Boston Symphony Tour, Day 7: Hamburg to Berlin

Renewable Energy Renewed

A window seat on the upper level of our bus from Hamburg to Berlin was an ideal vantage point to view the rolling farmland of central Germany. At times, in the agriculturally unworkable strip of land between freeway and field, were mile after mile of recently installed solar panel arrays. Farther off, toward the horizon, were occasional clusters of windmills so imposing that even Don Quixote would have thought twice.

What progress we’ve made in the pursuit of renewable energy! During Mozart’s lifetime, the big technological breakthrough was the conversion from candles to oil lamps. Beethoven might have had a gas lamp at his disposal. In Brahms’s later years he might have marveled at the incandescent light bulb. (Believe it or not, systemic AC current was first demonstrated in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, of all places, in 1886!) And the rest is history. Twentieth and twenty-first century composers have had it easy being able to see what they were writing.

Some sources of the energy that have been used to provide humanity with light are: tallow, beeswax, olive oil, coal, whales, gas, fossil fuel oil, and nuclear combustion.  Now, with the urgency of reckoning with climate change, we’ve seen the rapid development of safely renewable sources of energy: solar, wind, and geothermal.

As our bus hummed along the autobahn, however, it occurred to me that up to this very day, there has been one source of renewable energy that has been providing light and warmth without interruption for all these centuries: Music. Scientifically, we’re told the energy in sound waves is far less than other forms of energy. But in terms of energy efficiency, when you consider the effect on the human psyche, from the individual level all the way up to the societal, it’s hard to imagine an energy source more powerful, more transformative, more sustaining, than music.

Humanity will continue to have this vital source of renewable energy as long as there are musicians to transform black dots written on a piece of paper into the sound waves of music. As the Boston Symphony once again demonstrated—after it’s long bus ride to Berlin with its performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony—music is a source of energy that can light up the world.

For more curious insights into the power of music, you may enjoy Symphonies & Scorpions



Boston Symphony Tour, Day 6: The Hamburg Challenge

Once again I am assailed by my old nemesis, contemporary shower technology, or as they say in German, Neuedouchebadkulturtechnik. The confrontation threatens to break my will. I approach the apparatus scientifically, admiring its sleek, deceptively simple lines, replete with hidden meanings.


The inscrutable shower

After painstaking inspection, I identify the cylinder on the right as being the temperature gauge and the one on the left as the determinant of the rain shower versus the handheld shower.

But where is the On/Off switch? Without knowing that, what good is it to stand in a shower, no matter how long, if there is no water? I try everything I can think of, but to no avail. I’m determined, however, to see this through to the end. So I do what any enterprising American would do.

I call the seat of power. City Hall. The Rathaus.


Hamburg Rathaus

I’m expeditiously connected to a low level technocrat, and explain the situation in my admittedly imperfect German: “Mein Herr, bitte. Douchebad, abiert, oder schloss?” (Or is it schluss? No matter.) “Ja, oder nein? On, oder off, bitte?”

He clearly understands my question because he responds immediately: “Kind sir,” he says, “You must swivel the left hand horizontal cylinder anti-clockwise for the handheld shower and clockwise for the rain shower.”

Danke shön,” I reply. And it works. I’m wet.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “Happy ending.” But no, my travails are far from finished. Because, you see, there is this conundrum: How to dispense the soap and shampoo?

Before I go any farther, let me say I’m all for saving resources and have no issue with reusable containers of soap and shampoo. But shouldn’t there be a clear and simple, user-friendly indication of how to get at it? Am I wrong here?

So I try pushing and pulling and twisting and tugging. I can’t bring myself to believe they expect me to slice it open with my razor, though I consider it. On the container I spy what look like, what might be some tiny instructions. I have to editorialize here: A lot of people, like me, need eyeglasses to read things. But does anyone wear glasses while taking a shower shower? Anyone? Don’t they understand this?


Instructions without glasses.

Undaunted, I get out of the shower dripping wet, put my eyeglasses on, and get back into the shower. Unfortunately, my glasses fog up almost immediately so I have to wipe them off over and over again in order to read the minuscule instructions. It is with a degree of irony that I read on the dispenser: Smart Care System. I must not be a member of that club.


