Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Carbonized Santa

As Santa Claus well knows, carbon is an amazing element. It comes in more than handy when he has had to decide what to bring a person who has been naughty and bad, and also what to give an exceptionally good big boy or girl. Rumors are that this year there has been a shortage of coal in the Pacific Northwest and some have just received a pile of soot. The latter of course could come in handy for someone into constructing nanotubes, but I don't think these folks have the slightest idea what those are. At the other extreme carbon forms diamonds and I know a few good people who surely got those. Even in the ugliest situation there often is a diamond in the rough, a sparkle from an individual whose integrity isn't poisoned by the snakes around him or her trying to spread venom with their fangs. Santa also has to come up with a solution for what to give people who don't really fit in either category. Perhaps graphite, yet another form of carbon, in the form of an ordinary pencil would be a fair gift for those, good to have in certain occupations. For Santa's sake I hope his own coal mine deposits aren't running dry.

I don't envy the task Santa has had, finding out about people. Does he read about people in the papers, and if so, in which ones? One's villain seems to be another's hero. But we are used to this kind of controversy. After this country attacked and invaded Iraq, we heard all about fantastic victories and learned that the people were rushing to embrace us. The viewership of Fox News reached an all-time high. "Mission accomplished" our President touted long ago. Of course, people are free to believe the news that makes them feel good and in many ways superior to other ethnicities and cultures. Today we don't hear talk about victory and the main topic seems to be how to get out of Iraq alive and not look like our military might was no match to Muslim militants. I don't watch Fox News so I don't know what they tell their viewers these days. Perhaps Santa used up so much of his coal supply in the nation's capital that Seattle was stuck with mainly soot. I don't think his supply of diamonds was greatly diminished in the District of Columbia, unless some good ordinary people and humanitarians were worthy of them.

Yes, the mainstream news outlets tend to offer their slant on stories. Even a total outsider, a lonely blogger like me, receives questions from strangers wondering why their letters to the editor of a paper aren't published, yet others promoting a different view are. Naturally I am at a loss for words and have to let people come to their own conclusion that propaganda is at work. Long gone are the days when one could actually trust the media. During my first years in the U.S., at the height of the Vietnam War, our brave military managed to slaughter their enemy in numbers that were greater than the entire population of North Vietnam, if one bothered to tally the misleading information on the major networks. At some point even the most optimistic people started to ask questions. This snowballed to the extent that forced Nixon out of the Oval Office. Recently we learned about one last desperate plan of his to nuke Hanoi, but thank goodness that plan didn't materialize any more than Hitler's orders to burn Paris to the ground.

Threatening burnt ground policy is a tactic certain people use to keep themselves in power. "If you destroy me, you'll be destroyed in the process as well." In the world of music we have witnessed this repeatedly. Festivals and orchestras I used to be part of have either gone belly up or managed to struggle back to life after a miserable year or two. This phenomenon is of course universal. A city in Finland had a troubled time with their small Symphony and its conductor that lasted many years. Finally the baton-wielder, a former student of mine, agreed to the termination of his contract for a sizable sum but before exiting he, together with the orchestra's manager who also resigned, managed to spend every penny of the group's annual budget by the end of May. As musicians are employees of the city, their salaries had to be paid, but the group had no funds to program concerts. Paying for hall rental, soloists etc. can be quite costly, and the few performances that took place during the fall were all donated services by the conductors and guest soloists; ticket sales barely covered the rent. During all this the local newspaper took the side of the conductor, portraying the angry, unhappy musicians as only a "small clique." When the orchestra was back on its feet with a new budget year, much of their audience had been frightened away. This is the first year when they have been returning in previous numbers, as memory of the battle has finally begun to fade. Of course there is a moral to this story, but repeating it might be pointless. People are supposed to learn from mistakes, yet they make the same ones over and over again.

The New Year is just around the corner. Many of us are eagerly waiting for it to begin. At least we have some term limits for politicians, and a long nightmare will come to an end. I don't think people really care who'll win the election as for most any change will be for the better. We should have such term limits for other politicians as well and probably also for members of other important institutions such as the Supreme Court. When that court voted strictly on party lines 5-4 to hand the 2000 election to our present leader, any naive belief in an unbiased court collapsed. There are people in both houses of the Congress who have far outlived their usefulness, no matter how hard they've tried to please their constituents over the decades. Perhaps they would have better served us all in other roles, such as the inspiring example on "the Peanut President", Jimmy Carter, demonstrates. Hanging on forever prevents new blood and new ideas from emerging. We can also hope for other changes in 2008 that would be regarded as welcomed miracles.

For those of you who received a lump of coal from Santa, you can always try to invest in turning it into a synthetic diamond, under High Temperature High Pressure (HTHP) method. However, it would be much cheaper and easier to go purchase a large glittering cubic zirconia, an affordable choice, and pretend the jolly man in the red suit brought it in the first place. For most people it makes little or no difference as long as it glitters, just as fool's gold is good as gold for – fools. Ho-ho-ho!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Musical Podiums

A lot of changes are taking place in the world of orchestras and their maestros these days. By far the hottest name on the scene is Gustavo Dudamel who'll be taking over the Los Angeles Philharmonic post after an unusually long tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who in turn is going to London. I feel almost sorry for Mr. Dudamel. His every move, on- and offstage, has been dissected, especially during his recent New York debuts, both with his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Reading the New York Times, I couldn't help but get the impression that the folks in Manhattan are trying to convince their audience members and donors that the choice of Alan Gilbert as their new Music Director was the right one. Is it possible that they are kicking themselves for not acting fast enough regarding Mr. Dudamel? He in my humble opinion will feel more at home in the heavily Hispanic Los Angeles area.

Reports from Sweden have been generally positive regarding Mr. Gilbert in Stockholm. However, it is interesting that the offer to return home to New York came at a golden moment for Mr. Gilbert as the Swedish orchestra was ready to replace him after eight years, with another countryman of mine, Sakari Oramo. In spite of the fact that Mr. Gilbert had married an orchestra member and started a family with her, the orchestra decided eight years with a conductor was long enough. In that sense they didn't feel any loss for his departure. While I have no doubts about his musicality and great rapport with musicians, Alan Gilbert is not generally considered a thrilling musician, although a capable one. Time will tell how the marriage in New York works out. The denizens of that city are blessed to have so many visiting orchestras appear regularly; their own band doesn't really enjoy star status in their home turf. Also, it has been a long time since the New York Philharmonic has had an exciting music director, so they aren't even aware of what they might be missing.

Detroit will finally hire a new maestro in Leonard Slatkin whose position in the nation's capital will thus become vacant. The (former?) automobile capital of the world is at last getting someone for a job that has been vacant since Neeme Järvi, the Estonian Soviet-trained conductor, left for embattled New Jersey Symphony, best known for their tragic foray into the world of old Italian instruments . The Detroit folks must have felt that there were no qualified candidates in the U.S. or they would have filled the vacancy in 2005. With the value of the dollar plummeting, it is not as easy as before to hire a European or another foreigner, without breaking the budget. A European conductor (that goes for a soloist as well) has little sympathy for American currency nose-diving: they and their agents want to be paid the same as before, which is bad news here. There was a sad article in a recent New York Times about Americans living abroad, many of them retirees on fixed income, who all of a sudden find themselves poor. A fashion executive living in Paris was quoted as saying a beggar girl in Morocco had turned down a dollar bill, claiming it was worth nothing and demanding more.

The Cleveland Orchestra extended the contract of Franz Welser-Möst to a total of twelve years, not necessarily to everyone's liking as this link shows. Personally, I don't understand why anyone would want to settle in Cleveland. Yes, the orchestra is first-rate but the city itself hardly qualifies as such. They do get a lot of lake snow, so perhaps a Scandinavian wouldn't mind the climate; it would be nice to have a vibrant downtown, however, something any European is accustomed to.

