Monday, May 29, 2006

Grim Reaper Comes to Concerts

Much has been written about the declining interest in classical music, much of it for valid reasons. A number of orchestras have folded and most of the remaining ones have serious financial problems. Recitals are rare, other than those by ‘stars’ or within a university circuit. At the same time conservatories and colleges turn out ‘professionals’, musicians with a degree, in increasing numbers. Odds of these young adults finding the kind of employment they want are less every year. Even for someone who has been employed for years, changing jobs in the same field is nearly impossible, unless they have inside connections. Most are forced to turn to teaching, whether they have a talent for it or not, and this in turn will contribute to creating even more unemployable musicians.

Of course classical music isn’t dead and will not die. What we have is a gross imbalance of supply and demand. Orchestras have had to increase salaries for their musicians and in turn have added more concerts over more weeks to earn an income from ticket sales. To be a subscriber to a symphony orchestra season is a major undertaking and involvement these days. I certainly would see no reason to pay a lot of money to go hear a year’s worth of often mediocre performances of works I don’t even like. The few times when something would awaken my curiosity I would buy an individual ticket. A small recital series with five or six concerts by good instrumentalists and a modest number of chamber orchestra performances might be more tempting and feel like less of a waste of my time and money.

Soloists and conductors are earning astronomical amounts for the work they do, not to mention the heads of orchestra administrations. The increased workload means that musicians no longer find pleasure in their work and they are bitter that a star soloist earns as much or more in one gig than they do in a year. The book ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ is worth reading for the last ten pages alone, as Ms. Tindall analyzes today’s classical music realities very well.

Of course there are numerous people who don’t see the situation in such grim light and even claim that music has never been as successful and popular as now. Just recently Allan Kozinn wrote a long article in the New York Times titled ‘Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music’s Demise Are Dead Wrong.’ He brings out some important points and facts. Interestingly, the article has a picture of the audience listening to the Houston Symphony earlier in the year. The same reviewer wrote at the time: “It was a risky venture: Carnegie, which has a hefty orchestral series, wasn't sponsoring this concert, meaning that the orchestra had to rent the hall and find an audience. Some of its public came with it from Houston, but even so, empty seats were in good supply.”

Another article appeared a few days later: Daniel J. Wakin wrote an interesting piece titled ‘MUSIC; Fancy Hall 4 Vry Lo Rnt’ in which readers are made aware of what goes into performing in Carnegie Hall. At least the Houstonians got a printed review in the NY Times and a rather nice one at that, not always the case with orchestras who decide to come and ‘conquer New York’ by renting that hall.

It will be interesting to read how the smart and insightful Greg Sandow will be responding to Kozinn’s article. Signs are he didn’t agree with it and it is easy, at least to yours truly, to understand why. Almost a decade ago, Scott Duncan (of the Orange County Register) wrote: “American orchestras in 1997 aren’t exactly a growth industry. It’s like watching the life go out of the last specimen of a nearly extinct species.”

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Remembering the Dead

Memorial Day is a good time to study how different cultures and religions relate to death and remember their deceased. Only the Buddhists and others believing in reincarnation see it as a transition, otherwise death is often thought of as a crisis, and there is a sense of finality about it. However, since the days of the Neanderthal man humans have believed in afterlife. It was customary already then to give the dead supplies for the next phase in their journey. The great cultures of ancient China and Egypt buried their rulers with everything they could possibly need, including food, weapons, servants and even spouses.

Whereas it has been important to preserve a body in many parts of the world, whether in a form of a mummy inside a pyramid or just the common embalming in today’s America, others have desired to get rid of the remains as soon as possible, usually through cremation. In times of pandemics such as the plague or even the Spanish Flu, cremation has been acceptable to people whose belief system normally doesn’t allow for it, as even the primitive man knew that it helped to prevent the spread of the disease: a decomposing body in the ground can easily contaminate the water supply. In places like Tibet and Laos, cremation has traditionally reserved for special people, such as high-ranking lamas, or in case of Laos, for a person who died of natural causes after a long prosperous and peaceful life.

The Zoroastrians, or Parsis as they are called in India, came up with a different solution: as the dead body must not be in contact with earth, water or even fire, their deceased were placed on high towers for a sky burial, where birds of prey would soon strip off everything edible and leave nothing but bones behind. These were then thrown into a deep pit by their own ‘untouchables’, the only people allowed contact with the remains. Now comes the quiz of today: what does this all have to do with the arthritis drug Voltaren©, also known as diclofenac? During the last 10 years there has been a catastrophic 99% decrease in the number of vultures which normally do the mortician services in a Tower of Silence in Mumbai. The reason: sick cattle in India have been given this drug to help them stay in working shape. Once the animals die, the white-backed vultures dine on their carcasses as well, but cannot tolerate the drug present in the flesh and suffer fatal kidney failure. Probably many of the human bodies have high amounts of the drug as well, as we are what we eat, after all. This has become a real problem for the Parsis as now the bodies just rot. Elsewhere in the world this culture has had to come up with different solutions, such as cremating the dead in electric ovens where no actual fire is presents.

Where the Jews and Muslims want to bury their dead as soon as possible, the other extreme can be found in Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi among the Toraja people. There the time between a death and the funeral can be many years, to assure that everyone can attend and to save enough money to buy buffalo. These days the bodies are injected with formaldehyde and kept in a wooden coffin, right in the house, but in the past the body would rest in a special room on a mat; bamboo pipes under the floor would drain body fluids away.

