A (Violin) Case of Irony

For many years, primarily since 9-11, there have been innumerable incidents of TSA agents and airline officials around the world who have been capriciously pigheaded and seemingly malicious in regard to allowing musicians to carry their instruments on to planes. In the name of security, they have insisted that priceless violins, violas, and cellos be stowed as checked baggage, with the result that many of them have been irretrievably damaged. There have been cases of instruments being confiscated by customs agents even though the musicians provided extensive documentation of their ownership.

This just happened only yesterday on Alitalia:

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Whenever I fly with my violin, I carry copies of the following documentation: Proof of my ownership, the violin’s insurance appraisal, and the federal regulations that require carriers to permit musicians to take their instruments into the cabin as carry-on luggage. With such documentation in hand I know I have at least a fighting chance in case of a skirmish. So far I’ve been lucky. Only a few times has a gate agent told me I might have to gate check the violin in the jet bridge as I enter the plane, especially when it’s a commuter airline. On those occasions, I graciously accept the pink card they hand me, nod politely, and proceed to ignore their instructions.

Yesterday, when I boarded a Delta flight from Salt Lake City to Boston with my violin case, I was prepared for combat, as usual. What actually happened was quite unexpected. First, the gate agent wished me a pleasant journey. So far so good. I entered the plane and made my way to Seat 29B of the full flight. When I began to put my violin case in the overhead compartment, a wily flight attendant approached me. Here goes, I thought.

“Is that a violin case?” she asked, smiling.

“Yes.” I smiled back.

“It must be very valuable,” she said. “You probably don’t want people putting their bags on top of it.”

“No. I guess not.”

“Let me find a safe place for in the back of the plane.”

“Sure,” I said.

I happily gave the attendant my case.

“It’s very light,” she said.

“Yes.” I smiled again.

She took the case to the back of the plane and delicately placed it—upside down until I told her—in the final overhead compartment.

“There,” she said. “All by itself. I promise no one will touch it and I’ll bring it back to you when we land.”

THE LESSON: There are people in the airline industry who are courteous, thoughtful, and understanding. May all of her colleagues learn that simple lesson.

THE IRONY: You might be wondering why I was so trusting. My violin has been at a shop in New York City. This week I’m going to pick it up. My case was empty.





Internet Pirates

I’d like to get your opinion. Today I received a notification that an internet site is offering a free PDF download of my new book, Symphonies & Scorpions.

The managers of this site probably think they’re doing the world a great service by giving free access to someone else’s intellectual property, regardless that it infringes on copyright protection. What they’re really doing, as far as I’m concerned, is stealing. I spent the better part of three years writing Symphonies & Scorpions and I don’t feel guilty charging $4.99 for a book which i.Berkshires calls “a musical odyssey of discovery.”

Perhaps if I sell enough copies, someday I will have earned minimum wage for the hours I put into writing it. It’s no Treasure Island. And with there already being such a glut of free information on the internet and–lest we forget–libraries, what is the point of stealing someone’s hard work? Could it be that in order to obtain the free download one has to set up an account, providing sensitive personal and financial information? I really don’t know, and the frustrating part is that after consulting with other authors and agents about this ongoing piracy it seems there’s little that can be done about it in this digital age.

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Long John Silver, a pirate.


Well, what I am doing about it is writing about it here and hoping to enlist your support. Yes, we all like something for nothing. But we also want a world that is rich in literature. Consider this. Though my primary reason for writing is not financial, there are thousands of authors trying to make a living. They are absolutely dependent upon their books selling, legitimately, in order for them to support themselves and their family. Book sales are the main criterion that publishers use to determine whether to offer an author a new contract, because they too are human beings trying to make a living. Free downloads at illegal sites pulls the rug right out from under the authors’ and the publishers’ feet.

There are some who believe that in an enlightened society all information should be free, so if you disagree with me let’s have the debate. But in the meantime, please realize that by buying a book you might be helping create the next Robert Louis Stevenson. If you accept a free download, you might be helping him walk the plank.



