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Archive for July, 2010

Arriving in New York from Greece on Sunday, and devoting a full day to the Chamber Music Society on Monday, David and Wu Han departed Tuesday for Aspen, Colorado, to begin their customary residency at Aspen Music Festival and School.  The duo looked forward to solo and chamber performances, master classes and to hearing many concerts by friends and colleagues.

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in David’s words…
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Although my own Aspen residency was to be interrupted by a final frantic week with the Emerson Quartet (see post JULY 7:  Emerson Season Wrap-Up), Wu Han settled in for the duration and busied herself immediately with her class of students, and rehearsals for her first concerts (without me).

Wu Han teaching Music@Menlo alumna Hilda Huang

As she did the previous summer, Wu Han brought to the festival works both new to her repertoire and which she was eager to perform: the delightful “Souvenirs” by Samuel Barber, and Gershwin’s “American in Paris”.  The Barber, which she performed with Rita Sloan, is for one piano, four hands, and the Gershwin, which she performed with Anton Nel, requires two pianos.  The Gershwin is actually the original version of the work, as it was the composer’s method to bring lay out his orchestral works in piano versions.  (Wu Han makes the rounds with these pieces over the summer: she had just performed the Barber with CMS at the Festival of the Bluegrass with Anne-Marie McDermott, and this week Wu Han heads to Music@Menlo where the Gershwin will be performed by her and Ken Noda on the festival’s program of music from Paris in the 1920’s, titled La Ville Lumiere, on August 7th).

Wu Han and pianist Rita Sloan

Although Wu Han only accepted five students at the festival, she is very popular as a teacher and coach and is constantly, and generously, giving her time to eager young musicians who want to play for her.  As a private teacher I am much more inaccessible, not because of interest but because of schedule, and only the most determined young cellists and ensembles manage to make it on to my radar.

Upon my return to Aspen we dove into rehearsals of the two Beethoven piano trios of Op. 70 with our esteemed colleague and close friend of many years, the violinist Cho-Liang Lin.  Jimmy, as he is known to most, is spending more time in Aspen these days, having added a very serious teaching component to his busy concert schedule.  We were delighted to be working with him again, having played together often over the years in many locations.

Most everyone knows these two great trios, especially the first, nicknamed “the Ghost” because of its spooky slow movement.  It is known that Beethoven wanted to compose an opera on Macbeth, and there is speculation that this movement was a prototype for the witches’ scene, which is easily believable.  The “Ghost” trios two outer movements are sunny, happy and even frenetic, so the composer’s famous manic-depressive personality is in full evidence here.

Being Beethoven meant never being predictable, and the second part of this opus is as different from the first as one could imagine.  The stately introduction of the Op. 70 No. 2 trio is a far from the opening salvo of the “Ghost” as it could be, and this trio proceeds to unfold in an almost cerebral way, looking forward to the composer’s late period style.  A Haydn-esqe variation movement is followed by a dreamy, extended minuet which is pure Schubert in every way.  It’s tempting, when listening to this gorgeous movement, to make a snap generalization and say that this is where Schubert comes from.   The finale is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging of all Beethoven’s trio movements.  Rapid-fire sixteenth-note passages must interlock perfectly, and withstand Beethoven’s moment-to-moment, instantaneous changes of dynamics, a frequent characteristic of his music as he matured.

My extended stay in Aspen – the longest I ever stay anywhere besides home and Music@Menlo – allowed us the luxury of daily rehearsals during which we delved into the music’s most minute details.  There’s no other way to achieve decent performances of these works, and it was a terrific experience to share with Jimmy, who is tireless and sets only the highest standards for himself and his performances.  Performing the “Ghost” on Saturday and the E-flat on Monday also afforded us the advantage of being able to concentrate on one of them at a time.

Warm up backstage at Harris Hall

The concerts went very well, and with some luck, you will be able to hear them eventually on NPR’s Performance Today.

Emerging from Harris Concert Hall into the 8pm light in Aspen is always a magical experience.

Tuesday was far from a day of rest: we were in the KJAX radio station at 11:30 for an extended live interview, then at the Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall for an appearance on the Great Artists Master Class series (teaching cello/piano duos), then another radio interview taped backstage for Performance Today, then to the campus of the music school for another 2 hours of chamber music master class.

Finishing after 6pm, neither of us had touched our instruments all day, and we were facing the Beethoven Sonata marathon the next night.

Scheduled to begin at 8:30pm, and predicted by the festival to end at 11:15, we were surprised to learn that the concert had sold out and that stage seats were being added to accommodate more.  The news was both flattering and unnerving at the same time.

