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Archive for July, 2014

Lead photo

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In David’s words
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We arrived in Aspen on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon, excited as always but especially tired: we had left the CMS cruise in Dubrovnik the morning before.

Dubrovnik

After flights through Zürich, New York, and Denver (with a hectic overnight at home) we somehow made it to Aspen in one piece.

Waiting for us at 7pm that evening were the four ensembles from our Chamber Music Studio. This special program, inaugurated by us last summer, serves four chamber groups comprised of Aspen Festival and School students. The students are selected by us through their festival applications, and each has specifically requested inclusion in our program. Already, this opportunity has become very competitive, and the final choices are tough to make. Once we have selected the players, we group them and assign them their repertoire. The four pianists and four cellists also study with us privately during the program.

Joining us this year were pianists Adria Ye (who was in the program last summer), Carmen Knoll, Hewen Ma and Angie Zhang; violinists Will Hagen (also with us last summer), Julia Choi, Amy Blackburn and Fedor Ouspensky; violist Jossalyn Jensen, and cellists Sarina Zhang (with us last summer as a pianist), Zlatomir Fung, Erik Wheeler and Yin Xiong.

The ensemble of Carmen Knoll, Will Hagen, Jossalyn Jensen and Zlatomir Fung tackled Dvorak’s beloved Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 87, composed in 1889 just before his iconic “Dumky” Trio.

Dv lesson 11

Adria Ye, Amy Blackburn and Sarina Zhang were assigned Brahms’s Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87, a robust work demanding full romantic sound coupled with classical style integrity, composed in 1882 when Brahms was forty-nine years old.

Brahms 1

Angie Zhang, Fedor Ouspensky and Yin Xiong delved into Beethoven’s Trio in D major Op. 70 No. 1, known as the “Ghost”. This quirky, striking work is the first of Beethoven’s two trios composed in the summer of 1808 and published as Op. 70 in 1809.

LVB lesson 4

Hewen Ma, Julia Choi and Erik Wheeler were assigned Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 in c minor, composed in 1845 only two years before his untimely death. It is by far the more technically challenging and emotionally complex of Mendelssohn’s two piano trios.

Mend 1

Our first session that Saturday evening allowed us not only to meet our students in person, but also to hear each group run through their assigned work from beginning to end. The fact that each of them could do so is not only a testament to their collective talent but also to early individual preparation and the three rehearsals each ensemble had had prior to our arrival. We knew, therefore, that the first two lessons of workshop had already taken place: one, always arrive at a chamber music rehearsal with your part learned, and two, solve as many problems as you can before taking your piece to your teacher.

Although every group did well in their first performance for us, we made many mental notes on what each ensemble – and each individual – would need to accomplish in order to bring these great works to higher levels by July 14th, the day of the workshop’s closing concert.

The Festival’s scheduled “chamber blocks” – times during the week when no orchestral rehearsals take place and therefore all students are free for chamber music work – provide no where near enough time for us to work at the level of detail necessary. Our model for this workshop was inspired by our many teaching experiences in the Isaac Stern Chamber Music Encounters, during which ensembles received coachings at least every other day, sometimes lasting for several hours. All the cell phones came out, and group by group, we more or less tripled their expected coaching sessions.

Scheduliing

For the groups, it meant a lot more absorption in the pieces, and a fairly constant stream of input from us, often being reminded of habits that needed to be changed. For us, it meant a much greater chance of hearing the results we were determined to achieve, albeit at the expense of hiking, playing tennis, swimming, socializing, and going to concerts – the activities most eager visitors to Aspen enjoy in abundance. But Wu Han and I are simply not made that way, and as these incredibly talented young musicians put themselves in our hands, all our thoughts turned to helping them achieve their best, and to shaping the next great interpretations of their assigned masterpieces of chamber music.

A good life in music, however, should not be devoid of life’s greatest pleasures, and, to that end, we invited our students early on to gather at our condo for Chinese food and a chance to relax and get to know one another.

Chinese food

Socializing

Wu Han and I also had other obligations, such as an interview on NPR’s Performance Today with our good friend Fred Child, held in the Irving and Joan Harris Concert Hall’s broadcast booth.

Fred Child

We manage to catch up with Fred every six months or so, and there seem to be always new projects to discuss, as well as the music we have our fingers in at the moment. In this interview, Fred asked us probing questions about the essence of chamber music performance. Fred is a great host, perhaps now America’s most familiar radio voice in classical music, and he’s earned that position through a combination of his very personal passion for the arts, his infectious enthusiasm and love of people, and an impressive knowledge of music.

After our talk, we emerged into the glorious Aspen daylight for a portrait next to a babbling stream, in front of a concert hall that carries special meaning for us: I, with the Emerson Quartet, played the first notes in the hall during the summer of 1993 while the hall was still under construction, and Wu Han and I made the first recording in the hall soon after, of the complete Beethoven Sonatas and Variations, for ArtistLed. Moreover, we are fortunate to count Joan Harris and her late husband Irving among our most treasured friends.

