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.


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.


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.





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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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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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.


Deveau-ted Friends

Thanks to the Jewish New Year–can you believe it’s already 5777?–today was a rare midweek day off for the Boston Symphony. I celebrated by having lunch with a dear colleague who I hadn’t seen for far too long.

David Deveau is a highly acclaimed concert pianist, professor at MIT, and until recently stepping down, artistic director of the Rockport (MA) Chamber Music Festival. We’d been good friends when I lived in Boston but had only been on each others’ peripheral vision for decades. It was only by happy accident that we’ve touched base again.

David Deveau

David Deveau

I’m currently working intensely on my Danse Macabre audiobook, and I desperately needed some excerpts from the fourth movement variations of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet for a critical moment in the plot. My own former quartet, the Abramyan String Quartet, had never recorded it. Unlike many other quintets, the “Trout” is absent a second violin; in its stead is the string bass. I asked a bunch of my string bass friends if they had recorded it, but I came up with blanks. So I went to that last refuge of the desperate researcher, YouTube, hoping to find a recording that included a colleague who I could beg for permission to use a minute or two of the music.

Eureka! Or maybe not eureka. I did discover a performance that included several of my Boston Symphony colleagues–Elita Kang, Jonathan Chu, Owen Young, Tom van Dyck, and David Deveau on piano–from the 2014 Rockport Festival. However, what was indicated as movement four was in reality, movement five–not the variations movement. Bummer! But it’s an understandable error, as most chamber music compositions have four movements, so whoever uploaded the performance assumed movement four was the finale. So I was still stuck. Only partially daunted, I emailed Elita, who had just finished the BSO Tanglewood season with me and was now vacationing in Iceland, to find out if she might have the audio file of the variations, and if so could she give me permission to use it.

Elita Kang

Elita Kang

Elita graciously took a moment out of her glacier hiking to email me that I’d be welcome to use it, but she didn’t have the file. She directed me to David. Though I was reluctant to make such a bold request of someone I hadn’t seen for so long, I figured the worst he could say is to get lost.

Amazingly, David responded to my email within hours! (That’s what real friends do, by the way.) Yes, I could use the file AND he would have his recording engineer send it to me! Cloud Nine–wherever that is. I was in business, and you’ll hear bits of the their wonderful performance of the “Trout” when the Danse Macabre audiobook is released later this fall.

But the best part is that David and I reconnected, set up a time to get together, and today we had lunch at Santouka, a great new ramen shop on Hereford Street. We talked old times and new times between slurps, and promised not to let years go by until the next time–maybe we’ll even perform together. Something to look forward to.




A New Saga Begins

Today began my three week stint with the Boston Symphony, which begins its 2017-18 season this weekend. The reason: I’ve been invited to join the band for their tour to Japan in November, the tour repertoire is on the docket for the first three weeks, and it makes good sense for the musicians on the tour to have the substantial repertoire under their belt. Today’s rehearsals included Mahler First and the Haydn “Drumroll” Symphony, and although the orchestra hadn’t played together for since the end of the Tanglewood season a few weeks ago, it didn’t take long for everyone to get back into the groove.

The older I get, the more Haydn’s clarity and inventiveness appeal to me in comparison to Mahler’s extra thick barbecue sauce angst, tasty though it might be. (Though among Mahler’s nine symphonies the first is my favorite–perhaps because it’s the closest to Haydn.) But also the older I get, as the novelty of being a wandering minstrel wears off, it’s replaced by the deeper, if less adventurous pleasure of playing great music–yes, of  course that includes Mahler, too–with a great orchestra.

That’s not to say that spending three weeks in Boston doesn’t have its charms. I’m renting a little studio apartment on Newbury Street, and on the 15-minute walk from the apartment to Symphony Hall I pass approximately 400 restaurants I’d wouldn’t mind sampling. But when I say “little” apartment, I do mean little. Here’s a photo of m”kitchen”:IMG_4553  Yep, that’s it. (That’s the fridge on the left under the 2-burner stove.) Nevertheless, it is my temporary home–not the fridge, the apartment–and to tell you the truth, I’m not relishing the idea of eating out all the time. So tonight I decided to eat in and managed to find enough utensils to do some cooking: fetuccini with a sauce of sauteed peppers, onions, and garlic from our garden in the Berkshires, olive oil, and shaved parmigiana from DeLuca’s Market next door.


After dinner, I worked on bowings to the string parts of the Sinfonia to the oratorio “La Susanna,” by the underappreciated 17th century Baroque composer, Alessandro Stradella, which I’m conducting in December; watched an episode of House of Cards; communicated with the producer of my soon-to-be-released audio book of my mystery novel, “Danse Macabre;” and am now watching the Yankees take the lead against Minnesota.


My dining room, office, and entertainment center.

All in all, a fine way to start the concert season.



A Controversial Interpretation of the Fermatas in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Beethoven 5 excerpt

Opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; first edition of the 1st violin part

It has always been a matter of interpretation and some mystery. What is the proper length of the four notes under fermatas in the most famous first two lines of classical music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?  Conductors usually hold those notes in direct proportion to the size of their egos, and I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything inherently wrong about that. Holding those notes to dramatic lengths certainly keeps us in suspense.

And then there is the question–which will never be definitively answered–if the meaning of the fermata is to hold a note to some indeterminate length, why did Beethoven add a half-note to the second and fourth of those fermatas? (You can read the startling answer below.) The typically reasoned answer is that he wanted those to be longer than the first and third. There is some sense to that, but if that’s what he wanted wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just write the customary word, lunga, over those fermatas?

I think the real answer requires some awareness of the history of the fermata. Perched on our 21st century practice stools we’re used to the notion that the meaning of the fermata is to hold a note longer than indicated. Indeed, that’s the way it’s been for the past 150 years or so. But before that it isn’t so clear.

Here’s the key: The Italian word fermata has nothing to do with length. The word comes from the verb fermare, to stop. In the Baroque era, the fermata was an indication, like the double bar, of the end of a movement. Nothing more, nothing less. And this was an important indication because composers, always an economical lot who didn’t want to waste valuable paper, would start writing the next movement on the same line of music as the preceding movement. The musicians needed to know where one movement ended and the other began. Hence, the fermata. Stop!

Here are a few examples:

Example 1

JB Bach, Overture in G minor, Passepied

Passepied from the Overture in G minor by Johann Bernhard Bach (2nd cousin to JS) 1676-1749

In this Passepied by JB Bach you can see the fermata dead center, right before the repeat sign. This was a common use of the fermata in two-part dance movements in which each part is repeated and then the musicians return to the beginning for one more go at the first part. The fermata indicates where JB wants the movement to end. Whether he also wanted the last note to be held longer is both speculative and secondary. 

Example 2

Veracini, Fugue w:4 subjects, excerpt

Fugue on 4 Subjects by Francesco Veracini (1690-1768)

In this example, Veracini places the fermata not over the last note, but over the last rest. Clearly, the length of this rest is immaterial. The piece is over! If the fermata was meant to indicate holding the silence out, one can only imagine the chagrin of the musicians as the conductor kept his arms up while the audience was already applauding the dramatic ending of the Fugue. 

Example 3

Sarti, Sinfonia in E, excerpt

Sinfonia in E by Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802)

You can see here that Sarti was not only a skinflint with paper, he also was hard up for ink and put repeat signs all over the place instead of writing out the music. As in the JB Bach example you can see the fermata in the middle of the music (this time over the entire measure) to indicate the end of the movement. What is particulary noteworthy about this example, however, is that Sarti lived until 1802, when Beethoven was already 32 years old. Beethoven started composing the 5th Symphony only two years later, in 1804. 

My startling conclusion: There is reasonable historical evidence that Beethoven did not intend for those notes below the fermatas to be held out at all! That they should be held only for their proper metric duration, and not an iota longer. This answers the question of why he added a half note of length to the second and fourth fermatas: Those notes should be exactly twice as long as the first and third.

So what then should be done with the fermatas? I believe the dramatic effect would be far greater if we take the meaning of fermata literally and historically. Stop the music! Stop those fermata notes in time and abruptly, creating a deafening silence, and then make the ensuing silence–which follows every one of those fermatas–of suspenseful, indeterminate length. That would give the audience that titillating sense of “What is coming next?” that is so missing from contemporary performances and so integral to Beethoven’s esthetic of surprising the listener. The next time I conduct Beethoven’s 5th that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

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Beethoven’s manuscript of the 5th Symphony