Harris stage waiting for the Beethoven cycle

There is no place that we play where we feel more pressure than at the Aspen Music Festival.  The audience is not only filled with listeners who have followed us sometimes for decades, but crammed with phenomenally talented, eager and critical students who have as much to learn from your mistakes as from your strong points.  Add to that the possible presence of any number of distinguished performing and teaching colleagues, and you have a recipe for anxiety.  And oh, I forgot the taping for National Public Radio.

Often, for me, the journey to a very important concert is like a plane flight with lots of turbulence, the kind where no matter which altitude the pilot tries, the aircraft won’t stop lurching, and it makes you feel kind of sick.  The remedies for concert anxiety are often as speculative: should I practice more or not? Sleep? Do something completely different? Sit still and think through the music?  Even when you know you are ready, the stage is still the realm of the unknown, and the clock is ticking.

Thankfully, as is happened for us more often than not, walking on to the stage at Harris Hall and sitting down with our instruments among the crowd on Wednesday had a positive effect on our nerves and concentration.  Going back to the airplane analogy, it’s like when after a very bumpy final approach the airplane steadies itself a few feet above the runway for a smooth landing.  We sailed through the sonatas in record time (2 hours and 15 minutes) and that included Wu Han delivering her signature introductions to the works from the stage.  The performances were well-recorded and you should be hearing them on Performance Today in the near future.

With concert sponsors Martin and Sarah Flug

Before the concert we were interviewed by a new television network called Plum TV, who filmed us talking outside Harris Hall on the lawn, and during our rehearsal.  Plum TV travels to high-end communities to report on their cultural activities, and Aspen, with its Music Festival and many other events such as the Ideas Festival, offers Plum the content of its dreams.  The footage is now running six times per day for the current week.

Our performance commitments fulfilled, we delved back into teaching on Thursday, Wu Han in the studio for eight hours and me hearing one very talented cellist and the three string quartets of Aspen’s Quartet Program.  Every summer, this program, run expertly by former Juilliard Quartet violinist Earl Carlyss, selects three deserving quartets from an international pool who spend the summer in Aspen, learning not only from the resident Aspen faculty but from the visiting quartets such as the Emerson, Takacs, and American.  All three quartets – the Tesla, Nexus and Chimeng – were very well prepared and loads of fun to work with.  I had great afternoon, and hope they did too.

Our end-of week wrap up included a traditional artistic planning lunch with festival artistic administrator Asadour Santourian, a brilliant intellectual and passionate music lover who, especially now in the absence of a festival music director, takes upon his shoulders the details of next season almost entirely.  We wish him well and know that he will do a phenomenal job, as he has for the past eight years.

One of the most wonderful advantages of a summer festival residency is the opportunity to spend precious time with colleagues.  Too often for busy musicians the regular winter season does not allow time for spending evenings together, exchanging ideas, information, stories and simply having the kind of conversations that can only really take place between performers.

A non-concert highlight of our stay in Aspen this summer was the incredible party thrown on Thursday night by cellist Eric Kim, a great cellist and Aspen regular whom we have know for years and who, along with his wife Stacey, graciously invited us to their spectacular residence, which overlooks the town of Aspen, Pitkin County Airport, and Aspen valley looking practically all the way to Glenwood Springs.  At sunset, it was a setting without equal.

Eric, like a true cellist, is a truly wonderful colleague and friend who unleashed his passion and expertise for cooking on all of us.  Over pepper-crusted pork loin, grilled and Fontina-topped polenta, innumerable salads, appetizers and desserts, we enjoyed the enormous pleasure of the company of many esteemed colleagues until late in the evening, among them: clarinetist Joaquin Valdapenas; cellist Michael Mermagen; violinists Jimmy Lin, Connie Heard and Masao Kawasaki; violist Jim Dunham, many of them joined by spouses and children.

It was a wonderful and fitting way to end another challenging and rewarding stay at the Aspen Music Festival and School.  As long as we are able to continue making valuable contributions to this great institution, we will be happy and honored to return.

Eric and Stacey

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Waking early in the morning, this is what I saw from bed. The Corinthian II had pulled into the Santorini harbor so close that we could have easily swam to shore.  Looking vertically up the switch-back walkway and the gondola, we could see the sun peeking over the roofs of the iconic white houses of Fira on the hilltop.

We had docked at a small landing in the middle of the crescent which is Santorini Island.  Originally called Thera, it was given the name Santorini by the Venetians who derived the name from Saint Irene.

Larger ships were not able to dock as close as the Corinthian II

The entire middle of the once circular and conical island exploded and sank into the ocean in the year 1623 B.C.  The explosion not only obliterated everything on the island but was heard as far away as the Straits of Glbralter, and its ill effects were likely cause of the destruction of the aforementioned Palace of Knossos in Crete. So our port, before that time, would have been under many thousands of feet of rock.

