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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.

***

Footnotes

  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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Unplugged.

 

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WARNING: PLAYING IN AN ORCHESTRA MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH!

[READER ALERT! YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A MINORITY OPINION ZONE.] 

 

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

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!