Archive for June, 2011

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center visited Seoul, Korea for a week of performances and teaching as part of its ongoing partnership with the LG Chamber Music School.  Steven Tenenbom, Philip Setzer, Wu Han, Arnold Steinhardt and David Finckel prepared student ensembles for their year-end concert, and performed before a packed house at the LG Arts Center concert hall. For work on artistic partnership projects between LG and the Chamber Music Society, CMS Director of Artistic Programs Michael Lawrence accompanied the musicians for the entire visit.

in David’s words…

Only a few days off the Corinthian II in Istanbul, we boarded a flight from JFK to Seoul for CMS’s third trip to teach in the LG corporation’s innovative Chamber Music School, which provides free instrumental instruction and chamber coachings to deserving young Korean musicians on a year-round basis.

Just before getting off the plane, Wu Han wiped out all competition on the video game “Bejeweled” (Guest scores).

Since the advent of our collaboration, the program has grown steadily in quantity and quality. In addition, various divisions of LG have also become involved: LG U+, which runs LG’s mobile phone, IPTV, and cable service among others; and Dacom, which is the sister company for LG U+ and produces all of their content.  The relationship between LG and CMS has deepened and broadened, as we have found many projects of mutual interest and benefit.

The young musicians of Korea are tremendously exciting to teach.  They possess the signature Asian work ethic and are, at the same time, mostly gregarious and outgoing, which equips them both with the discipline needed to master instrumental and musical challenges, and to communicate their joy of making music across the footlights.

Some of the students with whom we worked have been in the program for three years, the maximum duration, which by coincidence is the same length of time for our CMS Two program residencies.  Those who were the most experienced not only brought so much more to their own performances, but have undeniably guided and helped their younger colleagues into the wonderful world of chamber music.

As our faculty assembled in the lobby of our favorite hotel in Seoul, the Fraser Suites in the Insadong district, we had the pleasure of introducing them to the dynamic Jeehyun Kim.  Jeehyun is the strategic connector between CMS and LG, and her company, Casual Classic, designs social responsibility programs for major corporations such as LG and SK Telecomm.   Jeehyun is also the founder and executive director of Chamber Music Today, a new annual chamber music festival taking place in Korea which debuts in December, the first to introduce and present, on a regular basis, world-class chamber ensembles in Korea.

Upon our arrival at the Yewon Art School, we were greeted by HS Ad director David Shin (HS Ad is advertisement company owned by LG)  and led to one of the large rehearsal studios for our first meeting with the eager students.

The Yewon School has educated many now-prominent performers, and also teaches other arts such as traditional dance, painting and sculpture, much of which was on display.

As we began our first coachings that afternoon, Wu Han and I both realized that the level of understanding of chamber music had come miles since we first encountered many of these students. Very little had to be explained to them about the nature of what they were doing.  Not only did they all “get it” from the beginning, some of even the youngest ones seemed to have chamber music running in their veins.  One twelve-year-old pianist, already playing both the Dvorak Quintet and Beethoven’s Ghost trio, already seemed an expert collaborator.

Each of us threw ourselves into the process with all we could muster.

At noon on Friday we were treated to a reception by Dacom in a spacious room atop the Plaza Hotel.  The event was designed to promote the long-distance learning project in which Dacom is partnering with CMS, and was hosted by, left to right, Dacom President Mr. Junwon Yun, Vice President Mr. Sun Kyu Chun, and Manager at LG U+, Mr. Sunho Park.

A large crowd consisting of student parents, staff, and professional musicians and teachers from Korea attended, including piano professor Daewook Lee of Hanyang University and pianist Aviram Reichart of the Seoul National University.

Dacom’s long-distance teaching collaboration with CMS was explained and illustrated with excerpts of educational events already filmed by CMS in New York in March. Dacom General Manager Yunbae Jung detailed the program, and Wu Han offered our perspectives and many thanks for the company’s dedication and generosity.

Long days of teaching and rehearsing were always rewarded by marvelous parties, great food, and making new friends.  On Saturday evening we were hosted by Junwon Yun, President of Dacom, in a traditional Korean restaurant, giving us an opportunity to exchange ideas with the leadership of this very vital component of LG which has opened the door to an unprecedented educational opportunity.

On Sunday morning we journeyed across Seoul to Olympus Hall for our students’ dress rehearsal and performance.  Our faculty seemed a bit shocked as Wu Han and I attacked the young performers’ stage deportment, making them enter, re-enter, bow and exit the stage until they came across as professionals.  In addition, at Jeehyun’s suggestion, the young musicians briefly explained the music to the audience before each piece (Jeehyun had visited Music@Menlo this past summer and witnessed our Chamber Music Institute in action).

After an introductory speech by Wu Han, assisted in translating by violist Sang Jin Kim, the concert began and went very smoothly in all respects.  The students performed their best, and were rewarded with enthusiastic applause and cheering from parents, faculty and LG executives, including LG President and Chief Operating Officer Juno Cho, who sat next to me on the edge of his chair, conducting much of the music discreetly with his hands.

The concert concluded with a surprise performance of the “LG Song” by the students, including an ensemble on stage and legions of string players in the balconies.

The festive post-concert lobby scene included innumerable poses for the cameras of students and parents alike, not to mention my own.

After much picture-taking, we were hosted for a Korean barbecue dinner by Juno Cho and Vice President Paul Chung.  Attending were Wu Han’s sister Evelyne, her daughter Elizabeth and husband Eric Tang, who presented as gifts to the astonished LG executives rare wines from his personal collection.  Mr. Cho’s daughter Yoojin, herself a gifted violinist and a student of Ian Swensen at San Francisco Conservatory, helped unveil the treasured bottles.

Also dining in neighboring rooms were the hard-working staff members of Jeehyun’s company: Julie Huh, Andrea Kim, Katie Lee, and Hongsik Jung.

Monday brought a day of rest for Philip Setzer and Steven Tenenbom, but for me, Wu Han and Arnold Steinhardt, it was a day of challenge which helped grow the roots of our education project both deeper and broader.

While Wu Han I worked with the very accomplished pianist and cellist Yekwon Sunwoo and Taykuk Moon on the Beethoven A major sonata, hearing first a complete performance and then offering our ideas.  As they played, we marked our score with Post-Its detailing our numerous suggestions, much to their subsequent amazement.

Arnold sat on a stool and talked to the cameras for two straight hours about violin playing, practicing, rehearsing and other aspects of life in music.  We can’t wait to watch what I’m certain will become a definitive educational video and a testament to Arnold’s extraordinary legacy as a consummate musician, thoughtful and generous educator, and incomparable violinist.  He also coached Yekwon and LG Chamber Music School graduate Erica (Keunwha) Lee in Beethoven’s sonata in G major, Op. 30

I also used the opportunity to knock off a couple more Cello Talks, these talks designed especially for the LG U+ project and drawn from the more extensive Cello Talks web site. The exhausting day was concluded with yet another wonderful meal and story-telling late into the night.

The excellent cellist Na-Young Baek served as my translator for all my classes during the week.  Her presence, as an expert musician and attentive colleague, made my many suggestions and ideas intelligible for the students. Doubtless I am sometimes a little hard to translate!

Tuesday morning gave us the opportunity to rehearse for our own concert one more time.  Phil, Arnold and Steve gathered around the piano in our suite for a run-through of the Dvorak Terzetto.

The evening concert was in the acoustically-excellent LG Arts Center Hall, a large venue that presents a huge variety of world-class and cutting edge productions of a wide range of music, theater and dance.

The concert was sold out long in advance, and we were gratified to learn that complimentary tickets were given to local youth orchestras and of course to all our students at the Chamber Music School.

