Peter Lesser Leaves His Mark on the Scene “Bigger, Better, More”
When Peter Lesser announced in January that he was leaving The Egg, the respect of artists and audiences, rockers and roadies, volunteers and voices across the area music scene would fill heaps of bulging suitcases on his move to California.
In a decade running the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, then two operating The Egg, Lesser made both venues “bigger, better, more,” as he has described his goal at The Egg. Both became prestige stops on artists’ tours and major meccas for fans. As all-purpose scene eminence (musician, critic and venue publicist) Michael Eck said, Lesser’s “invention and his way of participating in the music as a non-musician was so inspiring and still is.” Eck said Lesser’s imaginative production of inventive programming set him apart from the area’s many gifted concert presenters. “Peter dreams up these ideas!”
But even Lesser couldn’t have dreamed up his trajectory to cultural leadership here from Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, as he acknowledged last week from his new home near Los Angeles, where he continues to work remotely for The Egg.
“To have an animal shelter manager and the coffeehouse guy become executive director of the Chamber of Commerce certainly didn’t seem to add up,” Lesser said.
The first move on that map came when a fundraiser for the Tri-Lakes Animal Shelter, which Lesser managed, filled the Methodist Church. Its square dance with local musicians filled a void. “At that time, there were no venues in town presenting live music,” Lesser said.
Renting space from a theater company and borrowing furniture from the church, he organized the Java Jive Coffee House. “Before we knew it, we were hosting shows every other Sunday.” They presented folk music, bluegrass, story-telling, poetry readings and jazz. Lesser’s wife Therese designed flyers and baked cookies; they bought a giant percolator and the people came in droves. Passing the hat gave way to regular artist fees, the grass-roots coffeehouse evolved into Friends of Folks’ Music, a name chosen to avoid genre restrictions and present “just any music made by folks.”
As they began booking such national acts as Tony Trischka and Skyline, Robin and Linda Williams, Roy Bookbinder and John Hartford at Java Jive, they soon began presenting shows at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts theater, filling its 350 seats with fans drawn to see Norman Blake, Taj Mahal and other touring artists. And they presented two Adirondack Music and Guitar Festivals at nearby Paul Smith’s College featuring Doc Watson, David Bromberg, Leo Kottke and others. Back in Saranac Lake, Java Jive expanded, too, presenting Arlo Guthrie, Maria Muldaur and others at the Town Hall.
To avoid a conflict of interest, Lesser left Friends of Folks’ Music on taking over the Chamber of Commerce as executive director. Promoting area businesses often involved such tourism-related activities as canoe and sled dog races, the Winter Carnival and holiday celebrations.
Hearing of Lesser’s Chamber of Commerce work, Eck said, “It makes perfect sense to me…to balance this sense of musical adventure…(with) running a business.” Eck explained Lesser’s double skill set by noting Lesser could present (Canadian mood-rockers) Cowboy Junkies, “but I have to not lose money doing it.” Lesser presented Cowboy Junkies at The Egg several times, most recently on March 6; the cult-level mood-rock bands played its area debut at QE2.
While Lesser would later bring to the Troy Music Hall and The Egg many of the artists he first presented in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Paul Smiths, he also honed skills in the Adirondacks that brought him success here and earned wide admiration.
“Peter was a great director,” said photographer and sometime Chamber board member Mark Kurtz. “His low-key style worked.” Neil Suprenant, then head librarian at Paul Smiths College, worked with Lesser on concert bookings and now calls Lesser’s leadership era the high point of live music in the Saranac Lake area. Another Chamber board member Lora Couture, said “Word would get out on the (musician) circuit” that they’d find full houses and enthusiastic crowds and would want to return. Paul Smiths resident and music fan Stephen Horne also noted Lesser and Suprenant’s successful strategy of booking artists with gaps between larger-market shows, New York City and Montreal, Syracuse and Boston, for example. Lesser would book them for shows in the Adirondacks to fill open tour dates.
Lesser enjoyed the Adirondacks and working in a small-town environment to support its small businesses. However, as Lesser explained, “It was pretty evident that my main interest was presenting music.” He decided that if a full-time music presenting job ever came his way, he would pursue it. “When I saw the managing director position advertised for the (Troy Savings Bank) Music Hall, I applied and was hired in 1992.”
Rentals by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Troy Chromatics, Empire Youth Orchestra, Albany Pro Musica and recording sessions by Dorian Records then dominated the Hall’s schedule. Under its own “Music at the Hall” banner signifying folk, jazz, blues, rock and new-music offerings, the Hall presented only half a dozen concerts a year when Lesser began.
Then Jerry Garcia’s ghost tugged the Hall from the red into the black.