Fred Child outdoors

In between our closely-scheduled obligations in Aspen we always find time for some fun.

Troublemaker

The very first days of our stay in Aspen also included a recital in Harris Concert Hall with violinist Philip Setzer, in which we performed some of our own favorite trio repertoire: Beethoven’s Op. 1 No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in e minor, and Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, works we had been performing extensively during the prior season. It’s always a pleasure to bring our best work to the discriminating Aspen audience, which includes not only astute music lovers but our students and fellow faculty and performers as well.

With that performance past, it was time for us to focus intensively on our young ensembles. We are fortunate to have access to the distinguished faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School, as well as guest artists, all of whom we invite to contribute their insight and experience in our coachings. This summer, we were joined by violinists Masao Kawasaki, Robert Lipsett and Daniel Hope; violist James Dunham; and pianists Anton Nel and Rita Sloan, and you will see them at a work in many of the following photos.

Anton giggles

 

 

Hope, DF, Kawasaki, WH

Each work studied in this workshop poses different challenges, and I’ll go through them one by one, accompanied by photos from our many sessions with each.

Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio is perhaps his most famous, undoubtedly because of its unforgettable name, which was not Beethoven’s idea but rather somehow got attached to it permanently. It is not inappropriate, however, as the slow movement is one of the most eerie in all of classical music. It is said that Beethoven was considering writing an opera on Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the time, and this seems perfectly plausible.

What makes this trio so difficult to play are the incredible contrasts found within its three movements. Why Beethoven chose to write only three – after having written his Opus 1 trios with four movements each – is a mystery to us, but certainly we feel nothing is missing from this incredible work.

 

The first movement is Beethoven at his most famously unpredictable: stopping and starting abruptly, alternately raucous and mysterious, jumping from one key to another. One can imagine the great composer totally high on coffee – his most famous addiction – his eyes popping from his head as they seem to do in several famous portraits.

Beethoven demands a special kind of virtuosity of which we went to lengths to explain, and this presents huge challenges for us performers: his music is often composed neither to feel comfortable nor even sound comfortable. We instinctively strive to make music in a natural way, but so often with Beethoven, the dynamic and tempo markings he insists on, let alone the notes themselves, are almost impossible to execute.

But the lesson here is that Beethoven was a composer and a human being for whom struggle and conquering were the essence of life itself. We are convinced that these qualities are what connect his music so powerfully to such a huge audience. I personally find Beethoven the most human of all the composers, the one I can relate to most immediately, and for sure, my first choice to meet if I could journey back to his time.
LVB 2

The slow movement is, for me, one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire chamber music literature. Some of the hardest works I’ve played – the Bartok String Quartet No. 5, the Korngold Quintet – I promise are easier for me. Not that they are easy, but they are more conquerable than this single page, which looks so simple on paper. Such are the wonders and joys of great music!

The slowness, the tension, the mystery, the frightening outbursts combine to produce a movement of unsurpassed drama. Probably, this movement required as much coaching time as its other two movements combined.

LVB 3

The finale is a joyful race of relentless energy, the strings exchange fragments of melody accompanied by blindingly fast scales, arpeggios and passagework in the piano. Angie Zhang (who during our workshop performed as winner of the festival’s Mozart Concerto competition) performed her demanding part with great virtuosity, supported by lots of attention from Wu Han.

Angie

Moving along chronologically, the next piano trio in our program of chamber music masterpieces was Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in c minor, composed when he was thirty-six years of age, six years after he completed his first trio. Like the first trio, this is a turbulent, four movement work that makes enormous demands on the performers.

Mend 6

Mendelssohn was one of history’s most prodigiously gifted musicians. A child prodigy in a class with Mozart, he was composing some of his finest music by the age of sixteen. He played the violin well enough to lead orchestras, mastered ancient languages, knew philosophy and literature well enough to converse with Goethe, was the finest organist of his time, founded the Leipzig Conservatory, and the list goes on. To say that nothing was difficult for Mendelssohn would be something of an understatement.

Mend 8

The enormity of his talent is reflected not only in the genius of his compositions but also in the difficulty of his piano writing. What was probably child’s play for him represents hours and days of patient and methodical work for even the most accomplished pianists of our time. It therefore fell on this trio’s pianist, Hewen Ma, to not only learn her notes thoroughly (which she did) but also figure out how to balance her extreme number of notes with the two string parts, something only the most experienced, sensitive and accomplished pianists can do.

 

Mend 2

Fortunately, Hewen had two players of tremendous capacity as her partners: violinist Julia Choi and cellist Erik Wheeler. For them, it was a challenge of projecting their parts with passion while at the same time maintaining Mendelssohn’s exquisite sense of taste and respect for classical sensibility (Mendelssohn is considered a true connector of the Classic and Romantic ages in music).

