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Boston Symphony Tour, Day 16: Paris

ONE HANDSHAKE AT A TIME

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

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

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

* Vivaldi Virtuosi Ensemble 2

Vivaldi by Candlelight

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

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Chrysoula and me.

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

 

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

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Boston Symphony Tour, Day 15: Lucerne to Paris

LIGHTEN UP, GUSTAV!

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

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Gusty Mahler

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Dima Shostakovich

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Escargot at Le Valois

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Who is?

DS: Does it matter?

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

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

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

Me: Yes, I see.

GM: Shhh! He’s concentrating.

Me: He looks happy. What’s wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Oh? What direction? Atonality?

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

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

FP: What’s on the program?

Me: Mahler and Shostakovich.

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

Me: Another concert?

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

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

DS: And there’s free popcorn.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 14: Lucerne

EVEN BETTER

Performing some of the world’s greatest music in the world’s greatest concert halls with one of the world’s greatest orchestras led by one of the world’s greatest conductors—it doesn’t get better than that, right?

Well, maybe it does. I’d bet many of my colleagues would agree that as musicians there’s no feeling more gratifying and fulfilling than seeing former students thrive and succeed. When you consider the years of intensive, often grueling lessons that are part and parcel of helping a student achieve their musical goals; of being part parent, part counselor, sometimes part therapist to your student; helping them find suitable instruments to play on, summer programs to participate in, scholarships to audition for, colleges to apply to, seeing them wend their way through life is almost like seeing your own child grow up. And today, within the universe of the first paragraph’s superlatives, I had that very opportunity to see the fruits of my labors as a teacher.

One of my former students, Celeste Carruth of Logan, Utah, is currently living in Geneva. When she saw I was playing in Lucerne she contacted me and asked if I could give her a lesson. I had seen Celeste, a talented student, only once since she went off to college about ten years ago, and I hadn’t heard play at all. She had been a conscientious hard worker and had made good strides as a violinist in high school. However, I had no idea what level to expect of her current violin playing but in any event I said, sure. Why not? It’ll be opportunity for a pleasant reunion and we’ll have a nice lunch in Lucerne together.

So a friend of hers in Lucerne arranged for a room for the lesson at the Hochschule der Musik. At the top of a very high hill outside of town and up an additional 100 steps, it literally is a “high” school. Here’s a view from the Hochscule. I’d have a hard time concentrating on practicing scales from here:

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We met at 11:30 and it was wonderful to see my former student again. Celeste got out her violin and I asked her what she wanted to play for her lesson: Brahms Concerto, Prokofiev D Major Sonata, and Mozart A Major Concerto. Major repertoire. So far so good.

The ostensible reason Celeste wanted this lesson is that she’s hoping to audition for some of Europe’s major youth orchestras and this could be her audition repertoire. (Youth orchestras in Europe are different from what Americans call youth orchestras. They’re really orchestras of young professionals and have an extremely high level of music-making.) For the next two hours we had a splendidly productive lesson. I was very pleased, though not particularly surprised, that Celeste played as well as most conservatory students I’ve heard, with technical confidence and artistic understanding. The concepts and techniques we worked on at the lesson only made sense in the context of someone who already knows how to play at a very advanced level.

But that’s only half the story with Celeste. Along the way in her university studies—first at University of Michigan and then UC Berkeley— she picked up a little bit of physics. The reason she’s living in Geneva is that after earning her PhD last spring, she’s now doing anti-hydrogen research (don’t ask me to explain what that is) at the CERN European Organization for Nuclear Research particle accelerator (don’t ask me to explain what that is). See what practicing your scales can do?

So, yes, performing Mahler 3rd at the Kultur und Kongresszentrum with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony was as wonderful an experience as any musician could ever ask for. But that’s not what made my day.

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Celeste and me.

For more heartwarming orchestra stories, you may enjoy SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS

If you’re not into heartwarming, but prefer a gritty mystery in the world of classical music, go for SPRING BREAK, now available in paperback.

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Lake Lucerne is famous for its swans. But sometimes you can also spot a crane. (Such a bad joke. That’s why I saved it for last.)

 

 

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 13: Vienna to Lucerne

I’ve got writer’s block today.  Bear with me. I’ll try to work through it.

The Boston Symphony arrived in Lucerne yesterday afternoon after another uneventful, uninteresting charter flight. “Cheese sandwich or chicken sandwich?” Today I choose chicken, but there’s nothing between the two pieces of bread that come close to imitating chicken. Better to call it a bread sandwich so that whatever’s inside will come as a pleasant surprise.