“Once I booked a few winners…the schedule expanded and the deficit reduced,” said Lesser. “The turning point was a concert by the David Grisman Quintet that was part of the 1995-96 season. In between booking the show and the concert date, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed away, and the Deadheads were suddenly going to see any artists that had a connection to him, including David Grisman. The show sold out and the organization was in the black to stay.”
Lesser built on that success to increase the number of shows to 35 “Music at the Hall” concerts by his last season. This also allowed Lesser to “take on some more extensive projects and build deeper relationships with some of the performing artists.”
A grant from the Lisa Wallace-Readers Digest “Arts Partners” Program funded a three-week residency by jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman; other commissioned works included violinist-composer Mark O’Connor’s symphonic “American Seasons” and jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris’s ambitious “The Grand Unification Theory;” both were recorded by major record labels. When Trey Anastasio showcased his orchestral work, the Phish guitarist brought the Vermont Youth Orchestra to the Hall.
These productions “really opened up my eyes to the impact that an arts presenter can have on both artists and audiences,” said Lesser.
“Peter has always been a source of support at key moments along the way,” said Harris’s former manager Karen Kennedy, “commissioning works, presenting ‘The Grand Unification Theory’ at Troy Music Hall and Stefon’s band Blackout at The Egg.” WGBO, self-proclaimed #1 jazz radio station, has named Harris’s “Sonic Creed” with his band Blackout its Jazz Album of the Year. Kennedy said, “One of Peter’s gifts was as an ally of jazz and we had many conversations about how to expose and expand the notion of audience involvement, financing and artist development.”
Lesser saw such efforts as “creating projects that were unique to the Music Hall.” However, as he moved to The Egg in 2000, producing ambitious new artistic ventures seemed in fact unique to Peter Lesser.
At the Music Hall, Lesser continued inventing ambitious and creative events, including commissioned works. “New Work, New York” toured across the state and comprised a children’s holiday program by the Zucchini Brothers plus three classical or classical-adjacent chamber pieces celebrating the Hudson River Quadricentennial. Lesser assembled four percussionists for the region-wide “MoHu Festival,” while “New York – The State of the Arts” entertained 7,500 young people, for free.
Lesser’s “New York Living Legacy” series presented programs onstage at The Egg and beyond through extensive outreach activities including programs on Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, the Beatles in New York, and The Band’s “Last Waltz.” This combined a showing of Martin Scorcese’s film with a panel discussion of participants in the concert and the film production. Michael Eck recalled, “He hired me to come in and interview (longtime producer of The Band’s albums) John Simon, before John performed, and talk about The Band.”
For “New York Banjo,” Lesser assembled a stage full of banjoists, led by Bela Fleck, in a production that toured from The Egg to other venues state-wide, with “yours truly acting as tour manager,” said Lesser.
Not everything worked – this IS show business, after all. Asked to name “the best show that nobody came to see,” Lesser replied that “India Jazz Suites” in November 2006 disappointed only at the box office. “Kathak dance master Pandit Chitresh Das and a group of Indian classical musicians mesmerized the audience with this totally hypnotic display by hoofer Jason Samuels Smith with a jazz trio,” Lesser said. A finale with all participants onstage together and a call-and-response dialog by the two dancers, Lesser recalled, “brought the few of us to our feet in a simultaneous rush that I have never experienced in an audience of any size before or since.”
Artists have competed over the years in ridiculing The Egg, Suzzy Roche once musing from its stage that “It looks like the legs and ass of a very fat man.”
No one described it with greater wit than They Might Be Giants.
But, volunteers and visitors alike reserve their jibes for the ovoid concrete building and not Lesser, its impresario.
Longtime usher Joe Slomka, a retired Gazette Opinion writer, said this of Lesser: “He was a gentleman all the way, ever calm in a high-stress business, whether dealing with paid staff or volunteers.” Slomka praised Lesser’s good sense of humor, great sense of music, and an appreciation for the creativity that was reflected in his bookings at the Egg as well as Troy Music Hall. “I was always happy to see him when I got off the elevator” for an evening of volunteering and watching the show himself.
Rock band NRBQ’s production stage manager John Krucke’s comments are typical of touring artists and crews: “Peter was pleasant to work with, thorough and efficient!”
“Peter Lesser is a special person who uses his specialness to make you feel special,” said bassist Victor Wooten who has played The Egg with his brothers, his jazz trio, a duo with drummer J.D. Blair, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and other ensembles. “That’s how he made us feel every time we came to The Egg.”
Meeting touring artists’ technical and hospitality needs presented almost nightly challenges. Backstage I once overheard Texas jazz guitarist Eric Johnson’s tour manager request coffees for Johnson and his trio, each with five espresso shots. Lesser noted that Leo Kottke represented “a welcome change from the typical countless pages of requests and requirements” in contract riders. Lesser recalled the modest requests of the folk-blues guitarist. “Leo Kottke requests a bottle of water and a padded cell.” Lesser said, “And when you hand him his well deserved and relatively modest artist fee, he says, ‘Thanks for the work.’”