Mend 4

Doing so, for the string players, meant many things: working on sound production, down to the tiniest details of vibrato; ensuring that the fingerings and bowings for literally every note of the work were optimal; knowing how soft one can play when called for; and looking very carefully at the composer’s markings.

Mend 7

It was wonderful to witness how this work grew and blossomed in their hands, from an already-impressive run-through the first day to a glowing, touching interpretation that had the audience on its feet instantly at their final performance.

Mend 3

Next on our program was the Trio No.2 in C major by Johannes Brahms. Brahms composed three piano trios, and, as he never let anything escape his desk that didn’t meet his standards, each one is a true masterpiece of the chamber music literature. The C major – as its key implies – is by far the most joyous and free-spirited among the set.

Our extraordinary ensemble for this trio consisted of Adria Ye, pianist, Amy Blackburn, violinist, and Sarina Zhang, cellist.

Brahms 4

It is sometimes said that one has to become of a certain age before being able to play Brahms easily. I do believe that to some degree this is true, especially in the case of a composer whose music embodies the effects of profound life experiences, heavy responsibilities, and in Brahms’s case especially, an uncompromising, un-frivolous nature.

Brahms 8

Our young and vivacious trio presented us initially with a fleet-footed, transparent interpretation, which immediately prompted all kinds of visual imagery from us: the enormous, slow-moving, pot-bellied, beer-drinking and sausage-eating Brahms, sitting in Vienna’s famous Prater enjoying the food, the folk music, and enjoying the scenery.

It’s easy to ask people to play faster, slower, louder and softer, and to do all manner of things instrumentally, but unless the musician’s own imagination is engaged, unless a sound or idea is conceived of by them, then the information doesn’t really become a part of them.

Brahms 2

This trio had no problem playing the notes, but needed to get themselves into that very special Brahmsian world: his deep connection to Beethoven, his affinity for Hungarian music, his respect for “absolute” music that needs no stories to help it (Brahms never wrote “program” music like Strauss or Liszt).

Brahms 5

Yet, this trio has wonderful moments which are carefree and should bring smiles to our faces.

Brahms 9
Brahms 7

The weight and thickness of the “Brahms tone” (as one might call it) demands special work from both string players and pianists. For pianists, it has a lot to do with posture, voicing and pedaling (as I learned from listening to Wu Han and her pianist colleagues talk). And for the strings, it has much to do with developing a rich, healthy vibrato, and often slowing the bow so as to extract the maximum resonance from the instrument by playing close to the bridge (the “sounding point” in violin language).

But of course, those sound qualities must be in the imagination of the performer in order to happen. Eventually they can happen, once a musician has heard themselves make the right sound enough times to recall and reproduce it.

Brahms also requires special rhythmic integrity: you can’t play his works with the abandon or whimsy required of his mentor Schumann, for example, so one needs to combine for Brahms the strongest structures of the Classical style with the sensuousness of the Romantic era. And we must say: this ensemble totally absorbed what seemed for them to be a new interpretive ethic, so much so that by the time of the performance they truly owned the piece. We were astonished, delighted, and very proud of them.

And finally, our concert ended with the magnificent Piano Quartet in E-flat major by Dvorak. Composed in 1889, only a couple of years before his departure to America (to lead the National Conservatory) this piano quartet is Bohemian to the core, with an occasional nod to Brahms and the elegance of Vienna, especially in its waltz-like third movement.

Our group was populated with known quantities, high recommendations, and complete surprises: Will Hagen, the wonderful violinist who last year performed Dvorak’s Dumky Trio in our program, returned for yet more Dvorak, bringing with him his great spirit, eagerness and instrumental talent to burn. Highly recommended was violist Jossalyn Jensen who proved herself quickly with expert ensemble sensibility and a soulful sound perfect for the piece; cellist Zlatomir Fung was sent to us by his teacher, the already-legendary Richard Aaron, with the highest praise, and this extraordinary young cellist lived up to every expectation; and pianist Carmen Knoll, a last minute replacement for an injured Fei-Fei Dong (who has since recovered), was a great discovery for us all. A natural pianist and musician of extraordinary ability, she seems born to play music and is a totally captivating young artist.

Dv lesson 11

The Dvorak Quartet is one of chamber music’s most popular works, and with that kind of familiarity, every group has to simply try to outdo the last one that played it. I have run my own performing life just that way (and had my expected share of disappointments and frustrations) but that kind of striving – especially for such talented young people – is a healthy thing, as you are really only competing with yourself. If you set your expectations higher than anyone imagines, you are more likely to please the majority, even if you feel you fell short.

Dv lesson 4

When playing any over-the-top Romantic era work, one has to be careful not to become so excited as to lose perspective and control. If anyone should lose control it should be our listeners! So with this ensemble we worked carefully on, for example: the gradation of crescendos to achieve maximum impact; the subtleties of vibrato and color that can touch peoples’ hearts; and the judicious balancing of the instruments so that everything could be clearly heard even in the most complex passages.