In Greece people often bury their dead twice. Near Athens there is such shortage of land for burials that moving the remains later is almost a must to make space for others. But the people also feel that once the flesh has decayed, the bones should be placed elsewhere. We consume a lot of preservatives in our food and decomposition takes much longer these days, and supposedly it is not uncommon to have family members manually scraping remaining flesh off the bones, in preparation for the second burial.

Whatever method is used for the burial, most families want some kind of gravestone or marker for the remains, unless the urn is kept at home or the ashes have been spread. This will serve as a permanent reminder of the deceased for future generations. It can be fascinating and even important to wander through cemeteries looking for the graves of ancestors, beloved ones, and friends from the past, or to just see history unfold in front of one's eyes. Although not common in my home country, I like the Eastern European tradition of showing a picture of the person. It adds a personal image to just seeing the name, and makes the memory more real. I love to visit cemeteries if they are well taken care of and park-like. Whereas an endless graveyard with just stones in New York looks depressing to say the least, the one near our house in Seattle is serene, and my wife’s mother has a perfect place there and she would be proud of the location of her final home. But nothing beats the beauty of a Finnish cemetery on Christmas Eve, when every grave has a lit candle on it, protected by glass, turning the park into a sea of glittering lights, amplified by snow.

My heart goes out to all the families of soldiers who gave their lives for freedom and in defending their country, here and wherever they are. The sad, often unspoken truth is that not all of them died for an understandable or acceptable cause, but rather because of a political mistake, such as was the case in Vietnam. Time will tell how we will view our present crisis and the many fallen ones. - My mother lost five cousins who were fighting Stalin’s Red Army. How grief-stricken that family must have been, losing every son they had. But the only daughter took over and became the farmer, continuing the parents’ work. That is Finnish sisu for you: never give up.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Since a couple students rescheduled at a last minute, I took the opportunity to read Blair Tindall’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle’, which my wife had brought home from the library. The book turned out to be quite different from what I had expected, and for the most part I found it quite thought-provoking. I shall be returning to it on a later date on this blog but want to discuss one element in it now: betrayal.

In the book Ms. Tindall writes at great length about a famous accompanist, Samuel Sanders. He was in high demand and a stage partner for well-known instrumentalists, such as Itzhak Perlman. Sanders was also a very sick man who went through two heart transplants. It hurts to read that when he was in the hospital, none of his ‘friends’ bothered to check on him. No visits, not even get-well cards. It was as if everyone had decided they would no longer benefit from his services and checked him off. Mr. Sanders recovered after the first transplant, however, and all of a sudden all the ‘friends’ were back, and he went on performing with his famous partners as before. The second time around the operation was too much, and the patient soon gave up on life and left us. Even this time visitors and well-wishers were nowhere to be seen.

This is one example of betrayal. Someone is liked and befriended because there is something to gain from the relationship. Once that no longer is the case, there seems to be no reason to continue the friendship, or even pretend to care. Are we really that calculating? The unfortunate answer is yes. Nowhere is betrayal as hurtful and devastating as in family relations, marriages and similar intimate relationships. Betrayal is the cause for many marriages or similar setups breaking up, and often there is an added element of revenge attached to it. Love and hate seem to go hand in hand.

Parents can betray their children, although more often it is the other way around. A father cutting contact with his daughter after learning about her terminal cancer is an extreme case, especially when he doesn't even attend her funeral a couple months later. A grown woman refuses to have contact with her mother for a couple decades, although she lives only a few minutes’ drive from her parents. Only after their mother is hospitalized with Alzheimer’s does her daughter start visiting. At that point the parent no longer recognizes her child, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps it gives the person a false sense that she has actually taken care of her aging mother. Once the mom passes away, the daughter is very upset to find the Will in which she has been almost left out any inheritance, and spares no expense to have it nullified in court on a technicality. – Here is a another true case, about four sisters: one also decides to have nothing to do with their mother. She does, however, show up for the funeral, perhaps to make sure she is going to receive her share. As she trusts no one, there will soon be five people dividing the estate: the four daughters plus an expensive lawyer. A houseful of valuable furnishings nets the estate less than $3,000 at the end, after the middlemen involved have fattened their pocketbooks.

A revengful spouse decides to try to bring her musician-husband's career to an abrupt end by writing inflammatory letters to everyone she could think of, then destroys his entire music library, filled with everything he had studied, plus manuscripts. Forging his signature on checks arriving in the mail doesn't bother her a bit: revenge feels sweet. She also manages to permanently ‘misplace’ his old Italian violin, and makes their child in her early teens threaten to sue the dad if he doesn’t pay her mother more than the court-ordered child support. Luckily in time the relationship between the father and his children heals, although one wonders what deep-rooted issues they may carry in their hearts as a result of brainwashing at an early age. So many divorced parents are guilty of this: it causes irreparable damage and not only in the other parent, as the children always suffer the most.

