A Brief Announcement

I am honored to announce that I have been awarded first prize for Nonfiction Creative Essay in the Utah Division of Arts and Museums Original Writing Competition for my essay, “War & Peace. And Music.”
The essay is about the complex relationships between a 2017 Boston Symphony, Nagoya Japan performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, subtitled “The Year 1905,” which recalls a Tsarist massacre of innocent protesters; past conflict and current friendship between the US and Japan as symbolized by Nagoya Castle; and the understated role of music and musicians in all of it.
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Three musical monuments: a performer’s perspective

The Musicians of the Utah Symphony are currently rehearsing for a performance of the Schubert Symphony No. 9, often referred to as the “Great C Major.” Here is the reprint of an article I wrote for the Boston Symphony program book a few years ago regarding the Schubert and two other “great” compositions on their platter at the time: Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. To my Utah Symphony colleagues, take a deep breath and have fun!
Whenever I hear someone say “Schubert’s Great C major,” my inner Pavlov barks at me
to reflexively grasp my right arm and cringe in pain.Why? The symphony is of sprawling
dimensions, and the violins saw away almost without respite, especially in the frenetically exuberant finale, which begins like a race car revving its engine and then never looks back.
I feel for all those poor 19th-century Viennese fiddlers who rehearsed and performed in
unheated concert halls, with dingy lighting and limitless overtime.With the wonders of
physical therapy (and racecars) still a century in future, this very symphony may well have the dubious distinction of having given the world its first case of repetitive motion disorder. Yet for me at least, any discomfort is more than compensated for because Schubert symphonies are just so damned beautiful! Even after playing them for decades I still marvel at how his melodies evolve, and at the miracle of his seamless modulations in and out of beguilingly remote keys.
Of the many great “Great” performances the BSO has given, Sir Colin Davis’s is
one I was involved in that stands out for achieving the fine balance between
the intimately personal and the big picture, which is so crucial with Schubert
symphonies: on one hand, nuanced lyricism; on the other, sheer grandeur. It’s my understanding that the BSO’s recording of the Great C major with Sir Colin was the first in which all of Schubert’s repeats are observed, making it over an hour long. (No wonder
my arm ached.) Yet, for the listener, the music retains its engaging freshness throughout,
and unlike many other pieces of that duration, there’s never an impulse to glance at one’s
watch, wondering whether the restaurant will hold your reservation.
Though Beethoven experimented with form throughout all nine of his symphonies, Schubert maintained a consistently traditional and standard structure with all of his. Structural surprises within or between movements are wholly absent. Each has four movements (with the one exception of the Unfinished Symphony, which aside from having only two movements is otherwise formally straightforward): the first in sonata-allegro form, usually with an introduction; a slower, often folk-like movement; a scherzando minuet with a lyrical Trio; and a spirited, hurtling finale. Schubert’s orthodoxy shouldn’t be considered a failing, however, because without that self-imposed restrictive stability, Schubert’s absolutely astonishing genius for melodic invention and visionary harmonic modulation might have been susceptible to unfettered wandering.With Beethoven, form was infinitely malleable, a tool to serve the dramatic narrative. For Schubert, form was a grand design, like the Golden Gate Bridge, and the more expansive it became the more important it was to provide the necessary structural harmonic supports upon which to overlay his creative genius.
Each composer was a supreme master of something that had proven elusive to the other:
Schubert’s innate and unexcelled melodic gift versus Beethoven’s genius for motivic
building blocks and dramatic symphonic form. Yet Schubert revered Beethoven and often visited him during his last days. And Beethoven, famous for his flinty opinions of just about everything, reserved a warm place in his heart for his younger Viennese colleague. On one occasion, when Schubert called with Anselm Huttenbrenner, Beethoven remarked, “You, Anselm have my mind, but Franz has my soul.” That Schubert was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, and affectionately quoted the immortal melody from Beethoven’s Ninth in the last movement of the Great C major—his last completed symphony—is testament to that veneration.
On the surface, the symphonies of Jean Sibelius, especially the later ones, seem to be a
contradictory combination of modernistic austerity and passionate romanticism. Some
listeners profess “not getting” Sibelius, preferring his more heart-on-sleeve contemporary and musical rival, Gustav Mahler.When Mahler went to Helsinki to conduct Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in 1907, he staked out his turf: a symphony must be “like the world; it must embrace everything.” Not so for Sibelius, where a different world grew organically from within each symphony, and a “profound logic [creates] a connection between all the motifs.” “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description,” Sibelius quipped, “I offer the public pure cold water.”
