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The Osaka Conundrum

No, that’s not the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller. Rather, it was the BSO’s predicament for its concert in Osaka last night.

On the program was the colossal Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” Here was the situation:

  1. The Symphony No. 11 is a very long and difficult composition, full of potential musical traps for everyone, and which doesn’t lie well on anyone’s instrument. It’s the kind of a piece that is typically referred to in the profession as “a bitch.”
  2. The orchestra hadn’t looked at it in well over a month, since the beginning of the concert season in Boston.
  3. Before September, most of the musicians in the orchestra had never played the Shostakovich at all. It’s one of his least performed symphonies—I admit to never even having heard it–so there was no muscle memory to pull out of the hat.
  4. The rehearsal for the piece that was supposed to have taken place the day before had been washed out when the truck carrying our music was delayed beyond our ability to reschedule. (See yesterday’s post: Intrigue in Nagoya.) All we had was a 15-minute acoustical rehearsal an hour before the concert at the Osaka Festival Hall to slay all those millions of phantoms.
Maestro at the train station

Strategizing at Nagoya Train Station

Well, wouldn’t you know? The performance went of without a hitch. What a credit to the BSO musicians and Maestro Nelsons! (Smart guy, he took ½ an edge off the perilously frenetic tempos he had us play in Boston. It made everyone onstage feel much more secure and confident, but the Osaka audience got just as big a thrill.) When it was all over the sense of accomplishment (and relief) was palpable. The post-concert reception had even more levity than usual.

Happy campers

Maestro & Musicians Celebrating

 

Being on tour does not preclude life at home interjecting itself from time to time. Just before the concert I received an email from a violist who was going to be one of the soloists in Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto that I’m conducting next month in Salt Lake City to tell me she won’t be able to do it. So I have to find another violist from afar and quickly.

To more than counterbalance that bit of unsettling news, however, was another email I received, this one from Alison Larkin, the producer of my new, critically acclaimed audiobook mystery, Danse Macabre, to tell me it is now finished (weeks ahead of schedule) and available for download purchase. (CD sets will be ready in the near future.) Check out the audio sample. I can’t think of a better, easier, or more “novel” way to get your holiday shopping out of the way. Can you?

Danse Macabre AUDIO COVER

DANSE MACABRE: AUDIO

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Intrigue in Nagoya

It wasn’t the way you’d want to start a concert tour. At 8:00 we received a message from Chris Ruigomez, the BSO Director of Concert Operations. “Good morning. We have just been notified that one truck with some of our instruments will not arrive until about noon.” That was unfortunate, since the rehearsal at NTK Forest Hall in Nagoya was scheduled to start at 10:30. “We will move the rehearsal to be from 1:00 PM.”

Schedule

Changes were made on the fly, including our bus departure from the Nagoya Hilton, where the orchestra was staying. Rather than returning to the hotel after the rehearsal and going back to the hall for the 5:00 PM performance, we would stay at the hall. Food would be provided in between the rehearsal and concert.

We were at the hall and ready to begin rehearsal—our first of the tour—at 1:00. Only problem, still no music, still no string basses. The truck was still somewhere between Tokyo and Nagoya. Rumors spread. The one consistent one was that the driver had overslept. Jet lag? Nope. Not one of ours. A Japanese driver. This seemed strange. Oversleeping a half hour, maybe. Even an hour. But to be four or more hours late?

Waiting

Thumb twiddling time.

Already, the inconvenience and the expense were adding up. “What ifs” started seeping into the conversation. All the contingencies had to be considered. It could be a major disaster.

Finally, at about 1:30 the truck arrived. The BSO stage crew and their Forest Hall counterparts sprang into action. Swinging into actionThe rehearsal, which was supposed to run for 2 ½ hours, went from 2:00 to 3:00. No time for Shostakovich today. Maybe tomorrow. Maestro Nelsons was his usual unflappable self. All smiles. No hurry. Take care of business. See you at the concert.

Backstage Subway sandwiches and bento boxes. A quick dash to a nearby coffee shop for additional caffeinated sustenance to ward off potential jet lag.

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The audience never knew.  Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham. Mahler Symphony No. 1. Beethoven Egmont Overture as an encore. Everything went off without a hitch. Disaster averted. At least for us. I heard the driver was fired. Actually, that made me relieved. I worried it would go much worse for him.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

 

Sand Castles

Castles still serve a valuable function. They inform us about ancient history, architecture, art, culture, and politics. They’re gathering places for friendly, informed tourists and for tourist dollars, helping support the local economy. And, in the case of Nagoya Castle, offer excellent soft serve green tea ice cream.

