Thursday, June 30, 2005

For the birds

No wonder the kitchen wood stove wasn't working well. A sea gull family had managed to build their nest right on top of our summer home's chimney. My daughter Silja and I carefully moved the nest a few feet away but don't know if the smoke had already ruined the two eggs. Usually the gulls build their nests near the water but found this spot attractive this year. There were a couple years when a goldeneye had decided to build a nest inside the chimney and thus we covered it with a metal net to prevent this from happening again. The gulls took it as an invitation.

No Rain in Spain

Spain is suffering from the worst drought in a hundred years. Perhaps the Sahara desert is pushing its way north, thanks to global warming. Other than that, the Spaniards have been busy since the horrendous terrorist strikes on their trains. They promptly removed their troops from the occupation forces in Iraq, after the surprise leftist win in the last election. There is a house near ours that proudly was flying the U.S., U.K. and Spanish flags to support the coalition. The Spanish one came down quickly. Today, Spain became one of the most progressive countries, by approving gay marriage. It is amazing when one remembers how much of a Pope’s country they were just a while ago. I remember walking around Barcelona in the early 1970’s and on one of the busiest Paseos there was a polished bronze plaque for Dr. Condom, Gynecologist. As birth control was illegal, people were not even supposed to know the meaning of that word. Spain’s culture seems to go in cycles: During the Muslim, Moorish era the country was famous for its tolerance. In Córdoba, then the largest city west of Constantinople, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together for a long time in peace and harmony. But then you had the Inquisition and the terrible invasions of Latin America and other areas, which painted a very different picture. The Spanish Civil War was one of the most horrendous wars ever. I went to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, his home town, and they mainly had his early works on display, before he had become a cubist. He had left the country, swearing never to return.

Many people have a misconception of Spanish music. Most of the pieces that pretend to be Spanish were composed by others than natives, such as Lalo, Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Rimsky-Korsakov. They often ooze of schmaltz and sound effects. The habanera came from Cuba and probably has African roots. I think everyone ought to become acquainted with
Manuel de Falla’s playing of his own piano pieces, or Pablo de Sarasate’s early recordings, few of which survive. The music is simple, sometimes almost mechanical, but incredibly beautiful in its purity. We shouldn’t for a moment accept something as authentic that is fake. Mozart wrote a lot of “Turkish” music which it isn’t any more original than Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is Japanese or Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois Chinese. Alhough Brahms lived close to Budapest, his Hungarian Dances with Western European orchestration are a far cry from musical essence of Kodály and Bartók.

Sarasate was an interesting man. He supposedly had a small tone and belonged to the old guard which didn’t believe in omnipresent vibrato. His most famous piece is not Spanish but “Gipsy Airs”, which, at least to this listener’s ear, was meant to sound more like the music of Hungarian Gypsies, not the ones in Spain that developed flamenco. Sarasate is said to have put his violin away for three months every year: he believed a long rest from it was essential to his artistic well-being.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005


It is interesting that many of the new and wonderful concert halls are no longer built based on the traditional “shoebox” design, but have the audience sitting around the performers. The Berlin Philharmonic plays in this setting which is also used in the new Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Even Mostly Mozart Festival is moving its stage in the much-criticized Avery Fisher Hall more to the middle, having part of the audience sitting behind them on the former stage area. Listeners in every direction make the performance more exciting and intimate as everyone is closer to the action.

So far I’ve never heard a violin soloist in any of these new halls, so I wonder how the designers have solved the problem of hearing an instrument, or singer for that matter, with a narrow angle of projection. There must be reflecting surfaces than compensate for this. We all know from placement of home speaker systems how much more directional sound becomes with a higher frequency. A bass speaker can be put almost anywhere as those low pitches don’t really seem to have a definite direction.