My home town's opera company staged a coup of sorts by naming Asher Fisch as their principal guest conductor. Not only does the city gain a world class conductor for the opera's performances, but having a pleasant Israeli on board will certainly not hurt with fundraising efforts among the local Jewish philanthropists. Mr. Fisch was the first artist to make my wife appreciate Wagner, no small achievement. The company must feel financially secure as they rumored to be interested in the property next to the McCaw Hall, for their offices and other necessary space, at a budget of some $40 million. Surely having the help of Mr. Fisch will come in handy if this idea materializes.

As in every field, people involved in classical music come in a wide variety of character traits. Some are intelligent, knowledgable in other areas, too, but so many are uneducated and even illiterate. People skills are not necessarily their forte. I just received an eloquent email from one of my very favorite writers of music, Norman Lebrecht. With his permission I'm quoting a paragraph of it, in reference to a beloved European maestro:

"The best conductors never allow an ugly personnel situation to arise, always stepping in and dealing with issues personally and face-to-face. When human issues combust, I tend to suspect maestro failure. If you have the privilege of leadership, it carries with it certain responsibilities towards those who are led."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Corruption and Music

It is no secret that power corrupts. People in charge like to visualize themselves as irreplaceable. A good example of this is in Russia, a country that has never experienced true democracy. Many wondered what would happen to Vladimir Putin as his constitutional options as the president were coming to an end. Of course I never expected him to retire and was somewhat astonished by the Western media being surprised by him continuing as prime minister. That position now all of a sudden has become more important than before. During the glory days of the Soviet Union he would have comfortably remained as the head of the Politburo, but that of course for the time being isn't possible as such an institution disappeared with the final breakup of the empire in 1991. The Russians have always had a Czar (a Slavic word for Caesar), in one form of another; today his name is Putin. Lenin's first name was also Vladimir; Putin sounds just like Rasputin.

Today's most corrupt nations are probably found in Africa. The BBC recently told about corruption in Cameroon, a potentially oil-rich neighbor of Nigeria. Cameroon has had the same president, Paul Biya, for 25 years and there is serious talk about changing the country's constitution again to allow him to continue. The country ranks as number 138 out of 168 countries in the corruption index and according to the BBC story, 79% of Cameroonians have paid a bribe in the last year. As public criticism in the media is quite out of question, the people have chosen a different method of outcry: music, in the form of song and dance. Just about everyone in the country knows the lyrics to anti-corruption songs. Two famed musicians Lapiro and Longue Longue (doesn't that sound like the Chinese pianist Lang Lang?) have spearheaded this revolt and their star status gives them the kind of immunity a reporter for the media can only dream of. Perhaps encouraged by this, protest songs have been spreading in other suffering African countries, such as Sierra Leone.

Although my native Finland ranks today as the world's least corrupt country, it hasn't always been so. In the 1956 presidential election, one of the chosen electors for Karl-August Fagerholm secretly sold his vote to Urho Kekkonen in an extremely tight race, thus changing the course of history. Kekkonen, a former propaganda activist during the wars between Finland and the Soviet Union, seemingly had the support of the country's mighty neighbor, and a deal was secretly made with someone who 'sold his soul to the devil'. Kekkonen loved his powerful position and special friendship with the Soviets. Later research has shown that the KGB actually used him as an informant. A shrewd politician, he had a special law passed after his constitutional six-year terms were over, so that he could again be the candidate 'for the county's best interests'. After that term was over, he was again a candidate, this time as a new one, as the previous six years 'didn't count'. Finally, during that last term he had to leave office, after 25 years, as Alzheimer's had set in and Mr. Kekkonen no longer could function in that powerful role. The country slowly got wiser and today the president is elected by popular vote, although at the same time power-hungry politicians want to change the role of the President to a ceremonial one. Once Kekkonen was gone, Finland started moving forward rapidly and was no longer a rubber stamp for the Russians. Change is necessary as my countrymen finally understood. Perhaps they had done so all along but were afraid to speak up.

Another unusual music-related story was in the news recently, this time closer to home. A trumpet player had been found brutally murdered, a third musician to meet his end this way in a week's time in Mexico. Either our southern neighbors take their musical affairs more seriously than we do, or this is just the way they handle problems in their lives. As Latino gangs are growing more powerful here, not to mention the Russian mafia, perhaps terrible events like this will become more commonplace here as well.

Since this story turned to crime, there is room for the punishment portion as well. I just learned that there is an all-women prisoner orchestra in Alaska, at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. It is unique in the United States and sounds like a wonderful program. I can see it working well for women; men in a similar setup would probably attack each other in no time with bloody results. All in the name of music.

Cameroon dances to anti-graft beat
photo © BBC 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Some three years plus a few months ago I returned home from the hospital and was recuperating after surgery, under less-than-ideal conditions. Yes, I knew the big lump in my back was gone and that I would finally be able to play again. But the joy of this was dimmed by ugly articles in the local news media, placed there intentionally by evil people. I kept on telling myself that this was nothing but a test. The character of Satan is interpreted differently in our various monotheistic religions. Many Christians see him identical to the Devil, yet in parts of the Old Testament he is God's servant, sent here to test our strength of belief, to tempt us. It would have been easy to put a face, or a few, on my personal Satan, but deep inside I knew everything was meant to be and at the end it all would turn out for the best. I even came up with the "Law of Talvion", a modified version of the oldest law in the books, the talion, or "eye for an eye".

Unrelated chronic pain keeps me often awake at night for hours at a time. I have often used this as an opportunity to contribute to this blog. Lately, as many of my readers have noticed, I have been less active. I do write, but much of it is in my native tongue, some ending up as long emails or perhaps comments on a Finnish website, the rest being filed away. There are too many writers in the family: my wife has been busy with her memoir (she is quite a talent), and last month belonged to my daughter Silja Talvi and her fabulous first book, "Women Behind Bars". Yes, I shall come back to this hobby; after all writing in my own language feels almost too easy, although there is a certain joy in being able to express oneself effortlessly and with finesse. Instead of trying to run away from pain by getting up and attacking the keyboard, I have managed to escape to deep thoughts, to a world where there are no discomforts. Many questions have found their answers this way, even if they are not all pretty. People don't live happily ever after and the world is not often a nice place.

Since this is a festival season, I've spent a fair amount of time analyzing different religions, what they represent and how the people belonging to these faiths live their lives. One easy conclusion is that most congregations are run like clubs or social circuits. Faith and desire to improve the world and help the less fortunate couldn't be farther away from minds of these people. It was at first painful to realize that the little local Lutheran congregation my countrymen have here in town decided to disown me as soon as they read some of the nasty stuff printed locally. No more begging to play for their Xmas morning services, something I always had a hard time turning down as I thought it really meant something for these folks. Based on their dwindling numbers they may be doomed; at least I won't feel sorry if the ship sinks. And, as a benefit, I have a rare free morning!

That fall I played Kol Nidrei at a synagogue which operates on two locations, and did so beautifully and from the bottom of heart, as my two daughters present will always remember. The other location had an amateur child of a "society floater" perform. Guess who was written about at length in the local paper and whose name was omitted? At least my daughter is honored as the president of her university's Hillel and she is doing great work. Most Jewish congregations seem to fit the prototype of a club, or they belong with the loonies, living in Stone Age. Don't get me even started on the corrupt megachurches. Aside from Mormons and other secret societies, there are a number of truly decent independent organizations that serve their members well, yet don't really welcome strangers, and the largest donor usually decides how the congregation operates.

