Symphonies & Scorpions: Suntory Time




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Tokyo: Friday, May 9

6:15pm-6:30 ACOUSTIC REHEARSAL Suntory Hall 7:00pm CONCERT Suntory Hall PROGRAM: Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 CHARLES DUTOIT, conductor JANINE JANSEN, violin

9:15pm Reception for Maestro Dutoit, Orchestra, Staff and Friends Group, ANA InterContinental

Snafu Postscript

Here’s what I found out later about The Mysterious Case of the In Limbo Instruments. Contrary to what I had learned earlier, it seems that neither Ambassador Kennedy nor the State Department were successful pulling rank to get the instruments flowing through Japanese Customs. I was told that, in fact, our esteemed ambassador was stonewalled. Why the big kerfuffle? Uncorroborated speculation is that it was pushback for her public criticism of Japan’s centuries-old annual dolphin hunt. “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing,” Ambassador Kennedy tweeted in the winter of 2013-14 in both English and Japanese. Japan responded by accusing critics of the hunt, including Kennedy, of being hypocrites for not also lamenting the slaughtering of cattle and chickens in their own country.

If not the doing of State Department, how did the instruments ultimately manage to get through? Mark Volpe confessed, “We threw everything we could against the wall and hoped something would stick.” Everyone from our end frantically contacted everyone they knew on the Japanese end. Volpe even asked Seiji Ozawa if he had a personal contact who might help. According to Volpe, Seiji seriously considered the question and replied, “the Emperor,” but then thought better of going that route.

An uneasy stalemate reigned until Jasper Parrot, Dutoit’s manager, made the magic phone call. The Japanese spokesman for the Foreign Secretary, someone Parrot knew personally, was finally able to set the wheels of progress in motion, and none too soon.       

Because Volpe had a notion that there was a symbolic backstory issue at the root of the Japanese intransigence over the ivory, he maintained confidence all along that the instruments would have eventually arrived by concert time one way or the other. But he was more concerned about the rehearsal that preceded it, and not simply because it was our one and only with Jansens. Our lead tour sponsor, EMC2, had provided serious financial backing and in return asked the BSO to invite hundreds of its employees in Tokyo to attend the rehearsal. If the instruments had not arrived and the rehearsal was canceled, EMC2 would have been sorely disappointed, and one does not want to disappoint major sponsors.

In the end, the tempest in the Japanese teapot appears to have been a matter of making a not-so-subtle political point. Like Volpe, I can’t imagine that the Japanese authorities would have prevented the concert from taking place, especially considering the embarrassment it would have caused some important dignitaries in attendance, including Ambassador Kennedy herself. On the other hand, the next time we come to Japan we might want to have mammoth bone tips put on our bows.

Points of View

Here’s another example of the wonderful world of geopolitics. This is how Chinese and Japanese newspapers reported the same events taking place in their south Asia neighborhood:

The Chinese version from the China Daily; Tuesday, May 6, 2014, Guangxi (page 2):

Dien Bien Phu Battle remembered

China and Vietnam face new opportunities and challenges in a volatile international situation, and young people from the two countries should remember history and promote cooperation and friendship. That was the consensus of participants at a seminar commemorating the Viet Minh victory over the French in the two-month battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Japanese version from The Japan News by the Yomiuri Shimbun; Friday, May 9, 2014 (page 1):

Vietnam: Chinese ships ram vessels near oil rig

Hanoi (AP)—Chinese ships have been ramming into and firing water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from putting an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to officials and video footage Wednesday, in a dangerous escalation of tensions over waters considered a global flashpoint.

Propaganda or perspective? Or just deciding what to print and what not to print? How different is American journalism, if at all?

Trained Sushi

I’m meeting Toshiko Tanaka for lunch at her favorite sushi restaurant. Once a promising violinist who decades ago was forced to quit the concert stage due to a hand injury, Toshiko became a very formidable and dedicated teacher with generations of devoted and loyal students who ranged from highly gifted youngsters to amateur seniors playing the violin simply for the love of it.

Toshiko was already friends with several of my older colleagues by the time I met her on my first BSO tour to Japan in the late ‘70s. She still makes pilgrimages to Boston, hauling some of her best students in tow to provide them the opportunity to have lessons and master classes with BSO musicians. Whenever my Abramyan String Quartet toured Japan, Toshiko was always happy to arrange private performances for us.

So slight in build that a gentle breeze could blow her away like a cherry blossom petal, Toshiko is more diminutive than ever, yet still wields an iron will over her students. Though she’s getting on in years, she is still intensely committed to consider new ways to teach and to play the violin.

The pint-sized sushi restaurant she takes me to is on a colorful neighborhood shopping street in the Nakano district. It’s one of those sushi places where you sit at a counter and a seemingly limitless array of delicacies streams out of the kitchen on train tracks. As it chugs along you just grab what you want and go to town. Typically, restaurants like this are as low in quality as in price, but Toshiko, a person of modest means, is right on the money with this place. Yes, the price is right, but the food is as fresh as a spring day, and delicious. At the other end of the sushi spectrum, some of my colleagues went to Giro for lunch, perhaps the most famous sushi-ya in the world, and according to reports had an incredibly memorable experience in all ways. For me, I’ll take the simpler.

After saying goodbye to Toshiko and exchanging gifts, I stroll back among the crowds to the Yamanota Line to return to the Okura. It dawns on me that I haven’t seen any evidence of obesity in either China or Japan, except of course among American tourists. When are Americans going to relearn how to eat, if ever? (Yes, I understand the challenge of low-income populations in the US to access fresh, nutritional, affordable food; but by definition, tourists to Beijing and Shanghai and Tokyo are far from that poverty-stricken population.) Between stuffing ourselves and shooting ourselves, we Americans have little to fear from terrorism or even climate change, because we’ll be long gone before those annoyances will make a dent in our ability to kill ourselves.

Local poster for the BSO Suntory Hall concert .

Suntory Time

Suntory Hall opened in 1986 and is the oldest and most distinguished of the five halls in which we’ve performed on this tour. Not only is it a pleasure to play here, I have two surprises in store for me.

Surprise No. 1: Seiji Ozawa is backstage and is in better health than expected, with some of his old pep back. Always dubbed something of an iconoclast, which hasn’t always gone over well in tradition-bound Japan, tonight he’s true to fashion, dressed in jeans and a windbreaker and wearing his Red Sox cap, high-fiving everyone. All the musicians who were in the orchestra during his tenure want to have their photo taken with him and he is very obliging. As word had spread he might be attending one of our performances, I readied a copy of my first mystery novel, Devil’s Trill, gift-wrapped at the hotel, and he insisted on opening it up right away. I’m not sure if he even reads books in English, but I think he’ll like the cover, anyway.

I certainly have a lot to thank him for. Along with violinists Sheila Fiekowsky and Slava Uritsky, the three of us were among Seiji’s first BSO hires in 1975—we all started our jobs on the same day—as he only had become fulltime music director the year prior. Plus, he was influential in setting up my short-term guest professorship at the Musashino Music Academy in 1986, during which time I made so many lasting friends in Japan.

Surprise No. 2, a personal one: The Yogo family is here. They are among my dearest friends in Japan who, like Toshiko, I met because they were friends of older BSO members. Tetsuro, the son in the family, even came to live with us in Salt Lake City for part of a year when he was still in high school. Now he’s an I.T. guy, apparently a successful one, because tickets for this concert range from $125 to $375.

Many Americans think of Japanese people as being distant and formal. There may be some truth to that perception until they get to know you well, at which time they become the warmest and most loyal friends imaginable. They are also among the world’s great partiers. But I have found that even as a stranger, without exception, I’ve been treated politely, cordially, and with thoughtful consideration. On one occasion years ago, I got myself lost in downtown Tokyo. A total stranger came up to me and in halting English asked my destination. He himself couldn’t help me, so he took me to his office nearby, sat me down, found me an English newspaper, gave me a cup of tea, made a few phone calls, drew me a map, and walked me to the correct subway station. He then bowed and thanked me.

 Hiroko (Mrs. Yogo) and I give each other a very unselfconscious, public bear hug. We’ll all be having dinner together in a couple of days, and will have a chance to chat, but for the moment it’s great just to see them all again.

Seiji’s presence and Suntory Hall’s acoustics have buoyed everyone’s spirits, Dutoit’s included, and the music-making sparkles from the get-go. The audience response to the Symphonie fantastique is as enthusiastic as I’ve ever heard from a Japanese audience. There are even some boisterous bravos, a rare accolade. We play Bizet’s Farandole for an encore, and the applause is such that not only does it continue as we leave the stage, it continues long after! In fact, it’s still going on after Dutoit has changed into street clothes, and he has to go back on stage to wave to the remaining audience.


On tour there’s usually at least one elegantly catered post-concert reception hosted by the Symphony corporation and attended by the entire entourage plus the local hoity-toity. This tour was no exception, with a big bash in the ANA Hotel next door to the hall. Musicians tend to work up a growling appetite during a concert, especially if they’ve eaten lightly beforehand. So it’s not an uncommon, if a bit ungracious, sight for musicians to make a mad dash for the buffet tables, especially the one with seafood, as soon as the doors open.

After one long-ago concert in Tokyo, the orchestra was invited to a bash hosted by the international fashion designer, Hanae Mori. She was a good friend of Seiji Ozawa and his wife, Vera, and the party took place at her downtown studio, which was very chic but a bit claustrophobic for such a large group. Coincidentally, the Berlin Philharmonic was also in town, and they too had been invited, making the studio yet more hot and cramped. Both orchestras arrived simultaneously and, musicians being musicians the world ‘round, everyone charged the buffet tables, vying especially for the sushi and shrimp, which beckoned to us as enticingly as the Sirens did to Odysseus. Some pushing and shoving ensued, and perhaps heated words were exchanged. Would this be a renewal of the Axis versus the Allies? The members of the Berlin outfit on the whole looked brawnier than the BSO musicians and were almost exclusively male, so their aggressiveness topped ours and we had to content ourselves with yakitori. Fortunately, there was plenty of sake for all. The crisis was thus averted and we departed as a friendly fraternity of musicians.

The highlight of international tours in the ‘70s and ‘80s took place on those rare days that were free of both concerts and travel, because that’s when Ozawa hosted parties for the entire orchestra. One might debate the profundity of his Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, but no one can disagree that his orchestra fetes were nonpareil.  And of those, the one that topped all the others was when he rented an entire onsen, orJapanese hot spring resort, high on a rocky bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Izu Peninsula of Japan, for an all-day/all-night bash with limitless free bar, free sushi, and of course, free hot spring bathing.

In the evening there was an enormous formal dinner for the entire troupe, during which we sat on a ballroom-sized tatami floor and were served individually by costumed geishas. (For the entire day we were all dressed in blue and white yukatas—lightweight cotton robes. The late Vincent Mauricci, one of our more gentlemanly and modest violists, wore slacks and a shirt and tie under his yukata.) During the festivities, there was a traditional ceremony in which Seiji clubbed open a cask of fresh sake, which was then poured into our wooden sake cups. Toasts of “Kanpai!” echoed through the hall, after which the sake was expeditiously consumed. After the dinner came line dancing with the geishas, then yet more drinking. I found myself seated next to my buddy, Ronan, at the bar. Upon raising his glass for what turned out to be the final time, he fell over backwards, making a soft landing on the tatami floor.

They say sake doesn’t give you a hangover.

The reception at the ANA had the winning combination of short speeches and tall drinks, so it was a big success. The hero of the moment, Maestro Dutoit, was charming and gracious, and like Seiji was very obliging with the photo ops. What’s happening with conductors these days? They’re becoming so…likeable.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: How do you say “snafu” in Japanese?




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Part 4: JAPAN
Familiar Ground

You know you’re getting close to Japan when a flight attendant politely announces over the PA: “Ladies and gentlemen, there will be mild turbulence in twenty minutes. Please use the lavatory now.” My excitement starts to rise.

Landing at Narita Airport feels like coming home. I think I’ve been to Japan more than a dozen times, starting with Long Island Youth Orchestra, and then the Boston Symphony and the Abramyan String Quartet. In 1986 I also spent four months as a guest professor at the Musashino Music Academy in Tokyo while on sabbatical leave from the BSO. But because it has been twelve years since my last visit, all I look forward to is seeing old friends and haven’t given a minute of thought to sightseeing. I’ll just play that by ear.

We arrive at 9:00 PM at the stylish, elegant Okura Hotel that the BSO has called home on a number of occasions. Compared to the three Grand Hyatts in China, it seems a little old-fashioned. For me the change is welcome. Each musician finds an origami turtle and crane in his/her room, which symbolizes long life and good fortune. Quaint, but don’t knock it. We can use all the help we can get. And it’s a relief not having to spend a half hour trying to figure out where the bathroom light switch is or what buttons to push to open the blinds. High tech has its place, but so too does simplicity. Light switch: next to the door. On or Off. Can’t be improved upon, and why even try to? That’s my thought for the day as I flip the switch to the Off position for the night.