One thought seems to lead to another. Being brought up speaking Finnish, a language that doesn’t resemble Germanic or Latin tongues at all, I’m always fascinated by words and their origins. “Project” as a verb comes from proicere, to throw forth. However, the dictionary gives it more than ten meanings. As a noun it means a plan or proposal; an undertaking requiring concerted effort; or a research undertaking. In addition, less fortunate families often live in housing projects. Remodeling a kitchen is a project. In this morning’s New York Times article, former model citizen, Boy Scout leader and church president Dennis Rader, also known as the “B.T.K.” mass murderer, talks in detail about his killing ten victims. He refers to them as his projects. What a fascinating language English is.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Disappearing audiences

There was a terrific article in yesterday’s New York Times about Decline in Listeners Worries Orchestras, by Anne Midgette. Everyone should read it. It seems like supply exceeds demand and people are more likely to come to see a star, a sensation, than to actually listen to music. Orchestra seasons are simply too long and it is far easier to get a CD or a DVD, or download a favorite or needed recording via the web. Truthfully, I couldn’t see committing myself to 18 subscriptions a year, plus other concerts. A recording will sound better, mistakes have been edited out, and I can stop or replay it at any time. Why wait for a few years to hear one’s favorite symphony or concerto in today’s world? New Yorkers are lucky as so many artists and orchestras visit that city during any given year, but that is not the case in many other places. Even there, I would most likely pick and choose and buy tickets to the performances I really would like to hear, not to subscribe to any organization’s season. From experience I know that due to limited rehearsal time, any even slightly unfamiliar composition will get an instant art treatment: just add water and mix. The same is true with all these festivals where people are thrown together and expected to play chamber music with almost no time to get to know each other. Why is it then that any self-respecting quartet or trio will normally spend an enormous amount of hours fine-tuning their ensemble playing during the year? Couldn’t they just get together for a maximum of two rehearsals before a concert if that is what satisfies the audiences? Perhaps we should give up the name “concert” and call everything a “festival”.

This week my family is going for a vacation in Boston and surrounding areas, my wife’s home. It is interesting to compare that city to Seattle, as both have approximately the same population, both in the city proper and the metropolitan area. Granted, Seattle has more space and a more beautiful setting, but Boston has more history than any other city in the United States. You won’t find a 50-year-old historical landmark there, time is measured in centuries. Interestingly, income per capita in the Seattle area is slightly higher than in Boston and we have no state income tax. Both cities are very liberal and are situated similarly near the NE and NW corners of the country.

Perhaps it is due to the long history that Boston has become a leader in education, health care and the arts. According to the TIME Almanac, the area is home to 68 colleges and universities. There are 25 inpatient hospitals. And musically speaking, they have one of the finest symphony orchestras playing in one of the best concert halls in the world. The orchestra has an excellent web site which explains the history and design of the Symphony Hall, now 105 years old. It is also evident that Bostonians are really excited to have a new music director for their symphony, probably the most respected American conductor James Levine. For those music students who are determined to pursue their dreams there is the New England Conservatory with famous teachers flying in, and New York is only a few hours away by train, Yale even closer. True, the city is not a paradise: some years ago it had the highest rate of car thefts in the country. The climate can be harsh in the winter and melt you in the summer, but the same is true with much of the northern parts of the country. At least they have four seasons, not Seattle’s two: more rainy and cool, less rainy and warmer.

My wife grew up in the Beverly-Salem-Wenham area, a half-hour north from the city. There a nice cousin of hers offered his house to be used, as he and his family are living on a boat for the summer. It’s going to be hotter and more humid than here but at least Marblehead and the cool Atlantic waves are near by.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Mother remembered

Yesterday, June 23rd, marked my mom’s birthday, two days after my dad’s. She was in my thoughts much of the day. She would have been 88 but she passed away on my 50th birthday, from advanced Alzheimer’s. Since she was six years younger than my dad, I always assumed she would outlive him by many years. Life is full of the unexpected.

Visiting back home I found an old photo album which had pictures of her, taken soon after she met my father in 1943. She looked so incredibly happy, radiant and beautiful in them, as only a woman in her mid-twenties and in love can be. In the land of blondes this dark-haired beauty with olive skin color certainly stood apart from the rest. My dad had been sent to a hospital from the war front, and my mom was a volunteer there. His heart troubles soon must have become of a different type. He had lost his first wife three years before, a couple days after my half-brother was born. The Winter War was happening and as he was on the front, he couldn’t even be there to witness the miracle of life and death at the same time. He never wanted to talk about this time, but I assumed she had died from an infection, although some source mentions that the hospital was bombed by the Soviets. – The same album had pictures from the war, such as my dad riding a horse or standing by a captured Soviet tank with a fellow officer.

