Friday, April 29, 2005

Music crickets

One of the first things my violin teacher taught me was this: if you play really well, you can be a soloist; if you are not quite that good, you can play in an orchestra. If you are not capable enough for this, you can teach; if this is beyond your reach, you can always become a music critic.

Since I was little, I knew how much harm and hurt someone could cause with the printed word. My father, in his spare time, conducted an orchestra. Sure enough, he had his nemesis in our home town, a drunken music teacher, who would use every opportunity to ridicule my dad in the local paper. My father was doing a terrific job, and he did what he did because of his passion for music. He never accepted any payment for it. What this music teacher was writing made no sense, but he had the avenue to publish what he wanted to.

At that time a funny review was circulating in my native country: a well-known woman violinist had played a recital in some town, with an old-fashioned program which included a lot of small pieces in it. The review was glowing except that the critic hadn't been present at the concert. She had wrongly assumed that the soloist was a soprano and was praising her diction.

At 15, I played a debut recital in Helsinki. One of the critics went so far as to call me a 'prophet,' which I thought was high but strange praise. Three years later he showed up in Los Angeles, to interview Stravinsky, and wasted no time in calling me. He insisted that I came to his hotel, where he tried to get me drunk in the bar. The bartender was very reluctant with serving me as he immediately figured out that I was underage, and saw through what the man was trying to accomplish. Up to the critic's room I had to go, and he made it clear that it was time to pay up for his glorious reviews. When he went to the bathroom, whistling, and I heard water running, I zoomed out of the room and the hotel, into a taxi. This must have really angered him as he bumped into my father back in Finland a little later, and had the guts to complain that I didn't know how to take care of PR. This man died of a heart attack a few years later.

There was another critic in my home country who got mad at me for not asking Heifetz for a letter, stating that the new Finlandia Hall should only be used for concerts and not for conferences and congresses (for what it was designed). This man was brilliant, wrote extremely well, translated literature, but had a dark and disturbing, almost evil, presence. Many Finnish musicians left the country, promising not to return until this man stopped writing. One summer, Janos Starker and Miriam Fried played the Brahms Double at a music festival; this critic's advice was for Starker to take music lessons from the violinist. Some years later this man completed his autobiography, put the manuscript in the mail, went home and shot himself through the head. I have the book on my shelf, a present from my brother, but have never read it.

There have been many wonderful writers about music, with a lot of knowledge and insight, but usually without an agenda they feel they have to push. Some have refused to write about anything that they have felt didn't fall into their field of expertise. Many decent human beings have given up reviewing concerts, for whatever reasons. I have recently read a few really excellently written, constructive reviews in the New York Post by our opera company's present general director during his time with the paper. Harold Shoenberg's articles on pianists are legendary. Writing, even a music review, is truly an art form.

Then there are those I prefer to call music crickets. Like in a Disney cartoon, these annoying insects seem to play the fiddle, pretending to be experts of sorts, but at the end just making a lot of meaningless noise. They may say, as their defense, that one doesn't have to be a cow to say the milk is sour. It would be good to know, however, that it is milk they are talking about.

Recently, my daughter's college literature professor here in Seattle brought up a local critic's style as an example how not to write a review. "You have to stick to facts," she said, claiming that this person expressed nothing but personal opinions and tried to present them as factual. What about another critic who made a big deal about the local ballet company not using their orchestra at all for the first time, preferring canned music? All this expert would have needed to do was to look into the pit, where players were busy making music.