What about betrayal in the workplace? How many of us have spent years, even decades, serving selflessly in a job, and then find ourselves unwanted, often also humiliated, at an age when it is almost impossible to find employment elsewhere? What makes a person betray a loyal friend and employee? I don’t have an answer to that as I could never do such a deed. Does this Western society of ours really turn many of us into cold-blooded monsters, with no conscience and no moral values? It is sad to think of ‘humanity’ as only a system where people use each other, and once that’s no longer profitable or convenient, discard friends, spouses, parents and coworkers as waste and garbage. Every religion I know of emphasizes thinking of others before ourselves, but having become slaves of greed and ‘me-first’ capitalism obviously overrides this principle.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Venezuelan Miracle

Our media is free - as long as it doesn't disagree with the mighty and the powerful or the super wealthy. Until recently the White House couldn't really be criticized, even though it had conducted its affairs in more secrecy than the Soviet Supreme during the Cold War. Because of this self-imposed censorship we don't hear about things that ought to involve us all, or these items get very little attention. Just a few days ago the head of Hyundai Corporation in South Korea, Chung Mong-koo, was arrested on embezzlement and corruption charges and is kept behind bars. To an average American such news is meaningless because he doesn't realize the magnitude of the case. Hyundai is one of largest auto makers in the world, soon a rival to Toyota, and arresting its top executive is like putting Bill Gates in jail and denying him bail. Time will show what will happen in this case in Seoul. The enormously large companies in South Korea are run like family enterprises, and although they are public corporations, an average shareholder has no knowledge what happens behind scenes. I wish our authorities would have the guts to investigate our corrupt business leaders and politicians in a similar manner. Color of justice should not be green.

In America money buys everything, from justice to power. Facts get twisted in the media to suit a powerful person's or group's purposes. After the mistake of invading Iraq it was hard to find any mainstream publication that was critical of it. Surely the weapons of mass destruction would turn up any day now! 9/11 was the administration's favorite term and excuse, although no connection to the terrorist strike and Iraq could ever be established. Well, things for our leaders have turned a lot more sour lately, and our president's ratings have plummeted to rock bottom, as people are finally seeing what should have been evident from the start.

Since our resources have been stretched thin, it has been impossible for our government to pay enough attention to our own hemisphere, and to our horror Latin America has made a sharp turn to the left, towards socialism. We tried to get rid of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, helping his opponents in a coup attempt, but our success was similar to that of Bay of Pigs in Cuba over 40 years ago. Since this elected leader of his country controls gigantic oil fields, he is in a position to tell our government what he thinks of our leadership and its meddling in other countries' affairs. Our response has been to ignore Mr. Chávez, and make sure that any news coming out of Venezuela is negative. Even NPR, usually our most neutral news source, today was talking about the fact that in Caracas gasoline only costs 12 cents a gallon, and what a terrible thing it is because the gas station owners cannot earn enough, and how all this encourages more driving and pollution. Couldn't NPR just say that the Venezuelans were just mimicking the American life style, and that we are terribly jealous that they can afford to do so with such low fuel prices?

This negativity has kept some incredibly wonderful things from becoming public here, in the the field of music. I first learned from European sources about a bright, energetic star on the orchestra scene. Gustavo Dudamel had grown up in a system that provides music education to the children of slums, and now at the age of 25 has been hired to lead the Gothenburg (Göteborg) Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, the very same orchestra that put Neeme Järvi on the map. Unlike the cool and calculating Finns, the Venezuelans have hot Latin rhythm flowing in their blood and, although I haven't yet seen him conduct, I can picture how exciting this young maestro can be. All the reviews I've managed to read have spoken to this effect. His story is truly a rags-to-riches, and he must have enormous talent to have accomplished all this against seemingly impossible odds. Coming from poverty, there was nobody to buy him a career, to give a manager a large sum of money and say 'make this young man a star at any cost.' Why don't we see Mr. Dudamel here in this country regularly with every major orchestra? Is it because he is a product of a social program in a country we cannot say anything positive about? I bet orchestras here would find their halls packed to capacity, even without a big-name soloist in the program, with such flare, energy, musicality and skill on the podium. Instead, we might see an old 'fuddy-duddy' conducting, with audience members yawning, looking at their watches and wanting to hurry home, especially after the soloist has finished his or her number.

And it is not just Mr. Dudamel: Venezuela is producing an amazing number of other great musicians. With that remarkable program in place, Venezuela has become an envy to any other nation. Simon Rattle said: "This is the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world". In a country where three-quarters of its 22 million inhabitants live below poverty line, hunger for classical music has created no less than 125 youth orchestras, 57 children's orchestras and 30 adult professional symphony orchestras. Sure, I'm proud of my native Finland's accomplishments, but bow humbly down in front of these amazing figures and facts.

Let us put politics aside, pay no attention to the Bush-Chávez war of words, and welcome this nation as the most inspiring example music world has to offer today. I don't usually yearn for concerts as I overdosed on them already long ago, but if have a chance to go, see and hear Mr. Dudamel or one his gifted compatriots perform, I would be happy to wait in line for hours for a ticket.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Lessons Not Learned

In the country where I grew up, Finland, people always had a special place for the little country that could, Israel. The people in both nations had suffered a lot, and having been under the whims of the Russian Czar for a hundred years, my people could well understand what the Eastern European Jews had to endure. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was an all-time favorite musical; I don’t think there was a theater company in Finland that didn’t come up with its own production of it, and it is still performed. Of all the countries, more young people from my homeland went to Israel to work on a kibbutz than anyplace else.

Today the Finns view Israel very differently, and for a reason. They see that country using the same tactics against its Palestinian neighbors as they themselves were subjected to. The Gaza Strip is like a gigantic Warsaw ghetto, behind a visible or invisible wall, and the more sparsely populated West Bank doesn’t fare much better. Granted, Palestinian extremists have done their best to cause havoc, and managed to derail all the plans for peace which had been on the negotiation table. But also the Israelis have their hawkish fundamentalists that don’t want give their neighbors an opportunity to live a decent and productive life, to the point that they have been willing to murder their own for-peace leaders. Even within Israel there is a great divide between different groups of Jewish citizens, depending on their origins and skin color; not to mention the Arabs who are citizens as well. The blood donated by dark-skinned Ethiopian Jews was thrown out, because in an Ashkenazi’s eyes it wasn’t ‘pure’ enough.

