Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Day 2006

What an odd time the past month has been for the denizens of our Pacific Northwest. Mother Nature has shown us all how vulnerable we are, and we are just beginning to realize what a tragedy we would face in case of a real catastrophe, such as a major earthquake. As we lost our power (and light and heat) for only 48 hours, it wasn’t much of a hardship for a Finn who spent two months every year during his childhood in a primitive summer cottage with no comforts whatsoever. It was somewhat lonely though, as other family members preferred being with friends who hadn’t lost their electricity, or at the workplace. I stayed home mainly because of our cat, and kept two fireplaces going with logs that were so wet from November’s rain that every new one started boiling when first added to the fire. We were among the lucky ones as others had to put up with the discomforts of cold and darkness for much longer. Needless to say, one cannot teach under those conditions, and the combination of snow, ice and freezing temperatures of the last week in November with this nearly hurricane-strength storm meant a loss of about 30 lessons. It would have been a great time to have taken a vacation, but nature seldom gives us mortals advance notice. Perhaps this was good since flying back home from Europe might have been next to impossible as London, Denver and other airports had to close down for many days because of their own weather problems.

Today is Christmas Day. We had a nice gathering of family and a more modest exchange of gifts than usual last night, as the custom is in my native country. I’m proud of the fact that this year I didn’t go to a mall even once, or even downtown for holiday shopping. Therefore I was able to avoid the ‘Nightmare before Christmas’, crowds at shopping centers and all the Xmas carols forced upon every shopper. People become noticeably more aggressive at this time, which is evident even on the road. Petty crime increases as well. My little one had her new iPod stolen from her backpack during a math class, and my eldest was a victim of another thief who emptied her wallet and stole her cell phone. This is true American holiday spirit for some. Yet I hope that everyone deserving got nice presents and the mean ones their lump of coal in one form or another. Those of us that celebrated Hanukkah, the good children and child-minded grownups hopefully got their share of shiny gelt, and the mean ones in turn felt the Hanukkah guilt. I know quite a few who belong in the latter category.

True presents are not something bought with money. My youngest daughter wrote all of us the sweetest personal letter that was included with her other little but meaningful gifts. The next one up learned about getting a 4.0 average this quarter in her college and being on the Dean’s list, in spite of having taken a most demanding course load, including two senior seminars. What could be a better present to a parent? Emails and other greetings from all corners of the globe have brought warmth to my heart, as did a surprise phone call from a dear friend in Sweden this morning. Preparing a traditional Finnish holiday meal was also a wonderful gesture from my eldest daughter.

Going through an old address book a few days ago made me realize how many friends and family members have left us in recent years. With an electronic database those entries are easy to delete but nothing removes an address and phone number written in ink. There are also those who are seriously, perhaps terminally ill, and might not be with us a year from now. Add to that people who, although living, are as good as dead in our minds, except that we don’t have any nice memories of them, unlike people we have loved. We often take health for granted until something goes wrong. Cancer, arthritis, diabetes and other physical illnesses are hard to cope with, but we must not forget all those of us whose health problems are invisible, be it chronic pain, depression or other mental illness, or Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Cancer often claims its victims in a matter of months from when it is diagnosed, but of course with today’s treatments many are allowed to live longer and sometimes are even cured. Mental illness, however, doesn’t really know cure, and at best a patient’s symptoms can be made manageable and quality of life improved. A century ago, a woman’s period was regarded as a sickness in America. Today, a great number of people taking drugs for their mood ‘problems’ are not sick at all, but our pharmaceutical companies have made us believe that feeling sad and blue is an illness that requires taking their expensive drugs. We are meant to feel high and low, just as there are days with abundant sunshine and others with rain. True depression is something else that casts a shadow on everything in a person’s life, and a bipolar person can destroy their life’s savings in no time while going through their manic phase. Living with a person who suffers from schizophrenia or any form of psychosis can be as taxing as taking care of a demented parent, with very few joyful moments, other than knowing that we are doing something difficult because we love.

Although life is often seemingly unfair and a lot of completely innocent people have to suffer a great deal, while greedy and corrupt people live in luxury, it also has a tendency at some point balancing things out by giving us all what we truly deserve. My wish for the New Year is that this process will take place sooner than later: let real justice be served.

Photo by Talvi

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Xmas Insanity

This season brings out some rather odd behavior in people. The commercialism of Christmas seems worse than ever, and since Thanksgiving happened very early this year, the selling and decorating scene got a jump start. We have neighbors who lit up their Xmas lights in mid-November. People have been brainwashed to think that this nation of ours isn’t doing well unless we spend, spend, spend. The pressure is on and a great number of people go deep into debt just to keep up the gift-giving image. Are we too proud to admit that perhaps this year we shouldn’t waste money we don’t have on stuff that nobody needs or perhaps even appreciates?

Americans look at money in a strange way. On one hand we complain about the price of fuel which we still get a lot cheaper than our European cousins. Price of prescription medicine is criticized and for a good reason as it has skyrocketed, just to fill the coffers of pharmaceutical companies. However, for those of us with medical insurance, we only have our deductibles to worry about, and even those who are without that protection, Wal-Mart and Target offer their $4 (or $9 in some states for newer medicines) plan for generics. Of course, for that money one doesn’t get the latest creation from the companies’ labs, but in many cases the old tested products work as well, if not better. Yet we complainers are ready to spend an average of $27,000 on a wedding (often the most expensive mistake in one’s life) or bury our dead in tomb-like coffins costing fortunes. The ultimate in financial stupidity showed up in today’s New York Times: many colleges are increasing their tuitions in order to look better in the eyes of the applicants. Do we really believe that just because a product costs more, it is better? Apparently so, as many schools have had their enrollments go up as a result. Yet more of them are willing to give just about all the students some form of financial aid, amounting to discount of the tuition increase. This is like the commercials on television where viewers are duped to believe that they are getting $50 worth of merchandise for just $10 if they call within the next ten minutes. Are you sure that the $120 music lesson for your child is twice as good as someone else’s $60 one? Does a mediocre provincial orchestra become a true ‘world class’ ensemble just by tripling their ticket prices? Perhaps this tactic should be tried and see how gullible we really are.

Other worthwhile news of the day tells us that the Arctic Ocean will shed its ice cover in perhaps only three decades. Yet there are people in our federal government insisting that there is no global warming and it would be unfair to require a drop in greenhouse gases. Many state and local governments beg to differ and have instituted stricter regulations of their own. Why are our leaders, at least some of them on the very top, so naïve and childish? A possible answer to this came to my mind: because they were born again and again and again…

A rabbi from local Chabad decided to sue the authorities for having Christmas trees at the Seattle airport, and the trees were quickly removed to avoid costly litigation. I guess the rabbi just wanted to put his menorah up next to the trees, but in public’s eye he wanted to destroy the holiday, and as a result security has had to be tightened again at all of the area’s synagogues and institutions deemed Jewish, for fear of a backlash. All this because of a pagan symbol that the Europeans conveniently converted to represent a holiday that originally also was pagan, but was turned to commemorate the birth of Jesus, which happened months later in the spring... For crying out loud, there is nothing Christian about the tree: why not call it a Hanukkah bush, Kwanzaa pine or whatever, and let people have the symbol what they have associated with Christmas, a federal holiday! Everyone should see the Seinfeld episode where George’s father has had it with all the Xmas humbug and decides to celebrate Festivus, with a metal pole as its ‘tree’. That wasn’t such a dumb idea after all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Outstanding Journalism

Writing for publications and other media comes in many forms. On top of the list is investigating journalism which often takes weeks or months of intensive research. It also is the most important kind as it brings to public’s attention facts that either have never been known or have been intentionally kept secret, for the benefit of the government or big business, for example. This type could be thought to be a society’s conscience as it forces the reader or listener/viewer to face facts that are not necessarily pleasant to accept. Second, at least on my list, are thoughtful, fact-based opinion pieces, which are however only opinions and clearly labeled as such. News reporting is often just repeating information that some source has stated or perhaps quoting an eyewitness. Humor obviously has its place: we all can enjoy a good laugh. Then there are those writers whose output shows up in print simply because it can. Much of sports writing falls into this category, although it often has some entertainment value, at least to sports fans. Finally there is writing similar to diarrhea of the mouth written down, and the importance of it is, to use a Finnish expression hyttysen pieru, comparable to a mosquito’s fart. If it didn’t exist, nobody would miss it.