Thursday, May 8

4:00pm-5:30 REHEARSAL Metropolitan Theatre Concert Hall 7:00pm  CONCERT Metropolitan Theatre Concert Hall PROGRAM: Mussorgsky: Night on Bare Mountain Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 CHARLES DUTOIT, conductor JANINE JANSEN, violin

A Village of Twenty Million

Who would have thought that Tokyo, a metropolis of twenty-plus million, would ever feel like a sea of tranquility? Yet, compared to the cities in China we just visited, Tokyo seems almost staid. It doesn’t feel crowded, even in the subways, at least not during rush hour. People are quiet and considerate and avoid bumping into each other. The architecture no longer appears ostentatiously cutting-edge. The air is fresh and breathable.

The Japanese, themselves, might not share my sanguinity, as the low-key vibes are in part the result of their ongoing economic downturn, now well into its second decade. And the country as a whole is using less power after the Fukushima catastrophe and subsequent decommissioning of all the nuclear plants, so the city’s lights are not glowing quite as glaringly as they used to. On the “bright” side, they’re using less energy and are managing, setting a positive example for the entire world.

Unmusical Chairs

For breakfast, I wander to the hotel’s lovely Terrace Restaurant patio garden where I find violist Jonathan Chu, one of the newer BSO musicians who I’ve not yet had the opportunity to meet. What a personable, and I gather, talented guy! Though his presence is undoubtedly a real plus for the orchestra, his situation is an example of the quandary many professional musicians find themselves in these days.

Before coming to Boston, Jon played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and being a highly intelligent individual who has a knack with numbers, he was on musicians’ orchestra committee throughout the 2011 debacle when the orchestra found itself in bankruptcy court over what was primarily a pension dispute. As the New York Times reported on May 23, 2012,

After going to bankruptcy court on April 16, 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra took a number of steps to reduce costs. It negotiated a new contract with the players that cut salaries and the number of musicians. Old rent due the Kimmel [the concert hall where the orchestra performs] was forgiven and the current rate shrunk. The orchestra dissolved a partnership with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, but agreed to pay that ensemble $1.25 million. The Philadelphia Orchestra resolved a dispute with the musicians’ union pension fund, costing it $1.75 million to withdraw instead of the demanded $35.5 million.”

One unfortunate result of the deal was that some young, gifted, and discouraged players like Jonathan left the orchestra.

His other predicament derives from the very nature of symphony orchestras. A few dozen American cities are lucky enough to have a major symphony orchestra, but no city has more than one. That means if you leave your orchestra but want to remain a full-time orchestral musician, you also have to leave your city. And if you have a spouse who is also a professional musician, which is not all that rare these days, it’s a challenge for both to find employment under the same roof.

That’s because you can only join an orchestra if you win an audition for a specific position. Those positions become vacant only when the persons holding them die, retire, or leave the orchestra for some other reason. The result is that opportunities are few and far between. For example, major symphonies have one or two harp players, and they generally stay for life, since that position is the pinnacle of the profession for that instrument. So, no matter how qualified a harp player you may be, if you’re on the outside looking in you might have to wait for years before a single position even becomes available for audition. And no matter what city it’s in, every other terrific harp player in the world looking for a job will be with you be at that audition.

The upshot is that Jon’s wife, Beth Guterman Chu, recently became the principal violist of the St. Louis Symphony—a fine achievement—so circumstances have forced them into a long distance relationship. There’s been a lot of shuffling back and forth between cities, and to compound things, they also have two kids. At the moment there are viola openings in both orchestras, so hopefully in the near future they’ll be able to play sweet alto clef music together.

(A happy postscript to this story. Shortly after the tour, Jon was hired to be assistant principal viola of the St. Louis Symphony, where he sits next to his beloved.)

How Do You Say Snafu in Japanese?

Typically, there are three staggered bus departure times from the hotel to the concert hall. This is done primarily to enable those musicians with large instruments, like string bass and tuba, who have their instruments shipped directly to the hall, to arrive early and have adequate time to practice before a rehearsal starts. Before leaving the Okura for the Metropolitan Theater in Ikebukuro, I receive a text on WhatsApp sent to all the musicians from Chris Ruigomez, BSO operations manager, informing us that the bus schedule from the hotel to the hall has been changed because the entry of our instruments into Japan from China has been held up. With this delay, it would be pointless for musicians to go to the hall early. Since I’m not taking the bus, anyway—I’ve decided to make an excursion on my own to the Meiji Shrine by subway on the way there—I don’t pay much attention to Chris’s text.

Strolling along the wide gravel avenue from the entrance of the park to the tranquil Meiji Shrine brings back sweet memories of walking the same path with my wife, Cecily, and our kids in 1986 during my sabbatical. Kate was still a toddler and Jake less than a year old when we carried them in backpacks and pushed them in strollers. I can’t say I didn’t get a little choked up visiting the place again.

Traditional Japanese wedding ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. (I kept my distance out of respect.)

Emerging from Ikebukuro Station, I scope out the concert hall after getting a little turned around. Ikebukuro is one of several major transportation, commercial, and entertainment hubs of central Tokyo, and just finding the correct exit from the massive train station—the size of a small city—is an enterprise in itself. After all the times I had been to Ikebukuro I feel a little shame-faced to discover the hall a block-and-a-half from the station. It turns out the hall is also in the same neighborhood as the Kimi ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, where I’m going to stay for a few days after the official tour ends.

I still have plenty of time before the rehearsal for a delectable set lunch of grilled mackerel, rice, miso soup, daikon salad, and something curiously served in a sealed Styrofoam container. As soon as I lift the lid, I understand why it had been so painstakingly quarantined. It’s natto, the worst concoction in the history of the world, though many Japanese swear by it. The fermented soybeans have an aroma highly reminiscent of—forgive me—vomit, and the one time I actually tasted the lumpy, gooey abomination that’s even fouler than Vegemite, I almost gagged.

As soon as I recognize it, I slam the container shut. There are legitimate claims that natto is highly nutritious and might help prevent illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease. However, if I had to choose between one or the other I’d pick senility, especially if it could help me forget the time I actually ate the stuff. I should mention that the rest of the lunch is excellent, and all for about eight bucks. Who said eating in Tokyo is expensive?

Returning to the hall, I bump into Ruigomez, who has arrived  in advance of the musicians. He gives me the blow-by-blow for the delay, which can be distilled into one word: ivory.

Because of the fraction of an ounce of elephant ivory that traditionally, but no longer, is used to make the protective tips of string instrument bows, Japanese customs officials won’t let them into the country, or any of the other instruments that accompany them, ivory or not. This bureaucratic snafu is placing our remaining concerts in jeopardy.

The BSO actually went to great lengths to make sure the ivory issue had been resolved, filling out endless documents to the point they were confident they had found safe haven from the inexhaustible supply of red tape, but apparently some diligent civil servants had an extra roll stashed away. Japanese officials told the BSO that had the musicians brought the instruments into Japan individually everything would have been hunky-dory, but as group cargo it was verboten. The officials were not only empowered by regulation to say no, they were required to do so. I later learned that American regulations are essentially the reverse: the US says it’s OK for instruments to be shipped out as group cargo, but the Japanese say for the instrument to come into the country the owner of the individual instrument must have it in his hands, placing the BSO in a classic Catch 22.

Ah, bureaucracy! That universal brotherhood of intransigence that binds us all. Chris tells me that discussions to resolve the situation are ongoing. I suggest that we should just ditch the string instruments and have a brass band concert. Or leave the offending ivory-clad bows at Customs and play Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony all pizzicato. I always try to be helpful.

There are still almost two hours before the rehearsal and I have a coffee date with pianist Janos Cegledy, a dear former colleague from the Musashino Academy where I taught. Janos, Hungarian by birth, transplanted for a time to New Zealand, and living in Japan for almost four decades, has a pronounced tri-national accent. Add to that a coffee shop with ridiculously loud ambient noise and his inclination to talk very fast and excitedly, and to tell very long, meandering stories, I only understand about a quarter of what he tells me. But I get the gist and his smile and wit are still infectious, so I gather everything is OK and smile back.

I return to the hall. The instruments have arrived! The story on the street is that the breakthrough came about only after the intervention of our Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, who had been called by Mark Volpe. The sendoff we got from her Uncle Ted in 1979 has apparently come full circle, but my inner Woodward wants to delve deeper. To be continued…

Back to Music

Instruments in hand, we promptly get down to brass tacks and begin our rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with our guest artist, the highly gifted and highly attractive Janine Jansen. Surprisingly, there’s an audience of several hundred people. I have no idea what they’re doing here, but mine is not to ask why.

Jansen, wearing tight jeans, stands with her back to the violins, and our view of the Maestro is a bit inhibited because she is quite tall and plays with a lot of verve. As we’re playing, my colleague sitting behind me taps me on the shoulder. I expect to be apprised of a change of bowing or a request for me to move my seat. Instead, the violinist whispers, “I can’t stop looking at her ass.” Before you shout, “male chauvinist pig,” I should inform you it was one of my female colleagues who offered this observation, though most likely the same thought had occurred to many in the orchestra and audience by that time. Nevertheless, how does one respond to that comment in the middle of a rehearsal? What would the appropriate response be, if there is one? I said, “Me, neither. Great Cheek-ovsky.” Not bad on the spur of the moment.

Anatomy aside, I think Jansen’s playing is excellent. A different kind of interpretation from the old masters and she does move about a lot, but she clearly has thought about the details in context of the whole and her technique is enviable. There are some in the orchestra who are turned off by her style, but if I could play that well I’d have no regrets.

At the end of the rehearsal, Dutoit announces that we will not play the repeat in the third movement of the Mozart Prague Symphony at the final concert. In Mozart’s time it was standard fare to repeat all the sections of the music indicated by the composer, but that tradition has become very flexible, and these days the second of two repeats in the longer movements is often disregarded. James Levine is one of the few conductors who plays every repeat, much to the orchestra’s dismay. Until now the repeat in the third movement of the Prague was the only one we had played with Dutoit, eschewing all of them in the first two movements, presumably because the second half of the program, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, is so long. The reason in this case for omitting the third movement repeat? After the final concert, Dutoit has to dash to Narita to catch a plane to London for a rehearsal the next morning. For those who say that musicians have their heads in the clouds when it comes to their art…well, maybe in a way they do.

Between the rehearsal and concert, I find a great hole-in-the-wall soba/udon place a block away. It’s so tiny that one has to eat standing at a counter. For under five bucks (480 yen) I’m handed a humongous bowl of soba and tempura fish with a to-die-for broth, which I noisily slurp down in traditional Japanese fashion. I repeat, who said eating well in Tokyo was expensive?

Broken Record and Record Broken

Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but once again the orchestra plays beautifully, unlike a broken record. Jansen performs with polish and pizzazz, and not surprisingly is warmly received. For an encore, she plays the Sarabanda from the Bach D Minor Partita with imagination and expression, which I prefer to the more traditional, gloves-on austerity. [See what Daniel Jacobus had to say about that Sarabanda in Devil’s Trill.] The Tchaikovsky Fifth, our third performance of it on the tour, has come back to life for me. It’s the best so far, possibly because I’m finally fully awake. In any event, it all seems to have had just the right energy; the audience is very enthusiastic, and the applause goes on and on and on, perhaps breaking a world record for longevity. We again play the Brahms First Hungarian Dance as an encore. I try to analyze what makes the melody so universally appealing, and speculate that somehow there’s an undercurrent of danger exuded by the dark minor key and driving syncopated rhythm.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: “May I taste you?”




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On to Guanzhou: May 6

How Do You Say, “What Did You Say?”

“May I taste you?” she asks.

“Excuse me?” I reply, nonplussed.

“May I taste you?” she repeats.

I consider the proposition.

“No, thanks.”

The waitress smiles and departs.

I ask Ronan and Chan, with whom I had just caught up for breakfast, if they understood what she had said. They’re not sure, but thought it might have been, “May I assist you?” “Oh. That’s good,” I say. “I just hope she brings me coffee.”

Drums Over Guangzhou

On China Eastern Airlines flight MU5333 to Guangzhou I sit next to timpanist Tim Genis, who describes his burgeoning drumstick business. You can’t imagine the innumerable considerations that go into bamboo timpani sticks! How the bamboo is grown, where it’s grown, how it’s cured, how it’s shipped, how it’s cut. As Tim’s website explains:

            “TG12 Bamboo Leather Series Hard Timpani Mallets are like a warm substitute for wooden mallets, getting a significant amount of depth from the drums instead of the thin, tinny sound that wooden mallets can produce. Tim uses this model as a wood substitute in Mahler symphonies, and it works very tastefully in Baroque/Early Classical music as well. These mallets utilize Tonkin bamboo and are built already ‘played-in’ to avoid inconsistencies in sound that can happen with other leather mallets as they turn around in your hands.”

The two-hour flight is hardly enough to understand it all. And this is only one of dozens of instruments that percussionists use. I didn’t dare ask about the xylophone. How little I know about other instruments in the orchestra, and even after a lifetime of holding a fiddle under my chin, how much more there is to learn about that!