Vivaldi by Candlelight 2017: A Kaleidoscope of the Baroque

This Saturday, December 9, I’m conducting the 35th annual Vivaldi by Candlelight concert, for which I’ve had the honor of being the music director since 2004. The event is a fund-raiser for the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, whose motto is “promoting respect and understanding between the people of Utah and other nations one handshake at a time.”

Here is the program, and below that are the program notes for the concert. If you can come to the concert that would be great. Click here for details. If not, take the time to listen to this amazing music. I’ve provided YouTube links for you in the program. You won’t be disappointed! And best wishes for a happy holiday season!

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Antonio Vivaldi

Sinfonia from the Oratorio, “La Susanna”……………………. Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682)

Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B-flat, BWV ………………..……………………JS Bach (1685-1750)


Robert Baldwin and Joel Rosenberg, violas

Concerto for 2 Violins and Cello in D Minor, RV565………..……Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)


Leslie Henrie and Dallin Hansen, violins; Noriko Kishi, cello

Concerto No. 9 in F for Violin from “La Stravaganza,”RV284………………..……………….Vivaldi


Hasse Borup, violin

Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op.3 No.6……………………..……….Pietro Castrucci (1679-1752)

Battalia a 9……………………………………………………………….…….…Heinrich Biber (1644-1704)

Sinfonia No. 1 in D, Op. 1………………………….….Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello (1690-1758)


Brescianello. Castrucci. Stradella. No, those are not exotic gelato flavors. They’re the names of Italian Baroque composers who have been all but lost to time, but who achieved equal renown as their contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi, during their lifetimes. It’s long past due they get their just desserts (and I don’t mean gelato). In reality, it was only a quirk of fate that Vivaldi himself is not still among that almost forgotten group as he had been for almost two hundred years. It was almost by accident that literally a library full of his manuscripts was unearthed in 1926 at a boarding school run by Silesian monks in Italy’s Piedmont.

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Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello

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Pietro Castrucci

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Alessandro Stradella

The rest is history. Since then, the vast array of his works—his concertos, sinfonias, sonatas, operas, and motets—have become standard fare for Baroque performances. But what of the others? Like Vivaldi, these Brescianello, Castrucci, and Stradella were both composers and violin virtuosos, and it shows in their dazzling music, demonstrating why the Baroque was a golden age of string ensemble playing. Vivaldi’s fugue in the D Minor Concerto for two violins and cello is alone a mind-bending kaleidoscopic tour de force of contrapuntal composition.But Italy wasn’t the only country to claim greatness in the Baroque era. Heinrich Biber was a violinist and composer renowned throughout Europe—perhaps the first great violin virtuoso—and though his satirical Battalia may not surmount the pinnacle of esthetic sublimity, it certainly paints a starkly graphic and often humorous musical picture of a band of dissolute soldiers. And what can be said about JS Bach that hasn’t already been said? Everything he wrote was gold, and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (played here for the first time on the Vivaldi by Candlelight series) is an exploration of a combination of instruments seen in no other composition I’m aware of. Originally for two violas, two viola da gambas, cello, and violone, tonight we’re going to perform it with a more contemporary instrumentation: three violas, two cellos, and string bass. But I think you’ll get the gist, and will agree that tonight’s program is indeed a kaleidoscope of the Baroque.

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Heinrich Biber

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JS Bach

Society and Sexual Harassment

My primary goals in the Daniel Jacobus series have been to write entertaining stories, provide a glimpse into the multi-faceted world of classical music, and give lay readers a good beginners’ listening list of some of the world’s greatest music. I’ve generally shied away from wading into political or broad social issues. When I started writing Spring Break I knew it was going to take place in a music conservatory and that a murder would be committed over some bone of contention, of which there are enough to make complete skeletons. I hadn’t determined who the victim or murderer would be, or the motive.

But as I worked through my rough draft, those question marks became exclamation points as, one after another, institutions of higher education became the subject of front-page headlines in highly publicized cases of sexual violence on their campuses. It didn’t matter whether it was a major Ivy League university or a church-administered one. Sexual harassment remains a doggedly tenacious epidemic in our general culture, and no less so on college campuses where, literally, one is presumed to know better. With the setting of Spring Break already established, I felt compelled to address this issue head on.