Even if she weren’t my daughter that I’m proud of, I would pay close attention to Silja Talvi’s work. She mainly writes on issues that others rather keep quiet about: social and racial injustice, immigration issues (how quickly we’ve forgotten that we all come from an immigrant background, minus the small and neglected native population!) and seemingly the least popular topic, prisons and inmates. This country has locked more people behind bars than any other ‘civilized’ country, a great portion of them mentally ill or convicted of drug-related crimes. We don’t seem to like the idea of rehabilitation and with the ‘three strikes’ laws in place in many states, people have been put away for life, whereas with rehabilitation most of them could have become productive members of our society. Recently the BBC talked about mental illness and especially schizophrenia which many British doctors feel should be eliminated as a term. In that context an expert said that about one percent of the population suffers from that type of mental illness. Is it just a coincidence that approximately the same percentage of our population is incarcerated or on probation? States provide less and less mental health care and it is no wonder so many of the ill people end up in jails and prisons, not being able to afford to seek help. Presently Silja is working on a book about women behind bars; it should be out next year.

Just last month my daughter won a New America Media Ethnic Media Award, given in a ceremony in Washington D.C. for 'The Real Enemy' in ColorsNW Magazine about the often horrendous treatment of many immigrants in the post-9/11 atmosphere. Recently In These Times featured Silja’s investigative article of Taser-related deaths as their cover story. Promoted by the manufacturer as a non-lethal weapon for the law enforcement, it has nevertheless caused over 200 deaths. The story has created a lot of attention, was picked up by the UTNE Reader, and is being reprinted in many publications, even as far as New Zealand. Other media has also expressed interest, resulting in radio interviews about this controversial subject. As Silja points out, this weapon has often been used completely unnecessarily and by untrained people, be they prison guards trying to quiet down a psychotic inmate already in restraints, or police officers repeatedly discharging thousands of volts of electrical current on their already disabled target, resulting in shockingly (no pun intended) large number of cardiac arrests and deaths. While not light-weight reading in the class of Dean Martin’s biography or a trashy romantic paperback, it is essential that people know the truth before more deaths happen. We wanted to believe in an easy victory in Iraq, after all, yet in this morning’s Senate hearings the defense secretary nominee Robert Gates openly admitted that we are not winning the war there. It cannot be easy for our troops there to hear such an admission. A neighbor of ours was proudly waving the flags of the U.S., U.K. and Spain immediately after our invasion of Iraq. He hasn’t had anything on his pole lately. Facts are often not what we are made to believe, and Americans are very easily brainwashed by propaganda, no different from people in countries we like to label savage.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


One of the curses of our information age is all the unwanted email that arrives in just about everyone’s online mailbox. This time of the year seems to be especially bad: on any given day I get over 300 of these nuisance messages. I have developed a rather efficient double filtering system and hardly anything unwanted ends in my inbox. Sometimes this method can be too efficient and ‘good’ email may end up among the bad. So, I have to quickly glance through the list of senders, before deleting everything for good. Once in a while my eyes stop on something. ‘Jesus’ has remembered me with quite a few spams. I also noticed an email from toxic sounding ‘R.M. Chlorine’, a name that somehow seemed familiar. Quick glance at the sender’s ‘’ domain cleared any doubts and made me quickly delete the message without opening it. ‘Are you looking your best?’ asked another message from a ‘J. Adair’ which passed through the filter because of a name in an old address book.

It is very easy to adapt a fake identity, or to put someone else’s email address as the return address. Right now one of my accounts is being used by someone outside of the U.S. sending spam to India and Japan. At least my name doesn’t show up as the sender but quite of few bounced emails come back to that account’s inbox. A more serious issue is real identity theft. A couple months ago I purchased a new iPod for my youngest daughter, billing it on a credit card that I only seldom use and even then for large purchases. The person at the other end, working for a big national chain, must have sold my information to some creepy mass marketer, as I was soon sent stuff that I certainly have no interest in, such as diet pills, ‘Windows Professor’ software and various memberships, all of them without invoices. Tiny test charges soon grew in size but fortunately I checked the account activity online before a statement was printed. Chase was very helpful and their fraud unit got to work instantly, but knowing that there are people who would steal such confidential personal information left a bad taste. Of course, this wasn’t the first time false charges have appeared on an account of mine, but never before has someone actually ordered merchandise to be sent here. Since no bill was enclosed, shipments gave an impression of being nothing but free samples, a common marketing tactic.

Clearly something will have to be done with electronic spamming. Costing nothing, it has however reduced the amount of junk mail carried by the mailman. I’m willing to bet most users of email would be ready to pay a small ‘postage’ fee if that was made mandatory. Certainly a spammer would think twice before being charged a few cents for each of the million mailings that at present are free. Why we call this unwanted stuff ‘spam’ is strange, and probably insulting to at least the people of Hawaii where spam is almost a national food. And it is hard to claim all of these solicitations are without a merit. Perhaps there is more truth in a claim of a penny stock will quintuple its value in a week than in a moronic dilettante’s art critique on a paper's website that someone forwarded this way. Personally, of course, I put both in the ‘Junk’ file in a hurry and click ‘Delete’.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Musical Evolution

Wolfgang Amadeus wasn’t particularly happy in the city, but Salzburg has done remarkable business in Mozart’s name, cashing in not only selling tickets to hear his music but also selling everything else from sausage to clothing carrying his label. Personally I love the taste of Mozart Kugeln, although I doubt they have much to do with the composer.

Watching Tony Palmer’s excellent ‘The Salzburg Festival – A Brief History’ brings up this often silly franchise element, but most of the documentary is dedicated to more serious musical matters. It is no secret that the Third Reich and Salzburg had a special relationship, and only a few there considered the Nazi presence an occupation. Even long after the war, music of many composers who had been strictly verboten previously continued to be excluded from the Festival’s repertoire. Just like Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan had a certain stigma attached to his persona, yet nobody could deny either man’s musical talent or ingenuity. Still, it took decades after Karajan’s death before the audiences in Salzburg could hear compositions of another native Austrian Wolfgang, Erich W. Korngold.

What came to my mind was how obviously stuffy classical music can be, and how full of themselves many performers are. Museums are important, but there certainly is life outside their walls. Eventually even the Salzburg Festival was able to, or forced to, depending on one’s view, evolve and modernize its offerings. Many traditionalists naturally protested any change, but isn’t this the case with most major music institutions today with their graying audiences? Evolution happens through experimentation and not every change is a success. However, we cannot often foresee what works and what doesn’t. In business we in this country, as well as in Europe, try to create a finished and final product and then market it. The Japanese model seems to work better: a lot more products enter the store shelves and, like in nature, it is survival of the fittest from that point on.