It is also of small comfort to read that the soap ingredients contain Fair Trade Cane Sugar. The hair conditioner contains Fair Trade Brazil Nut oil, but I don’t expect to get that far in a single day. The rainforest will be regrown by the time I finish my shower.


Along with the Smart Care System logo is a drawing of a hand holding the dispenser. So I grasp the dispenser, just like in the picture. Nothing.


What the hell? I think. Go for it. With one last desperate paroxysm of rage before admitting defeat, I give the dispenser a vicious squeeze. Out squirts the soap, like from an upside down mustard container. Would it have been so difficult to write the word SQUEEZE in big letters? Or even write: PRETEND YOU’RE EATING A HOT DOG? Or how about ON and OFF—pick any language—for turning on the water?

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But no. Today, the world is all about style. And I’ll remember this.

Until we meet again.




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Boston Symphony Tour, Day 5: From Here to There

A classic day of HURRY UP And WAIT.

Our itinerary is simple: an hour-and-a-half flight from London to Hamburg. Plenty of time for rest and/or sightseeing. Right? Wrong.

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First of all, we have to deliver our luggage to the hotel lobby between 10:30 and 11:00. Then a one-hour bus ride at noon to Heathrow, where we twiddle our thumbs and other digits for an hour-and-a-half while we wait to board the plane. Then we wait another hour in the plane before finding a slot in the runway and taking off. Then the flight itself, during which something they call a cheese sandwich is served. Then another hour between deplaning and getting to the Reichshof Hotel. I would say, without a doubt, the highlight of my day is riding on the smooth and silent Mercedes Benz bus from Hamburg Airport to the hotel. That tells you what kind of day it is.

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We arrive at our hotel at 7:00PM. (Perhaps you have astutely added all those hours up and say accusingly, “Hey, wait a minute. You can’t fool me. It should only be 6:00PM, not 7:00.” And I would politely say to you, “Sod off. There’s a one-hour time difference between London and Hamburg.”)

So, no time for sightseeing. In fact, exhaustion has set in. Ronan and I go to the Chinese restaurant next to the hotel. It’s not bad, but wouldn’t you know, when we go to pay, the credit card machine has run out of receipt paper.


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Boston Symphony Tour, Day 4: London here and there

For these posts I try to think of something exceptional that takes place on the tour. Well, today I couldn’t think of anything. It was an absolutely typical day on tour, so maybe it’s very the typicalness that’s worth writing about, to give non-musicians a feel of what daily life on the road is like.

Breakfast in the hotel at 7:00AM. Ah, here was something exceptional! I ordered the grilled kippers. Where other than England, right? And worth it, too.

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Grilled Kippers

It’s a pleasant walk through Kensington Gardens from our hotel to Royal Albert Hall, so, the weather being salubrious, I took it. I got to the hall early, received my newly issued security pass at the artists’ entrance, and did some pre-rehearsal practicing of the nastier orchestral passages. The rehearsal, from 10:30-noon, went painlessly as we dusted off the Bernstein Serenade and Shostakovich 4th Symphony, which we hadn’t looked at since Tanglewood. Maestro Nelsons was in his usual congenial mode and things looked promising for the performance.


An accommodating bird in Kensington Gardenes.

After the rehearsal, my good friend and colleague Ronan Lefkowitz and I went around the block from the hall to take in a photo exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society, then strolled back through Kensington Gardens for lunch at The Pavilion next to Kensington Palace. It had a distinctly Downton Abbey feel, but not nearly as expensive. Our intent after lunch was to see the exhibits in the Palace, but tickets were £25, a little too much for my wallet just to view the wealth of the kingdom.

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Luncheon at The Pavilion

So I went back to the hotel, which was only a few minutes away, did some texting home (now that, with the time difference, family members would be awake), and took a nap! Sleep at night has still been eluding me and I need to be awake for the Shostakovich!

At 5:30 I found an outdoor table at a better-than-average Italian restaurant near the hall. Unfortunately, the outdoor flies discovered my appetizer shrimp scampi, but as soon as I polished them off, the flies went off to greener pastures. The early dinner gave me plenty of time to get to the hall in time to do more practicing before the 7:30, but unfortunately, the glass of Sangiovese I enjoyed for dinner did me no favors getting through the concert. The coffee I had before going onstage did the trick, however, and I managed to get through the tortuous program relatively unscathed.