One thing about a splash of cold water on your face, it wakes you up. The Symphony No. 2 douses you with a bucketful! Though it’s his most popular and accessible symphony, with grand, sweeping melodies that could fit seamlessly in a Hollywood tear-jerker with Tyrone Power and Loretta Young, there are moments when the going is more Bergmanesque (Ingmar, not Ingrid). The fragmented opening of the symphony immediately creates a sense of unease for the listener. At the beginning of the third movement that unease is shared with the musicians as well, when, after a gentle cadence ends the previous movement, the orchestra explodes out of the silence with a machinegun-like burst; then, just as suddenly, the strings drop precipitously in volume while maintaining absolute, rapid-fire, rhythmic precision. If not executed with finely honed accuracy, the resulting mishmash can sound like the great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich’s colorful description of a similarly treacherous passage in Brahms’s Haydn Variations. It reminded him, he said, of how “in my country, when you open closet, and escapes all the little lousies running away.”
The finale, with its sweeping main theme, brooding coda, and triumphant final brass
chorale, resolves all the symphony’s internal conflicts and is one of the most rewarding
in the entire repertoire. It’s also a pleasure to play, and I was privileged to be in the BSO
when it performed and recorded the complete Sibelius symphonies with Colin Davis,
an accomplishment still noted in the world of discography as being the foremost compilation of the cycle. Though I haven’t sworn off the cocktails, I was converted to devout Sibeli-ism during those sessions.
Arguably the greatest orchestral piece of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is, to my mind, the only ballet score that stands on its own in concert performance from first note to last without reduction. I’ve played the complete versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé in the concert hall and, except from the standpoint of historical interest, all those masterpieces fare better as suites in which the composers deleted those sections where the musicians tread water while the dancers tread on toe. Stravinsky himself understood that even Firebird and Petrushka, his ballets that preceded Le Sacre, were more convincing as suites. To pare down Le Sacre, however, would be heresy—even for music
billed as pagan—because it’s as gripping a symphonic drama as it is a visual dance piece. The riot that took place at its premiere in 1913 may in part have been due to the intensely provocative persona and choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky, but it was the music, from its first, iconoclastic note, that stirred the savage Parisian breast.
I’m fortunate to have been involved in many riveting BSO performances of Le Sacre, including a powerfully charged one with Charles Dutoit at Tanglewood in 2013. The most memorable performance for me, however, was not with the Boston Symphony
at all, but when I was a freshman in the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra in 1970. We
had rehearsed for weeks under the capable baton of Conservatory conductor Robert
Baustian, before the arrival of guest conductor Pierre Boulez for the final rehearsals and
performance. It had been a monumental struggle for all the young students, for whom,
like me, it was their first exposure to Le Sacre; and all the wickedly complex rhythms,
changes of meter, and dissonant harmonies threatened to make their virgin voyage a
sacrificial one. Dr. Baustian’s cautionary words of wisdom were, “When in doubt, don’t
play out.”
With Boulez, a miraculous transformation took place. Everything seemed to fit together
without the slightest effort. (Well, maybe that’s overstating the case a little.) He had an
incredible ear and could point out subtle intonation inaccuracies even within the densest
harmonies. (After I joined the BSO, one of my colleagues confided that the orchestra’s
nickname for Boulez was “the French Correction.”) At a Q&A after one of the Oberlin
rehearsals, a student asked Boulez why he didn’t use a baton. “I have ten batons,” he
replied with a sardonic smile, and wiggled his fingers. The performance was the most
exhilarating orchestral experience of my college career. I was lucky enough to get a tape,
and when I listen to it from time to time my initial excitement is validated. For young
musicians, moments like that are priceless, a big reason why programs like the Tanglewood Music Center, where students work with some of the world’s great conductors, are so vital to the future of symphonic music.
One of the prized possessions in my LP collection is the 1957 Boston Symphony recording
of Le Sacre on RCA conducted by Pierre Monteux, who was not only music director
of the BSO a quarter-century earlier, but also the conductor of the (in)famous Paris premiere. I had the privilege of performing Le Sacre with some of the very musicians in that Monteux recording—who can forget Sherman Walt’s haunting bassoon solo to open the piece, or Vic Firth’s relentless, apocalyptic timpani strokes to end it?—and feel proud and grateful to have been exposed to some of that musical DNA tracing all the way back to the “big bang” of May 29, 1913, at the Champs-Élysées Theatre.
The Boston Symphony can now play Le Sacre with its eyes closed and not miss a beat,
yet such was the genius of Stravinsky that even after a century the music is ageless—it
still feels new and mysterious and dangerously unpredictable.