Our program turned out not to be quite what we expected, as we were greeted on arrival with a large poster announcing our performance of Beethoven’s sonata no. 2 in g minor as opposed to no. 3 in A major.  After confirming that the programs had been printed that way as well, and that in fact we were in error, we found it fitting that we should change our plans and play the program as printed, something not out of the question for us having played the complete cycle many times in the last two seasons.

The program concluded with the Dvorak Quintet, which was a real joy to play with these distinguished colleagues.

The lobby scene was much the same as after the Emerson Quartet’s concert at LG Arts Center last year: many, many seeking autographs and photos, but this time, an astounding number of very young listeners.  We all agreed: none of us has ever played for an audience so largely youthful.

A concluding dinner, with magnificent state-of-the-art beef barbecue, was graciously hosted by LG U+ Vice President and CFO Sunghyun Kim. Mr. Kim is deeply into music, knowing a huge amount of repertoire (he whistled the opening of the Shostakovich cello sonata for us) and making astute comments on specific works such as the Beethoven quartets.  It was further revealed to us that these influential and powerful executives also play together in a band – which someday will play for us in a command performance, if I get my way.

Read Full Post »

David and Wu Han recently returned from their annual Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center cruise, where they were joined by Society artists as well as numerous CMS patrons and enthusiasts from around the country. The cruise visited historic sites from Italy to Croatia to Greece and more.
in David’s words…

12 stops in 12 days


May 31: Palace of Diocletian, Split, Croatia (Telemann Gulliver Suite, Schubert A sonata, Bartok duos, Moszkowski Duo

June 2: Cathedral of St. Tryphon, Kotor, Montenegro  (Mozart duo Bb, Brahms e sonata)

June 4: on board (Beethoven String trio G, Beethoven Trio Op. 1 No. 2)

June 6: Apollon Theater, Syros, Greece (Beethoven A sonata, Dvorak piano 4tet, Brahms c slow)

Sunday, May 29: Venice

Most passengers, having arrived at the Venice airport, were met and transported via water taxi to our ship, the Corinthian II, which was parked near St. Mark’s square. CMS board member Harry Kamen and his wife Barbara joined me for the beautiful ride on a sunny morning.

Venice, the storied capital of the Veneto region, has long been our favorite city on earth, the only one we repeatedly visit purely for pleasure.  We find it the most beautiful of all cities, offering endless discoveries all within walking distance and not a car in sight. A lunch with cruise passengers at our favorite restaurant, La Rivetta, was followed by a 3pm embarkation and a welcome cocktail party in the ship’s bar. Left to right: CMS board member Susie Simon, her husband David, violinist/violist Lily Francis (back turned), Bernard Mindich and his wife, violinist Ani Kavafian.

After a celebratory dinner aboard ship, where the cuisine can rival that of Venice itself, everyone turned in early so as to catch the morning departure and its spectacular scenery.

Monday, May 30: Pula, Croatia

After sailing through the Guidecca canal into the Adriatic, we were treated to the first lecture by the journey’s resident study leader, John R. Hale, of the University of Louisville. John, who by his gregarious, approachable nature, quickly became good friends with everyone on the boat, memorizing all our names plus those of the staff. This would seem an unusual feat of memory for most but not for John: we soon learned that every one of his lectures, each packed with vital, useful information, would be delivered with enthusiasm and finesse but also without any notes in front of him, spoken in beautiful, unbroken sentences. (Not since the passing of Music@Menlo’s beloved lecturer Michael Steinberg have we experienced such an extraordinary speaker).  For his first talk, John took us through the founding, development and functioning of the ancient Roman city, both Pula and Split, our next stops, serving as prime examples.

By the early afternoon we landed in Pula, in the country of Croatia on the Istrian peninsula. The city came under the rule of the Roman empire in 177 B.C. and has been an important administrative center under subsequent ruling countries. The city passed from hand to hands, being at times a Byzantine port, part of the Frankish kingdom, a Venetian possession (fought over repeatedly by the Venetians, Genovese and Pisans), occupied by the Hapsburgs, the Austrians, the French, and so on, until the city was reduced to a population of only 3000 in the 1750’s.  Under Austro-Hungarian control in the 19th century, however, the city regained its stature, becoming an industrial town and resort. Under Italian control during World War II, the city suffered Allied bombings, and was finally united with Croatia in 1947.

The town’s massive Roman amphitheater, built during the first century B.C, is one of the six largest still extant. It is, of course, sickening to think of all the people who suffered and died there for the public’s pleasure. The combat between animals and convicted criminals was not outlawed until 681 A.D. Thankfully today the place is used for much more humane purposes such as concerts and theater productions.

Sailing back into serene Adriatic at 6pm, we were treated to a Captain’s Dinner, hosted the Corinthian II’s gracious and expert captain Georg Thomsen.

Tuesday, May 31: Split/Salona/Trogir, Croatia

In the early morning we arrived at the ancient town of Split on the Dalmatian coast, also in Croatia but considerably further south.  Split is named after a shrub of the area, and its history is thought to include the last 1700 years.  Founded as a Greek colony, the city came under Roman rule in 219 B.C., but it was in A.D. 305, with the completion of Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, that the city began to take on both shape and prominence.

In the morning, however, before visiting the historic sights, we paid a visit to the museum (and former home) of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović.

Living from 1883 to 1962, he is acknowledged as one of the greatest sculptors of all time, and was the first living person to have a one-man show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  His studies first took him to Vienna, where he participated in the founding of the Secession movement, and then on to Paris where he absorbed the influences of Art Nouveau, the Impressionists, Symbolists and Cubists.  Meštrović’s works are breathtakingly beautiful, making a visit to Split worth it to see them alone.

Before returning to the ship we stopped by Diocletian’s Palace to see, among other sights, the famous underground cellars where we would be performing that evening.

After lunch on board we set out for the nearby towns of Salona and Trogir.  Salona is an ancient settlement that is now the site of important excavations of Greek and Roman ruins.  Trogir has a charming old town with a busy main square and the beautiful 13th century church of St. John the Baptist.

Dinner was once again on board ship but soon after the entire group returned to the cellars Diocletian for the tour’s first concert.  Ani Kavafian and Lily Francis began with Telemann’s charming Gulliver Suite; Ani and I played Schubert’s sublime A major sonatina; Lily and Ani teamed again for duos by Bartok, and the program closed with the hyper-romantic and virtuosic Suite by Moszkowski for two violins and piano. The damp conditions proved a challenge, especially for the string players, but the setting was unforgettable, and a largely-new crowd of listeners left the place entranced by the music and the performances.

Wednesday, June 1: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Either of us never having set foot in Croatia, it was especially thrilling to experience this country for the first time via its important historical sites, with the company of local guides and our resident lecturer John.  It is not often anymore that we visit important cultural destinations for the first time, and the spectacular city of Dubrovnik was a true stand-out on this itinerary.

Dubrovnik in its entirety is best viewed from the mountain ridge road that leads from the airport (where I landed in the afternoon) down to sea level.  Coming in sight of the Corinthian II – the same vessel from last year’s cruise, here dwarfed by a monstrous boat – was a moment I had dreamed of for over a year, and especially during the Emerson Quartet’s grueling 10-day, 9-concert tour of South America, which had concluded only the day before yesterday.

After depositing my cello and luggage in our penthouse suite, the same quarters we were given so graciously last year as well, we headed for the historic city center.

It was a joyful moment, entering through the ancient walls in the company of a trio of women who had been with us on the last cruise: from left to right, Marei Vonsaher, CMS board member Priscilla Kauff, and new board member Beth Sackler.