The icing on the cake was the recent Israeli Supreme Court’s decision not to let spouses of Israeli citizens stay and live in the country if they had been born in the West Bank. In any civilized country, the sanctity of a family comes first, as it is the very foundation and building block of any society. This ruling either tears families apart or forces them to move abroad. Not that Europeans are all known for their tolerance (just think of recent numerous racially motivated bloody attacks in St Petersburg, Russia), but tearing families apart for no real reason is hard to swallow for most people.

Especially under our present administration, Finns and other Europeans see Israel as a mouthpiece and a bullhorn for America. Since we are so far from that area geographically, taking their frustrations out on ordinary innocent Israelis seems to be the only way the Palestinians can express their rage. Answering violence with violence is a vicious circle, and hatred grows like a cancer.

There are a lot of us wanting to have a productive dialogue between the Jews and Muslims; after all the two groups are almost first cousins in origin and even faith. Islam was built on the foundation of Judaism, and the Qur’an states that the Hebrews were God’s chosen people. But war is always more popular than peace, and people don’t want to hear the voices of people like Daniel Barenboim and his Palestinian friend Edward Said, now deceased. The hope has to be in the younger generation. My daughter Anna was very proud to be organizing a Tolerance Night at her university’s Hillel, and have the leader of the college’s Muslim student organization attend. But if you a growing up in the tiny area of Israel and Palestine, chances are your mind is filled bitter hate and revenge from early on. Teachings of the Holocaust, or Sho’Ah, should have taught the Jews valuable lessons. Why are they now acting like their own oppressors once did?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Pineapple Express

Our little one, Sarah, just returned from an eight day field and science trip in Maui, together with other Catharine Blaine 8th graders. The first thing she said was that Hawaii is so different from what the tourist brochures lead us to believe. Just like her sister who went on the school’s very first trip five years ago, these youngsters were shown life in the islands as it really is. Of course they got plenty of exposure to the fantastic nature with its unique plants and animals, but they were also taught to see life from a native Hawaiian’s point of view; not always a pretty picture.

Yes, we eventually turned Hawaii into the 50th State, but for a long time ran the territory with a plantation-owner mentality. Even at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the islands hardly were thought of as American soil, just a good place for a military base. A lot of native Hawaiians are unhappy with the way things turned out, and an independence movement still exists. My eldest daughter Silja Talvi just published an article on the unbelievable fact that Hawaii sends a lot of its prison inmates to the mainland, often all the way to the rural, privately run prisons in the Eastern states. Just because it is a cheaper alternative to building in-state facilities, it makes it impossible for families to visit their fathers and mothers, or children. Thanks to the prison system’s deal with the telecoms, calling at 60 cents per minute is not a great option for these impoverished people either. What happened to the laws we are supposed to have against cruel and inhumane punishment? You can check Silja's story on Utne online which also has a link to the original publication, In These Times.

The Honolulu Symphony, seemingly forever on the brink of folding, just got a sizeable matching grant of 4 million from the state. This is not to say they are out of the woods yet and supposedly the scene-behind-the-scene is not all happy. Perhaps they could use someone with great skills in fundraising, who could also double as a conductor on the side: I doubt the artistic standards in Oahu are quite as high as in musical centers on the mainland. I could think of a few candidates, and Hawaii would make a nice place to retire. Of course, the demographics might present a problem: the islanders' love for Spam, for instance, of which obviously no kosher form exists.

For those not familiar with the West Coast, Pineapple Express refers to weather phenomena, a jet stream which brings unseasonably warm and moist air to the area from the former Sandwich Islands. It often means bad news to ski resorts as precipitation is in the form of rain, but can be a nice reminder of summer temperatures at least in the Puget Sound region during chilly winter months. A different kind of Pineapple Express, in the form of Hawaiian Airlines, brought our daughter back from the islands in no time, but having to wait almost an hour for luggage to arrive was more reminiscent of a stalled depression. Yet our daughter loves to travel, especially by plane, and would have been willing to go back as soon as her three full loads of laundry were clean and dry. Staying in the rustic conditions at Camp Maluhia was easy for her, as numerous summers by a Finnish lake had prepared her for far more primitive living arrangements.

Talking about primitive and the Finns, check out the stories in Helsingin Sanomat and BBC about the Finnish heavy metal monster band Lordi winning the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest just yesterday.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Once in a while something really strange appears even on the classical music scene. Among the recent top candidates is the situation in Ottawa, Canada's capital. A wonderful violinist (-turned-conductor), Pinchas Zukerman, is having a hard time with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, of which he is the music director, for seemingly unusual reasons.

Although he had initially warmly welcomed the arrival of their associate concertmaster Olivier Thouin, a couple years later he had threatened to veto this violinist’s tenure. What could be the reason? He doesn’t like the way the Mr. Thouin holds his left thumb on the back of the fingerboard.

I must assume that the associate concertmaster held his thumb the very same way when he auditioned for the job, so it is difficult to imagine this to be the sole reason. If Pinky doesn’t like Thumbkin, does it also mean that Thumbkin doesn’t like Pinky? Where do Pointer, Tall Man and Ring Man stand in all this?