Breakfast on board within swimming distance of shore

We were ferried a short distance to another location with switchbacks for buses as opposed to donkeys (where we had docked).  The bus ride up the hill was dramatic, and when we reached the ridge, we found ourselves suddenly in the thriving tourist town of Thira.

After dropping the instruments in town near our concert venue, we continued on the bus to the town of Oia on the northern tip of the island.  The journey was among the most scenic we had ever taken.

Driving at some points on narrow ridges that divide the island’s flat lands from the steep drop to the massive caldera, one  can easily see the many layers of volcanic deposit in the hillsides.   The explosion of Thera has been linked, speculatively, to historical legends such as the disappearance of Atlanta (thought to be at the caldera’s bottom),  and the biblical plagues.

Seen from one of many incredible scenic viewing locations in Oia, the beautiful neighboring islands dot the horizon.  It is  mind-boggling to realize, though, that where you are standing and these islands were once the same land mass before being separated by the gigantic explosion.

The town of Oia is too picturesque for words, a photographer’s paradise.   Please click on the link at the conclusion of  this  post for many more photos.

We have never been jewelry enthusiasts until we came to Greece.  The modern artisans must have the ancient creativity and skill in their blood.

Reluctantly boarding the bus, we were transported to a magical lunch in an open-air restaurant overlooking the island’s east coast, the airport, and the famous black sand beaches.

The food was fantastic.

Deep fried eggplant

Our performance that afternoon took place in the Thera Conference Center of the Petros M. Nomikos Foundation, a marvelous place perched at the very top of the hill in Fira.  The foundation “is dedicated to realizing and promoting social, cultural and scientific events to support the island of Santorini and the excavations of Akrotiri” and hosts conferences with participants staying in charming cottages attached to the center.  The main room, with air conditioning and wonderful acoustics, overlooks the harbor where our ship was docked.

Both Wu Han and I introduced the final program of  our tour, which included Beethoven’s 1st sonata for piano and cello in F,  and the massive Brahms g minor piano quartet.

Our professional obligations completed, the musicians could finally relax completely.

Descending from the foundation towards the top of the cable car (which would take us directly to the harbor) we were amazed by the view of the Corinthian II from almost directly above it.

The descent via cable car was dramatic.   The other way down was either on the back of a donkey, or on foot along the same donkey trail.  One has to watch where one steps.  I believe Arnaud walked down but didn’t have much to say about it.

The donkey trail, the cable car, and the Corinthian II

Returning to the ship via tender…

…everyone relaxed and refreshed in their cabins, and Arnaud joined us on our balcony for a celebratory glass of champagne as the ship pulled away.

The departure from Santorini at sunset afforded stunning views in all directions, looking back towards the sun-drenched cliffs, and forward into the darkening Aegean.

The final evening, filled with mixed emotions, was celebratory.  We thanked and bid our guides, tour directors, and the captain and his crew farewell, but not before they had led us on a magical remembrance of where we had been, and what we seen and learned.

Captain Thomsen (right) greeted every passenger at the final reception

Kathleen Lynch, our resident lecturer from the University of Cincinnati, provided us with one more enlightening talk that summarized the entire experience.   Always available, effervescent and brilliant, Kathleen taught us more in a week than I ever thought possible to learn, and we owe her much gratitude.

As the ship sailed over a moonlit sea towards Piraeus, we enjoyed for a last time the Corinthian II’s luxurious facilities,  such as the well-stocked library, and well-stocked bar.

I would be remiss to close without a couple of acknowledgments, first, to the expert cruise organizers at Travel Dynamics International who put together what seemed a flawless week, in which every detail had been thought out and executed with elegance and grace.  To our partners, Smithsonian Journeys and the Archaeological Institute of  America, we thank you on behalf of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for your participation,  your friendship, and for the inspiring energy, curiousity and attentive listening that your attendees brought to the experience.  To all those who joined us through CMS, what a pleasure it was to spend such quality time together outside the concert hall, all of us learning new things in common amazement.

Wu Han and I would also like to thank our indefatigable musical partners Philip Setzer and Arnaud Sussmann, who missed nothing during  the entire week, not even a couple of  notes.  It was a special pleasure to make music together under such extraordinary circumstances.

As the Corinthian II pulled into the  harbor at Piraeus, the Athenian fisherman were already at work.   We look forward to seeing them soon again.  Stay tuned, through the Chamber Music Society, for news of our next musical adventure on the high seas.

For more photos of  Santorini and the journey’s conclusion on our Flickr page,  click here.

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Sailing once again overnight, we arrived at the port of Heraklion in Crete in the early morning, and swiftly departed for two locations: the ruins of historic Knossos, and the city of Phaistos in the south.  Those of us who had never seen Knossos chose to go there to see the ancient palace where King Minos ruled, and where the legendary Minotaur prowled the labyrinth, swallowing people whole.

