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

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Reflections

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.)

Kusu

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.

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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.

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Maestro Nelsons delivers a heartfelt speech.

Students

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.

Gonpachi

Gonpachi

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.

Christmas in Tokyo, Already (?)

Christmas spirit has already arrived in Tokyo. It must have something to do with the time zones. Early or not, I’ve begun celebrating with reunions with old friends.

Christmas in Tokyo

The BSO arrived in town on Sunday evening, and I immediately jumped on a subway to meet my friend, Michael Selman, and his wife, Sachiko, at a restaurant near Tsukiji. Mike and I were fellow violin students at Yale, after which he became a violin expert for the famous shop of Charles Beare. Mike now divides his time between Dallas, New York, New Mexico, Mexico, Japan, and Korea, so he’s not an easy guy to pin down. We spent the evening laughing about our student days over a lovely dinner of grilled eel.

eel

An eel

Mike Selman

Mike Selman & I reminisce over post-eel coffee.

Yesterday, our free day, I paid a visit to the Musashino Music Academy, where I taught for four months in 1986 while on sabbatical from the BSO. It was a life changing experience for me, so it was wonderful to meet with President Fukui, who has not changed a bit in thirty years, along with other old friends on the staff and faculty.

Pres. Fukui

President Fukui with his copy of my Devil’s Trill audiobook!

Then last night, the best reunion of all. I took the train out to Narita Airport, where my wife Cecily arrived from Salt Lake City to join me for the rest of the tour and little R&R with Tokyo friends thereafter.

Have to run now. Rehearsal at Suntory Hall starts shortly.

If you’ve enjoyed reading my blogs, I may have a very exciting announcement to make in a few days! If you haven’t enjoyed reading them, then of course it won’t be nearly as exciting.

Game, Set…Concert

Our travel director handed out our randomly designated seat assignments for the Bullet Train from Nagoya to Kawasaki, where we had a matinee concert, followed by a bus ride to Tokyo. I was handed a chit for 7-D in Coach No. 10. En masse, we followed our guide to the correct track and boarded. (There’s never any question whether the train will be on time.)

Chit

Chit

I took my seat next to a woman a few years older than me who I had seen at our concerts and receptions, but who I had never met. James Orleans, my friend, long-time BSO string bassist and excellent tennis player, was sitting on the other side of the train aisle. Even before the train started to move he did the honors with the introductions. Anita Klaussen was his good friend and neighbor from back in Boston.

Anita and I started to chat, and shortly thereafter she mentioned she had been married to Bud Collins for twenty-five years before his recent passing. Did I know who Bud Collins is, she asked.

If you know anything about sports, especially tennis, you know who Bud Collins is. A world-class player, he gained even more fame as a world-class sports journalist. He was THE voice of American tennis for decades.

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Anita no doubt anticipated the standard deep, baseline crosscourt response: “Wow! Bud Collins! Of course I know who he was.”

Instead, I surprised her with an unexpected topspin lob: “Bud Collins was my older brother Arthur’s tennis coach at Brandeis in the ‘60s.” From the widening of her eyes, I could tell I had the advantage. Jim, too, immediately perked up.

And then I went for the kill with an overhand volley: “And because Art taught me how to play tennis, in a way that makes me Bud Collins’s grandson, doesn’t it?”

Point won. Street cred achieved.

Anita showed me the tribute book she had put together for Bud’s memorial service. It included testimonials from famous tennis players and lots of photos. She thought there might be one of Bud’s Brandeis days, maybe even with my brother in it, but there were so many photos that it’s still in a drawer with thousands of others.

Anita Klaussen

Anita and me with her tribute to Bud

We enjoyed a conversation about tennis, Japan, and life until we got to the Kawasaki station. I’m sure we’ll have more. One never knows what to expect on a concert tour. Just like when I’m playing tennis.

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Anita and Bud

 

The Osaka Conundrum

No, that’s not the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller. Rather, it was the BSO’s predicament for its concert in Osaka last night.