If you read the article in the Globe and Mail (it requires registration), you also learn that the actual concertmaster Walter Prystawski is retiring after this season, and that Mr. Zukerman has just returned from a self-imposed unpaid leave of several months. So, obviously something else is going on here, especially when you read a follow-up article, in which it is exposed that the orchestra members are required to sign a sweeping confidentiality agreement, not to talk to press or anyone else on the outside; a gag order in other words. There is a straight-to-the-point comment on the paper's website:

Stude Ham from Outremont, Canada writes: It's time for NACO to part company with Pinky. He's very clearly overstayed his welcome, and in truth, is not the world's greatest conductor. No organization should have to deal with this kind of prima donna behaviour from any of its contracted performers. It's that type of thing which severely hurt the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, almost crippled the Toronto Symphony, and did damage to many other orchestras around the world..

Is it possible that the conductor likes pretty young women and would prefer to be surrounded by them in the orchestra? After all, his present wife is the orchestra’s principal cellist. This would be perfectly understandable, and a sign of a healthy, youthful heterosexual male. It is confession time: during my decades in orchestras there have been numerous times when I have voted and spoken for such candidates myself. These young ladies probably got their jobs based on their Cuteness Factor, as others in the audition committee, and the conductor, who had the final say, felt the same way. Sorry guys, you don’t seem to be as much fun to be around with. Is this morally right? Of course not, and many of the people in question have proven to be disappointing professionally; even the cuteness disappears quickly. But it is part of human nature.

Mentioning which, check out the article in today’s New York Times, or the BBC News, on how humans and chimps probably interbred for a long time, producing hybrids. The theory and facts presented might be a bit difficult to swallow, even to the most hard-line evolutionists. Perhaps this explains why Igor Stravinsky once said, in an interview with the Observer: “My music is best understood by children and animals.”

Now I’m hungry for a banana.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Painfully Yours

Dreams can be both wonderful and frustrating. Sometimes they seem just as real as this state of consciousness we call being awake. People often say that when the time comes, they would like to die in their sleep. Perhaps we want that other reality to continue. Who am I to say it doesn’t? Last night I had an unexpected visit with a conductor, the late Hans Vonk. I have played a number of concerts under him, and people couldn’t stop complaining about him having become cranky, compared to his earlier years. One time I remember him interrupting a concert because a small child in the audience was crying, and asking that the unhappy young listener be removed from the hall.

The last time I worked with him was in New York at the Mostly Mozart Festival. He was quite abrasive and many musicians were complaining backstage. I sensed that something wasn’t right and even more so after he came to talk to me for a long while in my dressing room. It was as if he wanted to tell me something but then decided not to. Mr. Vonk’s irritability didn’t bother me that much as I saw the great artist and musician behind the cranky front. It was a shock to read his obituary just a few years later and find out that he had suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig ’s disease. He was only 63.

Musicians and audiences seem to have an unlimited amount of sympathy for victims of illnesses or accidents that are visible. There are polio victims that have had successful careers, in spite of the obvious obstacles they continually face. I have seen many a soloist show up with a leg in a cast, or a bandaged finger. Even orchestra members sometimes cash in on this sympathy factor and have themselves brought onto the stage in a wheelchair. While the pain and discomfort of a polio victim is easy to fathom, Mr. Vonk and numerous others suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses cannot have a label attached to their back: “I have Lou Gehrig’s”, “Burn Victim” or anything of the sort. Mr. Vonk was a Dutchman, and in Europe people are much more private about their health, or lack of. An obituary often states that the person died after a long illness, without ever going into details; quite the opposite of this country.

Today’s New York Times had a story about a mother with shingles and her daughter, a doctor. Although I didn't find it particularly well written, to be in the Science Times, it nevertheless brought attention to a rather common cause of hard-to-treat pain. I was only five when my first outbreak happened, and clearly remember the doctor coming to the house and saying that he had never seen shingles in such a young patient. That wasn’t particularly bad if my memory is correct, but a number of later episodes have been agonizing. The older the person is, the more likely shingles is to cause residual pain that won’t go away, turning into post-herpetic neuralgia. Even strongest opioids don’t always help, but thankfully there are new medicines that are of promise. Perhaps in my lifetime chronic pain will be no more an issue to cope with.

Which brings me to the point: if a person isn’t always all happy and jolly, or seems to have a short fuse, don’t rush to blame him or her for the behavior. Had I been in Mr. Vonk’s shoes, there would have been little to smile about. May he forgive us all for any ill thoughts we might have harbored, wherever his soul is, as we were just ignorant.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hungry for Culture

Last month the Finnish Symphony Orchestra Association announced that during the previous year there had been a record number of listeners for the country’s orchestras, a total of over one million. Finland, whose population of 5.2 million is that of Minnesota and considerably smaller than the state of Washington, has 13 professional symphony orchestras, 1 opera orchestra, 8 professional chamber and semi-professional orchestras, and 7 other orchestras. No wonder the country is able to produce so many world class conductors, instrumentalists and singers (think of all those solo opportunities!), not to mention composers. A total of 96 premieres of Finnish works were performed, including 10 symphonies and concertos each. Since most of the halls are much smaller than in the U.S., all this translates to about 1,800 performances. Conductors rotate between orchestras, or go overseas, and audiences have a fresh face, other than that of a visitor, to meet every few years. Perhaps that fact is an important reason behind those impressive numbers. Even orchestra musicians seldom stay in one ensemble for the life span of their careers.

