So, I’m sitting in my car, trying to decide whether or not it’s worth it to try to snap a picture before the light turns green. Smoke from the the Weston Pass Fire is billowing across the road, as numerous construction signs had warned for the last forty miles. Frankly, I’m surprised the road is still open, and that cautioning drivers to "Remain in Vehicle for Forest Fire" is deemed sufficient safety precaution.
Eventually the light turns green. About an hour after I pass through, the road will be shut down. By then, I've reached Alamosa, the last large town before the town I’m headed for. I stop here for gas, and I can faintly smell the smoke on the air.
Eventually I arrive in Antonito, a tiny town in Southeastern Colorado. There are a few bars and dispensaries, the utterly bizarre Cano castle, and not a whole lot else outside the reason I’m there: the Combres and Toltec Railway Station.
After a slight disagreement with Google Maps as to where the entrance to this place actually is, a local points me in the correct direction and I meet up with Clementine Seeley, the producer with whom we've been in contact with.
An energetic British woman, she shows me the way to the train where the set decorator and another crew member are ripping apart long strips of a white translucent fabric to fashion into window shades. In the center of the train compartment is the Fazioli.
Clementine presents it to me for my approval, and, unsure what to expect, I uncover the piano. It doesn’t appear to have any damage, or even any smudges. I take my time inspecting it, as it's really all I'm here to do. That, and to request Trifonov sign the piano and get a photo with him. Satisfied that no harm has come to the piano (indeed, it's flawless), I recover it as Clementine points out the polishing cloth and the supplies the movers had instructed her about.
Contented that I’m satisfied with the treatment of the piano, she tells the crew and me that Daniil and the record label people will be arriving in an hour or so. She leaves me in the care of the crew, who are busily trying to convert this Narrow Gauge Steam Engine into something more rustic. Modern amenities such as light switches and outlets will have to be covered one way or another.
I don’t really have much of a role here, the day before the shoot, and I feel a bit in the way. I debate checking into my hotel early, but I’m afraid I won’t be back when Trifonov arrives, so I offer to help, mentioning that my background is in scenic design for theatre. They, kindly, find small tasks to pacify me and chat about the shoot, and about their backgrounds. I help trim stray threads as they rehang curtains, which, originally hung with gaffers tape, keep falling down.
We have a few visitors and Clementine pops in and out periodically. The owner of the railroad comes by and tells it’s okay to drill into the woodwork if we need to. Everyone except him seems horrified at this suggestion. An elderly conductor stops by to see how things are coming along, dropping off a few lamps for us. We learn as he chats for a bit that he’s retired, and just does this because he loves trains. He expresses excitement at the possibility of meeting Trifonov. The crew assures him he will if he’s the one driving the train, which he is, as he’ll be in the video. He’s obviously a big fan and delighted at this news.
We make continue to small talk in the hot compartment, and I’m starting to get hungry when the record label people show up, Trifonov in tow. Trifonov is a thin Russian man in skinny jeans and a t-shirt, twenty-seven with straight, chin-length hair and the’ scruffy beard popular among millenials. He is the least animated amongst his posse, nodding, eyes keen but with little change in expression. His handlers and his wife (and his wife’s yorkshire terrier) all tour the train with Clementine and the other crew. When he gets to the piano, we roll the cover back and he sits down to play for a few minutes.
It is incredible. I ask someone quietly if it's okay if I film. She nods, and I realize she's already filming on her phone too.
When he lifts his hands, he nods at the piano without smiling, and speaks for the first time.
“It is a very good piano.”
Then he continues playing.
Ten minutes later, apparently satisfied, he lifts his hands from the keys and stops playing. Clementine introduces me to Nikki, Deutsche Grammophon's marketing director, a bright-eyed German woman who explains what the plan for the album and the video shoot is. I'm introduced to his posse of record label people one by one, and finally to Daniil and his wife. He shakes my hand politely, and gracefully brushes off my praise.