Earlier in the day, John Hale had lectured on the history of Adriatic maritime cities, Dubrovnik and Kotor, our next stop, being prominent examples.  Known as the fifth maritime republic of the middle ages, along with Venice, Pisa, Genoa and Amalfi, it was the only eastern Adriatic city that could rival Venice. The historic city, despite being demilitarized to avoid shelling, was the victim of a devastating siege by the Serbians and Montenegrins in 1990 which wreaked unforgivable destruction on a city that had already been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recent discoveries have caused historians to propose that the city was founded by Greeks, much earlier than its established birth in the 7th century. The city came under Byzantine rule, and later Venetian.  In 1272 the city (called Ragusa at that time) became a free state and thrived, adopting modern practices such as medicine.  The reportedly oldest pharmacy in existence (founded 1317) can be found just off Dubrovnik’s main street. Slave trade was abolished in the 15th century, an orphanage was established, and a water supply system was created in 1436.

In 1808 the city was absorbed, after siege, into Napoleon’s Italian kingdom, and following Napoleon’s defeat the city was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire for a century, ending after World War I when it became part of Yugoslavia. Declaring its independence in 1991 as part of Croatia, it came under attack from the Serbs and Montenegrins for 7 months before being liberated by the Croatian army, the extensive damage not fully repaired until 2005.  A map showing the extent of the damage is prominently displayed for all to see near the city gates.

Walking the old town today, one is not so aware of its recent, difficult past.  The city is impeccably clean and at every turn – from looking down its main street, to wandering picturesque side alleys, to strolling the walkway on its magnificent walls – one is greeted by views that together constitute a photographer’s paradise.

The evening, which included a fantastic grilled fish dinner in town, concluded with a walk down the main street towards the taxi stand just outside the old walls.

Thursday, June 2: Kotor, Montenegro

The following morning brought us to yet another country new to us: Montenegro, and its historic port town of Kotor.  Montenegro is further south of Croatia and Serbia, on the Adriatic coast; the name means “Black mountain”, and its history dates back to the 9th century.  With a history of foreign domination similar to that of Croatia, Montenegro finally declared its independence in 2006.

The city of Kotor – backed by the kind of rugged, steep mountains that give Montenegro its name – is reached by sailing inland through what has been described as the world’s southernmost fjord. As we had arrived in the dark, however, we would have to wait until after our visit to the old walled town, and our second concert at 2pm, to experience the scenic wonders of the Bay of Kotor.

The town’s historic wall, as were many of its architectural treasures, was built by the Venetians during their four centuries of domination.  Our ship docked so close to the town that we could see our cabin (top deck center) from inside the main gate.

Our concert venue was the St. Tryphon Cathedral, consecrated in 1166 in honor of the city’s patron saint.  The tour organizers somehow located a nine-foot Estonia grand piano to move in for the concert, which unfortunately, due to the intense humidity, suffered from keys sticking almost all the way through the Brahms e minor cello sonata.  It’s interesting hearing that very familiar piano part with notes in melodies simply not showing up at all.  While I was playing, I could glance over and watch Wu Han attempting to quickly lift the keys up when she could.

Still, the tour group seemed to love it all, including a Mozart duo to begin with played by Ani and Lily.  After the concert, we all took a leisurely stroll back to the ship, stopping on the way for one of the famous local beers.

The sail out through the Bay of Kotor lived up to all expectations.  I think all the passengers were out watching and taking pictures on the Corinthian II’s various decks, before our vessel headed out into the middle of the Adriatic, bound overnight for the southern tip of the Italian boot.

Friday, June 3: Taranto/Mepontum/Matera, Italy

Having heard a fascinating lecture from John Hale the afternoon before “Greater Greece: Hellenic Colonies in Southern Italy”, we were more than primed to visit some of the major Greek outposts in the regions of Italy known as Apulia and Basilicata.  Known as “Magna Grecia”, this area was considered by the early Romans to be a more important Greek area than the Greek peninsula itself.

After all the anticipation, it was a more than a shock to arrive at the port city of Taranto.  With its overwhelming industry, largely consisting of refineries and factories, it is considered to be the most polluted city in Western Europe. The drive through it could compare only to the worst areas of Eastern New Jersey, but this was much worse.

Not far from the city, however, the country opened up and we happened upon, right beside the highway, some of the remains of the ancient Greek city of Metapontum, dating from 700 B.C. and, by legend, even earlier, involving a man named Epeius who reportedly built the wooden horse of the Trojan War.

The majestic columns, which once framed a magnificent sanctuary of Hera, now seem lost in the middle of nowhere, speaking silently of a long-lost age of grandeur and of a people of extraordinary industry and artistry.  Among them was the great philosopher, scientist and mathematician Pythagoras who was active in the late 6th century B.C. and is reported to have died in Metapontum.

After visiting the Museum of Metapontum, with its depressingly drab exterior and breathtaking treasures inside, we boarded the buses again, venturing further into the country and the hills towards the amazing city of Matera.

Founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. the city occupies a rocky mountain bowl.  The limestone cliffs that support it and surround it are littered with caves that have been adopted over the centuries as homes, as recently as the 1950’s.  The caves were also colonized by Benedictine and Greek monks in the 7th century. The town’s totally-antique look has made it a popular movie set, and it has been host to filmmakers re-telling the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, the most recent being The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson.

The city’s rocky paths and steep climbs, not to mention the high temperature, proved a challenge for most of us. But our energy and enthusiasm to explore were fueled by an incredible lunch, in a restaurant literally carved into the rock.

A truly unique stop after lunch was the Rock Church of Santa Lucia alle Malve, a church carved into the hillside by Benedictine monks in the 8th century.

On the same street, one can visit a rock house preserved as it was last occupied by a family in the 1950’s.  These homes housed donkeys as well as humans, and were heated with piles of fermenting donkey dung, something I think we could have all done without.

Exhausted and amazed, we boarded the buses for the trip back through poor, ugly Taranto to our beautiful ship, where we were greeted, as always, by the friendly crew offering cool towels and refreshing cocktails.

After another delicious dinner, we sailed once again into the night and into the Adriatic, heading for Albania.

Saturday, June 4: Saranda/Butrint, Albania

We were again excited to set foot in yet another country for the first time, Albania, on the west coast of the Greek peninsula.  Albania was originally inhabited by Illyrians, the ancient people who occupied the western portion of the Balkan Peninsula as far back as 1000 B.C., including the area of Albania and the countries that comprised the former Yugoslavia.  By the 8th century B.C. the Greeks had begun establishing colonies along the Adriatic coast, and our destination, Butrint, was one of them.

Butrint is reached (from the sea) by docking at the nearby town of Saranda, which contains historical sights that are practically swallowed by contemporary construction.  Viewed has having the potential of a resort location, much building of apartment complexes was begun there in the last two decades, only to have fallen victim to the world financial crises of recent years.  As a result, a close look at the town reveals almost as many unfinished structures as inhabited ones.

A brief drive through the suburbs, into a national park located on a lagoon, provided beautiful scenery.  The large lakes were dotted with contraptions designed to capture mussels, a famous local delicacy.

Before visiting the historic site we made an amenity stop at a country hotel, which included an opportunity to view local handicrafts for sale.  I was especially excited to encounter Roma, or gypsies, selling small trinkets out of their hands. This fulfilled a hope I had for my visit to Albania, after having read Isabel Fonseca’s amazing book Bury Me Standing, about the gypsies and their story, which contains large portions of her experiences in Albania. Their swarthy skin and distinct, unusual features left little doubt of their ethnicity – which was confirmed to me by our Albanian guide.

The archeological site of Butrint is meticulously maintained and is still undergoing exploration.  The Roman remains include an agora and a theater, public baths and houses, all of which can be wandered through, plus a spectacular baptistery and a sanctuary dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepius.