Teaching means passing on a tradition, hopefully a worthy one. Although I feel like violin playing as an art form reached its climax many decades ago, and luckily I was able to hear some of its greats and even work with some, I try to keep an open mind. At some point, somewhere, the next successful evolutionary step will be taken, even if it won’t happen right now.

Looking at various conductors in the documentary, I realize what a golden time the present is for that profession: so many leading orchestras are in search of new music directors. In addition to Barenboim and Eschenbach leaving, Salonen in Los Angeles will no doubt give up his post to dedicate more time for his new position in London. New York must also be searching for someone to take over after Maazel. Even Utah Symphony is looking for a new figurehead; one can't help but wonder if certain information revealed in 'Mozart in the Jungle' helped to vacate this post, as that organization has higher moral standards than most. Many Europeans don't relish the fundraising aspects and CPF (Cocktail Party Factor) that come with the job, but for a qualified American conductor this should be prime time indeed.

Giving Thanks

As I didn’t grow up here, celebrating Thanksgiving was at first somewhat of a mystery to me. At 18 I was invited to a fellow student’s home in Los Angeles and I remember being amazed by the amount of food many of her overweight relatives were able to eat. Nobody bothered explaining the meaning of the holiday, but it obviously was a time for a family gathering and lots of food. Naturally I wanted to learn more and read the usual stuff about the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and Natives. That made even less sense to me, since I was well aware of the brutal deeds done to this country’s original inhabitants by immigrants of European ancestry. Of course, in time I learned to celebrate the day. Being thankful for a good harvest obviously no longer applies to most people , but I tried to find other reasons for gratitude. Some years it has been more difficult than in others. Deaths of beloved ones have happened close to the holiday. It is also hard to be thankful for people trying to destroy one’s life and career, just to save their own neck under a threat. But my hardships have been nothing compared to those of families whose loved ones have sacrificed their lives or health in a terrible, senseless war, whether in Vietnam or in the Near East, or to those sick, homeless and living in poverty.

This year the real Thanksgiving happened a few days later than the calendar indicated. Of course we had a lovely holiday on Thursday, but then Mother Nature gave us a rare gift in the form of a real winter. The last time it has been this cold and snowy at the end of November was on our first Thanksgiving in this house 21 years ago. My late mother-in-law had come up from California and she was babysitting our three Boston terriers, while my wife and I took a long walk over the Ballard bridge and enjoyed the crunching sound the cold snow made with each step. Today became an unexpected holiday as Seattle schools were canceled, including the college down the hill from us. My daughter Anna is enjoying even more of a winter wonderland at WWU in Bellingham (see picture) where snow is more than plentiful but air is also dangerously frosty.

A real present came yesterday when my wife unexpectedly found a letter from my late mother, which she had written in early 1985. I instantly recognized her unique, strong handwriting and felt her strong presence while reading what she had to say. It made me realize that our beloved ones can still be very much part of our lives after their bodies have ceased to function. Love of my mother radiated from the two pages and I marveled her intellect and penmanship. What a far cry that powerful personality was from the later years when she fell victim to Alzheimer’s. We didn’t always agree on everything, but my mother had stronger moral principles than anyone, and she never failed to stick with what she believed was right and correct, even if it meant difficulties in her life.

My mom would share the joy my daughters continue to give me. Never pushed into anything, they have all managed to excel in their respective fields. A week ago, we got our little one’s first demo cd in our hands. Although we had secretly wished for her to concentrate on her violin, she wanted to prove to us that she is a true nightingale. I can see my mother smiling, listening to her barely 14-year-old granddaughter sing her own song like an angel, immaculately in every way. There is another blessing I would have never guessed coming my way.

Photo Anna Talvi

Monday, November 13, 2006


Much has been talked and written about the downward spiraling of ‘classical’ music. While some of the alarmists have been perhaps prematurely pessimistic, there is no denying that the field is undergoing a radical change, slowly but surely, just as the Earth’s climate is warming up whether we like it or not. One reason is the lack of composers who are able to create new music which has all the needed, critical elements: memorable melodies, engaging rhythm and pleasant harmonies and sonorities. No one expects a modern piece to sound like Mozart, as we wouldn’t assume a painter produce a contemporary Rubens or Botticelli. But music has to be acceptable to our ears, not just to consist of loud meaningless sound effects. Surely, most of a concert audience likes to come and listen to old favorites, the war horses, but they don’t mean quite the same to the younger crowd. Never before has the mainstay of a concert program consisted of works created a century or two before, and the time gap is widening with every passing day.

Of course the classics will never go away, just as we won’t stop going to museums to admire paintings and sculptures of old masters. However, none of us visits the museum continuously, unless we happen to work there. My belief is that the concert scene will return to what it was several decades ago. Orchestras did not work full time, and their musicians usually did something else on the side. Recitals were far more varied than today, and it was customary to hear a soloist play a concerto with piano accompaniment. Thus there wasn’t the same need to go listen to an orchestra concert in order to hear one's favorite violin composition. Without a loud orchestra a soloist could actually play the dynamics indicated in the music. Of course, if we go back a few decades more, a recital was more like a variety show, with a singer appearing with a violinist or vice versa. A concert with orchestra could include various solo numbers for the instrumentalist featured, sometimes with piano accompaniment. Symphony and concerto movements were spread throughout the program. In my view the attacca marking between movements simply meant that nothing else should be played in between; often composers wrote their concertos so that one movement flowed to the next, thus preventing an interruption.

While concert attendance will go through a transformation, there is another form of music in which the demand will remain the same and for a reason: music composed for the church. Some of the greatest masterpieces were intended for religious surroundings. Composers had two choices: create either for the church or for the royalty. The latter could often have questionable taste and perhaps liked simple, danceable or even pompous music. A composer, no matter how gifted and accomplished, couldn’t take the chance of not pleasing his employer. With religious music the bishop or the cardinal might have had his preferences, but the Almighty didn’t ever appear in person to critique the composition. J.S. Bach was much ahead of his time and his secular music was probably not wildly popular in his day (were there violinists interested in his solo sonatas and partitas, or even capable of playing them?), but since he was obligated to compose for the church, those works certainly were heard.

These days it is common to hear a mass, passion or requiem on a concert stage, rather than in surroundings it was meant for. I have really enjoyed playing sacred music for singers and instruments more than anything since I was little, and have performed most major works in both settings. St. Matthew Passion feels almost like torture on stage, as it seems to take forever and for a long time one half of the split orchestra just sits there in front of everyone’s eyes, trying to keep still. In a church the work (if well done) is pure joy, time flies and the magnificent work is over before you would like it to end. Also, more often than not, the people conducting, singing and playing are much better aware of the meaning of the music than the ones doing the same thing on a stage in front of a concert audience. I don’t think that anyone should conduct or sing a sacred piece of music unless they thoroughly understand the meaning and symbolism of every phrase. I shall always treasure the numerous performances that I gave with the famous German Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling, who has dedicated his life to understand every little detail of the composer’s ingenuous writing. But even in his case, I preferred the works performed in churches to the concert stages. Especially dear in my memory is the splendid performance of St. Matthew for which I flew to Stuttgart to play first chair in one of the orchestras some 24 years ago. The organ loft was crowded but the performance was simply extraordinary.

