VERGENNES — Back in January, guitar-playing 16-year-old Vergennes resident Matteo Palmer knew several things that turned out to be related.
Those were that he enjoys attending and volunteering for events at the Vergennes Opera House, the theater had in recent years found it more difficult to make ends meet, and Grammy-winning southern Vermont resident Will Ackerman had become one of his guitar idols.
This winter, those strands of thought came together and turned into action that resulted in Ackerman agreeing to headline Friday’s 8 p.m. benefit concert at the Vergennes theater entitled “Acoustic Encounters.”
Ackerman is a Windham Hill record label co-founder who won a 2004 Grammy for his album “Returning” and has been nominated two other times. He will cap an evening with a solo acoustic guitar performance of four of his works.
Palmer will open the show by performing four of his own original pieces, and local musicians Darren Donovan, Josh Brooks, Chris Wyckoff and Bob Recupero will take the stage between Palmer and Ackerman.
But the concert really began with Palmer finding Ackerman’s website, taking a leap of faith and emailing him.
“I told him I was 16, I was a big fan of his music, and I asked him if he wanted to come play at the opera house. And he said he wouldn’t be able to do a full-on show ... But he said he could do four songs and have other people play with him,” Palmer said. “I was like, oh, that’s a cool idea. I started to get together other musicians and asked if they would play 15- or 20-minute sets. And I wanted to play. And that’s really how it got started.”
Ackerman said something about Palmer’s polite approach struck him, and that he did consider the Vergennes Opera House a good cause.
“All I can say about Matteo is that I foresee great things. I receive a lot of solicitations for benefit concerts. There are political and environmental issues that my wife and I are particularly involved in and issues that concern Vermont are always high on the list,” Ackerman said in an email. “Even with that being said, there is a lot of competition for our time and attention. Matteo has some magic going.”
To make it work, Ackerman made it clear that he could only perform a limited number of pieces. A full set would involve multiple guitars, professional tuners, and more expense, he told Palmer.
Palmer and Ackerman exchanged a series of emails to work out those details, and then arrange a convenient date.
“Once he said that he wouldn’t be able to play a full show, that he would agree to play four songs, I was, ‘All right, that sounds good.’ After like three emails he said, ‘All right, that sounds like it’s going to work,’” Palmer said.
Ackerman said he was impressed with how the city teen handled the discussion.
“He’s so graceful in his persuasion that one never feels put upon,” Ackerman said. “Not that I was purposefully putting roadblocks in front of him, but I had certain needs to make this work for me and he accommodated all of them with amazing efficiency. There’s something remarkable in his modest self-confidence.”
Once Ackerman signed on, Palmer was sure others would agree to perform in order to help what he believes is an important cause.
“I knew that the opera house was struggling financially, so I thought it would be a good idea,” Palmer said. “I was like, it can’t hurt to ask him to play for free. I mean, if he’s willing to do that, everyone else will.”
Palmer has attended a number of events at the opera house, and volunteered to handle sound and lighting at about a half-dozen others.
“It’s an important piece of my life, I guess. I’ve always liked the opera house because I’m up there a lot,” he said. “We bring a lot of cool music here. It’s entertainment for everyone. And I think more people should be going to the opera house. Sometimes I’m up there and shows aren’t as packed as I think they should be. All the shows I’ve been up there to see are good shows.”
One show he worked at last summer featured Henry Butler and Charles Neville. His mother, Kimberly O’Boyle Palmer, and family friends from near New York City attended the concert. She strongly supports the opera house, too.
“They were just blown away, and said, ‘Do you know what we would pay? Do you know how difficult it would be for us to get to a show like this where we live?’ And we walked,” Kim Palmer said. “It was so outstanding ... The fact my kid can walk up the street and see that kind of talent is amazing.”
Vergennes Opera House executive director Eileen Corcoran said the help is appreciated. A new law required an expensive sprinkler project, work that went over budget when theater officials learned the original design was not good enough to pump water to the theater’s balcony, adding $20,000 to the roughly $65,000 cost.
Vergennes aldermen agreed to contribute $35,000 and give the theater a short-term loan, but, given the recession, times are tight.
“(We’re) OK overall. We are like any other nonprofit in that these are hard times,” said Corcoran, who added the theater is relying on donations from businesses and individuals, grants, benefit events such as Friday’s, and “anything we can find” to make ends meet.
“Pre-2008 it was not quite so much of a struggle. We’re in a position where everyone’s giving is limited, and there are so many organizations out there that are wonderful,” she said. “So we’re trying to be creative in fundraising.”
Corcoran is particularly heartened by Friday’s event because she believes it shows the opera house, which lay dormant for more than two decades before being restored in the 1990s, has struck a chord in a new generation.
“This event is a great one for us because (it was organized) by someone who is a young person who has a great feeling for the opera house,” Corcoran said. “We’re bringing up a generation of kids who do have the opera house, and it’s nice to see they are invested in it.”
For Palmer, there will be other benefits.
Palmer has played guitar since seventh grade and has performed for up to 100 people at Vergennes Union High School and his church. He said he is excited to play for up to 300 people at the bigger venue.
“It’s definitely going to be a step up,” he said.
He became an Ackerman fan last year, and considers Ackerman and fellow New Age guitarist Alex De Grassi his biggest influences.
“It sounds like he puts his emotions into his music,” Palmer said. “It’s just really intriguing. The guitar always sounds good to me, and his music is just really peaceful.”
And as many emails as Palmer exchanged with Ackerman, he has yet to see him in person.
“It’s really cool. One of my favorite guitarists, and I can actually talk to him, and he lives in Vermont, and he’s one of the creators of a really big recording company, Windham Hill,” he said. “It’s just really cool getting to talk to one of my idols and getting to meet him when this show comes around will be really cool. I’ll make sure to get his autograph.”
Concert tickets are available at the opera house, Classic Stitching in Vergennes, and online at www.vergennesoperahouse.org. More information on Ackerman is available at williamackerman.com.