Dv lesson 3

In addition, each movement of this marvelous piece has a different character. The first is exuberant and serious, classically constructed perhaps the most like Brahms of any in the piece, and benefits from a steady tempo. The second is peaceful love song, intoned by the cello, interrupted by two turbulent storms. It’s a perfect depiction of many real-life relationships, and one of the most touching pieces Dvorak ever wrote.

Dv lesson 5

The third movement is a like a waltz-fantasy, with touches of exotic, Middle Eastern-style melodies, and a middle section, announced by a buzzing tremolo in the viola, that turns into a very wild ride. After a welcome recapitulation of the opening waltz, the movement concludes with a soulful cello statement.

Dv lesson 8

The finale is a vibrant peasant dance, in a stormy minor mode, which soon breaks into the sunshine with a loving, major-key second subject, and, for good measure, Dvorak throws in an additional theme to close the exposition in which both violin and viola soar to impassioned heights in truly memorable fashion.

 

During the week prior to the performance, we brought this Dvorak ensemble to be interviewed on Aspen Public Radio by host Chris Mohr. Chris expertly drew out their thoughts on the workshop experience, and it was fun for us to take a step back and hear, for the first time, what they have learned.

KJAX

In addition, Wu Han and I also presented a master class in Harris Concert Hall – always part of our Aspen residency – where we worked with three cello-piano duos on sonatas by Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninov.

Before we knew it, the final concert was upon us. Because of the intensity of Harris Concert Hall’s schedule, we had to have a separate dress rehearsal for each ensemble – not ideal, but we managed.

LVB dress

The dress rehearsal in the hall is perhaps the most important session of the program, for it is only then that the real balances, tempi, articulations and other details can receive their final adjustments. And there were many, which is as true for seasoned professionals as it is for students.

Mend dress

In general, a hall with good resonance like Harris Concert Hall requires judicious control of the loud playing (sounds can easily swell to huge proportions) clear diction like any good actor or speaker, exploring the minimums (sometimes it’s difficult to play soft enough) and simple matters of stage presence and behavior.

Dv dress 5

Part of our training for young musicians – in Aspen, Music@Menlo, Chamber Music Today in Korea and elsewhere – includes simply walking on and off stage and bowing properly. There are always ways to improve one’s appearance, body language and subliminal messaging.

Brahms stage
Brahms backstage

The concert came together beautifully. Our ensembles played with great intensity, precision and awareness, and Wu Han and I sat in the audience remembering how they first sounded and marveling at the transformations these musicians and their interpretations had made over such a short time. We were very, very proud of them.

Group portrait
LVB concert

Dv concert

Afterwards we treated our graduates and their friends and families to a backstage pizza party. There was much hugging, laughing and endless picture taking.

Pizza
backstage photos

We’ve all left this powerful experience with many wonderful memories. I hope I’ve captured a good portion of them in this blog, and I hope my readers get a sense of what a privilege it was for me and Wu Han to be part of this program.

Our thanks go out to the Aspen Music Festival and School for making this possible. Many administrators worked with dedication, precision and passion towards the success of this project, and we look forward with excitement to unfolding another incarnation of this extraordinary program next summer.

Photos: Christopher Ohanian, Angie Zhang, David Finckel

 

 

 

 

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Venice intro

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In David’s words
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Tuesday-Wednesday, June 17-18

Following CMS’s return from the Dresden Music Festival, and a subsequent busy week in New York that included recitals in Rockport, Massachusetts and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wu Han and I, joined by our daughter Lilian, stepped on a plane bound for Brussels to connect to a flight that has always been our favorite: one that lands in Venice.

Straining for views of the magnificent city from the plane window, it was difficult to contain our excitement at the coming CMS cruise, the seventh organized by our wonderful partner Travel Dynamics. Our look of relief and anticipation is more than obvious aboard the water taxi to the Hotel Saturnia.

DFWH taxi

This cruise would take us from Venice along the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic, stopping at stunning islands and ports along the way to our final destination, the historic Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Joining us would be a group of travelers comprised of friends of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, of Music@Menlo, and others from Vanderbilt University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Our tour consisted mostly of stops in the Republic of Croatia, now a boomerang-shaped country in the heart of central Europe with a population of 4.2 million. Its west arm, which stretches down the Adriatic coast for 3,600 miles, is dotted with inlets, reefs, and 1185 islands, of which 47 are inhabited. The east arm (which we did not visit) is landlocked, reaching far to the east, past the country’s central capital of Zagreb.

Croatia’s complex history dates back to the 7th century, with the Kingdom of Croatia beginning in the 10th century and lasting two hundred years. Subsequently controlled by Hungarians, Habsburg rulers and governed by alliances with its neighboring states, Croatia joined the socialist state of Yugoslavia after World War II. That arrangement began to crumble when Croatia held its own parliamentary elections and declared independence in 1991, leading to the four-year Croatian War of Independence (more on this later).