Mozart’s unfinished Requiem is usually one of my least favorite compositions of its type. I have walked off the stage from a great number of performances feeling empty. A little while ago I had the opportunity to perform this work again here in Seattle, this time in a proper setting and as a part of All Soul’s liturgy at our grand St. James Cathedral. The opportunity soon became an honor and a revelation: finally the work made sense and the dedicated conductor (James Savage), soloists and marvelous chorus inspired the orchestra and created an unforgettable experience for everyone present. In spite of the dreadful weather and horrendous traffic the great cathedral was packed, with hundreds standing. That night I looked forward to the performance and afterwards went home happy, and remembering the glowing faces of ordinary people from all walks of life, I fell asleep without a worry in the world. This was hardly your typical elitist affair but music at its most sincere for everybody, and remarkably at no cost. Even an atheist would have been moved by the highly spiritual evening.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Power corrupts. Having been in control of both branches of the Congress for over a decade, the Republican Party had it coming. More than that, the Executive branch has wielded its power for years without caring much what even its own supporters in Congress thought. I just read an intelligent review in a European newspaper according to which people will see, a generation from now, the Bush-Cheney era as the darkest period in the American democracy. The war and occupation of Iraq get the acronym M.O.M. from me, which stands for ‘Mistake of Millennium’. Everything about it smelled rotten from the start, but a majority of people, politicians included, were easily brainwashed. ‘True’ stories of WMDs and the 9/11 link were manufactured somewhere in the White House and Pentagon, and the previously honest-sounding Colin Powell lied through his teeth in his speech at the United Nations. Granted, Saddam Hussein was one of our world’s terrible dictators, but there are a great number of others as well, even more dangerous ones as we have recently awakened to realize. It was not the job of the United States to play World Police, and to go after Iraq, just because we felt it was small enough for us to be victorious, and because the oil reserves the country has were going to not only pay for the war, but more importantly enrich American oil companies. Of course both assumptions have been proven to be wrong. In the meantime, our country lost its face even with its allies, with the treatment of ordinary Iraqis, not to mention suspected terrorists, breaking every agreement in the books, and by causing a civil war to break out with horrific casualties. It didn’t take long to go from all the goodwill pouring in after 9/11 to be despised by most of the world.

It is not that every Democrat is good and every Republican bad. Politicians in general tend to be corrupt. The Wired magazine has an opinion piece by Lawrence Lessig, titled ‘A Costly Addiction’. Let me quote it: “Practically everyone in Washington, DC, is now dependent in precisely the way our founders feared. All but a few members of Congress devote the majority of their time to raising money for reelection. Doing the job we’ve hired them to do – governing – takes a distant second place. A good politician comes to understand precisely how much his campaign will gain or lose with each decision he makes. Like rats in a scientific experiment learning which lever delivers food, politicians learn the complex dance that keeps them in office.”

What made this election important is that people finally managed to send a unified message, for the need of change. That includes fear for social security, healthcare, education, minimum pay, women’s and minority rights, and of course immigration issues, in addition to the disaster of invading a Muslim country. In the best case scenario the Muslim world will learn to forgive us, the infidels and occupiers, in a generation or two, and the baby boomers can sleep at night knowing that Social Security and Medicare won’t disappear by the next day. Perhaps finally the ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor will narrow; at least it is hard to picture more laws passed in the next two years favoring the very wealthy.

Another encouraging element to the election was that young people were active in record numbers. For a long time there has been a mood of hopelessness, leading to voter apathy. Apparently people have had enough. Hopefully this will also encourage people to act on other matters that desperately require a change, be it in local issues or even in the area of cultural organizations. People in charge of the latter don’t necessarily like to think that these are also, in many aspects, public institutions. Although financed by philanthropists to an extent, most have the backing of public funds, as usually none of the museums, theaters, opera houses or concert halls would be there without the generous support of city and state governments. Also, the non-profit nature of the organizations makes them open to public scrutiny. Instead of accepting decisions made in secrecy, in the style of our Executive Branch, people have the right to know what is going on and take part in the decision making. Change and a fresh approach every few years is usually for the best to all involved, even when the individuals in charge claim otherwise and have the support of local media, just as the Bush-Cheney administration could do no wrong in the eyes of Fox News. Private club atmosphere and secret society mentality have very little in common with a democratic system.

Perhaps, America has some hope after all.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Orchestras and Conductors

Although there is much more to music than symphony orchestras, their musicians and conductors, they are often the most discussed part of the classical music scene. Perhaps it is because most of the money spent on the art form goes to them, in addition to opera companies. Recently, two items in the media caught my eye. One was CNN’s series on Daniel Barenboim, the other the music director situation with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Barenboim is an interesting personality. He has never been your typical egomaniac conductor: his interests have always been much wider and trying to help humanity has been high on his list. There have been other musicians like him, violinists Kreisler and Menuhin come to mind. Barenboim’s ‘West-Eastern Divan’ youth orchestra has made the headlines often, as it has been the first successful integration on Jewish and Muslim young musicians, who have found a common language and belief in music. Of course this hasn’t always been easy and has been increasingly difficult as a result of the recent armed conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, and the Palestinians.

Following is from a transcript on conducting:

CNN: What makes a great conductor?

Barenboim: … To be a great conductor requires a lot of knowledge of the essence of music, it requires knowledge of the phenomenology of sound, how that works. It requires the ability to make people want to play, it requires the ability to animate the orchestra, to teach, to cajole, and at the same time, to learn from what you hear from good players in the orchestra. In every orchestra there is somebody that always shows you something that you haven't quite thought of before. So it is a very complex, wonderful way of life.

CNN: Is it a position of power?

Barenboim: No, it's not. The conductor decides on the orchestra, the times, the music etc. But when the orchestra plays and it is either unwilling or unable to play like the conductor wanted, he is totally powerless. And as powerlessness often does, it makes people think they are very powerful. And that's why conductors' egos are so famous.

On press and music critics:

CNN: Do you feel misunderstood when you are described in the press?

Barenboim: When I played my first concert with an orchestra, I was eight years old in Berlin. I played Mozart and there were two equally important newspapers in Buenos Aires at the time. One was called "La Prensa," the Press, and the other was called "La Nation," The Nation. And one of them wrote that I was the greatest musical genius that came to this world since Mozart. And the other wrote that it was criminal to let an eight-year-old boy play a concert with an orchestra in public, especially when the boy was completely devoid of talent. This was from the same concert. So I learned very early on that one has to rely on one's judgment and not on the judgment of others as far as the music is concerned and I've tried to stick to it.

Philadelphia’s Eschenbach is leaving after a relatively short tenure as the orchestra’s music director. Various articles have written about the musicians’ unhappiness about his appointment in the first place and the present situation. Everyone seems to admit that he has been very effective as a fund raiser but that is where agreements end. My favorite article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer just a few days ago. Titled ‘Orchestra has some lessons to consider’, it makes some excellent points and asks questions that are valid in any city with a symphony orchestra.

Here are some excerpts:

So here are the lessons learned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the wily pursuit of music directors and other acts of senseless hope:

You can't impose love on a loveless marriage.

And if your orchestra is not in perpetual music-director search mode, you're living dangerously.

It hit many musicians like the dull thud of pragmatism, this decision in January to hire Eschenbach as the orchestra's seventh music director, starting in September 2003. At a meeting announcing the decision, players responded with silence. No applause, no excited stamping of feet. Silence. And then the resentment poured forth.

One musician used the word "underwhelmed." Another said he felt "betrayed."...

What a way to usher in new musical leadership.

Waiting for chemistry could take years, but the orchestra really has no choice if it remains committed to the idea of musical quality as the criterion. No one can afford another arranged marriage. Too much is at stake, and some critics believe that the orchestra is already injured.

Music-making is not accounting or hospital administration. Its success depends entirely on love - even if it is love by way of fear and respect, as it was with Sawallisch. Chemistry counts. The notes on the page are only the beginning. Meaningful interpretation develops somewhere in the air between the podium and the orchestra risers.