Lucerne, as always, somehow manages to retain its charm and elegance even as it becomes more and more tourist saturated. The lake, mountains, and its historic architecture are as beautiful as ever. Here’s visible proof. In previous posts I extoled the brilliance of Felix Mendelssohn as a musician. It turns out he was also a gifted artist. On the left is a watercolor Mendelssohn painted of Lucerne back in the 1830s. On the right is a photo I took today from a similar angle, though with the swarms of tourists it was hard to find a spot that wouldn’t have a head in it.

 

The other noteworthy feature of our first of two days in Lucerne is the famous coffee machine at the Kultur und Kongresszentrum concert hall where we performed tonight. As soon as we got to the hall for the pre-concert rehearsal, a dozen of us ran to the machine, which makes the best coffee in Europe (from scratch) with the touch of a button. (Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.) To our great dismay, the machine was off and required a key to turn it on. In desperation we sought out and eventually found a hall staffer who turned it on for us.

Success? Not yet. The machine required “warming up” and the clock was ticking to our rehearsal. “How long?” we asked. “Be patient,” we were told. “Everyone knows this machine. That’s why we turn it off. Otherwise, we would run out of coffee.” I wanted to take a photo of the machine for this blog, but the hall manager would not permit it. He said no one is permitted to let the secret out. (I just made that up. I simply forgot to take a photo.)

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Kultur und Kongresszentrum, home of the famous coffee machine

The machine seems to be thumbing its nose at us. Should we wait, or should we go on stage and rehearse Shostakovich 4th and Bernstein Serenade? Our contract requires us to do the latter, not drink coffee, so we grudgingly obey our orders, casting gloomy looks over our shoulder at the intransigent machine.

But we have not given up! The rehearsal, only a 15-minute acoustical rehearsal, allows us a half-hour before the concert. Enough time to change into our concert dress, and yes, the coffee machine is cooperating! It has made its point, it seems to say. Once again, after our last trip to Lucerne two years ago—voila—a superior double espresso. Remaining alert through the Shostakovich will now be a piece of cake.

Did someone mention cake?

If you enjoyed this hastily written blog, you’ll certainly enjoy SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS, an insider’s (my) look at life as a symphony musician, set against the backdrop of the BSO’s two historic tours to China.

 

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 12: Vienna

One for three ain’t bad.

Today was a free day (until our rehearsal and concert this evening). I didn’t feel like just wandering around aimlessly nor did I want to go to one of the many huge, standard art museums yet again. Believe me, I’ve seen enough Klimts for a lifetime.

So this morning I got out a city map and looked for destinations off the beaten track. I came up with two that seemed especially promising: The Museum of Fantastic Art, and the Collection of Anatomical Pathology in the Madhouse Tower.

Strike One: It was about a twenty-minute walk to the Museum of Fantastic Art near the center of the city. When I finally found it, a hawker outside grabbed me and said,

“You want tickets for the show tonight?”

“I’m working tonight.”

“How about tomorrow night?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow. What’s the museum like?”

“It’s closed for two months.”

So much for the Museum of Fantastic Art.

Strike Two: I got out my trusty city map and plotted my way to the Madhouse Tower. Another hour of walking to find the Madhouse Tower. After inquiring in a few places along the way, I finally found it on the campus of the University of Vienna. When I arrived at the monolithic cylindrical tower at 11:45 it was not difficult to see it was under major renovation. I wasn’t even sure it would be open, so I ask a workman how to get in. He showed me to a back door with a broken window, but told me it was closed until 1:00.

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Madhouse Tower

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Temporary Museum Entrance

So I bided my time at a nice outdoor cafe on campus and had some really good weisswurst (steamed, not grilled, as is proper) and a beer and went back to the madhouse at 1:00. Inside the broken door were a few young people wearing white lab coats, but they looked very perplexed when they saw me. I asked if I could get a tour. They asked if I were part of a group.

“No, just me.”

“Sorry, we only give group tours on Tuesdays. Come back tomorrow.”

“I’m leaving for Lucerne,” I said, and explained about the concert tour.

“We have a group that is supposed to come at 1:00. If they show up you can join them. Otherwise, I’m sorry.”

“I’ll pay for a tour if you want.”

“My boss isn’t here. I’m not allowed.”