When drunken frat boys and campus sports heroes rape female students, we wring our hands but chalk it up to bad upbringing or aberrant behavior or extra testosterone or the reason-numbing effects of binge drinking. We decry it but can, to some degree, understand it. But when such crimes are committed by revered university profes­sors, how do we explain that away? Misunderstandings? If a professor can’t discern the difference between right and wrong, who can? Is it that difficult?

We are now engaged in a raging national debate regarding sexual misconduct that goes far beyond the college campus. High profile men in the entertainment industry, in the media, in government, have been outed for sexual misconduct ranging from an unwanted kiss to pathological pedophilia. Even this is but the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, sexual misconduct in the workplace—in offices, in hotels, in factories, in athletics, in the armed forces—has yet to be fully exposed. And it goes even beyond the workplace. Women do not feel safe from harassment or being groped simply walking down the street, sitting in a bus, or going to a park.

When students and former students have come to me with stories of being victimized by members of my profession, the most important thing I can do is help them regain their ability—which has been so violently compromised—to trust someone, anyone. I try to provide that trust and support. In a society that has no difficulty talking about violence but is unable to openly discuss sex, especially sexual predation, it is no wonder that women are only now coming forward and with such difficulty and with such courage.

We cringe in disgust when Catholic priests are exposed for abusing children. We are outraged when male-dominated cultures of so-called Third World countries relegate women to second-class status. We recoil in horror when marauding mercenaries in Africa rape women as their reward and as a tool to terrorize the populace into submission. Why is it, then, in our supposedly advanced democracy, we’ve continued to tolerate sexual violence throughout our society, and more specifically in Spring Break, on college campuses? To claim we haven’t tolerated it is simply denying reality. The abuse persists, adminis­trations continue to place the prestige of their universities ahead of the well-being of their own students, and the justice system continues to bend over backwards to protect the rights of the accused to the point of victimizing the victims. Why is it we do not demand change? Is it because we’re in a state of denial that “the greatest country in the world” may be no better than the lowest of the low? I don’t really have answers to those questions. I wish I did, but what I at least can do in Spring Break is provide food for thought and hope that sharing the message will help advance a constructive dialogue for change.


Symphonies & Scorpions

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog posts and maybe even my murder mysteries. I thought it was especially appropriate at the end of this current Boston Symphony tour to Japan to announce the December 1 eBook publication of Symphonies & Scorpions, my first nonfiction book, which I’ve been working on for the past three years.

I am among a fortunate handful of Boston Symphony musicians who performed on both the orchestra’s history-making tour to China in 1979 and it’s second in 2014. Symphonies & Scorpions is about an orchestra on tour. But it’s also more than that. It chronicles the changes not only in China over those years, but of the Boston Symphony, American orchestras, and indeed, the world. Symphonies & Scorpions is not a salacious tell-all. It’s real. It’s what orchestras do in the real world, which is fascinating as it is and does not need to be dolled up by scandal or hyperbole. The book, containing dozens of photos from both tours, has behind-the-scenes stories–some of them quirky, some touching, many humorous–of an organization in constant motion; of musicians, of conductors, of administrators and stage hands doing the grunt work to make us look glamorous. In other words, the kinds of things one would never know sitting in the audience of a concert hall where all the musicians on stage look the same as they produce their glorious music. Symphonies & Scorpions poses the question, Why do orchestras go to all this trouble to tour, and offers reflections on the mysterious but undeniable power of music to build bridges across cultures.

1.1 Deng Xiaoping & Seiji Ozawa, 1979

Deng Xiao Ping and Maestro Seiji Ozawa, 1979

Here’s the Introduction to Symphonies & Scorpions to give you a taste:

March 12, 1979.  The musicians of the Boston Symphony gather at an international departure gate at Logan Airport, surrounded not only by the usual gaggle of BSO staff and administrators, but also by family members, the symphony’s deep-pocketed benefactors, corporate sponsors, and a buzzing swarm of local, national, and international media. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is here, lending his largesse to the occasion. In front of the cameras, Teddy bids us an impassioned bon voyage, expressing his pride in Boston’s own orchestra, and—though he mispronounces the name of our esteemed music director, Maestro Seiji Ozawa—exhorts us to greatness in inimitable Kennedy style. This is not an ordinary concert tour. This is history-making cultural diplomacy. The Boston Symphony is going to China! 