His wife is tall, dark haired with young almost cherubic features and bambi-eyes; I have been trying to place her since she walked in. Like any Millenial would, I had checked out Trifonov on Facebook, hoping to find some common interest that I might be able to chat about. That had failed miserably, but I was stunned to discover that we had a few mutual acquaintances. Unfortunately, I hadn’t kept up with either of them in years. What I did learn, however, was that we had been on the same campus for our respective college education. Where he attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, I had attended Case Western University on the same campus at the same time.
So I’m standing there, trying to decide if I had ever actually met Daniil or his wife before or if I was only recognizing them from too much time online, when his wife speaks. Her voice, accented with something that might be Spanish (though I'm not at all confident about this), is what makes it click.
I had graduated college a year early and immediately taken a job at Starbucks on campus to supplement the pittance that theatre pays. As a result, familiar faces from campus became familiar regulars. Judith, Daniil’s wife, was one of them. She would order hot chocolate almost daily, which was part of what made her memorable to me six years later. Who goes to Starbucks regularly to get their hot cocoa fix? Apparently Judith does. Beyond her always being kind and polite (it is noticeable to customer service staff when you're friendly), and that one time she smuggled the then-puppy Yorkie into Starbucks inside her jacket, I don't remember much about her.
The group decides to wrap for the day and Clementine invites me to join them for dinner. As we head over, the smell of the forest fire is still noticeable on the air, and as we walk through the parking lot, we chat about taking pictures of the billowing smoke. Their pictures are amazing, and they explain that they pulled over despite the signs, unwilling to pass up the photos.
We meet the rest of the crew in front of one of the town’s few restaurants. As we’re walking in, I hesitantly ask Judith if she went to Case. She says she didn’t, she went to CIM, but asks if I did. I explain that I did, and that I used to be a Barista in the Starbucks on Euclid. She exclaims with what appears to be genuine satisfaction, “That’s where I knew you from!”
Daniil mumbles something about also drinking coffee, and I make an attempt to place what he might have drank, but Judith spares me, waving his comment away. “You have a beard now and I was there all the time,” she tells him, then adds to me, with surprising enthusiasm, “Come, you have to sit with us.”
And so I ended up sitting across from Judith and Daniil. The restaurant is a standard smalltown Colorado restaurant, the menu boasting green chile, various burritos and steaks, and with a fridge sparingly filled with microbrews that seem more like the leftovers from some event than a regular stock. The production and record people look for gluten-free and vegetarian options on the menu and poke fun at the decor and the mediocre selection of beer, and I'm struck by how New-York and out of place they seem here. The restaurant owner is good-natured and helps the straggling crew members find us in the back, where we have the area to ourselves, away from the rest of the dining room.
Judith and I chat about what we’ve both been doing since college, but it’s a struggle to maintain the conversation as, to be fair, we don’t actually know each other. We discuss Cleveland and the changes it’s undergone in the time since we’ve all graduated, and what Daniil’s traveling has been like. We joke about eating all the chips and salsa before anyone else, as Clementine hand-rolls and distributes cigarettes to other production people beside her.
Daniil, for his part, sits stone faced, following the conversations around him, but silent. When someone proposes a toast, he orders vodka. Someone in the party teases him for being Russian and drinking “Wodka” and he takes the bait, insisting that Russians genetics are different, that they can drink vodka like the rest of us drink water. This is the most I’ve heard him say the entire time, and I’m entirely uncertain whether he was making a joke or genuinely believes this. He seems somewhat solemn, though I’m not sure why, whether its exhaustion from traveling or anticipation for the video, or if that's just how he is. As the meal goes on, the rest of the party begins swapping stories of different SNL parties they’ve attended. Clementine has been cajoled into telling stories of her cousin Ben, which, eventually I figure out is Benedict Cumberbatch. They take it in pairs to go smoke throughout the meal, and Clementine keeps the supply of hand-rolled cigarettes coming from her place beside me at the table at the table.