Other countries we visited included Bosnia-Herzegovina (Mostar) and Montenegro (Kotor) but only for the briefest of stops.

Our tour program’s flirtation with Venice – prior to embarkation – was no more than a taste, but we and few enthusiastic friends and colleagues arrived several days early in Venice to unwind and enjoy the one-of-a-kind environment. A pre-dinner Rialto Bridge photo includes Music@Menlo board member Ann Bowers, Patricia Foster and Chamber Music Society Executive Director Suzanne Davidson.Rialto bridge group

Of course, a large part of our excitement (as is normal for musicians) was over the food we were about to eat. Italian and Chinese food top our list of favorite cuisines and our favorite restaurant in Venice, Trattoria alla Rivetta (a hangout for both tourists and gondoliers) did not fail to please during our four (!) visits there in two days. Rivetta is just steps east of St. Mark’s square, on the street which offers this iconic view of the Bridge of Sighs, the infamous passageway over the Rio di Palazzo which connects the Doge’s Palace with the New Prison.

Briidge of Sighs

Rivetta

The food at Rivetta is incredible:

Fritto misto

Fritto misto

Spaghetti vongole

Spaghetti vongole

Soft shell crabs

Soft shell crabs

Squid ink pasta

Squid ink pasta

Tirami su

Tirami su

Walking the streets and canals of Venice is one of most continually captivating visual experiences to be found anywhere. The variety of beautiful scenes, and people from everywhere enjoying themselves, are both inspiring and rejuvenating to witness.

Gondola view

Canal scene

Church and  restaurant

Scallops

Friends

 

Friday, June 20

Our departure from Venice was as magical as one could imagine. All were on deck of the Corinthian to bid La Serenissima farewell as the sun set on the city, the harbor looking not much different from the way Canaletto painted it in mid-18th century.

Leaving Venice

 

Saturday, June 21: Rab Island, Croatia

By the next morning we had reached our first stop, the Croatian island and city of Rab, just off the Dalmatian coast in the Adriatic Sea. Named in ancient times after the dark pine forests that once grew there, the island was, like many in the region, ruled by Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Hungarians, Venetians, French, Hapsburgs, Italians, and Yugoslavians until Croatia became independent in 1991. The town’s rich cultural history and its beautiful beaches make it a popular tourist destination today, and Rab city’s charming squares and winding streets make it a fun place to explore.

Rab square

Rab alley_2_black

The Corinthian holds roughly a hundred passengers only, making its voyages intimate and luxurious experiences. In addition, the ship’s small size allows it to dock, quite often, as close to town as possible. In some locations, such as Rab, the Corinthian was hardly out of view from any part of town.

Ship in Rab

With the Corinthian docked so conveniently, it was only a few steps to our first concert venue, the tiny (and boomy) Church of the Holy Cross. Joining us for this cruise were the estimable violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussmann, who gamely doubled on viola, switching mid-concert without hesitation as needed.

Rab concert

Our first program included Dvorak’s Sonatina for violin and piano, Op. 100, a charming duo by Shostakovich for 2 violins and piano, and the Beethoven Piano Quartet. The morning concert got our public obligations done by lunchtime and we walked quickly back to the Corinthian for lunch on the deck during our departure for Split, a long journey that would put us into port at 7am the following morning.

Walk to ship

The leisurely sail took us through myriad beautiful passageways between the islands, many uninhabited, in this area of the Adriatic. There have been many true feasts-for-the-eyes to be had off the deck of our cabin, a perfect place for relaxing happy hours.

Islands

Happy hour

 

Sunday, June 22: Split, Croatia

Split is the Croatia’s largest coastal city and is famous for the spectacular remains of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. In addition, Split boasts a spectacular port and a city brimming with shops, restaurants and seemingly endless glamorous people.

Split piazza

The morning tour included the villa of Croatia’s most famous sculptor Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962), widely regarded as one of the greatest sculptors in history and the first living artist to have a solo show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Influenced by the Art Nouveau and Cubism movements, he created many monuments and religious works, both in stone and wood. His work, truly stunning to behold in person, can be viewed at his lavish villa overlooking the coast (which is now preserved as his gallery).

Mestrovic

The central area of Split is dominated by the remains of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletion (264-305 A.D.), and the thriving city is built virtually into what is left of the Roman emperor’s retirement home, where he lived out his last years having become the only Roman emperor to ever abdicate. Essentially, Diocletian’s palace became the core of Split. The underground tunnels and dungeons are tourist favorites.

Diocletian

Our concert took place in the Split Theater, the city’s premiere concert hall, but instead of the main hall, we used the lobby, which was not only the perfect size for our ensemble but as architecturally elegant and as acoustically perfect as any concert hall I can recall. Our program consisted of a Mozart violin and viola duo followed by Smetana’s heart-rending Piano Trio, written in the aftermath of the death of his second daughter.

Split concert

Forsaking the bicycle tour in the afternoon, the musicians once again practiced and rehearsed, but had a special party to look forward to in the late afternoon: A joint reception for travelers from both Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society, hosted by me and Wu Han, plus Edward Sweeney and Suzanne Davidson.

Groups party

A sumptuous grilled sea bass dinner in town –

Sea bass

– was followed by a blissful short walk to the harbor, the musicians accompanied by Music@Menlo executive director Edward Sweeney. There is little more comforting on tour than seeing your floating home glittering in the distance.

Split harbor with Corinthian

Corinthian in Split

 

Monday, June 23: Hvar

A crystal clear morning welcomed us to the dock near the ancient town of Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar (pronounced “Var”).

Ship in Stari Grad

The Croatian island of Hvar (the name derived from its original Greek name Pharos) is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited. To begin, the island is 42 miles long and only 8 miles at its widest.

Hvar map

The morning tour proved impossible to resist (we musicians frequently needed to decline sightseeing opportunities in order to prepare for our concerts) as we were told that our buses would take the scenic route, traversing the top of the east-west limestone ridge, surrounded by fields of lavender, on the way to the picturesque Hvar Town on the island’s eastern tip. The quick ascent soon revealed breathtaking views.

Hvar view

While Hvar’s history is as interesting and complex as many of its neighbors, I personally found the island’s geography and botanical features, plus the remains of human activities, captivating.

The first unusual feature of the hillsides is the presence of numerous, wide stone walls.

Stone walls

Hvar island has no surface water: no lakes, ponds or streams, and very little fresh water coming from springs or wells. Therefore the island’s inhabitants depend heavily on rainwater, which soaks quickly into crevices in the dry ground, and there is little of it as the island boasts claims to be “the sunniest place in Europe” with over 300 clear days per year. The stone walls, now on mostly-abandoned farm land, were built to contain the flow of rainwater within growing areas, stem erosion, and keep herds of animals separated.

The island has interesting vegetation, with bare patches and scrub at higher altitudes, and lavender fields and pine trees lower down. Hvar is known as “The Island of Lavender” which is used to produce soaps and other aromatic products.

Lavender

Although we didn’t have a chance to try any, there is a busy wine-making industry on Hvar, famous for both its reds and whites.

On our ascent we stopped at an ancient lime kiln. These were built to melt the mountains’ ubiquitous lime rocks into quicklime, used for plaster, cement, pigment, pavement material, agriculture and other uses.

Lime kiln

The early kilns were built with small doors at the bottom through which the lime stones were placed and air flowed to fuel the fire. The fire heated the built-up layers of lime above it, which gradually dropped to the floor and cooled. (The kilns were small, as one too big would collapse as its insides burned away). The whole process, from loading the lime to its eventual removal, took about a week’s time.

Yugo

During our stop at the kiln, the positioning of gigantic buses on the side of the narrow road was challenged by a rugged-looking gentleman at the wheel of a Yugo, a now-extinct, hand-made automobile that was first produced by the Yugoslav/Serbian company Zastava in 1978. Famous for its unreliability, it became a novelty/fad and was imported by an entrepreneur between 1985 and 1991, who sold Americans 141,511 of what was voted one of the 50 worst cars of all time. They were widely used in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and many can still be seen there, jerry-rigged to continue running, as original parts are long unavailable.  Cars like these are often found on Hvar island, as many of the residents use Hvar as a summer home or commute to the island for work, and find it easier to have second cars and trucks on the island.

Descending into thick forests dotted with limestone boulders, we soon reached the city of Hvar, the largest on the island. Hvar city was a center for trade and culture during centuries of Venetian rule, and the Venetian lion can be seen still on the fortress which dates from the 13th century. The ancient walls survive as do many historic buildings and churches.

Hvar fortress

The views of the harbor from the fortress are breathtaking.

Hvar port view

The town of Hvar is a place I could have stayed for months.

Hvar square

Hvar harbor

Hvar market

The Franciscan Monastery at the far end of the harbor hosts a chamber music festival in its courtyard, steps from the beach.

Monastery

Courtyard

Beach_2_black

Regretfully boarding the bus for the “fast road” back to the ship, we were nevertheless treated to spectacular views from a winding mountainside highway, as well as the customary warm welcome from the extraordinary staff of the Corinthian.

Coastline

Crew welcome

 

Tuesday, June 24: Mostar

The city of Mostar is one-and-a-half hours from the sea by bus. Our port, therefore, was the quaint if unremarkable town of Ploce on the Adriatic. Perfectly picturesque but seemingly deserted, Ploce is the main port city used by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mostar is one of the major cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina lying on the trade route between the Adriatic and the country’s mountainous areas.  It is also a cultural capital of the region. The city is named after the keepers of the famous Old Bridge (Stari Most), built during the Ottoman period in the sixteenth century, then a wonder in its own time, and now one of the most iconic landmarks in the region. In former times, young men would jump into the river as a rite of passage; today they do it for money!  This stunt is just one component of the lively tourist industry that helped rebuild Mostar after the devastation of the Croatian war, and sustains Mostar’s economy today.

Stari Most

The group also visited the beautiful Tabacica Mosque, one of the many mosques in Mostar.  Afterwards, there was a typical Bosnian lunch that consisted of chicken soup, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed peppers and beef.

Mosque

Some of our guests continued on a post-tour extension to Sarajevo after our final day in Dubrovnik. Those involved in the Sarajevo trip were taken to the Croatian towns of Ston and Mali Ston (Little Ston), two historic sites where they were treated to a boat ride, oyster, olive oil and cheese tasting. Why we didn’t get to go I don’t entirely understand, but those who did said it was terrific.

Our sail-out in the evening included gorgeous views, a textbook Finckel Happy Hour on the balcony, and lots of nice warm wind.

View

 

Happy hour 2

Wind
While dining that evening, the Corinthian completed its 29 mile sail to the Croatian island of Korcula. As the meal wound down, and people were saying their goodnights, I decided to step off the ship to check out the town, as we were docked right alongside. Even before descending the gangplank, I could tell we were in an incredible place. A quick walk of one block convinced me to return to the ship and coax the passengers – I think almost all of them – to join me on a late evening walk through one of the most magical, vibrant and picturesque stops on our entire tour.

Descending ganplank2

The first unbelievable sight was the sterns of some of most inviting yachts I’ve ever seen, backed in right next to the Corinthian.

Yacht

The Corinthian was snuggled in, a stone’s throw from the old city walls and defensive tower.

Corinthian in Korcula

The late town visit included a stroll by Cathedral of St. Mark’s, which would be our concert venue the following day.

St. Marks night_2

A brief pause before returning to the ship turned into a photo-op.

Photo op

 

Wednesday, June 25: Korcula

The following morning greeted us with our first clouds and rain of the trip. However, a break from the hot sun was something of a relief, and the intermittent showers did not compromise the attractiveness of the town. As you can see from this photo, taken with a telephoto lens from the cathedral steps, the Corinthian was always waiting.

Cloudy day_2_

Korcula is the second-most populous and the sixth-largest Adriatic island, although the town of Korcula feels most intimate. The island also includes around a dozen other cities that help house its population of 16,000; roughly a third of them live in Korcula town.

Despite the rain, the town was crammed with tourists visiting the beautiful historical sights, such as the Cathedral of St. Mark (1301), the Franciscan Monastery, various palaces and of course the impressive fortifications.

St. Marks

The concert, which began at 5 p.m., was a challenge for those on production duty. First, a torrential downpour drove half of our audience into the church early, and we had to abbreviate our only dress rehearsal for the concert. In addition, the church staff members were less than adept at keeping curious tourists from entering noisily, and Suzanne, Edward, our daughter Lilian, and Tour Director John Frick and Tour Managers Brian Goyette and Toni Silic did their best, as diplomatically as possible, to try to maintain a concert-level environment.

Silent behaving

In addition, for some reason the church heated itself to what seemed like record levels of heat and humidity. My colleagues performed amazingly while I missed just about every left hand shift in the Dvorak due to an uncontrollably wet fingerboard.

Wu Han began the program with Brahms’s late Intermezzi, Op. 118, about which she gave an enlightening talk before playing.

Wu Han talks

The cathedral provided a truly stunning setting.

St. Marks concert 1

Dvorak’s ever-popular Piano Quartet closed the concert, and our series of performances on this cruise. Kristin Lee played the violin part with fire, passion and technical perfection, while Arnaud Sussmann once again amazed with his apparently effortless ability to play the viola, out-classing all but the finest players of that unjustly-maligned instrument in the world.

St. Marks concert 2

Immediately following the performance, all the church staff descended on the scene to move the piano, the chairs, the altar rug, in a great hurry. Apparently our concert had lasted 30 minutes longer than expected, and I hope our transgression does not prevent future performances in this beautiful setting.

Sure enough, as we returned to ship, the clouds began to break, a warm glow came from the west, the restaurants started to fill up, and we enjoyed a picturesque sail-away from Korcula as the town lights came on.

Korcula departure

After a spectacular sunset,

Sunset

we gathered for the Captain’s Farewell dinner (one night early as some passengers were departing early the next day). The lobster tail dinner concluded with the Corinthian’s traditional Baked Alaska*, and a chance for us to applaud in appreciation of Chef Rey Canlas and his kitchen staff. The cuisine on the Corinthian (and before that on the Corinthian II) has been superb, every meal, from sumptuous breakfasts to eclectic and tasty outdoor lunches to sublime and elegant dinners.

Baked Alaska

*Baked Alaska is an ice cream cake encased in meringue which is cooked quickly at a very high temperatures, allowing the meringue to crust while it insulates the ice cream from melting. The name was applied to the dessert (which had been around long before in Asia, Europe and America) to aptly commemorate the Alaskan territories acquired by America in 1876.

Rey Canlas_2

 

Thursday, June 26: Kotor and Dubrovnik

After a turbulent all-night sail, the Corinthian entered the winding, picturesque Bay of Kotor at 6:30 a.m., passing through the narrow strait that was once defended by an underwater chain stretching between its shores.

Strait

Popularly referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord (but technically a “ria” or submerged river canyon) the bay is surrounded by steep mountain slopes, its shores dotted with attractive dwellings and churches, and its hills with mysterious and intriguing ruins. The bay’s beautiful towns make it a major tourist attraction, and its many churches, monasteries make it a site of religious pilgrimages.

Shore

Ruins

Making a right turn to sail to Kotor at the end of the bay, one passes the jewel-like islands of Our Lady of the Rocks and Sveti Đorđe (St. George).

Islands (2)

A brief glance at the history of Kotor and the bay reveals that just about everyone who was anyone in European history had control of or at least a go at it for most of its 2000-plus year history.

Kotor

The ruins of a fortress built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 535 dominate the city.

Fortress_2

The cozy, walled town offers everything from sublime churches to enticing pizza to street cats.

Church Kotor
Pizza

Cats

Departing promptly at 11:30, we began a long afternoon sail to our final destination, the world-renowned city of Dubrovnik, arriving at port by 4 p.m. and quickly transferring to coaches that would bring us to town alongside the city’s massive walls, considered among the world’s most extraordinary.

Since its founding in the 7th century, the city has been known by its Italian name Ragusa, but now goes by its Croatian name of Dubrovnik which dates from the Middle Ages, and was officially adopted in 1918 at the end of Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Dubrovnik’s spectacular harbor has been a coveted strategic location for centuries, fought over and possessed by the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy.

Dubrovnik map

Under the sovereignty of Venice, the Republic of Ragusa (founded 1272) made strides civil and social strides that put it way ahead of its time. Medical services were provided in 1301 and the world’s first pharmacy, opened in 1371, is still in business.

Pharmacy

Slavery was abolished in 1418, 447 years ahead of the United States. In 1377 a hospital was founded, and in 1432 an orphanage. The Republic’s statutes included town planning and sanitary laws.

One commonly enters the walled city through its gate next to the harbor, and is immediately struck with spectacular scenery.

Harbor view

Dubrovnik’s vibrant streets make it difficult to choose between shopping, eating, or sightseeing.

Street 1

Street 2_black

Capital

Historic fountain

With only a bit more than two hours to absorb one of Europe’s most incredible cities, our several groups, all led by vastly experienced guides, did their best to soak in overwhelming history of Dubrovnik, all the while navigating the crowds, avoiding the hot sun, and dealing with the aforementioned pleasurable distractions. Several wise travelers had elected to stay an extra day –among them our violinist Kristin Lee, on her way post-tour to Naples and Positano for further music-making. She made us all a bit jealous.

On the way back to the bus I was surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice cautiously calling my name. It turned out that in fact I have a Cello Talks student who is a native of Dubrovnik and plays the bass. It’s still hard for me to believe how far and wide that project has reached.

Cello Talks fan

It was indeed wonderful to have the company and support of CMS’s and Music@Menlo’s executive directors Suzanne Davidson and Edward Sweeney. Edward and I paused for a last scenic photo in front of the harbor.

Edward

Boarding the Corinthian for our final evening of merriment, Wu Han and Lilian looked down from our suite on the top deck.

Deck 6_black

Deprived of a final sunset sail (as we were all disembarking at Dubrovnik the following morning) we were nonetheless entertained by the always-thoughtful and resourceful Travel Dynamics staff. A band of Croatian musicians performed on board for us, and master tour-documenter John Frick recalled the week’s incredible adventures with a beautiful slide show.

Enough cannot be said for the Corinthian’s staff. From John, Brian and Toni, to our elegant and gracious chambermaid Elena, to expert maitre’d Renato, to vigilant hotel manager Bogdan, to our attentive butler Michael, to the ship’s brilliant pianist Eddie, to the world’s most wonderful bartender Jerome, and so many others who over many cruises have learned our names and treat us like family: to all of them we express our deepest thanks and admiration for their work, on behalf of the Chamber Music Society, Music@Menlo, our staffs and our musicians. Without them, the Corinthian would be just another cruise ship.

We also are so grateful to violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussmann for the time they invested in this project, and for their deep artistry, stunning instrumental gifts, supportive enthusiasm and professional adaptability to the variety of performance situations encountered on such adventures. They were inspiring colleagues and simply a lot of fun to be around – an opinion held by all on board.

And finally, to our crowd of devoted traveling companions, we express our gratitude for their participation and company on this voyage, and for their support of the musical institutions so dear to us. We wish all of our friends safe journeys home and at sea and look forward to our next adventure together.

http://www.chambermusicsociety.org/support/2015_cruises

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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