UVM Pianist David Feurzeig Aims to Bring a Concert — and Climate Activism — to Every Vermont Town | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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UVM Pianist David Feurzeig Aims to Bring a Concert — and Climate Activism — to Every Vermont Town

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Published May 18, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 19, 2022 at 10:40 a.m.


David Feurzeig - COURTESY OF BAILEY BELTRAMO, UVM COMMUNICATIONS
  • Courtesy of Bailey Beltramo, UVM Communications
  • David Feurzeig

Like many Vermonters, David Feurzeig is alarmed about the climate crisis. The pianist and University of Vermont music professor lives in a net-metered house in Huntington that is heated mostly with heat pumps. He drives a Chevrolet Volt powered by a solar array built from scratch by his tech-savvy wife and grown children.

But what separates him from most climate warriors is his decision never to fly again.

It's a laudable goal — and still unimaginable for many. So Feurzeig, 56, has embarked on a project to demonstrate that a plane-free life is possible, even for musicians who typically travel to give concerts.

Play Every Town is Feurzeig's project to play a free concert in every town in Vermont without releasing any carbon into the atmosphere in the process. The mode of transportation is his electric car. He estimates that, at the rate of at least one concert a week, it will take him four and a half years to reach all 251 towns. (After July, when Essex Junction becomes a city, that number will be 252.) He's documenting his journey on Instagram, Facebook and a blog on his project website.

At his launch concert on May 6, at the UVM Recital Hall in Burlington, Feurzeig didn't immediately explain his motivation to the audience of about 70, presumably because the home crowd already knew about it. Instead, he mentioned that the concert was only the second he had performed live in two and a half years. Moving from the performance desert of the earlier pandemic to giving weekly concerts is, well, like going from zero to 60 in a very fast electric car.

Feurzeig made plenty of his own analogies while chattily introducing pieces on his program. Before playing Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, he noted that the composer famously "challenged every assumption, expectation, tradition" in music — "which is kind of like what we have to do now" to combat global warming, he said.

In an illuminating pairing, Feurzeig alternated the dances in Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 1 — a sarabande, a gigue (or jig) and so on — with American ragtime pieces. One was his own rag, a genre in which he composes regularly, titled "Happy Birthday, Martin."

Before playing the courante, a baroque dance with running steps, Feurzeig said it made him think of Bach's 280-mile walk as a 20-year-old from Arnstadt to Lübeck, Germany, to see a famous organist play. Feurzeig cited the feat as proof that humans need not depend on carbon-emitting modes of transportation.

In a phone call before the concert, Feurzeig put his project into perspective.

"It's crystal clear that we don't get out of [the climate crisis] with individual action. [A solution] requires radical revision of our entire society and legislation," he said.

At the same time, he noted, individuals shouldn't downplay their own efforts to combat climate change, even if each has an "infinitesimal" effect.

"When I stopped flying, I was really quiet about it, because who wants to be that guy?" he said. "It's a downer of a topic, and then people are immediately feeling defensive or shamed. Then I realized that we have to talk about this. We're not going to change things by not flying here or there, but it's impossible to imagine legislation — for example, that puts a surcharge on air travel — if we're all just flying like it's fine."

For the project's logistics, Feurzeig, who is on sabbatical, has the help of three student interns he's paying: senior Elizabeth Indorato, junior Brady Jalili and sophomore Willow Phoenix. The UVM music majors or minors are all doing a concentration in business and technology that Feurzeig helped develop five years ago. The Play Every Town project helps fulfill the concentration's internship requirement.

Describing their duties, Indorato said by phone, "I run the Facebook page, Willow runs the Insta, and Brady has done a lot of research into booking venues." At the launch concert, the three were also in charge of filming the concert. Video clips of each performance will be posted online.

Indorato is aiming for a career in social media management, tour booking or artist management; she said her "pipe dream" is managing a boy band.

Of her professor's project, Indorato said, "I really appreciate that it's something he's doing for climate change. David has sworn off flying, but I don't know if that's super achievable for all musicians."

Booking Play Every Town is a project in itself. Only the first two concerts have been announced on the website, though plenty are nearly finalized, according to Feurzeig. The second concert took place on May 15 at Brownington Congregational Church, where Feurzeig performed as part of the annual meeting of the 251 Club, a group of Vermont enthusiasts who commit to visiting every town in the state.

Feurzeig aims to showcase local musicians and composers at the concerts whenever possible, he said. In Brownington, he accompanied the church choir on several pieces, played a duet with local violinist Darryl Kubian and accompanied Matthew Faust, a junior at Lake Region Union High School, on one song.

As for finding the best venue and piano in a town, Feurzeig's methods range from informally asking around to calling the town clerk — Huntington's clerk "knows everything," he quipped — to contacting the local piano tuners, who know which instruments have been well maintained. Music educators have also been a key resource, he said.

Feurzeig got advice on finding venues from Freddie Hart of Brattleboro, who coordinated a project of a similar scope for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra from 1984 to 1986. The 251 Project celebrated the VSO's 50th anniversary by sending chamber groups to perform in every town in Vermont, a process that took two years.

"I knew of the 251 Project, so it must have planted the idea," Feurzeig said.

Hart recalled by phone that she started her search by blanketing the towns with a form letter. "Then I began literally calling 251 towns, from the town manager to the person who ran the general store to somebody who worked at a bank," she said.

Feurzeig became aware of another precedent for his project through his colleague and fellow pianist Paul Orgel, who recommended a 2013 memoir by Adam Tendler, a New York City-based pianist originally from Barre. 88x50: A Memoir of Sexual Discovery, Modern Music and the United States of America chronicles Tendler's project of performing in all 50 states.

When Feurzeig got in touch with Tendler, he discovered that the latter is curating a concert series at the Adamant Community Cultural Foundation. Tendler will host Feurzeig's Calais concert as part of the series on September 10. (Adamant is an unincorporated community within Calais.)

While Feurzeig remains focused on using his project to demonstrate that a carbon-free performance life is possible, he is also aware of the cultural impact of providing free, live performances in small and, in some cases, isolated towns.

"I got an email yesterday that choked me up, from the principal of a school in Sheffield," Feurzeig said. "He described it as an impoverished region and a small school" — Sheffield's population is 682 — "but somehow they've created this program in which every student has at least two years of violin. It's like a miracle. He said, 'It would be great if you could perform here.'"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tour of the Future"