A Guangzhou Snapshot

The bus ride on the freeway from Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport to our Grand Hyatt du jour is thought provoking. The route takes us through endless forests of high-rises, many of which appear shabby and mossy, perhaps a product of the semitropical climate. This place is no Shanghai, I say to myself. Then the bus arrives at the top of a hill and we’re able to see “downtown” in all its glory. Another vast, modern metropolis. I take back my words.

Upon entering the hotel, we discover a curious configuration that requires us to take an elevator up to the lobby on the twenty-second floor, and from there an elevator back down to our rooms. Reverse the process to leave the hotel. What goes down must come up, a comforting thought for those who suffered during the Great Recession.

There’s a lovely park-like pedestrian mall about a mile long that has footpaths connecting our hotel to many of the important downtown cultural attractions: library, museum, tower, and the opera house where we’ll perform tonight. It’s a shame we’re in town less than twenty-four hours.

And of course, skyscrapers. From my hotel room and within a radius of a few blocks, my view encompasses six, seven, yes eight huge skyscrapers simultaneously under construction. I hope they find tenants, and don’t end up like the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos, which the Chinese government built for over a million people but which was never more than two percent occupied before being abandoned. The concierge gives me directions to a restaurant off the mall, but I discover that to get to it I’d have to circumvent a construction site the size of Duluth, so I give up and visit the underground food court instead.

Grand Finale in China

8:00pm CONCERT Guangzhou Opera House CHARLES DUTOIT, conductor BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV, piano PROGRAM: Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Priceless violins with priceless BSO violinists, Jenny Ahn and Julianne Lee, at the Guangzhou Opera House.

Performing in different and often unfamiliar halls night after night, the changing acoustics have a definite impact on the ensemble’s sound, and consequently its morale. A concert hall bears comparison to a musical instrument. Like a violin, it is a hollow box that vibrates when stimulated by airwaves. In a hall it’s the entire orchestra setting those airwaves in motion; in effect, “playing” the hall. And like the violin, the materials—from the ceiling down to the carpet—and dimensions of the hall determine the quality of sound.

We’ve been fortunate on this tour that each successive concert hall we’ve played in was better than the one before. To have gone in reverse order would have been a real downer. My earlier theory about the sound in the hall in Beijing reflecting a cultural esthetic was clearly incorrect: the acoustics in Shanghai and now Guangzhou are different, and an improvement. By the time we play our two final concerts, in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, a venue where many internationally touring orchestras have regularly performed over the years, we know we’ll be grateful for its high quality acoustics.

More musicians are down for the count at the Guangzhou Opera House, our last concert in China. One violinist has severe muscle aches and leaves at intermission. Another has a coughing fit during the Rachmaninoff, though I can’t say it detracts much from the performance. Yet another had some swelling in her leg earlier in the day that turned out to be nothing, so she toughed it out. And yet another violinist caught the fingers of her left hand in a door at the end of the concert, which put her out of action for the rest of the tour, at least. I’m starting to think there’s something in the air most foul that smites only violinists. I contemplate holding my breath until we get to Tokyo.

All those calamities aside, the concert goes well enough. I suppose in reality it goes very well, but Tchaikovsky Fifth is wearing thin. I love the piece dearly but repeating it so often makes each performance feel longer and longer. I find myself having to dig deep down for the energy—I guess that’s why we get paid the big bucks.

And Dutoit knows how to milk the applause! When he gestures for a musician to take a solo bow and deems the audience response inadequate, he cups his ear until the din rises to the appropriate decibel level; that is, when the audience is hollering. At one point he even engineers a contest between one side of the audience and the other to see which can be the most raucous. A good way to get encores, perhaps, but I wonder if he’d dare do that in Vienna.

Wednesday, May 7: In Transit

On tour, you hit the ground running, which makes it feel as if we’ve just gotten started, but when I look at my schedule I see there are only three concerts to go!

As much as I would like to see something of Guangzhou, it’s not in the cards. It’s a rainy morning and we have to have our suitcases in the lobby by 10:45 for a noon departure for flight JL856 to Tokyo. We do have a consolation prize, though: the world’s greatest buffet breakfast. There are enough food stations to fill Fenway Park, with chefs serving noodles, dumplings, soups, fried things, steamed things, boiled things, fruits, fresh squeezed juices, grains, cold cuts, cheeses, breads. My cholesterol level is going up just thinking about it.

Concert tours do have their perks but they can also be a grind, as was the case in Guangzhou, where we arrived in the afternoon, had an evening concert, and then left the next morning. Our tour managers, though, have worked on the little things to make the coarse grind a palatable espresso. For example, back in the day we had to wait for everyone to be herded together before proceeding from baggage claim to buses. Now, the travel company has a half dozen strategically positioned sentries holding BSO placards, so all we have to do is follow the signs. It makes for a lot less fraying of nerves, having to waiting impatiently for the more bewildered stragglers.

Our flight is uneventful. We’re served the usual mediocre airplane meal followed by a mediocre movie. Quite a blah change from the high intensity week we just completed. By all accounts—except perhaps by the Beijing security guards—it had been a successful week artistically and commercially, even if not of the politically earthshaking 1979 variety. The relationship between the orchestra and Dutoit is still percolating, which clearly seems to have been felt by the audiences.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: Ephemeral Images




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May 5: Many Lessons, Some Learned

My day begins with an idea to visit to the Shanghai Conservatory. In 1979 a brief excursion there altered my view of music, humanity, and the world. After thirty-five years, I’m eager to pay my respects and see how things have changed.

Considering the tug-of-wars we’ve had with bureaucracy so far, I have little expectation that my last minute request can be accommodated. I nevertheless ask the concierge at the Grand Hyatt to call the conservatory on my behalf and see what, if anything, might be arranged. Amazingly enough, the school’s international administrator, a young lady whose English name is Margaret and whose real name is Ma Xiaoming, graciously consents to give me a tour.

On my way out of the hotel I bump into one of my colleagues, a longtime violinist and a good friend, and ask if she wants to join me, explaining that I had done a master class at the Conservatory in ’79 with Joseph Silverstein, who was then the BSO’s esteemed concertmaster, assistant conductor, a truly great violinist, and a fine teacher. I got a surprising response: No thanks, she said, adding she felt she hadn’t been included in those ’79 plans because Silverstein gave preferential treatment to his former students who had won BSO positions—there had been a handful, including yours truly—and she had resented it. After thirty-five years, I guess she really had! I know that her displeasure isn’t directed at me but at Silverstein, and whatever validity there is to it, and maybe there is some, I also sense she might not be alone with that opinion. I tell her I appreciate her candor and there are no hard feelings at all. Yet it gives me yet more to chew on about complex relationships within a symphony orchestra, where there’s so much roiling under the surface that even the musicians themselves never know everything that’s going on.

As a result of Shanghai’s strong historical ties to Europe and the former Soviet Union, the faculty at the Conservatory was strongly grounded in classical training from its founding in 1927. All that met an abrupt roadblock during the Cultural Revolution. Anything with Western influence, including classical music, was declared decadent and tainted, and was purged from Chinese society. European music and instruments were destroyed along with the lives of the people connected with them. Conservatories were shut down and the professors “reeducated” in the countryside, but before they were hauled away many hid their music and instruments, risking their lives doing so. The Boston Symphony arrived in China just as a new cultural dawn was awakening, and the gates of the conservatory and of artistic expression were reopened after years of being shuttered, allowing the light to stream in.

If there was ever an example of technology not being a necessity for an excellent education, or—dare I even suggest, of actually being an impediment to education—I witnessed it at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1979. Resources were absolutely Spartan. Unheated classrooms had packed dirt floors. Poor lighting made it a challenge to read the lessons written on blackboards and large sheets of paper lining cement walls. Students, five-years-old and up, bundled in frayed overcoats and scarves, sat on wooden stools, their hands folded behind their backs. Yet the level of education and training going on there was enviable. When Joseph Silverstein and I gave a short class, we were asked questions worthy of any conservatory students. A group of youngsters performed for several of my colleagues and me, and not only were they technically proficient beyond their years, they played with a musicality one does not often hear at that age. Because much of their performance was played in unison, I assumed that their training might be along the lines of the Suzuki method that originated in Japan. When I asked their teacher at what point the students learn to read music and study theory—both of which are regrettably undervalued in Suzuki training—she responded somewhat perplexedly, “from day one, of course.”

There’s one image so etched in my memory that I could have sworn I had a photo of it, though I don’t. In addition to music, the Shanghai Conservatory taught instrument making. In 1979 it was a rare event when a great violin came through the city, so when the BSO musicians showed up with their collection of priceless 18th and 19th-century Italian violins it was like manna from heaven. Perhaps the finest instrument in the orchestra, a J.B. Guadagnini, was owned by Silverstein, and he graciously offered to show it to the faculty. Remember for a moment that in those days there was no Internet, no digital camera, no iPhone. In China, hardly anyone had any electronic technology at all. The gathered faculty didn’t even have a camera with them. The only way for them to record the details of the Guadagnini for future study was to look at it and to remember it! As they huddled around Silverstein and his Gudagnini I looked on, not at the violin, which I’d seen every day for years, but at the faces of the violin-making faculty. I have never in my life, before or since, seen such a look of intense concentration as in those few moments in which these dedicated individuals examined every molecule of this masterpiece with their eyes alone, too polite to ask to hold it. They never knew when or if they would ever see a great violin again. What was so evident was the devotion that they brought to their profession under the most trying of circumstances. Little did they know the lesson they were teaching me.

Today, as is apparent to everyone in the field, the tide has turned. The market in China for expensive violins is the hottest in the world, with business consortiums not blinking at million-dollar price tags. And the new instruments now being made in China are gaining the respect of musicians worldwide. In 1979 one would have been hard-pressed to make such a brazen prediction.

The original building that constituted the main part of the school in 1979 has been appropriately refurbished and the conservatory has expanded steadily along with funding and resources. Also, today is a beautiful spring day with blooming gardens, a striking contrast to the bitingly cold and gray early March day in ’79 when I first visited. The conservatory is now a multi-structured complex with a student body of 2,500, boasting modern technology and a new concert hall. For decades, it has been the common practice for the best students to travel to major conservatories in the West for advanced training. But with the explosion of new orchestras in China itself, conservatories like the ones in Shanghai and Beijing are beginning to reverse the traffic and attract international students.

At this point, there are few Chinese orchestras of the caliber of the top thirty orchestras in the US. The venerable Shanghai Symphony would be one of them, and their music director, Maestro Long Yu, has conducted many major American orchestras. But if the next thirty-five years bring as much progress to music in China as the last, and if American orchestras continue to struggle for relevance in the age of reality TV, you’ll find Americans flocking for jobs in Chinese orchestras.

To culminate my guided tour, Margaret receives permission for my request to sit in on a violin lesson in the new teaching building. As the lesson had already begun, we stand outside the studio door, waiting for a pause in the student’s performance of the Bach B Minor Partita. It’s adequate playing, not without discernible clunkers. I whisper to Margaret, “Funny how violin students make the same mistakes all over the world.”

When the student comes to a pause, we knock and enter. The room is small and spare: a window, an upright piano, and a professor seated at a simple desk covered with music. There’s an extra chair, which I’m invited to sit in. Margaret makes quick introductions. The student, a young lady, is wearing a sweatshirt with a big logo that says Jun Jug My MVP with a smiling monkey’s cartoon face wearing an American football helmet. The student is not particularly advanced and, playing from memory, stumbles too many times. Wrong notes go by the boards without her seeming to be aware of them. Musically, the student’s understanding of Bach is at about the same level as mine is of Jun Jug My MVP.

After a while the professor, who has so far said nothing other than to inform the student of the wrong notes, addresses her quietly yet firmly for several minutes. I don’t know a word of Chinese but I know from his tone of voice that it’s along the lines of the speech I’ve had to administer to a few of my own students from time to time. Something called the riot act. After we leave the room, Margaret confirms my suspicions and provides details.

The young lady has only a few weeks until a required recital, and the professor is sharing his concern she won’t be ready. I concur with his opinion, but when a student has difficulty memorizing, which seemed to be her biggest stumbling block, there are methodical ways a teacher can help, ranging from the mechanical to the aural to the visual to the conceptual. These days, some teachers don’t think memorizing is important, but I’ve found it to be a valuable discipline for young musicians, helping them cement a concerto in their minds and muscle memory for a lifetime. Some students memorize very naturally and there’s no issue. Others work hard at it in order to succeed. Most students, regardless, need guidance. What’s essential is for the teacher to know each of his students’ personalities and strengths and weaknesses, and from there determine what approach will work. Surprisingly, a lot of teachers don’t provide systematic training on memorizing, and I got the sense from my visit, but may well be totally wrong because of the language barrier, that that process was not happening at this lesson. Maybe the professor himself was a natural memorizer or had never given it much thought. Judging by his body language, his student’s overall performance was within his expectations, at least as far as my translation of Chinese to American body language went.

My tour finishes shortly thereafter, and I thank Margaret for taking the time to show me around. As I leave, she informs me that foreign musicians often come for a week or two to give classes and performances. Maybe that’s in the cards. I don’t think my snapshot view of the conservatory has given me a full picture of the quality of training there. Or maybe it has, but I would need a longer exposure to help convince me that the fervor and dedication of the professors in 1979 remains unabated.

