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.