While seated in the theater, we were treated to an inspiring talk by former director of the site Auron Tare, who was instrumental in recent decades in helping save the ruins from decimation by pilferers and naïve locals who simply needed building stones.  Mr. Tare also, most brilliantly, revived the tradition of theatrical production in the ancient theater, and in eleven years has grown an annual festival into one of the country’s major cultural events, attracting foreign attendees as well as locals now possessing renewed appreciation of their heritage.

The stage’s stone backdrop provided shade for the sun-sensitive.

Walking through pleasant wooded trails brings one to clearings containing archeological treasures such as the baptistery, famous for its mosaics.  John Hale led us through the temple, describing how qualified worshippers entered from the back and progressed forward to the altar.

Ascending the hill to the site of the old fortress (now a museum) we encountered a forensic archeologist from the University of Utica who was there with a small class of students.  He promptly removed a human skull from a plastic bag and proceeded to explain all the ways in which his skills and experience told him of the man’s age and condition at time of death.

An equally beautiful drive back through the town of Saranda took us to our ship and an exquisite lunch of grilled local fish.

Later that day, while sailing the Ionian Sea, we performed Beethoven’s String Trio in G major, and his seldom-played Piano Trio in G major, Op. 1 No. 2.

In attendance whenever possible, Captain Thomsen seemed especially appreciative of the music of his countryman.

Prior to dinner, the musicians met on our balcony for a “faculty meeting”, a happy-hour tradition that, for us, goes back to our days teaching with Isaac Stern in Jerusalem.

The evening light, the calm seas, and the gentle motion of the ship only further enhance the relaxing benefits of these days that combine stimulating learning experiences with great weather, new friends, and way more than the comforts of home.

Sunday, June 5: Gýtheio/Mystra, Greece

After a morning interdenominational service conducted by tour director Peter Graham, we gathered for yet another lecture by the infinitely knowledgeable John Hale on the significance of our next stop, the city of Mystras on the southernmost part of the Greek peninsula. “Mystras: Last Outpost of the Byzantine Empire” summed up the place to which we would devote our entire afternoon, and it proved an extraordinary site worth every bit of time and preparation we put into the visit.

The Corinthian II docked around lunchtime at the incredibly picturesque port of Gýtheio, once the naval base of ancient Sparta.

Departing by bus, we traveled inland through beautiful countryside and within an hour could see our destination, the Byzantine city of Mystras, looming above us.  Deposited near the mountain’s summit, some of the heartier among us (including Eugene Grant, age 92) set out to scale the peak to visit the fort, the first structure of the city, built in 1249 by the Frankish ruler William II de Villehardouin, just after the Fourth Crusade.

In this site he saw the potential for a successful middle ages city: one needed a peak upon which to build a defensible fortress, plus fresh water, arable land below for growing food and raising animals, and a ready supply of stone and wood for building.  Mystras had them all, but by 1262 the fortress had fallen to the Byzantines and the city below it began to develop.  By the 14th and 15th centuries the city had become the capital of the entire southern or Peloponnese Greek peninsula. The church in the foreground of the photo above is St. Sophia, and the spectacular view over what was once ancient Sparta is what one sees upon turning around.

Below the fortress evolved different levels of construction, the upper city occupied by upper class residences and administrative buildings, while the lower level contained the cathedral and monastery and middle class housing.  The churches, some dating from the middle of the 14th century, contain some of the rarest surviving Byzantine frescoes.

A walk down the mountainside on easily navigable stone paths afforded us stunning views and visits to magical interiors, many alive with the vivid colors of centuries-old paintings, and occupied by mysterious faces looking at us through time.

The church of the monastery, which is still inhabited by nuns and their numerous cats, offered a peaceful place for reflection.  As is our custom, we lit a candle for our daughter.

The buses had moved to the lower parking lot to meet us, and before we knew it we were back on board the Corinthian II, headed for the island of Delos in the Aegean.

Monday, June 6 Delos/Syros Greece

With a sense of acceleration towards our journey’s end, our busy Monday included stops on two nearby islands in the Cyclades, the group of islands in the middle of the Aegean south-east of the Greek mainland.  On last year’s cruise, we visited one of them, the spectacular island of Santorini, which lies just to the south of present destination, the sacred island of Delos, heart of the Cyclades, and one of Greece’s most important archeological sites.

The approach to Delos told us we were in for something different than we had yet experienced, as the island is uninhabited save for a few resident archaeologists and security guards.

Still, there was time for yet another magical Corinthian II breakfast on the rear fifth-floor deck, as we watched the rocky neighboring islands gradually surround us.

As the island has no large-scale dock, we dropped anchor not far from shore and were ferried in on a tender commanded by a gentlemen who looked as though he had stepped right out of the Odyssey.

According to Greek mythology (and Homer’s Odyssey), Delos is the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis.  It has been inhabited since 3000 B.C.  In the 6th century B.C. attempts were made to purify the island, making it more fitting as a holy place, and all dead bodies were dug up and moved to neighboring islands.  It also was not permitted to either die or be born on the island, removing the island from claims by landowners or inheritors.  Delos was the home and central meeting place of the Delian League, an organization of city-states that existed during the fourth century B.C. for the purpose of fending off the Persians.

The extensive remains of on the island can be divided roughly into halves: to one’s left, walking in from the dock, is the flat, public area that contained temples, the agora, the market, fountains and well, various monuments and statues.  To the right, ascending a gentle hill, once enters into the small streets of the residential area and progresses towards the magical theater near the top.

The area of the agora, looking towards the residential hill

Pedestals whose statues were stolen away long ago

Footprints are all that remain of the statues

A pride of lions decorates what was once a magnificent street

Small masterpieces of sculpture turn up everywhere

The street that takes one up the hill, through the residential area

This elegant home had central, open courtyard with a beautiful mosaic floor

The remains of the theater.  One can easily imagine presenting plays here any time, so intensely quiet is the atmosphere. Our wonderful Greek guide treated us to an expressive poetic reading in her native language as we sat on the ancient stone seats and relived history.

We could see the Corinthian II waiting patiently for us nearby.

There are enough sites to visit and bits of history to learn on Delos to have kept us there easily for a week or two.  But we had to get to nearby Syros in time for our concert.  An outdoor pasta bar was all fired up in time for the hungry passengers’ return.

The short sail to Syros concluded with a stunning view of the city, and another masterful docking of the ship by Captain Thomsen which put us as close to being in town as we could get.

Syros is a busy, much visited island that boasts an airport and once enjoyed status as a port that rivaled Athens’ Piraeus. There was little time for sightseeing but our traveling companions headed into the quaint town and could be found all over it, eating at outdoor tables, and perusing specialty shops that sold local goods including dates, pastries, olive oil and Ouzo.

The musicians traveled to the concert hall through the majestic town center, Miaoulis Square, ringed with cafes and dominated by the neo-classical City Hall.  The air-conditioned Apollon Theater was an impressive and reassuring sight for the musicians – especially after having endured the challenges of Diocletian’s basement!

The inside is vastly charming, built in the style of a small Italian opera house.  Wu Han welcomed our audience and talked about Beethoven’s A major sonata for piano and cello.

In programming our series of concerts, we saved the most sonically-lavish work for our fourth and final performance.  Dvorak’s beloved Piano Quartet in Eb, composed at the height of his European career just before he left for America, is a masterpiece in every way, each movement a powerful evocation of some aspect of Czech life.  The peaceful slow movement is graced by cello solos of unbelievable beauty.  As a musical goodbye to our captive but devoted passenger audience, we played for them another gem from the romantic era, the slow movement from Brahms’ Piano Quartet in c minor.

Our listeners gave us the warmest thanks, complete with flash cameras.

Stepping out into the late afternoon light, we headed back through town to the ship, which loomed over the old streets like an alien vessel.

