Preston Forest is probably not on our list of music venues in Kingsport. After all, this is a neighborhood and home to some of Kingsport’s more elegant homes, but it’s not the first suggestion for extraordinary classical performances.

However, If you call Kingsport home, you might agree there are plenty of great stories on those streets. Kelli and I have lots of friends from this area, so the fact we experienced a concert pianist in Preston Forest was a bit out of the ordinary.

From what I understood, this was a ticketed-event. Our friends Steve and Jacqulyn Clendenen live in this neighborhood and down the street from Wayne Johnson – a native of Kingsport who cultured a long career as a classical pianist. Wayne has a regular performance at his home sharing his talent and his equally trained musician friends.

It was early evening when we parked along the street along with many other cars that night. It looked like a house party, but it was so much more.

As we walked up to the short driveway and along the narrow concrete walkway, Wayne and his wife Claire met us with an open door. At first, I wasn’t sure he was the performer, but I was confident that this was their home with their warm and polite greeting to strangers as we were.

Wayne was dressed in a relaxed sportcoat and had thick white hair and wire-rim glasses. Upon first glance, he seemed both academic and casual as he welcomed us into his home.

Inside, there was a gathering of about 40 people – both young and old. I saw a few familiar faces from around town and was delighted to see Dr. Frank Fischer. Dr. Fischer is a retired pediatrician and serves as a deacon for St. Dominics Church. We first met each other on a research project he shared with me at Times Digital Group, and we’ve crossed paths several times in our small town. I’ve often said some people describe a phenomenon of six degrees of separation anywhere you go. In Kingsport, it seems like that standard is a bit lower – more like three degrees because…”Everybody knows somebody sometimes.”

As we moved toward the living room, we walked into a crowded room of young and old. In front of the room was a full mahogany Steinway with a couple of simple chairs for performers. We were right on time too, but not soon enough to get one of the seats near the front. However, a couple of plush couches were open in the back, and our party of four landed some of the final places to enjoy tonight’s performance.

Before I go any further, I need to say – I know absolutely nothing about classical music. Other than the significant composers and pop-culture movies – I’m about as informed about classical music as a claw-hammered banjo picker. Nevertheless, a good melody inspires me, harmony soothes my spirit and rhythm, and technical proficiencies excite me still to this day. Waiting for the performance to begin was just like any stage performance – palpable.

Wayne walked into the living room and greeted the guests to his home. He explained how the Des Amos trio came to life and shared stories about his career, friendships, and his journey back to Kingsport.

Graduating from Lynn View High School, Wayne’s career continued at the Cinncinatti Conservatory of Music. Among his many credits, toured as the pianist and accompanist for the U.S. Army Soldier’s Chorus. His studies and further performances led him to Seattle, Washington where he served as chair of keyboard studies at Seattle Pacific University.

When he retired, he desired to come home to East Tennessee and spend more time with his aging parents. Fortunately, for our community, a lifelong fermentation of musical artistry follows his way back.

Wayne introduced two friends he’d met over the years playing music. First, there was Sean Hawthorn, a young cellist who has international recognition and is now the assistant professor of cello at East Tennessee State University. Another introduction included Eugene Jones, the founder of the Des Amis chamber ensemble. Eugene plays clarinet and performs throughout the country with orchestras from Boston to Portland. Eugene now lives in Bristol and is an active performer, educator and chamber music artist.

As Wayne finished the short introductions, he and Eugene left the room so that Sean could warm the room with a solo performance of Dvorak’s Silent Woods from The Bohemian Forest.

Sean is a young artist, and his technique and artistry with his instrument was indeed a tranquil walk into the intimacy of this living room performance. As he finished, the room was ready for an intimate collection from the trio with works by Sibelius, Liszt, and even a fun rag by Joseph Lamb.

The music from this trio transformed a Kingsport living room into a royal chamber. The melodic charms and wave of precise rhythmic and harmonic variations elevated all of our spirits from a hometown manor to a cathedral of legendary performance.

A recent study has shown that instrumental music is a characteristic of higher intelligence. I’m not one to argue that point one way or the other. However, I do know that simply closing my eyes and listening was transcendent, and that’s a word I’ll buy into every time.

Later, during a small break in the performance is where an intriguing story begins. Each of the performers made their way to the kitchen and dining room. From here, lots of conversations were happening around light hors d’oeuvres. It was like a VIP all-access moment with chamber musicians mingling with their neighbors.

It wasn’t long before I found myself alone with Wayne in the kitchen. I used the moment to introduce myself and mentioned I had played piano off and on for most of my life. I had to speak of my recent interest in the music of Bill Evans, at the very least, clarify my studies. Wayne is a fantastic pianist, and it’s easy to feel intimidated by his artistry.

Nevertheless, it was his piano that caught my attention the most – the sound was immense and delicate and more intriguing as he described its origin.

I mentioned how wonderful the mahogany Steinway piano sounded tonight – from the lowest notes to the highest octave; it seemed that every pitch was crystal clear and consuming inside the room.

He explained to me that shortly before he retired, he had an opportunity to buy this piano designed by Tiffany in the late 1990s and offered as a limited edition for the 200th anniversary of Steinway in 1997. He purchased the piano and moved it to Seattle and then on to Kingsport as much I can recall. What was more impressive was the trifecta of the piano design: A glorious finish and soundboard, signed by Henry Z. Steinway and designed by Tiffany.

He walked me through the small crowd in the foyer past the small group to show me the signatures inside the piano. As a pianist, an instrument like this is much like a Stratavirous violin, and my only regret was not playing a note – albeit the intimidation may have been a bit overwhelming.

After the short 30 minute intermission, Wayne and the trio came back to perform two final pieces by Bach and Beethoven. As a listener to the most magnificent of all musical scores, two words came to me as I enjoyed a rollercoaster of scales, tempo, and exhilarating melodies: “Mind. Blown.”

Ok, that’s melodramatic, and it has to be. As an average jazz player, music like what I experienced from this trio is not only lofty, but it’s stratospheric in execution. I’m so thrilled to know some passionate performers continue to practice this art form and bring it to our community in such an intimate and personal setting.

My only hope is that we can experience the enchanting music of the Des Amos Trio. Even more selfishly though – perhaps I’ll work on a short piece of my own in case I find myself in the same room as that piano somewhere down the road.

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