WESTERLY — Christopher Marmon Greenleaf sat inside his 1710 Avondale family home one sunny morning last week, talking about music and telling the story of his late-19th century Chickering piano — the only surviving piano of its kind still in its original state.
"It's a true New England story," said Greenleaf, an Indiana native who has called Avondale his year-round home since 1991. "A true American story."
The piano, a Chickering Model 77 made at the Boston piano factory of Jonas Chickering in 1886, sits today inside Stonington's La Grua Center, where visiting musicians delight in playing the unusual instrument, especially during the center's "Music Matters" concerts.
A classical recording engineer, translator and writer fluent in French and German, Greenleaf, who often travels to Europe for work, is a member of La Grua's Music Advisory Committee and the artistic adviser for the music series.
Music Matters is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The monthly series of Saturday afternoon performances features chamber, solo, and early classical music concerts, along with "world-ethnic-folk music" in an intimate setting.
"We're deeply committed to remaining accessible, with the entertainment aspect always high among our priorities," Greenleaf said. He describes the acoustics at La Grua as "open, transparent and intimate."
This month, members of the New York Classical Quartet performed a Dvořák concert. On Nov. 23, Sonja du Toit Tengblad, a soprano, and contralto Emily Marvosh will be accompanied by pianist Joseph Turbessi for the "Festive 10th Anniversary Music Matters Concert."
"We want to expose listeners to how music was played by the musicians who wrote the music," he said — one reason the piano has been such a welcome addition.
With the soothing sounds of Czech composer Josef Suk's "Serenade for Strings" playing softly in the background and vases full of freshly cut, autumn-colored dahlias placed here and there around his tidy home, Greenleaf described the piano's journey from New Hampshire to Connecticut.
He first learned of the piano in 2017, he said, from his friend and colleague Eugene "the Piano Man" Roe, who is well known for his piano restorations. Roe, 84, lives in New Hampshire and works out of a mill building in Fitchburg, Mass. For nearly a half century he has tuned and restored thousands of pianos from across the country.
Roe contacted Greenleaf about the rosewood Chickering, which was owned originally by the First Congregational Church in Hancock, N.H., and had been safely stored and protected in an attic, for 132 years.
"It was a time capsule," said Greenleaf with a laugh. "Filthy, but fully intact."
Roe, who had learned about the existence of the instrument in 1997, told Greenleaf that it was a concert grand, weighing 1,080 pounds and with "an acre and a half of rosewood ... perfectly in tune."
"He squirreled it away," Greenleaf continued, "it was his favorite piano and he would go in dark of night to play."
It was, Greenleaf said, "essentially in factory-original condition" with the same 1880s era strings, dampers, felts and ivories it had when it left the factory more than 100 years ago.
The piano was made during the era of the Romantic composers, one of the many reasons acquiring and preserving it has been so important to him personally, and for La Grua.
Composers like Liszt and Grieg "treasured this specific model of piano," Greenleaf wrote in his history of the instrument. He said that piano lovers, learning of its existence, began offering Roe "big money," for the piano. After all, he said, "There is nothing like it in existence."
But Roe offered the piano to Greenleaf, who soon after offered the piano to La Grua, where it's been for about a year.
Greenleaf said "we owe it to the community" to let them hear music as it was intended to be heard.
Lori Robishaw, executive director of La Grua, said the center was delighted by Greenleaf's generous offer, especially since the center's Mason & Hamlin piano was in need of repair. She called him a "passionate advocate for the value of live acoustic music who has contributed greatly to the success of the music series."
As it turned out, she added, the center's piano didn’t need to be taken off the premises for its repair after all, so "Now we have two nesting pianos."
"it's unusual for such a small venue to have two pianos of the first caliber," Greenleaf said. "Performers come here because they love performing with such a live acoustic."
Greenleaf said the extraordinary board of directors at La Grua, along with the staff and Music Matters Committee, makes it a joy to organize programs and arrange for musicians to visit.
Love of music is a Greenleaf family trait. His grandmother, Elizabeth Bristol Greenleaf, who died in 1980, lived in the very same house in Avondale and had a passion for folk music. A Vassar graduate, she heard traditional singing for the first time while teaching one summer on the west coast of Newfoundland and began to write down the songs she heard.
The next summer, she returned with musicologist Grace Yarrow Mansfield as part of the Vassar College Folklore Expedition to Newfoundland, and gathered an extensive collection of folk songs and tunes, published in 1933 by Harvard University Press as "Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland." It was the first scholarly publication of a collection of Newfoundland folk songs, and was reprinted in 1968.
Folk singers like Gordon Bok, The Kingston Trio, Ian & Sylvia, Chad & Jeremy, Janis Ian, and "a very young Judy Collins" would visit her in Avondale, Greenleaf said.
"When they were studying folk revival, and needed something beyond just the famous songs, Pete Seeger and others would say, 'Go see Elizabeth Greenleaf,'" he added. "They would come here and sit on the porch with her."
"All these wonderful folk albums," he said, "had songs she had either found and documented or helped them find ... versions of."
"She had a beautiful high soprano," he said, "and she would lean back in one of those rockers out there on the porch and sing."
"She also had connections to the then budding music scene here in Westerly," he added.
"I live in the same house as somebody who did something similar to what I am doing today," he said. "And that is precious."