I’m always amazed at how large our tour audiences are, especially at Royal Albert, because of the masses of humanity it can accommodate. And also considering ticket prices! And also considering that Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is not the easiest meal to digest. But the place was full, and from the foot-stomping response, no one went home unhappy. Nor did I. Just tired.

For a more in-depth insider’s look at the world of the orchestral musician on tour, and some very atypical stories, you may enjoy Symphonies & Scorpions, set against the backdrop of two historic Boston Symphony tours to China.

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Boston Symphony Tour, Day 3: Royal Albert Hall

“My God! What has sound got to do with music!”

That provocative statement (in its complete form below) by the uniquely creative and brilliant American composer, Charles Ives, may help explain why his music is not as popular as I believe it should be.

Yesterday, as the Boston Symphony forged through the Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler—perhaps, at ninety-minutes the longest symphony ever composed—I had ample opportunity to wonder how it is we’re consistently able to fill Royal Albert Hall’s 5,000+ seats and thousands more who have the tenacity to stand throughout the ordeal. Mahler is far from my favorite composer, and the Third Symphony far from my favorite Mahler. Yet, his music is so adored by so many. What am I missing? I asked myself as I slogged my way through the half hour first movement.


The BSO plays Mahler Third


The answer I came up with shocked me out of somnolence (jet lag, no doubt) during the second extended iterance of the pastoral offstage flugelhorn solo.

“My God! What has music got to do with sound?”

This is the opposite of Ives’s thesis, but it doesn’t necessarily contradict it. What it means is that it’s the very sound of the orchestra that people love. In the extreme, here’s the blasphemy: It really doesn’t matter who the composer is or what particular composition is being played. All the business about melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint—you name it—is secondary to the combination of timbres so unique to the symphony orchestra. That’s the glory of it.

Even the majority of humans who do not care for classical music would have to admit that there’s nothing like the sound of a symphony orchestra because, frankly, it’s true. There’s no other combination of instruments that produce anything like the sound of a symphony orchestra. And how it got that sound, I thought during the violins’ extended hiatus of the fifth movement of the Mahler, is no accident.

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Gustav Mahler

It started out in the mid-18th century, when orchestras were essentially string ensembles. Sometimes a couple horns and oboes would be added for color. Then Haydn and Mozart came along, added things like flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and timpani. Then Beethoven, who brilliantly added trombones to the mix in the finale of the Fifth Symphony. Why the hell did he do that? He was deaf, anyway. It couldn’t be because audiences wanted to hear trombones, because they never had in a symphony and may well have hated it. Clearly, Beethoven, and others before and after him, perceived something very special about the sound that was evolving in orchestras that played symphonies. There was something in the combination of sound waves bombarding listeners that evoked the strongest emotional responses.

Why? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for fifty years. Some of it no doubt is cultural, in that we associate certain musical gestures with shared esthetic history. Some of it is probably neural: Certain combinations of tones activate parts of our brain in ways I couldn’t comprehend. But what I think might be the most important part of the answer—and might explain why people still come to live concerts even when they can stay at home and listen to the same music for free—is that the vibrations created by sound waves of a symphony orchestra have a profoundly stimulating physical effect on listener’s body. And it’s for this reason I came to this idea that sound and music play different, if complementary roles in responding to music. It may even explain why people adore the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, which I find pedantically stultifying in musical terms. When I think of them in terms of the sound, however, I begin to get it.

By the mid-19th century, the symphony orchestra, as it came to be called, a standard template of instrumentation—with plenty of variation, for sure—which has remained stable to this day, had been determined by composers to evoke the strongest responses among listeners:

Strings: Violins I and II, Violas, Cellos, Basses; Winds: Flutes (2 + piccolo), Oboes (2 + English horn), Clarinets (2 + bass clarinet), Bassoons (2 + Contrabassoon); Brass: Horns (4), Trumpets (2), Trombones (3), Tuba; Percussion: Timpani, assorted other instruments including snare drum and cymbals; Harp

So the next time you listen to a symphony, enjoy the music but savor the sound! There’s nothing like it.

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Charles Ives

Charles Ives (On the Distinction Between Sound and Music):

“A manuscript score is brought to a concertmaster-he may be a violinist-he is kindly disposed, he looks it over, and casually fastens on a passage: ‘That’s bad for the fiddles–it doesn’t hang just right–write it like this, they will play it better.’ But that one phrase is the germ of the whole thing. ‘Never mind, it will fit the hand better this way-it will sound better.’