There is an exception, the mighty Catholic Church, where a wealthy individual still is a small fish in a pond and is more or less equal with everyone else. The church has been in the teeth of the public because of past sex scandals. We'll never know how many of the victims are truly such, as these cases have been settled quietly. I would claim that there have far more predators on the loose in the school system, and some of the most vocal popular leaders of other faith movements have been found guilty of terrible sins. As an institution, the Catholic Church has, for a long time, taken the side of the poor and unfortunate in parts of the world where no other power could stand up against the repressive governments and military juntas. They have often been the only ray of hope for many. Obviously I wasn't raised as one of them, yet the church here has been the most welcoming of them all, and has offered powerful healing experiences when I have had the honor of being part of their first rate music making. Yes, I have my issues with some of their ways and traditions, but that doesn't prevent me from appreciating being made feel at home. If I were young and searching, I would give it serious thought, together with a peaceful Eastern philosophy.

So, today I consider myself healed and back on my feet, surrounded by good people who like what I do and how I do it. Perhaps it is fate, or "luck", if those two terms are that different. I like to think of it as a blessing. It is interesting how different cultures wish each other success. In my native Finland we give an onnenpotku, a gentle kick of luck. The French have their merde, and in this country we tell someone to break a leg. Some people may have experienced both of the latter literally, perhaps deservingly. Even with my high I.Q., supposedly surpassing that of Einstein's, I'm not smart enough to answer that. Some things are best left alone.

"The Eighth Night of Hanukkah"
by Ilkka Talvi © 2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

90 and going strong

At the end of the First World War, and following the unrest in her occupier for little over a hundred years, Russia, Finland decided to declare independence on December 6, 1917. Ironically, Lenin was one of the first foreign leaders to acknowledge this brave step by my forefathers. His motives were not very noble though, as he was sure that a socialist revolution would soon take place and Finland would thus join the empire of the upcoming Soviet Union. This did not happen, although a terrible civil war followed and Lenin openly supported the"Reds". For the Finns, this was a bloody struggle between those who believed in the idea of social equality and thus socialism (which included the milder Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists) and the farmers, other conservatives and those who sensed a danger in the new, untested labor movement. The country was divided geographically; the bigger cities in the south were in the hands of the Reds and everything further north belonged to the Whites. Often a brother was fighting against another, and had it not been for the unpopular Russian, or Soviet, interference on the Red side, perhaps the civil war would have had a different outcome. At the end, the Red side collapsed after fierce fighting and a large number of 'enemies' were put in prison camps, soon to be freed as the young nation couldn't afford to keep such a large part of its population locked up and in miserable conditions. My grandfather was a socialist (not a communist) but at the time he was living well beyond the war front under peaceful conditions and my father was starting first grade far from the unrest. One brother was not so lucky and ended in one of these camps. My grandfather, working for the Finnish Railways, used his free travel privilege to take food and clothing regularly to his brother.

Finland was to have a king, just like all its Scandinavian neighbors. A German prince was elected as such, but in no time the Finns decided that a democratic republic with a president was a better solution for them. The first decades were not easy and the wounds from the civil war were still deep. Only after Stalin and his Soviet Union started to openly threaten and bully Finland, the people managed to unite and fought bravely against the Russians in the Winter War and the following Continuation War. Although they ended up having to give up large areas of land in Karelia and Finland's access to the Arctic Ocean in the north, Finland remained the only 'new' nation which was able to keep her independence after WW II. The country was barely 30 years old when I was born, poor but determined to make it. I remember looking at statistics at an early age and realizing how much more advanced and better off our neighbors were, not to mention a place like the United States. The gap seemed impossible to overcome. Yet today the little country is managing with the best of them and in many ways is among the very top. From having a wood product based industry in my childhood the country has branched out to other areas such electronics (Nokia etc). Just yesterday I read how Finland competes with South Korea for the top spot as the world's best education system. Honesty and literacy are on the very top, and corruption is on the bottom of the list, as is infant mortality. Finland also produces an incredible number of top-rate musicians for its small population of 5.2 million.

When my country celebrated her 50th anniversary, I was a teenager in Los Angeles, studying with Heifetz. The orchestra in Burbank had a special concert honoring the anniversary and I played the Sibelius Humoresques with them, a group of rather unusual pieces, the great composer's only other works for violin and orchestra besides the famed concerto. More freshly in my mind is the diplomatic reception which I think took place in the same hotel ballroom where Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months later. Although I was a featured artist, people were busy drinking their cocktails and obviously had enjoyed a few before my turn came. The room did not have a grand piano but a large Steinway upright (or vertical). In the middle of one of my selections, I managed to hit my hand on the piano and my bow fell and slid right underneath the heavy instrument. A piano like that is very close to the floor and I was on my knees trying to fetch my bow. But in addition to my being in this ridiculous position, my pianist and his page turner were on their knees as well. Finally one of us managed to get hold of the stick and as if nothing had happened, we continued playing. As said, people were quite plastered and didn't see anything odd having taken place; perhaps they thought it was all part of the act. Every December 6th I relive this memory.

While I'm proud of my country's success, I also maintain that in many ways people were better off when life wasn't so easy. One had to work hard and in spite of very limited free time, people used it very wisely and efficiently. Everyone was physically fit and many Finnish athletes were legendary, especially in long distance running and skiing where speed was less important than being able to remain strong and tough. I often feel that seeing the poverty of my young years and people succeeding against all odds has been one of the greatest gifts in my life. Just to think that only two or three classmates during my first school years had a telephone (our number had three digits, 237) tells me how different life was, yet I have mainly pleasant memories. My childhood best friend was very poor and when I had my one and only birthday party at seven, his mother sent him over with a flower she had cut, instead of a gift. Strangely, that was more meaningful to me than other presents and the only one I can still remember.

Here's a toast to the little country that could!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Monday, October 29, 2007

Young and Old

Aging and retirement hardly resemble the "golden years" one often sees and hears. In truth, by the time we have finished decades of working, instead of enjoying the freedom to do whatever we want most of us are burdened with health issues, either our own or those of our loved ones. Since we live so long these days, many also have a parent in their upper years to worry about. With the value of our dollar having taken a nose dive, our "safe" investments are worrying us. We may not immediately see the price increases in our daily lives, but they will come. With crude oil approaching $100 a barrel, transportation of goods is going to skyrocket. Many European manufacturers are trying to keep their products competitively priced here, so they may be selling them with small profit or even at a loss. Otherwise we would see a 40% increase in every imported item, from Swiss chocolates to automobiles. It won't be long before oil and gold will be priced in € or some other stable currency and that's when the chaos will hit us. With America being so cheap to tourists we should see them come here in the millions, but with the paranoia they are greeted upon arrival here, many will pass the opportunity. Face it, we wouldn't like it either if every country we visited would fingerprint and photograph us, and arbitrarily deny entry, possibly throwing us in jail because of a "suspicious" last name or an entry stamp in our passport. Just follow this link to read about horrendous treatment of my fellow Finnish musicians in Minneapolis by U.S. Immigration officials. How would you feel if you had been in my countrymen's shoes?

That said, many of us worry about how to finance our later years. Even pensions which we have counted on may not exist. Social Security is looking more and more like Social Insecurity and many employers have opted to break contracts and stop making payments to pension funds, perhaps in order to give the illusion of a balanced budget. Having paid for long-term care insurance for decades, people find out that the company isn't willing to pay a dime. Insurance is a funny thing. It is successfully sold to us because of our fears, yet the companies only exist as long as they can make a hefty profit. In a nutshell we end up paying into it far more than we'll ever get out of it. Take my dental insurance for example. As a result of a biking accident in my childhood two of front teeth got an invisible hairline fracture. Fifty years later one of them snapped while biting into a slice of pizza. Luckily the dentist was able to save the tooth but it required a visit to an endodontist, plus a post and a crown. The insurance with its yearly maximum covered the work on the root canal and $18 of the post and crown, leaving me a balance of two thousand to pay. Yet we pay that much to Aetna yearly for a coverage which will never amount to the sum of the premiums. My late mother-in-law was truly smart: she flew to New Zealand more than a decade ago to have her dental work done there for peanuts. They have since changes their laws regarding foreigners... I shouldn't complain as I will be able to work until my health makes it impossible, but that is not the case with most of us. And I could ask if having played the violin for over 50 years isn't enough, but obviously paying for health insurance and children's education will keep me busy with the fiddle. Of course it wasn't supposed to be like that; on paper I was well protected. Life goes on, however, and I have a hunch that I'll have the last laugh.