My mother had perhaps the quickest mind of anyone I’ve known. She could do mental math faster than today’s calculators and beating her in a card game was quite improbable, as she easily remembered where all the cards had gone. She also wrote beautifully with her unique strong handwriting: I treasure all the deep, long letters she wrote to me over the years. If it had been up to her, I would have followed in her footsteps in business, like everyone from her side, as she saw the same kind of intellect and talent in me. Had that been the case, I would have battled a very different group of questionable characters, crooks and morons in my life. She did like and appreciate music but didn’t think it was a safe and healthy way of making a livelihood. As usual, she was right. My mom was stubborn and once she had made up her mind, nothing could change it. Two months before she was to graduate from high school, her German teacher insulted her pride with some stupid remark, and she quit school. She hated phony people who pretended to be better than others: she possessed the uncanny ability to see through anyone in just a few moments. She was very kind to ordinary working class in her business and was probably the only person willing to lend money to Gypsies, which my home town had a number of. They would always leave some collateral behind, perhaps a wedding band, but never did they fail to pay her back. She had some Roma blood in herself from her mother’s side, in addition to the probably Middle Eastern heritage of her father. His family had come to Finland via Skåne, in Southern Sweden.

This incredible woman suffered horribly from endless illnesses since I was about three years old, and had close encounters with death many times. It began with encephalitis from a mosquito bite, trigeminal neuralgia from a botched operation (she used to get alcohol nerve blocks which would make half of her head swell to resemble a soccer ball) and toxic hyperthyroidism; all this before I started school. Later her heart stopped at least once on the operating table, and she also became severely depressed. Only trips to places where sun was abundant would lift her spirits: Mediterranean countries and North Africa. She would return looking like a roasted coffee bean.

Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease: it slowly robbed my mom from being able to move around (she had been an incredibly fast walker) and then her bright mind. Even though she wasn’t able to speak any longer, she would grab my hand, squeeze it ever so tightly and look me in the eyes. Only the last time I visited, her eyes could no longer focus properly. My dad would go to the hospital twice a day and insist on feeding her, unless he had traveled here, to have a little break from all that with us. It was in his arms when she choked on mashed banana he was spoon-feeding her: a fitting end to 55 years of marriage.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

My attorney's letter to the P.I.

I am posting this with the permission of Mr. Cliff Freed, my attorney, who wrote the letter. So far the paper has not replied to him.

June 2, 2005

Duston Harvey
Arts & Entertainment Editor
Seattle Post Intelligencer
101 Elliott Avenue West, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98119

Re: R.M. Campbell

Dear Mr. Harvey:

I represent Ilkka Talvi, the former Concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony. On Tuesday, May 17, 2005, the PI published an article entitled "Fired Concertmaster Apologizes for Blog Attack." The article was written by the PI music critic, R.M. Campbell. I believe that Mr. Campbell is guilty of journalistic misconduct.

In his article, Mr. Campbell describes with specific details the terms of a settlement agreement allegedly entered into between Mr. Talvi, Maria Larionoff, and their respective spouses. The existence of that agreement, by its very terms, was confidential. Mr. Campbell, by quoting from the agreement, obviously had access to it.

In my view, publishing the terms of a confidential agreement would be unethical, tantamount to aiding and abetting the violation of an obligation held by others. I understand that most journalists would not subscribe to that same standard, and for that reason I bring it to your attention only as background for my chief complaint. In reporting the settlement, Mr. Campbell only disclosed those terms of the agreement by which Mr. Talvi and his wife were bound. In that respect, a "spin"was placed upon the article that was unfair and misleading. This was a bilateral agreement, with promises running both ways, and obligations imposed upon Ms. Larionoff and her husband, as well. Notably, Mr. Campbell made absolutely no effort to contact Mr. Talvi or his wife in order to obtain from them their version of events. Perhaps Mr. Campbell failed to do so because he recognized that Mr. Talvi and his wife would have been understandably upset to find out that the confidentiality of the agreement had been breached. Nevertheless, I think Mr. Campbell's refusal to contact Mr. Talvi was a breach of journalistic ethics, and certainly, if nothing else, shabby journalism. According to the Poynter Institute and the Society of Professional Journalists, Mr. Campbell violated several journalistic ethical principles.

Given his position as "critic," Mr. Campbell can opine to his heart's delight. I offer no judgment on Mr. Campbell's opinions. However, I know this: with respect to this story, Mr. Campbell was reporting alleged facts, and in doing so, he was not objective, and he made an intentional decision to not be objective. It is one thing to get it wrong with a headline that Mr. Talvi was "fired" (he was not); it is another to deliberately mislead the reading public in order to purposely make another look bad. By doing so, Mr. Campbell loses any claim to journalistic integrity, and becomes just another hack. It does your newspaper, and its readership, a disservice.

