It started as a joke.
One day, Julian Gargiulo came into radio station WSTA in February 2005 to promote his concert on St. John. I was amused listening to Addie Ottley butcher Julian’s name (no American can pronounce the Italian ‘GI’ which is like GIANT, not GIGGLE). I sauntered into the studio and said, “I bet I am the only person in St Thomas who can pronounce your name.” He took me up on the bet, and I won.
I asked Julian, “How come all you fancy musicians always go to St. John and never to Water Island?”
He replied, “If you get a piano, music will come” with a gesture like Leonardo’s painting of St. John the Baptist.
“So if I get a piano you’ll come do a concert?”
“OK. Let’s do it.”
I figured he was kidding and I dismissed the idea as he walked out the door.
Of course, he emailed me the next day and asked how I was doing on finding a piano. And the next day. And the next week. In fact, by Thanksgiving of 2005, I began to panic. He kept asking about the piano. I began to scurry around looking one. eBay had pianos! I started to bid on pianos offering my paltry few dollars for fancy Steinways. Then I made a ridiculous bid of $3,000 on a piano in Brooklyn, NY and to my amazement, I WON! By Christmas of 2005, I owned a piano in Brooklyn.
I called the movers and asked if they could get the piano from Brooklyn to Water Island by February. “IMPOSSIBLE,” they said. “Ok, well, it will be for next year,” I thought, “Ship it anyway.”
Julian returned to the Virgin Islands in February 2006 and immediately called: “Is the piano ready?”
I hedged, got off the phone and rang up the movers. Amazing! The piano had just arrived that morning on St. Thomas. Could they get it to my house that day? Impossible! They did anyway.
We put a sign at the ferry dock, “Free concert tonight,” and 75 people showed up. Julian opened by saying “ I am going to play for you tonight the same program that I played last week at Carnegie Hall.” Everyone was delighted. After the show, Julian asked, “Can I bring a friend next year?” and the next February he showed up with Maria Yefimova; four hands, two performers and more people in the audience.
The next year, more friends came. And the year after that. Then Julian said, “We need a better piano.” My sister was there and she heard his plea for a better piano. Back in the States, she took Julian to the Jacob’s Music in Philadelphia. He tried 88 pianos and declared a Yamaha C-7 to be “The One.” Edie and Ed put down a check for $10,000 and suddenly I was $30,000 in debt.
We organized a fundraiser and the whole Water Island community chipped in to help buy the piano.
The next year, we had two pianos and 6 musicians, three nights of concerts, opera, duets, concertos, jazz and pop.. We had two of everything. A concerto with one piano doing the solo while the other one was doing the orchestra. And they performed the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto on two pianos using a score that Rachmaninoff had created for a two piano version of the concerto. Amazing.
The following year, more friends came. And more friends. The neighborhood started stepping up to provide beds and feed the growing number of musicians. Soon the whole island is involved.
And now, we have a website!
The Water Island Music Festival brings the world’s best music to Virgin Islands. Julians friendsa are all world class musicians. Carnegie Hall regulars. Globe trotter professionals who all have awards and prizes and accolades from the world music press.
There is no festival organization. No legal standing. No meetings. No by-laws. We have a simple principle. Pass the hat and give it all to the performers. We rely on the generous support of the people of Water Island who all chip in to get to hear this amazing performance – not in a concert hall, but in a living room of a home.
It started as a joke. Now it is a full-blown event, and still growing. And there’s more. People heard about our amazing piano and called to ask if they could come perform on WI. Jacqui Naylor and Art Kuh came from California to perform, now they have been here three times for three concerts. Jeff Linsky and Lisa heard and they came in from Hawaii to perform a concert. And they are coming back again this year.
If you have the piano, music will come. It’s true.
Dr. Alexander Randall 5th
Professor, Writer, Entrepreneur and Producer of Water Island Music festival