The unfathomable, churning land of Mao, of Chou En Lai, of the Gang of Four, had only recently proclaimed an end to its tumultuous Cultural Revolution, for the moment sheathing its sword against anything that smacked of Western taint. Relations with the U.S. have theoretically “normalized.” That China is still mopping up from its invasion of Vietnam has been put on our political backburner, perhaps because it was seen as an indirect strike against the Soviet Union for its support of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia.

But what will normalization mean? How will the BSO be received in this unpredictable political environment? Will we be cheered or booed off the stage? Will there be demonstrations against our decadent Western culture? Will we be confined to our hotel rooms, or followed by security personnel everywhere we go? Can we even take photos? There is a palpable exhilaration tinged with anxiety at the departure gate that chilly, late winter day. 

Fast forward to 2014. I am a musical Rip Van Winkle. As one of the few musicians on that first tour to China in 1979 returning thirty-five years later, I have a unique opportunity to chronicle the striking transformations taking place not only in China’s arts and society, but in the symphonic world as well.

What are the nuts and bolts of a concert tour? How do you finance its staggering costs? And why bother? What are the improbable logistics of getting a hundred musicians onto the stage on time, every time?     

I recently conducted a rehearsal of seventeen musicians of the string section of the Stockbridge Sinfonia, which annually presents a grand total of one program. These amateur musicians, comprising high school students to retirees, work assiduously on their own time, purely for the love of music. The program I drilled them on ranged from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony to American Salute.

At intermission (which, unlike those of professional orchestras, is of indeterminate length) I chatted with concertmaster Christine Singer, about the recently completed Boston Symphony Asia tour. I recounted a few run-of-the-mill travel tidbits I assumed was common knowledge, but Christine, who in real life is a with-it, team-building consultant for companies and non-profits, was floored.

“The only time we see the musicians is when they’re onstage!” she said. “I’ve never had any idea of how you get there. You should write a book!”

In Symphonies & Scorpions you’ll glimpse both the glamor and the drudgery of an international concert tour. You’ll sit next to me on the hallowed stage of Symphony Hall in Boston and in concert halls in China and Japan for four weeks of rehearsals and concerts, meeting my congenial and occasionally cantankerous colleagues, listening to the Maestro’s words of debated wisdom. You’ll fly with me nonstop from Boston to Tokyo, dine on succulent Peking duck, squirm through Beijing alleys crowded with scorpion vendors, and be spiritually restored in a Tokyo park floating in tranquility.

But nothing can be taken for granted on a tour, and sometimes disasters do happen. Our 2014 tour was no exception. It was almost cancelled before it even began, and on the final leg our instruments were held up by Japanese Customs officials, challenging even the American ambassador’s diplomatic skills to resolve.

So pack your bags and get a good night’s sleep, because we’re hitting the road for classic adventure on and off the stage.

3.10 Scorpion Kebab

Scorpion Kebab, Beijing 2014


I’m writing this from the country home of our longtime friends Makoto and Hitomi in the small mountain town of Kusu in Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. We’re here for a few days of r&r after the conclusion of the Boston Symphony tour. It’s cool and cloudy, the perfect poetic atmospherics for a haiku-like vacation. (By the way, Makoto and Hitomi were the prototypes for the characters Max Furukawa and Yumi Shinagawa in my Daniel Jacobus mystery series.)


Dawn in Kusu

The final concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo ended with a joyful Mahler Symphony No. 1 and seemed to encapsulate the positive feeling of the entire tour. I think the audience caught the vibe, yet another reason live performance can’t be reproduced by electronic technology. Before the concert there was a lot of the usual chatter about sight-seeing, restaurants, and major purchases. At the high-spirited post-concert party, the tour’s sponsors were gifted with Red Sox caps and conductor’s batons. The speeches by all parties included vows of return BSO visits and sounded more than just empty promises. I think everyone in the orchestra would welcome the prospect.