On board that evening, the cruise’s two major constituents – the Chamber Music Society and the Yale Alumni Association – each held cocktail receptions for the passengers who had joined the tour through them.  Wu Han spoke and toasted CMS’s generous supporters and our many friends new and old.

On this evening we also said goodbye to amazing Greece, as we sailed east through the Aegean towards the Turkish coast and the major port of Izmir.

Tuesday, June 7 Izmir, Turkey

Once again there were more options than we really had time for, so the group divided into two parts, one heading to Pergamum, once a powerful city during the time of Alexander the Great, and the other touring Sardis, once the capital of the Lydian kingdom.  Wu Han opted for Sardis while I stayed on board to catch up on practicing, staring out the cabin window at the incredibly ugly port of Izmir.

Sardis was one of the most important cities of the Persian Empire, and what remains of it are both Roman and Byzantine ruins.  Sardis was under Persian control until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C.

Included in the more recent discoveries is the synagogue, one of the most important to be found dating from the later period of the Roman empire.  It was in use for about 500 years before being destroyed in 616 A.D. by the Persians, and helps to confirm that there were indeed thriving Jewish communities in the region during Roman times.

The synagogue remains include stunning mosaics on the walls.

Nearby the synagogue is the gymnasium, a splendid ruin connected to the old Roman baths. The structure is still remarkably intact, with towering columns and balconies that loomed over us.

The Roman bath is enormous.

After leaving Sardis we stopped at the famous Temple of Artemis, unearthed by a Princeton University archeological team in 1914.  Excavations continued, sponsored by both Harvard and Cornell Universities.  Two enormous columns, at least six stories high, dominate the site.

After lunch many of us headed to a bazaar in Izmir which turned out to be a highly unsuccessful shopping trip. We did get a sense of the size of the city, and experienced a bit of feeling conspicuous amongst the locals, always a good thing for Americans once in a while.

The bazaar seemed to be one stocking low-end merchandise (socks, shirts, spices) for consumption chiefly by locals, who mostly looked at us with a “what are you doing here?” kind of expression.

Towards the end of our walk we did stumble into what looked like a serious and active opera house.  Perhaps a future venue for cruise concerts?

It was good to get back to the ship.  It was always good to get back to the ship.

Wednesday, June 8 Mudanya/Bursa, Turkey

It was a long sail from Izmir to the port of Mudanya, on the Sea of Marmora and on the way to our final stop of Istanbul.  Our tour destination for the day, however, was the nearby city of Bursa, which became the first capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1326.

An over-zealous customs official at the dock delayed our disembarkation for a good 45 minutes, examining and stamping every one of our passports.  I had never seen our tour manager Peter so angry.

Arriving in Bursa around 5pm we managed to hit a big prayer call for the late afternoon, blasting out on loudspeakers from the minaret connected to the Great Mosque that we had hoped to visit.

We had to wait until prayers were over to enter, which was not a problem as the shopping-starved among us had a chance to attack the nearby silk market. (Bursa is famous for its silk and is located at the end of the northern Silk Road). This was indeed an enticing market in an atmospheric setting, and almost everyone came away with something after a frantic 25-minute shopping blitz.

Entering the mosque was distinctly unpleasant, as everyone was trying to come in and out of the same small entrance simultaneously, and in the process, remove or replace one’s shoes in the correct area so as not to defile the holy space. This proved a challenge for many of us: even John Hale did it wrong and got chewed out by indignant locals. It was, at best, amusing.

The Great Mosque interior is grand and spacious and is covered by 20 domes.  Apparently the sultan who built it in 1400, Bayezid I, had promised the population to build 20 mosques but then backed off and built one with 20 domes.

There were plenty of warnings not to do this or that.

Outside the mosque, the locals hang out. Many of them are irresistibly picturesque.

Once again, it was great to get back to the ship, everyone showing off their silk purchases. That evening we were treated to the Captain’s farewell dinner, and we, including the musicians and John Hale, made the rounds between courses thanking everyone for coming and bidding them safe travels home.

There were speeches and thanks to the ship’s crew from all, and to our hard working Cruise Director Peter Graham and tour managers Elena Myasoedova and Nina Padden.

And of course there were many expressions of gratitude to Captain Thomsen, who was here enchanted I’m sure by more than Lily Francis’s perfect German.

Needless to say, there was another late night in the bar, where the extraordinary and gracious   bartender Jerome – everyone’s best friend by the end of the tour – served us our final drinks of the voyage.  We had traveled 1533 miles together.

Thursday, June 9 Istanbul, Turkey (sort of)

I believe that possibly the entire ship was up early on our final morning to witness the arrival in Istanbul, known to be the most spectacular port one can approach.

The weather and the sights did not disappoint the crowd on the breakfast deck, somewhat hurriedly eating and exchanging individual goodbyes.

Many of us were able to stay and see Istanbul.  Others departed for other sightseeing in European locations.  But many of us had to head home as quickly as possible and only got a look at the great city from the harbor across the water.

Transported to the airport with great efficiency by the tour staff, our luggage tagged and picked up outside our room, we were finally left on our own after having gone through metal detectors before reaching the check in counters (there is a lot of security in this airport).  Although we all knew that we were re-entering the real world, we had no idea how rough it was about to become.

Many of us on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt (for connection to New York) were informed that the flight would be delayed more than an hour and that we would all miss our connections.  The very hard-working airport staff (I’ve never seen American or European ticket agents try this hard) managed to re-book us on all sorts of flights, through different cities, on other airlines.  It was amazing. Wu Han and I plus Marei Vonsaher wound up on a direct flight to New York on Turkish Air, which turned out to be a great airplane with about 300 movies to choose from.  Joel and Eileen Birnbaum, the Kamens, and others of us holed up for hours together in the business lounge, eating stuffed grape leaves and drinking Turkish coffee, managed to disappear two by two and apparently all made it home.

The final wrinkle of the journey came when we landed in Bangor, Maine, instead of New York, because of bad weather.  We all watched our umpteenth movie and finally got into New York at 1 a.m., arriving home at 2 a.m.  We had traveled for 24 hours.

The next morning Wu Han and I were at the Chamber Music Society at 8 a.m. to begin presiding over three grueling days of CMS II auditions for individuals.  In two days we listened to 25 contestants and on the final day played together with the finalists in chamber works.  The results are pending – stay tuned.


Many more cruises are preparing to embark; visit:

The Chamber Music Society website, or contact Sharon Griffin at CMS for more information: sgriffin@chambermusicsociety.org

— or —

The Music@Menlo website, or contact Annie Rohan for more information: annie@musicatmenlo.org

Read Full Post »

After a break of a year, the Emerson Quartet returned to South America for the second visit in its entire 35-year history.  On this trip the quartet returned to the countries of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and added Colombia and Ecuador to its international destination map.

in David’s words…


The first stop on the Emerson String Quartet’s tour is the bustling metropolis of São Paulo, Brazil. Home to a population of over 19 million people (in the metropolitan area), São Paulo is arguably the cultural and economic capital of South America.

It’s not every day that a New Yorker takes a picture of another city out of the airplane window – New York possessing a cityscape that is continually a thrill to witness even for a long-time resident.  But the concentrated sprawl of São Paolo, Brazil is so vast that it appears practically an optical illusion.

With such a large population that has expanded rapidly over the past decades, the congestion in the city is quite overwhelming! That being said, São Paulo is a fascinating city with an interesting juxtaposition of contemporary and classic architecture as well as an impressive cultural scene. São Paolo is largest city in the Southern Hemisphere, which includes, remember, not only most of South America but also half of Africa, Australia, and all nations of the South Pacific region and Indian Ocean.  At last count, the city itself is home to approximately 11 million inhabitants (New York, 8 million; Los Angeles, 4 million; London, 7.5 million).