At the end Peter Dobrin names twenty conductors worth consideration in his opinion. As so often, it is more interesting to discover who is absent from the list, not who made it. Surely the orchestra will find a capable director, or perhaps they will end up with a different solution by having multiple conductors in charge. At least they are looking.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reading is Believing?

Americans are usually very proud of their freedom of speech and press, and tout it as an exemplary way of life to other nations, especially those in which democracy doesn’t exist or is limited and perhaps corrupt. Generally we think of this freedom in the form of a writer being able to tell the truth, which would be the ideal. And one is also free to express his or her views, but in that case great care should be taken that something isn’t presented as a fact if it is just an opinion.

Nothing unfortunately prevents a crooked or biased journalist or reporter presenting fiction or lies as truth. If given a choice, people usually choose an interpretation of news that pleases them the most, or whets their appetite for scandal and sensation. During the first years of the war in Iraq many Americans turned to Fox News because it painted a rosy picture of the U.S. and the coalition forces’ success. The network presented the war in a more victorious way than CNN, for example. It was as if questioning the reasons for the occupation, or mentioning the casualties, was unpatriotic, and something we didn’t want to hear and read about. Of course, today people no longer blindly believe all the fairy tales coming out of the White House press room. Assassinating Saddam’s sons and capturing the former Iraqi leader himself was supposed to bring hostilities to a quick end. As this didn’t happen, we found a reason: Al-Qaida was sending foreign terrorists to Iraqi soil and all the mayhem was their doing. Not to worry: we had a handle on the situation and in no time the country’s own police force was going to take over and bring peace to the people (and cheap oil to us). While some of this was true (there have been a number of foreign militants in Iraq who have entered the country to drive the infidels and occupiers out), our leaders flatly denied that at the root of the chaos was sectarian violence, hatred between different Muslim groups. The press secretary and Mr. Rumsfeld have been quick to dismiss any talk about civil war, something that seems quite obvious today to most people aware of the situation, including our own military leaders in Iraq.

Recently the Lancet, a very respected medical journal, published its detailed study on the amount of casualties in Iraq. It came up with a number of completely different magnitude than we had seen before, with probably over 600,000 Iraqi victims. Statistical error margin puts the figure at 200,000 at the low end and close to a million at the maximum. Our government and Neo-Conservatives were immediately ridiculing the study, without even bothering to examine the methods used to come up with the staggering number of dead. For many people, hearing the President say that the Lancet article ‘was not true’ was enough, although how would he himself know. Obviously there is more than a little bit of truth behind the journal’s conclusions. A few decades from now, or possibly even before, the United States may no longer be the world’s leading superpower and then it will be feasible to picture us being accused of war crimes. Of course this country will protect its former leaders and other people suspected of guilt, but it would only isolate us further from the rest of the global community. We have always insisted that it was a ‘must’ to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing hundreds of thousands civilian deaths. Since we won, we could never be condemned for this atrocity in an international court. But what if Germany had been successful with its own atom program and dropped a bomb on Britain, another one on the Soviet Union, possibly forcing them to negotiate a quick peace agreement? Would today’s history books claim that Hitler, Himmler, Göring and others were great war heroes? Would the Allies have been punished for bombing German cities with cluster bombs? History is always written from the perspective of the winner, at least for many decades to come.

Compared to years ago, today’s people are far more skeptical about what they read in newspapers and magazines, or what they hear on radio and television. Yes, they have become more suspicious but perhaps not enough. We all know how masses can be manipulated by propaganda, and a journalist or a reporter with an agenda can plant seeds of his own bias in the minds of ordinary readers or listeners. Too many of us think that if it was in the paper, it must be true. John Mark Karr was declared guilty by the media of the little Ramsey girl’s murder, although there was no solid evidence. Of course now we all know he is but a fruitcake, who on ‘Larry King Live’ promised to write a book and do other things to benefit from his undeserved fame and short time in our media’s spotlight.

Recently, colleagues of mine have been accused of terrorism in the workplace, according to local papers. I haven’t read the stories, but have been told about them by many of these people. They claim the accusations are false, and were purposely planted in the media with the help of reporters, who either wanted to stir trouble, help their friends or had other motivations. To an outside observer, the ‘facts’ as they supposedly have been reported, sound rather retarded and created by someone with an elementary or middle school mentality. The accused have been very upset, and I can understand how they feel, having been targeted enough times by slanted journalism. It is sad if a respected paper tolerates lies that suit a seriously flawed writer’s agenda, and agrees to publish them without verifying facts or hearing from all sides. Such a reporter should be dismissed immediately and never allowed to publish again. A serious newspaper is not afraid to act in this manner. We have witnessed, in recent years, prominent journalists getting fired from their high profile jobs, for falsifying facts. Freedom of press and expression carry a responsibility with it, to be unbiased and fair in reporting, or if that is not possible, clearly make sure the reader knows this is only the opinion of an individual.

Iran and North Korea have their papers and other news media, too. We don’t rush to accept their articles at face value, but rather ridicule their point of view. However, to the people in those countries who read and hear them, they represent the only truth they are exposed to, and America’s opinions are mere propaganda in their eyes. To a person in a neutral country, both views are probably equally biased and faulty. There are plenty of affluent and well-educated people in Western societies who understand the desperation and frustration that many of this county’s ‘enemies’ experience, although they probably will not agree with it. But neither do they see American values as something worth bragging about. If you threatened to take health insurance, unemployment benefits or free college education away from EU citizens, they would create civil disobedience of a magnitude never witnessed here. Freedom comes in many forms: you could also say that we don’t have to work, go to college or carry health insurance. We are also free to accept lies.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Do-Not-Ations and Con-Tributions

Having just gone through financial records while getting data ready for my accountant, I realized how much money we have donated over the years to non-profits, more than many people make in a year. In hindsight, much of it has gone to institutions unworthy of a dime. People often feel obligated to help, thinking their aid makes a difference in humanitarian or cultural causes. Only a few of us bother to check the percentage of our aid that actually goes to benefit the intended recipients, which is often minimal. Yet much of the information is available on the web, mandated by law, although finding it takes some digging.

Great tragedies, either global or national, usually create an immediate response from caring people who want to help. Interestingly, events such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, gave birth to a large number of new non-profits. In most cases the reason behind creating such organizations is hardly humanitarian, but an opportunity for shrewd people to make a big bundle of money for themselves. It is well known how even the help from the government and big national institutions has had trouble reaching the truly needy and suffering victims. People have lied about having had a relative or significant other perish in the World Trade Center, in order to collect money. After Katrina, once it got its help program started after an amazingly long wait, the government was handing out $2,000 debit cards to both the needy and those who used the cards to gamble, buy luxury items or take vacations. There was hardly any accountability. Nobody has really researched thoroughly, to my knowledge, how much of the privately collected money was distributed to the families of 9/11 victims. Of course, the more time it has taken to locate such people in need, the more the people running such a fund have had an excuse to collect salaries and other administrative fees. These can amount to a lot: although not through donations but mandatory taxes, car owners here in Seattle have paid many years for a Monorail that doesn't exist and probably never will. Yet all the money is gone and many have obviously benefited financially from the huge amount of money collected. And what about the cost of planning the new Ground Zero monument in New York? Contests were held, winners declared, yet plans were thrown out and the circus began again. It would be interesting to have a study that showed how much certain individuals have earned from that mess.