As our friends and older family members get sick and pass away, there seem to be less and less to look forward to. Nature is merciful as many elderly lose their short term memory and the sense of now: they can happily live in the past in their memories, with everyone dear to them alive and well. For others, children and grandchildren can be a source of joy. Just today my second daughter gave birth to her second child, a healthy boy of ten and half pounds. I spoke with her and she sounded happy indeed. I just wonder if I'll ever get to really know those grandchildren. As my first family ended up in a divorce, one daughter stayed closer, both physically and emotionally, to her mother, the other to me. Of course we have a loving relationship, but L.A. is far and I don't feel the urge to hop on a plane and fly there every chance I get. Gone are the days when families stayed closely knit. Today one's children are likely to end up in different corners of the country, or even the globe.

As my grandson was born, my eldest daughter also gave birth as her first book was just published. "Women Behind Bars" is subtitled "The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System". The topic is obviously very serious and Silja's book is a result of many years worth of study, interviews, correspondence and prison visits. Some chapters will bring tears to any reader's eyes. After finishing the book one's mind is full of question marks about the logic behind our penal system and especially how it handles women inmates, most of whom are locked up for non-violent crimes. We learn about drug-dealing boyfriends or even husbands who manage to put the blame on their "loved" ones. The latter often have no knowledge of the "crime" that lands them in prison while the guilty party walks away free or gets a minimum sentence. Many of us hairless apes have no conscience and we are willing to say anything, even under oath, that will benefit us even when it greatly harms others. There are over a billion sociopaths walking on this earth according to some statistics, so all of us have encountered many of them, often without recognizing them.

If humans indeed were created as images of God, I hope that our Heavenly Father (or Mother) doesn't have these tendencies; otherwise the world and the universe are truly doomed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Country Divided

No, I don't mean the United States, although it would politically fit the description; nor Iraq where the Sunni-Shia-Kurd partition exists de facto, no matter what our leaders would like us to believe. I'm talking about the land of delicious chocolate, great musical importance, Hergé and his Tintin books and of course, the European Union headquarters: Belgium.

Never intended to be a country as it is today, it was nevertheless created soon after Napoleon met his Waterloo. A German prince was invited to become a king of a new monarchy in 1831. Always an uneasy mix of Dutch (or Flemish, a dialect of the former) and French speaking Flanders and Wallonia, it nevertheless managed to grow in importance, not the least by being put in charge of the Congo and two East African countries, Rwanda and Burundi. Belgian Congo was always rich in minerals and became a major exporter on uranium for the Manhattan Project and the nuclear bomb industry.

Today, many openly question whether the country of Belgium should exist at all. The politics are strictly divided between language barriers. Formerly the farming Wallonia was better-to-do, but recently the Flanders have managed to overcome their southern neighbors, mainly because of industry and trade. Recently a fake report on television claimed that the country had been split into two and hardly anybody doubted the "facts" in this Lowlands version on "the Martians Have Landed". The issues preventing the division are a mutual love and respect for the king, and the question of Brussels, the "EU City". The latter is by far the most important city in Belgium and like Montréal in Quebec, mainly French-speaking. The Catholic Flanders wouldn't really want to join the Protestant Netherlands in spite of the common language, and France has enough problems or her own without being saddled with Wallonia's economic woes.

Musically the Conservatory in Brussels has been one of the most important in Europe for more than a century. Especially important is the Belgian, or Franco-Belgian, school of violin playing, often also referred to as Modern French. The great musical genius and virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe was a giant in the history of the violin, disciples of whom have had great influence in this country as well (Josef Gingold, Jascha Brodsky, Louis Persinger). His most important student, however, was Mathieu Crickboom. He played second violin in his teacher's his famous string quartet and later inherited the professorship in the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles. Ysaÿe also dedicated the fifth of his famed six solo sonatas to his student and friend.

In my childhood my father had a couple volumes of Crickboom's Le Violon – Théorique et Practique" and this is what I used to teach myself the violin. My parents were taking a long walk when I had just turned five, and I took out my father's full-size violin and decided to see what it sounded like. With perfect pitch I had no trouble playing the right notes and when my parents returned, I surprised them by playing a short piece from probably Volume I. I can well remember my father starting to kind of laugh, either nervously or excitedly, I couldn't tell. The next day a three-quarter size instrument appeared and soon a man was brought to the house as a teacher candidate. Well, I didn't really care for the fellow and thus no lessons followed. Also, I was unhappy with the sound of the 'little' violin and insisted on using my father's. Not long after that he purchased a modern instrument that had won a prize in a violin makers' competition. I treasured those Crickboom books and although I taught myself to play a lot of other material, these books always had a special place in my heart. As I started teaching my friends and even older kids at a very young age, it was always "Le Violon" that I used with them and got them to play so well that many ended up as professionals. I went through a lot of other methods but none ever came close to the logical and musical approach of Mr. Crickboom.

Time passed and somewhere I lost my valued five volumes of this series. It might have been during one of the big moves from one country to another or probably when my ex, in a fit of rage, got rid of all my music, along with other personal items such as reviews and other such clippings. Personally I think she lied about it, claiming that she had put the boxes on the curb and twenty minutes later they had disappeared. So she probably held onto all that stuff but I have no way of finding out. At the time my children were too young for me to put them through a nasty scene, so their mother got away with a murder, so to speak. Over the years I tried finding the Crickboom books in stores and online, but with limited success. Not long ago, I decided to try once more and to my surprise they popped up at an American site. The first book was not what I expected it to be but another Crickboom work on scales and technical stuff, very useful and intelligently formulated. Then I searched differently and, voilà, there they were at music44.com, some in French, some others in German or English-Spanish versions. I got my volumes II, IV and V just this week and going through them is like having found a lost childhood treasure. Volume III is on backorder and while waiting for it, I also ordered Crickboom's "Chants et Morceaux" , four out of five books. These pieces are supposed to be played when a certain point in the actual "Le Violon" has been reached. Granted, most of my students are past the level these books are intended for, but every once in a while one of us takes a young one under our wing, and it will interesting to see how this material can be used. There is nothing wrong with the Doflein Method we have used and it does introduce "modern" composers of the time (1930s) such as Orff, Bartok and Hindemith. However, the approach of Mr. Crickboom is more natural and logical.

So, one day there may not be a Belgium as we know it, but the unthinkable has happened before. Perhaps this country of ours should be divided as the Southerners once wanted. We could have the states that believe in universal health care in one union, and those who don't in another. Or make the split based on who wants to have the separation on state and religion and who sees it as one and the same. Living in a rather liberal and socially conscious part of union, we in Seattle really have very little in common with folks in Alabama or Texas. Another seemingly illiterate politician has his eyes set on governing this uneasy union of ours. Although many in the media chose not to report it and I first learned about the speech from a foreign online source, a presidential candidate recently claimed: "Actually, just look at what Osam — Barack Obama — said just yesterday. Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. ... It's almost as if the Democratic contenders for president are living in fantasyland. Their idea for jihad is to retreat, and their idea for the economy is to also retreat. And in my view, both efforts are wrongheaded." What a difference one wrong or missing letter can make, making a Mormon a Moron.

in pictures:
Tintin and Snowy (Milou), Mathieu Crickboom

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Soul, Human and Animal

For ages we humans have insisted that only our life form has a soul and thus is above the rest of the animal world. I am not alone with a different opinion. Having had several dogs and now this one-eyed 'wonder cat' with whom I've had no trouble communicating, I absolutely believe that any advanced animal is capable of thinking and feeling. Some are predators but so are a large number of us people. I especially remember a Boston terrier who had deep eyes, true mirrors of his soul. My late mother used to say that she strongly felt there was a human soul trapped in Daphnis, our little dog, someone that might have done something wrong in a previous life and came back as that wonderful, loving canine.

