Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, is a very special place. Every weekend the orchestra performs three different programs with the world’s greatest conductors and guest artists. During the week there are chamber music concerts and recitals with the most accomplished artists and ensembles. This evening, however, was an event that was special among the special. It was a concert admirably organized by Tony Fogg, Artistic Administrator of the Boston Symphony in memory of, and as a tribute to, Joseph Silverstein, who died in November, 2015.
It would take too long to write out the complete list of Joe’s accomplishments, so I’ll just mention a few of the highlights. As concertmaster (and assistant conductor) of the Boston Symphony he is widely regarded as one of the greatest concertmasters of the 20th century. He played the violin with an unparalleled combination of virtuosity and musical integrity, and performed around the world even into his 80s. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical music repertoire and was a highly respected conductor, including his long tenure as music director of the Utah Symphony. As a dedicated teacher at such renowned institutions as the Curtis Institute, Yale University, and the Longy School, Joey had the ability to communicate the complex mechanics of playing the violin in a concise, effective, and humane way which made him one of the nation’s most sought-after teachers.
Joey’s photographic memory was legendary. He could play any of hundreds of obscure etudes–let alone any concerto–without music at the drop of hat. There is a famous section near the beginning of the suite from Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel where the two violin sections are each divided into four parts playing three pages of speeding chromatic 32nd notes. It takes most mortals hours of practice just to be able to play one of those lines accurately. Joey could demonstrate each of the eight parts perfectly from memory and not break a sweat.
So it was fitting that yesterday’s concert in his honor included some of the world’s great musicians: Yo Yo Ma, Hilary Hahn, Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, and Garrick Ohlsson headed the field. A few who couldn’t be there, including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Andre Previn, sent touching video messages. I had the honor of participating as principal second violin in an ensemble of string players that opened the program with the first movement of the Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. Comprising mostly Boston Symphony members, some of whom, like Sheila Fiekowsky, Jennie Shames, James Cooke, Ronan Lefkowitz, and Victor Romanul, had been his students; and also including musical luminaries Peter Zazofsky and bassist and Edgar Meyer who had graciously volunteered their time and efforts, the ensemble was ably led without a conductor by Ralph Matson, longtime concertmaster of the Utah Symphony and also a former student of Silverstein.
Without doubt, though, the highlight of the concert was Joey himself. The full house at Seiji Ozawa Hall watched—teary-eyed and in awe—to a video montage of his life while listening to the recording of his jaw-dropping performance of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The evening ended with his on-screen performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Colin Davis conducting the Boston Symphony in 1972. The standing ovation it received must have been a source of great pride for Joey’s family, including his dear wife Adrienne, who were in the audience.
There’s only one person who can claim the honor of having been Joey’s student and his colleague in the Boston Symphony and a Utah Symphony musician during his tenure as music director. That’s one reason why tonight’s tribute to Joseph Silverstein made Tanglewood even more special than usual for me.
This morning I whacked my way through a few sets with three of my Tanglewood tennis pals. Tom Gauger, former BSO percussionist, is our gang’s organizer. Charlie Schleuter is the former BSO principal trumpet player, and Jay (who probably has a last name like the rest of us) is a music lover and retired businessman from Houston who comes to the Berkshires every summer to attend the concerts.
We’ve been playing Monday morning doubles for more years than I care to remember and my guess is we’ve slowed down considerably. Our overhead slams look more like drop shots these days. But we do manage to get some good aerobic exercise, even if most of it is from retrieving errant balls, and the camaraderie makes up for any lack of athletic expertise. Charlie has a new joke for us every week, most of them unprintable, so there’s always something to look forward to.
This morning was cool and dry with just enough cloud cover to make it possible to serve without being blinded by the sun. I mention the weather because over the weekend all three of the Boston Symphony’s concerts suffered from the fate the gods had ordained: being dumped on by intermittent deluges. After three weeks of almost no rainfall, last Friday morning started out suffocatingly hot and muggy. By the time the evening concert ended, it was chilly enough to make the fingers sluggish and wet enough to make a flounder smile. (Whether flounders can actually smile is anyone’s guess since their mouths go sideways.) By Saturday morning’s open rehearsal it was downright cold. Jennie Shames, my colleague in the violin section, reminded me of the punchline about the baby polar bear who wasn’t sure he really was a polar bear. ‘Why not?’ asked the mother. ‘Because I’m f—ing cold!’ said the baby.