Yet even Finland suffers from financial problems. The National Opera, having moved to their new home in 1993, is suffering from them the most, as that art form is the least cost effective of all. The hall seats only about 1,300 which is considerably less than what one is accustomed to here. As they have a full time orchestra of their own and even the chorus members are salaried, the organization employs around 600 people. Expenses in the country are higher than ever since joining the European Union and it is hard to find additional funding for the arts. Traditionally the American style ‘rich pay for it and decide what is done, how and by whom’ doesn’t exist there. Music and other art forms are for the people, paid by the people in the form of taxes. The opera company has to tighten its belt and probably make its employees take unpaid leave for short periods of time. Not to worry: unemployment benefits will cover most of the loss.

Summer is almost here and so is the festival season in Finland. It seems like every town, no matter how small, is capable of creating one of these special events, which range from music to dance, theater to visual arts. The official Finland Festivals has 80 member events, ranging from one week to several. It is a large number when one remembers how short the summer season is: about two and half months. One thing the Finns have in common with Americans: in both countries people are willingly fooled to thinking they are getting something better than ordinary, just because the event is called a ‘festival’. I am not complaining, as whatever makes people happy, let it be so.

But not to put us down: we, too, have culture; no less than eight active varieties in Cascade Fresh Yougurt, according the Seattle company's web pages.

Babbitt's Feast

Happy belated 90th Birthday, Milton Babbitt!

Not to everyone’s taste, this composer is nevertheless among the most important ones in America. Mr. Babbitt is also a very smart man, something not too common in this field. May he enjoy many more years filled with joy and good health!

A funny memory relating to the composer came to my mind. Years ago I was playing a ‘contemporary’ music concert. Of course most of the pieces had been written long ago, but in the audience’s eyes, and even in most musicians’, it passed as ‘new’ music. One of the works, perhaps the thorniest to play, was by Milton Babbitt. There was only a small orchestra playing and many of the members were old-timers and had never been put in a spot like that. They were sweating and shaking under pressure, and I swear I could see bulges of Depends and Attends sticking out of their concert outfits during the performance, which actually went okay. It was quite amusing to observe, but better safe than sorry.

Obviously not meant for everyone, nor played by everyone, Mr. Babbitt’s compositions can be very enjoyable when well done. They call for a listener to have an active role, as the music is not meant to be wallpaper. He is a ‘Star Trek’ composer: his mission always was to boldly go where no one had gone before. How future generations will treat his creations remains to be seen, of course, but that is true with everyone.

This brings me to a wisdom I just read today, by G.K. Chesterton: “By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece.” Well said, and worth thinking about.

The New York Times had a nice review on a concert honoring Mr. Babbitt’s birthday. It is worth reading.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers out there, especially the deserving ones!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Local Wisdom, Or Lack Of

Driving back to town today made me once again realize how nature has blessed this town, Seattle. I can’t think of too many other populated places as pleasing to the eye: water, evergreens, mountains, islands, you name it. Perhaps that is why it has also become a city where people like to keep things status quo. Just in today’s mail we got a car license renewal form, with $362 going to tax for a Monorail that will never be built. In another place people would be up in arms but not here. Politics are liberal here, but surprisingly little gets accomplished. Big money decides how things are done. One would think that planning a town would be up to the city council, but here a high-tech billionaire is able to erect huge buildings, and even a part of town, South Lake Union, on his own. People seem to think of this place as a giant retirement community: the same faces remain in important positions for a generation and nobody questions the wisdom in it. No fresh blood needed here: after all, why would we want to change anything? This was the case with the Monorail project, too. It was voted on time after time and finally rejected. It was such a waste of time and money, and we will be paying for nothing for a long time to come. Mass transit relies on the same crowded freeways and arterial streets as it has for decades. Perhaps the skyrocketing gasoline prices will force people to act. But it will take a long time to get the infrastructure in place for anything different. Right now it’s time to play the Monorail game again with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the crumbling semi-freeway between downtown and the waterfront. How much easier it would be to have a strong leadership that would just decide how it is done, for better or for worse.

So, all is not as it should be in this seeming paradise. We do have a fabulous library system, though, and people are using its services. Reading is good and essential. We don’t all want to be like the 86% of college students who were not able to point out where key countries are located on the map of the Middle East. We are a country of ignorant people indeed. I took it always for granted that my daughters scored maximum points in reading and writing skills. How it amazes me that there are people in highly visible positions who cannot spell past elementary grade level, and whose reading skills are probably the same. How is it then that foreigners like me are able to write correctly, without the help of a computer spell check, in a language not our own?

My eldest daughter Silja, the journalist, was on the radio again last night, talking about the criminalization of immigrants who didn’t enter the country in a proper legal way. Many people just ask why these ‘illegals’ just didn’t apply for an immigration visa. If a person in the Philippines has to wait for 18 years, how long would the wait be for someone in Mexico? But we have this wonderful lottery system for green cards! True, and I know a few who have been lucky, but a Mexican does not qualify. No equal opportunity in this area either. We are seriously thinking of building a gigantic fence to keep our Southern border secure. But what about Canada in the North? Surely danger is lurking behind that border as well. I can visualize a ultra-conservative politician planning an electric fence across the Great Lakes. Why not put Enron in charge of it, or better yet Halliburton?!