Backstage at Suntory Hall

caroline, suntory hall

With my devoted stand partner, Caroline Pliszka onstage at Suntory Hall

One of the highlights of the tour was the open rehearsal for students. School uniforms are standard garb in Japan, so Suntory Hall was awash in a sea of blue. I’m not sure how much the kids understood what Maestro Nelsons was saying to them, even with a translator, but it clearly was an exciting event for them. It’s something the BSO should consider doing more often as it’s yet one more way that music can build bridges over oceans.


Maestro Nelsons delivers a heartfelt speech.


Tokyo students lining up for open rehearsal.

For a number of young BSO musicians, this was their first time to Japan. For them, and for the rest of us, too, what might be the most impressive and memorable thing we carry away from the experience is the level of civility that is a given in this country. People speak to you respectfully and politely. Tokyo, a city of 20 million, is spotlessly clean. The subway system, which is used by almost 8 million riders everyday is prompt to the minute. Crime, at least in comparison to the US, is virtually unheard of. (Violent crime is 148 times greater in the US than in Japan: http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Japan/United-States/Crime)

While sitting on a crowded Tokyo subway two days ago, a little six-year old girl sat perfectly at ease on her way home from school. A powerful image. Fifty years ago we might have seen this in the US. No longer. We need to consider why.

When an orchestra like the Boston Symphony travels to foreign countries we bring the best of what America has to offer. I hope upon returning to the US we’ll share the positives we’ve learned and experienced from our host nations and help make our own a better place.

BSO poster


A Part, Yet Apart

Last night our close friends, Dr. and Mrs. Minami, took us to Gonpachi, a swanky restaurant in the Roppongi district, after the Boston Symphony’s successful concert at Suntory Hall. Surprisingly, a lot of restaurants close by 9:30 in Tokyo and this one was recommended by the Minami’s son because the combination of rustic and frenetic apparently inspired a scene in the movie, Kill Bill. I never saw that so I can’t say yes or no.



The food was great, the ambiance way too touristy, but what was interesting were the servers. They all spoke Japanese like natives and had the proper manners, but not one of them was ethnically Japanese. In the US we wouldn’t blink twice at someone who doesn’t look “American” (whatever that is) but who speaks English. In Japan, one expects people who speak the language fluently to be Japanese. It was curious that the servers at Gonpachi seemed everything but: black, Caucasian, middle eastern. You name it. It made me wonder about living in a country where you’re recognized as an outsider no matter how long you’ve lived there. (Having lived in Utah for thirty years among an eighty percent Mormon population has given me a mild dose of that awareness.)

In a way, playing with the BSO evokes a little bit of that as well. I’m touched by how respectfully my colleagues have embraced my now-and-then participation with the orchestra, but as someone who plays with them only for the Tanglewood season and on the occasional tour, my perspective is being on the outside looking in. Not a big deal, because the view is great from whatever the angle.

Gonpachi is also famous because former President George W. Bush had once been feted there by former Prime Minister Koizumi. I found this out after the Suntory Hall concert, which was attended by none other than a Crown Prince (not the one who cans the sardines, but Crown Prince Naruhito and the Crown Princess Masako of Japan.)

As a matter of protocol, we had been instructed to stand when the pair entered the balcony. Personally, I felt like taking a knee because I don’t believe that anyone, either an individual or a group, has a claim to superiority by birth. That’s the basis of what our Founding Fathers was trying to tell us, wasn’t it? For me, the notion of bowing to royalty is bris(t)ling, to continue the sardine joke. And in a touch of irony, better overlooked for this particular evening, the main work of the program, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, is a musically graphic depiction of the horrors of the 1905 Russian Revolution inflicted against the common people by royalty. Out of respect for the Japanese people and the members of my organization, however, I stood with my fellow musicians and kept my protest silent. The prince and princess do seem like a nice couple, and they truly appeared to enjoy the concert, so I applaud their good taste.