Back to the topic of this picture and Seymour, our “pirate” cat, here helping me while I tried to access a file with my bio. A month after my mother had passed away, on the morning of Thanksgiving at 8 a.m., one of our neighbors was at the door with a tiny black kitten. The little creature had wandered off from his home and had been meowing all night by this neighbor's house. As he knew we had children, he thought we might like to provide a home to this kitten. The children were excited although I tried to cry out “no cat” in protest but to deaf ears. In my childhood we had numerous cats but they all ended up devouring mice that had eaten rat poison and thus all these animals had suffered a terrible end before I could really bond with any of them. Later when I already had my best pal, a wire-haired fox terrier by the name of Tirry, my father and I brought home a truly wild kitten from a summer music camp. This cat was something else and I'm surprised that my doggie survived all the rough play they had together.

One morning our housekeeper brought home raw lung that the butcher shop had given away free and after tasting it the cat would prefer it to anything else. For those who have never seen lung, it is a tough organ that is usually tossed away as one useless part of the carcass. One cannot even cut through it with a knife: a pair of sharp scissors were our only means of dicing the organ for the cat. He would be in ecstasy, tearing into the bloody and foamy substance with his claws and teeth, hissing, purring and singing all at once. This cat, too, had a taste for mice and often had a competition with the neighbor's Siamese. One cold winter morning when our housekeeper arrived, she screamed as there were ten dead, frozen mice in a neat row on our steps, in front of a proud cat, a night's catch. The neighbor cat had only six, but his row was equally straight. Soon our cat met with same fate as the others and hemorrhaged to death after killing a poisoned mouse. Thus I always connected cats with a tragic end. My fox terrier on the other hand lived a good life and even with a heart condition reached an age of sixteen.

Now, decades later, a new kitty came to my life. This little curious fellow managed to find an endless number of excellent hiding places in the house. We would open a drawer and find our kitten sleeping in it, having managed to climb in through the back. At times we would spend hours looking for him. Then our Seymour discovered the space between the ceiling of the ground floor and the oak flooring above. Roaming there became his favorite activity. My wife almost had a heart attack when a cat fell from the ceiling while she was giving a lesson.

This kitty lost at least one of his nine lives while still a baby. We came home late from an insipid dinner party where an East Coast violin dealer was unsuccessfully trying to get people to invest in his rather overpriced instruments. We were there to play and chit-chat. By our front door was our kitten with one of his eyes hanging out by the optic nerve. The next door neighbor's cat was by his side, as if to protect him. Off to the emergency vet who tried to put the eye back in. Naturally, the woman at the desk made fun of Seymour's name and commented how we should now rename him “Seeless”. All the bones of the kitty's head were broken as he must have been hit by a car. The vet wired his jaw carefully and made on opening in his throat for a feeding tube. Soon it became evident that the eye would not regenerate and had to be removed. We fed the poor creature by the tube for about two months. Finally the wires came off and the cat was so happy he ate five platefuls of Fancy Feast in one sitting.

Seymour was young enough not to depend on the peripheral vision two eyes make possible. Amazingly that never handicapped him: he could soon make incredible leaps, never missing his target or losing his balance. We got used to his pirate look and actually think that other black cats with two eyes look rather strange.

Now back to the question of soul. Unlike with my childhood cats I realized that I could easily communicate with this unusual feline. He thinks that I am his playmate and often I am full of scratches and scrapes. He doesn't seem to realize I lack the kind of thick fur he has. At night he sleeps by my wife's feet but sometimes feels insecure and wakes me up with a velvety paw, purring softly and wanting to cuddle in a position where his head is against by chest, enabling him to hear my heartbeat. If I have forgotten to feed him one of his small four to five daily meals, he'll come and bite by right ankle. When I'm about to choose what to feed him, I just look into his one eye and most of the time have no trouble reading what he would like (he is very finicky!). Every student is usually met at the door and Seymour usually stays for the beginning of the lesson, once in a while taking part by accompanying on one of the pianos. He has his favorite people, students and parents, but he certainly wants to be noticed by everyone.

Many of the people I've known and worked with have less of a “human” soul than this kitty, or many of the dogs in my life. Perhaps the Eastern philosophies that believe in reincarnation are not so far off the truth. There are and have been people who resemble more a crocodile or a poisonous snake more than what we treasure as human being. Just yesterday my wife and I were watching part of BBC's 2005 documentary on Auschwitz. Many of the former SS men and concentration camp guards interviewed showed no remorse for their horrendous acts. They still regard the Jewish people as subhuman and seem to be almost proud of their past actions. My theory for a long time has been that since there far more people on this Earth than ever before, there simply aren't enough human souls to go around and people end up with one from a hyena, a lizard, a shark or even an insect. And as I wondered before, perhaps some of us who have done something bad, end up coming back as another life form, possibly full of regrets like our Daphnis.

I am not surprised that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as gods.

photo and photo art

© ilkka talvi 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


This is a new term of mine, pronounced like Excess. It refers to reverse sexual discrimination.

We are relatively well protected against sexual harassment and discrimination, although more in theory than in practice. Every so often a big class action case makes the news, such as female workers at a company like Walmart not earning similar wages to male employees or being bypassed when promotions are at issue. But in reality our society has accepted women earning less than their male counterparts for the same job, and employers have a long list of reasons for this, starting with maternity leaves and ending with PMS and lost productivity. Women are less likely to be available for business dinners and other after-hours activities, as they have a home to run.

What seldom makes the news is when XES takes place and a younger 'sex kitten' gets promoted because the boss likes the attention. There may be an actual relationship involved or the higher-up is at least playing with the thought. Paul Wolfowitz thought it natural to promote his girlfriend, Libyan-born Shaha Ali Riza; ultimately it of course cost him his job at the World Bank. But for every high profile case there must be countless others where a female has replaced a more capable male because her superior has had the hots for her. Of course, there are female bosses who have their eyes on younger males and the opposite can happen. Also, a company or an organization may be headed by a homosexual who will make sure that only other gays (or lesbians) climb up the ladder. This is particularly widespread in the arts: a head of a company may make his rounds in the orchestra pit before a performance, certain people are constantly seen visiting a maestro's dressing room, or a gay critic will blindly praise a lesbian violinist or the spouse of a man he feels attracted to, even if the latter may not be 'available'.

No, I'm not homophobic: I have nothing against homosexuals as long as they are not after young children. Many are among the gifted in the arts and I count a number of them as good friends. Nor do I have anything against the more beautiful sex; however provocative clothing or behavior better suited for an escort service are not the credentials required for a promotion. But our laws do not really protect a man being replaced by a favorite 'chick', nor a woman by a gay object of admiration of her superior.

Perhaps wisely, at the start of the industrial revolution, people argued about the wisdom of mixing men and women in the same workplace. In many Muslim countries this is impossible, and to a lesser extent among the Orthodox Jews. We cannot deny the sexuality in us, although some mainly religious institutions have tried to. If we are as advanced a species as we claim, with proper upbringing and education we should be able to handle these everyday situations. People will always be attracted to each other. Nature made it that way in order for mankind to survive. But if we are talking about a true democracy, such feelings need to be suppressed at the workplace, for the common good and health of the organization or firm. Too often the culprits of such behavior have a long personal history of not sticking to promises and commitments. It is sad enough when a woman who has given a man the best years of her life is served notice that he now has decided to shack up with a 'younger model'. At least she doesn't have to put up with the humiliation of a loyal male worker being brushed aside because of increased testosterone levels of a boss.