Knossos, or the Palace of Knossos, is the oldest site that we visited save the city of Troy.  The existing remains date back to 1700 B.C. when the palace was begun and added to for the next several hundred years.  There are no fortification walls around the city; the inhabitants seem to have had no appreciable enemies.

Like Troy, the city of Knossos takes shape mostly via the imagination.  The site remained largely covered until it was bought in 1900 by English archeologist Arthur Evans, who within a matter of months unearthed what he claimed to be the palace of King Minos. Until that time, the location and the existence of the palace were in question.

The more than 1000 rooms, mostly interconnected, support the mythological description of the labyrinth designed and built by Daedalus and inhabited by King Minos and his Minotaur.  At the time, the Minoan civilization was powerful and exacted taxes from its neighbors.  The price Athens paid, according to legend, was seven young men and seven young women every year to be fed to the Minotaur.  From this circumstance springs the legend of Theseus, who came to Crete and with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne, slew the beast and ran off with her, only to leave her on the island of Naxos.

The palace endured several massive destructions, borne out by research.  One may have been the eruption of Thera (the volcano of Santorini where we would head the next day).

Blackened stones indicate a massive fire.  The tsunami caused by the volcanic explosion perhaps hit the city with a tidal wave, that could have upset oil lamps, causing the fire.

There still seems to be a lot of speculation and controversy, but scholars seem to agree that this place is indeed the ancient Knossos palace.  Excavations have revealed the legendary plumbing that was enjoyed in the palace, as well as the unique red-painted Minoan columns, the throne room, and many frescoes.  Altogether, it was a thrilling place to set foot in, even during a rain storm.

Once again the musicians were hurried back to the boat to fetch the instruments and head for the  afternoon concert at the Basilica of St. Mark, in Lion’s Square in downtown Heraklion.

Standing in front of the church is a beautiful 17th century fountain constructed during Venetian occupation.  The gushing mouths of the lions solved the water supply problem, providing the citizens with 1000 barrels per day.

Our program featured two piano trios: Haydn’s famous “Gypsy” trio (with Arnaud Sussmann), and the enormous Schubert Trio No. 2 in Eb (with Philip Setzer).  Both Wu Han and Phil provided background on the works before the performances, as was our custom in every concert.

After the long concert we stepped out into the beautiful glow of the evening, and left much of our audience with our violinists to enjoy a dinner in the town.

Our reward for carrying the violins back to the ship was the warm ovation we received on the bus.

To  see more photos of Knossos and Heraklion on our Flickr page, please click here.

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As soon as the city of Rhodes, on the island of the same name, becomes visible, one is aware of the famous medieval walls which surround the old city, declared a World Heritage Site.  The island is located in the lower eastern corner of the Aegean Sea, at about 5 o’clock on the circle of our tour.  The island is about 50 miles from top to bottom, with Rhodes sitting on the northern point.

Rhodes is of course famous for its partly-mythological Colossus, declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but, according to recent research, not necessarily large enough to straddle the harbor.  It was destroyed in an earthquake in 226 B.C., and the remains were cut up and sold to foreigners from all over, making its reconstruction impossible.

Rhodes has long been considered a scholarly place, and was home to the famous rhetorical school attended by Julius Caesar.  During Greece’s Classical period Rhodes became a strong center of commerce, education and the arts, with high-level schools of philosophy, rhetoric and the sciences. Mythology identifies the island as the creation of the union of Helios, God of Sun, and Rhode, a nymph.

We diverted from the city of Rhodes in the morning to visit the spectacular seaside town of Lindos, about an hour south of Rhodes on the island’s east coast.  The first sight of the town, its acropolis, and the beach below, produced audible gasps in the bus.

As a center of commerce Lindos preceded Rhodes by several hundred years.  Its spectacular acropolis was originally crowned with a temple to Athena that gave way eventually to a fortress constructed in the 14th century A.D. under the Knights of St. John, crusaders who used the island as a base.

Soon after arriving in Lindos one encounters not only donkeys but a donkey parking lot, surrounded by tourists taking pictures.  One can walk up to the Acropolis, or take a donkey for 5 Euros.  The donkeys charge the same for the descent.

Why walk when you can have this much fun?  The trip through the narrow little streets, eventually breaking out onto the open hillside, is quite a tour.

At the upper base of the acropolis everyone dismounts to walk up the 2nd century B.C. staircase, carved into the rock, passing through combination Roman and Greek arches.

At the summit is the partially-rebuilt Temple of Athen Lindia, portions of many other structures, and magnificent views.

I believe that I am the only person on the cruise actually determined enough to swim in the Aegean, which I did briefly on the beautiful beach below Lindos before returning to Rhodes.

Lunch aboard ship produced something I had longed for the entire trip: a simple whole fish, this one an orate, perfectly grilled.

After lunch it was time to tour the town of Rhodes, which is almost impossible to do because the shopping is so ubiquitous and attractive.  As soon as you enter the magnificent medieval gate, you are surrounded by shops that display some of the most attractive and creative jewelry and other accessories we have ever seen.

One of the sad sights in Greece is the many young children forced to make money by playing accordions and other instruments in the hot streets.  This little girl, who played quite well, could not have been over six years old.

Our first stop was the Archeological Museum, itself an historic building, which houses among many items beautifully expressive grave carvings.  The grand upstairs room was the Knights’ hospital, with small cubby-sized openings in the wall thought to be isolation rooms for patients with contagious diseases.

The next famous sight in the city is the historically-protected Street of the Knights, where crusader knights from different countries built lavish residences with the dual functions of hotel and embassy.  At the top of the street one encounters the Palace of the Grand Master, built around the same time.  The Christian domination of the island of Rhodes came to an end in 1522 when it was conquered by Ottoman forces, who ruled for the next four hundred years.

After an  exciting day, it was nice to catch a view of the harbor through the town gate, and head back to the comforts of the Corinthian II.

For more photos of Rhodes and Lindos on Flickr, click here.

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The town of Kuşadasi (Koo-sha-DA-see) on the coast of Turkey is very close to the island of Chios.  We could therefore have as early a start as desired to tour the nearby ancient city of Ephesus, which, next to Athens’ Acropolis, was the most spectacular archeological site of the tour.

Like Troy, Ephesus was once close to the ocean, but due to silting of the river Cayster (after Caystrus, god of the river) the ruins are now more than three miles from the shore.

In its heyday – from roughly 600 B.C. to 500 A.D. – Ephesus was one of the most important cities of the world: at certain times the second largest city of the Roman Empire and of the world; the location of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the home of up to 500,000 people; the location of a theater seating 25,000, and many other astounding features such as a hospital, street lights, and a communal toilet facility with running water. Today the remains are intact and extensive enough to provide one a sense of what it was like to live there.

Ephesus was founded in the 10th century B.C. by the Athenian prince Androclus, a strong warrior who formed the Ionian League, an alliance of 12 cities.  Later Greek historians, including Herodotus, attributed the city’s mythological origin to Ephos, the queen of the Amazons – hence the name Ephesus.

Of the ancient temple of Artemis – at one time the largest temple on earth – only a single column remains.  The temple was destroyed once in 650 B.C. by invaders, and again in 356 B.C. by a maniac who burned it down apparently as an attention-getting stunt. Alexander the Great wanted to rebuild it with his name on the front, but the citizens did not support the idea, and the temple was never to be seen again.  The original statue of Artemis, however, was buried for years and successfully excavated – the only significant remnant of the original.

The statue of Artemis during excavation

A tour of Ephesus leads one along the long main road of the city, which leads from the Agora above down towards what was the port, passing along the way, the temples of Serapis and Hadrian, the Terrace Houses, the famed Library of Celsus, the Greco-Roman Theater, and the Gladiatorial Graveyard.  Lining the ancient road are hundreds, probably thousands, of beautiful remnants of the ancient city, including columns, capitals, mosaic floors, inscribed stones, etc.

The beginning of the city’s  main road,  with the Agora on the left and theater and temples on the right

Heading down, with the Library of Celsus in the distance

Mosaic floor alongside the road, probably once under a porch

Monumental fountain, 1st-4th centuries A.D.

Possibly a kind of hospital; medical instruments were found inside

The visit to the Terrace Houses, which have been protected by a 3 million Euro roof funded by companies from many nations, was truly breathtaking.  The advanced features of these residences of wealthy citizens are still in evidence, including piping for hot and cold water, heating, and stunning mosaic floors and frescoed walls.

One can witness the careful, ongoing work of experts who are reassembling the homes and their artwork.

The exquisite decorations on the walls and floors are remarkably well preserved, especially considering their exposure to the elements for  so many years.

Looking down the hill through the remains of a single dwelling

The centerpiece of the remains of Ephesus is indisputably the magnificent, reconstructed facade of the library of Celsus, built in honor of the Roman consul who was governer of Asia and a local citizen.

Built to house some 12,000 scrolls, it was also intended as the tomb for Celsus.  It is practically an icon of Turkish culture, appearing on the 20-lira banknote.  The library was built facing east, encouraging early morning readers.  The facade combines two signature column styles, Ionian on the bottom and Corinthian on the top.

With rain impending, we headed towards the monstrous theater.  A glance back at the library afforded another spectacular perspective.

The impressiveness of the theater is severely compromised by the reality of its use, under the Romans, as a gladiatorial arena.  Even worse than the agonies and deaths of the combatants is the enjoyment of it all by the public, an unfathomable and unforgivable transgression of human principles.

A horrendous downpour sent what must have been two thousand tourists, including us, running for our buses.

The chaos in the parking lot was largely harmless and rather fun.

However, upon returning to Kuşadasi we saw up close the destruction an intense and largely unseasonal rainstorm can bring.

The return to the Corinthian II was always a pleasure, as we were greeted by the ship’s gracious staff with either hot or cold towels, and a refreshing assortment of specialty cold drinks, spiked to taste.

A typical sunset on the Aegean is capable of interrupting any rehearsal.

For many more photos of Ephesus on Flickr, click here.

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In front of a packed house at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, the Emerson Quartet finished up a whirlwind week of concerts that closed the quartet’s 34th season.  Read on about performances in Aspen, Chicago, Portland, Ottawa and Lenox, MA.

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in David’s words…
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Well, we made it through another one.  That’s always my thought on the last night of any season with the quartet.  The quartet seasons are very long, beginning often at the end of August and continuing through the middle of July.  It has been a landmark season for us in which we returned for the first time in many years to Asia, played series of concerts at Lincoln Center and at the South Bank Center in London, won our ninth Grammy for the Janacek/Martinu recording, and issued a three-CD set of Dvorak.  And that’s not all.

THURSDAY: ASPEN

Arriving in Aspen is always like coming home for me and the quartet.  Invited here regularly since the early 1980’s, we have rarely missed a summer.  Aspen combines the most beautiful environment with the highest artistic expectations: you will be tempted to hike and swim and play tennis, but you know that in the evening you will find any number of great musicians in the audience, plus students eager to learn from both your strengths and mistakes.

Larry with students backstage at the Music Tent

Phil with concert sponsor Martin Flug

The Aspen Music Festival and School was the first of two festivals we visited this week that is functioning without a music director; conductor David Zinman left this spring amidst a conflict that has plagued the institution on an administrative level for the last couple of seasons. But the music still resounds, the audiences are as excited as ever, a great festival is lined up, and artistic life goes on. We hope our performance (this time after a season’s absence) contributed to increasing harmony and cooperation in a place that means a great deal to us and upon which so many depend for education and renewal.

The quartet on stage at the Music Tent

What on earth are we doing? (Concert and backstage photos courtesy of Tom van Straaten).

FRIDAY: RAVINIA

Ravinia Park, in a suburb of Chicago, has been the summer home of the Chicago Symphony since 1904. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, and within walking (and hearing) distance of the commuter train from the city, the park draws thousands of devoted listeners who either take in an orchestra concert in the shell, hear a chamber concert from air-conditioned (thank God!) Martin Theater, or perhaps go to a student performance at the renowned Steans Institute.  There is also lawn seating for Martin Hall, and our concerts are piped out via a sound system to large numbers who apparently applaud at the conclusion of a work, as though they were in the hall.

The Ravinia Festival today prides itself on a diversity of entertainment offerings.  Our concert, for example, was sandwiched in between appearances by John Hiatt and the Combo, and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.  Next week, symphony performances of Mozart and Bernstein/Copland frame appearances by the Ko-Thi Dance Company and something called Cheap Trick and Squeeze.

For this concert we were joined by our long-time colleague, clarinetist David Shifrin, with whom we’ve performed countless times and recorded both the Mozart and Brahms quintets. It is always a joy to play with David, in my opinion the greatest artist on his instrument today.  As many times as I have heard the Mozart, the work in his hands is always fresh, different, inspired.  What a joy to play such a program, finishing with this masterpiece preceded by the “Dissonant” quartet and four Bach fugues in Mozart’s transcription.

Our only unsolved challenge of the evening proved to be finding dinner, in the absence of a reception (unusual), and room service (which stopped at 10pm, can you believe it?).

SATURDAY: PORTLAND

Making our way via a four-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, we descended into one of the most distinguished and best-run festivals in the world: Chamber Music Northwest, this year celebrating its 40th season.  Clarinetist David Shifrin not only marks his 30th season as Artistic Director, but his three decades working with dynamo executive director Linda Magee, who runs the world’s tightest artistic ship while leaving plenty of room for spontaneity and innovation.

Chamber Music Northwest has developed an audience not only devoted to music but to musicians as well. Having fostered a family atmosphere, the festival is grounded by musicians who have returned for years, their tenures proudly noted at the conclusion of their program bios: Ani Kavafian, 17th season; Ida Kavafian, 28th season; Anne-Marie McDermott, 17th season; Paul Neubauer, 27th season.  But there are many new-comers as well, and this year the festival inaugurates its Protege Project, in which highly accomplished young musicians join the festival for a number of activities, including performances on the main stages. Having established the CMS Two program at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center during his tenure as Artistic Director, it is not a surprise that David has created a similar project for CMNW that is aligned with his vision of the future of chamber music resting in the hands of the young.

It was extremely gratifying to be invited by David to join in this landmark season for CMNW. David played exquisitely for his devoted  audience, and was rewarded with a well-deserved, resounding ovation. A night to remember.

Sunday most of the day was eaten up travelling back to East Coast, where we were greeted with temperatures in the unbearable range and above.

MONDAY: OTTAWA

After a very long day and short night in New York I met the quartet in Ottawa for an exciting concert in which we would be joined by pianist Menahem Pressler. Truly a legend in his own time, Menaham has earned the love of audiences around the globe, and the admiration of the world’s most distinguished musicians. He has been, from my quartet’s earliest beginnings, one of its most loyal advocates, and we have looked up to him in many ways over our entire career.

Coloring the day with sadness, however, was the news we received from Larry Dutton that his mother Ruth had passed away the day before. As she had not been able to come to concerts for some time, we had already come to miss her always-positive, optimistic and good-humored nature, an attitude that she passed to her son which has helped sustain the spirit of the Emerson Quartet throughout its history. She will be long and fondly remembered.

Any day we play with Menahem is a special one, but an unexpected encounter made Monday all the more memorable. Ascending to my room upon check-in, I was joined in the elevator by a gentleman who looked at me and my cello in a knowing way and remarked: “I believe we are on the same gig today.” I asked: “Really, what do you play?” And he said: “I’m not playing, I’m giving lectures.  My name is Norman Lebrecht.”

Larry, Phil and Gene with Norman Lebrecht

I felt mighty stupid for not having recognized one of the world’s most leading arts commentators and prolific authors. Learning that he was about to speak around the corner on the state of classical music, I naturally dropped everything and went to hear him.

About two hundred people showed up to hear Lebrecht, who is a famously outspoken expert on the history and current affairs of the music industry, analyze the state of the classical music “business”.  His talk was rich in fact, keen in perspective, and was backed what was easily perceivable as a deep love of the art and concern for the future.

Divided into two parts, his lecture focused first on five “pillars” of financial support that have either cracked or crumbled in the last two decades: the recording industry, classical broadcasting and media opportunities, ticket revenues, government funding and private funding. While focusing principally on categories of commerce, Lebrecht readily acknowledged the need for better education, providing enlightening facts and figures on music and academic performance in a variety of countries.  It was a stimulating talk that got me thinking hard, surely along with everyone else (I may do a dedicated blog post on this soon).

Before the concert I was visited by bow maker Bernard Walke, whose magnificent bow I had been using for more than a decade until I broke it during the Schubert Trio concert in Richmond this past February. Bernard brought a half dozen bows for me to try, all of them wonderful. His style of bow is very much to my liking: strong. I easily played half the concert with one of them, and at my invitation he is sending some to Music@Menlo so that I may introduce our deserving young cellists to his fine work.

The concert went off without a hitch, although Menahem seemed unusually stressed about all his obligations. In addition to our concert he had agreed to perform a “Pressler and Friends” concert the next afternoon at 2pm with a group of musicians he had never met. Under these circumstances one has to make “friends” very quickly, but Menahem, being as demanding on himself and colleagues as he is, put himself into it completely, rehearsing seven hours straight the day before we arrived on a completely different program. With his tank obviously near empty, he nevertheless played beautifully, bringing the audience to its feet instantly at the conclusion of the Dvorak Quintet, and further rewarding them with the Brahms Quintet slow movement as an encore.

Finding dinner proved an enormous challenge as nothing was arranged for us again, like Ravinia. Although Menahem’s page turner called ahead, the place she sent us to turned out to be closed, and we wound up at an un-airconditioned, noisy place where we dined on dried-up burgers and soggy French fries. But the meal mattered not: what was really extraordinary was to listen to Norman Lebrecht – whom we had invited to join us – ask Menahem questioned about his teachers and mentors. Lebrecht: “Did you know anyone who knew Brahms?”  Pressler: “But of course!” And the conversation went on like that into the wee hours and would have continued had I not reminded Menahem of his impending concert the next day. If I had only had a tape recorder! Yet Lebrecht (who contributed amazing stories and historical perspectives) clearly has an encyclopedic memory, and hopefully this conversation will wind up on one of his books or on his blog. This encounter, over disgusting food in a very uncomfortable place, was one of the high points of my season, the four of us listening in rapt silence.

TUESDAY: TANGLEWOOD

Getting into my car at Newark Airport at 1pm, the first thing I did was to check the outside temparature reading: 104 degrees. I’m sure that my colleagues, travelling separately, were wondering the same thing: how are we going to play a concert which is open to the outdoors in such heat?  Will our instruments simply fall apart?  Not long after I left the airport, the outside reading rose briefly to 106 degrees. I stopped not so much for the iced coffee as to feel what that heat was really like. Incredibly, it felt like when I was standing in the hottest direct sun you have ever felt, like recently on the Acropolis in Athens – except here I was in the shade.

As I pulled into Tanglewood five hours later the temperature read 99 degrees.  Not too reassuring. But the Ozawa Hall is incredibly designed: somehow they managed to install air conditioning in the vast space that can be felt by the performers, and that was to save the concert. Undaunted, the loyal Tanglewood audience showed up in droves, the inside completely full and the lawn outside packed with listeners as far as we could see.

Backstage had a very familiar feel of all of us looking ahead to the next musical chapters of our lives: Phil practicing Vivaldi Four Seasons for Chamber Music Northwest and Music@Menlo; Gene noodling on Beethoven’s Ghost Trio for a concert in Chatham, New York; me going over the tricky spots in the Beethoven sonata cycle for Aspen next week; and from Larry unfortunately no music but the sound of him on the phone, ceaselessly and devotedly making arrangements to take care of his mother’s memorial and his family’s many obligations. In spite of all Larry went through in the last few days, he delivered incredible playing and spirit in the concerts and rehearsals.  I’m not sure how he did it, and I found it very inspiring.

The crowd could not have been more appreciative. Joining us again was David Shifrin who delivered another extraordinary performance of the Mozart Quintet, and a sublime half-completed movement by Mozart of another quintet (for the encore) that ends shockingly in mid-phrase. It was an odd way to end an entire season, no doubt! It certainly left a “to be continued” feeling in the air.

Like Aspen, like Menlo or any festival like it, the enthusiasm is fueled by the energy and vocal appreciation of large numbers of students. I was attacked by a marvelous bunch of them after the concert who promised to send me a group photo which you will see here as soon as they send it (UPDATE: it’s now there). In their midst I found myself wishing that Norman Lebrecht had been with me to perhaps be heartened by their energy and optimism. If classical music’s future is in hands like theirs, there is definitely light on the horizon.

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With a luxurious morning and early afternoon at sea (the only occurrence of this schedule on the entire tour) we arrived mid-afternoon at the charming port of Chios, on the island of Chios, the fifth largest of the Greek islands, midway between Istanbul and Crete.

The island of Chios (pronounced HEE-os) is the legendary birthplace of Homer, and civilizations have been found there dating back to 2000 B.C.  Mostly mountainous, the principle cities are on the coasts.  Chios is mostly famous, though, for three things: the home of the Nea Moni monastery, the Chios massacre of 1822, and for the production of mastic gum.

We visited Nea Moni (“New Monastery”) very briefly during the afternoon, as we had to come back to town to prepare for the 5pm concert.  The trip up into the hills afforded a nice group photo opportunity and a spectacular views of the town, the outlying islands, and the harbor, with the Corinthian II visible just left of center.

Sometime in the 11th century, three monks saw a glow in the forest, and soon discovered an icon of the Virgin Mary unharmed in a burning bush.  They removed it for safekeeping, but the icon found its way back to the bush every night, so they decided that meant that they should build a monastery on this spot.  They petitioned the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX for money and were funded handsomely, building a beautiful complex, decorated with sublime art.  An earthquake in 1881 damaged many of the frescos and mosaics, but tantalizing portions remain.  The place became a convent in 1952, but today only one nun survives, and when her time comes, the monks can take over again.  Until then, she’s on her own.

Extraordinary mosaic: Christ submerged for baptism

Chios has at various times been under control of the Minoans, Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Genoese, and the Turks.  After the crumbling of the Roman Empire around 400 A.D., the island fell under, and stayed under the rule of the Byzantine Empire until roughly 1261 when it was given to Genoa.  The Genoese managed to hold on for two centuries until the city finally came under control of the Ottoman Empire.

The rebellion by the Greeks against their Ottoman rulers was put down with frightening brutality by a force of Turks who landed on the island and wiped out entire towns.  There is no memorial, but skulls of the murdered can be seen at Nea Moni, where 600 monks and 3500 women and children were killed on Good Friday.  A total of 23,000 people are said to have died, with another 47,000 sold to slavery.

In a somber mood, we traveled back the short distance to the town for our concert.  The program included the Mozskowski Suite for two violins, plus Beethoven’s magisterial Archduke Trio went a long way towards restoring the group’s spirits and its faith in the good of man.

We celebrated the end of an extraordinary day with a dinner in the harbor, which came as close to a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding as we would get.

While dining, we watched our ship’s lights gradually light the water, beckoning us to board.

After watching Greece lost to Argentina 0-2 in a local bar…

…we headed back to the ship for another peaceful overnight journey, this time to the nearby port of Kusadasi in Turkey.

Click here for more photos from our Chios trip on Flickr.

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