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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
In a historic stone and timber house created from the materials of a dismantled classic manufacturing building long ago, a renowned Chicago area ophthalmologist has established an enchanting way to observe the arrival of the New Year.
Dr. Richard Geiser, a retinal specialist widely known for his medical achievements in the mid-west, is also acclaimed for his missionary work. Over a long career, in addition to his practice in the United States, he has brought his skills to China, India, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and a number of other nations where he taught and facilitated such procedures as corneal transplants.
He also established a tradition in Wheaton, Illinois that has endured for many decades. Born in China, the son of a medical missionary, Dr. Geiser, as he progressed in life, became a lover and patron of music.
As a result of this passion he began holding recitals in the spacious music room at his home which is a tenor’s high C away from Wheaton College, a Christian school with a strong reputation for its music programs.
Members of the college’s music faculty and their students have been prominently involved in the recitals which Dr. Geiser originated, but so have talented and innovative musicians from the community at large and the world beyond.
The object seems to be to offer a varied and distinctive program of accomplished as well as up and coming performers who can demonstrate the wonder that music can unleash. Eclectic rather than rigidly structured, the musicales are not exactly concert-like, but they are not a jam session either. They are a thing unto themselves, and they are unusual and delightful.
For two consecutive years now this writer has had the good fortune to be among the guests at these unique New Year’s Eve events because a member of his extended family has been a featured soloist. Alfred Cormier an oboist, originally from Maine, has been taking part in Dr. Geiser’s recitals for almost 40 years. He generously made it possible to enjoy the privilege of attending.
This year, Alfred’s presentation was the most unusual one. In addition to the oboe, he also plays the piano. So, he pre-recorded his oboe part and set up a video monitor on which he projected it while accompanying himself on Dr. Geiser’s Steinway grand piano. Well received, it was the most high tech of the eight presentations.
In addition to Mr. Cormier’s duet with himself there was a variety of instrumental and vocal performances. They included a 13 year-old middle school youth who spoke with adolescent self-consciousness but played with the aplomb of a seasoned pianist, especially considering that his work featured much improvisation. There was also a high school tenor who sang an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah with a sweet clear self-assurance.
The music room has built-in seating, some of which adjoins a stone fireplace on the rear wall. Large windows along two sides look out onto snow-covered cheerfully lit Wheaton lawns and streets. They provide a Christmas card-like backdrop behind the performers. Comfortable folding chairs are set up in rows that fill most of the floor space. A mix of old friends and newcomers from near and far sit in close proximity to one another and very close to the musicians. It is warmly intimate without being over-crowded.
On this night Nathan Walhout, a University of Michigan student cellist, awed the assembled guests with four flawlessly played pieces that dazzled the gathering.
A trio of women, who call themselves The Golden Triangle, demonstrated just how exquisite finely woven harmony can be when the singers know each other well.
Every performer pleased the listeners during the night of varied musical fare, but few in the audience could anticipate the brilliant power and range of the last person to step forward. Bill Powers is a bass-baritone with a resume that includes appearances with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Lyric Opera in Chicago as well as many noted opera companies around the world. He has also appeared in concert with numerous symphonies across the United States and Europe.
Mr. Powers filled the space, if not the neighborhood outside, with a rich, resonant voice capable of every nuance inherent in his selections. He revealed the ability to hit and hold the most challenging notes and infuse them with texture and coloration.
Before he was done the veteran artist decried the virtual disappearance of recitals such as the one Dr. Geiser hosts, recalling how they once were common occurrences.
So, what does all this have to do with Smithfield, Rhode Island? Well, it brings to mind the fact that up through the middle of the 20th century and within the memory of quite a few of us, most homes in these parts had a piano in the living room, and it was almost routine to have family members and friends gather around it on weekends to sing and perhaps play other instruments. Sometimes these events turned into something resembling Dr. Geiser’s recitals, offering a spectrum of talent and a variety of styles, instruments, and vocal abilities that left the listeners enraptured.
Wouldn’t it be so nice to think that this might still happen here in Rhode Island today?