Ephemeral Images

Water calligraphy on pavement at Xiangyang Park

My next destination is People’s Square but after just a few blocks I happen upon the quietly inviting Xiangyang Park. Along a tree-lined, paved brick promenade, elderly women dance with each other to Western and Chinese music humming over loudspeakers. A huddle of young men staring intently at the ground catches my attention. No, they’re not playing hopscotch. They’re practicing calligraphy, using the promenade’s square, gray brick tiles as an enlarged substitute for the boxes one finds on calligraphy paper. And their ink? Water in a bucket, which when brushed on the bricks renders remarkably detailed characters until they evaporate into the ether scant moments later. There is undeniably a philosophical statement here about existence.

From Xiangyang Park I take a subway to People’s Square. From the name, I anticipate a huge open area where the masses go to witness corrupt officials being publicly humiliated. Instead I find a beautifully landscaped public park, several blocks square, with throngs of urban strollers tranquilly refreshing their spirits among the trees, flowers, and children’s rides.

Around a lovely, little pond, groups of crones play cards and young couples contemplate their futures. Curiously, one industrious individual is fishing! I take a closer look into the shallow but almost opaque water. The only fish I can discern are finger-length goldfish. I wonder how many he’d have to catch to make a meal of it, and how he planned to cook them. “You should’ve seen the one that got away! It was at least two inches long. Maybe three!” Somewhere inside the deep recesses of my brain, a voice is telling me the idea of fishing for goldfish in a city pond is a profound metaphor for something about life, but I can’t figure out where to go with it. I think the ephemeral calligraphy is a better bet. When I reach the other side of the pond, obscured by a little peninsula with a café on it—charming location, mediocre food—I spot a school of large carp, so maybe the fisherman really does know what he’s doing. And as there are only six fish in the school I conclude he must be an excellent fisherman because obviously he’s caught all the rest.

What Goes Up…

For the man on the street peering up at Shanghai’s unfettered vertical growth, prosperity appears unreachable. I suppose it depends on which man you are, but it clearly has not been achieved across the board or without cost.

Walking along bustling Nanjing Road, which extends from People’s Square as a boisterous pedestrian shopping street, a destitute old man lies motionless on the ground in front of a busy fruit stand while the vendor hawks his merchandise and humanity flows around him with nary a downward glance. An old woman passes me, an untreated tumor totally covering one eye. A block further, another woman standing in front of a designer apparel store applies slices of cucumber to her face, pleading with indifferent passers-by to buy her product. Just outside the entrance to our ultra-modern, ultra-luxurious hotel, another elderly man lies propped against a pillar, fast asleep, his hand, curiously suspended in midair, grasping a short, sharp knife.

This isn’t to say there aren’t the ill, the indigent, and the uncared for everywhere else in the world. But the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth in Shanghai is extreme, particularly as the social safety net so often attributed to communist doctrine seems suspended in Shanghai, where the glaring banner of economic success—the forest of spectacular skyscrapers—is brandished for everyone to see.

And also when the haze of pollution covers the entire population, obscuring even the most imposing edifices. Fortunately, it hasn’t been so horrible since we arrived, though later in the day the downward view from my room on the 64th floor becomes a ghostly and ghastly gray-brown.

At least for the moment, Shanghai appears to have been so blinded by profit that it doesn’t mind being blinded by smog. The energy use in the building that houses our hotel alone could power a small city, and in Shanghai we’re talking about a city of twenty-four million, greater than the entire island of Taiwan and three times the population of New York City. Even with China’s growing commitment to solar power, the relentless drive for economic growth may come back to haunt them in the same way the Great Leap Forward did in the 1950s, when Mao’s predilection for backyard steel mills over agriculture led to economic collapse. Even as new thousand-foot spires puncture the Shanghai sky on a daily basis, someday it could all come crashing down to earth.

That sounds more pessimistic than I really am, but I like the rhetorical image. At the moment, Shanghai is an amazing city. Life on the street level has a normalcy about it that belies the futuristic skyline. The differences in architectural vision between Beijing and Shanghai seem to mirror the cities’ personalities. The former gravitates toward the heavily grandiose and monumental, and except for the ancient buildings like the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven is not nearly as inspired as Shanghai.

Likewise, Beijing had a feel of being somewhat stiff and standoffish; Shanghai is more open and freer flowing. Could being near the seat of Chinese government make for an added degree of formality and wariness, as if one does not want to be caught smiling too much at an American stranger for fear of detection?

That’s all conjecture on my part, and it may be hocus-pocus, but in any event Shanghai is very different, perhaps because of its history as an international port and a center for no-holds-barred free enterprise. The energy feels much more positive and forward-looking. I don’t know if the Shanghaiese intentionally snub their noses at Beijing, but I get the sense that they’re out to prove they can outdo the capital in all ways.

Virtuosos of a Different Sort

After taking a rest, Ronan, Chan, and I attend an evening performance of Chinese acrobats. I’ve had more than enough exercise for the day, having walked many miles, and am happy to watch someone else work for a change.

There are two different acrobat shows playing in town: one more traditional, the other high-tech. We choose the former and don’t regret it. One routine is more amazing than the other, whether it’s jumping through hoops, gymnastic feats, balancing a dozen wine glasses on your forehead, sleight of hand tricks, spinning rings, spinning tops, or spinning dishes. Our heads were spinning. It’s great to see people performing for us as a change of pace!


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Symphonies & Scorpions: Shanghai in the Rain




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Shanghai: Sunday, May 4

6:30-6:45 ACOUSTIC REHEARSAL Shanghai Oriental Art Center 7:30pm CONCERT Shanghai Oriental Art Center CHARLES DUTOIT, conductor BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV, piano

Shanghai in the Rain

Ronan, Chan, and I embark upon a morning excursion to Old Shanghai, which according to the concierge is a hop, skip, and jump from where we’re staying. After several hops, skips, and jumps, we’re totally confused. First, we can’t find the subway station two blocks from our hotel until circumnavigating a few monstrous skyscrapers. Then, once we exit the subway at Nanjing Road station, we can’t figure out what direction to walk. That wasn’t all our fault; the concierge threw us a curve when she said all we’d have to do is walk along Nanjing Road pedestrian street. Not true. What we needed was perpendicular.

When we finally figure out which end is up, the rain comes down. In a Family Mart we find cheapo umbrellas that have the store logo emblazoned all over them, but as long as we stay dry we’re amenable to being walking advertisements.

The situation improves markedly as we near our destination. We take refuge from the rain in the cozy Qing Yuan Tea shop on Fang Bang road in the Huangpu District. We’re the only customers and are treated to a half hour of tea samplings by a charming young lady who not only knows her tea, but her English as well. For such cordially personal service, of course we have to buy a whole bunch of stuff—tea, teacups, goji berries. The essentials.

Sampling tea in Old Shanghai

Entering the heart of the Old City—all for tourists now, but the evocative traditional Chinese architecture is still intact and wonderfully nostalgic—we browse shops and restaurants before entering Yuyuan Garden. Wow!

Yuyuan Garden was first conceived in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty by Pan Yunduan, governor of Sichuan, as a comfort for his father, the minister Pan En, in his old age, but it wasn’t completed until 1577. Pan Yunduan must’ve had quite the resources in his day. The garden not only boasts a maze of captivating land and waterscaping, but intricately ornate, wooden structures as well. The soft rain adds to the contemplative beauty of the place and also serves as an incentive for the tourist hordes to stay put in their dumpling restaurants, thereby providing us with improbable and welcome tranquility.

Exiting Yuyuan Garden we encounter the aforementioned hordes at the local food court, which puts to shame anything we call a food court back home. The walls of the sprawling two-story edifice are an unbroken line of booths where freshly fried, broiled, baked, roasted, and steamed goods are delivered faster than a Henry Ford assembly line and placed on counters for diners to choose from, cafeteria-style. The dishes are snatched up by diners as quickly as they’re churned out. Everything from chicken feet to pork dumplings (I don’t really know which part of the pig is the dumpling) and all for chump change. The three of us eat like there’s no tomorrow for ten bucks each.

There is rest for the weary because I have it in the late afternoon. No sightseeing, just vegetating in my room. And with a 7:30 concert preceded by a 15-minute acoustic rehearsal at 6:30 there’s no need to bother with dinner. But don’t cry for me, because my palatial hotel room could well have been a destination on anyone’s sightseeing list. A tour guide would come in handy because you could get lost in the bathroom alone, with all its mirrors, glistening marble, and walk-in closet.

Bruised but Victorious

PROGRAM: Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 (encore) Bizet: Farandole from L’Arlesienne Suite No.2

As a conscientious stand partner, I never pass up an opportunity to get Caroline to laugh, if at all possible in the most inappropriate moments. Shortly before the downbeat, she maneuvers the top of our unwieldy music stand about ninety degrees in order to nudge it a couple of inches higher so that both the music and conductor will be in our line of vision. As Caroline rotates the stand, for a moment all I can see is its back. Before she has a chance to finish her task, I complain in my best Teamsters voice, and not unlike some stand partners who don’t get along, “Hey, what-a-ya doin’? I can’t see da f—— music!”

We have our first casualties of the tour tonight. Two violinists are out sick, one with a nagging head cold exacerbated by the flight from Beijing so she couldn’t hear anything. The other violinist has been rehabbing from an injury and only recently returned to working part-time. She has only been playing the first half of concerts, which is usually the easier half, and therefore the less rehearsed. When recently she completed her portion of a rehearsal that lasted about fifteen minutes, Dutoit sardonically quipped, “Good gig.” On this occasion she has flu-like symptoms. She made it to the hall, but it’s being reported she’s “flat on her back,” in the dressing room. A couple days later, after she had recovered, she told me, all smiles, that she had blood coming out one ear.

The Rachmaninoff is also the recipient of some ill treatment. Abduraimov started out edgy and every time there’s a quick tempo he makes it faster, rushing so far ahead on occasion that Dutoit and the orchestra can’t keep up, throwing things out of whack. The audience, on the other hand, is blinded by the razzle-dazzle. Unaware of, or unconcerned with the intermittent tug o’ war, they demand an encore. Abduraimov exhumes a melancholic vignette by Tchaikovsky, as maudlin as the Rachmaninoff had been manic.

Playing Well with Others

The Symphonie fantastique in the second half of the concert is another kettle of fish entirely, with excellent pacing and controlled passion. It’s amazing how well together the musicians of the BSO play, because if I were forced to describe one thing that makes it challenging to play with them, it would be their tradition of playing what we call “behind the beat” (i.e. after the conductor’s gesture rather than simultaneous with it). I’m not sure how this comes about, but every orchestra has its own signature, its own sound that develops over generations, and how it responds to a conductor’s beat is part of that signature. It’s neither good nor bad, it simply is, and with the BSO it seems to be as true today as when I was in the orchestra with Seiji Ozawa. When we play pizzicato, it sometimes leaves me guessing when the popcorn’s going to pop, so I just fix my sights on concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and pluck my string when he does. It used to exasperate Colin Davis, who, when he was the BSO’s principal guest conductor, repeatedly asked to hear the sound simultaneous with his beat. On the other hand, in one of my first years in the orchestra we played the Coriolanus Overture by Beethoven with Eugene Ormandy conducting. He seemed totally unfazed that he was a half measure ahead of the orchestra, but in that particular piece, which is something of a rhythmic jigsaw puzzle, I was not nearly as unperturbed as he was and felt a sense of extreme aural vertigo until the piece mercifully ended.

Remarkably, even though it sometimes feels as if everyone is waiting for the first person to dive in, the BSO almost always maintains its fine honed accuracy. Though from time to time Dutoit has explicitly requested that we play precisely with his beat, for the most part it doesn’t seem to bother him when we don’t. And at other times he drives the tempo forward, his beat is ahead of us by a second or two, and he has to wait until we catch up, though if you had your eyes closed you’d never know. In any event it keeps us on our toes and makes for a lot of excitement. The audience demands an encore from us after the Berlioz and, unlike the Rachmaninoff, in this case they’re justified.

Painful Lessons

After the concert, I join violinist Bo Hwang and cellist Jonathan Miller at the twenty-four-hour restaurant in the hotel for a late, light dinner.

The first time I auditioned for the BSO as a tenderfoot nineteen-year-old, it was Bo who won the job. The preliminary round took place on the stage of Symphony Hall in Boston. Though I’d had the thrill of performing at Carnegie Hall in a youth chamber orchestra as a teenager, I had never played alone in a hall with such wonderful acoustics, and simply placing my bow on the string seemed to get the most beautiful sound to soar into the balcony. When I was selected as one of the finalists—this being my first serious orchestra audition—I have to admit my head was a little swelled.

The final round took place at Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic, while the BSO was on tour. The reason for that odd arrangement was that it was the only available date left in the season when Seiji Ozawa and the orchestra were in the same place at the same time. I felt confident that I’d at least make a good showing, and who knows, maybe even grab the gold ring.