For musicians who play a hundred concerts a year, year after year, there are a handful of compositions in the standard repertoire that guarantee to get the adrenaline flowing.
These works by Schubert, Sibelius, and Stravinsky are among that elite group that seem
somehow larger than life, almost as if the composers themselves were announcing to
posterity, “You may have listened to other things I’ve written, but sit up and take notice,
because ‘you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!’”

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 19: Amsterdam-Home

THE AFTERMATH

Because we had to check out of the Okura Hotel by 8:15 AM and get on the 8:30 bus to the airport in time for the first of two BSO group flights back to Boston, I had an early breakfast and did my Amsterdam sightseeing from 8:00 to 8:14. There was a fine view from my hotel window, and take my word for it, it’s a lovely canal that passes in front of the hotel.

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Seeing the sights from my hotel room window.

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Amsterdam on 5 minutes a day.

I’m going to miss the elegant all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts at the fine European hotels we stayed in. All the bacon and sausages, eggs and omelets made to order, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, potatoes, pancakes, crepes, cold cuts and cheese, smoked fish, pastries, rolls, salads, fruit, fresh-squeezed juices, cereals. A fresh pot of coffee for a breather. And then back for more. A bacon-free diet is in my future.

I won’t miss those inscrutable, user unfriendly showers, which arbitrarily get you where you don’t expect it with scalding or icy water of their choosing, or the microscopic print shampoo/conditioner/bath gel/lotion containers that require a magnifying glass to read, or the heating/air-conditioning systems that require an instruction manual to decrypt. I won’t miss the elevators that require your room card to activate when you’re lugging a suitcase in one hand and your instrument case in the other.

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Typical tour breakfast (main course only)

I’ll miss the great concert halls but not some of the backstage areas where we had to change in phone booth sized spaces. (You remember phone booths, don’t you? For those too young, they were very cramped.) I’ll miss the friendly, witty banter of the brass and percussion players, most of which can’t be repeated. I’ll miss the professionalism not only of the musicians, who played beautifully throughout an exhausting tour, but also the management, staff, librarians, and stage crew—that’s for you, John Demick—who truly make what we do on stage possible.

For certain, I won’t miss waiting at airports. At Schiphol Airport I parted ways with my colleagues, since I was not returning to Boston with them. After schlepping at Schiphol for about five miles I found the gate for my flight to the Northwest, where I’m going to be meeting my first grandchild for the first time. For the moment, I’ll miss playing with the gang, but I’d put other music and writing projects on the back burner that have been awaiting my attention, and now it’s time to dive back in. (Announcements on those coming soon!)

