Happy Birthday, Dad

My father, Irving, was born on this day, December 5, 1911. Today would have been his 108th birthday. I think he would have gotten a kick seeing my TEDxSaltLakeCity2019 talk, “War & Peace. And Music,” which was posted on TED Talk’s website today, and which I would like to share with you.

One reason I think that’s the case, other than paternal pride, was that when I was a kid I was shier than most, and was a total failure when it came to speaking in front of people. Simply making conversation with people I didn’t know well made me shrink into corners.

One time, in junior high school, as part of our English curriculum we had what was called a “speak off.” Everyone in the class had to make a speech or recite something in front of a large assembly. Prizes were offered to the winning speakers. I didn’t know what the hell to talk about. There was no subject I could imagine anyone would have the slightest interest hearing me tell them about. So my father, a big Rudyard Kipling fan, coaxed me to recite the poem, Gunga Din. He coached me for weeks, giving me tips on oratorical skills associated with public speaking, but I just didn’t have it in me at that point in my life. When it was my turn, I walked onstage, mumbled some words about “Din, Din, Din” and slinked off the stage. Thank God that was over. The winner, wouldn’t you guess, recited Gunga Din. My father was disappointed, but I don’t think he was surprised.

Over the years, as I had more occasion to speak in front of gatherings, I developed a degree of confidence. When I first joined the Boston Symphony at age 22, my voice trembled at orchestra meetings with the fast vibrato I always strove for on the violin, but given a lot of support by my colleagues, speaking out became much more comfortable.

By the time my first book, Devil’s Trill, was released and my publisher encouraged me to do a book tour, I actually enjoyed speaking at book stores, with book clubs, and the like. Now there are times when it’s hard to get me to shut up.

All of this lifelong experience provided excellent preparation for my TEDxSaltLakeCity2019 recitation of my essay, which considers the value of music and musicians in creating a more peaceful world. Belatedly, then: Thank you, Dad, for your pointers. And happy birthday.

[ The text of “War & Peace. And Music,” is one of many essays about the world of classical music in my book, Symphonies & Scorpions.]




Something to be thankful for

It’s almost Thanksgiving. Time to think about what we’re thankful for. I’m only writing about it now, a few months after the fact, because I’ve been waiting for the video (below) to be uploaded onto YouTube in order to share with you.

The older I get the more I enjoy working with student musicians. Their enthusiasm and energy is infectious, and there’s nothing more rewarding than when you’re able to impart some little suggestion or word of wisdom and see an immediate improvement and see the proverbial light bulb go on.

Don’t tell anyone, but the experience for me conducting the first ever Baroque string orchestra at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute last summer might have been more of a blast for me than for the students. I hope they gained as much insight into string ensemble playing and the thrill of the music of Vivaldi and Telemann as I had in working with them for two weeks until the performance at Seiji Ozawa Hall on July 23.

It’s wasn’t all peaches and cream. The BUTI kids have full schedules everyday of orchestra, chamber music, individual lessons, sectionals, and master classes, and to have rehearsals from 8:30-9:30 in the morning added to that was enough to make me tired just thinking about it.

This group of thirty students was certainly talented, but transforming them into a polished ensemble in only four rehearsals was our challenge. They were not only unfamiliar with the repertoire, they had only been playing with each other for a few weeks, and that was in the full orchestra.

The first rehearsal was pretty rough! There’s a presumption that Baroque music  is pretty much all the same style, “plays itself,” and that technically it’s easily, especially compared to the “big” repertoire of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But, because of its clarity and transparency, what Baroque music does is expose every little flaw in one’s technique and musicality. If you can play Baroque music well, you can be confident you can play anything well.

Little by little, the students’ ears woke up, even so early in the morning. The growing improvement, along with the enthusiasm, was marked from one rehearsal to the next. The students were learning how to listen to each other, how to play as a unified group, how to develop their ensemble skills, and–gaining an understanding of the remarkably different things Vivaldi and Telemann were after–were really starting to bring the music to life. After the last rehearsal, two students approached me, unsolicited. One said she had never played Baroque music before and the experience had really opened up a whole new world for her. Another (with a big smile) said that she had come to the first rehearsal with the attitude that playing Baroque music was going to be boring, but that it had really thrilled her. After hearing those comments, I had no worries about the performance.

At the concert, our two compositions began a program that included full orchestra works conducted by Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya, concluding with the Brahms Symphony No. 2. The entire concert was beautifully played, and my older brother, who came up from New York to hear the concert, made the comment that, for college students, the orchestra played amazingly well. When I made him aware that they were, in fact, high school students, he couldn’t believe it.

As musicians, we perform for the audience in front of us. But we also have a deep commitment to future audiences, and there’s no greater validation for what we do than passing along what we’ve learned from previous generations to eager young minds and hands.

Please enjoy this video: the performance of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute’s Baroque String Orchestra performing the Concerto Polonese, by Georg Philipp Telemann.

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A memorable collaboration

I’m very proud to share this review of the Salt Lake Symphony‘s concert on Saturday, November 9, 2019 from the Utah Arts Review, by Edward Reichel. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with such a fine group of dedicated musicians.

Salt Lake Symphony tackles Copland’s epic Third in style

The Salt Lake Symphony likes to tackle challenging works. And with some of the best local freelance musicians in the group the ensemble certainly has the technical and musical chops to pull them off.

For its concert Saturday in Libby Gardner Concert Hall guest conductor Gerald Elias led the ensemble in Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3. While other American composers who were Copland’s contemporaries wrote exceptional symphonies—notably William Schuman, Roy Harris and David Diamond—Copland’s Third overshadowed all of them and has become an American classic. 

To be sure, the Third has a lot going for it and is an imposing symphonic creation. The music has bold themes, grand gestures and pungent harmonies. But perhaps the most striking element of the work is how Copland incorporates his earlier Fanfare for the Common Man into the closing movement, which no doubt helped ensure the work’s popularity among concertgoers.        

The final movement, which flows seamlessly out of the closing measures of the third movement, with a softly intoned version of the fanfare played by the woodwinds, before bursting forth in its original form for brass and percussion, is a stroke of genius. This movement is the culmination of the entire symphony with this triumphant statement of the fanfare, much like the glorious C major triads that announce the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The idea behind both is simple but powerful.

Elias, who has guest conducted the Salt Lake Symphony several times over the years, captured the immense scope of this movement with decisive direction that was forceful and dramatic. He conveyed his vision to the orchestra, who responded by playing with sweeping lines, nuanced dynamics and well-articulated expressions.

And in the preceding three movements Elias also showed his finely-wrought sense of interpretation. He captured the stately character of the opening movement with its soaring violin lines and the brass section’s sharp interruptions. He coaxed lucid playing from his ensemble, allowing them to move effortlessly from one thematic element to another.

The second movement was invigorating for the way in which Elias emphasized the energetic drive of the music and in the full-bodied sound he elicited from the players. Of note was principal oboe Hilary Coon’s lovely, wonderfully expressive solo.

The following Andantino offers some needed respite from the high energy of the other movements, and Elias understood what the music demands. He allowed the musicians to play with well-delineated, nuanced expression and coaxed a full rich sound. Even though the music is at times a bit brash, Elias nevertheless brought the underlying lyricism to the fore. 

The other larger work on the program Saturday was the Four Dances from Estancia by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Directed by the symphony’s assistant conductor Matthew Makeever, the movements were given a rhythmically charged and vibrant reading that captured the robust character of each dance. His reading was vital and energetic and he got the orchestra to play with dynamic potency and nervous energy. 

The final Malambo, is a tour de force for the orchestra with its incessantly pounding rhythms and relentless drive. Makeever made the most of it and got the ensemble to play with definition and articulation that emphasized the frenzied character of the music.

Opening the concert was the overture from John Williams’ score to the 1972 film The Cowboys. Elias was on the podium and the orchestra was joined by about a dozen talented high school musicians. The expanded ensemble played the rousing music with crisply defined articulation and uninhibited exuberance.   

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Alive and Well

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quote, the death of classical music in America has been greatly exaggerated.

This Saturday, November 9, 2019, I will have the great pleasure of guest conducting a concert of the Salt Lake Symphony at Libby Gardner Concert Hall on the University of Utah campus. The orchestra by and large comprises a group of amateur musicians who perform throughout the year simply for the joy of it. In preparation for a concert, they rehearse once a week on Tuesday nights for five weeks. Why at night? Simple. Because during the day the musicians have full-time jobs, most of which are not in music.

The program we’re doing is daunting by anyone’s standard. The major work is the Symphony No. 3 by Aaron Copland, a massive, 45-minute composition that requires the forces of a battery of a half dozen percussionists, piano, celeste, two harps, and a full complement of brass, woodwind and string sections. To put it mildly, it is a challenging piece in terms of ensemble playing, its dozens of rhythmic pitfalls, and technically difficult parts for all involved (yours truly, included). I performed it in the violin section of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood last summer, and even given Tanglewood’s park-like setting, it was no walk in the park.

Yet, the Salt Lake Symphony is performing it at the request of the musicians themselves, and they have been up to the challenge. And it must be mentioned that the remainder of the program is hardly less challenging: the rowdy overture to “The Cowboys” by John Williams, and the muscular “Estancia” Suite by the Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera. To be able to retain information from one rehearsal to the next is hard enough from one day to the next, but when rehearsals are a week apart, it is impressive how much these musicians manage to hold on to the progress we make.

The Salt Lake Symphony is by no means unique. Virtually every community has at least one orchestra of one sort or another. School orchestras, youth orchestras, community orchestras, college orchestras, semi-professional orchestras. And of course, fully professional orchestras. Yes, the orchestras at the top with multi-million dollar budgets have the most accomplished musicians. That goes with the territory. But those are also the ones we hear about in the news when they’re struggling financially, which is often. I think because we hear only that sliver of the whole picture, pessimism about the future of orchestras in the U.S. has been skewed. The reality is that orchestras in this country, thanks to organizations like the Salt Lake Symphony, are alive and impressively well.


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Hickman Bridge


Depending on one’s religious inclinations, Hickman Bridge in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park can either confirm your belief in an Almighty Creator, or on the other hand it might convince you that humans haven’t the slightest idea what they’ve been talking about for the past few thousand years. But whatever your beliefs, it was awe-inspiring to walk underneath its shadow.

William Grandstaff

William Grandstaff: A Speculative Biography

[On May 2, 2019 my composition, “The Legend of William Grandstaff” for baritone, piano, and string bass will be premiered in Salt Lake City. This short biography gives some background to this remarkable individual, a man of color who braved the post-Civil War West against great odds.]

Much of the little we know about the life of William Grandstaff, the beneficiary/victim of inescapably racially tinged oral history, is speculative. It’s part of human nature to embellish stories as the game of telephone plays out over the decades, though they may have little or no basis in fact. Quotes attributed to Grandstaff may or may not be accurate. They may have never been uttered at all. We do, however, have some “facts” about Grandstaff to work with, like census data, bills of sale, deeds and, ironically, some well-documented reporting of Grandstaff’s death in 1901. (I put the word, “facts,” in quotes because even census data can be inaccurate and contradictory.) When everything is pasted together, our collage of William Grandstaff, made fuzzy around the edges by the passage of time, still contains major blank spots but it at least gives us an idea of the man and his times.

The 1880 census of the Eastern Portion of Emery County (now Grand County), Utah, lists William Grandstaff as a thirty-eight-year-old black male, born in 1842; a farmer born in Virginia to parents from Virginia.1 The 1900 census of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, lists him as a sixty-year old black male, born in January 1840; a coal miner born in Alabama to parents from Louisiana.2 Considering the time and possible locations of his parents, it is highly likely they had been enslaved. There were slave owners named Grandstaff in Shenandoah County, Virginia.3 William, himself, might have been born enslaved. However, that he was “black” is also open to debate. Apparently light-skinned, he was often described as mulatto. He was nicknamed “Old Portugee”4 in his later years, which some have suggested meant he was Melungeon, a sub-racial group of mixed European, sub-Saharan African and Native American ancestry.5 (The difficulty is that Melungeons comprise a very small population, primarily found in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, including portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky.) It’s also possible Grandstaff’s biological father was a slave owner. As late as 1962, in a retrospective in the Moab Times Independent, Maxine Newell referred to “N—– Bill (William Granstaff [sic]), a big, robust mulatto,” and “an enterprising renegade.”6 That until recent times he continued to be called N—– Bill regardless of his exact racial background suggests that many whites were comfortable maintaining the “one size fits all” derogatory reference.

 There is a William Grandstaff listed in the 1862 Muster Roll (Company A, First Regiment) of The Black Brigade of Cincinnati.7 The Black Brigade was the first organized black militia of the Union Army during the Civil War. Residents of the city, they were pressed into service to build fortifications on the south side of Cincinnati to repel an anticipated Confederate attack. At first they were treated harshly by the city’s white population though they were on the front lines—without weapons—to defend it. As time passed the Brigade was defended by white officers—who improved their salaries and living conditions—and by some members of the local press. After the war the Black Brigade received commendations for serving the Union with distinction. It’s possible that the William Grandstaff in Cincinnati, who would have been approximately twenty-two-years-old  at the time, is the same man who arrived in Utah in 1877. It would make a tidy narrative for Grandstaff to have been a freed slave who fought for the Union and then made his way West. However, history is rarely so neat and there simply is not enough to go on to connect those dots.

Grandstaff’s four years in Moab, Utah, from 1877-1881, are the subject of stories passed down from generation to generation, specifically one white generation to another, to the extent that his life sounds as much like folklore as biography or history. As a result, even in an “official” written history, there is an unmistakable if subtle and perhaps unintentionally nuanced racial bias: “Grandstaff was later said to have run a number of cattle (none of which are known to have been purchased).”8 The consensus is that Grandstaff arrived  sometime in 1877 with a companion named Frenchie, who might have been a trapper. The two men occupied the old Billings fort that had been built in 1855 by Mormon missionaries but was abandoned soon thereafter due to ongoing skirmishes with native Americans.9 Reports suggest Grandstaff and Frenchie were more business partners than friends, because on one occasion Frenchie purportedly pointed a gun at Grandstaff and had it knocked away before he pulled the trigger.10 Frenchie appears to have been a conniving sort, selling his land to two different men who only found out about the duplicity after Frenchie departed Moab.11 (He was never heard from again.)

Over the course of the four years, Grandstaff raised cattle, farmed, and traded with the Native Americans. To say he thrived might be an exaggeration, because when settler Fred Powell arrived in 1878, Grandstaff was all too happy to trade his produce for basic staples like a sack of flour.12 However, he did manage to survive quite handily as evidenced by the forty head of cattle he had to abandon when he fled Utah.

That happened in 1881, when range warfare between white settlers and Native Americans resumed. Grandstaff was accused of having sold liquor to the Native Americans, thus hypothetically fomenting the violence. When a local, armed posse returned from Colorado, heading in his direction, Grandstaff was quoted as saying, “The men are gathering up guns to go on the mountain to hunt Indians, but I think I’m the Indian they are after.”13 He departed Moab, apparently in great haste, as he left his valuable herd of forty cattle behind.  It should be noted that the canyon where Grandstaff kept his cattle in Moab had the only permanently flowing stream in the area, making it very desirable real estate indeed.

Arthur A. Taylor of Moab related an 1884 encounter with Grandstaff in Salida, Colorado, claiming he was a shoe shiner at that point in time.14 I haven’t discovered any corroboration of that so it may or may not be true. However, there’s a relative treasure trove of documentation of Grandstaff in the final phase of his life in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. While in Glenwood Springs he married a woman named Rebecca, who died in 1895. Other than a marriage certificate and her name on various deeds there’s no other record of her. For a time, Grandstaff was the owner of the Grandstaff Landing Saloon, for which there are signed bills of sale.15 After selling the saloon he turned to prospecting, for which there are well over a dozen mining claims and a deed in his name.16 17 He built a cabin on Red Mountain outside the town and became something of a hermit, though a well-liked one. “The cabin was only about six feet square and the door only about eighteen inches wide. Inside the door, Grandstaff, who was very superstitious, had built a narrow passage, in the belief that the devil would be frightened off and not enter the cabin.”18 When he died in 1901 his body wasn’t discovered for several weeks. Town leaders and friends attended a tearful burial, mourning the passing of a respected and valued member of the community.19

Postscript: After Grandstaff fled Moab, the canyon where he kept his cattle was referred to as N—– Bill Canyon. Until the 1950s, it was privately owned, and much of the canyon had been staked for uranium.20 Around the time it became public land, the name was changed to Negro Bill Canyon. In 2017 after long community effort, the name was changed yet again to William Grandstaff Canyon, in recognition of the man’s name.21 However, as an indication that bigotry dies a slow death, in 2016, five days after the BLM installed a new William Grandstaff Trailhead sign, it was vandalized,22 reminding us that whatever lessons we’ve learned from the life of William Grandstaff need to be continually taught.



  1. US Census, Eastern Portion of Emery County, Utah, 1880. Page 1, Line 12.
  2. US Census, East Glenwood Precinct, Garfield County, Colorado, 1900. Sheet 3, Line 57.
  3. Shenandoah County in the Civil War: Four Dark Years. Hal F. Sharpe, 2012.
  4. Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901. “Found Dead”
  5. Melungeon Heritage Association
  6. Moab Times Independent, March 22, 1962. “Canyon Carries His Name, Rugged Early Resident”
  7. The Black Brigade of Cincinnati, Peter Clark, 1864.
  8. History of Grand County, Chapter Six, Pages 104-105, Richard A. Firmage, Utah Historical Society. 1996.
  9. The Moab Story. Otho Murphy, 1965.
  10. Moab Times Independent, October 6, 1955. “Name ‘N—– Bill’ Canyon for Pioneer”
  11. Moab Times Independent, August 3, 1967. Prof. Wayne McConkie. “The Early Settling of Moab Was Difficult Experience for Hardy Band of Pioneers”
  12. A History of Moab, Utah. Chapter 5. Faun McConkie Tanner, 1937.
  13. A History of Moab, Utah. Chapter 6. Faun McConkie Tanner, 1937.
  14. A History of Moab, Utah. Chapter 6. Faun McConkie Tanner, 1937.
  15. Bill of Sale, February 11, 1887.
  16. Pre-Emption Records, 1888-1902, Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
  17. Mining Deed, October 14, 1889, between W.J. Grandstaff and R.E. Palmer (With what appears to be a signature in Grandstaff’s own handwriting.
  18. Glenwood Post, “Gruesome Find,” August 24, 1901, front page.
  19. Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901. “Grandstaff Buried”
  20. Moab Times Independent, October 6, 1955. “Name ‘N—– Bill’ Canyon for Pioneer”
  21. Salt Lake Tribune, October 12, 2017, Thomas Burr. “Utah’s Negro Bill Canyon Renames Grandstaff Canyon by Federal Board”
  22. Salt Lake Tribune, September 29, 2016, Brian Maffly. “Vandals Steal BLM’s New Grandstaff Trailhead Sign at Moab’s Negro Bill Canyon”

            Special thanks to Louis Williams of Moab, Utah, and the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Historical Society.

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This stone cabin, built by William Grandstaff, is theoldest standing structure in Moab, Utah.
(Located at the Moab Springs Ranch)

“The Legend of William Grandstaff” will be premiered at 7:30PM on May 2, at the Urban Arts Gallery in downtown Salt Lake City, on a program presented by the Salty Cricket Composers Collective.









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Here is the link to a very interesting article from Limelight Magazine about hearing loss among orchestral musicians. It is entitled, EARPLUGS ESSENTIAL FOR ORCHESTRAL MUSICIANS, STUDY FINDS.

The first sentence of the article gives you the gist: “A new study from the Netherlands has found that earplugs are essential for orchestral musicians, revealing that physical measures such as placing screens between sections or creating more space between players are largely ineffective.”

For decades, there has been a debate about decibel levels in classical music performances that has heated up in recent years. Some orchestral musicians have even sued their employers (and won, I believe) for hearing loss they have suffered. After all, as musicians the most precious tool we have are our ears, right?

All kinds of strategies have been employed to reduce the negative effects of loudness: two of the most common are placing Plexiglas shields in front of the brass and percussion sections, and putting the musicians on risers of various heights so that the sound goes over musicians’ heads rather than into them. Apparently, however, the study referred to above suggests the benefit of these strategies is minimal (and in some cases, unsightly as well). Apparently the major culprit is one’s own instrument, and that the only effective solution are industry strength earplugs.

Ear plugs for musicians have been around for a long time. These days, there are literally bucketfuls of little yellow spongy cylinders in the wings offstage, for musicians to grab as they prepare to do battle with Mahler, Strauss, and Stravinsky. Most musicians who use them keep them on the music stand until, at an auspicious moment before the dastardly decibels descend, stuff them in their ears, then remove them when the coast is clear, only to stuff them back in the next time the trumpets raise their bells. Many string players even write in their parts reminders when they will need to go through these calisthenics, so as not to be caught by surprise. For some musicians who are extra serious about their ears, these mass produced earplugs are nowhere near sufficient, and spend good money to get the best that aural engineering has devised. Chances are, they will have better hearing for a longer time than if they hadn’t worn them. But I always wonder what the audience thinks when they see musicians inserting earplugs during a concert. Could it be, “How can the musicians play well if they can’t hear what they’re playing?” Or, “Is it that ugly that they need earplugs? Maybe I won’t come next week.”

So here’s where my dissenting opinion comes in. I started playing in orchestras when I was eight years old. When I entered the profession full-time at the age of twenty-two I acknowledge and accepted the fact that playing about three hundred rehearsals and concerts every year for over thirty-five years (let alone the hours of daily practice above and beyond that in which my left ear is right next to my violin) would probably negatively impact my hearing. How could it not?

So why did I accept that? Is it because I’m a wimp? Because I’ve resigned myself to a world of silence in my dotage? Not at all! (And by the way, you’ll be happy to know my hearing is still pretty good for people my age, in and out of music.) For me the answer was simple. I accepted that because to play music right you need to be able to hear it. I don’t deny that there is some contemporary repertoire that is so over-the-top earsplitting that remediation is necessary. Here’s an article about a composition called State of Siege that called for machine gun fire, which was ultimately taken off the concert program. Those exceptions not withstanding, the few times I used earplugs (usually for Pops concerts featuring rock bands) I hated the quality of sound I was hearing. My violin sounded like a tin toy and the rest of the orchestra sounded as if it was two stations away on the 8th Avenue subway. What joy can there be for a musician to hear music like that?

There are moments in almost every great 19th century symphony when the brass section is called upon to soar above the rest of the orchestra. That moment of triumph, of victory, of ascendancy. Moments when it’s less important for the strings to be heard than seen playing with all the energy they can muster. I wish there was a musical term composers could have used for such moments: obliterando, or con tutte cojones.

I have no regrets having suffered what I consider minor consequences in order to have fully participated in the glory of a Mahler symphony. On the contrary, how many others can claim to have been so lucky for such a small sacrifice?

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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.

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


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.


Seeing the sights from my hotel room window.








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*


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)