I walked out onto the stage, tuned my violin…and my stomach sank to my knees. The sound of my violin projected about 14½ inches, and then just stopped dead in its tracks. It was the deadest sound I had ever heard. I didn’t know what the hell to do. Should I just play as I normally did and hope the committee, which was seated in the audience behind a screen, didn’t think I had a namby-pamby sound? Or should I force the issue and try to muscle it out, risking some ugly, coarse playing? I couldn’t decide which was better or worse and ended up thrashing unsatisfactorily between the two extremes, whereas an experienced musician like Bo knew what to do; how to get the most out of the instrument while maintaining poise. But I was still a greenhorn and my audition went downhill from the get-go. Nevertheless, it was a valuable learning moment, and helped me understand that it takes more than just moving one’s fingers to be a good musician. I also took some solace with the knowledge that Fritz Kreisler, the early 20th-century virtuoso, was turned down for a job with the Vienna Philharmonic when he was a young man. That’s where the similarity ends.

Bo has always been as fine a gentleman as a violinist, and even though he has a teenage grandson he looks ten years younger than me. He and Jonathan have been friends even before I joined the BSO in ’75, and one would often find them backstage at Symphony Hall deeply absorbed in the ancient Chinese board game of Go. Jonathan, a very well read and philosophical sort, will soon be retiring after forty-three years in the orchestra. He’s a dedicated musician and the standup imitation he does of a caged baboon he once saw at the San Diego Zoo is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Our waitress, dangerously balancing a tray with one hand while serving us with her other, spills a couple bottles of beer. No harm is done and we tell her not to worry even as she apologizes profusely, but I think her boss is going to take it out on her because she’s replaced by another waitress and doesn’t return. When we leave, we tell her boss it was just an accident and she was a great waitress. Jon thought the boss replied, “I won’t give her any shit,” but I think he said, “I won’t shout at her.” In either case, I hope what he said was true.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: The View from Floor 64




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A Notable Transformation

If Beijing is totally different from the way it was thirty-five years ago, Shanghai is different from anything, period. If Beijing is enormous, Shanghai is mind-boggling. The lobby of our Shanghai hotel, the Grand Hyatt, is on the fifty-fifth floor of the Jin Mao Tower office building, which when it was completed in 1998 was the tallest edifice in China at 1,380 feet. My room is on the sixty-fourth floor, and the building ascends another twenty-nine stories. Looking out my hotel room I have a panoramic view of a vast sea of skyscrapers far below me, and dozens of others puncture the heavens above.

When I was last in Shanghai in 1979 it felt like a well-preserved blend of traditional China with a European twist. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the US, Germany, France, England, and other European countries plunked themselves down along the banks of the Huangpu River in an area called the Bund, where they established financial and trade centers, and had a glorious time divvying up China into zones of influence.

I had been unable to sleep at the customary hours because of the time change that first morning in Shanghai in 1979. I woke before dawn and decided to take a walk. With the recent end of the Cultural Revolution still a palpable reality we had anticipated our freedom of movement to be short leashed, but to our surprise we were left to our own devices and given unrestricted leeway to wander wherever we chose.

I started my solo expedition along the waterfront and was most impressed with dozens of elderly folks engaged in group tai chi, which, like dim sum, was at that time almost unheard of in the US. Like a corps de ballet in super slow-mo, its amateur practitioners exhibited amazing grace and balance.

By the time the sun rose, I found myself in a maze of winding streets in an old neighborhood, amidst a scene straight out of The Good Earth: the spider web of alleys, endless rows of tiny shops, highly-pitched chatter, old men wearing long beards, long robes, and round caps sitting at sidewalk tables playing mahjong and drinking tea. The only things missing from the scene, and rightly so, were opium and Wang Lung pulling his rickshaw.

As I meandered, a young lad, clad in a military-like school uniform sporting short pants even on that blustery March day, summoned up his courage and silently traipsed alongside me. I might have been the first westerner he had ever seen in person and I had a sneaking suspicion I would be the subject of animated conversation at school and the dinner table. “Yes, I’m sure he was American, and he didn’t know anything!”

Though we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, we quickly established an easy camaraderie as we ambled along side by side. When he finally decided it was time to part company, I pulled a pen out of my pocket. We had been encouraged to carry little gifts with us to demonstrate that the capitalist Americans are truly friendly folks. Our official briefing packet, provided by the National Committee on United States-China Relations, suggested:

Americans visiting China should consider taking along mementos of the United States, to present to hosts and guide/interpreters. An instant-print camera of the Polaroid or new Kodak variety is a very popular and successful ‘ice-breaker:’ the photos are welcome souvenir gifts for hotel staff, drivers, escorts, school children, and others with whom the traveler has come in contact.”

This seemed to be an ideal time to put my best foot forward. What little kid wouldn’t want to show off a souvenir from America?

His reaction surprised me. He stopped in his tracks and, puffing out his chest, struck a proud pose curiously reminiscent of Chinese propaganda posters from that era of the proud socialist worker, and thrust an outstretched hand in front of him. No translation necessary: “Stop right there!” the gesture said, refusing my offer outright. Yet there was no anger in his response. All I could read was pride and self-respect, which in such a young kid I thought remarkable. So I smiled and waved, and his prior hand gesture morphed into a friendly mirror of mine. He then turned and marched away. I wouldn’t be surprised if that kid, now in his late forties, is premier one day. Maybe he is already.

At a cursory glance, the intermingled swirl of Europe and traditional China I observed from my previous trip to Shanghai now seem to have become charming sidelights, having given way to an ultra-modern, fantastic (in the literal sense), vertical city. Mega-skyscrapers up to and over a hundred stories have sprouted everywhere, with two notable features: They’re all given breathing room so that each building is clearly visible from any distance and angle; and they’re all architecturally imaginative and unique. Not necessarily beautiful, as everyone’s definition of beauty is different; but at least intensely interesting and impressive, and far more engaging than their squatter and more massive cousins in Beijing. The Shanghai Tower going up across the street, directly in front of my hotel room window will, when completed in 2015, be the world’s second tallest building, weighing in at 2,073 feet high and 121 stories. Yet when you see the finished image of it on the billboard at the construction site, it looks like an amazingly delicate, gently unwinding scroll. I’ve never been in a city with such a futuristic vision, and that it has all been built in the last couple of decades is almost incomprehensible.

Shanghai. Not your typical city.

The main misgiving for someone like me, who’s concerned about the effects of humanity’s energy consumption on the world’s climate, is considering the vast amount of energy it has taken and will take to build and maintain all this superhuman construction. Even given China’s commitment to developing wind and solar power, it’s hard to imagine keeping up with a growing and more affluent population.

 On the positive side, I’m pleasantly surprised to find out from the tour guide assigned to our bus that many of these mega-skyscrapers were designed by American architectural firms. Considering the level of cooperation needed to construct such unique and huge structures, this seems to me a positive development for the future relationship between our two intensely competitive countries.

Dumplings in the Din

With no concert tonight, I’m attending another invited guests dinner with symphony patrons. When I signed up for it, I thought it would be a good way for me to sample some of the best in local Cantonese cuisine without having to search for it, but maybe on this occasion I’ve outwitted myself. I’m a little tired and would be happier with a quiet night on my own, but it would be bad form to beg out at the last minute, so here I am. The dinner is at the ritzy Whampoa Club, a traditional landmark on the Bund.

Making interesting small talk at our table is next to impossible. In addition to being tired, the ambient noise is so cacophonous I can barely hear the elderly lady sitting next to me, and what I can isn’t getting my creative schmoozing juices flowing. I would like to overhear more of what Mark Volpe, two seats away, has to say about the recently resolved situation of one of the greatest American orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra (Mark’s home turf), in which bitter labor strife, precipitated by the management’s and board’s threats to cut the pay of the musicians by over thirty percent and reduce the size of the orchestra, resulted in a lockout of the musicians and nearly drove the hundred-ten-year-old organization to extinction. Major touring and recording projects were put on hold or cancelled. Their beloved music director, Osmo Vanska, resigned as the lockout wore on without an end in sight. The musicians could not understand why an organization with a healthy endowment and which could afford a $50-million expansion of Orchestra Hall could demand such draconian cuts. Ultimately, after fifteen months, the longest work stoppage in American orchestra history ended. A settlement was reached in which the musicians accepted a fifteen percent pay cut, a significantly higher contribution to their health plan, and a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 95 members to 84. One piece of good news was that Vanska agreed to return. Straining to read Mark’s lips, I get the sense that he believes the situation could and should have been handled much less painfully, with which I’m in full agreement. 

On a more mundane level, Mark patiently explains to a patron who doesn’t know much about orchestra dynamics why the cymbal player gets paid as much as a violinist. I appreciate that this patron is willing to learn; if only the Minnesota board had been as open-minded. What would the alternative be? Mark asked. To be paid by the note? How would you calculate that? The cymbal player might not play as many notes as a violinist, but if he were to play a wrong one, you would surely hear it more! If a violinist calls in sick, the show can go on, but if the cymbalist is ill you’re in real trouble. And, after all, an orchestra is a team whose players work day-in, day-out with each other. If you replaced your cymbal player with an outsider, it could change the whole synergy, not just with the rest of the percussion section, but with the whole orchestra. Then there’s the marketplace. If you want the best cymbal player, you have to be ready to pay him for his expertise.

I manage to raise my voice high enough above the desultory din to ask Mark something I’ve been curious about. “Mark, what exactly do you do on tour?” I had imagined that as managing director he would delegate most of the grunt work to mid and lower management. Was this trip more of a paid vacation?

Mark tells me he still has to keep up with the day-to-day stuff running the shop back home, overseeing marketing, development, running the plant. (The BSO is a major property owner in the area around Symphony Hall in Boston and Tanglewood in the Berkshires.) Mark is also a lawyer and there are always legal issues involved in the BSO’s multi-faceted business enterprises. Plus, he’s done about twenty interviews since we left Boston with news media in China and Japan, keeps a close eye on logistical personnel for the current tour, and maintains ongoing conversations with local presenters and politicos with an eye to the future. Not a vacation.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: Expenses, Then & Now




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Beijing to Shanghai, Saturday, May 3

Feeding the Stomach and the Soul

Caroline Pliszka is not only a stand partner nonpareil, she’s also the ultimate activity planner. Along with associate concertmaster, Elita Kang, we’re up’n at ‘em at 7:00 a.m. for an excursion to the Temple of Heaven. We arrive by subway just as the park opens so, by God, it’s not crowded! And the sky is blue!      

The stunningly ornate temple, iridescent as a peacock, was constructed between 1406 and 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who also oversaw construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The temple complex was extended by the Jiajing Emperor in the 16th  century, who used it to pray for bountiful harvests.

Hmm. Let’s think about what kind of harvest that means in today’s terms: Say the average daily per capita food consumption in China is a modest pound. That’s 1,500,000,000 pounds, or three-quarters of a million tons of food per day. Multiply that by 365, and you’ve got 273,750,000 tons of food per year. I guess the Emperor’s prayers paid off. For now.

For me, even more impressive than the temple is the life of the park itself and the activity within. Scientists tell us nature abhors a vacuum, and by 9:00 AM, when we have to leave to return to the hotel, the tide of humanity flooding the previously empty park with a goodly number of those 1½ billion folks suggests this law is true for social science as well. Interestingly, these outdoor lovers are predominantly adults, many of them elderly. Even more remarkably, they play games with each other. Now, that’s not something one routinely sees in American parks. Older folks in America don’t play games very much. Competitive sports, yes, with scores and winners and losers. Tennis, golf, that kind of thing, but not so much playing simple games just for the joy of it. Personally, I think it’s a great idea. I think we’d live longer. And more happily.

I watch some games I’m familiar with, like badminton, except these guys don’t bother with nets. Just hitting the birdie back and forth is sufficient fun and exercise. There’s also an intriguing two-person game in which each participant holds a wooden paddle in each hand, and from paddle to paddle balances a rubber ball, winds it around his back, and flips it gently to his partner a few feet away, who does likewise. It appears to take quite a bit of skill, as there are some old guys managing to keep the ball from ever touching the ground, compared to some younger novices who are having a hard time preventing the ball from taking on a life of its own.

There’s also group tai chi and other disciplined exercises of that sort. For the less athletically inclined, there are card games galore played at small tables, where crowds of onlookers surrounding the players peer intently over contestants’ shoulders.

Temple of Heaven, with BSO violinists Elita Kang and Caroline Pliszka.

Playing the Numbers

If my off-the-top-of-my-head calculations about food consumption in China are pie-in-the-sky, the numbers BSO orchestra manager, Ray Wellbaum, rattles off to me on the bus to the airport are down-to-earth.

The 1979 Boston Symphony tour to China cost about $600,000. This one costs more than four times as much. The airfare alone is about $3,000 per musician. There are about 150 musicians with their significant others plus staff, so just getting us to work on this tour equals the whole ‘79 budget.