So I waited a while. No group showed up so I never got in, but I did speak to a nice guy who was a medical student/tour guide and told me about the history of the madhouse. I was comforted to know it’s no longer a madhouse nor, as it was for a long time, a residence for university professors, but simply a museum which displays an excellent exhibit of skin diseases and a Siamese twin. Next time, perhaps.

Home Run: At 4:30 I met a Viennese clarinet player for the first time, though we had maintained a correspondence for eight years. Proposed get-togethers on two previous BSO tours to Vienna hadn’t panned out, but this one did. First we had some excellent coffee at a coffee shop whose name I can’t remember, but Mahler used to go there, so it was very meaningful. Then, after I told him that I was music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight chamber orchestra series in Salt Lake City, his eyes lit up.

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Antonio Vivaldi

“You know, Vivaldi is buried right down the block.”

I didn’t know that.

We strolled past the Musikverein and very soon found ourselves at the massively ornate St. Charles Cathedral. Once upon a time there was a graveyard next to it, and that’s where Vivaldi was buried. (The funeral had taken place at St. Stephens a half-mile away.) There was a plaque on a building indicating the fact. Sadly, Vivaldi died impoverished. It is believed he had gone to Vienna to try to resurrect his flagging career under the sponsorship of Emperor Charles VI, who appreciated Vivaldi and his music. But unfortunately for Vivaldi, Charles died, leaving him without a source of income.

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Charles Church

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Plaque indicating Vivaldi’s burial place.

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Detail of Carl Cathedral from 1780, showing where Vivaldi was buried.

A sad ending for Vivaldi, but a happy ending for my excursion. And then, of course, was the performance of the Bernstein Serenade and Shostakovich Fourth at the Musikverein. Not exactly the Four Seasons, but I’ll take it.

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Searching for your own adventure? Try MISTER E’S MYSTERIES.

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 11: Leipzig-Vienna

Living Monuments

With free time limited by travel, rehearsals, and concerts, as soon as the bus doors open the musicians hightail it to restaurants, museums, historic sites, and shopping. (Though someone please tell me what shoes can you get in Vienna that you can’t get in Boston.)

We’re fortunate that in a city like Vienna, one of those historic sites is also our workplace. The Musikverein is one of a handful of the world’s great concert halls, the others being in the Philharmonie in Berlin and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam—both of which are also on our present tour—and Symphony Hall in Boston. I’m told the new Disney Hall in LA is right up there, but I’ve never played there so I can’t say one way or the other. And of course there’s Carnegie Hall in New York, which might still bask in its former glory, but as a result of its disastrous renovation in 1986, which restored its sheen but damaged its acoustics, it has definitely seen its status suffer.

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Musikverein in Vienna

Backstage at the Musikverein is a warren of cubbyhole rooms and endless stairways that always seem to end up at the wrong floor. Wardrobe trunks? No, those are downstairs. Instrument trunks? Those are upstairs. Where the hell’s the stage? Upstairs again. I’m exhausted. Take the elevator. What elevator? Over there. Oh. It looks like a freight elevator. It’s that, too. The sign says, “The button light doesn’t go on, but the elevator is working.” I’ll keep that in mind for tomorrow night.

And the stage is cramped, even without the chorus that sings in the monumental Mahler 3rd that we’re performing. The risers are narrow, and the ancient music stands threaten to topple over. One almost does. It’s hard to find a way to see your music and the conductor at the same time without twisting your back in a manner suitable only for contortionist. One level of audience seating is at the same level as the stage, so when you walk onstage, members of the audience are right next to you.

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Gustav Mahler

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Johannes Brahms

Yet, what a great concert hall! Artistically, it spectacular. To know that giants like Brahms and Mahler conducted on the same stage on which we’re performing is inspiration enough, but it’s really the acoustics that make it a pleasure to play in. Somehow, each instrument sounds the way it is supposed to sound—however vague that description is—yet everyone blends together. You can play extremely softly without fear the sound won’t project, and you can also play very loudly without worrying you’ll damage anyone’s eardrums. We’ll be able to test that hypothesis tomorrow, when we perform Shostakovich 4th.

A postscript.