Rainouts seem to be the BSO’s summer calling card. If the folks in California were really serious about solving their drought problems they would call the Boston Symphony and book them to play an outdoor concert. Fortunately, the Tanglewood Shed stage is covered, as are seats for about 5,000 devotees. The brave folks on the lawn have to manage with umbrellas and, on rare occasions, snorkels.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, we’re paid to play, and to play well. This past weekend was highlighted by performances of Prokofiev 5th Symphony, Saint-Saens Violin Concerto #3 with Josh Bell, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, and Carl Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana,which anticipated video game music by well over half a century. Sunday afternoon was a Boston Pops concert for which I had not been hired to play. But all was not lost. I got to watch Portugal beat France 1-0 in extra time in the UEFA soccer final, while outside my window it rained cats and dogs. With Tanglewood as with France, there will always be a next time. Yet the last time I checked, the weather forecast predicted sunny skies for the next three days, then on Friday…you guessed it.
OK. The holiday weekend is over. Time to get back to work.
I don’t normally use this blog to indulge in shameless self-promotion, but who am I to deny the convenient axiom that the exception proves the rule?
My new murder mystery, Playing With Fire, the fifth in the Daniel Jacobus series, has been released in the UK and will be on US bookshelves on September 1. Jacobus, that “you gotta love him” cantankerous, blind violin teacher, is up to his old tricks, solving baffling mysteries in the music world in spite of his better judgement to stay cooped up in his Berkshire hovel with his uselessly affectionate bulldog, Trotsky.
If you recall, the first four Jacobus mysteries were based upon pieces of music with stories that had to do with death. Starting with Playing With Fire I’ve chosen music with a different kind of story: the evocative music of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and his own sonnets that accompany the four concertos. Playing With Fire, for example, takes place in the dead of winter–and I do mean dead. And each book of the new set will take place in a venue where people in the classical music field have traditionally been prone to want to kill each other, in this case a violin shop.
To celebrate the revival of the Jacobus series, I’ve planned several book signing events from the east coast all the way out to Utah. I’ll not only be talking about Playing With Fire, but will also have my trusty fiddle with me to play some of Vivaldi’s Winter, and show you how the music helped inspire the book.
I hope to see all of you at one of these events, and even though the official release is not until September 1, you can pre-order your copies from Severn House or from one of these fine book stores as soon as the spirit moves you.
Sunday, July 31@7:00pm: Launch Event at Shaker Mill Books, West Stockbridge, MA. (Appropriately enough, Daniel Jacobus’s adopted hometown, and the setting for much of Playing With Fire.) Wine and light snacks, and a lovely deck overlooking the charming Williams River, weather permitting.
Tuesday, August 23@6:30pm: Stellina Restaurant, Watertown, MA (Where, in the Boston area, the plot of Playing With Fire reaches its nail-biting climax). Enjoy author’s night with tasty hors d’oeuvers, and of course, it’s a fantastic place for a great Italian dinner.
Tuesday, September 20@7:00pm: King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City (where I happen to live much of the year). King’s English has always been incredibly supportive of local authors, and it will be a pleasure to be back after Jacobus’s extended sabbatical.
I’d like to give a special shout out to my new publisher, Severn House Books, and its founder, Edwin Buckhalter, for enthusiastically supporting Jacobus’s return to the bookshelves; to my new editor, Faith Black Ross, with whom it has been a pleasure to collaborate; and, as always, to my intrepid and tireless agent, Josh Getzler of HSG Agency.
Here’s a review of Playing With Fire from Kirkus for your perusal.
As I wend my way eastward on my annual migration to Tanglewood for the summer–currently passing through Denver–thoughts return to music. I recently read a very perceptive article by Scott Cantrell in the Dallas Morning News. Mr. Cantrell bemoans what he perceives as the dogged adherence to the metronome by young American-trained conductors. He writes: They’re more apt to be metronomes, efficient but heedless of musical shape, harmonic rhythm, direction. Digital, in the bad sense. They seem unaware that music, like our heartbeats and respiration, needs a certain amount of freedom within a well-ordered overview.
I recommend you read his entire article because it contains many points that resonate with orchestral musicians. If I have any bone to pick at all with Mr. Cantrell’s observations, it’s only that my experience has been that the conceptual limitations of conductors are not necessarily restricted to those who are American-trained, nor those who are young.
The central issue is rhythm, and understanding how rhythm works in a musical context. Too often these days, a good sense of rhythm is equated with being able to keep a metronomic beat, when, the opposite is true. Good rhythm means having an understanding of the rhythmic ebb an flow of musical phrases within the broader scope of an entire movement, and an entire composition. The paradox is that even though the music must have a sense of a constant pulse, within that pulse there has to be constant give-and-take based upon the direction of the melodic phrase, the harmony, the more foreground rhythms, the density of the orchestration, etc. Those conductors who disregard those factors do so at the peril of making the music sound prefabricated and emotionless. They miss the essential purpose of music: to convey a subjective, not mathematical, message.