This was online in the New York Times website today, in David Pogue’s ‘Circuits’. The topic was Microsoft’s new idea of a hybrid computer-PDA and the insider negative blogging about the topic. Someone wrote this:

I had dinner last night with some buddies who asked me precisely the same question--and suddenly, I had an answer. Suddenly, I knew *exactly* why nobody pulls the emergency brake on runaway trains like the UMPC.

In my younger days, I was a Broadway theater conductor. I worked on my share of flops. And I remembered a couple of times when *everyone* knew that we were on a sinking ship. Any one of us--cast, crew, orchestra--could have told the show's creators that we had a turkey on our hands.

But nobody did.

First, because we were employees; it'd be horribly presumptuous and rude to say something like that to our employers. Second, we needed the job as long as it lasted. Third--well, what if we were wrong? Shouldn't we trust our leaders to know what they're doing?

So: my sympathy to those on the Microsoft ship who knew that the UMPC was headed for an iceberg. And to their bosses: Um, maybe you should read some of those Microsoft blogs...

Never mind the Ultra-Mobile PC. There is a wisdom here to be applied to many things in life.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

How Are We Doing?

Recently I got email from a smart media professional in Scandinavia. He had watched a documentary on the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, done for the local state television by a native reporter. The email states that parts of the facts presented made him feel sick. He compares the treatment of poor, blacks, prisoners and the elderly to that of Nazi Germany: these people don’t really have any rights and any excuse to get rid of them is acceptable. ‘The nation that believes it is the most powerful and free in the world cannot even begin to take care of the storm damage to one city. That is why it is losing in Iraq as well. If I lived for another twenty years, I would witness the near destruction of a nation of obese people, in which even capitalists have been disappointed. People’s buying power and creditworthiness have disappeared.’

These are harsh words but give reason for serious evaluation. We cannot deny that New Orleans went through a horrendous time after being flooded. The well-to-do of course managed to get away, but the less fortunate were stuck in miserable conditions. A private hospital’s patients were evacuated, but those in a public one next door were left in their wheelchairs to die. When the mainly black and poor people were finally transferred to Houston and other locations, nobody really wanted them ever to return. What an opportunity to rebuild a new white New Orleans, with no poverty to be seen; a new Disney World on the Mississippi Delta!

Yesterday’s news mentioned the fact that infant mortality in the U.S. is among the highest in the Western world. If you measure it in the black population, it climbs to the level of developing countries. How can this be? This country spends an enormous amount of money on medical care but has little to show for it. Of course we must remember that the poor and even many members of the middle class don’t have any health insurance and thus cannot afford proper prenatal care. The lack of maternity leave also contributes to the death of infants. Best on the list were countries such as Japan, Finland and Norway. It is noteworthy to remember that at least in my home country delivering babies is a job for midwives: a doctor is only called in if there are serious complications. A year-long paid maternity leave is taken for granted; even fathers get some time off to be with their newborns.

Also in the news was an article which compared the health of American and British middle-aged white men. The U.K. is not known for stellar medical care, yet the average subject of the study was far healthier in the British Isles, in spite of less than a half the money spent on him, compared to his U.S. counterpart. We can all draw our own conclusions.

This country is at a crossroads. The cold war has returned, even if we don’t acknowledge it (Iran, North Korea, much of the Islamic world), and there is plenty of ‘warm’ war to go around. People are very unhappy with the present government. The Republicans haven’t been this unpopular in decades, yet the Democratic Party seems to lack focus and leadership, and hasn’t really come up with a theme, an idea, a read thread that would awaken voters and excite them at least a bit. How long do we have to wait for someone to have the courage to really demand health coverage for all? How about free, decent education? Isn’t there anything else we could try with the population that is addicted to drugs than to incarcerate them by the millions? To most people in Western Europe these ideas would be a given. People here like to think of themselves as good Christians, models for the rest of the globe. Have they totally forgotten that Jesus was a firm believer in socialism in his day? Everyone was to take care of their less fortunate, sick or elderly neighbors, brothers and sisters. Isn’t that the basic message in the Gospels?

Last week the New York Times had a story of our president leaving the White House to go shopping in a hardware store. He ended up buying dog toys there, chewing bones, paying around $8 in cash. This was supposed to illustrate how even he was contributing to the economy. My question is this: how much did the store lose in sales since it presumably had to be emptied of other customers for security reasons? Also, it wouldn’t cross my mind to go to a hardware store for my pet needs. I guess I’m not leadership material.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Delta No More

Traveling by air has become unpleasant enough for everyone after 9/11, with long lines at the security checkpoints, no food and minimal space. We musicians face an additional hurdle with our instruments. The larger-than-normal-carry-on violin (or viola) case may not fit exactly within the strict rules of measurements given by individual airlines, but I have yet to come across a situation where a little explanation didn't help. That is until this morning when my wife tried to board a Delta Airlines flight to the East Coast at Seattle-Tacoma. The supervisor must have had something stuck someplace, as he was as rude and as inflexible as can be and wouldn't let my wife on board. This brainless man insisted that she take her very valuable violin out of the case, put it in her bag and store it in an overhead compartment! She called me hysterically from the airport, but I was driving our little one to school and couldn't offer any other advice than to try to buy a ticket for the violin. This is what she ended up doing, but missed her flight and will arrive in her destination after midnight.