Many polygamist societies have allowed a man to take several wives; that way the first (and eldest) will still be respected and taken care of. A few systems provide the same for a woman: in parts of India where men are too poor to properly support a wife, a few of them will do so together. Although my moral values obviously don't agree with this, I do understand the age-old thinking behind it. Abraham had his Sarai and Hagar after all, and at the funeral of a late French president François Mitterand, both the wife and the mistress walked side by side after the coffin of the man who had fathered their children.

Bill Clinton acted only like a healthy, although weak in flesh, heterosexual male with his Monica. At least he didn't try to nominate her to the Supreme Court or become his Secretary of State. Forgive the man for his hormones and virility. Nobody died and nobody even got the boot, with the exception of Miss Lewinsky herself.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Academia Nuts

When hiring new faculty or deciding on an existing professors tenure, universities and colleges in the U.S. often depend on input from colleagues. This is a double-edged sword: peers may know the situation and its demands better than administrators, yet they might not want anyone permanently on board who might be superior in his/her skills and knowledge to them.

Seattle is home to a state university which is listed as the 16th best in the world on a generally highly regarded list, compiled by the Chinese in Shanghai. If I had a child pursuing a career in medicine, engineering or the sciences, I might well agree with that, thus benefiting from one of the few breaks a state resident has in the form of lower tuition costs.

In order to learn a composition for viola and piano by Rebecca Clarke, and to better guide a student working on it, I recently listened to a wonderful recording by Paul Coletti. Although I had heard and seen him perform on the Arts channel on cable, I was surprised and truly impressed by his first-class playing on this disc of English chamber music. Then I remembered that he had been here on the faculty of the same universitys school of music. What a pity that this artist was allowed to go; the same is true with others of his caliber. Hardly rated as high as its parent institution, the music school is seldom mentioned today by students desiring to pursue a career in the field of music. Naturally, I would never discourage anyone from applying there, but few are interested. It cannot compete with the schools on the East Coast, upper Midwest or even Texas, in the dreams of the young. Is it possible that mediocrity among fellow faculty members has kept the truly gifted and inspirational people away? Yet the local media, and former teaching colleagues, may sing praises to the very musicians who might not even have been accepted to study with Mr. Coletti and others of his stature. After all, in our society mediocrity rules, from politics to entertainment.

Many of the top schools have elected not to teach the performing arts at all, such as Princeton and University of Chicago. To a European, our system of having conservatories, drama or dance schools within a university, seems odd indeed. Unlike in other fields, American college students in the arts dont have the four years to make up their mind about their future career. Granted, a gifted musician with any undergraduate degree is free to pursue a graduate degree in music performance if her/his playing skills match the ambitions, but that is a rarity. A performing arts major is an unlikely candidate to enter a medical or law school, although technically that could be allowed. Although by its very definition a university should offer the best education in multiple fields to its students, most of the ones with active art departments dont allow a non-music major to take violin or flute lessons, for example. The often very capable young person might instead be directed to a fellow student; a totally unacceptable solution.

In every field, but especially in music and other forms of art, an inspirational and exceptional guiding light is worth more than his/her weight in gold. Although there are great elderly artist-educators teaching in top institutions, todays young people are a couple generations removed from the ideals of the old and wise, and may worship a completely different set of artistic and musical values. Other retired or otherwise discarded people, such as former orchestra musicians, do not usually inspire anyone. A completely different question is whether a career in music makes any sense in the world we live in. I shall not touch this subject here, as it is too hard a nut to crack.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Music and Medicine

Performing can be taxing on the nerves, even if one is part of a huge group on a stage. As I wrote in a much earlier blog, the use of beta blockers is very common among performers, as is anti-anxiety drugs. Many still stick to the old standby, alcohol, which can do the trick to many and remove anxiety and fears. It, however, has the unfortunate tattle tale odor attached to it. Ivan Galamian, of Juilliard and Curtis fame, fought the boredom of having far too many students by starting with vodka early in the morning. Of alcoholic drinks, that smells the least in one's breath. "Dopamine" is another drug that one thinks would be used by many musicians, conductors, critics and audience members alike.

Boredom is the other aspect that afflicts orchestra musicians. I had a wonderful longtime stand partner in 1980s and 90s, Walter Schwede, now a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. We tried to cope with the monotonous and at the same time often unpleasant work environment by being creative. We would come up with silly comments and other markings to write in our parts, in multiple languages. Computers were still relatively new, but I always had the latest technology available. Windows still had plenty of problems and would crash all the time. I had a different operating system, GEOS, in one computer and its GeoWorks, starting in 1990. It offered a surprisingly stable environment with advanced graphic and words processing capabilities, with good layout control. To my stand partner's delight, I scanned the title page of Elgar's rather awful "The Dream of Gerontius" and, using the same font type and size, changed it to "The Scream of Geraldius". The baton wielder looked at it in a state of shock, not knowing what to do or say, and even tried an eraser to no avail. We laughed at our successful prank and I peeled off the printout which had been attached with removable glue.

My most creative work came with labels for medicine containers, some the kind used for prescriptions, some others for pill boxes. Of course, some were named appropriately, but we got laughs with "Russium hydrochloride", "Egozac" and "Moozine". They were all inspired by personalities of our colleagues, and all came with detailed instructions relating to conditions they were intended to treat, with proper dosages. I don't remember what we put inside; the "pills" might have been Altoids or Tic-Tacs. It felt good to be able to offer a "Moozine" when a particularly offending sound of that nature was heard. Mr. Schwede still has a few of these creations; mine have been lost or look worn after all the years as the picture indicates.

Those were the good old days. My stand partner got smart and left the orchestral scene for teaching. I should have been equally clever and done the same much sooner. His parting advice to me was a warning: "Watch out for certain people. They have their eyes on your chair and will stop at nothing to get there." Well, we all learn from mistakes, and at least now I'm happy working with wonderful youngsters and also equally nice grown-ups. People search for satisfaction and happiness in all the wrong places: often it can be found right under their noses.

A couple nights ago I had a strange but pleasant dream. I was watching happy orchestra musicians with smiles on their faces. And what was the reason for this? They had just been given no less than four young and enthusiastic music directors, all looking similar to and conducting with the inspiration of a Gustavo Dudamel. Look at this amazing video and you'll understand how to excite an audience and musicians, the latter still being youngsters. Even my heart rate goes up watching it. Music can be fun and smiles, after all. What a difference!

Illustration by Talvi 1990

Friday, August 17, 2007

Musical Coups

When the Metropolitan Opera announced their plans of broadcasting some of their best productions live, to be seen in a number of movie theaters around the country, most people in the business were shaking their heads and saying the concept would never fly. How wrong they were! The demand was so high from the beginning that in addition to the live event, a second showing was scheduled a few days later. This coming season’s high definition productions are up to eight from this year’s six, and the number of theaters has increased to 700 worldwide, 300 of which are in the United States. How exciting to the artist involved to be performing for an audience of 100,000! If I were an opera fan I would definitely opt to go to a comfortable movie theater with a first-class sound system, where I could actually see the singers without binoculars and wouldn’t have to crank up my hearing aid (if I needed one). Why settle for a Pocatello production, just because “we can perform opera, too”. Instead of a local pick-up orchestra one can listen to some of the finest players in the country, and of course the singers are of the caliber Pocatello could never attract or afford. As a bonus, one probably could take his popcorn, other snacks and drinks along. The only people complaining would be society’s ‘sour cream’ who couldn’t come and flaunt their riches as in a movie theater setup nobody would notice or care.