There are only two newspapers in this city, and as a result of the uncertainty regarding the joint publishing agreement, even that status is unclear. One would think that the PI would make greater efforts to provide unbiased and factually correct information. Mr. Talvi and I are deeply disappointed in the PI.

I would the appreciate the courtesy of a response.

Very truly yours,

Cliff Freed

Graduation thoughts

My little one and I cut our vacation short to be present at Anna's graduation last Saturday, June 18th. Since she was doing her Running Start program through Seattle Central CC, this occasion was, of course, the graduation ceremony for the entire school. It is easy to underestimate the importance of community colleges, as big mainstream universities get most of the attention. Yet the average student in this two-year college works harder as they all are there to learn, not to party. Most have jobs on the side. The ethnical mix is very different from your typical university as the percentage of minority students and faculty members is quite high. I don't think one could find a more diverse group of people. This all means one leaves the school far more prepared for real life than graduates of most elitist colleges. Many students do well: I know at least one top rated conductor who went through a community college.

This occasion took place in a downtown concert hall, a place I used to work at. We sat in the front row of the Founder's tier and couldn't get over the fact that a crying baby's voice from some distance was far more present than the amplified speeches from the podium. Cheering family members and friends caused the noise level to hurt one's ears. Even the graduates themselves sitting on the main floor had trouble hearing what was said on the stage, as the other sounds from the audience were so overpowering. This all made me more convinced than ever that the hall works in reverse. The concert I was at the next day at UW's Meany Hall didn't exhibit any such weird acoustical phenomena, and one could enjoy listening in peace.

During the short elevator ride I noticed an ad in which some group claims that they have a virtuoso sitting in every chair. An interesting word that virtuoso is: originally it means virtuous. Hmmm. In 'Godfather', Michael Corleone falls in love with Apollonia, whose father in Sicily describes his 16-year-old as 'virtuosa', a woman of virtue. One meaning my dictionary shows is 'a connoisseur or dilettante'. Well, words are cheap these days and anyone can claim anything: 'mission accomplished'.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Inspired youth

Yesterday, treating myself to a Father’s Day present, I went to hear the Garfield High School Orchestra play an afternoon concert. The group is about to leave for their annual tour to Japan and performed for a packed audience at UW’s Meany Hall. We have several students in the violin sections, so I was interested in seeing and hearing how the ensemble sounds at present.

The orchestra performed amazingly well, better than I’ve heard it in the past. The location might have something to do with it, as the hall is by far the best auditorium for music in Seattle, other than the new opera house, McCaw Hall. Even this school orchestra’s sound was full and the balance was good between instrument groups. The strings were shimmering and if I closed my eyes, it was hard to believe this was a high school orchestra. The intonation in the winds and brass was better, and different instrument groups were overall more even than I’ve heard in previous years. This city ought to be proud of the orchestra program at Garfield, especially at a time when education in classical music is just about disappearing in the public schools. There is no doubt the upcoming tour will be a huge success.

The greatest joy was to see how enthusiastically these young people treated every piece in the program. There were no bored or unhappy looking musicians to be seen: everyone was having a grand time. Lucky kids! Bravo to their conductor, Marcus Tsutakawa, for his hard work and the inspiration he has given these teenagers.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


My daughters Anna (middle) and Sarah, and me after the graduation commencement from Seattle Central CC. Anna is 17 and just got her Associate of the Arts degree. Posted by Hello

Family Joy

My dad, 94, and my daughters Sarah (middle) and Silja at an assisted care facility in Kouvola, Finland Posted by Hello

Monday, June 13, 2005

Short Term Memory

It has been pleasing to see my old dad, in the big community retirement home, where he is taken care of. Much of the time he seems exremely happy, and we've had many pleasant and even deep discussions with him. As with everyone his age, one day varies from the next, but most important to me is the fact that he doesn't seem to be suffering in any way. He lives in the past and his more recent life is more of a blur. Especially his short term memory is pretty far gone, and the same questions come up often, every few minutes. Since the doctors have cut back on much of his medications, my dad is much less confused. Only a specialist in geriatrics has enough knowledge about how differently an older body metabolizes medications. What is fine for a 50-year-old man will not work for a person twice that age. Patients often reach toxic levels of certain substances in their bloodstream.