I have seldom flown without having to carry a violin with me. I can count with one hand any incidents regarding the extra carry-on, the case. One time SAS let me fly to Copenhagen with no questions asked, but gave me trouble on the short hop from there to Helsinki. After a minute-long argument I was allowed to board, and the same has been the situation all over. Just last week my wife flew Northwest Airlines to Michigan and back, with the same setup, and was treated very cordially by everyone. Even smaller prop planes have never presented a problem. No wonder she was in tears and upset by the treatment at the Delta counter this morning. At least the personnel in Delta's club room was sympathetic with her.

A lot of us have to fly with musical instrument because our work, or school, demands it. What is a violinist to do if he/she is denied boarding because of the instruments he/she wants to keep with him or her? At the rate checked luggage gets mishandled, misplaced and even totally lost, only a complete fool would let the airline be in charge of a violin case. Who would take financial responsibility for a loss of the fiddle or damage to it? What are we supposed to be playing on if something bad happens, even a delay? I know that the American Federation of Musicians has issued letters with the blessing of the federal authorities regarding this issue, but at the end, it is up to the individual airline and the person, in this case the moron, at the gate to do as they please.

Luckily we have a choice to fly on whatever airline we prefer. In our case it won't be Delta any more (although I must admit this was the first time that they have given either of us this kind of trouble). This was an award ticket worth 50,000 miles; the problem is what to do the with remaining 350,000 frequent flier miles with them. I better decide quickly as the airline itself has been very close to having shut its operations down for good. One would think that Delta Airlines would try extra hard to win back the trust of their customers, but that obviously wasn't the case this morning at SeaTac. I wrote a complaint to the company in an email; it will be interesting to read what they reply.

I guess there is truth in the saying that if we were meant to fly, we would have been given wings.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Of CPF and Conducting

A few weeks back a colleague called me, laughing about a story in a daily. The article had described what a concertmaster’s requirements are: not only are they expected to rehearse the orchestra, or at least the strings (although it was unclear when and how this would be possible), they also had to be auditioned with their drinking skills, at social gatherings. This is what I call CPF, the Cocktail Party Factor. Juilliard and other schools, take notice: perhaps you better hire an experienced bartender to give classes in meaningless chit-chat. It is unclear if this brown-nosing ability also produces a dark sound of the same color, another requirement. It is unlikely to boost one’s intelligence, however, also needed. Granted, I don't drink, but in other areas I might be overqualified: after all, the London Times once claimed that I had 'an impressive depth of sonority', and my IQ was the highest the tester had ever measured.

Since it has been made public as to what a concertmaster should be like, I take this opportunity to describe a good conductor. One of my readers recently emailed me with the question and I promised to reply in this blog.

Many orchestra conductors falsely believe that a big ego and basic, rudimentary musical skills are all that is necessary. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all of the time. An ideal conductor is also a performing artist, a practicing instrumentalist of top caliber. Although thorough knowledge of string instruments is mandatory, one doesn’t have to be a soloist in that field. There are many ways to gain the necessary know-how; however, having one’s children play at Suzuki level is not enough. There are pianists who have made great conductors, same with composers, although to a lesser extent. In both these cases the individuals have a great ear for harmony and colors. Wind and brass players often suffer from the fact that they would like the orchestra to sound as if all the listeners sat in their respective sections.

Personality is number one on my list. Conductor/orchestra relationship is like a marriage. Recently ‘falling in love’ and the ‘honeymoon period’ have been scientifically explained very well. Excess amounts of serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters stop working after about a year in a relationship. Since in an orchestra setup musicians don’t have to see their regular conductor daily, this period may be extended. Having guest conductors could be compared to love affairs: they can be wonderful or disastrous, but luckily they don’t last forever, and later it is nice to meet an old flame again when a guest maestro reappears. In a long-term marriage a hormone, oxytocin, takes over to sustain the relationship. Often life becomes routine, though, and so does the orchestra’s playing. Audience, and in most cases, the musicians as well, long for excitement and the cycle ought to start over.

Mental health is an important issue in any artist’s life. Creativity and madness often go hand in hand. In an orchestra this is very evident, especially when you factor in the frustration of a musician not being able to express the artist in him/herself, just having to follow someone else’s ideas. A good conductor, just like a good teacher, should be thoroughly schooled in psychology, to the point that he/she could actually be a practicing professional in that field. Being kind, nice, understanding and yet demanding is not an easy combination. CPF should be a very minor factor for conductors as well. Granted, money needs to be raised, but wouldn’t it be nice if that part of the business could be left for people specialized in that field? Too many great conductors refuse posts as Music Directors in our country, just because of the CPF portion of the job.

As I recently wrote, fear and inspiration can produce similar results in a short run. But if you are in a musician’s shoes, I don’t think too many would choose the fear over niceness, kindness and inspiration. Time for rehearsing is increasingly limited and a conductor has to be able to maximize it. It is amazing how people can often exceed their limitations and perform miracles: sometimes even the first concert of many in a row turns out to be decent, although it has a resemblance to instant art: just add water and mix. If I had to attend a concert as a listener, I would probably choose the last one in the series, although some musicians may falsely believe that they don’t have to try as hard as on previous occasions, and end up not giving their best. Sometimes a rush of adrenaline is great, but most often musicians try to counter it with the use of beta-blockers, alcohol or other drugs.

The person, who inspired me to write this, sounds like a very insightful person, and talks about his desire to treat musicians with great understanding and ‘utmost respect’. I didn’t know such wonderful people still existed, although I have crossed paths with a few, such as the late Hermann Michael. I want to wish all the best to such a conductor, as an orchestra will be blessed to have a human being like that at their helm.