Don’t get me wrong. I often practice with a metronome and insist that my students do so as well. Why? It’s great discipline. You can tell immediately when you’re rushing those Mozartean 16th notes or dragging that lush Tchaikovsky melody into the ground. Once you’ve corrected your own internal rhythmic inaccuracies and you’re comfortable with the regular pulse of the music, though, is when the music starts. A mechanical pitching device might help you to hit a baseball in a batting cage, but it doesn’t teach you a damn thing about the game. Likewise, the metronome is a tool. It’s not music.
Why is this such a difficult concept for so many conductors to embrace? Part of it is historical, and we have several luminaries to thank (or pillory) for that legacy. First is Beethoven who, with his affinity for novel gadgets, took special delight in a device patented in 1815 by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel called a metronome. More or less an upside-down pendulum with a counterweight to adjust its speed, it enabled musicians with poor rhythm–of which there were many–to hone their skills.
Beethoven was so taken with the metronome that he decided to retroactively indicate the tempos for much of his music, notwithstanding his pesky hearing problem. There are two basic questions raised by these indications: 1) are they the Gospel; and 2) does this mean that, even if they are, a tempo must remain unchanged throughout an entire movement? I would answer with an emphatic “No” to both questions. Part of my answer is that the device itself was not precise, and like with watches from my childhood, would slow down and had to be frequently rewound. Another part of the answer is that it is simply musically simplistic to assume that a march-like first theme and an andante cantabile second theme are somehow legally required to have the same metronome marking. And look at the beginning of the last movement of his Ninth Symphony. If any conductor were to dare play that according to Beethoven’s hyper-frantic metronome marking, the entire string bass section would have him drawn and quartered. Yet there have been conductors who have answered those two questions otherwise; who have equated improvements in technology from the hand-wound, to the electric, to the electronic metronome; to bolster their faith in blind allegiance to an inexorable beat. Which is one reason I stepped away from full-time orchestra playing.
Please note that though after Beethoven it became almost customary for a composer to indicate metronome markings to indicate tempos, before Beethoven no one used it. It would be anachronistically impossible to play Bach metronomically. Sadly, too many musicians have tried to prove that wrong. Flexibility in rhythm was the true standard. Even a conservative, old fuddy-duddy like Leopold Mozart wrote about how a pianist’s right hand should be rhythmically free, lining up with the left hand only on downbeats. Why don’t any historically informed musicians these days give that a try?
In the 20th century, two giants of music, the composer, Igor Stravinsky, and the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, brought the notion of motoric rhythm to the forefront of music-making so powerfully that their influence still affects us a century later. I think there are important things to remember that make them exceptions rather than the rule: First, both Stravinsky’s music and Toscanini’s conducting were in large part reactions to the excesses of late 19th century Romanticism, when tonality and rhythm and interpretations were stretched farther than Coney Island salt water taffy. Certainly, precision was the name of their game–partly. But another part was intensity. Another part was passion. And another part was “I am taking my own path, doing this my own way.” Playing metronomically is the antithesis of that conviction.
So young conductors who find the metronome their safe haven are missing the point if they think they’re emulating the great tradition laid down by these illustrious predecessors. Good rhythm means not being metronomic. It means understanding the underlying flow of the music, and then having the courage of ones musical convictions. As Beethoven said, To play without passion is inexcusable.
I’m still enjoying my post-tour, pre-Tanglewood vacation, so leave me alone.
Here’s a story of mine, “The Day After Memorial Day,” that was published a year ago in Berkshire Magazine. It’s timely. But keep your eye out for those bears!
On a gray morning on Monday, May 9, I sat on a gray bus in Munich, staring out the window at gray apartment blocks. Vyacheslav Uritsky sat beside me.
That opening is a tribute to John LeCarre, my favorite suspense writer. There was no particular need for me to write in his style; it just felt really good. It’s all true, though, except that it was a sunny day.
Slava and I won our jobs in the Boston Symphony violin section on the same day in 1975. I had arrived from Yale, and Slava, some years my senior, had recently arrived from the Soviet Union. Our first year in the orchestra we carpooled together from Cleveland Circle. Getting stuck in traffic on a daily basis cemented our friendship.
As the bus took us from our hotel to the airport, Slava told me stories about his first trip to Munich when he was a member of the Moscow Symphony. That led to mention of a mutual friend of ours, violist Misha Boguslavsky, who had been a founding member of the famed Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and who ended up in the Utah Symphony and as chair of the chamber music department at the University of Utah.