Then there are hotels rooms. They were less expensive than I thought, only about $200 per night. Ray says these days you can still get group discounts at hotels, but no longer from airlines, and that China is still cheaper than Europe. I don’t know about Japan, but let’s say the $200 figure pertains there as well. That’s $200 per night multiplied by 12 nights, multiplied by approximately 100 rooms per night (not 150 because there are some shared rooms). That’s a quarter-million dollars for beds.

For food, each musician received about $1,400 per diem, so that’s $140,000.

What am I leaving out? Two weeks of salaries of course, both for management, staff, and musicians. In 2014, BSO musicians receive a base, pretax salary of about $2,300 per week. Multiplied by 2 weeks and then by 100 musicians, and adding overages like principal pay, seniority, FICA, pension, and health care contributions, that expense totals an easy half mil. I don’t know what the tour staff and managers’ salaries are, but I’d guesstimate you could tack on another $100,000.

Then there are Maestro’s fee and paydays for all the support teams I mentioned earlier. No doubt there’s more. This is just a rough estimate.

In the past, Ray made advance trips to scout out accommodations and the like, which was standard practice, but he said there’s little need to do that anymore. The BSO now relies on word of mouth from trusted partners in the industry, and has confidence in relationships with travel companies who are experts in working with symphony orchestras. And with the Internet and instant communications these days there’s no need to do advance trips, but if they ever need a volunteer I’m more than happy to make myself available.

Sponsors help underwrite some of those formidable costs. These days, they are often multinational corporations, and for this tour the lead sponsor is EMC2, an American multinational headquartered in Hopkinton, Massachusetts that offers products and services enabling businesses to store, manage, protect, and analyze data. Sometimes local businesses, like the State Street Bank, also provide essential financial support.

Then there are the concert presenters, who pay the orchestra a substantial fee for their services. As they too need to make ends meet, they derive income from advertisers and sponsors of their own, with the rest of their costs passed down to the concertgoers in ticket prices. By anyone’s measure these are expensive. Japan concert tickets, for example, ranged from about $125 to $375. Fortunately, the BSO has been a very popular brand in Asia for more than a half century, starting with the lengthy tour in 1960 under Charles Munch and continuing through the twenty-nine-year reign of Seiji Ozawa.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: Duck, duck…duck!




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Beijing, Friday, May 2

10:30am-1:00pm REHEARSAL National Centre for the Performing Arts 7:30pm CONCERT National Centre for the Performing Arts CHARLES DUTOIT, conductor BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV, piano                         

Duck, Duck…Duck

Finally, a good night’s sleep. Six-and-a-half hours, but that’s all I need.

I awake to a cool morning and blue sky, the rain having cleansed the heavens of carbon emissions. As if transformed by the change in the weather, the guard at the second rehearsal is much more accommodating and we breeze right through security like a spring zephyr.

I can’t leave Beijing without eating world-famous Peking duck, but there being no more free nights, I have to make do with a pre-concert “early bird” dinner. With Ronan and Chan, we pay a visit to a nearby Peking duck restaurant called Sijiminfu that my hutong guide recommended. Six or seven courses of duck parts in different guises, along with soup and side dishes. Fantastic! I’m a sucker for crispy skin. The only course less than delectable is the duck broth soup, which Chan poetically likens to warm dishwater.

Restaurant service in this country has so far been peculiar. Waitresses walk up to the table, offer no words of acknowledgement let alone welcome, and take your order without a nod of recognition. You can’t even tell if they’ve understood your order. At first, I chalk this up to my Western bias of how things are done, but then Chan, as if reading my thoughts, says, “You know what they need in China? Customer service.”

The orchestra arrives en masse at the National Centre thinking we have the security routine down pat. Wrong. The new guard unaccountably decides we are once again a national security threat. He won’t let anyone through, even after getting into a brouhaha with three of our heavy hitters: Guido Frackers, President of Travtours; Jasper Parrot, Dutoit’s manager; and Ray Wellbaum, the BSO’s orchestra manager. The guard does his personal best imitation of the Great Wall, stalwartly holding his ground against the invading barbarian hordes, until Frackers takes it upon himself to order the musicians through. The guard frantically shouts and waves his arms. To help him save face, I suppose, Frackers consents to having our IDs inspected. An uneasy truce. It would have been interesting had we been denied access to our own performance.

I suggest that a less confrontational way of resolving the disagreement might have been to offer the guard our complete cooperation: Have the orchestra do an about-face, return to the buses, and invite the guard to announce to the audience, with the US ambassador in attendance, “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that the concert tonight is cancelled because I couldn’t be certain this group of a hundred Americans carrying instruments was truly the Boston Symphony.”

At the same time, I feel for the guy. I’m sure he had regulations drummed into him, was just trying to do his job, and was scared to death he’d lose it if he did the wrong thing. He got caught in the middle of a bureaucratic snafu like I’d gotten stuck in the line at the Forbidden City, where it was almost impossible not to be carried along like a leaf on a river. In a country of 1½ billion people, plus or minus a few hundred million, maintaining order is serious business. What a frightening prospect if such a huge population decided to thumb its nose at authority and go its own way, or ways! Government would be incapable of exerting any control at all. So, government resorts to repression, or rather suppression, as the lesser of two evils; nipping in the bud any action that it perceives might trigger anarchy. Better to detain people, throw some in jail, or just basically harass them than let their message spread like wildfire. On one hand, human rights get trampled, but imagine the chaos of a country like this losing control! Not that I agree with it, but that’s why I felt for the security guard. A loss of control of the situation, even for something as inconsequential as whether to allow foreign musicians to enter a concert hall, might have repercussions, because once the cat’s out of the bag…

A Moving Performance

PROGRAM: Mozart: Symphony No.38 in D, K.504 (Prague) Mahler: Symphony No.5

A much more positive encounter takes place when we finally manage to make it to the backstage, where BSO violinist Xin Ding has an emotional reunion with her old violin professor, Zhenshan Wang.

Xin studied at the Beijing Conservatory from 1992-1995 and credits Wang, one of China’s preeminent violin teachers, for seeing her true potential and giving her the confidence to realize it. “He turned my life around,” she told me. Wang, himself, had an elite pedigree, having studied in Hungary with the great Jewish Polish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, before returning to China. Wang’s performance career, however, was cut short by the Great Cultural Revolution, when forced manual labor permanently ruined his manual dexterity.

After Xin left China for Boston in 1996, the two stayed in touch by phone and Internet, where Xin shared photos of her baby son. Tonight’s concert will be the first opportunity for Prof. Wang to see his protégé perform with the Boston Symphony.

He has picked an ideal occasion. The Mozart/Mahler program concert goes beautifully, and I’m wide awake for this one. What a difference a day makes! Prof. Wang says he was impressed beyond all his expectations at the sound of the orchestra in the Mahler, and was deeply moved.

BSO violinist, Xin Ding reunited with her childhood, Beijing violin teacher, Prof. Zhenshan Wang.

Audiences in China are so much different than in my more familiar stomping grounds of Japan. And why shouldn’t they be? In Japan, the more they like something the more the applause accelerates, but it never varies much in volume, only in duration. Here in Beijing they were hootin’, hollerin’, whistlin’, and stamping their feet. Harpist Jessica Zhou’s family, occupying two entire rows she had bought for them, led the chorus. At $140 per ticket, I’d say they had the right to express their enthusiasm however they wanted.

It’s traditional in many countries to present the conductor with flowers onstage at the end of a concert. The conductor will then typically offer the bouquet to one of the women in the orchestra, particularly one who might have had a big solo. Tonight, a lovely young lady presented Dutoit with the bouquet. He gave her a peck on the cheek, as is also customary, which he appeared to relish. But instead of handing the flowers to a female musician, Dutoit marched to the back of the orchestra and gave them to principal trumpet, Tom Rolfs, who, as usual, had played the immortal trumpet solo at the beginning of the Mahler magnificently. The crowd roared. Not to be outdone, though, when Dutoit went to shake Tom’s hand, Tom took it in his and kissed it, which provoked an even louder roar and created a fine segue into our encore.


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Symphonies & Scorpions: Scorpion Kebab, Anyone?




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Beijing: Thursday, May 1

10:30am-1:00pm REHEARSAL National Centre for the Performing Arts 7:30pm CONCERT National Centre for the Performing Arts CHARLES DUTOIT, conductor BEHZOD ABDURAIMOV, piano

First Rehearsal, Under a Cloud

My feeling yesterday was, what’s this big deal about air pollution? It could be worse. Well, today it is. Though not nearly as bad as had been reported a few months ago, or in Salt Lake City during the worst of its winter inversions, the brown haze provides some justification to those musicians who had brought face masks.

It’s May Day. For most of China’s workers it’s a holiday, and the city is swarming with vacationers. For us, it’s our first rehearsal. The National Centre for the Performing Arts, affectionately referred to as the Egg, looks to me more like something out of a 1960s Asian sci-fi film about a mutant armadillo that had grown to hellish proportions. Inside are a concert hall, opera hall, rehearsal halls, recording studio, and all the supplementary storage and dressing spaces.

Scheduling rehearsals on tour is a balancing act. Some of the factors that are taken into consideration are orchestra fatigue; whether and how often the repertoire was recently performed; the difficulty of the music; extra-musical considerations like positioning of offstage musicians; and the acoustics of each concert hall.

Limits on the number and length of rehearsals, including rehearsals on tour, are painstakingly laid out in the CBA. Some tour rehearsals may be 2½ hours, others 1½. Others, called “acoustic rehearsals” last only 15 minutes—yes, that’s not a typo—and usually take place an hour or so before the actual performance. Acoustic rehearsals are intended simply to get a sense of what the hall sounds like and, if there’s time, tweak a few spots in the music. The musicians can usually tell within minutes what particular challenges a new hall holds—the degree of reverberation or lack thereof, individual adjustments in projecting the sound, whether we’ll have to sustain notes longer than usual or play them shorter, whether the brass and percussion instruments lining the back wall  need to be reined in, etc.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself, because first we have to pass through the National Centre security desk, which turns out to be no mean feat. The guard on duty today must think we’re all members of the banned Falun Gong, because he carefully examines each of our passports and ID tags, and eyes us with a great deal of suspicion. Yes, yes, brass players may indeed look like security risks. And percussionists? Is there a single one who doesn’t look subversive? But string players? Come on!

Once we’re all assembled onstage, Ray Wellbaum, the orchestra manager, since retired, introduces representatives from the firms that provide logistical support to the orchestra: security, concert managements, travel manager this, travel manager that. A whole orchestra unto itself.

After about thirty seconds of Night on Bare Mountain, the musicians exchange the same glances of chagrin and mild dismay you have when sizing up your host’s tuna salad that’s sat in the sun too long. The hall’s acoustics. To be fair (and polite), the sound is not lacking in clarity. On the other hand, it’s excessively bright and shallow, and tends to separate the various instruments, rather than blend them. From where I sit, the trumpets seem to be in another hall entirely. The priceless instruments the orchestra had schlepped all the way from Boston won’t be heard at their best, but there’s nothing that can change that now. Trying to distill my perception of the acoustics into a single thought, it dawns on me. As we play, I whisper to Caroline, “This hall makes our fiddles sound like they were made in China.” Again, she thinks I’m pretty funny, but I’m being only half facetious. My quip makes the rounds, but I didn’t intend it to be deprecating because Chinese violins have improved greatly over the years. And, I seriously conjecture, since the Chinese have a different musical tradition, maybe they also have a different concept of the ideal sound. Though the halls we were to play in over the next week proved my theory shaky, you can’t say I wasn’t open-minded.

At our rehearsal intermission, Slava Uritsky and I discuss the acoustics. I tell him my cultural concept theory, that the Chinese might have a preference for this type of sound, but he thinks I’m wearing rose colored glasses. In that case, I joke, maybe the Chinese government permits only a single party-line opinion regarding acoustics, which reminds Slava of an ass-covering saying they had in Russia during the tight-lipped Soviet era: “Of course I have opinion! But I disagree with it.”

Though we’ve already performed the repertoire, Dutoit again rehearses thoroughly, which helps shake off the cobwebs after four days of not playing together, and will hopefully prevent unwanted surprises at the concert.Yet as we rehearse Mahler Fifth, I find my mind wandering from over-familiarity with its swollen proportions, and recall Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

The worst part of the rehearsal has nothing to do with music, though. Strangely, the air quality inside the concert hall is noxious, even worse than outside! Some of the musicians don their facemasks. We look forward to the concert with some trepidation. We later learned the foul air was not the result of Beijing’s “normal” air pollution. Rather, it was a gift from an equipment truck idling in the cargo bay just outside the stage area.

Buy-Buy Communism

After the rehearsal, a lot of musicians are absorbed into the masses on the Wang Fu Jing—the broad pedestrian shopping street near our hotel which thirty-five years ago was flooded with a blue sea of Mao jackets—for a spate of jolting consumerism, where today you can buy anything and everything from a Louis Vuitton to a Big Mac. Mao would roll over in his grave. Bells on bicycles—out. Bells and whistles on smart phones—in. A bowl of rice for dinner—out. Continental cuisine—in. The iconic Mao jacket—nowhere to be seen.

Back in ’79 the authorities encouraged (i.e. instructed) us to purchase whatever high quality souvenirs or traditional artwork we wanted to take back to our loved ones at state-owned Friendship Stores. The stores that the Chinese themselves shopped at were strictly utilitarian and for local consumption only. After browsing around the Friendship Store, picking up a few tchotchkes to buy, my eyes rested upon an antique silkscreen scroll painting of a wizened soldier seated on a tired horse. Somehow the artist had managed to capture a striking aura of dignity, heroism, and camaraderie between the man and his mount, returning home after long battles either won or lost. I asked the young sales girl the price. Hesitant with her English, she consulted her glossary. “Fifteen dollars,” she said with a smile. “Really?” I asked. That was hardly possible. She apparently sensed my disbelief. “One moment, please,” she replied, and again checked her price list. “I’m sorry,” she said. “One hundred fifty dollars.” Still, that was an incredible bargain. Then she frowned and said, “Wait here, please.” She went off and had a whispered conversation with her superior, returning with a big smile. “One thousand five hundred,” she said triumphantly, pleased that her English had come so far so quickly. I thanked her and stored the painting in my memory.

 Having failed as an art connoisseur, I wanted to buy some silk cloth to take home to my wife, Cecily, who has a knack with a needle and thread. As they didn’t have plain silk fabric at the Friendship Store, after much inquiry I managed to find a dilapidated, no-frills department store where “the people” shopped, on the Wang Fu Jing. On the way I practiced the word seh, for silk, that I had just been taught by Carl Crook, an eminent China hand who was also the interpreter the BSO had hired for the tour. The high-pitched word, seh, sounds a bit like air slowly being let out of a small balloon. I was the only Caucasian in the store and, unable to spot the fabric section on my own, needed to ask the sales clerks where to find the silk. I summoned up my courage but was self-conscious about pronouncing seh with the proper inflection. After receiving a blank stare from the sales clerks after three halfhearted attempts, I decided to go for the gold and let it rip. The sales people’s faces lit up with recognition.

Nowadays the Wang Fu Jing is lined shoulder-to-shoulder with the same international retailers and food establishments you see in New York, London, or Paris. And it’s by no means rich foreigners jamming these stores, though the prices are daunting. Some of the Chinese people who spoke to members of the orchestra said their preferred shopping strategy is to vacation in the States, engage in spasms of retail therapy at much lower prices—even for Chinese-made goods—and come out ahead in the end.

If the US wants to affect political change in China—whether it should even try is another question—it need do nothing more, having already set in motion the wheels of long-term social evolution by encouraging a capitalist template. It may be just a matter of allowing time to let the politics take its cue from the economy. As a middle class emerges, and as the rich and poor extend society in opposite directions, all three of those groups may eventually demand a voice in the future. In China, they think of time in terms of millennia. It might not take quite that long.

Thought for Food

Intersecting the Wang Fu Jing is a narrow pedestrian alley that leads you into a bustling, boisterous world of traditional Chinese tourist schlock and street food. Even more crammed with people than the Wang Fu Jing, it’s lined with stands peddling everything from traditional lanterns to miniature Xian soldiers, and from chestnuts to scorpions on skewers, which come roasted or live and wiggling, depending upon what you’ve got a hankering for at the moment.

Scorpion kebab, anyone?

The scorpions seem to be a highly popular item indeed, among young and old alike.  There are at least a dozen kiosks selling them, and each kiosk had hundreds of skewers ready for the downing. As I consider whether to indulge, I try in vain to envisage a scorpion farm. Before deciding, I need to find out the answer to a very important question: Aren’t scorpions poisonous? The answer I’m offered: Not these. Their stingers have been removed. Whether that’s true or not I’ll never know, because ultimately I take a pass.

I’m an adventurous eater, and over the course of my entire lifetime there have been very few foods that I haven’t managed to shove into my mouth. I’ll devour just about anything that isn’t moving, and have even eaten some things that were. My parents, steak-and-potatoes folks for whom veal parmigiana was the limit of culinary adventurism, used to be aghast at the stuff I happily funneled into my gut.

I have the great good fortune to have eaten in some exquisite restaurants all around the world—Italy, France, Japan, Peru, you name it—and could tell you in boring detail some of my most memorable meals. But never have I gormandized for an entire week as I did with the Boston Symphony in China in ‘79. Almost all of our meals were served banquet-style in the dining rooms of our hotels and, as a “going away” special treat we were taken to a famous Peking* Duck restaurant, where the ingredients of every course included a different part of the duck. [*Now, of course, we say Beijing, but the duck hasn’t changed its name.]

You wouldn’t believe how many parts a duck has! As was the custom, we all sat at big round tables. To my right was violist Robert Barnes, who still played with the BSO at the time of the 2014 tour, but has since retired. We had just been served our third or fourth course, which Bob was digging into with gusto. Having examined this particular dish carefully, I said, “Hey, Bob, you know what that is?” He shook his head and continued unfazed. I persevered. “Bob, don’t you want to know what it is?” He replied, “I don’t care. It’s good. But, OK, what is it?” I said, “They’ve split the roasted duck head down the middle. You’re scooping out the brains.” Bob took a closer look and, blanching, decided he wasn’t hungry anymore. He asked, “You want to finish mine?” I thoughtfully replied, “Sure, but only if you don’t want it.” Works every time.

Among the few things I couldn’t get myself to choke down at one of those banquets was sea cucumber. It has the color of and shape of a good ole cuke, all right, but has the texture of an oversized slug. Another was a fertilized chicken egg, prepared Vietnamese style; that is, modestly boiled and then, when cracked open in all its rheumy glory, oozes onto your plate with bits of fetal feathers, beak, and body. Obviously, there are many people who find that delicious, and maybe it is. More power to them.

One delicacy that barely passed muster was live sushi. Thirty years ago, in America if you said you ate sushi, the uniform response was a disbelieving widening of the eyes, followed by, “You ate raw fish? Yuck.” How we’ve progressed! But I had qualms when, in an upscale Tokyo sushiya, I was proudly presented a whole fish artfully sliced and displayed on a vertical skewer…and, with gills flapping, clearly still alive. Because a thoughtful friend was spending a lot more than she could reasonably afford in order for me to sample the best that Japan had to offer, I downed what I considered an appropriately polite amount of the fish. But never again.

The other food that I have tried once and will avoid for the rest of my life is another very popular Japanese food called natto. More about that later because my stomach’s getting queasy just thinking about it.

I’m not making value judgments here. I wish I could enjoy it all without exception. The point is that we all have cultural biases about food. Icelanders eat horse and fermented shark. Peruvians eat guinea pigs. Americans eat chopped liver. Food is an integral part of culture, and by experiencing it without bias helps us understand each other. Another international language, perhaps? A thought for food is food for thought.

Putting Walmart to Shame

In a narrow lane off the pedestrian street I pass a booth selling a forest of colorful chopsticks and make the fatal mistake of glancing for more than a nanosecond at a two-pair set. The proprietress pounces, though I haven’t even come to a full stop. She shouts, “Good price! I give you good price!” I smile, shake my head, and resume my pace. The good lady runs after me with a calculator and punches in 180 Yuan, about $30. I laugh. She counters, “One-hundred-fifty!” I say, “No thanks,” shake my head more emphatically, and try to make my escape. She grabs me by the sleeve in a viselike grip and yanks me back. “How much?” she demands. I say, “No, thanks,” yet again, since I don’t know how to say “I was just window shopping” in Mandarin. She says, “One-hundred!” with desperate finality. I smile, bracing myself to be wrestled to the ground. Still holding on to me for dear life, she spits out, “How much?” In an effort to dislodge her I offer something preposterous. “Thirty.” About five dollars. With the speed of a poker player holding a royal flush, she counters. “Forty.” Admiring her tenacity and believing strongly that professional entertainers, as we both are, should be compensated, I agree and purchase the two pairs of blue and white porcelain chopsticks, plus holders. I give her fifty. She seems delighted with the transaction. A cross-cultural win-win. If only our two countries could find common ground so efficiently.

Disneyland East

Linda, my hutong guide, told me there were beautifully peaceful gardens adjacent to the Forbidden City, but security on this extended May Day holiday makes a visit infeasible. The police funnel millions of tourists—that may not be an exaggeration—into one line, regardless of what particular sight they’re hoping to see. It’s even worse than waiting on line for Pirates of the Caribbean, especially with police and military personnel making their quietly intimidating presence felt.

Waiting on that sleeping dragon of a line is not my cup of tea, so I duck out, narrowly escaping before passing the chain link gate of no return. Many of the tourists, I’m told, are rural Chinese folk making their first excursions into the big city. I spot befuddled Chinese tourists at street corners, scanning the horizon this way and that, unable to make head or tail of city maps. I consider asking if they need help with directions, but suspect they wouldn’t appreciate the irony.

Though my walk back to the hotel is only about a mile, I risk my life several times crossing major intersections. This must be where Beijing drivers vicariously exercise their freedom of expression. Neither red lights, stop signs, police whistles, oncoming traffic, nor pedestrians for that matter, seem to interfere with the drivers’ creativity discovering new ways to get from Point A to Point B. Poetry slam in motion.

Just as I get back from my excursion, thankfully unscathed, the sky darkens with real clouds and a welcome thunderstorm pummels the smog. I have just enough time to dart into the Starbucks next to the hotel as the first drops fall. The storm scours the air, at least for the moment, while I open my package of chopsticks and admire the fruits of my recent hard bargaining, relieved I got off so easy. I shudder to think what could have happened had I glanced longingly at the scorpion kebabs.

Behind, and Under, the Scenes

The subterranean corridors of the National Center are austere and uninviting, an opinion I share with Jasper Parrot, Dutoit’s manager from London, as we traipse underground from the bus to the wardrobe trunks. He replies that at least they’re clean, citing some backstage areas in Russia as examples to the contrary. I mention my experience conducting at the Teatro Nacional in Lima, where next to the so-called Green Room, more like a neglected mop closet, is an open elevator shaft with no elevator and no barrier to prevent an express trip to the basement. Maybe that’s for the bad conductors. Mr. Parrot, who has also been Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn’s manager for ages, is a very perceptive, engaging guy, with a beautifully polished English accent. All in all, the type who might work for MI6 without anyone ever figuring it out. I’ve clearly been reading far too much Le Carre on this trip.

Going to Concerts Now and Then

PROGRAM: Mussorgsky: Night on Bare Mountain Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op. 64 Encore to be determined

As I warm up onstage prior to the performance I notice two things: The air has thankfully been purified, and the audience is very much like classical music audiences the world around—generally affluent, older, and experienced concertgoers, with a smattering of hyper-enthusiastic university-aged students. This is in stark contrast to 1979, when the Chinese government deemed it imperative that our performance in Beijing was open to the general public. The cost of a ticket then was pocket change, and so we played to the masses at an indoor stadium in Beijing.

For a great many budding musicians, Nirvana is to perform in Carnegie Hall.  I know it was for me. But over the years I’ve found that my most rewarding performances have been for audiences who have very limited opportunity to hear great live music. On those occasions their passion becomes palpable and is one of the things that will always make a live performance superior to any kind of recording. I’ve loved playing in Carnegie Hall but the concert in Beijing that night in 1979, with the BSO musicians sitting side-by-side with the Beijing musicians—was special. The audience’s response wasn’t as refined, perhaps, as in New York, or Vienna, or London, or even in today’s Beijing, but it was overwhelmingly heartfelt and spontaneous.

Playing With Eyes (Half) Closed

Halfway through tonight’s concert, jetlag and lack of sleep ambush me. By the time we start the Tchaikovsky, the final piece on the program, I feel as if I had driven 2,500 miles nonstop through  unending night from Boston to Salt Lake City, with no coffee. I keep scolding myself, “Don’t close your eyes. Don’t close your eyes.” If I do, I might easily find myself in snoozeland. I don’t think anyone can tell how much I’m struggling—maybe Caroline can—but it’s torture.

I try not to think about that time long ago at Carnegie Hall, when I sat behind one of our former violinists during a Bruckner symphony performance. This particular gentleman was an amiable old guy who liked to drink. When we were on tour he really liked to drink. During the slow movement of the Bruckner he started listing to his left. Then his head drooped. Then he started snoring. Bruckner can sometimes do that to you even without Johnny Walker’s assistance. With Carnegie’s acoustics it’s not a great idea to snore too loudly, so Lenny Moss, his stand partner, by nature an excitable guy, elbowed him in the ribs. “Wake up! Wake up!” he whispered with alarm, as the music dragged on. Our hero, the consummate pro, raised his head, and with great dignity but slightly slurred diction, intoned, “Why should I?”

My personal struggles with Mr. Sandman aside, the performance gets the tour off to a rousing start. Maestro is in fine form, revving the Night on Bare Mountain engines from the first note. Mr. Abduraimov, performing with reckless abandon in the Rachmaninoff, is enthusiastically received. And, with Tchaikovsky Fifth, what’s not to like?