São Paolo’s rich history is of course closely tied to that of Brazil itself.  Colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world.  The country’s exports such as coffee, gold, and before 1888, slaves, brought in not only wealth but immigrant workers from many countries. São Paolo has, for example, an enormous Italian population and heritage, as well as people of African, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Middle-Eastern descent.

The city of São Paolo feels like New York in many ways.  There is a vibrant street life, streets lined with chic restaurants and high fashion shops, tons of traffic, garbage and litter.

There are the tallest skyscrapers in South America. There is a heightened sense of security, with all apartment buildings of any social stature enclosed by gates and usually attended by security guards.  Apparently there is a lot of drug trafficking in the seedier neighborhoods – one of which surrounded our concert hall, the Sala São Paolo.

The quartet’s two performances in São Paulo were at the Sala São Paulo, a beautiful concert hall that was originally a train station and underwent one of the most ingenious and beautiful architectural transformations I’ve ever seen. The facade of the building is distinctly European with a large clock tour in a baroque style. The train station was completely renovated in 1999 and the old ‘great hall’ of the station was converted into a gorgeous concert hall. The hall was designed in a ‘shoebox’ style and has beautiful acoustics (other notable examples of this particular style include Boston’s Symphony Hall and Vienna’s Musikverein). The concert hall also serves as the primary performance space for São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, one of the top orchestras in South America.

The architecture and acoustics are great, but even more amazing are the audiences: filled with young people whistling and cheering after listening to Shostakovich in rapt silence.  What more could a classical musician want?

The hall sits next to a converted building that is now an art exhibition center.  The place was a torture prison during the era of dictator Emilio Garrastazu Medici (1969-74), and was converted to become an arts center as a gesture in the spirit of setting things right.

The quartet was also kept busy on our arrival day with a television studio performance and interview, plus an additional television interview and radio interview.  All were conducted by highly knowledgeable and perfectly prepared journalists who asked meaningful and challenging questions.

In addition, on the day of our first concert, Larry was transported to a “shanty town” approximately 45 minutes from the center to teach at a community music school (please see the Emerson Quartet Facebook page for photos ).  Many of the students showed up at our second concert and I promised to visit their school the next time I am in São Paolo.  (And for those of you in the photo: whoever you are in glasses to the left of me – everyone in the picture now has your eye because everyone’s eyes came out red except yours. Congratulations!)

Through our entire stay, we were afforded world-class hospitality and the warmest personal attention by the staff of Cultura Artística, the presenting organization which is currently celebrating its 99th year.  We warmly wish them another 99 years of success in bringing classical music to this extraordinary city.


Our second stop on the Emerson String Quartet’s South American Tour is the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. Not as large as São Paulo, the city is still incredibly bustling and full of life and vigor. Buenos Aires has a distinctly European feel, perhaps from its complicated history of Spanish colonization as well as attempts for takeover in the 19th century by England and France. Today Buenos Aires is a diverse and culturally rich metropolis, and clearly a hub for commerce.

Our return to Buenos Aires was highlighted by an historic occasion for the Emerson Quartet: our debut in the city’s renowned opera house, the Teatro Colón (Columbus Theater).  The present Teatro Colón was built in 1908 and is universally renowned for its spectacular acoustics. Known primarily as an opera house, the Teatro Colón has presented some of the foremost opera singers and orchestras throughout its storied history and is a testament to the cultural vibrancy of Buenos Aires.

Built in the grand style of concert halls such as Vienna’s Musikverein, the imposing building houses a space considered to be one of the five great opera houses of the world.  It was completed in 1908 after two decades of construction, and had been preceded by earlier versions which catered to the city’s opera-hungry public (in 1854, 53 different operas were performed in Buenos Aires!).  The first opera performed in the new hall was Verdi’s Aida, and since then, virtually all the great operas and great singers have been presented on its stage.

We were somewhat skeptical about a string quartet’s ability to fill this large hall (2,487 seats).  But we were more than pleasantly surprised.  The hall was completely filled two nights in a row with two entirely different audiences.  The quartet’s program was the same: Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 #3, Bartok No. 6, and Beethoven’s Op. 131.  The highest balconies were filled with the youngest listeners, enabled to attend through generous ticket policies of the presenting organization, the Mozarteum.

The Mozarteum, celebrating its 60th year, is a distinguished organization befitting the stature of this great city, the autonomous capital of Argentina and the second largest Latin American city after São Paolo.  Industrialization in the 19th century brought money and immigrants, making Buenos Aires not only an important financial hub of South America but a multicultural city graced by European-style architecture.  Many elegant streets, fancy restaurants, and fashionable people make you feel you might be in Paris.

The Mozarteum has been presided over for many years by the beautiful and regal Jeannette de Erize.  Now 89, she attended both of our concerts, and after the first, we were hosted for a superb meal at the residence of her son and daughter-in-law Luis Alberto and Monica Erize.   A lawyer by day, his connection to and support of the Mozarteum has endeared him and his family to the greatest musicians of our time, and over two dinners (they joined us the next night at our favorite restaurant, El Establo) he regaled us with stories of his encounters with many of them.

But among the many great artists that were recalled, one dominated both in terms of the number of accounts and the admiration and affection in which he is held by us all: Mstislav Rostropovich, who virtually took this city by storm, as he did all the world’s musical capitals.  I have, without a doubt, exchanged more extraordinary stories (with more people worldwide) about Rostropovich than about anyone else on the planet. The Erizes’ relationship with Slava was so close that they were invited to his 80th birthday party in Moscow, which was attended by Putin, Seiji Ozawa and other notables, at which he was honored by a large crowd which knew it would probably be the last time they saw him.  Slava, indomitable as always, had literally willed himself to see his 80th, and to be recognized in Russia’s capital by the government which once had stripped him of citizenship.  He succeeded, and was dead from cancer a month later.

As it had been in São Paolo under the care of Cultura Artistica, we were treated throughout our visit with the utmost grace, and personal and professional care by the dedicated staff of the Mozarteum.  And judging from their spectacular concert seasons of recent years, plus their enormous, rapt audiences of all ages, they are definitely doing things right.  The classical music presenters the whole world over would do well to have a look at them, and learn something from their example.


The journey from Buenos Aires to Santiago began in chaos, as our two drivers (I had insisted on a hotel around the corner from El Establo) brought us 45 minutes outside the city to the wrong airport.  No one seemed to be able to pin the blame on anyone in particular, although I have my own suspicions that the Emerson’s unshakeable habit of changing its mind numerous times on travel plan may well have been the root of the problem.

Our meeting up by surprise (I was certain that I was the only one in the wrong place) was the beginning of a frantic and (to my eyes) rather comical race through various terminals trying to find a flight we could get on to Santiago.

The sun suddenly came out when our South American manager, Felipe Silvestre, suddenly showed up, having flown in from his home in Brooklyn for two days to meet with us and various presenters in Buenos Aires and Santiago.  Cell phone in hand, and armed with all the phone numbers and the Spanish language, he was soon able to sort everything out and we boarded a very crowded bus to take us back to town, where the other airport is located.

Felipe (whom for some unfathomable reason we had never met even though he lives in Brooklyn and organized our tour two years ago) is a very interesting guy.  Born in Brazil, he studied the violin and at the age of 18 decided to go study in Munich.  Upon arrival he absorbed and became fluent in German, and went on to study 3 more years in Salzburg, where he apparently began doing some entrepreneurial work.  His company, FAS Arts Management, books the world’s most visible artists in South America, and he has recently branched out to begin booking in North America, his first project being a fascinating production featuring actor John Malkovich, a Baroque orchestra , singers, and music of  Beethoven.   He certainly has our admiration and confidence, having been the one who finally, after three decades of our having to wait, got us to South America.  He is also among a handful of young managers with whom we work who possess the energy, optimism and charisma to propel the classical industry forward.  We are grateful to him for his efforts on our behalf, we wish him much success, and we look forward to working with him in the future.