Slava asked me if I had ever heard of some other Russian musicians from days of yore, and replied that the one Mischa talked about most was the violinist Miron Polyakin. Then Slava, who has more stories than the Brothers Grimm, told one about the time when he was a student at the conservatory in Odessa. He was given an assignment to explain the superiority of the Soviet system by showing that those students of legendary pedagogue, Leopold Auer, who remained in the Soviet Union were greater musicians than those who emigrated. Polyakin was one who stayed. Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman were two who left. Slava knew he had to come up with some good BS, and apparently he did well enough to avoid being shuffled off to the gulag.
We started talking about Heifetz. Few would argue the contention that he was the towering violinist of the 20th century. But one thing Slava told me about Heifetz offstage was astounding. He said that another current BSO violinist who had studied with Heifetz when he was younger had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the Heifetz household along with a selected few others, and had been required to pay for his dinner!
I found that hard to believe and said so. Slava invited me to talk to the violin in question, who told me the full story, which was even more bizarre. Mr. Heifetz had a vending machine installed outside his house in Malibu that dispensed wrapped sandwiches. Whenever guests were invited, they inserted their coins and out popped their meal. My colleague told me more stories about his interaction with Heifetz, which were all along the same lines.
So the question is, who is the real Heifetz: the dazzling virtuoso who combined jaw-dropping technique with passionately Romantic playing; or the socially awkward eccentric? In thinking about the answer, I considered all of my colleagues in the Boston Symphony, including myself. For us, music is part job, part passion. In either case, it can’t be anything but an extension of our personalities. Certainly we’re trying to express the composer’s intentions, but that’s channeled through our individual brains and hearts. If you listen to different violinists perform the Tchaikovsky concerto, for example, the piece will sound different each time. What does the word “interpretation” mean then, if not an expression of that individual violinist’s personality?
That’s not to say that outgoing people are going to play an outgoing Tchaikovsky concerto. It doesn’t necessarily work that way. I’ve heard some of the most timid people give some of the most powerful performances, and vice versa. So I think for some people who otherwise might be severely socially constrained, perhaps even including Heifetz, playing music is their way of saying, “This is who I really am.” It’s their true way of communicating. [Please take a minute to listen to the links I’ve provided above to hear how Heifetz and Elman begin the Tchaikovsky. You’ll be amazed.]
Why do I mention any of this? Because audiences don’t pay money for tickets in order to experience the neuroses of the hundred different people sitting on the stage. They come to hear the music. And that’s one of the things that makes the symphony orchestra such a strangely unique invention. For people with such divergent–even conflicting– backgrounds, interests, and personalities to sit down and interact on a level that would make a computer blow a gasket is really an amazing artistic achievement, and to do it night-in, night-out is almost mind boggling.
Tonight we had our last tour performance of Mahler Ninth, in Luxembourg. We had but a scant afternoon of free time here, so I only got to see hardly half the country and tomorrow we return to Boston. Though the Mahler is not one of my favorite pieces (my minority opinion) it is undeniably a “milestone” piece, meaning every musician remembers every time they’ve played it. It’s possible this might have been my last performance of it, ever. One never knows. But if it is, it has been my pleasure to be part of it.
(This is my last entry for a week or so. But I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, if you need to keep yourself entertained, please take a look at the other pages of my site.)
AND FINALLY: THE WINNERS OF THE CAPTION CONTEST! SINCE I WAS INITIALLY UNCLEAR WHICH PHOTO WAS THE SUBJECT OF THE CONTEST, I’M AWARDING A PRIZE FOR EACH. CONGRATULATIONS TO SUE SEEBER AND WENDY FOXMYN! BELOW ARE ALL THE FINALISTS’ CAPTIONS. THANKS TO ALL THE CONTESTANTS!
“St. Vincent Ferrer (Patron saint of plumbers) and his apprentice establish a noble tradition…..” Dimsky Dimsky
“Are those stones cracked?” Sue Seeber
“But…but…but….” Sue Seeber
“I feel a draft.” Sue Seeber
“Which way do you Zwing??” Alicia
“Plumbers of Antiquity” Tony D’Amico
“186,000 miles per second, not just a good idea, it’s the law.” Cliff Butter
“You put your right arm in, you put your right arm out, you put your right arm in, and you shake it all about.” Wendy LeTocq
“I’m ZWINGEN’ in the rain, just ZWINGEN’ in the rain, with the force of this water I’m feeeelin’ some pain.” Robert Debbaut
“When you can’t breathe you can’t scream.” Sergio Pallottelli