Naturally, premier opera houses, such as the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) in London, have taken notice of this fabulous idea and success story, and they plan to show their offerings the same way. The world is large and there probably are more than the hundred thousand opera fans. This venue thus will offer an opportunity for comparison of many of the world’s best companies, something that previously would have meant expensive and time consuming trips to many countries. Technology is cheap these days, so nothing will prevent Pocatello from setting up similar hi-def simulcasts. Of course, then it will be up to the listeners and viewers to decide which one they prefer, Placido Domingo and the Met, or Ernesto Flamingo and the Pocatello Civic.

A different kind of a coup took place recently in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic’s board and management obviously didn’t consult first with the White House when they hired today’s hottest and most exciting young conductor Gustavo Dudamel as their new Music Director, starting in that role in two years. Our leaders would not have supported appointing a Venezuelan to such a high profile position. Other orchestras in search of new leadership must be kicking themselves for not having the courage to act first. Then the New York Philharmonic announced their surprise selection for their Music Director, a ‘home grown’ conductor, 40-year-old Alan Gilbert. Based on everything I have heard, Mr. Gilbert is a first rate musician and will serve the orchestra well. However, he hardly has the kind of charisma Mr. Dudamel and his predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen possess. But it has been a long time since the N.Y. Phil has had such a person at its helm: one probably has to go back to Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps there is so much happening in that city that excitement is reserved for visiting orchestras and artists. The resident orchestra represents something that is true and tested, a safe place to go hear a favorite piece of music. One argument which the selection of Mr. Gilbert proves wrong is the often heard one (at least in this corner of the country) that the orchestra would never give a conducting opportunity to one of their own. I guess it all depends on the artistic quality and musicianship of an individual.

The Big Apple also seems to continue its love affair with the ‘new’ Mostly Mozart Festival and its Music Director, the Frenchman Louis Langrée. For a festival that was about to die under previous leadership, this second life is nothing short of astounding. A person with supposedly terminal cancer, who all of a sudden is declared disease-free, must feel like the musicians involved in Mostly Mozart. The festival ought to perhaps change its name to “Anything But Mozart”, as the repertoire performed these days is very varied, including modern pieces by such gifted composers as Osvaldo Golijov.

Now, how about combining the two topics I just wrote about. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could go the nearest Cineplex to see and hear concerts by the world’s best orchestras and soloists? Since these all would be live performances, it would be easy to compare the different styles and come up with one’s favorite ensembles, instrumentalists and conductors. The Pocatello Phil may claim to be as good as the one in Vienna or Berlin, but at least give the music lovers the option to decide. And how about a first-rate recital where you can actually see the artist and his/her accompanist and hear the most delicate details of their interpretation? Even I would leave the house and go, as much as I dislike concerts.

Technology is there for us to use and enjoy. It gives new meaning to “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain”, often interpreted as If one cannot get one's own way, one must adjust to the inevitable.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


One of the greatest joys of teaching is getting to know many young people and their families, all from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. In today’s America, white ‘Caucasian’ people are a minority, just as are married people. I consider interacting with all these ‘foreigners’ the greatest blessing our country has to offer, it being a melting pot of cultures. I feel honored to learn about different customs and traditions. Naturally, people tend to be a bit careful at first, not knowing what to expect. Soon they realize, however, that I have an open mind and heart, and allow me to have a closer look at their way of life. This country’s history is so young, and even the descendants of the Pilgrims cannot compete with a civilization ten times older.

Our past is not a pretty story regarding the way the white man has treated anyone different from him. We brought in Africans to serve as slaves and Chinese to build our railroads. The former didn’t attain equal rights until a few decades ago, and are still regarded as a lower form of the human race by skinheads and their kind. The second group was forbidden by law from becoming citizens or owning property. Interracial marriage was against the law until post-WWII era, although children of mixed ethnicity existed since the first African women came here. A slave was her master’s property and could never say ‘no’. Even among the ‘white race’ there were different categories, with Jews, Italians and the Irish finding it impossible to climb higher in social hierarchy.

Today this all is different, or it is at least supposed to be. The Southerners fought hard to keep their way of life through the 1960s; Lady Bird Johnson met with often hostile mobs of people when she tried to gain support to her husband’s policies. It is not uncommon even today to find two towns next to each other, one white, and the other black. We were eager to condemn apartheid in South Africa, yet turned a blind eye to our own almost similar situation. Twenty-five years ago I was shocked to see two groups of different skin color waiting for buses in downtown Nashville, one on a street running East-West, the other North-South. In the same city I was in a department store when I saw an elderly African-American man shoplift an item. Our eyes met. The look of despair made me feel sorry for him. He clearly expected me to alert the security, but I just waved for him to leave the store with his inexpensive stolen item. He smiled, even if awkwardly, and I could read ‘thank you’ on his lips.

A couple days ago I was reading a news story on America Online about road rage on a narrow highway in California. Numerous victims had died on this stretch, not to mention all the serious injuries, all a result of rage. The road was being widened but some drivers were getting crazier than ever, shooting the road crew members with BB guns and sideswiping them with their vehicles. The police and the mayor were forced to close the road until the construction was finished, which caused it to become a news story. Something prompted me to start reading comments on the blog the site provided. I was shocked not only by the truly primitive writing, but especially the outright hostile and ugly racist content of many entries. Most of it had nothing to do with the situation and the story itself, but these anonymous writers used the opportunity to vent their deep-rooted hatred for anyone different: Latino, Japanese, African-American, Indian, you name it. I guess the right for free speech protects this cowardly group of ‘humans’, but to me this was a blatant example of hate speech. The laws, in my opinion, should be changed and the identities of these racists should be exposed. Throw this lowlife in jail and free the drug addicts to make space. With treatment most of the latter could become productive members of society, unlike these primitive, lizard-like members of homo horribilis. We share a lot of the same DNA with older life forms from worms to reptiles. It is among the lizards where a mutation with a different color gets quickly killed and eaten up by others, often by the mother.

Is the same primitive reaction by the brain stem behind such hateful emotions? I think much of it has to do with fear of anything different, be it skin color, clothing or language, or perhaps a superior skill. As the percentage of ‘whites’, the former ruling class, shrinks, many people in that group become frightened and react with hostility. As a society we should do better with understanding and accepting each other. This city of mine, Seattle, is probably better integrated than just about any American town. But driving just less than three hours north to Vancouver, British Columbia, presents a society a light year ahead of us. If the Canadians are able to do it, is there any valid reason why we cannot? Seeing four friends, all from different backgrounds, dining together and genuinely enjoying each others’ company is inspiring and gives hope for a better tomorrow. Let us hope that our children are not burdened by the same baggage most of us have grown up with.

And to my students and friends, Europeans included, thank you for making my life so much richer.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

07. 07. 07

Superstition is alive and well. A record number of weddings have been taking place worldwide, wherever our Western calendar is observed. Seven is considered a magic and blessed number by many in various cultures. If only a key to a successful marriage were that simple! The date didn’t prove to be a blessing to Iraqis who lost another 150 as victims of a car bomb. What a terrible bloodbath we managed to start in the area that once was the birthplace of civilization. An Iraqi doctor in the U.K. tried his best to show his gratitude for the mayhem with a few colleagues of his, but with very limited success. One must hope that he and his pals did a better job while practicing medicine. What are we to expect next, perhaps certain orchestra musicians and conductors blowing each other up? That might not be counted as a terrorist act, some would argue.