And, there’s always next year to look forward to.

Bye for now.

If you’ve enjoyed these blogs, here’s a list that represents the best of my published oeuvre. It should keep you going for the time being:

The Daniel Jacobus Series:

Devil’s Trill (new edition in the works)

Danse Macabre (new edition in the works)

Death & the Maiden

Death & Transfiguration

Playing with Fire

Spring Break

Western Mystery:

Roundtree Days*

Memoir:

Symphonies & Scorpions

Short Stories:

Mister E’s Mysteries (Volumes 1-6)

Children’s Story:

Maestro, the Potbellied Pig*

Audio Books (includes music performed by the author and his friends!):

Devil’s Trill

Danse Macabre

Dances with Death: Devil’s Trill & Danse Macabre, Anniversary Twin Set!*

Maestro, the Potbellied Pig*

(*on the drawing board)

 

 

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 18: Paris-Amsterdam

A RABBIT OUT OF A HAT

The last day of the Boston Symphony European tour, in Paris, started out like the other days. The bus left the hotel on time, at 9:45. We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on time at 10:30. We whisked through security, went to the lounge waiting area, and then to Gate 21, all according to plan.

After briefly waiting at the gate, we were told there would be a 45-minute delay. No big deal. Back to the lounge. I could use a cup of coffee anyway.

After an hour we were informed our plane, a Luxair private charter, had experience mechanical difficulties and there would be another hour wait. At this point our antennae went up. It was already the time we were supposed to have arrived in Amsterdam. As it was, we only had a few hours between arriving at our hotel and our scheduled pre-concert rehearsal. Our waiting lounge, unlike those at other airports, had no decent places to eat. About the best one could muster was a chicken with mayonnaise sandwich. So I had a chicken with a mayonnaise sandwich.

The Players Committee and management, staying ahead of the curve, started discussing Plans B-Z, depending on how late we’d be. Still no cause for alarm, though. Until an hour later we were informed the flight had been cancelled.

Cancelled! How the hell were we going to get to Amsterdam? It was too late to get back on a bus, and at this point taking a train was out of the question. (Train would have been faster than flying to begin with, but security concerns drove the decision to fly.) We continued to wait.

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The Great Wait

Calls were made, now with a great deal of urgency. Because I was not privy to any of it, I can only tell you what I heard secondhand. The good news was, Luxair could get a plane to de Gaulle sometime between 4:00 and 5:00. The bad news was, it was not big enough to accommodate all the musicians. However, they could fly some musicians to Amsterdam (a one-hour flight), turn right around and pick up the rest. We were each handed 11-Euro vouchers to get something to eat. Unfortunately, most of us had already eaten, so a long line formed at the fancy shmancy macaron concession for last-minute gifts.

Decision time. Our scheduled program was the Bernstein Serenade on the first half and the Shostakovich 4th Symphony on the second. The Bernstein instrumentation is for reduced string numbers and percussion, but no winds or brass. The Shostakovich calls for an army of musicians. So the decision was made: Take the Bernstein musicians, with solo violinist Baiba Skride, on the first flight, with enough additional winds to play the Beethoven 7th Symphony. Even though the orchestra hadn’t played the Beethoven for some time (and if I’m correct had only done it once before with Andris Nelsons conducting a few years ago) it remained one of the BSO’s strongest fallbacks. If the other musicians got there in time, we’d do the Shostakovich. If not, we would play the Beethoven.

Good plan. The plane (a prop plane no less) showed up. We were ready to go. The only glitch was that the airport officials decided to get officious. French bureaucracy rearing its famed opaque head. One musician at a time, they went through all the paperwork that had already been gone through for the original flight.

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Replacement Plan

Finally, we boarded, but because of the paperwork delay, we missed our spot on the runway. By the time we took off it was 6:40. Forget about going to the hotel. Forget about the rehearsal Forget about Shostakovich. Maybe even forget about the concert. Once in the air, we were offered a sandwich–cheese or chicken. I knew from experience it would have to be cheese.

We landed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam at about 7:30 and were able to immediately get on a bus waiting for us by the efficient and pragmatic Dutch people. The starting time of the concert had been pushed back from 8:15 to 9:00 PM. Because we were starting so late, there would be no intermission between the Bernstein and the Beethoven. Would the Concertgebouw audience, having to wait 45 minutes, be as irritated as we were? That remained to be seen.

We got to the hall at about 8:15, and were provided a quick but surprisingly good meal by the efficient and pragmatic Dutch people. When we got onstage and were ready to play, the managing director of the Concertgebouw gave a little speech about the circumstances we had endured to get there, and the audience responded with very rousing applause. So far, so good.

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With a still smiling Baibe Skride

Baiba Skride performed the Bernstein as if she didn’t have another care in the world. She’s a terrific violinist and, having traveled with the us musicians, which few guest artists do, showed herself to be a wonderful colleague as well. The performance went very, very well, in no small part to the magical acoustics of the Concertgebouw. Having just played in the other great halls on this trip, I’d have to say that the Concertgebouw is the créme de la créme! What a pleasure.

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The Concertgebouw

After the Bernstein came the challenge of the Beethoven, but first an answer to a question you might already have. How did we get the music? Here’s where having a great librarian come in. For a variety of reasons, every orchestra has its own set of parts to almost all of its repertoire. Playing on another orchestra’s parts could be very confusing, if not catastrophic when sight-reading at a concert! Wilson Ochoa, the BSO librarian, and his crew downloaded and printed out every part to the Beethoven for all seventy-plus musicians from his computer files. Not only that, by the time we walked onstage, they had professionally bound all the parts as well. Talk about teamwork! And at this point, may I also say kudos to the whole management team for pulling a rabbit out of a very deep hat!

Here was our (the musicians’) question: Would Andris Nelsons play it safe, lay back, and just let the orchestra find an acceptable groove? Beethoven 7th is a symphony we can play in our sleep, but that might make it sound…sleepy. On the other hand, how damaging would a BSO train wreck in the Concertgebouw be on the last night of a big tour?

It took about two seconds to get the not unexpected answer. Nelsons, like the musicians, was ready to show the crowd what the BSO could do under the most trying circumstances. It was a true collaboration. Whatever he showed, the orchestra responded. Standing ovation. And as a personal note—after having alternated the Mahler 3rd and Shostakovich 4th for the whole tour, it was revelatory to hear what a supremely gifted genius Beethoven was. For me, it was the perfect way to end the tour.

Walking off the stage at 10:30, we got the news. The rest of the orchestra had just gotten off the plane at the airport. I’d been one of the lucky ones. What a pleasure and an honor to perform Beethoven with the Boston Symphony conducted by Andris Nelsons in the Concertgebouw. It doesn’t get much better than that.

There was a post-concert party at the hall hosted by Nelsons. A lot of good food and drink and promises to return to Amsterdam under better circumstances in the near future. We finally arrived at our hotel at 12:30 AM. It had been a long day. With an 8:15 AM bus to the airport and home, I was ready for a rest.

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Best Laid Plans (Might look blurry, because it was.)

If you enjoyed this hair-raising episode, you’ll go crazy over SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS.

 

 

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 17: Paris

Two Tales of a City

The sunny Sunday morning in Paris had a festive air. Not only was it a weekend when entrance to all public buildings—museums, historic sites, palaces, government buildings—was free of charge, it was also a car-free day in central Paris, as decreed by its mayor as a gesture toward mitigating climate change and adhering to the goals of the Accord which bears the city’s name. As a result, the Champs Elysees, usually congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic, was today a pedestrian mall. Instead of engines revving and horns honking, all you hear was the quite hum of people talking! The only “motorized” vehicles were bicycles and scooters. And if merchants were worried about losing business on a car free day, I think their concerns were relieved, as the cafés and shops were buzzing with activity.

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As I was walking along the Champs Elysees, enjoying this friendly, if temporary new reality, a block away from the Arc de Triomphe a phalanx of police seemed to appear out of nowhere. The quickly cordoned off a wide perimeter around the George V café, politely but firmly ordering pedestrians to detour around the block. It was later reported that there had been a bomb scare or threat—I’m not sure which—that was ultimately determined to be a false alarm.

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On one hand, we have the hope and optimism that we have the technology and determination to deal with looming catastrophe of climate change. On the other, we have hurricanes, floods, droughts, and fires that increase in intensity as, year after year, the earth’s temperature continues to warm.

One one hand, we have humanity’s resiliency, that perseveres unbowed in the face of terrorism. On the other hand, we have a world whose political destabilization matches the climate’s.

What have we learned since 9-11? Or more to the point, what haven’t we learned? We haven’t learned that no matter how many terrorists you kill, you can’t terrorism because terrorism is rooted in an idea and you can’t shoot an idea. But trying to understand the roots of terrorism—whether by Middle Easterners purporting to represent Islam or white supremacists purporting to represent Christianity—is considered a weakness and will ensure you won’t get reelected. So we choose to shoot or incarcerate rather than to understand. I ask, where has that gotten us in the past seventeen years?

The same with climate change, which ostensibly should be a scientific issue. But one’s opinion of it is determined not by data, but by whether you represent a red or a blue district. The earth couldn’t care less what we think. It will do what it will do. We’re capable of helping move things in one direction or another, but it remains to be seen how long we will continue to turn a blind eye to the causes of the catastrophes of Florences and wildfires on our coasts before we take concerted action.

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My new friend, Paul Finnegan, who inspires hope for the world.

The two main works of the current Boston Symphony tour are the Mahler Symphony No. 3, which ends in joy and triumph, and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, which ends in fear and despair. In a way that dichotomy is a reflection of Paris this morning and, more broadly, the world we currently live in. It’s up to all of us to determine which ending we want to hear.

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Warming up for Shostakovich with my buddy, Ronan Lefkowitz. (Look closely.)

 

For less weighty issues, MISTER E’S MYSTERIES will surely entertain you!

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 16: Paris

ONE HANDSHAKE AT A TIME

When musicians walk onstage for a concert on an international tour we not only represent our orchestra and the music, we become de facto ambassadors of our city and country. It’s quite a bit different than a business person going to an international conference because orchestras have such a public face which is seen by thousands of different people every night who are not members of the same field. While on tour the musicians’ diplomatic role often extends outward from the concert hall. Musicians have friends in other countries, meet with colleagues in other orchestras, or give master classes at conservatories from city to city.

Here in Paris, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the results of citizen diplomacy in a long-lasting  way. Since 2005, I’ve been the music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight chamber orchestra series, which has been going on in Salt Lake City for 35 years. The performance of great Baroque music in a local church that has wonderful acoustics is an annual December and is one of Utah’s cultural highlights of the holiday season.

But in addition to being an intensely rewarding musical experience for me, as conductor, the performing musicians, and our loyal audience, Vivaldi by Candlelight is a major fund-raising event for UCCD, the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, a nonprofit organization whose mission it is “to help shape US foreign relations one handshake at a time.” I highly recommend you take a look at their programs. If there’s going to be hope for the future of the world, it will be through the kinds of activities they support.

* Vivaldi Virtuosi Ensemble 2

Vivaldi by Candlelight

One of those activities is to ask for volunteers to host a dinner in their homes for the hundreds of international visitors it invites to Utah throughout the year. In 2012, we hosted two people from France whose expertise was in immigrant rights, employment opportunity, and workplace protection. The friendships that arose from that one dinner with Chrysoula Malisianou and Madjid Bourabaa have lasted to today. Yesterday in Paris I had a warm reunion with Chrysoula at a bistro near our hotel—Madjid had gotten the flu and sadly couldn’t come—and she’s also very excited be going to our concert on Sunday. We talked about friends, family, work, and life in general. She claimed that her English, in which she is almost fluent, is terrible. Since my French vocabulary is limited to merci and some expressive hand gestures, it was a good thing one of us could speak the others’ language.

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Chrysoula and me.

For all that these international tours have to commend them—the art and architecture, the music, the culture, the history, the food, the gardens, the museums, even the shopping—for me the most important thing is the one-on-one, the connections we make with people and not just places. That—and playing great music, of course—is what seems to me to be the most valuable export we can provide in our roles as international representatives.

 

For more on the life as a cultural diplomat: SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 15: Lucerne to Paris

LIGHTEN UP, GUSTAV!

It’s an open secret that French music is sometimes considered shallow and lacking in philosophical gravitas, especially compared to German and Russian music, which tends to go to considerable length probing the depths of humanity’s (usually dark) soul. Whatever validity there may or may not be to that debate, I think Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich, two of the most angst-laden composers ever, would have benefited from some quality downtime in the City of Light. With that in mind, last year I invited them to join me for dinner at Le Valois, a perky bistro just down the block from our hotel in Paris.

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Gusty Mahler

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Dima Shostakovich

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Escargot at Le Valois

Me: So, Dmitri, how do you like the escargot?

DS: Men are snails. They are trapped, curled up in their little shells, waiting to die.

Me: I see. How about you, Gusty? Enough garlic for you?

Mahler doesn’t respond but, with wild eyes, runs out of the café in a frenzy.

Me (to DS): I wonder what’s his problem.

DS: He is afraid. They are coming for him.

Me: Who is?

DS: Does it matter?

(Later Mahler tells me he ran off not out of fear but out of inspiration. He has composed a symphony movement called “What the Snails Tell Me.” It’s six hours long.)

I manage to convince Dima and Gusty to stay in Paris until the next Boston Symphony tour. When we arrived in Paris today, a year later, I found them again at Le Valois wearing berets and have been joined at their table by none other than Francis Poulenc, the admitted composer of some of the world’s most intentionally frivolous music. Dima is attempting to balance a spoon on his nose. Francis is encouraging him on by singing the famous can-can by Jacques Offenbach, with Gusty clapping his hands in rhythm.

GM (whispering): Jerry, take a look at Dima!

Me: Yes, I see.

GM: Shhh! He’s concentrating.

Me: He looks happy. What’s wrong?

GM: Nothing’s wrong. He is happy. And he’s given up composing.

Me: I can’t believe it! What’s he doing instead?

GM: He’s taking mime lessons. You should see him do the window routine.

As I order my meal, Poulenc does a card trick that throws Mahler into a fit of giggles.

Me (to Mahler): Have you stopped composing, too?

GM: (trying to answer in between guffaws): Oh, no! I still compose everyday.

Me: So what’s your latest? A new symphony? A sequel to Kindertotenlieder?

GM: No, not at all. I’ve gone off in a new direction.

Me: Oh? What direction? Atonality?

GM: Video game music. It’s so incredibly shallow. People love it.

Me (to everyone): Are you going to our concert tonight?

FP: What’s on the program?

Me: Mahler and Shostakovich.

DM: (flipping the spoon up in the air with his nose and catching it in his mouth): Sorry, Jerry. We’ve got other plans.

Me: Another concert?

GM: Better. A Jerry Lewis all-night marathon, starting with The Nutty Professor and Cinderfella!

FP: Lewis was a genius. He is a national hero in France.

DS: And there’s free popcorn.

I shake my head and depart the café somewhat disheartened. Maybe I’d led them astray. Maybe their personal misery had indeed made the world a better place. Well, I sighed, at least we still have their music.

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If you find this ludicrous story the least bit entertaining, you may well enjoy MISTER E’S MYSTERIES. You can now purchase the entire 6-volume set for less than $18!