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Symphonies & Scorpions: Beijing




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Like many of the structures we were to see in the new China, the arrival terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport is of monumental proportions, with a vast, star-canopied ceiling. Little did I know that the constellations in the terminal ceiling, artificial though they were, would be the last stars we would see for days in China’s smog-cloaked cities. Here’s my instant analysis of why everything is so colossal: 1) It reflects China’s grand vision in the brave, new world, particularly at this ascendant point in their history after earlier centuries of humiliation. 2) They needed a lot of space for the 2008 Olympic Games.

We remove our tagged and numbered luggage from the baggage claim carousel and lug them to a designated area, from which they’ll be delivered directly to our hotel rooms. Due to post-9/11 security concerns, especially in the US, this practice has become less the norm, but is happily in effect for the Asia tour.

Our tour guides shunt us to several chartered buses waiting in yellow-lit gloom to transport us to the hotel. Years ago, there was a veteran BSO violinist who was, with one exceptional personality quirk, a most kindly, unassuming man, for whom civility was life’s guiding principle. Let us call him Dr. Jekyll. The one exception was an unrestrainable compulsion to be at the head of any line. He always took the first seat in the front row of the first bus, so that he could be the first in line at the hotel to be the first to get his room key. Pity the musician standing in front of Dr. Jekyll exiting a bus, for at that moment he became Mr. Hyde and took no prisoners. One day, long ago, we were at Logan Airport, waiting to board our flight. Let’s call it Gate 10. Of course, Dr. Jekyll, always in jacket and tie, had been standing there for a half hour. Gradually the entire orchestra lined up behind him. Then came the announcement over P.A.: “Ladies and gentleman, the gate for the flight to La Guardia has been changed from Gate 10 to Gate 11.” The musicians roared with laughter because all we had to do was turn 180 degrees, but that made our disconsolate colleague, abruptly transformed into Mr. Hyde—the last in the line.

As the buses approach Beijing, it looks more like driving into the Bronx from the Hutchinson River Parkway than being in China. Nothing is particularly characteristic of my mental image of China, and nothing seems familiar from 1979.

Except for historic landmarks, downtown Beijing is totally transformed with massive new buildings and glaring with lights. Cars, instead of bicycles, now create the traffic jams, with air pollution one of its unwelcome byproducts. The blue-green sea of government issued, Mao-inspired peasant garb, which had in the previous era supplanted traditional Chinese apparel, has in turn been totally replaced by Western fashion.

Our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing, is huge, glitzy, and chichi. So luxurious, in fact, that it makes me uncomfortable. How many stars can a hotel have? One or two would be fine with me. This one seems to have as many as the airport ceiling. Am I waxing nostalgic for the warm and fuzzy days of Third World socialism? It’s hard to complain while being enveloped in such comfort, but still, isn’t there a middle ground somewhere? After all, this is supposed to be the Middle Kingdom.

FREE DAY Wednesday, April 30

Multitasking at Breakfast

My sleep deprivation strategy worked perfectly…for three hours. I awake at 3:30 AM, toss and turn for another three and concede defeat. No big deal—sleep is overrated, and anyway I have a free day to recover.

The Grand Hyatt provides an elegant and extensive Western/Chinese breakfast buffet. I join cellist Mike Reynolds at his table. Like me, Mike is a BSO substitute. We have a cordial friendship when we see each other from time to time at Tanglewood, though limited by sitting at opposite ends of the stage, so I figure breaking dim sum together will be a good opportunity to get to know each other.

Like many musicians, Mike has diverse interests, which he tells me about as I inhale platefuls of delicacies and cups of coffee poured from a silver pitcher by the strolling waiter. Mike’s a prime example of a musician under whose feet grass will never grow. Besides his occasional “moonlighting” with the BSO, he’s the cellist of the eminent Muir String Quartet, teaches eighteen hours a week at Boston University, runs four summer music festivals, has a foundation providing grants for schools nationally to buy string instruments, and is helping a private owner to sell a bunch of Stradivarius violins. I don’t write this as a front man for Mike, but more to show what a resource it is to have a symphony orchestra, with its musicians, in one’s backyard.

Mike reminds me that, to my surprise, he and I once read string quartets in Philadelphia back in the ‘70s. I have no recollection of that encounter, but have no reason to doubt the acuity of his memory. I should ask him how I sounded.

I could spend the whole day here eating everything from the carvery ham to the rice porridge next to the dumplings—luckily, the breakfast tab is included with the room, because I’ve easily eaten a per diem’s worth—but decide that too much pigging out on the first meal of the tour might not be in the best of taste.

Hutongs, the Traditional China

Traditional Dazhiqiao hutong’s main thoroughfare.

Now that I’ve been put to shame if I let grass grow under my feet, I arrange to take a guided walking tour through two of Beijing’s traditional hutongs—specifically defined as alleyways, but more generally means neighborhoods—which are fast disappearing from the urban landscape. I want to get a glimpse of the pulse of life as it used to be, which now claws for finger holds in ever-diminishing isolated pockets behind the pillars of China’s raging economic capitalism and repressive political communism.

My guide, Linda Z, (to protect her identity, not her real name) meets me at the hotel. Thankfully, she’s fluent in English, having graduated from the Xi’an Translator’s University some years back. A young lady and mother of one, as are the overwhelming majority of mothers in China, her husband is a commercial artist. From the hotel, we take a subway to our first hutong. Dazhiqiao, pronounced something like dodger-chow, is representative of these neighborhoods of one and two-story houses. It’s refreshingly quiet and tranquil, especially given their proximity to the bustle of major avenues and intersections. Dazhiqiao’s main alleys are lined with vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables, groceries, and household items, to mechanical repair.

The incessant drone of choking traffic quite suddenly becomes a distant memory. Only a car or two straggles along. Bicycles or honking motor scooters are more the ticket for zigzagging among strolling pedestrians. The owners of the few cars that manage to park along an alley have barricaded their tires with pieces of scrap cardboard. “Why do you think that’s so?” Linda asks me. I lamely guess, “So hubcaps won’t be stolen?” Wrong. It’s to protect the tires from having them urinated on by the local canine population, providing yet an additional and powerful disincentive to drive cars here.

The original homes in the hutong, of well-to-do merchants, public officials, and high-ranking military men, were impressive structures with backyard gardens. But as the population increased over the past couple of centuries the gardens were filled in, helter-skelter, by building after building, creating a honeycomb of living quarters, most of them very modest. One could quickly get lost in the haphazard labyrinth of passageways and end up at the doorstep of someone’s tiny abode. Yet there are dabs of greenery everywhere—the occasional fruit tree or patchwork garden—and the stillness is appealing, even though many of the older, formerly grand structures slowly crumbling under the weight of time and the burden of cumbersome city building regulations add a tinge of melancholy.

Caged songbirds adorn the exterior of many homes. There are public bathrooms and baths for the many houses that have no plumbing. The narrower alleys are pedestrian only, and in Dashila, the second hutong we visit, just a stone’s throw from the entrance to the colossal Forbidden City, I simultaneously touch the centuries-old brick walls on both sides of Money Market Hutong, so named because it was the location for major Qing dynasty banks.  

Only a block away is a major pedestrian street, where multitudes frequent traditional shops. Neiliansheng, a shoe shop, was founded in 1853 for making officers’ boots. The store is now famous for their custom-made shoes where the likes of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai were customers. Replicas of their revered footwear are on display. Liubiju is the name of the pickle shop founded in 1530 where gallon-sized blue and white ceramic jars boast an endless variety of pickled vegetables, most of which I can’t identify. Zhangyiyuan, a tea shop founded in 1910, has walls lined with bins of dried tea, where the employees can sort, measure, and package your purchase with the skill and swiftness of a Las Vegas card shark. Ruifuxiang is a silk shop founded in 1893 and noted for its high quality, particularly for all of one’s bridal needs. Tongrentang is a traditional Chinese medicine shop, famous for its herbs and outstanding doctors who used to serve the imperial families during the Qing dynasty. With ancient ginseng costing thousands of dollars, it’s gotta make you feel better, but they don’t allow photos because they unabashedly display banned substances such as rhino horn.  

As we complete our walking tour, Linda explains that there are many reasons for the decline of the hutongs, the main one being the profit motive. Hutongs occupy valuable space, and big, tall, new buildings suck in a helluva lot more revenue than rundown, little, old ones. Many entire neighborhoods were totally obliterated for China’s 2008 Olympics. In fact, a person who asked me not to mention his name told me that his close relative returned from shopping one day to find his house had been razed to the ground. Clearly, the social costs of urban overhaul, in terms of disruption of traditional ways of life, have been a secondary consideration. There are also complex regulations that discourage incentive for renovation and restoration. It is easier and cheaper for residents to pack up and move to new, clean, faceless apartment blocks than to try to restore the charming but rickety structures in which they live.

As a musician, I’m very empathetic to the plight of hutongs, as they parallel the precarious state of the world of classical music. These days, where value is all too often understood only as a black bottom line, the future of symphony orchestras and hutongs hang in the balance. Linda tells me of the beginnings of public outcry over the assault on hutongs, that the dubious wisdom of wholesale tearing down of communities is being reconsidered, and that the government is beginning to intervene in stopping the most unscrupulous development. Like Pops concerts added to the classical mix of symphony programing, some hutongs are even being “reinvented” with trendy boutiques. Whether those infusions ultimately become unlikely saviors or simply accelerate the decline remains to be seen.

Free Speech, Sort Of

I’m circumspect about bringing up anything related to politics with Linda, but as we walk along a bustling lane I allow an oblique reference to social change and heavy-handed government to escape my lips, reflecting upon the numbers of hutongs torn down for the recent Olympics. Sensing my unease, Linda replies, “Don’t worry. I’m happy to talk about it. Just not here.”

Once we’re out of earshot, I ask how free she feels to talk about politics in general. She replies, “It all depends on who you’re talking to. If it’s just with friends who share your beliefs, or with a foreigner like you, it’s OK. But if you try to go to someone in authority with an idea to create change, even if it’s for the general good, you could possibly get into trouble.” She must have sensed I share and empathize with her point of view, because she is amazingly candid with me, a stranger, and has no compunction expressing her thoughts about the role big money, big development interests, and government have had in the decline and the elimination of many of the hutongs that are clearly so dear to her.


After a tasty lunch of crispy duck served with sesame buns at Made in China, the hotel restaurant, jet lag stealthily creeps up on me like a not-so-gentle sledgehammer, and I take the rest of the afternoon off. In the evening I join a group of BSO patrons and a handful of musicians for an invitation-only dinner at Lost Heaven restaurant, located in the former US Embassy complex, which has since been converted into a mini-mall of expensive boutiques. Retail diplomacy?

There are thirty patrons joining us on the tour. Many have opted for the full tour; others for either the China or Japan leg. They’re provided tickets to most of our concerts, but otherwise have a separate, highly structured sightseeing itinerary. So by and large they travel apart from the orchestra and only intersect on occasions like this. Many of the patrons are professionals, current or retired, with fewer of the blue-blooded Boston Brahmins that reigned over the BSO in past generations. Some of the patrons are BSO Overseers, or sit on the Board of Trustees. Others are simply fans of the orchestra who just love music, and figure what better way to have a travel vacation in Asia than to live it up with a symphony orchestra and mix with the musicians?

In 1976, my first year in the BSO, we toured Europe. There was a reception in a forebodingly austere dining room with a 300-foot high ceiling in a castle outside Vienna, which conjured up chilling visions of Teutonic knights…and worse. It reminded me of the setting of Hitchcock’s classic spinetingler, Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman is slowly poisoned with doctored champagne by her Nazi husband, chillingly portrayed by Claude Rains. At an ornately set table the length of a football field, I found myself sitting next to an ancient BSO patroness who had bright lipstick extending far beyond the normal boundaries, and who wore three watches on her left wrist. (I couldn’t see how many she had on her right.) Making small talk was not easy. I limited myself to saying things like, “great sauerbraten,” “lovely,” and “hmm.” At one point she delightedly surveyed the surroundings and, placing her multi-watched hand on my arm, exclaimed, “It’s so wonderful to be back to where our roots are.” If not for my father having taught me to always be respectful to the elderly, I would have replied, “Speak for yourself, lady.” I also refrained from drinking the champagne.

But it’s not just a one-sided affair for the patrons’ benefit. No fewer than sixty-six positions in the BSO and three on the conducting staff are endowed chairs, most of them in perpetuity. That means that the cost of maintaining a musician in that chair, which I’d conservatively estimate at an average quarter-million dollars a year in total compensation, is at least in part underwritten by the donors of that endowed chair.

Each of several tables of ten at the restaurant is named after a composer. I sit at Mozart along with two other musicians and engage in pleasant chitchat with seven patrons, who for the most part are enjoyably down to earth. There’s a lively discussion of why there are so few women conductors, which evolves into the broader issue of gender equality. Like the table-naming, the affair has an air of artifice, but it’s a very important and very humane way to make contact with the people who provide the vital support symphony orchestras desperately need.


Click on the title if you’d like to purchase Symphonies & Scorpions in its entirety. It’s available in two paperback editions, one chock-full of black-and-white photos, the other with color photos, and in Kindle.