After a while, I realize why Judith wanted me to sit with them. Despite Daniil being The Talent, outside of Nikki, who chats happily, the rest of the group pays he and Judith little mind beyond ensuring their comfort. We seem to be the only ones not ducking out to smoke. Others in his record posse engage him periodically, and in a conversational lull, the tall, thin gentleman from the record label comes back in from smoking and engages the couple in a conversation about the World Cup. For the first time, Daniil seems energized, speaking animatedly and passionately on the players and teams. The conversation goes on at great length, and Daniil seems a completely different person. I am kicking myself for knowing absolutely nothing about soccer, and listen eagerly but am utterly unable to contribute anything other than nods and an interested expression.
Eventually, the record label fellow gets pulled to the other side of the table and Nikki takes his place, replacing the conversation with business and with travel plans for the young couple. Eventually, she manages to break into the conversation at the other end of the table, inquiring for Daniil whether he’s allowed to wash his hair. He had originally been told he could shower but not shampoo, and he wanted to know if this was still the case. The stylist, who wanted him looking grungy for his role as a stow-away, considers for a while, and someone suggests over their beer that they do his hair to match his wife’s dog’s tiny ponytail. Judith, delighted at the proposition, immediately produces hairties from somewhere and pulls Daniil’s shaggy hair into two pigtails, sticking out at 45 degree angles from his head to roars of laughter. Though he didn’t smile, he didn’t protest at all, and even picked up the Yorkie to pose stoically for photos. (It seems unfair to let the photo out on the internet, but it did prove to me that under Daniil’s solemn exterior is a pretty good sense of humor.)
A good while after the meal has ended, Daniil and Judith decide to retire, and I excuse myself as well. Judith asks if I’m staying in the same hotel, and I explain that I booked late and am staying in nearby Alamosa. We say our farewells for the night, and I’m given a calltime to meet Daniil and do the photo-op with the Fazioli, and get in my car.
The next morning, I arrive early and help with a few finishing touches—gathering wildflowers for glasses in the windows (I don’t think these survived the trainride) and the like. A new rug, borrowed from the hotel lobby, has appeared. I feel very in the way and someone (perhaps trying to figure out what I'm still doing there) assures me of the distance between the piano and the back of the train and shows me the blocks they have to keep the piano from rolling. The brakes are engaged on the casters, so I'm not terribly worried, but I thank him nonetheless.
Daniil arrives in costume, which has to be ridiculously warm. It’s already getting hot in the July sun, and he’s dressed in a woolly-looking turn-of-the-century suit. He removes his jacket and he and Judith huddle over a cellphone, watching the World cup, as the set decorator finishes dressing the car, and the crew load up their camera equipment and snacks for the day.
￼After a little while, Daniil’s prompted by his people to go into the piano-car and he tears himself away from the screen. As he begins warming up, playing with the orchestration on a speaker hooked to a laptop, his wife settles in the same car, still watching on her phone. She gives him regular updates, and periodically, he looks up from the piano to ask what’s happening when she reacts, frequently turning to look over his shoulder at her as he continues to play. ￼
Eventually, the train is getting ready to depart, which is my cue to leave. I'm invited to stay for the entire ride, but I have a conference call and know enough about film to know that I'd just be an extra body in the way. We do a photo op, Daniil stiffly nodding. He seems just as uncomfortable with this as I am, but humors us all. A handful of pictures later, and my job is done. ￼
They reassure me that Daniil will sign the piano plate at the end of the day. The director doesn’t want his signature in the shot. This strikes me as funny, as the piano itself is an anachronism—Fazioli first started production in 1982. I thank them all, they thank me for the piano. I hand along our card, assuring them we’re more than happy to provide a piano to Daniil anytime. I praise him again, wish them luck with the shoot, and head back to Denver.