Green Tea Ice Cream

Samurai nourishment

I had been to Nagoya Castle once before, decades ago. At that time, it was impressive but a bit tattered so yesterday, on our day off, I considered it more a destination of my walk—I needed to stretch my legs after all those hours in the plane—rather than as something I particularly wanted to see.

It turned out my route was a lot more circuitous than I planned. That will happen when you start out ninety degrees in the wrong direction.

Walking Map

You figure it out!

It being a lovely fall day, however, I enjoyed whatever came my way. Walking through city streets and parks in a foreign country is always interesting, if occasionally bewildering.

NOT Nagoya Castle

NOT Nagoya Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving at the castle entrance, one cannot be anything other than awestruck by the massive stone works that form the walls of the moats and base of the castle tower. The only places I’ve seen that might equal it are the Incan stone work in the mountains of Peru or the Etruscan walls in Umbria, Italy.

Nagoya Castle

The correct Nagoya Castle

Things had certainly changed since my previous visit. Gardens had been re-landscaped. Extensive renovation had taken place. And most of all, the palace, which had been totally destroyed along with the original castle tower by American bombing in World War II, has been painstakingly reproduced in every detail. The beauty of the architecture and murals are as breathtaking a marvel of Japanese artistry and esthetic as the original apparently was.

Palace Mural

Palace mural

The current, rebuilt castle tower looks like the 17th century original on the outside, but is of cement construction. Unlike the palace, which is a virtual recreation, the inside of the castle tower is simply a museum space of various interesting exhibits with photos and artifacts. One floor recreates a street scene in old Nagoya. Another has an impressive scale model of the entire city from the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

17th Century Taxi

17th Century taxi

Some of the exhibits have captioned photos of the castle pre- and post-bombing, and of pieces of artifacts seared by heat of the explosions. There is a subtle implication in much of it that the bombing of the castle, which had been designated a national treasure, was wastefully unnecessary.

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Bombing of Nagoya Castle, 1945

 

 

Though it certainly was tragic that so much irreplaceable beauty was destroyed, one must also consider the original purpose of the castle. It was a military, government fortress in which endless wars of conquest and destruction were planned and executed. While Nagoya Castle had long abandoned that function, in a sense its bombing was a continuation of history more than a disruption of it. Poetic justice? Perhaps not. The real tragedy is war itself and the killing of innocent civilians because all castles, whether made of stone, sand or of metaphors, are eventually are swept away by the tide.

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Let Me Eat Your Pancreas

On the flight from LA to Tokyo I watched a Japanese movie called Let Me Eat Your Pancreas. I turned it off after fifteen minutes upon realizing it was a touching film of love and loss, and not a Halloween special feature. After bidding a fond farewell to Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, I did manage to get through an entire two-and-a-half-hour samurai movie. This epic was called Sekigahara, about the battle for the reunification of Japan by Tokugawa with a great half-our battle scene near the end in which many people get hacked into pieces. I wonder if they’ve used the same costumes in all these historical sagas as they did in The Seven Samurai. They look suspiciously similar. They must have plenty of holes in them by now.

Pancres

I had a good reason for watching a movie. Any movie. Two-hundred-fifty-nine of the two-hundred-sixty-one passengers on the long flight—eight hours? ten hours? who knows?—were perfectly quiet the whole time. The two babies in the seat in front of me, however, had different ideas and didn’t stop screaming the whole time. I take that back. Every time their parents and/or their grandparent walked them down the aisle they calmed down almost immediately. You’d think the adults would have done that for more than ten minutes rather than sitting there for hours trying to ignore their poor kids’ bawling. Go ahead. Call me a curmudgeon. To be fair, the last hour the two tykes were quiet. But one time when they were performing a duet that would put hyenas to shame, I donned my headphones and perused the classical music channel on my console. Guess what? There was a performance of my old boss, Seiji Ozawa, performing Beethoven Symphony No. 1 and Piano Concerto No. 1 with Martha Argerich. I enjoyed listening to that, with the volume turned way up.

Seiji .jpgOther than that one mild annoyance, the flight(s) from Salt Lake City to Japan were relatively uneventful. The seats were eminently comfortable on LA-Tokyo leg (courtesy of a Japan Airlines jumbo jet), including plenty of leg room and a seat console like the helm of the Star Trek Enterprise. Dinner was pretty decent too. Caesar salad, cold soba, pickled vegetables and fish, chicken curry with rice, fresh fruit, and ice cream for dessert. Beats peanuts.