The work seemed unceasing for Lesser and his small, speedy staff, keeping regular office hours by day then staging shows deep into the night. In summers, The Egg’s outdoor free concert series “Made in the Shade of the Egg” stretched those workdays, evening shows following mid-day events.
As demanding as producing and presenting shows has been, Lesser said, “Working full time presenting concerts really didn’t change my work-life schedule much.” He said, “The animal shelter was a seven-day-a-week job and the Chamber of Commerce required working weekend events in addition to the Monday-through-Friday office hours.”
He went on to say, “Without the understanding and support of my beautiful wife Therese, none of this – or what follows – would have been possible.” While Lesser spent long days and nights presenting Chamber events, concerts and festivals at Java Jive, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and The Egg, “Therese spent many nights and weekends bringing up our daughters on her own.” Something clicked: “Both daughters have become arts presenters themselves.”
The Egg presented more than 75 shows annually, sometimes two per night, one each in the 1,000-seat Kitty Carlisle Hart Theater and the 450-seat Lewis A. Swyer Theatre. Sometimes eager, music-hungry fans can sample some of each, as when a boisterous jazz show by bassist Victor Wooten’s trio in the Swyer ended early enough that I caught some of folk-rock troubadour David Crosby’s set in the Hart.
“In February 2005, we had two double bills running simultaneously,” Lesser recalled: “Buddy Miller and Ollabelle with Amy Helm in the Swyer Theatre and James Cotton and Clarence Gatemouth Brown in the Hart Theatre.” When Brown canceled due to health concerns, Levon Helm’s Blues Band filled in to open the show. “This amped up the mutual admiration society for the evening with lots of visiting back and forth between all the bands in both theaters,” said Lesser. Then, “Fast forward to this past December 2021 – with the Midnight Ramble Band with Amy Helm and Hot Tuna in the Hart and Hiss the Golden Messenger in the Swyer.” Lesser said, “Again lots of love all around – and after the Midnight Ramble’s set I went down to catch a bit of Hiss Golden, and who is on stage singing back-up? Amy Helm! Nice when we can play host to one big happy family.”
That family feeling reached a peak of community bonding when The Egg hosted a memorial on May 19, 2019, for Greg Haymes. Family, fans and friends of the late, great musician/entertainer, prolific visual artist, music journalist and founding publisher with wife Sara Ayers of Nippertown filled the Swyer Theater with words, music and tears. Many smeared sunblock on their noses, ala Blotto’s song “Lifeguard.” Lesser opened The Egg, free of charge, to these heartwarming (or heartbreaking) tributes.
Among the mourners was Michael Eck, friend to Haymes, Lesser, me and every musician, writer, artist and fan hereabouts.
Speaking for himself and for multitudes, Eck said, “As a fan, I’m going to miss having him around.”
Looking back, Lesser mused, “There are a LOT more venues (locally, regionally) since I arrived in 1992, and the ticket prices and artist fees have skyrocketed, which all adds up to making it more challenging than ever to count on a sufficient number of music fans, dance lovers and families making their way to the box office.”
The Egg was honored as Best Venue Medium (300-999 people) at the Eddies Awards, repeating its 2019 win. When I was awarded Music Journalist of the Year in 2019, I suggested that the award be renamed The Greg; just as the Best Venue Medium Award should be renamed The Peter.
“Right now, I’m still working for The Egg remotely and assisting the board in their search for a new executive director – then, who knows,” Lesser said. He added, “For now, I will be content to spend some time with our reunited family, living in close proximity for the first time in nearly 20 years.”
Citing Lesser’s imaginative, low-key leadership, Eck said, “His inspiration – how can I make this happen, how can I put this together – I just think is really cool.”
“I hope whoever they get to replace him at The Egg will think in those same ways.”
Lesser clearly recalls Troy fire Marshall John Tilton’s safety message from the Music Hall stage:
Welcome to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
In the event of an emergency, you will be notified.
And if you are notified, please exit the building in a calm and orderly fashion.
(Sotto voce) Heh!
(Sometimes given as … “please proceed to the exits in a calm and orderly fashion” – followed by the skeptical “Heh!”)
Also, due to the age and condition of the building, we have to insist that there be absolutely no smoking in the building.
If you want to smoke, you’ll have to hit those streets at halftime.
Later, as Michael Eck reminded me, when longtime late, great board member, percussionist and bandleader Eddie Ade Knowles welcomed audiences to shows, he exulted:
Welcome to where music lives: The HALL!”
And when Lesser stepped onstage himself at the Egg to announce when shows would be presented without intermission, he’d quip, in his wry way:
If you have plans for intermission, you’ll have to change them.”