Short term memory loss shows up in strangest places. Less than a year ago a respected local opera company and its general manager were most supportive of me, writing encouraging emails and even trying to get me to work. This summer they conveniently forgot to ask me to play their 'Ring' cycle, something I had done for a couple of decades. Obviously such a request had come elsewhere in the city's music circuits. Fine, I can live without the 27,114,387 notes. But as if rubbing salt into the wounds, they have been very determined to get a donation out of me as in the past. The phone has been ringing off the hook, and there have been numerous letters with 'we cannot survive without your support'. Each time I have politely asked to be removed from the donor list, but either the left hand doesn't know what the right one is doing, or it is simply a question of short term memory loss. Or perhaps they are counting on a similar loss with me; that I would have forgotten everything that has happened to me in the last 13 months. Sorry, but I don't see any reason to donate a dime, and I wouldn't encourage anyone else to do so either. Actually, I would advise any potential donor to carefully find out where such money really goes. My father may have trouble with his recent memory, but he is happy and well taken care of. I wish the local non-profits could be in an equally blessed situation.

Siemens SX-66

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Sibelius and Nature

While growing up I sort of OD'd on Sibelius. Being this country's hero, his music was played constantly, until he fell out of fashion soon after his death in '56, the same day Norway lost their king. It took me years to relearn to appreciate it again. Spending time here this summer, after a couple years absence, in the middle of this splendid and untouched nature, has renewed my appreciation for this master's music. When the only sounds audible are birds singing, the waves of the lake reaching the beach, and the wind whispering in the tree tops, I do hear the music of Sibelius in my head, whether I want it ot not. All the sounds of the nature are there, as are the colors: pale blue, white or grey skies and their reflection on the water; the incredible green of the trees and plants; brown or white tree trunks; and all the splendid colors represented in flowers. I don't know of any composer, who has been able to notate this incredible symphony of nature quite this masterfully. It is not just nature, it the unique nature of this unique country. He was quite a man, always living beyond his means, which meant he had to write a lot of short (and not always so great) pieces for piano, violin or voice, which could be played and performed in the home and thus sold in large numbers, providing a steady income. Another silk top hat could be ordered from Paris! Sibelius was also one of the great drinkers of all times. Amounts of alcohol that would have sent others to a hospital, or the morgue, barely warmed him up. A truly honorable Finn in this respect, too, he was. One of my favorite facts of Sibelius is that his famed violin concerto was meant to be a symphony. When the publisher received the early sketches, he replied to the composer that there wasn't all that much demand for a symphony, but a violin concerto would be another story. Thus musical history was changed probably for the better, at least if you ask violinists.

I remember seeing Sibelius only once, during the Sibelius Week a year before his death. My dear dad took me to these concerts early on: I must have been six. I remember the composer entering the University Festival Hall and everyone stood up instantly, as if the king had entered the premises. By this time the master had shrunk in size, but the respect by everyone present was extraordinary. Of the violinists playing his concerto, he liked David Oistrakh's interpretation the best, simply because, as the composer, he wanted the last movement played more slowly. He told Heifetz to his face that it shouldn't go as fast as he was doing it. I asked JH about their meeting. The only reply I got was the admiration of the way Sibelius could hold his liquor.

So, out on the lake today, it was just my youngest daughter rowing, the sea gulls flying and screaming overhead, the spirit of Sibelius omnipresent and lots of mosquitos trying to suck our blood. In other words, just the way a perfect Finnish summer day is supposed to be.

written on and sent by Cingular Siemens SX-66

Friday, June 10, 2005

Somewhere over the Hudson Bay

What a pleasure to be sitting on this SAS flight with my two daughters, on our way to Finland. It is midnight local time here near the Hudson Bay but it is still sunny. The ground is quite frozen and covered with snow and ice. This is polar bear territory. What a remarkable animal it is, the only bear that is a true carnivore. Its skin is black but the hollow hair shafts reflect so much light that the fur appears almost white. In size it competes with a large grizzly. Too bad it has become a nuisance around human habitats, as it finds garbage an easy source of nutrition, just like its black cousins.