Back to charitable contributions: hardly a day goes by when the phone doesn't ring off the hook from calls for donations. By now, we no longer pick up calls from any toll-free numbers, or those from solicitors whose names we recognize. These days callers have become smarter and block their identities. If I pick up and it turns out to be a request for money, I usually ask why the caller is doing so anonymously. Often they just hang up then, rather than come up with a made-up excuse. At other times I have asked how much overhead expenses there are, in other words how much of the money actually reaches the target. Most of these telemarketers don't have a clue or are unwilling to give out such information. Then there are all the War Veteran organizations. As I know how miserably this country (the U.S. is hardly alone, though) has taken care of those who have served and come home wounded or an emotional mess, incapable of leading a normal life, I would like to help. Soon I came to realize how many groups there are with almost identical names, all claiming to represent the same people. I have checked the background of many such groups and been astonished at the high overhead percentage. Also, there are a number of groups that according to their name are linked to law enforcement or police when in fact they have nothing to do with it. Certainly I would like to keep kids out of trouble, but not fatten the pocketbook of someone who is running the scheme. Often solicitation requests come from national professional fund raising companies who siphon off easily a third of the money. They will never tell you their true identities unless you ask, or check the phone number on your Caller ID, and decipher the name with the help of Google.

Certainly there are worthwhile organizations doing important work. The Red Cross rushes to help victims of disasters and wars globally (although they weren't allowed to go into New Orleans when the need was its greatest, if I remember correctly). Doctors Without Borders is an incredible group and there are many others. We have supported an orphan in Rwanda, and give money to UNICEF monthly. Here in Seattle we have a wonderful library system which however is short on money, thanks to the increasingly tight budget of the city. I don't think contributions to the Seattle Public Library Foundation go to waste and since this family uses the system's resources practically every day, we feel more than happy to be of help. It is hard to picture the head librarian of the system driving a luxury import, although I could be mistaken, of course.

A good indication of a non-profit's moral health is the salary and lifestyle of its executives. Such an organization, by its very nature, should not be compared to the private sector, yet many executive directors and other figureheads seem to expect similar pay packages and perks. Big local arts organizations, such as opera companies and symphony orchestras, often have people on their payroll that earn salaries that we associate with professional athletes or successful movie and television stars. If an orchestra has 10,000 subscribers (a dream for most) and every one of them would donate a hundred dollars in addition to their expensive season tickets, that extra money wouldn't, in many cases, even pay for the Music or Executive Director's salary. Of course, a number of well-to-do donors give much more, but to some less affluent such an extra contribution is possible only after serious consideration. They must believe that this gift is really needed and will make a difference. How would they feel if they were told that this money would barely pay for a free meal or two for 'more important' donors at the director's house where such entertainment is frequent, often many times a week? Or that the sum would cover 0.02% or less of an overpaid soloist's fee for the week, or sometimes just one night? There are needs and then there are needs. If an arts organization, and for that matter a private company, is having a hard time making ends meet, wouldn't it make sense that those who earn the highest salaries would be the ones having to make the greatest financial sacrifices? But as we know, the opposite is more the norm than the exception.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been often criticized for not distributing its wealth to the arts community, as with such enormous capital it could keep a large number of organizations 'healthy' and their executives well fed. However, they seem to have a different focus, something I wholeheartedly agree with: improving health of the needy worldwide through research and direct funding, paying for schools (which even in our rich country have been neglected), and having an interest in libraries which are a key to education and a treasure chest for the average world citizen. Granted, we all have paid dearly for our Microsoft products, but it is good to know that at least some of the money is being used in a truly meaningful and humanitarian way.

Next time you are about to say 'yes' to a pledge drive or donation request, think about it for a while. By agreeing to pay for something without caring where the money ends up is foolish and wrong. Demanding to know details is not only your right but also a moral responsibility: accountability is something sorely lacking in our society (think Enron or Halliburton), and by firmly asking for facts
these organizations will actually be forced to become fiscally more responsible. Sharing is important and makes one rightfully feel good, but remember that there are a great number of crooks out there trying to con us and in essence wanting to sell us snake oil. That hundred dollars could save many children's lives in Africa, or provide help to a small local arts group. It could also pay for someone else's Filet Mignon and two glasses of fancy wine.

Monday, October 09, 2006

WMD Again, This Time For Real

Our intelligence agencies must really be red-faced now that even the most die-hard hawk has had to come to terms with the fact there were no WMDs to be found in Iraq, our official reason for attacking and occupying that country. Instead one of the poorest nations, starving North Korea, has managed to detonate a nuclear bomb right under our nose on the Korean Peninsula. With its highly irrational leader, the country could feasible even use such a weapon against its rich neighbors. No wonder the mood in Japan and in South Korea is rather somber and people are frightened. Uncle Sam is using verbal threats of sanctions as usual, and our president has condemned the ‘nucular’ test, but I doubt China or even Russia would allow the U.N. Security Council to pass any meaningful countermeasures. It is hard to remember that during Clinton’s last presidency we were actually talking with this rogue state in a civilized manner and peace seemed within grasp. A Madame Albright Mr. Bush is not, nor is anyone else in his cabinet. If military action was called for, we couldn’t come up with the manpower needed with our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that we would want to fight the North Koreans again as they taught us a lesson by almost wiping out the U.S. army during the early 1950s.

Some world leaders may breathe easier, strangely enough, as this news has replaced a lot of embarrassing items on the front page. Vladimir Putin might be one of them, after the assassination of “Russia’s Conscience”, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, in her apartment building’s elevator. The writer had been one of the remaining critics of Putin and Russia’s war in Chechnya, so one cannot help but be suspicious about the motive of the murder. Russia’s flirtation with freedom and democracy seems to be rapidly coming to an end. Putin rules the country like the old timers did, with a fist of steel. Perhaps that is what Russia needs: many elderly people still remember Stalin as a great man and miss the good old times; never mind that some twenty million Soviet citizens died or disappeared during his long dictatorship. Not that our country’s past is all that exemplary either, as so many progressive civil leaders were assassinated in the 1960s alone. Will the killer or killers in Moscow be caught and will the investigation reveal the truth behind the brutal murder? Of course Putin has promised this, but it is highly unlikely, as we will probably never learn the true political reasons for killing the Kennedy brothers or Martin Luther King.

The old mentality of getting rid of people who speak the truth is unfortunately alive and well even today. On a personal note, there have been people who have wanted to destroy me and my family. Short of using bullets or poison, they have tried just about every dirty trick in the book, unsuccessfully however. Of course, for a Finn all that just builds character. I’m wondering whether I need to start wearing body armor, just to be safe. A few nights ago I saw the Devil in a dream, for the first time that I can recall. He had some familiar facial features, but otherwise looked like a troll. It was a powerful dream in which evil was everywhere to start with, but little by little goodness prevailed. The Devil ended up being powerless in front of me and I ordered him to fix the house’s toilets. I’m still trying to fully understand what the symbolism was, the incarnation of evil being reduced to a plumber. There was a time in my life when a ‘Kakkenputz’, a poop cleaner, was hired by an organization to take care of its unpleasant business, so this could have been behind the dream. Had I been a prophet, I could have written another Apocalypse for a religious book based on this ‘vision’, although it would have been more optimistic than the one we now read, and “666” could have become “285” or something of the sort.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Is The Earth Flat, Too?

Last week the N.Y. Times published a story about 'Flat Daddies'. A life-size picture from the waist up is made of a soldier in Iraq or Afganistan and sent to his/her family here, so that the children can pretend the parent is still present with them. Although it may bring comfort to some young ones, the idea is bizarre. Of course this country is willing to accept almost anything as truth these days, so why not 'flat daddies' as replacements for the real thing.

So, what's next? Could we replace the President and other public servants with life-size cut-outs and have others make the decisions, faceless behind the flat pictures? The entire congress could look all smiles, and be present 100% of the time. The actual voting could happen via the internet; trained actors could deliver 'speeches' on C-SPAN. What about doing this in something like the arts? Concerts and opera productions could use music from the best recordings available via a sound system. Pictures of singers could be moved with strings: Pavarotti could be in every production, from the Met to Des Moines. Imagine an orchestra where every musician would look happy, young and skinny, and Toscanini and Bernstein could be awakened from the dead easily. A couple of strings attached (no pun intended) would make the conductor move about in tempo, and to an audience's delight he could also now be facing the audience: no more staring at the backside of a local maestro. Every performance would be perfection, a music lover's dream. Like the soldier's child, listeners, too, would be pleased with the visual image. Like the Flat Daddy who doesn't suffer from nightmares and want to take his frustrations out on his family, the musicians would be the perfect orchestra, and a cost effective one, too.

It took a long time for the world to accept the fact that our Earth was round. The church and most sovereigns were opposed to the idea and people didn't know better. Our society is kind of going back towards those times. Evolution is no longer accepted by a majority of Americans. We want to believe in a divine design in which we were created after G-d's image. Never mind that our gene pool is almost identical to that of the great apes; what do scientists know after all.

If we had only one eye, we wouldn't percieve anything as three-dimentional, and couldn't really tell the difference between a flat image and the one in 3-D. A blind earthworm can only go forwards or backwards. It is happy in this one-dimensional world which is all it knows. Perhaps one of the true fundamentalists could tell us if our Creator is also a 'Flat Daddy', although an almighty one?

Photo: Katie Zezima, NY Times

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Honor and Responsibility

It never stops amazing me how this country regards honor and honesty. What a stark contrast our system is to the Far East. When a company here is heading for bankruptcy the CEO and chief executives quickly cash in, give themselves huge bonuses and then let ordinary investors and the company’s workers suffer. Only occasionally are they made responsible when the fraud is too obvious and would backfire politically, such as in the case of Enron. Even in that sad saga there was a movement to protect Kenneth Lay’s criminally amassed fortune after his death, so that his heirs wouldn’t suffer. The Bible talks about people being punished to the third and fourth generation for someone’s grave sins, but our fundamentalists seem to have forgotten that part, although in other issues they seem to take the book at face value.

Japan presents a completely opposite philosophy and way of life. Honor is to be preserved at any cost, even if it means committing a hara-kiri (seppuku), a ritual painful suicide by disembowelment. When Japan’s real estate values collapsed in the 1990s, together with the stock market, many people no longer could afford the high mortgages they had taken during what seemed like an unstoppable economic rise. Rather than following what our country would have done in that situation, Japanese banks realized that foreclosures would have meant shame and loss of face to the borrower and decided, at least in many cases, to absorb the loss.

Here it is customary never to take blame for failure. Whether a company, an arts organization or just an individual, we seem to have a need for finger pointing and finding a scapegoat. Just think of the disastrous handling of hurricane Katrina’s aftermath: nobody admitted to be at fault and the head of FEMA, who was forced to resign following a public outcry, was soon given another important position. In China where toxic chemical, benzene, accidentally was spilled into a river near Harbin and millions of people went without water for many days, the official whose responsibility was to oversee environmental issues ended up taking his own life, in spite of the government wanting to blame the country’s biggest oil company for the accident. Honor is highly respected in that country, too, in spite of the communist system which usually breeds corruption, and one of the most severe punishments, short of a long prison sentence or death penalty, is a public admission of wrongdoing and thus casting shame on the individual.

Wouldn’t it be great if the president took the responsibility of all the mayhem following the invasion of Iraq, even though it is obvious the plans were concocted by others in his administration? We rightfully accuse Hitler of WWII and the Holocaust, and yet his role was probably to be a figurehead and get people into a frenzy with his oratory skills. He wouldn’t have been intelligent enough to have developed a detailed plan to systematically murder millions of Jews and other unwanted in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Stalin, on the other hand, distrusted even his closest people, and the mass murders in the Soviet Union were his planning, although with the help of other shameless madmen. Same is probably true with Mao in China, who of all the dictators had the most countrymen killed. How would we view Hitler today if England and the Soviet Union had to surrender and Nazi Germany would have emerged victorious? After all, our country had a strange love affair with him; a lot of people admired him as modern day Ceasar, as evident on the New York Times’ coverage of the opening of the Berlin Olympics. A wave of anti-Semitism had spread over the U.S. and very few would have had the courage to have brought up the fate of Europe’s Jews. We only joined the war after the Japanese bombed our naval base in Pearl Harbor, and Germany declared war against us four days later. In France, which was divided into the Occupied Territory and Vichy France, we had rushed to send an ambassador to the latter, thus seemingly giving our blessing to Germany’s actions.

Closer to home, many arts organizations here are presently fighting for their lives, with increased expenses and decreased audiences. Multi-million dollar deficits are more the norm than an exception. Of course, the people in charge have to take responsibility, which most do honorably, resigning and giving others a chance to improve matters. However, there are cases where a person holds on, in spite of pleas and clear handwriting on the wall. These are the art world’s 'little hitlers' who insist on staying in power even when their world is collapsing. After all, Berlin was but a pile of rubble before the Führer and his mistress ended their lives in a bunker.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

In A Heartbeat

Sensing rhythm and counting properly are one of the cornerstones of music. Like intonation, it comes naturally to some but takes a lot of training for others. Luckily for want-to-be-musicians it can be learned, often with less effort than other areas of basic musicianship, and later, artistry.

One’s cultural background, and sometimes genetic, plays a role. In my view, the people with the best sense of rhythm in their blood are of African origin or descent. Complicated drumming patterns have been the most important way of communicating beyond language barriers (tribes living in close proximity may often speak in an unrelated tongue) and to share joys of life with dance. A close second are Latin Americans with their incredibly seductive rhythm-based music. Often here the roots may point to Africa as well: a great portion of Cubans and Brazilians are descendants of slaves from that continent. At the opposite end there are cultures where traditional music has been less based on pulse and more on improvisational, often ornamental singing and playing. Much of Asia, for instance, has been of this type, including the Middle East. Great cantorial singing of the Eastern European Jews, for instance, has very little space for a drum beat. That culture borrowed heavily from others, such as the Gypsies, to come up with such music as klezmer, which we associate with the former.

Before the invention of the torture device called metronome, musicians had to rely completely on their inner pulse, which today fewer people seem to possess. All of us have it built in: our heartbeat. Listening to it is another story. Interestingly, after the metronome was introduced, Quantz came up with rules for basic tempo markings. With one or two exceptions, they all had a relationship to 80 beats to a minute, which would have been a normal heartbeat especially at the time before present-day medical care, as most people had some kind of a health issue which would have increased their pulse rate somewhat. Beethoven was the first major composer to use metronome markings, sometimes with results that have given grey hairs to musicians and musicologists alike. Perhaps the fact, that he was becoming deaf and mainly heard the music in his head, accounts for some of the oddly fast markings. Also, in his correspondence Beethoven contradicts himself in this area. The metronome, like an accurate clock, is an instrument for the devil, and later composers started relying on it too much, often in the case of contemporary music to cover up musical inadequacies by writing unnaturally complicated rhythmical patterns. In many ways, music was better off before this device, as mankind was before becoming dependent on accurate watches. Even I was hooked on the latter for years, although its purpose was to track time mainly to prevent a greedy employer from mistreating his employees. Today I don't look at the clock often enough when teaching.

The metronome is a useful device when used in moderation. If one lacks a natural sense of pulse, it can guide a player to learn proper note lengths and hopefully become aware of different rhythms. However, just like a person’s heartbeat, music’s pulse varies often from one moment to another. This is what makes music feel alive, natural and separates it from mechanical, machine-like attempts that one unfortunately hears more and more these days. Teaching a youngster to play correctly is strange: in most cases I have to advise them to practice with the help of a metronome, yet the time comes when I have to tell them to forget all that and start listening to and relying on their inner pulse. That is when they start the complex path of artistry which has little space for mechanical reproduction or imitation of any kind.

It is interesting to listen to performances of great instrumentalists: on the surface everything seems to be perfectly in tempo, yet if one tries to find a metronome marking it simply is impossible. Tempo may vary from measure to measure, yet the playing is so convincing everything makes perfect sense. Secondly, our musical notation leaves a lot to be desired and is an approximation at best. How could one possibly indicate the way a basic dance like a waltz should be interpreted? Fritz Kreisler probably possessed better rhythm than any other instrumentalist, yet nothing in his playing matched exactly the printed page. Furthermore, there are numerous recordings he made of the same little pieces, some his own, some transcriptions, and the interpretation is completely different each time. And Kreisler hardly is alone, just a prime example of an incredible soloist and composer in the same person. How we must pity a musician or a conductor who is trapped in the literal translation of the notated music. Such a person may have good sense of basic metronome-like pulse, but he would be better off being a drummer for a military band than pretending to be an artist, although a drum machine would do a better job and for a lot less money.

More on different areas of the complex art form of performing music will follow here on a later date.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

End-of-Summer Reading

This is a good time of the year to do some reading before the season starts in full swing with school and other activities. Yesterday morning I was up early and picked up a book called ‘The Death of Common Sense’, by Philip Howard, and finished it while waiting for the family to wake up. Subtitled ‘How Law is Suffocating America it gives ample examples of how good and noble ideas that were turned into laws became a ridiculous and even nightmarish waste of time and money, mainly because of greedy attorneys and people wanting to benefit from the system. Written a decade ago, it made the New York Times bestseller list. Naturally, my daughter Anna gave me a hard time about the views expressed and we had a lively but healthy debate as result.

By accident, while searching on the web, I came across an excellent article on trauma in the Middle East, and was pleasantly surprised that it was written by an old friend of mine, Gina Ross. A Sephardic Jew, she was born in Aleppo, Syria, and speaks Arabic among many other languages, and has an unusually well-balanced view of the area’s conflicts as seen from all sides. A charming and witty person who finished her school in Brazil in a French Lycée, she married a Canadian screen writer and moved to Los Angeles where she still resides. Her son and my second daughter used to go to the same Hebrew pre-school and we became close friends. In addition to being a gifted painter, Ms. Ross became a successful therapist and founded trauma healing organizations in both the U.S. and Israel. She has published a book, "Beyond the Trauma Vortex: the Role of the Media in Healing Fear, Terror and Violence", plus articles in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Finally I’d like to recommend a thought provoking article published In These Times and written by my own daughter Silja Talvi, ‘Narcissists “R” Us?. Partially a book review of Christopher Lasch’s “Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” but with plenty of personal research and content, the article brings to mind many self-important people whom one can picture looking in the mirror the first thing in the morning and saying “God is great, but so am I”. Out of curiosity I checked on publicity of several arts organizations and discovered a few mug shots of conductors representing an orchestra, but of no directors of an opera or a dance company, unless they are performers themselves. Perhaps a truly charismatic conductor can attract an audience with his photo (Michael Tilson-Thomas in San Francisco comes to mind), but orchestras often play better for visiting maestros, and after all it is the players who produce all the music, not the man with the baton. Opera companies like to show scenes from a production, as do ballet groups, or perhaps they display photos of their star soloists. We would feel it was absurd if a baseball or football team would feature its coach as the main attraction, as important a function as he serves. Surely there are narcissists leading those organizations, too, but enough common sense is alive in this case to keep them in the background where they belong.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Price of Friendship

Friendships come in many forms. Some people are proud of their large collection of friends, most of whom fall in the category of acquaintances, at least in my view. Some others have only a few people they'd call friends, but they tend to be lifelong and close ones. People in today's 'me-first' society tend to be rather selfish and choose to be friends with someone only if there is something to gain from the relationship. Most of us would rather talk than listen and observing 'friends' interact one often notices a lot of monologues, politely done in a sequence, but little else. I complain or brag first, then it is your turn. When something happens in life where the other person could use a real friend, it is all too easy to disappear and remove this individual from the list as he/she has outlived his/her usefulness and might become a burden or a liability instead. People going through a divorce or a major illness soon find out that most of their supposedly best pals are nowhere to be seen. A head of a non-profit organization might invite potential wealthy, usually elderly, people into their homes and lives, making these folks feel like like they are special. Of course, it is easy to fall into this trap, but this form of friendship comes with a steep price tag as hefty sums of money in the form of donations are expected in return. Perhaps the 'victims' realize they are being used but usually denial steps in and the cruel truth remains hidden.

Talking about buying friendships, there was an excellent Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, titled "The High Price of Friendship". Although the facts told in it are nothing new, it is a good refresher course about this country's 'coalition friends' and the enormous amounts of money we pay countries so that they'd officially be 'on our side' and send often minuscule number of soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan. Little Estonia and Albania receive millions for their participation and have become our trusted friends and allies, even though the public opinion, in at least Estonia, is not as pro-invasion as we'd like to pretend. The article is worth reading; its questioning of the wisdom of paying for a coalition of friends that are there for the money alone. It is sad if America can only find sympathy and understanding by buying it, and a sign of what the rest of the world thinks of our values. Clearly the fact that a year after Katrina people's lives and the city of New Orleans itself are still in shambles is hard to understand. How can a country that can't take care of its own back yard tout itself as a model for other nations? Last week the Christian Science Monitor published an article, "Numbers show a second-rate US" , in which statistics from a Washington think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, show that the United States is near or at the bottom of industrialized countries in poverty, both among adults and children. My native Finland, on the contrary, has the lowest percentage of people living below poverty level, of any country. Perhaps that explains why it is difficult for me to appreciate the value system here. While freedom of speech is wonderful (unless someone influential doesn't like what you have to say and sends the police to your house), one should also have the freedom of education and guaranteed health care. And why is it that the country that parades itself as an example of freedom has locked up more people in prison than any other place, except for North Korea and perhaps China? We are also evidently very pro-life, yet we put to death more people than countries that are really low on our list of human rights.

Back to friendships: although many dear people to me have passed away, I still have others who have remained close since my childhood and youth. There is very little they can benefit from our relationship, other than knowledge that after all this time it feels good to care and love. They certainly wouldn't act like a longtime 'friend' of my wife's who accidentally bumped into her in a record store, turned white as a sheet and ran out like a dog with its tail between the legs, without uttering a word. There are people, and then there are people. One of my favorite shows, 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', has an episode where Larry David finally agrees to donate his kidney to Richard Lewis. The recipient is so grateful to his friend that he offers to do or give anything in return. Larry sees a golf club, a putter he likes, and asks to borrow it. Of course the friendship doesn't stretch that far and Richard refuses the request. In the show the once doomed friend feels great after his transplant and goes vacationing with pretty girls; the donor in turn gets very sick, dies but is returned back to the living. The series is outrageous but portrays people with their usually shallow relationships and chit-chat talk more truthfully than any other show, to the point that it is often painful to watch. If you haven't seen it, rent a season's worth or catch it on HBO: chances are you'll become a fan. Warning: it doesn't have a laugh track, so one needs to decide what is funny and what isn't.