My God! What has sound got to do with music! The waiter brings the only fresh eggs he has, but the man at breakfast sends it back because it doesn’t fit his eggcup. Why can’t music go out in the same way it comes in to a man, without having to crawl over a fence of sounds, thoraxes, catguts, wire, wood, and brass? Consecutive fifths are as harmless as blue laws compared with the relentless tyranny of the ‘media.’ The instrument!–there is the perennial difficulty–there is music’s limitation. . . . Is it the composer’s fault that man only has ten fingers? Why can’t a musical thought be presented as it is born–perchance a ‘bastard of the slums,’ or a ‘daughter of a bishop’–and if it happens to go better later on a bass drum than upon a harp, get a good bass drummer. That music must be heard is not essential–what it sounds like may not be what it is” [Ives’ italics] (Essays 84).

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Boston Symphony Europe Tour, Day 2: London (Portobello Road)

Struggling against the current, I was an equal among the school of sardines on Portobello Road, the tchotchke epicenter of the world. Along the way I spied I sign indicating the one-time residence of George Orwell, fellow essayist and novelist.

Crowd Scene

The Masses

Tchotchke Shop

The Tchotchkes

Orwell Sign

The Flat

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The Author

How blessed we are that none of the preposterous predictions of his quaint parables, like 1984 and Animal Farm, have come to pass. If only he had known the world would be blessed with benevolent leaders, overseeing governments transparent and honest. If only he had known that our personal privacy would remain sacrosanct, protected from the intrusion of prying eyes. If only he had known that the world would not be carved into continental spheres of influence, but rather that its citizenry would be dealt with altruistically and humanely. If only he had known that wars—when they simply couldn’t be avoided—would end swiftly and decisively.

What gave me cheer was the sunny day, and the amiable cacophony of innumerable languages: Spanish, Italian, Arabic (I think), Chinese, Japanese, and yes, even a smattering of English. If the world can come together to hunt for a bargain, certainly it should be able to come together for peace.

And I also found a Peaky Blinders hat for only £15!

Peaky Blinders

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Boston Symphony Europe Tour, Day 1: August 30-31. LONDON

Believe me, I don’t make it a habit to read coasters. But I had arrived at Terminal E well in advance of the 10:50PM flight, even taking into account the hour it took to drive the last five miles to Boston’s Logan Airport rental return garage. That’s why I had enough time on my hands to read the coaster, which, besides admirably serving its utilitarian function as a coaster, was also a font of effusive, some might say hyperbolic information about the glass of admirably adequate Sangiovese it was coasting and I was drinking:

“Black Cherry & Red Roses. Bright black cherry flavors and deep red floral notes delight the nose. On the palate, those very cherries commingle with a little tar, berry compote, and potpourri. A little soft tannin supports the structure of this light-bodied wine.” That’s a lot to fit on one coaster. “A little tar.” Hmm.


Informative Coaster

These days, even the simplest items on a menu demand elaboration of Melvillian proportions. Single words or short phrases like house-crafted, artisanal, farm-to-table, signature are so passé. Here’s one I’d energetically lobby for and hope to see one day: “Farm-cultivated, underground-grown Russet tubers, machine washed, peeled, and sliced longitudinally, submerged lovingly into trans fat free, hand-pressed canola oil heated to an ideal 375° degrees until golden brown, then finished with a cavalier tossing of ground solar-evaporated Pacific sodium chloride and served piping hot.” What we used to call French fries.

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Signature Tuber

It would be difficult to put in such glowing terms what was euphemistically termed “food” that was served on the British Airways flight from Boston to London. The entrée was referred to as chicken curry, and the best that can be said of it is that it forcefully reaffirmed the longstanding, if somewhat maligned, opinion of traditional English culinary art.

That being said, for lunch I had a very tasty chicken and wild mushroom pie and an excellent ale on tap from Cornwall at The Goat pub across the street from our hotel in Kensington. My hotel room itself is small but very comfortable and tastefully done. And go ahead and argue with me if you must, the quality of the toilet paper is second to none.


Clandestine Photo of the author at The Goat pub. (Hence, the blurriness)

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