The flight to Santiago included a spectacular ride over the Andes mountains. The name “Andes” derives from an ancient word meaning “where the sun rises”.

Landing in Santiago after 4 pm did not leave a lot of time to prepare for a 7:30 pm performance, but thankfully the beautiful Ritz Carlton hotel, where our presenter the Beethoven Foundation had housed us, was right across the street from the concert hall, and we managed to rehearse and give a performance that seemed to please a full house.  Another spectacular dinner followed at a beautiful restaurant, and we very much enjoyed the company of Felipe and our host, Sylvia, from the Beethoven Foundation.

Our second concert in Santiago, however, proved to be something out of the ordinary, to the extent that I believe the entire quartet would agree that we had never in our careers, either as a quartet or individuals, experienced anything like it.  An account of this event warrants going into some detail.

Picked up punctually by the van and Sylvia at our ultra-luxury hotel, escorted into the bus by a team of doormen all speaking perfect English and knowing our names, we soon found ourselves out of the city center, bouncing our way down long cobblestone streets in residential neighborhoods.  Arriving at the theater, we were shown the front entrance, which looked like that of an old, rather broken-down movie theater.  We were escorted into a dingy alley behind the theater, secured from the street by solid metal doors.

Our next experience proved alarming: as soon as we entered the building, we were practically overcome by an incredibly powerful, unpleasant chemical smell.  My first thought was that it was some kind of fuel; others among us guessed insecticide or perhaps some cleaning agent. As we walked into the old, worn theater we saw two gas umbrella-style heaters, lit, in front of the stage (like the kind you see in outdoor restaurants) plus other heating devices near our chairs on the stage.  The whole experience – just walking in there – was truly of the “uh-oh” kind.

Gasping for air, we were shown our dressing rooms – two of them – which were equally dingy except that the presenters, and probably the venue as well, had made some effort to make them   welcoming.

It was a scene that we were, for better or worse, not accustomed to, and a certain amount of trepidation took hold of our proceedings as we made our way, through really squalid conditions, to the stage.

The smell was overpowering and some of us began to get light-headed.  However, as is our style, we found ways to joke and laugh about it, and to marvel at how in just a couple of days we had come from the splendor and luxury of the Teatro Colón (not to mention our hotel) to a venue of such un-cared for condition.  We finished our rehearsal, working as hard as we always do, and ventured back to dressing rooms, which were considerably colder but at least smelled less.

Just steps from the stage, we could hear the hall start to fill up with people talking animatedly.  A bunch of early arrivals positioned themselves quickly in the best seats.

At 7:30, our local stage manager (who had been brought to this venue by our presenter from the previous night’s venue) gave us the word that we could begin the concert. And, as we walked onto the stage, the evening turned a corner that would lead to one of the Emerson Quartet’s most fantastic and memorable concert experiences – ever.

As soon as Gene emerged into the light, the crowd, which completely filled the hall, erupted into clapping, cheering and whistling the likes of which we had never heard.  It was as if every one of them already knew us.  The din was accompanied by a barrage of camera flashes from the first row to the top of the balcony.  We bowed, I sat down, and they still wouldn’t stop.  Although it was a great welcome, we were still possessed by that “uh-oh” sensation.

However, once we launched into the Mendelssohn quartet, things changed. Although the flash cameras didn’t stop, there was dead silence.  There was some clapping between movements, which, as it happens in many places, was shushed down indignantly by some.  But this crowd was listening with the intensity and concentration of the world’s most elite and knowledgeable audiences.

Adding to this remarkable phenomenon was the age of this audience.  I counted two people (that I could see) with grey hair.  The rest seemed to be in their teens, twenties and maybe thirties.  A couple of older people were wearing coats and ties, but most were in street clothes and appeared on the scruffy side.  There were four young cellists in the front row, their cellos in canvas cases on the floor between their legs.  In my whole career I have never played to an audience that looked like this.

After the Mendelssohn, the crowd went crazy, cheering, whistling, screaming.  I had never heard anything like it. And with every piece, the ovation (if you can even call it that) got louder, longer and wilder.  By the end of the concert, the crowd was more or less out of control.  There was not much to do but marvel and laugh, and perhaps thank God that there is a place in the world where four older guys like us can simply walk out in tuxedos and play three great string quartets, with no hype or hoopla or artificial nonsense, in a straight concert format without bars and disco lights, and there is a room of young listeners that responds as though it was the greatest thing in their lives at the moment.

The sight of this crowd prompted me to do something unprecedented: to take my camera out during one of our many bows and take their picture.  Needless to say, this drove them even wilder.

Backstage we were mobbed with young autograph-seekers.  It was truly touching to look into these adoring – and often adorable – faces and see such excitement.  The warmth and affection they showed us unabashedly will remain one of the fondest memories of my career.

I had the good fortune of at least two entire classes of cello students in attendance.  My Cello Talks – as is beginning to happen often now – preceded my visit and so many of the students, including their professor Martin Osten, told me of watching them and learning from them and thanked me for making them.  One cellist among them, Fernanda Guerra, had earlier in the day sent me a very fine performance on YouTube of the Dvorak Concerto.

Santiago Postscript

On the long plane flight to Bogotá and Medellin I find myself still entranced by last night’s experience, thinking deeply about what it all means.

In a very profound way, last night’s concert reinforced convictions about classical music that have guided me and Wu Han in our lives as performers and presenters:

  • We have never believed, contrary to many popular opinions, that classical music is out-of-date, out-of-touch, and irrelevant for today’s listeners.
  • We have never agreed that classical music needs help to make it accessible and attractive to listeners.
  • We do not believe that classical music has to be presented in special, non-traditional settings for people to become interested in it.
  • We don’t believe that traditional concert attire should be a hindrance to listeners’ engagement with the music or the performers.

I could go on.  But the point is that we honestly think that those who have lost faith in the validity of classical music, including musicians themselves, presenters, managers, publicists and especially journalists, are simply wrong.  Would that all of them had been with us last night: the musicians would have seen that they could dress conventionally and not spend energy trying to look cool or fashionable, and that they could perform deep and serious music that is dear to them; the presenters would have observed an audience undeterred by obstacles and furthermore unspoiled by comforts and extra-musical enticements; the managers would have seen a concert that would inform and inspire them to impart faith in the traditional to their artists and to their clients; publicists would have learned what really to talk about to raise the profiles of their artists; and the classical music press – many of whom seem simply bored and bent on emphasizing the negative – would have witnessed a concert in which both musicians and audience collaborated and gave their all, simply in service of great music.

When you analyze what goes into making performances either succeed or fail, there are really only three elements that count: the greatness of the music, the quality of the performance, and the mindset of the listeners.  What made the difference last night was the third part of the equation.  This was an audience hungry for the experience.  How difficult it is to find such hunger among privileged listeners in large cities with myriad high-quality entertainment offerings.  The truth is, you cannot feed anyone regularly, or overfeed them, and expect them to be hungry. Or worse, as is done so often these days in the classical music industry, try to create artificial hunger through artificial means.

Would that Beethoven, Bartok and Mendelssohn have been at our concert last night. Because they would have seen people playing and listening to their music in the way they imagined people playing and listening as they were creating.  They expected nothing less, and nothing more.  All of us in classical music can do our art a service by respecting how composers dreamed of their music being played and heard, and by having faith that this approach, if executed with passion, conviction and expertise, is part of a great tradition and also a secure path for an endless and vital future.


After a late night meal and little sleep, the quartet took a six-hour flight north to the airport of Bogotá, Colombia, to transfer to a short flight to Medellín for our next concert.  Thankfully we had a free night as the journey took most of the day.  We were met by Adelaida Gomez, who graciously guided us through our stay in Medellín.

Medellín was our first concert in Colombia, ever.  The historic city sits in a valley at an altitude of 5000 feet, and this valley is reached via an arduous climb and descent on a twisting road over the mountain that is between the airport and the city.  At the crest of the mountain, the city of Medellín came into view below, its millions of lights sparkling like the stars themselves.  Unfortunately I could not get a picture but one is so high above the city it is very much like an airplane approach.

Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, is unfortunately known the world over as the home of the infamous Medellín drug cartel that flourished in the 1980’s, making the city at one point the most violent in the world.  Because of the extradition arrangement between the Colombian and U.S. governments, captured drug lords could be sent to the U.S. for trial (something they were not happy about) and this resulted in countless assassinations of government officials.

What can be said about Medellín today is that as the cartels’ power and influence became greatly diminished, the city grew into a thriving center of commerce, culture and learning.  A small town whose initial exports were coffee and gold, Medellín today, with over 3 million inhabitants, boasts a wide variety of industries.  Cultural activities are rooted in its historic past all the way back to the city’s founding by the Spanish in 1616, and that history includes a great number of writers and painters, including Fernando Botero.  The University of Antioquia is a leading institution in South America, known for developments in medicine and vocational training.

The concert the next day, at 6pm, took place downtown in the Teatro Metropolitano de Medellín, a large, modern concert hall with excellent acoustics. Backstage we were greeted with great warmth by the hall’s director, Claudia Lucia Sierra Vega and her team.

After the concert we were ambushed by eager young listeners backstage as we were attempting to dash to the airport for a 9:30 flight to Bogotá (our concert in Bogata was the next morning at 11am). Among them was the very fine Tayrona Quartet, who are still studying but making a serious career in South America.

Our expert team of handlers, including stage hands, Adelaida, our bus driver and others, miraculously got us out of there and over the mountain just in time for the flight.

A long, bumpy bus ride to the hotel in Bogotá, and a dinner beginning at 11:30 pm concluded the exhausting day.


Winding through small streets in a big van, it was not until we crossed the threshold of the Hotel de la Opera that we realized what an elegant neighborhood we had entered.

The beauty of the hotel’s interior mirrored what I would discover outside on a walk early the next morning: an historic area of entrancing atmosphere.  The hotel was located in the historic center, whose streets have a distinct charm and rise on one side towards the neighboring mountains.

It was satisfying to finally reach Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, a city I had of course heard about my whole life. The city’s name derives from an ancient word meaning “planted fields” and was founded in 1538, soon becoming a center of Spanish colonial influence and power. The city was liberated from Spanish rule by the famous Simon Bolivar in 1819.

Bogotá is a tourist destination, having recently improved its safety ratings and constructed numerous, internationally-known shopping malls.  Bogotá is also a center of education with over 100 institutions of higher learning.  As for culture, Bogotá has dozens of museums, art galleries, theaters and libraries, and a symphony orchestra.  The Cristóbal Colón Theater is the country’s oldest opera house and is situated right next to our hotel, but was closed for renovation.

Our concert took place a few blocks from the hotel in a large, Brutalist architecture-style building that houses the Sala de Conciertos.  Built in 1966, the structure reminded us of Lincoln Center in many ways, built around the same time of similar white limestone.  Upon arriving backstage, we realized quickly from the photo gallery that an enormous number of musicians have appeared there.

The hall itself is quite a marvel: I have never seen anything quite like it.  In addition to being quite an historic architectural example, it has wonderful acoustics and an intimate atmosphere very accommodating for chamber music.

At over 8,000 feet above sea level, one feels the altitude in quick and sometimes unexpected ways, like when playing the second movement of the Shostakovich 8th Quartet.  The forward-looking organizers of the series had asked us for an unusual program of Debussy, Bartok and Shostakovich, in that order, and the largely young audience was with us and the music the entire way through.

Afterwards, as we had now come to expect in South America, we were besieged with young fans, all of whom wanted our autographs and photos taken with us. I have to say it’s really nice to feel like a pop star sometimes.

Once again, it was off to the airport after the concert for an early evening flight to Quito.  But we promised our hosts to return to Bogotá not only for multiple performances but also the chance to work with some of the city’s enthusiastic young musicians.


An hour flight brought us to Quito, Ecuador, just to the south of Columbia, and inland from the coast about six hours by car.  Ecuador, so named because it is on the equator, is a tropical climate and boasts ownership of the Galapagos Islands, its major tourist attraction.  There is even an airline named after them, Aero Gal, on which we flew.

Having never been to Ecuador, I learned a lot about this interesting country in a short time.  Bisected north to south by the Andes mountains, it includes the tropical Pacific coastal region to the west and the Amazon rain forest region to the east.

Conquered by the Incas in the 15th century and then by the Spanish in the 16th, the 18 or so still-extant native Ecuadorean peoples retain their individual characteristics, including traditional dress.

Quito is the capital of Ecuador and is the second-highest capital in the world, at over 9000 feet. It lies in the midst of the northern Andes in a valley between volcanoes, and is a World Heritage site. After being met at the airport by the director of the Casa de la Música, Gustavo Lovato, and taken to our hotel, I begged the favor of seeing the historic city center, which I had heard was spectacular.  I had not heard incorrectly.

The heart of the city is beautifully preserved and protected (now) by strict zoning laws.  Apparently one can buy a nice apartment in the center for a reasonable price, as the upper classes have all moved to the high rises in the surrounding hills.  I am tempted: this is one of the most gorgeous and stunning historic districts I have ever seen. The buildings are beautifully lit at night, and, being Sunday, the streets were practically deserted.  We visited gracious Independence Plaza, which is bordered by the Presidential Palace and the residence of the Archbishop.

The Spanish brought with them the Catholic religion, and today the city is 95% Catholic. The church sponsored the creation of art, mainly through the building and decorating of its churches, and today those churches and their treasures are among the prime tourist destinations in South America.

The next morning we had our first and only South American press conference, attended by a bevy of beautiful journalists and a few photographers.

Afterwards, we were driven to lunch at the elegant home of Maria Clara Crespo de Correa, President of the Casa de la Música, and a frequent host to visiting artists and supporters of the organization.  Her magnificent apartment, filled with art treasures including her own work, apartment overlooks the city of Quito.

During lunch, we learned of the extraordinary history of the Casa de la Música: it was constructed only in 2005 with a bequest from Hans and Gi Neustaetter, refugees from Nazi Germany who settled in Quito in the 1930’s. Besides funding other major philanthropic projects, they firmly believed that classical music would raise the standard of living for the entire city. The concert hall – apparently the highest in the world –  was just visible on the side of the volcano across from Maria Clara’s home, making me all the more eager to get there for our 7pm concert.

The Casa de la Música is a state-of-the-art concert hall, situated on beautifully manicured grounds overlooking the city.  The intimate hall was designed in consultation with a top acoustician imported from Germany who did the work gratis.

After the concert we were again greeted not only by our hosts but a small crowd of eager music students.   They are all my newest and dearest friends in South America!

We had a last opportunity for a group photo and an occasion to thank Gustavo not only for taking such good care of us but for his marvelous work presenting concerts at the Casa de la Música.

Larry and I left the hall at 9:15, amid heavy traffic, trying to catch an 11:30 flight back to the States.  This was the last of several harrowing, yet successful, bus rides that we had in South America.

This tour, consisting of nine concerts in about eleven days, was both exhausting and exhilarating.  The inspiring audiences, the many young listeners, the hospitality of the presenters, the art, the culture, and yes, the food, have all made South America one of the Emerson Quartet’s favorite touring opportunities.  We are grateful to all who helped make it happen, and we look very much forward to returning.

Read Full Post »