”

I prayed for strength.

The next day after practice, Dean brought me over to his parents’ house for a late lunch. They were delightful people who lived in a beautiful home. Dean’s dad was a very well-known and very well-to-do attorney. It was the field that Dean had also chosen for his life’s work.

Some evenings I was invited out by Dean and his friends. We would eat and drink (moderately of course) and have wonderful conversations about global issues, about organs; and, of course, they wanted to know about the U.S.

Luxembourg is a very small country but extremely well to do. There are probably more banks per capita in Luxembourg than anywhere else in the world.

On Sunday morning I went to the cathedral. I met Dean and together we entered “the organ loft.”

The maestro was there and this time we met like old friends. He embraced me and kissed me on both cheeks (very French).

I glanced over at Dean and he nodded to me, so I did the same. I kissed the maestro. We had bonded. It was the beginning of a wonderful, unique relationship; two human beings who connected through the universal language of music.

He again wanted me to sit next to him when he played, which, of course, I did. This time, when the Communion part of the Mass was beginning, the Maestro looked at me, questioningly, and pointed to the keyboards. Dean explained, “He would like you to play during Communion”.

I felt a heart attack coming on. I was not ready for this. Diplomatically I said to Dean,” Would you please thank the Maestro, I am deeply honored, but I want to hear the Maestro play, not me.” The Maestro smiled, understood, nodded, and proceeded to improvise; and heaven returned.

Tuesday, my recital day, came much too soon. I had worked so hard and driven so many miles for so many months, and now it was “pay off” time. I practiced one more time, assisted by Dean and his friend. During the afternoon I slept, had an early dinner and dressed for the concert. At 6 p.m. the reporter from the local paper came, took pictures and asked lots of questions. From 7 – 8 p.m. I did one last run through; and then at 8 p.m. I had a little while to be alone with God. I prayed for strength, for inspiration, and above all I asked that my efforts would be a blessing to those who came to hear.

The peace that I felt told me that I was not alone. And then, prepared, I sat and waited.

I heard the sounds of people coming into the cathedral, but I dared not peak over the balcony railing. I did not want to be distracted. My assistants came and we moved over to the organ bench. We checked everything one more time, and then we waited.

At 8 p.m. the cathedral bell sounded the hour, and then it was time…my time.

The first piece on the program was Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fantasia in A Minor.”

True to tradition, one begins a European concert with a Bach composition. In a way it pays tribute to the greatest composer who ever lived. This particular composition, one of my favorites, was originally written for the harpsichord (a forerunner of the modern day piano).

It opens with full, majestic chords and then develops, as Bach did so well, into a fantasy. The cathedral organ and the wonderful acoustics lent themselves beautifully to the Bach tribute. As I was playing I felt the nearness of this great composer, and I had the feeling that he was listening and that he approved. I reached the final page; the exuberant fantasia was drawing to a close, reaching its final chords with full organ.

I took my hands off the keys, and the majestic sound slowly disappeared, and then it was quiet, really quiet. I expected at least some applause. There was none. Nada.

I think the blood drained out of my face, and I probably turned several shades of white. Was it that bad?

I realized, I have another hour and five minutes to go, and I’m not going over, at all. Fortunately Dean saw my anguish and came to the rescue. He whispered, “I am so sorry Mr. Lamain, I should have told you, there is a tradition in the cathedral. We never applaud until the end of the concert.”

I almost kissed him! I collected myself, and told my heart “Be Still.” I was ready to go on, and for the rest of the concert I did not think about anything else but the music.

I was like a painter; some of the brushstrokes were big and bold, others small and delicate. Somehow I could feel the audience with me, and together we traveled down various roads. Some filled with joy, and some with solace; but at all times, we were together. It was an experience that I will never forget.

Time flew by and I began the final piece. It was a delightful “Toccata” by an American composer, Gordon Balch Nevin. It consisted of three sections that could simply be called, fast, (loud) slow, (soft and lyric) and faster and louder.

The last few chords were played with “Full Organ” It means (Pull out all the stops) Give it all you got.

I lifted my hands off the keys and let the sound surround the audience. There was total silence, again. I almost said things that should never be said in a cathedral, and then it started.

The applause was deafening. My eye faucets opened, and I cried! Tears of joy. The clapping grew louder, and Dean said, “You better go to the balcony rail so the people can see you, but come right back to play the Encore. We’ll have the organ ready for you.”

When I approached the balcony rail I saw that the cathedral was almost full, and everybody was standing and applauding. I had to wipe away the tears to see it all and my heart was filled with unspeakable joy. I said, over and over again, “Thank you, God, Thank You!”

I remembered Dean’s words; “Come right back!” I almost ran back to the organ, slid onto the bench, and began the encore. Dean had previously asked for this encore piece (he said he knew that I would receive an encore). He asked if I would play one of his favorite pieces, the “Grand Choeur” (Grand Chorus), a joyful Postlude on the Doxology melody, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” by the famed French composer, Cesar Franck. The piece said everything that was in my soul, far better than words could ever express. When it ended, there was another standing ovation. I went back to the balcony rail, and again said “Thank You,” and then it was over.

In my heart I thanked God and Ed Berriman. I wished that Ed could have been there with me to share in the applause. We had walked together along “the road less traveled,” and it had made all the difference.”

“Thanks be to God.”

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