We people resemble bears in many ways, except that these magnificent beasts are a lot nicer than Homo sapiens. We, too, digest a lot of garbage these days, although we may not realize it. It is easy to take care of one's hunger without having to work hard for it. I don't mean only in edible substances, but also art, entertainment and media. We are so used to mediocre everything that even an awful performance, painting or a book is accepted by many as high art. Our Western culture has been sliding downhill for a long time. Perhaps it is time to say good-bye to its supposed superiority and embrace something else coming from a distant culture. I have tremendous respect for anyone willing to seriously study the arts and lifestyle of foreign cultures. A student of mine is going to Uganda for the fall quarter. I'm so envious of her! Most of our own Western art was created for the royalty and aristocracy, or the needs of the powerful church, not for the common man in mind. My daughter took a class this year in world music and we had a wonderful time making discoveries together in Indonesian music and following the voyage of Gypsies (Roma) and their music from India to Spain, among other things. Actually she had made the discoveries and taught me. I was a good student and learned a lot. A young mind can be so open to all kinds of new ideas. The older we get, the smaller our world becomes, in most cases. Personally, I pride myself for still having a young mind. I am in absolutely no hurry to grow up.

Five hours of flying left to Copenhagen and a bit longer to Helsinki from there. Two more hours of driving and we get to our summer home where I spent my vacations for over fifty years of my life. Not much has changed there, except that we now have electricity. Still no running water and the old outhouse still functions as it always has. We can't wait to heat up the sauna (it makes one incredibly clean and relaxed) and go rowing on the lake. It is heaven on earth.

Written on Siemens SX-66 phone/pda

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Rotten eggs

Each one of us has two opposite qualities in us: good and evil. Of these two, the latter is more powerful as it causes wars, mayhem, hatred and produces politicians, and the need for lawyers. Evil deeds make the news, niceness does not. If one is kind and loving, others consider him/her a wimp, a weakling. Yet it takes far more courage and strength to cultivate and show these traits than to act like a hyena.

It is interesting to see what happens to people in relationships, whether at home or at the workplace. A marriage or a similar union is a good example. If one partner is a rotten egg, it is likely that the other one will eventually become one, too. I’ve seen so many decent people turn into something that is hard to recognize, as a result of a relationship. Evil is like cancer that spreads. Goodness can only exist if people do some serious deep thinking and self-evaluation.

In a workplace, all it takes is one truly negative, ill-meaning coworker to infect just about everyone around. What seemed like a nice job can become hell overnight. The only way to survive seems to be by becoming even meaner and worse than the first demon. Also, the fear of a nasty and paranoid boss is enough reason to hate one’s job. Although changing the scene would seem like a natural thing to do, it isn’t always possible. People are dependent on their benefits and even a short gap in medical coverage can turn out to be disastrous. Depending on the field, it may be next to impossible to change jobs. Classical music is a good example. Many musicians try to leave but auditions are increasingly competitive and most of these people are stuck.

One way of surviving is to disassociate oneself from the rotten eggs of the world and find only nice people to be with. This is possible, as there are plenty of good and honest folks around. One just has to seek them out, as they tend to be quiet and hard to notice; most often on purpose, not to be noticed and ridiculed by the evil ones. A healthy attitude is to fill one’s life with people outside of one’s work field. In most cases that will turn out to be a very enriching and eye-opening experience.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


A couple of nights ago I attended a concert, to hear a string chamber orchestra from my native country, previously unknown to me. The Wegelius Chamber Strings consists of some 20 young musicians; to my understanding, they are mainly from the Swedish-speaking coastal areas of Finland. The conductor, Ms. Helsing, was very accurate with her beat and nobody had the least bit of trouble following her. Every member of the group seemed like a solid musician, and although individually they might not be classified as virtuosi, together they played wonderfully well, better than a similar group here would do. The reason had a great deal to do with their homogenous background and training. During the performance, bow distribution and even use of vibrato was uniform, something one doesn’t witness too often here. This could have been the result of extensive rehearsing, but I tend to believe it all came naturally to these musicians. The concert was very enjoyable, even to my critical ears. One of the cellists played like a true soloist, but with a last name of Nuñes-Garces his roots must be in Spain, and was an exception from the rest. The program notes left me somewhat hungry, as it had a Brandenburger in it and one movement was titled Pesto.

Eons ago, when I was studying in Vienna, it was a well known fact that the Philharmonic members, especially the strings, were not particularly fine instrumentalists on their own, but as a group their playing was splendid. Again, we come to the fact that they were products of the same school and style of playing, and naturally made music well together. A Strauss Waltz was done to perfection in every New Year’s concert, whether the musicians looked up or not. Mozart sounded as it should, with nothing artificial added to the mix.

In the aftermath of the genocidal conquest of North America, the United States came to be a country “built” by immigrants and for immigrants. It has taken an enormously long time for different ethnicities to blend, something that is still far from being complete. Canada, our Northern neighbor, is far ahead of us in this respect, but even there a lot of work needs to be done. I am a firm believer in a unified mankind and world, but it will take generations to build.

The same is true with music. Out of necessity we have a great mix of players from all corners of the earth in most orchestras, but it doesn’t mean that these people have a lot of understanding or even respect for each other, whether musically or in real life. From the second and especially third generation onward, a blend is easier to reach. But, at present, we have a lot of relatively recent immigrants whose musical training and backgrounds are worlds apart. Perhaps in a big symphony orchestra this doesn’t matter quite as much as in a chamber group, except visually, especially if the conductor can really be in charge, in a positive way.

A Soviet-born and educated player is very different from his/her Chinese-born colleague, and often feels no need to change his/her ways, as in that culture musicians were taught they were superior to the rest of the world. The same was true in other fields as well, but we all know it was the result of internal propaganda and far from the truth. Yet everyone needs to compromise in their ways, if a unified society, musical or any other kind, is needed and required. There is no supreme culture: we all have a lot to learn from each other, and should be grateful that this country gives us the opportunity for this.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


One of my very favorite musicians and cellists, Janos Starker, wrote a wonderful book, The World of Music According to Starker (Indiana University Press, 2004). All of it makes an interesting and enlightening read, but I want to point your attention to page 86: In Defense of Dilettantism.

In the following excerpt Starker divides artists into three categories: professionals, dilettantes and amateurs.

“To avoid any misunderstanding, let me make clear that the professional and the dilettante are both paid for their services, unlike the amateur. But the dilettante’s knowledge and conscience do not measure up to those of a professional. And the consciences and knowledge even of professionals (or supposed professionals) are often either unmeasurable or distorted by subjective considerations.

The musical community is heavily populated with celebrities whose output fails to meet the definition of professionalism, although they manage on occasion to produce a work, or performance, that awes listeners or reviewers. Their basic gifts, drive, and charisma, and current fads, account for much of their notoriety; but their lack of consistency demotes them to the status of highly gifted dilettantes.”

I think we all are familiar with a number of people who fit the description.

Personally, I would add yet another category, below the amateurs: hobbyists. These people are often like the violists in jokes, but without the instrument. They pretend to be the true experts, love to be loud, and sometimes end up as board members, or in management of non-profits. Some even get paid for their opinions, as an art or music critic of a weekly or a daily. Knowing how to open a viola case is not required to be this kind of an expert. Forgive me, violist, as I play that instrument, too, and love it, so this is not really aimed at you.

Either buy this book (it comes with a special CD) or borrow it from your local library. The writing is witty, truthful and interesting. This great cellist has a lot to teach all of us.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


The result of my successful SOS diet


My journalist daughter Silja Talvi wrote a thought-provoking column in the last Evergreen Monthly, about turning 35. Here is an excerpt:

All of that amounted to a personal wake-up call regarding something that I’ve read and heard about for many years, particularly given the fact that I was raised in Los Angeles, a city that worships youth and youthful beauty above all else. As a student of feminist studies, I have learned women in various professions have been dealing with this issue in many forms and guises for as long as they have been allowed into the male-dominated workforce (which still represents, sad to say, nearly all of the major professions save for a few, including prostitution, nursing, social work, teaching and daycare.) To take but one classic example, female actors in Hollywood know this is so true that they’ll go to incredible lengths to have every manner of plastic surgery done to hide their age.

All the musicians in my family are familiar with the same kind of thing; women have certainly had it worse all the way around, but even the men know what it is to see attention turn to the young “up-and-comers” whose appearance and glamour seems to weigh more heavily than their actual talent.

You can read the article at

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Doctor and daughter

Sonja & Clarissa (3 months) photo Richard Rosen

Sonja, my second daughter and a M.D., is just finishing her fellowship at UCLA and will soon start her first job as a faculty geriatric doctor at the the same famed univerversity. Needless to say, I am proud of my daughter and granddaughter.