In between movies, meals, and the occasional snooze, I had a great time studying scores for the Vivaldi by Candlelight concert on December 9. Castrucci, Stradella, Brescianello–no, those are not gelato flavors. They’re contemporaries of Vivaldi who wrote spectacular music, and along with Bach and Biber it was so much fun to dig deeper into their individual esthetics.

I did have a couple of curveballs thrown my way by well-meaning American Airlines representatives. First, in Salt Lake they told me my suitcase would be checked all the way through to Nagoya, my final destination. Not! I had to retrieve it at Narita Airport in Tokyo and then reload it. Good thing the JAL rep straightened me out when I checked in at LA or I might be wondering whether it had been jettisoned somewhere over the Pacific. Also, the AA rep at my arrival in LA directed me to the AA gate for the connection to Tokyo instead of to the JAL gate. Another curve, but hey, what’s one terminal between friends? But I managed to foul that one off and ended up in the right place with time to spare.

JAL

Friendly JAL customer reps

I joined up with the BSO guys at Narita in Tokyo, and then the final slog to Nagoya and the bus to the Hilton. It was about 9:30PM when we arrived and I was still awake enough to find a tiny akachochin just down the block. Akachochin–literally red lantern–are tiny holes-in-the-wall that serve great food at low prices for the local population and stay open late. The menu was entirely in Japanese so it was also an adventure to order, but I managed to get some first rate yakitori and an excellent draft Kirin. All in all, a very auspicious start to the tour.

YakitoriAkachochin

 

 

Flying West to the East

7:00 AM at Salt Lake International Airport. I’m waiting to board a flight to Los Angeles, where I connect to Tokyo, where I join the Boston Symphony en route to Nagoya, Japan. There we begin a ten-day tour, performing six concerts in four cities.

The past week has been a whirlwind! First, we put the final editing touches on my new audiobook, Danse Macabre, which is now available for preorder and will very soon be available both as a download and CD set. You can hear an audio sample for this unique audiobook, which features music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Saint-Säens woven seamlessly into sensational reading by Jim Frangione, by going to Alison Larkin Presents.

Danse Macabre AUDIO COVER

Thursday, October 26, was a very special day. Jim Bradley, owner of the snazzy 15th Street Gallery in Salt Lake City, graciously provided his space for a fabulous fund-raising event for Citizens Climate Lobby-Salt Lake City. We had a packed house for a pre-Halloween presentation I gave of my seasonally appropriate murder mysteries, Playing with Fire, Spring Break, and Devil’s Trill and Danse Macabre audiobooks, performing music by Tartini, Saint-Säens, and Vivaldi along with readings. Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 12.05.11 PMCombined with a delectable reception catered by The Avenues Bistro on Third, we raised thousands of dollars in donations and book sales (provided by The King’s English Bookshop) for student scholarships, enabling them to attend regional and national conferences where they learn firsthand how to engage actively in the democratic process in a nonpartisan, respectful way.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-15-03-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-23-at-8-11-19-pmFinally, on Sunday, October 29, I had the great pleasure of performing a program of great chamber music on the Faculty Showcase series at Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the University of Utah School of Music with my colleagues Vedrana Subotic, piano; Julie Edwards, viola; and John Eckstein, cello. We had a large and enthusiastic turnout for Brahms sublime B Major Trio and fiery G Minor Quartet.

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Brahms at the piano

Yesterday I packed! I’m actually looking forward to the long flight to Japan because I get to study scores undisturbed for the annual Vivaldi by Candlelight concert I’m conducting on December 9. It’s a wonderful holiday season fund-raising event for the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, which fosters international relations “one handshake at a time.” In addition to Vivaldi’s music, we’re performing some wonderful music by lesser known but equally accomplished composers: Heinrich Biber, Pietro Castrucci, Alessandro Stradella, and Giuseppe Brescianello.

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Vivaldi by Candlelight

And then, of course, is the BSO tour itself! We always have wonderful audiences in Japan and I expect this tour will be no exception, especially with Maestro Andris Nelsons on the podium. The major works are Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (my favorite Mahler symphony!), Rachmaninov Second, and Shostakovich Eleventh. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a pretty major work to, and with Gil Shaham as the soloist, it will no doubt be an audience favorite.

Between the concerts and the sushi, I’m looking forward to a very enjoyable Japan adventure. For the moment, I need a cup of coffee.

 

Cataclysm Catechism

When it comes to composing music about terror, Dmitri Shostakovich is the dean of despair, the ace of anguish, the tsar of horror. He was a master of his craft who knew how to get the desired effect. And, after all, the poor man barely survived perhaps the most wretched period of history–with its revolutions, civil wars, purges and pogroms–any country has ever endured.

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Shostakovich

This past weekend the Boston Symphony performed his Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” The hour-long symphonic historical novel depicts the massacre of innocent petitioners in musically graphic terms, such as a militant battery of concussive percussion instruments, including snare drums imitating machine guns mowing down the praying women and children. There are almost unendurably long periods of demonically frightening loud and fast music interspersed with almost unendurably long periods of lugubriously slow, sotto voce music.

I don’t doubt Shostakovich’s sincerity in attempting to convey to the concert hall the terror so many Russians felt for so long. However, he had gone down this same road many times—and more effectively—before; for instance, in the Tenth Symphony which immediately preceded “The Year 1905.” One gets the sense that Shostakovich felt a need to outdo himself each time. Unfortunately, when terror becomes old hat there is a danger it ceases to be perceived as terror, whether in the concert hall or the real world.

Paired with the Shostakovich on the BSO program was the Beethoven Piano Concerto in G, Op. 58. It contains one of the most remarkable movements in the orchestral literature, the second movement Andante con moto. With only a Mozart-sized string orchestra playing in unison and juxtaposed with the piano Beethoven creates a more powerful contrast between torment and prayer in five minutes than Shostakovich did with an army of an orchestra in an hour. And the final movement of the concerto is sheer joy. Shostakovich would have done well to listen to the concerto before he wrote the eleventh symphony. Both men were very familiar with tribulation. One was able to go beyond it.

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Beethoven

After the concert, I took my fifteen-minute walk back to my apartment on Newbury Street. There were swarms of people. Concertgoers, Saturday night revelers, tourists, scads of Berklee College of Music students carrying instruments, and beggars. The beggars were ignored, even the ones sleeping on the sidewalk, rendered invisible because no one wants to have a shadow overcasting a pleasant evening. It is slow, silent despair, not the stuff of a grand musical statement, and I wonder who is going to compose the symphony for them.

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Street person

 

 

Life is a Grove of Cherries

Yesterday I took a break from work to stroll along the Esplanade on the banks of the Charles River in Boston, and read Al Franken’s new book, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.” There was a stiff breeze, so after an hour or so I packed up my book and headed back to my postage stamp rental on Newbury Street.

There were a couple of years back in the late ’70s, when we–Cecily, my future wife, Poggi, our dog, and I–lived in a 500-square foot studio apartment on the fourth floor of 395 Beacon Street. It was only a block from the Esplanade, so twice a day everyday, I put Poggi on her leash and headed out there. One spring, the City of Boston, in its great wisdom, decided to plant dozens of flowering cherry trees. Without question, a wonderful idea. There are few things as beautiful as groves of flowering cherries, especially in such a charming location.

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The problem with trees, however, is that, like other living things, they grow. And things that grow need taking care of. And the City of Boston apparently hadn’t considered that, because by the time fall rolled around, the trees were full of crossing branches, suckers, and shoots. If left like that, the trees would soon become eyesores rather than eye candy.

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I’m not one who  abides bureaucracy with grace and patience. I suppose I’m not alone in that regard. But maybe where I am a little different is that rather than deal with bureaucracy I tend to take matters into my own hands until someone says, “Stop.”

So one fine winter evening when the trees were dormant, I put on my old lime green parka and my bright orange ski cap (great for not getting shot during hunting season), and packing a lopping shears and pruning saw, went over to the Esplanade and got down to work. (I should mention here that pruning fruit trees is one of my passions. I knew what I was doing.)

After about 15 minutes, I was cautiously approached by one of Boston’s Finest. Fortunately, those weren’t the days of shoot first, ask later. He asked me what I thought I was doing, so I explained to him what a great service I was doing for the city of Boston, and how much taxpayers’ money I was saving. He didn’t totally buy it, but at least he no longer thought I was a derelict cutting down trees for the firewood, which–given my outfit–he had every reason to believe.

Nevertheless, he issued me a cease and desist order until I had consent from the city. But he was agreeable enough to tell me to whom I should write. He watched me pack my gear, probably thinking how he’d tell his wife when he got home what a crackpot he encountered.

Though temporarily stymied, I did write City Hall, and amazingly enough, I did receive permission! I went back to work, permission slip in hand, and after a week or so of hard labor was satisfied that the trees had a bright future.

So it was with a sense of satisfaction and nostalgia that I took this selfie yesterday. My little saplings have grown up, and it’s nice to know that someone else has taken over their care.

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