Who’s the most popular, successful composer in the history of Vienna? Not necessarily the greatest, mind you, which, because of everyone’s personal taste is impossible to determine, but the most popular, which is easier to pin down. Not Mozart. Not Beethoven. Not Schubert. Not even Brahms or Mahler. Shoenberg? Just joking. The most popular composer in Viennese history, hands down, is Johann Strauss, Jr. Yes, his music isn’t profound. It’s not complicated. But his compositional skills are first rate as an orchestrator and melodist, and he had an unerring understanding of what audiences loved. I consider Strauss a great composer.

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Strauss monument, Vienna

 

Don’t take my word for it. Guess whose music was commissioned to be premiered at the ball which opened the Musikverein in 1870? Brahms and Strauss became good friends in their later years, and when Strauss’s wife asked Brahms to sign her autograph fan, he wrote down the first bars of The Blue Danube, adding “Leider nicht von Johannes Brahms” (“Unfortunately, not by Johannes Brahms“). So why, may I ask, do we never perform Strauss at a symphony concert? Have we really become so jaded as performers and audiences that the “Emperor Waltz” or “Roses from the South” or “Die Fledermaus” is beneath us?

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Strauss and Brahms

Let’s take a poll. Ayes or nays for Johann Strauss?

If you want more weird theories about orchestras on tour: SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS

 

 

 

Boston Symphony Tour, Day 10: Bach’s Leipzig

In Search of Bach

A free day on tour! It’s almost like a vacation. What to do with all that time? Well, it’s Leipzig so it’s a no-brainer. A Bach adventure. One of the Gewandhaus musicians has graciously offered to take a couple dozen of us on a Bach walking tour. He is the ideal guide because 1) he has done amazingly thorough research on the life of JS Bach, and 2) he’s as tall as a six-foot-eight linden tree, so we can never get lost.

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Leipzig from my hotel room. (Actually, it’s a model of the city in 1750 at the Old Rathaus Museum)

The tour starts in a grassy area, in front of the Grassi Museum, all of which was once the site of the city cemetery where, we are told, Bach, who died in 1750, might have been buried. Many years later, when the area was converted to other purposes, a cadaver which might have been Bach, but, according to our guide, probably not, was conveyed to the Saint Thomas church where he had worked. This corpse has been and is currently the destination of thousands of Bach pilgrims. Why not?

Inside the Grassi museum itself is a marvelous and extensive musical instrument collection, including a wide variety of instruments used in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure there. We learn that, contrary to popular belief, the clavichord and not the organ was his favorite instrument.

After a ten-minute walk we enter the Old Rathaus (city government) Museum. There we learn that Bach’s famous contentious relationships with the local government and with church authorities and with the music school were probably not as contentious as is usually purported. We also learn that, given the written evidence of his investments in silver mines on top of his various salaries, he was a pretty wealthy guy and that his wife, Anna Magdalena, probably was not the destitute widow, living in abject poverty, that is the usual story line. At the museum we also see the single portrait of Bach that was painted in his lifetime, which is (almost) certainly him.

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JS Bach, most likely him.

From there we proceed to Saint Thomas, where, we’re told, his primary place of employment as a composer was not there but at Saint Nicholas. It was as a teacher as well as composer that connects him more to Saint Thomas; the irony being he had a contract not granted to anyone else which permitted him to find substitutes to teach in his stead.

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Saint Nicholas at Night

Rather than going into Saint Thomas or admiring the famous Bach statue in front of it, we continue another hundred feet to a small grassy area, where we’re shown a memorial statue with Bach’s likeness at the top, the construction expenses for which Felix Mendelssohn himself had raised the money with three benefit concerts, almost a hundred years after Bach’s death. The statue is not quite in its original location, and it has been turned 90-degrees, so the symbolic engravings on each side no longer line up with the intended sources of their inspiration. At the other end of this tiny park is the statue of Mendelssohn, which I wrote about yesterday.

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Mendelssohn’s memorial to Bach. Me (most likely) in front.

Capping off the walking tour, we walked to Zimmerman’s Coffee Shop, which hosted concerts for which Bach wrote some of his greatest compositions. Well, actually, it was only the site of the coffee shop, with a plaque on a modern building noting its location. And, as it turns out, it’s the wrong location. And, wouldn’t you know, Bach probably didn’t have much to do with the concerts, either.

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Rewarding myself with a pork knuckle of the kind Bach might have enjoyed.

So, what do we know for sure about Bach? Turns out, not that much. But there’s only one thing that’s truly important: THE MUSIC.

 

 

 

If you enjoyed this walking tour of Leipzig, you can enjoy a whirlwind concert tour of China and Japan from the comfort of your living room: SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS