Monday, December 19, 2005

Lessons in Water

Having come from a society which takes great pride in education, the American system continues to puzzle me. This country has free public schools, yet so many parents opt to send their children to costly private ones, although there is no proof that the education the students are getting is any better in the latter. My home country simply doesn't have the private option, or it is so limited that the total of those schools numbers just a few. The same is true with universities. Not only is the tuition (or rather registration fee) ridiculously low, students get a monthly stipend from the system to cover their living expenses.

Likewise, music education differs vastly. The country is full of government-supported music schools where teachers get paid a good salary, with all the usual perks such as long paid summer vacations and year-long maternity leaves. Yet students (who are chosen by auditions) pay only a small tuition, but have to play regularly for juries, to make sure they are working hard and making progress. Instrumental instuction has no place in universities; conservatories are there for that. Private teaching hardly exists as there is no need for it. The country's population is only slightly more than a half of New Jersey's, yet it produces an incredible number of world class musicians: conductors, instrumentalists, singers and composers, making the Garden State look like Afganistan in comparison. - Yale received a lot of publicity recently because of a gigantic anonymous donation to their Music School and news agencies were busy telling the country that there would be no more tuition for their music students. A new Curtis had been created, it was said. However, this was too good to be true: at least one student parent of mine was told the free tuition only applied to graduate students. Yes, it is free after the first $150,000.

I have never been able to figure out where a normal family with more than one child can come up with all the expenses of a college education, whether in 'ordinary' academics, sciences, medicine or the arts. Somehow I have managed to have done my share, only the youngest of my four daughters has college in front of her. None of them needed any guidance as to what to do: my 18-year-old found out on her own about this state's Running Start program and did her two first years of college for free while others were still wasting there time in regular high school. Her remaining tuition was paid in advance with the state's GET program, in fact she'll be using only have of the money during the two years at WWU in Bellingham. She instantly figured out that all schools are ripping students (or rather parents) off with enormously high room and board expenses and decided well in advance to rent a place with a girlfriend for much less money and far better privacy and space. The two older siblings both graduated a year early each and both have excelled in their fields: one has won numerous prestigious awards as a journalist and the other one has been hired as a staff doctor in geriatrics at UCLA.

Just the other day I was reading a Scientific American from a couple of years ago. In it was an article comparing bottled water with ordinary tap water. It is possible to spend 7,500 times more for a bottled product than what an equal amount of tap water costs. Yet in blind tests nobody preferred the expensive product. In a California restaurant with a hidden camera, bottles were filled from a hose in the back yard. They were labeled with foreign labels such as 'Faucet Water' in French and 'Water for an Ass' in Spanish; diners happily paid $7 per bottle and praised the product. In truth bottled water can be far worse than what you get from tap: a higher percentage has harmful bacteria and other residue in bottles. A municipal water system is carefully monitored; bottle the stuff and those restrictions disappear. It is all in the consumer's mind: if something costs more, it obviously has to be better than a cheaper or free product.

This brings me to the price of private music lessons. There are teachers who are charging an arm and a leg for their time, obviously claiming to be worth the money. Granted, there are better teachers and not-so-good ones. But is someone charging $120 per hour really twice as good as another with a $60 fee? Is your child making progress at twice the speed and becoming that much better a musician, or are you just being ripped off? What about someone in New York whose rates may exceed $300? Obviously, if the parent has money to burn, the price of a music lesson doesn't matter, but there are a lot of talented youngsters whose families are on a strict budget. Personally I feel that the more advanced the student is, the responsibility and demands on the teacher are higher and the fee should be adjusted accordingly, especially if the teacher has to be able to show how a passage or a phrase should sound. After all, an example is worth a thousand words. And obviously, the length of a lesson should vary based on the skill level: in what seems like an eternity to a beginner, the advanced young artist is just getting warmed up.

The Northern European system is perhaps like tap water: clean, tasty (especially if you use your Britta to filter out the chlorine) and inexpensive. We are obviously more attracted to Evian, but ought to once in a while read the label backwards.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Empty promises

It seems to me that there is no honor in truth and keeping promises these days. Lying is not only accepted; it has become our national pastime. When was the last time a politician was behind his words, promises and accusations? From invented WMDs to manufactured Al-Qaida-Iraq links everything had been forgiven and forgotten. It is not long ago when rebuilding New Orleans was supposedly made a priority in our country: is there anything concrete happening down there or have the people and the city just been erased from our memories?

In the same league are rich people who have made pledges to non-profits, whether for humanitarian aid or to keep an arts organization running, and then conveniently choose to ignore them, for reasons only clear to themselves. If someone's finances have taken a turn for the worse, such actions would be understandable, but not in a case where the would-be-donor is swimming in wealth. Are such pledges worth no more than marriage vows that few couples seem to take seriously any longer?

There have been times and places where a verbal agreement has been worth as much as a written contract. An example would be the diamond merchants in Manhattan. Unfortunately, our society is moving away from that tradition with an increasing speed. Even in families and close relationships promises are expected taken with a few grains of salt. Wouldn't it be nice if we all stuck to we had agreed on? Whom can we trust any more?

In a previous post I mentioned the Audubon Quartet. Quite a few people have since pointed out that in their opinion the faulty party isn't necessarily the one victorious in the courts. This may well be the case, but whatever the reasons behind this costly and ghastly breakup, it should have been taken care of in a civilized manner. Even a divorce can be almost painless and done without the expense of lawyers (oh, would they hate that!); so why couldn't the same be true with an unhappy chamber music group? This ought to be possible similarly with any breakup, personal or job related. It is sad that more often than not you have a party (or two) who just want to destroy each others lives, and fatten the bank accounts of their attorneys. There is so much evil amongst us, and an equal amount of parasitic people who love to benefit from the hate and destruction.

Happy holidays.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Leggo My Ego

Reading about the Audubon Quartet's legal battle is both unbelievable and frightening. Common sense would dictate that if four people don't enjoy playing together and don't get along, the group splits, or at least the person who seems to be the culprit, whether true or not, will leave on his own. But because of an inflated ego, the fact that a lawsuit dragged on until remaining musicians had to declare bankruptcy, lose their home and worse yet, their instruments, is beyond belief. Everyone is ending up a loser, other than the lawyers who have laughed all the way to the bank. The 'winner' of the legal battle will not have too many supporters and I doubt fellow musicians are lining up to play chamber music with him in the near future.

Classical music is such a limited field, that making it difficult or impossible for someone to work and earn a livelihood, because of hurt feelings or whatever, is a severe blow in most cases. In many other professions one just looks for other employment in town and life goes on. Yet there are enough narcissistic and psychopathic musicians who are more than willing to do anything to destroy a colleague's life. I have enough examples that have touched my life, and stories told by others are plentiful. For example, a couple tried to prevent a fellow musician from getting work, using their connections in the media to humiliate the individual. In this case the attempt backfired and the culprits had to pack up and leave town in a hurry. The harassed musician is still employed, and the case ended as it should have.

Of course this kind of behavior is not only happening in the arts. Just remember the McCarthy era: my extended family had members who lost their important and lucrative positions, just because they were labeled 'communists', often for refusing to turn in names of their friends and colleagues. Blacklisting is a terrible thing and should be outlawed, and those guilty of it punished by law. In this country one is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in truth it doesn't take much to taint someone's reputation. The nation feared communism in the fifties and it was almost impossible to try to convince others that a suspected person wasn't member of the party or supporter of their ideals, especially if he or she believed in the society's role in helping the less fortunate.

This is gift giving season and I wish everyone would get what they deserve. In many European countries St. Nicholas came early December with his horse and took bad children with him away to Spain. Father Christmas would show up later and bring the good ones presents. Children were careful to behave well and stay out of mischief. We should have the same system for grown-ups. I personally would have no problems with St.
Osama taking the nasty people with him to the caves on the Afganistan-Pakistan border.

Wisdom of the week: '
Happy are those who have not perfect pitch, for the kingdom of music is theirs.' How true.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Mediocrity rules

Although history in its hindsight often glorifies individuals who were true geniuses in their field, be it sciences or arts, in their lifetime these people often receive little or no recognition. At least it can take a lot of time, like in case of Einstein; or people are credited for something else than what they will remembered for later on, like J.S. Bach or Mahler. People like to turn mediocre people with limited talents into their heroes and often ridicule those who can see things outside of the box, the truly gifted ones. In medicine, the first ones to suggest that an ulcer wasn't caused by stress but by an infection were laughed at. Another medical student came up with the theory that combination AIDS drugs would work better than any single agent; that idea didn't fly well at first either. Schubert was an unknown composer who couldn't get his works performed, Buxtehude and Telemann far more popular than Bach as composers.

A former doctor and friend of mine, now retired, was related to Edvard Munch, the great Norwegian painter of the 'Scream' fame. The artist was a true black sheep in the religious, fundamentalist family. After he passed away, none of the relatives wanted to have anything to do with his paintings. Had they only guessed what fame this ridiculed man would achieve after his death and how much his works of art would be worth later on! Another greatly misunderstood artist was Vincent van Gogh, who was equally unsuccessful during his lifetime in commercial sense.

It was van Gogh who wrote lots of now famous letters to his brother, also about mediocrity. His comment is included in this speech by the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson, given in Siena, Italy in 2002:

Mediocrity is the greatest enemy of good and life. Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo, are among the most moving cries of understanding and humanity that we have. In one letter, he writes, "How does one become mediocre? By compromising, by making concessions, today in this matter, tomorrow in another, according to the dictates of the world, by never contradicting the world and by always following public opinion." I don't think anyone has ever summed it up more perfectly.

Mediocrity is safe, very easy – and therefore to be avoided at all costs! The purpose of life, it seems to me, is to leave no one and nothing indifferent. It means taking risks, going down paths that are not approved. It means the possibility of loneliness and isolation. It means, in sum, all that which is opposed to mediocrity.

I couldn't agree with Her Excellency, or the artist, more. Even when choosing our leaders we shy away from the most capable ones and put people in power whom we think are most like us regular folks. Foreign policy is decided by people who cannot even read a map. In Kansas schools are teaching intelligent design, creationism in a different clothing, a slap in the face of science. Yet according to polls most of us are comfortable with this. At the same time we criticize the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslim movements, but refuse to see the same pattern in our own country. It is difficult to remember that Islam saved our civilization and was more advanced in the sciences than anything before them. What happened there since could be taking place here right now.

Just like in politics, people in the arts, and entertainment, depend heavily on PR. We rush to see and hear 'artists' who have really no place in the spotlight. We take the word of 'experts' for face value, although often these people are among the least competent. People seem to think all it takes is believing in themselves and instantly greatness is there. Take for example a string player in B-rate orchestra, who got his job because the organization was in desperate need and truly qualified applicants were few or none. Immediately he thinks of himself now being part of the musical elite, although just yesterday he was an unemployed nobody. There was a time when a musical entertainer needed to know how to sing: today lip syncing is sufficient, with good marketing. Mediocrity rules again.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Crime and Punishment

Often it seems like bad people can get away with anything. Being ruthless and having a heart of stone are signs of a successful person, a leader. They are also trademarks of criminals. But if you look at life from a different perspective, as if it was a history book, you'll see that in most cases there is a judgment day for these utterly selfish and cold-blooded people.

He may be up there in years and have one foot in the grave, but Chile's general Pinochet is finally coming face to face with his past. Hitler ended up committing suicide with his mistress. Chairman Mao may have ruled to the end but the real evil force in his shadow, his wife, was made to pay for her cruelty. Although at one time he was a great friend of many members of our government, Saddam Hussein is going through his trial, as a result of becoming an enemy to the United States. If you believe like most of Americans seem to these days, that we were brainwashed and misled to go and occupy Iraq, there is some satisfaction in knowing that people are finally seeing the truth,
at least a partial one. After this all is history, those warmongers responsible for this bloodshed will have to always watch their backs. I don't think they would feel at ease traveling abroad as there are plenty of people willing to do anything to pay them back. Everything comes at a price.

All this is true for the common man as well, not just world leaders and such. There are plenty of us who think they are untouchables, for whatever reason. Some are able to operate above the law, or at least above common decency, for a long time, but finally the handwriting on the wall becomes too visible to hide. We live in a democracy, even if it seems questionable at times, and in such a system everyone has a right to his or her opinions and beliefs. Decades may go by, but if one is patient he/she will see justice done. Unfortunately, exceptions will always remain and innocent ones get punished instead of the guilty ones, but in this age of information and the internet, truth is harder to hide. People don't automatically think that just because they read it in the paper, it must be true and correct, no questions asked.

Just recently I had the pleasure of playing three concerts as soloist of an orchestra which doesn't pretend to be one of the best in the world, but which took me by surprise by how good they sounded. What made the difference was the attitude of the musicians. They clearly loved what they were doing and there was genuine joy in the music making. There were no phony smiles in the group, meant to impress the audience. These faces expressed true pleasure - what an enviable situation.

Today's 'oddly enough' section in Reuter's news has an item titled
'Longer needles needed for fatter buttocks.' It has become a strange world indeed. Interestingly, where I spent almost a week, the population was far trimmer and in better shape than one would have expected. Active people equals active bodies and active minds.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Last week in Sweden there was a serious shortage of cash. Half of all ATMs were totally empty because the companies responsible for transporting money and other valuables refused to make deliveries. The drivers and their union insisted on better police protection, as a record number of armored vehicles had been attacked, with weapons and explosives, probably by organized crime. A good Svensson would not commit such an indecent act, but the country has a lot of immigrants from countries where criminal deeds are a normal part of life.

A different kind of shortage was evident when I was living in that country in the mid-1970s. One couldn’t buy beef in any form, for reasons that are not clear to me even now. Restaurants were able to purchase some from Poland and steak dinners were very expensive indeed. A mere mortal didn’t have this option and ‘the other white meat’ was all that was available. We used to joke that Sweden had invented kosher pork. There were small billboards on utility poles with pictures of bread, of which every good citizen was encouraged to eat seven slices a day. This was a strange phenomenon in one of the richest countries of the world, true at least at that time.

Although I was used to a Western-style socialist welfare system, the Swedish way was at times hard to understand. Never mind the more than 60% income tax rate I was paying; if one felt sick, a government healthcare office needed to be notified, as the salary for the sick days came directly from there. Because it wasn’t fair to expect everyone to have a phone, a postcard mailed on that day was sufficient. Although the pay for the first two sick days was reduced to 80%, after which it went to full pay, it was too much of a temptation to pass. A card mailed on Friday would not reach the government office until Monday, and so many people took an extra long weekend on a regular basis that even then-mighty Volvo could operate only on four days a week. The system provided incredible tax-free benefits for the less fortunate, or to people who opted not to seek work. Below us lived a woman who had children with different men. Based on her mail accidentally delivered to our apartment, her net income was greater than mine, so there was no need for her to work. No, I didn’t open any envelopes; in such an open society all such payment forms were mailed as postcards.

The city of Malmö had a very respectable orchestra which also served the opera and ballet, housed in the same complex. I got to do an endless number of Show Boats in Swedish, plus the mandatory Swan Lakes and even a modern Swedish opera, where my opening solo in harmonics imitated an SOS signal emitting from a lost spacecraft. We had some excellent guest conductors and soloists. Arthur Grumiaux played one of the best performances of the Brahms concerto I’ve ever heard. The legendary Emil Gilels came over with a Soviet conductor, whom he obviously didn’t have much respect for. It was humorous to see the pianist standing up and conducting the tutti sections behind the guest maestro’s back, quite differently to say the least.

It was in that city that I heard the New York Philharmonic perform during their European tour in the spring of -77. Thomas Schippers conducted Bartók absolutely brilliantly and it was shock to read about his death just a short time afterwards. What a talent he was and there was good chemistry between him and the musicians. What sticks in my mind, though, was a female first violinist, sitting on the outside, who decided to turn the concert into her own show. She would insist on using the entire bow when others quietly played at the tip, and often make a point of bowing long passages differently from everyone else. Tremolos she didn’t care for, and needless to say, her outfit was more suited for an escort service than a symphony orchestra. Perhaps she had a healthy attitude: so many string players like to compare orchestra work to prostitution, as they feel used and get very little in return, other than money. It just might be that she saw her job in a more realistic light. In fact, I have observed many similar individuals in numerous orchestras, usually youngish women. Obviously someone in these institutions likes and tolerates it, as otherwise such exhibitionism would come to an abrupt end. Perhaps audiences feel more entertained this way: whatever sells tickets is good. Even if people don’t know a good musical performance from a bad one, at least they can appreciate visual delights and temptations.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Orchestra Flu

Those of us who have been frightened by the spread of the avian flu (H5N1) have done so for a reason. Fresh studies are out proving that the deadly Spanish flu of 1918 was indeed another type of bird flu, jumping directly to humans and spread via person-to-person contact. That flu killed more people than WW I and there have been estimates that should the present threat mutate to an easier-to-transmit form, the number of deaths could reach 150 million this time. Nature may well be fighting back an ever-increasing human population, as so often in history.

A different type of a 'flu' is attacking the music world. Like the world population, orchestra budgets have increased past the point where they are sustainable. Very recently the New Jersey Symphony announced cuts to both the length of their season and salaries as well. Yet the pay rate in this group is just a fraction of what most important American orchestras spend on their musicians, and obviously their players have to augment their income by free-lancing or teaching on the side. Pittsburgh started their season with a strange concert where balloons were loudly popping throughout the performance. Perhaps it was an omen, bubbles bursting, as per their contract, enormous pay raises will have to happen at a time when the orchestra can ill afford it. One thing they have done right, though: instead of a dictatorial music director they have a troika in charge. These three conductors can each concentrate on repertoire they are best at. Let's face it, none of us can master all varieties of music equally well. Boston's Lhevine said in a recent interview that there are many important composers whose works he won't conduct. He simply isn't comfortable with everyone; we all should be that honest.

What to do about an orchestra's financial ills? First of all, be realistic with regard to musicians' salaries. Perhaps the pay should be tied to the amount of work one actually performs. But an even more important issue is to reduce the amount of money paid to soloists and conductors. If every orchestra agreed that those fees are too high, the price tag would quickly come down as the only option these artists would have left is not to perform at all. Or they could try to do something in the style of the Three Tenors: perform in stadiums and arenas with an inexpensive pick-up orchestra for a star-struck audience. As it stands now, it is an insult to the ordinary musician that someone makes as much money during one run of concerts as they do in a year. Of course, a lot of money would also be saved if music directors and general managers wouldn't be paid such astronomical sums. Without an orchestra, the most expensive conductor or manager won't be able to create music. The same isn't true in reverse.

All these problems would, of course, be instantly solved if Halliburton got involved in the classical music business.

New Year

Rosh Hashanah

Happy New Year to my Jewish friends and readers. It is the time of the year when synagogues become exclusive clubs and charge an arm and a leg for a ticket to let a person take part in a service. What happens to all those people who don't have an extra few hundred dollars to spend? Are the less fortunate ones purposely kept out of sight? It is not so long ago when Jewish people were very poor, especially back in the Pale. I don't think charging admission to attend a service would have been an acceptable idea under those conditions.

In front of G-d we are all supposed to be equal, rich and poor alike. How is it then that the society holds the well-to-do in higher regard, no matter how their money has been made? I can name people who couldn't have cared less about their religion in their younger years. The same men who wouldn't have been interested in Jewish girls and bragged about their Gentile conquests then, are now honored members of a congregation, having finally settled down with a Jewish wife, perhaps in a second or third marriage.

My journalist daughter pointed out to me that her name shows up on the official Kahanist list of the top "Self-Hating and/or Israel Threatening Jews." She is there with Noam Chomsky and Daniel Barenboim, in good company. She doesn't write much about Israel but has brought up the suffering of Palestinian women in the past. I guess anyone who believes in peace and isn't a pro-Israel militant is a danger. But in reality, religious extremists are a threat to mankind, not depending on what their beliefs are. Christians, Muslims and Jews can be equally dangerous, even to their own brethen who happen to see life in a different light. Just think of what's happening in today's Iraq or what took place in Northern Ireland.

Have a wonderful year.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Finns and Conducting

There was an interesting news item during this week, regarding the Sibelius Conductors' Competition in Finland. In a country where more conductors are produced than anywhere, the jury of this international competition decided that none of the finalists were worth the first, second or third prizes. The jury was chaired by well-known Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Read this article in the leading daily, Helsingin Sanomat; it is in English. Perhaps the Finns know more about conducting than others. I cannot picture such a decision taking place in a similar competition in this country.

In my twenties I was living in a city on Finland's West Coast. My first wife, an American, was the concertmaster of the orchestra, while I was in charge of teaching violin, viola and chamber music in the conservatory, also conducting their chamber orchestra. The elderly gentleman, who was the maestro for the Symphony, did his job very professionally. Unfortunately he had been there for too long, and the some of the players were unhappy with the situation. Since in that system there was no danger for the musicians to be fired (they were city employees), they could get away with a lot more than here. The conductor suffered a stroke, and everyone thought that was going to be the end of his story. But the man recovered and returned to work after a long sick leave. To show how miffed they were, the entire horn section went out during a break at an evening rehearsal in the cold winter, and let let the air out of this poor man's car's tires. This was too good a hint and the gentleman retired soon afterwards.

The job was then given to a young conductor, supposedly gifted, who was a member of a conservative party (as I wrote before at some point, in this city the pie was divided this way: the political left had the conservatory). Unfortunately, this man's ego was greater than his talent, and he was involved in the political scene more than in trying to develop his musical skills. My wife, who was a terrific violinist and artist, didn't get along with her new boss very well. At some point, the city's music council decided to fire my ex, because she had, during her own sick leave after an operation, come back to the U.S. to visit her critically ill father. Anything for an excuse; one is supposed to stay put during a sick leave! Soon we left and I took the job as a concertmaster in Malmö, Sweden. Back in Finland, this conductor continued driving his black limousine, but soon it became all too evident he wasn't up to the musical demands of the job and he was ousted by the same council. Today he is the director of a music school in a rather small town, I believe. Such is life. The orchestra's present, longtime concertmaster is a former student of mine, born and raised in that city.

Today, the youngest of my four daughters is officially becoming a teenager. What a great young lady she is! At the same time her 18-year-old sister has been moving her belongings to Bellingham, where she is about to start at the Western Washington University as a junior, majoring in political science and minoring in Latin American studies. Although we'll be seeing her often, as she has her own car and the campus is only about a 90 minute drive from here, I'll miss her terribly. We have a very close relationship and her absence will leave a void in my heart. Of course, to her this is an exciting time, the beginning of a new chapter in life.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hermann Michael remembered 1

This is the obituary in the New York Times:

September 14, 2005

Hermann Michael, Maestro, Dies at 68


Hermann Michael, a conductor who appeared around the world and was music director of the Phoenix Symphony for seven seasons, died on Sept. 1 at his home in Uffing, Germany. He was 68.

The cause was aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease diagnosed in 1999, the orchestra announced.

In addition to working in Phoenix, Mr. Michael had a special relationship with Seattle, where he appeared nearly every season as a guest with the opera company after making his American debut there in 1984. He led three complete "Ring" cycles in Seattle, and regularly performed with the symphony.

Mr. Michael conducted at the Metropolitan Opera a number of times, leading "Fidelio," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Die Fledermaus." Other guest appearances took him to the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and many other major ensembles in Europe and North America.

Born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a Bavarian town, in 1937, Mr. Michael studied piano and cello at the Stuttgart conservatory, but had had no formal conducting training when he audited a master class of Herbert von Karajan's in Berlin in 1960. Afterward he announced to Karajan that he could do that, too. Karajan had him come back the next day and conduct the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. Even more surprisingly, he approved of what he heard.

After this experience and a three-week master class with another acclaimed conductor, Hans Swarowsky, Mr. Michael was invited to take part in the first Cantelli Conducting Competition in Italy, which he won. He later served as Karajan's assistant at the Vienna State Opera and undertook some significant guest engagements before becoming director of the Bremen Opera from 1970 to 1978.

His debut in Seattle came at the recommendation of the American baritone Dale Duesing, who sings frequently in Germany and Seattle. Later in his life, Mr. Michael taught conducting at the Munich Musikhochschule, a position he gave up in 2000 because of ill health.

Mr. Michael met his wife, Brigitta, a violinist, when he was 21. She survives him, along with their four children, Ariane, Angela, Ramon and Dunja, and 10 grandchildren.

Hermann Michael remembered 2

My friend Hermann Michael sent this recommendation to me in May. He wrote it by hand, in spite of his grave illness. You can sense his loving relationship with Seattle musicians in his writing. How we all miss him!

May 10, 05

To whom it may concern,

I would like to let you know how much I appreciate Ilkka Talvi, the former concertmaster of the SSO.

I know Ilkka from numerous occasions as a guest-conductor with the SSO since 1984. Since then I was guest-conducting more than 30 major orchestras in the U.S.A., including the famous big orchestras as the Chicago Symphony, Boston Philadelphia, San Francisco or the MET.

In my personal judgement Ilkka can bear the comparison with the concertmasters of those great orchestras.

Ilkka is a great artist and a wonderful violinist as well. I do remember my first appearance with the SSO in 1984: despite my poor English at that time I felt immediately a musical oneness with him. He understood every gesture and knew immediately how to “translate” it into violinistic terms. Over all these years he demonstrated his ability to lead a Violin-group, to demand the best quality from his collegues and to communicate with them always very friendly, not hurting anyone’s feelings.

He is at ease with every musical style, Symphony and Opera repertoire as well.

Many outstanding performances remain in my memory, with him as a soloist and as the concertmaster of my beloved SSO.

Hermann Michael

Monday, September 12, 2005

Lahti memories

I was 16 and living by myself when the Lahti orchestra in Finland asked me to come along as a sub to their short tour to their sister city in Sweden, Västerås. I agreed and had to buy my first set of tails. I knew the Lahti orchestra well, having played with them as a soloist at 13. Many of their musicians had come to help out in my dad’s orchestra in Kuusankoski and I had befriended them.

Finnish musicians like to drink (no wonder I always felt somewhat like an outsider there) and the orchestra had insisted that the trip be made by one of the numerous car ferries that take about 8 hours to cross from Turku to Stockholm. “Ferry” is a misnomer as these magnificent floating monsters are like the fanciest cruise ships, Some can be ten stories high or even more. Cars are kept out of sight in the bowels of the mammoth ships. Main thing is that everyone has fun.

So, my colleagues immediately started drinking (alcohol used to be much cheaper then, before the EU) and since I looked much beyond my years, I had no trouble joining them. From early on I knew my limits and never enjoyed losing control, so I was careful. The orchestra had hired a visiting principal cellist who really had a weakness for liquor. After the boat trip we had to bus for an hour. The mayor and everyone important were meeting us. The first bus door opened and the guest principal cellist rolled out, absolutely plastered, to the mayor’s feet, not being able to move an inch, and threw up. I was quite embarrassed but everyone seemed to think this was normal.

The concerts went surprisingly well. The conductor’s violinist son was the soloist (nepotism is everywhere), but he did a respectable job with his Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, the cellist did not play a note but was fine by the time the return voyage started, ready for more fun.

Today this orchestra is a hot item and plays in a fabulous wooden hall. Osmo Vänskä used to be their conductor for many years, before leaving for Minneapolis. The group has recorded an incredible number of compact discs, mainly for the BIS label. After moving overseas I’ve returned there once, to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with them.

Eye Candy

There was an interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times, about music and sex appeal, and an excellent link ( which you should check. Sex has always sold and today such is the case more than ever. If you check some of the pictures available via the link, you’ll soon see that glamorous pictures of these female artists, often with plenty of skin showing, are more important than their musical and artistic skills. It is a sad state of affairs, at least in my opinion. Where would great violinists who were not known for their skin deep beauty, such as Ginette Neveu or Ida Haendel, fit in today’s meat market world?

As I know many of these babes pictured, it amazes me what magic photographers can produce. By showing a bit more bare skin, a viewer’s attention is drawn away from an ordinary face, and a sexy eye candy image is created. Even not-so-attractive features can be transformed to something else with lighting tricks and using filtering effects. How about having mug shots of these beauties taken first thing in the morning, before the thick layers of make-up and outfits suited for an expensive escort service?

Today’s mail brought an envelope addressed to my wife. It was a request for a donation, one of many every day, but the text on the outside caught our attention:



In pictures: Aniela Perry, cello (left), Linda Brava, violin


Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Interesting how one country’s tragedy was cause for celebration in other parts of the world. Many fundamentalist and militant Muslims felt joy and pride for their brothers managing to stick their thumbs up the nose their archenemy, Uncle Sam. Within hours the plans to invade Iraq were in full motion. Of course, history has shown already that instead of curbing terrorism, this invasion and occupation created a whole new breed of it. Interestingly, this was not the only 9/11 with this kind of a scenario. In 1973 Chile’s democratically-elected president Salvador Allende was overthrown and assassinated in a military coup, supported by our very own CIA, code named “Project FUBELT”. General Pinochet and his supporters celebrated, as did many in this country, and yet much of the free world was stunned and wept. Countless number of people were tortured, died or simply vanished as a result. I’m sure there are other similar celebrations that are mourned by equally many.

9-1-1 is also a quick way to send the police to someone’s door. We had a disturbed resident a couple blocks up who decided that either my wife or her students’ parents were driving too fast past his house. The strange part of the story is that the street is very narrow at that point, and it is very difficult to see down the hill, so nobody wanting to stay out of harm’s way would drive faster than 10-15 mph. I guess that by sending the policemen here made my wife seem a criminal in his view. He soon moved away, to the relief of everyone in the neighborhood.

Breaking news just told about the resignation of Mike Brown, the head of FEMA. Duh. Although our President initially praised him for handling the hurricane aftermath, the fiasco grew too big to sweep under a rug. Perhaps Mr. Brown can return to the area to head a Seahorse Association, as his expertise is better with horses than people.

Just a couple days back HBO showed a terrific “Real Time with Bill Maher.” We need more people who can speak their mind, and the truth, about the way our country and world is headed. This show started with a joke about a certain former White House intern from the Clinton era becoming a psychotherapist; so that she can blow peoples’ minds, and went on to attack the intolerable handling of Katrina’s aftermath, addressing our head of state directly in the famous “New Rules” section. I wish I could speak my mind like that, or even a fraction of it, without threats of lawsuits. I am happy that Mr. Maher is allowed to exercise his first amendment rights: we all need to hear something different from the censored picture of events even CNN gives us these days.

Friday, September 02, 2005


Granted, they are black and poor, except for some tourists that were left behind or patients in hospitals, but that is no reason to treat these people like rodents. Footage from New Orleans is worse than if Port-au-Prince in Haiti had been hit by a tidal wave. The world is following the worsening disaster with amazement. How can the richest country be so inept with helping its own citizens? If America didn’t already lose its face in Iraq, it surely is doing so now. Do we not care about these people, most of whom were too poor to get out on their own? They had little to start with: now they have nothing. Granted, these people are not likely to be supporters of the governing party or even registered voters, but they are as much human beings as you and I. This wouldn’t have happened in West Palm Beach or in Orange County. May I suggest a mandatory 4-day stay in the Superdome for all those members of our government in charge of aid? And don’t clean the toilets beforehand or remove the dead left sitting in the spectator seats.

Ratlantis is truly a lost city under water. It is ironic that we have known for a long time how vulnerable that place would be: two different studies, just seven years ago or so, suggested improvements to protect the city from a disaster like this. Of course, nothing got done as a result. We refused to take part in the Kyoto Agreement and help do our part in curbing the warming climate. We should therefore expect more frequent catastrophic storms and rising seas, both extremely dangerous to low-lying areas, not to mention places below sea level.

What upsets me the most is that people seem to be worried about the Mississippi Delta area for the same reason the war in Iraq bothers them now all of a sudden: sharply higher fuel prices. Is driving to work in a big SUV really more important than human lives? How about improving public transport and getting used to the idea of utilizing its services?

And bring back the National Guard from Iraq! They were never meant to be used to invade a foreign country, but to provide critical help in domestic tragedies such as this. I’m sure they would much rather be saving lives than taking them, or losing their own.

When do you think will be the next time a symphony concert will take place in Ratlantis?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Hermann Michael In Memoriam

I just received word that my dear friend and Seattle’s favorite musical guest for 20 years, Hermann Michael, passed away this morning, after a long illness, at his home outside of Munich, Germany.

Hermann first came to Seattle to conduct a Wagner opera production in 1984, and was a beloved regular guest conductor for both the opera and the symphony since then. As this town was the site of his first American appearance, it always held a special place in his heart, and he had a large number of loyal friends and and admirers here. He was one of those rare maestros to whom music was everything, not his own career and fame. When I think of him, I instantly see a smiling face. He radiated love for music and for his musicians, and always managed to make everyone do their best by his positive and inspiring approach. I had the fortune of playing as soloist with him twice, with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and also the Brahms Double. We had a perfect musical understanding and could have performed even without rehearsing. Playing the ‘Ring’ cycles with him made those endless hours go by quickly and painlessly.

Like many others, I will miss this incredible musician and human being terribly. I had last spoken with him in May over the phone and had just sent him a letter which he hopefully got to read. I am happy, however, that he is no longer suffering. Death is part of life after all. We all wish he could have been with us much longer, but his time had come. My heart goes out to his wife and family, and other beloved ones.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Summer reading

In addition to a rather large number of books on music in our bookcases, my wife brings other ones home from the Seattle Library system. Recently I have read ‘Music and the line of most resistance’, by Artur Schnabel, and ‘Virtuoso’, by Harvey Sachs. They were written 40 years apart, in 1942 and -82, respectively.

Old books often open a window to a different era and offer the reader an opportunity to see life from a very different perspective from today. In music, some problems have remained the same: Schnabel writes about music critics and art journalism at length and states:
‘Great men are as rare among the critics as they are among the musicians or any other group, but the consequences of not being great are not the same for critics as they are for musicians who appear in public. Only the musicians are publicly criticized.’ The writer laments the disappearance of amateurs which he, to a point, blames on the radio and the phonograph. ‘It follows that the amateur, as I define the term, always dwells on a plane higher than that of a professional who never produces, and is never keen to produce, what may be classified as art. Not every musician is an artist.’ Schnabel has other refreshing opinions as well: ‘To correct the misconception concerning “virtuosity,” which (I must emphasize once more) must also be completely mastered for the performance of inwardly originated music, although it is generally related to the external (which is about all there is to the other species), Walter J. Turner, the English poet, has suggested giving to the the so-called “virtuoso” a new name. The name is “trashoso”—which would precisely express what is nowadays expected from the virtuoso.’

The other book has short biographies with comments of nine famous instrumentalists, from Niccolò Paganini to Glenn Gould. Right now I’ll stick to ‘The life and art of Fritz Kreisler’. In 13 pages (plus a few for pictures) Sachs manages to spin a fascinating tale of probably the greatest artist violin playing has ever seen. Father Kreisler was the family physician of Sigmund Freud, who couldn’t quite understand why young Fritz was taken by his mother, at the age of 10, to Paris to study. Massart, himself a pupil of Kreutzer, wrote that although he had been ‘the teacher of Wieniawski and many others…little Fritz will be the greatest of them all.’ Another interesting detail is that Kreisler auditioned for a position in the Vienna Hofoper Orchestra (also known as the Vienna Philharmonic) but was not accepted. That tells you something about the fairness of auditions even back then! The author correctly points out that Kreisler’s name should not be used to symbolize sentimentality or schmalz. ‘The recordings he made are evidence enough that such notions are largely groundless.’

A well-known fact is that Fritz never liked to practice; he considered it a bad habit. A violinist friend of my father’s occupied a room next to the master’s during a mid-1930 tour to Finland. For three days the poor man had his ear glued to the wall, as he was determined to find out the secret of Kreisler’s artistry, from the way he practiced. Only on the third day, just before the concert, did the maestro take out his violin: he tuned it and put it back in the case. My dad used to tell me how upset this friend was; on a tight student budget and during the depression years, that certainly wasn’t money well spent.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Finns in the News

My countrymen have shown up in the news during the past week. Finland’s former president Matti Ahtisaari brokered a truce agreement between Indonesia and Free Aceh movement (GAM) which was signed August 15th. Aceh was the area hardest hit by the December tsunami of last year, with 130,000 casualties. GAM has been fighting for independence from Indonesia for almost 30 years. The new agreement calls for more autonomy but leaves the area as part of that nation. Another Finn is there overseeing the collecting of firearms and other weapons. Sometimes it takes a great tragedy for people to understand that peace is the best and only solution.

Now to sports: Helsinki hosted the track and field World Championships this month. Mother Nature wasn’t in her most co-operative mood and many events had to be postponed due to rain and storms. At the same time an American made helicopter from Tallinn, Estonia, crashed into the Gulf of Finland, killing all 14 abroad, during what was supposed to be a regular commercial 15-minute hop to Helsinki. Just yesterday, a Finnish Formula 1 driver Kimi Räikkönen won the inaugural
Turkish Grand Prix. I watched him win the Canadian one in June on Finnish television. While he may not be a rocket scientist, he sure knows how to drive and race.

Today’s New York Times has one of the
best reviews the Mostly Mozart Festival has ever received. The resident orchestra was conducted by Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vänskä, whom I remember as a clarinetist and starting Kapellmeister in Finland 30 years ago. Obviously something remarkable took place in Avery Fisher hall this past weekend, as the orchestra used to be known more or less as a pick-up group. ‘Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the growing fascination with Mr. Vanska is that it is based entirely on his musicianship. Now in his early 50's, and given to energetic podium gestures that are often graceful though occasionally slightly clunky, he is not a picture of conductorial glamour. What Mr. Vanska does on the podium, though, is extraordinary, and on Saturday evening he made Mostly Mozart's resident freelance band sound like a world-class ensemble.’ Wow. I’m happy for the orchestra and Mr. Vänskä. Perhaps all his experience with rather small Finnish orchestras and in Lahti in particular, have given him a perfect know-how as to what a classical orchestra needs to excel.

At some later time I’ll write about a comical experience I had touring with the Lahti orchestra when I was just 16.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Excuse me

When I first heard Michael Rabin perform during the Sibelius Week in Helsinki, prior to his concerto the festival's manager came out on stage. An announcement was made: Mr. Rabin's sister has suddenly died that morning but the soloist would nonetheless go ahead with his performance. All the older ladies in the audience took out their handkerchiefs and cried. I, too, was touched. A couple years later I heard Rabin again, this time in a smaller town in this country. The same story was repeated and I smelled a rat. Later I learned that there was no sister to start with.

Although it is not common for instrumentalists to make excuses, that does happen. A violinist showed up with a bandaged finger, very noticeable to the audience all the way to the last seat on the top balcony, and ended up with reviews which talked about her ‘injury’ rather than playing. Another one insisted on sitting on a stool, as a sore back is not as visible as a taped digit. What about orchestral players? When was the last time you heard an announcement that the principal oboe was going to play the evening concert, in spite of his hemorrhoids, or something to that effect? I do remember a principal string player being wheeled to the stage and off, even after the injury had healed. Once offstage she would hop off the wheelchair and walk normally.

Singers, in opera particularly, are another story. Of course the vocal cords are unpredictable, but that doesn’t account to the fact that during the course of an opera production the audience gets told time after time that Ms. Prima Donna or Mr. Helden Tenor are suffering from this and that, thus their voices are perhaps not in top shape but yet they insist on singing. Seldom is this evident in the performance, however, but conveniently this puts the singers in a taboo category: a critic or a mere mortal listener cannot possibly be critical of faulty intonation or anything else since the performer has such a ‘valid’ excuse. What would happen if listeners would demand their money back when performers admitted they were not doing their best? That would be fair after all, wouldn’t it? Or at least partial refund should take place. I bet those announcements before the start of a show or an act would be far less frequent.

Perhaps concerts, opera and ballet performances would become more interesting if there was a program insert for each show, indicating which performers were not in top shape, and for what reason. We could have a color coded or a point system for different levels of threat to a perfect performance. At the end of the year the points would be tallied and the averages published. A musician, dancer or even a conductor could get a bonus based on this. Question is: how much does a toothache affect one’s ability? What about a chronic condition, such as obesity, or just being seriously unhappy with one’s colleagues, not to mention having something stuck up the rear end?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Better Half

This post is by my wife Marjorie -

Today, while walking and listening to my husband's recording of "Russian Easter Overture" I came home insisting to share an entry on Ilkka's blog. I think a wife deserves that much, don't you? We have lived through a traumatic and sad year but have grown all the wiser and closer for having survived our crisis together.

My first encounter with Ilkka Talvi took place in a chamber orchestra in Los Angeles. I will never forget how mystified and intrigued I became while listening to a violin solo that he performed during a concert. Who was this quiet, humble man that sounded like a beautiful voice from the past? Since I had been brought up on and practically fed Heifetz and Kreisler recordings in my youth, I immediately recognized that this dark, Finnish violinist played with a sound reminiscent of a bygone era. I wanted to know him...KNOW him. I pathetically inched my way close to him to say, "Gee, you play so beautifully". His reaction, ever so typical of my Ilkka was, "So what?" He has always failed to take compliments well and I doubt will ever be at ease with flattery.

So, we did get to know one another well, and in the process have created a life in music and two fantastic daughters. As trying as life can be, and as unforgiving, I feel it an honor to share my life with one who is so remarkable, yet humble. Ilkka, a shy, sensitive man, has not always received the recognition or acknowledgement that he's justly deserved. I am in part writing this for all those who care to know, that I believe there are a few among us who are unsung heroes, my husband included. They unobtrusively perform their tasks and duties so well, yet with such humility, that they go unnoticed and are not applauded for their rare talents and contributions.

I would like to say "thank you" to Ilkka for being a magnificent artist, husband, father and friend. He used to rush home after concerts in order to say goodnight to our girls, and they've flourished from all that love and devotion.

Thank you Ilkka, for sharing your rich, worldly experiences with your family and students, and congratulations for unearthing another marvelous talent in writing, especially in a language that only became yours in your adult years. .

No conscience

Sociopaths are people without conscience. Not only that, but they are unable to feel and express love and compassion of any kind. In many cases, our society idolizes them as they seem to be the successful ones, becoming shrewd CEOs, successful politicians and other leaders. They can also become remorseless criminals, even seemingly charming serial killers (Ted Bundy) and such. In the army they make the best soldiers as they will never for a split second question orders to shoot to kill, as destroying a life doesn’t bother them in any way. In non-military world the same lack of guilt makes them seem like ideal people to lead businesses and other organizations, to function as lawyers and in many other professions, as feelings don’t get in their way. Firing one person or fifteen thousand people is equally easy for them. A destroyed life or career is of no concern to them.

Last week, as I was having my usual trouble with my shoulders and neck and couldn’t do much practicing, I read an interesting book on this subject. 'The Sociopath Next Door' was written by a Harvard psychologist, Martha Stout. Many of the case histories reminded me of people from my past and present life, some family members included. Ms. Stout claims that about 4 % of the U.S. population consists of sociopaths; in some other societies, such as Taiwan, the frequency is much lower. That percentage is frightening as it means there are about 11 million of these monsters in the United States, five in a small business or organization of 125. The purpose of the book is to teach a reader to recognize a sociopath and protect oneself from becoming a victim. The book has 13 rules for dealing with these people in everyday life, a most interesting and useful chapter. It also tells in detail how the brain function of a sociopath differs from normal people with a conscience, as a result of fascinating research done all over the world.

Although the book is not intended to be a literary masterpiece, it offers a lot of important information, and makes a normal person aware of this subspieces of the human race. For instance, how many of us would suspect that a sociopath can pretend to have feelings: tears are easier for them to produce than for me and you, even though they are meaningless and meant to trick us. A sociopath may end up marrying but will always think of his/her spouse and children as possessions, like trophies, as love cannot be part of his or her life.

Since early on I have had a different theory on this subject. As I believe in reincarnation, I don't think there are enough human souls to go around, especially today with the rapidly expanding population. Perhaps the person next to me got his from a hyena, a shark or even an insect; it wouldn't surprise me a bit. Not so nice to meet you, Mr. Portuguese Man-of-War.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Quick fix

As I had the pleasure of playing as concertmaster of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra for three summers, it is only natural that I follow closely their situation at present. They seem to be in fine shape today; a far cry from the strike and canceled season just a couple years ago that almost killed the orchestra.

The Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall opened in 1962 and was initially praised. Its acoustical problems became evident soon, however, and by 1976 it had undergone a major acoustical reconstruction, with Cyril Harris as the acoustician. By this time the building had already been renamed Avery Fisher, after a major benefactor. Midsummer Serenades started in 1966, to be called Mostly Mozart in 1972. The series proved to be a big hit, perhaps partially because people could enjoy an air-conditioned space, with easy-to-listen music, in the middle of a hot and humid Manhattan summer.

Happiness with the new hall design didn’t last all that long and for many years the primary occupant, New York Philharmonic, had expressed dissatisfaction with being stuck there. A deal was almost made which would have returned them to Carnegie Hall, but that fell through. This summer the Mostly Mozart Festival has moved the stage into the hall, as a rather expensive experiment. There are now seats behind the orchestra, right where musicians used to sit. Initial reactions from audience members, musicians and the press have been somewhat mixed. Just about everyone agrees there is more intimacy, which is not surprising since distance between the new stage and the listeners is shorter. Some prefer the new sound, others complain that the sound of the higher strings is too muted. Many simply feel that anything new and different is a step forward.

Perhaps a hall would have to be built from the ground up, to fully benefit from this setup. After all, this experiment is intended to be a quick fix. Sometimes one doesn’t work, other times it does, but seldom as well as in this story a friend forwarded to me:

Doctor Bloom, who was known for miraculous cures for arthritis, had a waiting room full of people when a little old lady, completely bent in half, shuffled in slowly, leaning on her cane.

When her turn came, she went into the doctor's office, and, amazingly, merged within half an hour walking completely erect with her head held high. A woman in the waiting room who had seen all this walked up to the little old lady and said, “It's a miracle! You walked in bent in half and now you're walking erect. What did that doctor do?”

She answered, “Miracle, shmiracle ~ he gave me a longer cane.”

Give or take

Philanthropists often want to be seen as almost superhuman heroes of the arts, sciences and education. Recent times have not been very kind to them, at least as patrons of the arts. First, there was the curious and messy Herbert Axelrod affair, with his instrument collection sold ‘far below market value’ to the New Jersey Symphony. Then a long time opera benefactor Alberto Vilar couldn’t fulfill his pledges and ended up defrauding an investment client, to keep up his own image. A tragic third episode occurred last week when Arthur Zankel, of the Carnegie Hall fame, committed suicide.

What would drive a philanthropist to do such things? With all that excess wealth one would think these people have everything money can buy. Well, as I have noted before, happiness is not for sale. In Axelrod’s case, there was greed behind it all: by ‘helping’ an arts organization he ended helping himself financially much more. Thus he became a common crook, a criminal that escaped the country and was caught by Interpol. Vilar was probably more of a genuine patron, but couldn’t face the fact that his diminished wealth wasn’t enough to enable him to keep his promises and therefore he was stuck in a potentially humiliating situation. In his case, turning to crime made matters only worse.

Of the three, my heart goes out only to Mr. Zankel, who by all accounts was as decent a person as a financier can be, but who suffered from severe depression. Any of us, who has known a victim of this illness, is well aware of how devastating it can be. Sometimes depression can be treated, at least to a degree, but not always. May this man’s soul rest in peace.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more donors remained anonymous? There is a lot of joy in giving, without one’s name being broadcast to the public. Must we be so vain that we cannot feel happy about sharing our wealth and good luck without seeing our names in print, whether in a program or on a wall of a building? After all, we are supposed to be giving, sharing and helping, not buying advertisement space for our inflated egos.

Sunday, July 31, 2005


It was no surprise my youngest daughter Sarah put away her violin a year and two months ago, as she witnessed the pain and suffering her family was going through, and connected it to that instrument. Since she is one of the few blessed ones with music as her second nature, she merely switched over to singing, and to lesser extent, to the piano. A little while ago, when she realized that peace and harmony were returning to our lives, the violin came out again. She and I both wondered what it would be like after not touching it for so long. The first notes were perhaps a little tentative, and she thought remembering how to vibrate would be difficult. But in a couple minutes the violin that was made for me by a friend and a gifted Finnish violin maker, started singing more beautifully than ever. It was as if she had never put it down and practiced diligently during the hiatus of fourteen months. We all were amazed and delighted to no end. In the days since, we have played and played through numerous duets, something I fondly remember doing with my own dad, and worked on solo repertoire. There is this unique feeling of togetherness and closeness. I am often the one who begs to take a break due to my physical problems. The blisters on the 12-year-old’s fingertips no longer show up.

As a teacher I know how every student has his/her strong points and weak areas. That is why there can’t be a uniform approach to a teaching method. Some have fast fingers and formidable technique, but have trouble with one’s inner clock, our built-in metronome. Some others have trouble producing a beautiful sound or understanding a phrase. Concentrating on improving the weaker qualities, hopefully they all end up well rounded. Sarah is one of the few natural musicians that don’t really need teaching: with an immaculate ear she can correct the slightest error in intonation by herself, and she intuitively knows what a good sound is like, whether she is singing or playing. My wife and I now know that there will be a good home for our instruments after our lifetimes. Should our daughter become a professional musician? Hopefully she won’t. I would like her to play as well as the best of them, but she is too bright, happy and bubbling in every aspect of life to have it limited to such a narrow field, with somewhat questionable future.

It seems that learning to play is like biking: once you’ve mastered it, the skill will remain with you. This week there will be no duets as our baby is at Seattle Girls’ Choir camp. She just left this morning and I’m already anxiously awaiting her return.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

News commentary

This past week brought some interesting news relating to music and specifically to life in orchestras. First there was an unusual announcement from a conductor that she expected to be nominated as a music director of a major orchestra (Baltimore), followed by very critical response by players of said group, and still to come the official hiring of this maestro. While I refuse to comment on her capabilities, it is obvious that opinions have been very split, especially among musicians. May this serve as a wake-up call to orchestra players that no matter what illusions they have, their opinion doesn’t really count in management’s view. Especially in this country, although formally a non-profit organization, an orchestra is often run just as heartlessly as a big corporation. Almost 15,000 people are losing their jobs at Hewlett-Packard and no one blinks an eye. Orchestra members may like to think of themselves as artists who deserve special treatment, but in truth are like any other workers. I wish Ms. Alsop and her new orchestra all the best. There was a good comment in a NY Times article by one of the players: “Most of the great orchestras make any conductor sound good. That's what we try to do.”

Just a couple days ago another interesting story surfaced. A young violinist is suing the NY Philharmonic for not granting him tenure in the second violin section, while giving several women a permanent position at the same time. Although several people try to downplay the seriousness of ‘reverse sex discrimination’, there may be some truth behind the accusation. A man cannot easily wear a Wonderbra or get his wardrobe from Frederick’s of Hollywood, to seem more pleasing to someone who has the power to decide on a person’s career. Also, a young woman is less likely to react to less-than-ideal playing around her than a young man, especially if he comes with an ego. Obviously this man has talent, based on his reported success, but that can never be as noticeable as one’s looks, unless he’s heard in recital or as a soloist. The great French violinist Ginette Neveu was supposed to have been quite the opposite of eye candy, but people stopped snickering as soon as she started to play. Often what is visible to the outside, is far from the whole truth.

There is an excellent interview/article of James Levine in this month’s Opera News, by Paul Driscoll. In it the maestro says: “There’s another thing that I don’t do that I notice a lot of people wish I did. I don’t believe in talking about any artist who’s having a problem while they’re having it. It’s the kiss of death. It is when an artist is going through a bad patch that I am most determined to support them. You can make critical progress only when they’re well and resilient. But you can’t in that other state. If I’m conducting my orchestra and I can tell by the way someone’s acting that they’re in trouble, they do not get a critique from me that day. They get it when they start to look right again. If you want people to work hard on the musical difficulties, then a rehearsal room has to be a safe haven, a constructive atmosphere concentrated on music. This business about shouting and making a player miserable over something that he would be doing better if he could at that moment is just silly. It creates tension that is anti-artistic and unproductive. You can call someone in for a meeting and have a perfectly sensible interchange.”

What a wise attitude. No wonder there is such excitement in Boston and Tanglewood, according to press and musicians. Although Levine is criticized by some for conducting in a ‘minimalist’ manner, what could be better than making an orchestra play chamber music at all times and every member listen to each other constantly? Of course the circumstances have to be optimal and musicians able to hear one another, in order for this to succeed. Music is meant for the ears, after all, not the eyes.

Monday, July 18, 2005


Finally, after claiming the contrary for ages, new research has proven what has been obvious to at least some of us: it is essential that we are attracted to our mate’s smell. Everyone knows that animals sniff each other. Perhaps it is difficult for some to admit that we are just another species on this planet, especially if one believes we were created to be God’s image. Surely the Almighty must be enjoying the mayhem in the Middle East, around the area of the original Paradise. For those of us not schooled in Kansas, we know our closest relative in the animal kingdom is the chimpanzee; not such an innocent cute creature as commonly portrayed but often vicious, capable of murdering his own kind, much like us. We are also closely related to the bonobo, which is the only mammal, in addition to humans, constantly in heat, earning the nickname ‘the horny ape’. At least in that society females are in charge; perhaps we could learn from that. Personally, I would like to take after gorillas, the ‘gentle giants’. They are strictly vegetarian and cannot even be taught to become alcoholics, unlike chimps, as they don’t drink: they get enough liquid from the juicy leaves they eat.

Back to smell: although we cannot claim to possess the sensitivity of a dog’s snout, we are capable of sniffing out plenty of different odors, some of which are very delicate. Don’t forget that senses are intertwined: when we taste food, most of the information comes via the nose: our tongue is able to distinguish only between sweet, salt, sour, bitter and, some say, MSG. This is also true visually: when we look at an apple, we instantly imagine its fragrance and taste. And at least in my case, music also has smell and taste. It can, unfortunately, be easily destroyed. Good intentions can backfire: Mozart can easily be covered with sweet and sour sauce when it is not interpreted naturally.

Twenty-five years ago I first smelled my wife’s skin, her hand or cheek, and instantly knew this was it for me. After all this time I still find her scent intoxicatingly delicious. We obviously are a good genetic match as our children turned out well. So many people try to cover their natural smell with perfume, after shave or similar masking agents. Nature has given us the means to find people we can be happy with forever, just by using our proboscis.

The same studies also claim that gay people are attracted to each others’ scents. Perhaps this gives another proof that they are indeed different from heterosexuals. Gay men prefer the smell of women and other gay men, but dislike that of ‘normal’ men. As I mentioned my feelings about music and senses, is it also possible that a gay listener finds fault in a ‘straight’ artist’s playing or singing, or vice versa? That would be terrible indeed, especially if it ended up harming someone’s career.

Happy sniffing to everyone! But beware: unmasked, there are plenty of real stinkers out there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


As I am teaching the Franck Sonata to a tremendously gifted young violinist, I listened yesterday morning to the first Thibaud/Cortot recording of the work, from 1923. This is on an archive cd of Jacques Thibaud’s 1922-23 HMV & 1924 Victor recordings. What gorgeous music making! Thibaud is in his early 40s, plays with very tight and fast vibrato, or none at all, and musically it makes even Heifetz sound like an automaton. On the same disk there are a number of small treasures, such as Rode Caprice No.18 and Wieniawski Caprice in a minor, both done with piano accompaniment and to perfection. Not only are the notes clean and clear and as fast as anyone’s since that time, but nothing sounds like an exercise as every measure is treated with utmost love, care and charm.

Thibaud played on a 1709 Strad that had belonged to Pierre Baillot, a famous French violinist and pedagogue (1771-1842). That magnificent violin was destroyed when Thibaud died in a plane crash in 1953. Thankfully we can still hear its wonderful sound on recordings, even if many of them sound scratchy compared to today’s products. And they are all unedited as all the takes were live. No fixing individual notes like these days.

Today I had some free time and decided to read through Baillot’s famous ‘The Art of the Violin’ again. The first part of the 500-page book is mainly musical examples, but later on the author becomes almost a philosopher, writing about style, musical character and such. One of my favorite analyses is how a violin soloist should stand when playing with an orchestra. Baillot’s preferred solution: keep the orchestra in the pit and give the stage to the soloist. This way he can both face the audience and have perfect contact with the orchestra and its conductor. Also the balance is likely to be better. If this works with opera, why not in a concert!

An interesting chapter is about Undulated Sounds: 1. Undulation Produced by the Bow [Portato], 2. Undulation Produced by the Left Hand [Vibrato], 3. Combination of both. This, like every chapter, gives a lot of food for thought. The French may not have been very supportive with us regarding Iraq, but without them music, especially violin playing, would not have reached the heights it did many decades ago.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Dunkin Donuts

It is a strange sight to a Seattle native to see a half empty Starbuck's next to a packed Dunkin Donuts. People in Massachusetts seem to have quite a different taste in coffee from this town. I have watched the documentary on Howard Zinn a few times, and in it he, too, visits DD and states how he likes their coffee. This is about the only area where I slightly disagree with this great hero and inspiration of mine. He has always believed in the constitutional right to express one's thoughts. He was fired from a black college forty years ago, because he was trying to teach his students what rights they had. The school didn't want to rock the apple cart. So, Mr. Zinn ended up in Boston and became one of the key figures in the anti-war movement, even visiting North Vietnam during the war. His book 'People's History of the United States' is brilliant and most thought-provoking and should be made mandatory reading in all high schools and colleges.

A very different book, Mozart in the Jungle, was reviewed recently in the New York Times. In it a free-lance oboist tells about her way to the top (or the bottom, as the reviewer put it), by having sex with the right people. We all have witnessed this take place, time after time. Only recently has more attention been paid to this. Didn't the head of a large aircraft manufacturing company have to resign when his affair became public? The Armed Forces have occasionally been very strict with this as well. So, I'm not going to rush to get a copy of this book. I probably could write a much juicier one, but won't at this time waste my efforts on such trash.

In the meantime, if you're not acquainted with Howard Zinn's work, head for the bookstore or the library.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


I woke up in the wee hours of the night, feeling uneasy, and went to the closest computer to check the news. BBC was just talking about “power surges” in the Underground, resulting in explosions, but soon they changed their tone and admitted that public transport in London had been hit by explosions. This of course saddened me, but did not really come as a surprise, as the United Kingdom has been very involved in the occupation of Iraq, much more so than Spain, which was the target of a worse act of terrorism on March 11th of last year. As many of us have friends or family in the U.K., today’s news hit home differently. A human life is supposed be equally important everywhere, but news about a similar number of casualties among the Pakistani or Iraqi don’t often even make the front page.

Terrorism is like spying: one side sees these acts as horrendous (which they can be), the other as heroic. Then there are all these ‘ifs’: Would these bombings have happened without the war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Had the Soviet Union not collapsed, would there have been an invasion of Iraq? The answer to both is most likely ‘no’. As bothersome as the Cold War seemed, there was a balance of power. Scores of lives were not lost like during this ‘Hot War’. Korea and Vietnam were, of course, exceptions to this line of logic, but I was mainly thinking of the status quo situation during the last two decades before the Berlin Wall came down.

Again I turn to my dictionary. Terrorize: 1. To fill or overpower with terror; terrify. 2. To coerce or maintain control over by intimidation or fear. The second meaning brings the verb to everyday life. Terrorizing can happen at home, school or workplace. An abusive spouse, partner or parent can traumatize his or her victim(s); so can teachers, co-workers or a boss. A threat to fire a worker and make him/her lose one’s livelihood and health benefits is a form of terrorism. Any threat of physical violence is the same. We all have to face many of these fears almost daily.

Perhaps all these terrible events are part of Nature’s way of bringing down Earth’s human population. This happens with every species, people cannot be an exception. We have new terrible diseases; obesity is lowering our life expectancy; it is possible we are destined for a new worldwide war. I was young when the world’s population reached 3 billion, now it stands at 6.5 billion and will reach 9 billion by 2045, at present growth rate. If every person would enjoy the lifestyle and energy use of an average American, the most our Earth could support is 2 billion. We are heading for a disaster.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Independence Day

Happy July 4th! At least here in Seattle it looks like a perfect day. Today, I'll celebrate my personal independence of having no boss, other than my immediate family members, including Seymour the kitty. But those kind of bosses are a pleasure and give life a meaning.

A friend sent me an article that appeared on July 1st in
the Guardian. In it Susan Tomes, pianist in the Florestan Trio, talks about how musicians in Europe view the possibility of raising their mandatory retirement age (which is low compared to what our colleagues are used to on this side of the big pond). Take the time, click on the link and read the story.

Here are two excerpts:

  • Of course, a great artist who is loved by the public can afford to show the vulnerability of old age. But most musicians live in fear of the least sign of degeneration. A doctor attached to a symphony orchestra told me that almost all the players who consult him about physical problems beg him not to let their secret get out, because they know that there are plenty of other musicians waiting to take their place.
  • Playing a concerto with a Swedish orchestra last year, I was amazed to see a box of earplugs by the door leading to the stage. It's unfortunately telling that orchestras should need to wear earplugs to protect them from the sound they're making - the very sound the audience has come to hear.
We need to discuss openly about all the physical (and emotional) damage our work as musicians causes to our bodies over many decades. Personally, I can't even count the number of steroid shots given to both shoulders for tendinitis and bursitis, or the battle with multiple shingles outbreaks that have caused havoc in my nervous system. I'm still taking a drug for post-herpetic neuralgia; the last outbreak a couple years ago spread to my fingers and I still have residue pain from it. As it stands right now, I wouldn't be able to withstand the physical demands of an orchestra job. Being a fool, I didn't use my sick leave when I should have. Our bodies tell us when rest is needed. The human body is not like a machine that can be tuned up time after time; spare parts don't really exists. Ideally, I should have been able to go on disability; however, it was decided otherwise.

For those who have little children: please have them get the chicken pox vaccine. Although the disease itself is just a nuisance for a child, Varicella Zoster hides in the body and is ready to strike again as shingles. The pain from that can be horrendous and almost impossible to treat. Get it on your face and you can lose your eyesight or hearing. In my twenties, I couldn't bear the weight of a shirt during my second outbreak: students came to my house for their lessons with a topless teacher for two months. But being Finnish, they didn't think anything of it.