On the program was the colossal Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” Here was the situation:

  1. The Symphony No. 11 is a very long and difficult composition, full of potential musical traps for everyone, and which doesn’t lie well on anyone’s instrument. It’s the kind of a piece that is typically referred to in the profession as “a bitch.”
  2. The orchestra hadn’t looked at it in well over a month, since the beginning of the concert season in Boston.
  3. Before September, most of the musicians in the orchestra had never played the Shostakovich at all. It’s one of his least performed symphonies—I admit to never even having heard it–so there was no muscle memory to pull out of the hat.
  4. The rehearsal for the piece that was supposed to have taken place the day before had been washed out when the truck carrying our music was delayed beyond our ability to reschedule. (See yesterday’s post: Intrigue in Nagoya.) All we had was a 15-minute acoustical rehearsal an hour before the concert at the Osaka Festival Hall to slay all those millions of phantoms.
Maestro at the train station

Strategizing at Nagoya Train Station

Well, wouldn’t you know? The performance went of without a hitch. What a credit to the BSO musicians and Maestro Nelsons! (Smart guy, he took ½ an edge off the perilously frenetic tempos he had us play in Boston. It made everyone onstage feel much more secure and confident, but the Osaka audience got just as big a thrill.) When it was all over the sense of accomplishment (and relief) was palpable. The post-concert reception had even more levity than usual.

Happy campers

Maestro & Musicians Celebrating

 

Being on tour does not preclude life at home interjecting itself from time to time. Just before the concert I received an email from a violist who was going to be one of the soloists in Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto that I’m conducting next month in Salt Lake City to tell me she won’t be able to do it. So I have to find another violist from afar and quickly.

To more than counterbalance that bit of unsettling news, however, was another email I received, this one from Alison Larkin, the producer of my new, critically acclaimed audiobook mystery, Danse Macabre, to tell me it is now finished (weeks ahead of schedule) and available for download purchase. (CD sets will be ready in the near future.) Check out the audio sample. I can’t think of a better, easier, or more “novel” way to get your holiday shopping out of the way. Can you?

Danse Macabre AUDIO COVER

DANSE MACABRE: AUDIO

Intrigue in Nagoya

It wasn’t the way you’d want to start a concert tour. At 8:00 we received a message from Chris Ruigomez, the BSO Director of Concert Operations. “Good morning. We have just been notified that one truck with some of our instruments will not arrive until about noon.” That was unfortunate, since the rehearsal at NTK Forest Hall in Nagoya was scheduled to start at 10:30. “We will move the rehearsal to be from 1:00 PM.”

Schedule

Changes were made on the fly, including our bus departure from the Nagoya Hilton, where the orchestra was staying. Rather than returning to the hotel after the rehearsal and going back to the hall for the 5:00 PM performance, we would stay at the hall. Food would be provided in between the rehearsal and concert.

We were at the hall and ready to begin rehearsal—our first of the tour—at 1:00. Only problem, still no music, still no string basses. The truck was still somewhere between Tokyo and Nagoya. Rumors spread. The one consistent one was that the driver had overslept. Jet lag? Nope. Not one of ours. A Japanese driver. This seemed strange. Oversleeping a half hour, maybe. Even an hour. But to be four or more hours late?

Waiting

Thumb twiddling time.

Already, the inconvenience and the expense were adding up. “What ifs” started seeping into the conversation. All the contingencies had to be considered. It could be a major disaster.

Finally, at about 1:30 the truck arrived. The BSO stage crew and their Forest Hall counterparts sprang into action. Swinging into actionThe rehearsal, which was supposed to run for 2 ½ hours, went from 2:00 to 3:00. No time for Shostakovich today. Maybe tomorrow. Maestro Nelsons was his usual unflappable self. All smiles. No hurry. Take care of business. See you at the concert.

Backstage Subway sandwiches and bento boxes. A quick dash to a nearby coffee shop for additional caffeinated sustenance to ward off potential jet lag.

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The audience never knew.  Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham. Mahler Symphony No. 1. Beethoven Egmont Overture as an encore. Everything went off without a hitch. Disaster averted. At least for us. I heard the driver was fired. Actually, that made me relieved. I worried it would go much worse for him.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings.