Child Prodigy, Child Sacrifice

A very well-intentioned friend sent me this Youtube video of a little Japanese girl, Yoshimura Himari, recently performing the first movement of the Paganini Violin Concerto in D Major with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, conducted by the great Vladimir Spivakov. This tiny feather of a girl, who looks like she’s about seven, played it almost flawlessly. So heartwarming. So reaffirming. All those hours of practice paying off with something so beautiful. It brings tears to your eyes, right?

Well, it brings tears to my eyes, but not of joy. Here’s why: Like Olympic-destined gymnasts, toddlers like Yoshimura are one of a small, select handful of humans on this planet who have achieved so much in such a short time. But here’s where the comparison to Olympic athletes diverges. When the gymnasts reach the grand old age of twenty, there are even fewer such athletes. They are truly elite. On the other hand, when child prodigies on the violin reach that age, there will literally be thousands of others who can play the Paganini violin concerto. And for most great musicians, that’s when their maturity as artists begins, not ends. It’s the forty or fifty years thereafter that counts, where their legacy is created.

This raises some difficult questions: Is it worth sacrificing one’s childhood for a few years of celebrity? Clearly, the child is too young to have any perspective in this regard. However, the parents and the teachers do. They’re the ones who supposedly provide guidance and wisdom. What can they be thinking?  What is their calculation? That there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that’s worth depriving one’s own child of their childhood? I know, the parents say “my baby loves what she’s doing.” Really. Compared to what? And whose interests are they primarily interested in? The child’s, or their own?

A common question former child prodigies ask when exiting their adolescence is: Where do I go from here? How is it possible to build upon the fame I achieved when I was ten years old? How is it possible to even match it? Hey, I played with Chicago Symphony when I was twelve, and now they want me to play with New Haven? Where am I going to be when I’m fifty? And if I have any expectations of playing with Chicago Symphony ever again, I now have to continue practicing endlessly, sacrificing my adulthood as well as my childhood. What choice to I have, since I’ve never done anything else?

And what of the musical component? After already having ascended to the pinnacle, how is it possible to get better? I’ve played Paganini, Wieniawski, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps, Ernst. Piece of cake. Those took muscular coordination. But Mozart? Bach? What do I do with them? Too often, the answer is, no clue. Because playing Mozart and Bach takes study, insight, world experience, an understanding of history and culture, an understanding of humanity. All the things that were shunned while they locked you in your practice room pursuing the pot of gold in childhood. And after all that adulation, after all those standing ovations, how must it feel to feel clueless?

And the toughest question of all: When all other roads have been cut off at such an early age, what is left in life when the fame fades? For every Itzhak Perlman, there are a hundred prodigies whose career paths led them in the direction of psychological trauma, anonymity, and worse.

Here’s a success story. A qualified success story. Perhaps the greatest child prodigy of all, Yehudi Menuhin, was able to overcome the hurdle, reinventing himself more as a thoughtfully perceptive musician rather than a dazzling virtuoso (he never did regain the technical skills he had as a teenager), but only after breaking down physically and mentally.

The career of Eugene Fodor, a major prize-winner with dazzling technique in his teens and early twenties, went into a permanent tailspin in his thirties, and he battled drug and alcohol addiction for the rest of his life.

Perhaps the most tragic case was of Penny Ambrose, a sweetheart of a young lady and an immensely talented violinist, who, in 1963 at the age of seventeen, took her own life by turning on the engine of her family car in the garage and asphyxiating on carbon monoxide. Everyone thought the world was her oyster. Everyone except, apparently, Penny Ambrose. As a grieving neighbor was quoted as saying in the St. Petersburg Times, “All she ever did was play that violin. She never had dates or did anything else.”

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So, yes, let us encourage achievement and let us open the arts for young people to enjoy. For a music student, there’s nothing more fun than playing a Schubert symphony in a youth orchestra or reading Haydn string quartets with friends. But let’s not lock our children in isolation for hours every day with the misguided notion that we’re enabling them to get a step ahead of the competition. Let’s not enter them in every competition, either, where if you don’t win first prize you’re considered a loser. Life is competitive enough. Music shouldn’t be. If you want your child to become great, let he or she become great gradually and on his or her own terms. And if they don’t become great–as is the case with 99.9% of us–then at least they’ll have a chance to have a childhood. A chance to be happy.

Getting There: Tales of Corona and Community

You try to keep busy. You try to stay positive. But after a period of extended confinement, on any level, it’s easy to become bored and dispirited. No restaurants, no shopping, no sporting events. No work! What to do?

I consider myself lucky. My cupboard is well-stocked and I’m comfortable with a lot of alone time. Writing. Practicing the violin. Watching the news on PBS, mysteries on Netflix. Cooking. I’ve been doing all those things for years. I try to avoid too much thumb twiddling.

I was working on Cloudy With a Chance of Murder, the next book in my Daniel Jacobus mystery series, thinking about how writing keeps me engaged. Kept my mind off the 24-7 coronavirus news cycle and off of strategies to shop at the supermarket without dying. The writing kept me positive.

Light Bulb! That’s when the idea occurred to me to try to encourage others to become similarly occupied.

But how?

In addition to my traditionally published mysteries, I’ve published a bunch of things independently and have developed a bit of facility getting books up and running. So, how about a short story anthology? I thought. Let anyone and everyone become a published author. Within our individual isolation, create a community. And that’s how Getting Through: Tales of Corona and Community was born.

SNOOPY

Subject: Anything, basically. As long as it’s somehow at least tangentially connected to the pandemic. And if it isn’t, that’s okay, too. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, dystopian, essay, memoir, humor, science fiction, children’s stories. Stories faith and hope. Stories of biting satire and of empathy. It’s all good. People are creative in many ways.

Speed was important. I wanted it to be released quickly so that all those who are still confined have something entertaining to keep them distracted. But with so much creativity being churned out on the internet on a daily basis, who would read it? Who would buy it?

Next idea: Send all the profits to a charity that everyone would consider worthwhile, and whose good works will be sorely needed in the months to come. It didn’t take long to think of that one. The American Red Cross.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Within days I received two dozen stories—some from old friends, many from new friends whose faces I’ve never seen; from amateur writers to famous authors; from every corner of the US and from England and Italy; from scientists, musicians, birders, high school students…you name it. Some pieces are deadly serious, others a touch bizarre, and some I hope will give you a chuckle in these difficult times.

Getting Through: Tales of Corona and Community will be available as a paperback and eBook in the next couple of weeks. I’ll give everyone a heads-up when it’s released. By reading it, you’ll become part of our new, expanding community of people who care. Please pass the word, and if you spread the goodwill faster than this damn virus, we’ll have a bestseller in no time!

Earthquake Story #2: Tchaikovsky Rocks

As Salt Lake City continues to be reminded of the recent 5.7 earthquake with a series of disconcerting aftershocks, I’m reminded of a similarly powerful quake almost 20 years ago.

I was with the Utah Symphony on one of its biannual excursions to southern Utah. We typically performed at the colleges in Cedar City and St. George, as there were few other places in that vast region that could hold an entire symphony orchestra on its stage.

The venue for the St. George concerts was the Southern Utah University Centrum, an arena that held everything from concerts to sporting events. The temporary stage for the orchestra was in the middle of the circular arena’s floor, directly above the Jumbotron.

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Yep, that’s where we were.

The featured work on the program was the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5. A popular work the world ’round, it features arguably the most beautiful French horn solo ever written in the second movement, Andante Cantabile. Every horn player lives for that moment, and that night the solo was performed by our wonderful principal horn player at the time, Shelley Showers.

The first movement, Allegro con anima,  went by without incident. But shortly after Shelley began her magnificent solo, the stage began to shake. What was it? A passing truck? Some technical issue? It became clear after about ten seconds that it was indeed an earthquake that was rocking the building.

What to do? Orchestra musicians are trained to follow the conductor. We kept on playing. Shelley didn’t miss a beat even as the Jumbotron above our heads swayed like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. At the point occurred to everyone that it might be prudent to get the hell out of there, the shaking stopped and Shelley and the orchestra simply kept playing.

Talk about professionalism. But I’ve always wondered why Shelley left Utah for the Philadelphia Orchestra not too many years thereafter.

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Seismic waves, not Tchaikovsky overtones.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I invite you to check out my previous ones, and to visit my Writing page for all kinds of interesting reading.

 

Tales of Corona

SNOOPY

PANDEMIC PRESS! HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people how bored they are with cabin fever as we wait out this pandemic. Here’s the win-win solution: SEND ME YOUR STORY! We’ll edit it together and as soon I have 20 of them, I’ll compile them into a volume, called TALES OF CORONA, which I’ll self-publish ASAP.

100% OF THE ROYALTIES WILL GO TO THE AMERICAN RED CROSS.

Here are the details:

The story should be from 1,000-3,000 words.

It can be fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, didactic, humorous. You name it. Just about anything that touches on the pandemic.

The only thing ineligible are politically strident stories. No personal attacks or name calling.

YOU SEND ME THE STORY, AND IF IT’S IN THE FIRST 20, I GUARANTEE IT WILL BE PUBLISHED!!

LET’S GO FOR IT—ON YOUR MARK, GET SET…WRITE!

Send your story to: noteworthy@geraldelias.com today!

 

Earthquake Story #1: The Magic, Vibrating Bed

 

As you might have heard, this morning the Salt Lake City area experienced a 5.7 earthquake, with several aftershocks. Fortunately, there does not seem to be too much damage or any casualties, but being in any kind of earthquake is disconcerting at the least.

I’ve been in a few of them and would like to share the stories, as they all have an element of humor. Today will be the first one, with the others to come in following days.

In 1986-87 I took a one-year sabbatical from the Boston Symphony. My sabbatical was divided roughly into thirds: Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. In each of those countries I had arranged guest teaching positions and performance engagements.

It made sense to start in Japan because the BSO had a concert tour that finished there. So at the end of the tour I waved goodbye as the bus pulled away from our hotel and headed to the airport. I, on the other hand, headed to the Musashino Conservatory of Music in Ekoda, a suburb of Tokyo, where I was engaged to be a guest professor.

The conservatory was (and still is) very well endowed, and had a lovely two-story apartment in the adjacent charming suburb of Sakuradai (Cherry Hill). As you all know, living space in Japan is at a premium, but the apartment I was given–for free–had three bedrooms, a living room, an ample kitchen, and a balcony. What luxury!

 

Because it was the end of the tour, I was pretty worn out, and so when I was taken to my new lodgings, the first thing I wanted to do was take a nap.

I lay down in my bed, and immediately it started shaking. Wow, I thought, this is incredible. A vibrating massage bed! These Japanese think of everything!

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 8.58.57 AM Continue reading “Earthquake Story #1: The Magic, Vibrating Bed”

It’s the Repertoire, Stupid!

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This concert was clearly too long.

One of my esteemed colleagues recently posted on Facebook the suggestion that classical music concerts are too long. Some suggested that 90 minutes, without intermission, should be the maximum. As the sometimes contentious discussion moved along, it turned out that there were many more factors to consider than simply the length of the program.

Here are a few of them:

The Concert Experience.

Seating comfort and hall lighting: Does feeling cramped inhibit your ability to enjoy the performance? If it’s pitch black how can you read the program notes? If it’s too light does the rest of the audience distract you?

Food and drink: Should there be a café or bar where you can dine before and after a concert, and at intermission, to make the event a real evening out? Could you even bring food and drink into the auditorium.

Intermissions: How long should they be? Just enough time to catch your breath before the big symphony on the second half? Enough time for everyone to go to the bathroom? Would that stretch the evening out too long?

Concert Etiquette

Is it stultifying to have to sit in silence for two to two-and-a-half hours? It’s not a funeral after all! Why so somber? Would it be better to be able to express one’s appreciation more frequently on in a greater variety of ways, like they did in prior centuries? Not that throwing tomatoes should be an option…

Or does freedom of expression infringe upon the enjoyment of the person sitting next to me? I think there’s consensus that cellphones and small children should be left at home, but other than that…

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This audience was a bit too rowdy.

The Program

The music on the concert should form a coherent whole rather than just be a scattershot of music. And they need to be in a logical order. You would not want to attack an audience at the beginning of a concert with a Tchaikovsky symphony and finish it with a Rossini overture.

Do longer concerts tax the musicians’ energy to the extent that the performance suffers?

Today’s Society

Have our attention spans be rewired by sound bites and Instagram so that sitting for the length of a traditional concert is no longer desirable? If so, who should change, the listeners or the orchestra? Some of those on the FB thread say that concerts over two hours are too long and so they leave at intermission. Maybe that’s the best solution? Those who wish to leave can. Those who wish to hear the whole concert also can. Everyone gets their wish.

 

I can go either way on concert length. For symphony concerts, two to two-and-a-half hours with an intermission seems ideal. The standard formula—overture, concerto, intermission, major symphony—has worked very well, as have endless variations to it. Yes, I’m tired after playing a long concert. But I should be if I worked hard enough!

I can’t understand why people consider it an ordeal to sit through a concert with a Mozart overture, Mendelssohn concerto, and Brahms symphony. Yes, concerts can be tiring. After all, most concerts are at night. And they can be challenging. Think, Mahler Sixth. But consider what a treasure the music is! What a gift!

On the other hand, I’ve been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight series for fifteen years, and those concerts are short: they last from seventy-five to ninety minutes, without intermission. The reason for that is simple. It’s the repertoire, stupid! Most of the compositions we play are from eight to fifteen minutes long. Six or seven of those are more than enough to provide a satisfying evening of great music.

Maybe the solution is for orchestras to provide more variety, with some concerts traditional full length and others shorter. I think what everyone would agree upon is that both the music and the quality of the performance should be the best that can be provided.

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This audience was just right.

Gerald Elias, a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, is author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery series that takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world. He has also written Symphonies & Scorpions, a memoir of life as a touring musician. For more of his books, please travel through his website: geraldeliasmanofmystery.wordpress.com

Turning a Page: The “Inside” Story

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The BSO Library on the first-balcony level of Symphony Hall

This article is one of a series by former BSO violinist and former Utah Symphony associate concertmaster Gerald Elias—who continues to play with the BSO at Tanglewood and on tour—examining a variety of on-the-job challenges faced by orchestral violinists.

It is generally acknowledged that the violins, particularly the first violins, play the most notes of any orchestral instrument. This is not intended to disparage the noble efforts of the contrabassoon, piccolo, or triangle. We all have our essential role to play. Nevertheless, it’s true. Even a non-musician can attest to that simply by lifting a first violin part and then, let’s say, a third trombone part, and feel which is heavier. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it will be, you guessed it, the violin. It’s not at all unusual for a first violin part in a big nineteenth- or twentieth-century symphonic work to stretch for twenty or thirty pages, or even a forty page behemoth like Mahler’s Fifth.

Here’s some easy division. Forty pages, eighty minutes—the approximate duration of Mahler Fifth. Twenty page turns, meaning a page turn on an average every four minutes! And when you take away the half-hour Adagietto, which is only a few pages long, it’s almost a page turn a minute. But do you, as an astute audience member, ever even notice that? Smoke and mirrors? Is it magic, right in front of your eyes?

Not really. It’s a combined, concerted effort by the composer, publisher, orchestra library, and finally the page turner to make page turning essentially invisible. Let’s take each of those contributors one at a time.

When you go to a performance of a Mahler symphony you see a massive number of musicians on stage. (His Symphony No. 8, “A Symphony of a Thousand,” really pushes that envelope.) Yet if you look—and listen—closely you’ll notice that much of the time there are only a handful musicians playing. It is very rare indeed when everyone plays at the same time. Those precious moments are usually reserved for the occasional, hall-shaking climax. In fact, one interesting experiment you might want to try as a listener is, at any given moment, to identify every instrument that is being played. The discipline of this experiment might well enhance your experience and appreciation of the music, as it opens the window to the miraculously varied rainbow of orchestral colors a great composer has at his disposal. A side benefit for the musicians as a result of composers’ selective use of instrumentation is that it gives each musician an opportunity to rest from time to time, and although the composer’s objective might have been a purely musical one, it really does provide a moment, albeit usually a brief one, for string players to relax both mentally and physically. The musical term for this rest is, appropriately, a rest.

Since reputable music publishers have an understanding of performers’ needs, whenever possible they format the music to place a rest at the bottom of the right hand page. This enables the musician, who we can safely assume needs both hands to play his/her instrument, to be able to turn the page without interrupting the music. Most of the time, from Bach to Bernstein, this system works effectively.

There are times though, when composers aren’t so cooperative; when, for instance the violin part requires constant playing of eighth notes or sixteenth notes (i.e. the fast stuff) for several minutes without surcease. In this case, for example in some Schubert or Bruckner symphonies, it’s impossible to fit enough notes on a single page in order to get to the next rest. This is where having a great orchestra library staff, such as the one the BSO can boast of, is a blessing. We will often find that the page-turning dilemma has been resolved by the library having photocopied a portion of the next page up to the point there finally is a rest, and appending it onto the page that has all the fast stuff.

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Two well-worn pages from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2

What happens, though, when there are no rests at all on the horizon? When you simply have to keep playing nonstop from the bottom right of one page to the top left of the next? It does happen from time to time, and that’s where the skill of the page turner is paramount. There is no page-turning course in music conservatories, though after having played with countless stand partners over the past forty years I sometimes wish there was. Because even when there is a rest at the bottom of the page, there is an art to knowing the right time to turn it. Some page turners, anxious to jump back into the fray, turn prematurely, leaving their stand partners high and dry, trying to recall the music that everyone else seems to be playing. Other page turners, believing they’re being good Samaritans by enabling you to see every last note before turning, wait for the final split second to turn the page. But unless you’ve memorized the music at the top left of every page, this can be extremely stressful. I had one stand partner many years ago, who shall remain nameless (including the orchestra), who is a sensational violinist and fine musician. For some reason, he gave the distinct impression that turning a page was either a leisure activity (when he was in a good mood) or an imposition on his time (when he was in a bad mood). As we’d approach the bottom of the page, he’d look curiously at the music, as if he’d never seen the bottom of a page before, stretch a bit, put his violin down, take another casual look at the music, consider the options, nonchalantly turn the page, make sure the music was nicely centered on the stand, and resume playing.

The key, obviously, is to know your stand partner’s strengths. For example, I’m much better at being able to “memorize” the music at the bottom of the page while my stand partner turns it than I am at predicting what’s going to appear before me on the next. So, I’m happiest when the page gets turned sooner rather than later. In either case, though, a quick turn of page is almost always a good idea. When I’m the outside player on the stand (i.e. the non-page turner) my only role in all this is to make sure my violin is out of the way in order to give my partner ample elbow room (literally) to turn the page efficiently. I’ve had some stand partners for whom I’ve turned pages who kept the scroll of their violins so close to the music—either because of eyesight or security issues—that I had to become a veritable contortionist in order to reach underneath his violin and across the stand, grab the lower right hand corner of the music in a split second, turn the page, and reestablish my playing position without whacking my stand partner’s fiddle or even interfering with his/her ability to see the music.

Sometimes I envy those triangle players.

*Oakmont PR Photo

The author demonstrates a page turn.

Gerald Elias is the author of the six-part Daniel Jacobus mystery series (including two audio books) and of “Symphonies & Scorpions,” which relives via stories and photos the BSO’s history-making 1979 concert tour to China and its return in 2014. An expanded version of his 2017 BSO essay, “War & Peace. And Music,” which is included in “Symphonies & Scorpions,” recently served as the basis for a TEDSaltLakeCity2019 performance. He has also recently released a children’s story, “Maestro, the Potbellied Pig,” and “…an eclectic anthology of 28 short mysteries to chill the warmest heart.

 

Chinese Checkmate

The Boston Symphony is batting .500 historically on its tours to China. That would be a great average for the Red Sox, but cancelling concerts, for whatever reasons, are major disappointments for an orchestra with an otherwise stellar record of achievement.

Ironically, the first tour to China, in 1979, was the one that was the most hastily planned. The opportunity arose quite suddenly out of the rapprochement between the US and China after the demise of Mao Tse Tung. The BSO was the first foreign to perform in China after the Great Cultural Revolution, and ushered in an era of improved relations between the two countries. Though travel to China today is ho hum (excluding the current shutdown over the coronavirus) the 1979 tour was an event of international cultural and political import. To give you an idea of the sea change in the world since then, when the BSO arrived in Beijing, it had flown on the first 747 plane ever to touch down on Chinese soil.

1.1 Deng Xiaoping & Seiji Ozawa, 1979

Premier Deng Xiaoping with Maestro Seiji Ozawa, 1979

A second tour to China was to occur 1999 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1979 tour was a done deal. That is, until American forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, killing several people. The Chinese government, not surprisingly, did not take a kindly view to the attack. At the State Department’s urging, the concert tour was aborted at the last minute.

A third tour to China, in 2014, turned out to be a great success, but it too was almost cancelled. Maestro Lorin Maazel, the conductor engaged to lead the orchestra on the tour, had been ill for months. Though he was determined to persevere, his doctors finally ordered him to stay in bed. (Sadly, he died just a few months later.) An orchestra can’t perform without a conductor (or so conductors say), but without someone of Maazel’s international stature, concert presenters were reluctant. Literally, with only days before a decision to cancel would have to have been made, the BSO was able to engage the services of Maestro Charles Dutoit. The tour was saved. It is unfortunate that a couple years later, a dark shadow was cast over what was perhaps his greatest moment of glory when serious allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against him.

3.6 With Maestro Charles Dutoit, Beijing

With Maestro Charles Dutoit in Beijing. Later events overshadowed his triumph in China.

And now, here we are in 2020, and yet another tour to China has gone by the boards. Until a few weeks ago, the serious concern was about the demonstrations in Hong Kong, one of the orchestra’s destinations. Would the musicians be safe? What kind of security was being provided? Would demonstrations at the airports disrupt our travel? As recently as one week ago, the musicians received a security briefing from the firm that was to accompany us. Hardly a word was mentioned about health concerns. How quickly things change.

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       One of the many Hong Kong pro-democracy mass protests

So the two-week tour that would have taken the orchestra to Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai has been cancelled. I have not doubt there are already efforts underway to reschedule the tour in a year or two years. One can’t even imagine what Perils of Peking the orchestra might have to confront in the future. In the meantime, they’ll just keep playing.

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The Boston Symphony with Maestro Andris Nelsons

 

To read about all the BSO’s adventures in China on the tours that did take place, you’ll enjoy Symphonies & Scorpions: An International Concert Tour as an Instrument of Citizen Diplomacy.

An excerpt from the book, “War & Peace. And Music,”was the subject for my TED performance.

Unmusical Chairs

I’m very pleased to share with you the first of five essays that  beginning this week are being published in the Boston Symphony program book. They all have to do with challenges of orchestral string players that often go unobserved by even the most discerning audiences.

Unmusical Chairs

Let’s say you’ve lived in your house for twenty years and one day you arrive home to find all the furniture has been moved to other rooms and turned in the opposite direction. Your bed’s in the kitchen. Your couch is in the garage. Holy feng shui! Just imagine the disorientation. Perhaps that’s an overly dramatic comparison, but it’s not unlike what an orchestral string player feels when a guest conductor decides to switch where the various string sections are placed onstage.

How to adjust to this rearrangement, how to sit in an orchestra, how to turn pages, how to play outdoors, and how to deal with very loud music encompass a litany of issues that can go unnoticed by the concertgoer but are under constant consideration by the musicians.

You’re probably used to seeing the second violins to the left of the firsts, with the violas, cellos, and basses on the other side of the stage. That’s fairly standard these days, though there are some valid historic and acoustic reasons for occasionally rearranging the deck chairs. When I conduct my Baroque orchestra in Salt Lake City, for example, I have the first violins to my left—they’re always the lucky ones: no one ever bothers their seating—and the second violins to my right so they can be seen and heard equally with the firsts. That’s because in Baroque music the violins are the primary melodic carriers. The violas are to the left of the first violins, where their instruments can face outward, helping to expose their inner musical line, and the cellos and basses are to the right of the second violins. This also makes sense because it crucially places the cellos and basses next to the harpsichord player’s left hand, which essentially doubles their part. But I can’t emphasize enough that what truly makes the arrangement work is that I’ve done it the same way for fifteen years and the musicians are used to it.

I’ve experienced some certifiably bizarre seating arrangements. The Utah Symphony once had a guest conductor do Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, Elijah (the German name for which, by the way, is Elias) and had the full chorus standing in the front of the stage and the orchestra sitting behind them! You can imagine the visibility and ensemble problems that ensued. The conductor insisted that was the way Mendelssohn did it, but considering some other dubious historical claims he made, I was far from convinced. (Editorial comment: one major difference was that Mendelssohn was a great conductor.) But even if that guest conductor was historically correct, what conductors sometimes fail to consider is that the orchestra usually has no more than four rehearsals to get an entire program right, and it’s hard enough to achieve perfection under the best conditions without throwing a monkey wrench into the gears.

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The Boston Symphony in 1882

You may ask why it’s such a big megillah to change position onstage. Let me count the ways:

Picture this. As astute concertgoers, you’re probably aware that string players sit in pairs, two to a stand. This makes sense, even though all the other musicians are fortunate enough to have their own individual parts and stands. That’s because everyone within a string section plays the same music and when it doesn’t stop, someone’s gotta turn the page! Let’s say I’m in the second violin section and sit to the conductor’s left, and that I’m on the “inside” of the stand (farthest from the audience). It’s my job to turn pages for the “outside” player. Why is this the tradition? I’m not sure, except that perhaps it’s less distracting to the audience for this arrangement. It would actually be easier for the outside player on this side of the stage to turn pages, because the lower right hand corner of the music is within inches of his/her left hand. But, whatever, if I’m on the inside, I’m trained to lean across the stand and turn pages with my right hand without interfering with my stand partner’s vision or position. When the conductor has us switch to the other side of the stage, I’m now to the right of the outside player and have to turn pages with my left hand. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sitting there playing, patiently waiting for the musician to my left to turn the page and then saying to myself at the last split second, “S—, that’s my job!”

Here’s another issue. In the customary setup, second violins are a bit insulated from the edge of the stage and from the audience, nestled in a comforting, protective buffer the first violins have provided them. When they’re switched to the conductor’s right, they’re suddenly exposed, not only to the audience’s prying eyes (and ears), but also to that vertiginous drop at the edge of the stage. You may scoff, but I’ve known many a second violinist who has opted to sit on the inside of the stand for this very reason. The feeling can be, literally, dis-concerting.

But the main reason is much more critical. When I’m sitting to the left of the conductor, my aural landmarks are the first violins, of course, but also the flutes, clarinets, horns, and harp. That’s how I’ve learned to hear everything from Hadyn to Harbison. When I sit to the conductor’s right, it’s another species entirely. I hear violas, oboes, bassoons, trombones, and tuba. I often cannot hear the first violins, my fraternal twins, at all! I often cannot see the expressive left hand of the conductor, who will also often turn to the first violins, making both hands invisible to the other side of the stage. Even in the best of times, if s/he is facing forward the baton is directed at me in an unfamiliar way. Depending on the repertoire, all of this can be highly disorienting, and in a real way I have to relearn how to play together with my colleagues.

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A  very creative 19th century configuration

James Levine, as BSO music director, used a seating arrangement that—though historically justifiable—is today considered unorthodox. He had the second violins to his right, but had the cellos on the first violin side with the double basses behind them, with the violas remaining in their more traditional position, audience-right. At first it was a challenge, but after a while one got used to it, and I will readily express the opinion that it gave the orchestra a refreshing clarity and balance, at least from where I sat.

With Andris Nelsons, we’re back to a more traditional arrangement, which I believe most of the string players welcome. Yet from time to time, as I’ve experienced recently at Tanglewood, some of the guest conductors have insisted on switching things around. That’s a tall order, especially when the orchestra often works with two or three different conductors every weekend and gets just two rehearsals for each of the weekend’s three orchestra programs. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their convictions, but before they decide where they want us to sit, I would propose they first try conducting with the baton in their left hand.

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The Boston Symphony with Maestro Andris Nelsons

GERALD ELIAS is the author of the six-part Daniel Jacobus mystery series (including two audio books) and of “Symphonies & Scorpions,” which relives via stories and photos the BSO’s history-making 1979 concert tour to China and its return in 2014. An expanded version of his 2017 BSO essay, “War & Peace. And Music,” recently served as the basis for a TEDSaltLakeCity2019 performance, and is included in “Symphonies & Scorpions.” He has also recently released a­ children’s story, “Maestro, the Potbellied Pig,” and “…an eclectic anthology of 28 short mysteries to chill the warmest heart.”

 

The 2020 Boston Symphony Hot Spot Tour!

The upcoming Boston Symphony tour to Asia in February reads like Sec. of State Pompeo’s travel itinerary: Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai. We’ve already had a security briefing. Turns out the demonstrations and marches and general political unrest in East Asia might turn out to have been the least of our worries. Now, we also have to make sure we don’t contract coronavirus. String players like me can wear facemasks while we play, but those poor trumpeters! They’re in a bind. But they’ll be okay. Trumpet players are a hearty breed.

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Not a trumpet player

No fears about the music, though. We’ve been rehearsing the tour repertoire and tonight’s Boston concert is a preview: Barber “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance,” Shostakovich Chamber Symphony (the orchestra version of his eighth string quartet), and Dvorak Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” All strong, emotionally appealing works.

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Medea

I feel compelled to add an extra plug for the Dvorak. The “New World” Symphony is so familiar to audiences and performers alike that it’s almost impossible to hear it with fresh ears. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the greatest pieces of the orchestral repertoire—I guess that’s the reason it has become so familiar—and now it’s genius is almost taken for granted. So artfully and imaginatively constructed, richly orchestrated, and of course, with Dvorak’s gorgeous melodic creativity. I wish I could have been at the premiere. But I’ve got the next best: playing it with one of the world’s greatest orchestras with one of the world’s greatest conductors in Andris Nelsons. It’s hard to ask for more than that.

While I’m in Boston, I’ll also have the pleasure of giving a book talk at Author Night at the incomparable Stellina Restaurant in Watertown on January 29. In fact, I’ll be talking about two books! Symphonies & Scorpions, my memoir about the BSO’s trips to China and Japan, and from which my TEDxSaltLakeCity2019 performance was extracted. And Maestro, the Potbellied Pig, my children’s book about a young harp player whose loneliness from practicing is cured by a rambunctious, music-loving pet pig. I’ll be joined in a musical presentation with one of Boston’s finest harpists, Franziska Huhn.

TED bow

TEDx bow (not looking for a contact lens)