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.