I’m celebrating two personal anniversaries. The first one is not a happy one, marking a year when I suddenly lost sensation in my feet. By now I’ve become used to the numbness and the pain that is there with every step, and I am able to walk the three-mile loop in my favorite location in Seattle, Discovery Park. All it takes is refusing to pay attention to the burning sensation, and instead letting my soul be filled by the magnificent views and almost magical trees surrounding the paths in the forest. Observing nature’s wonderful creatures, from all varieties of birds (I have seen both pheasants and bald eagles there) to the busy mountain beavers, certainly helps to forget.

This date also marks three decades since I emigrated here from Europe. I had spent time here as a student and met my first wife in my late teens in the Heifetz Masterclass. We had lived in both Finland and Sweden. She had promised to her dying father to return to Los Angeles, and there was little I could do other than accept it. We had two little girls, aged seven and three (more magic numbers!) and this was supposed to be for their best as well. I knew from the beginning that for me the move was a mistake, at least artistically. I went from having a rather busy solo career to becoming a studio musician, eventually joining a chamber group on the side.

Although there were fabulous musicians playing the studio circuit, nobody really cared about music as an art form. The era of great film scores was nearing its end and much of the well-paying work felt like prostitution. We were compensated for our time, not talent. Females, especially the younger ones, were expected to do favors in order to be hired, or at least this was the impression people had. I remember a certain violinist actually sucking the concertmaster’s ear during a session at Warner Bros. Another musician gave birth to a composer’s baby. During breaks players talked about investments and restaurants, never music. One recording session late at night stays in my memory. The contractor who had hired us knew from the onset that neither the composer nor the music would be arriving on time. This sadistic old man made us tune and sit quietly for the hour, then gave us a ten-minute break, to start this bizarre silent ritual again for two more hours. We were paid to be there and he didn’t tolerate any conversation or reading, no matter how discreet. At the end of the three hours we were excused.

The little orchestra was hardly a great source of inspiration. The conductor seemed more interested in having an affair with one of the young married violinists than creating an engaging musical atmosphere. Hollywood and its crazy values weren’t good for my marriage either, and it soon became obvious that it was approaching its end. Luckily I found a soul mate in that little group; or rather she decided to rescue me. Eventually we got married and left town for Seattle which at least had fresh air in beautiful setting between the Puget Sound and the Cascades. With its large Scandinavian population the area reminded me of home. Musically it was even less sophisticated than Los Angeles and very provincial, still true today. There were some truly wonderful and colorful old-timers, though, and that made up for the “Wild West” atmosphere. Politically Seattle was liberal enough which felt good after the L.A. scene. We found a comfortable house with a big back yard for our three Boston terriers, and soon were busy raising two daughters.

So, do I have regrets? Definitely I do, as I sacrificed my career for meaningless work, but at the same time I am grateful for my second family. I guess it all was meant to happen. Presently I am content with life. Although many people have told us that certain malicious individuals tried their hardest to make us leave here a few years ago, I manage to be busier than ever. Life has gone a full circle for me: like in my youth I’m playing with the nicest people and doing what I like best, teaching, and performing enough to keep my chops in top form. Sure, the present situation in this country is scary, but then I grew up having the Soviet Union right next door. Living with threats and fear is something I’m used to.

Will I ever move back? It is a possibility and of course depends on how this country’s domestic and foreign problems are solved, if at all. My girls seem to have an interest in their other home country. Both my younger daughters will travel there this summer. The youngest is leaving tomorrow to spend time with her Finnish girlfriend, and my college senior will fly there next month to study the European Union in the University of Helsinki’s summer school. They are lucky to have dual citizenship and to have access to any EU country, residing and working where ever they desire.

Time will tell whether 07.07.07 was a good day, perhaps the beginning of something great for us and mankind. It could also as well have been the start of something quite the opposite, such as a catalyst for a new World War. Often during a pessimistic moment I feel as if it is already taking place and that we are not exactly innocent in causing it.

I want to give my best wishes to all those married today, in hopes of a happier tomorrow.

Photos © Ilkka Talvi:
Discovery Park
Anna & Sarah Talvi

Monday, June 11, 2007

High and Low School

The day inevitably comes in every family when little children, our pride and joy, reach their adolescence. This usually happens in middle school, or junior high, an older term but still used in many areas. The sweet darlings seem to turn into little monsters almost overnight; a necessary step in life to prepare for separation from the safety of the home. For a first-time parent this time can be frightening, but by the fourth one it is more easily understood and taken with a grain of salt.

For many decades we lumped together all these hormone factories under the same roof in large middle /junior high schools and prayed for the best. With my two eldest, they were lucky to get into a magnet program for the gifted in Los Angeles early on and didn’t have to suffer terribly. My second one, Sonja, bused daily for almost an hour to go a middle school near Pasadena where she was one of two white kids in otherwise all Asian student class, mainly Chinese. With my second set of daughters here in Seattle, we sent them to a small K-8 school, just a couple miles from home. This was probably a smart move, as they were constantly exposed to younger children, having to interact with them in many ways, such as helping them in class. Our Anna was able to teach a transfer student, an ‘army brat’, to read, something the teacher couldn’t do. Seeing former teachers in the hallways or after school must have had a soothing effect, as at a younger age children and their teacher often can have a trusting and loving relationship. It comes as no surprise that in many states there is talk about getting rid of the mammoth middle schools, which often are the turning points in a youngster’s life as in that pressure cooker environment interest in learning is easily destroyed and the long downhill begins, especially for girls.

Next comes the transformation to high school, an odd mix of near-adults and some still-little-children. In principle, I would not send my offspring to a private school, as many of those are filled with rich kids who get away with anything as long as the school gets its high tuition. Of course there are excellent ones as well which truly care about education. Those are far from us and carry a hefty price tag; we pay for public schools in our taxes. Teenagers are supposed to learn what life really is like and their school experience should give them a slice of that. My now college-senior daughter opted for a new small experimental high school at the Seattle Center which started out as 9th and 10th grade that year, both having 75 students each. The faculty was generally handpicked and very enthusiastic, and the principal, Ms. Peterson, a true visionary. During the second year Anna felt that her eagerness to learn wasn’t quite met by the teaching. She tested for our Running Start program and got into the Seattle Central Community College for her last two years, earning an A.A. degree at the same time she graduated from high school. She would have been finished with her B.A. this spring at 19 but decided to double major and will take an additional year. Far from being a ‘nerd’, she loves people, learning and her school. She was elected president for both Hillel and Habitat for Humanity for next year at WWU in Bellingham.

Now came the next big issue: our ‘baby’ had all of a sudden become a teenager, with mood swings and strong opinions of course, but her sweetness and bright mind were omnipresent. Sarah had pretty much followed in her sister’s footsteps but showed interest in a rather new big high school in Ballard, about the same distance from us as the Center School. Off to an orientation we went more than a year ago. Our guide was a tall, model-like African American, a senior. “I’m a cheerleader”, she introduced herself. We started the tour. The first thing she was eager to show was the gym and all the boys lifting weights, all of whom she seemed to know well. We watched a volley ball game being played, and granted, for someone mainly interested in P.E., this all would have been impressive. Some of the parents wanted to visit the school’s auditorium as they had heard about the first-rate shows being produced there. Our guide finally found her way there; a nice little theater which we were already familiar with, as some of our girls’ arts programs had held their performances there. “How many seats are there?” asked a parent. The cheerleader looked a little puzzled and came up with 1,500. “It doesn’t look that big” murmured another parent, and from experience we knew that the real number was a third of it. Then our attention was pointed at the library, safely from a distance. Next to it was the highlight of our tour, the Teen Pregnancy Center, and we heard what a wonderful thing it was to have on campus. Many of us wanted to see actual classrooms but our guide appeared uncomfortable with this request. She pointed in a direction, saying there they are, and seemed relieved when the bell rang and the tour had to come to a close. We practically ran out of the orientation, and Sarah started her high school experience at the same little Center School as her sister, Anna.

Now Sarah has been complaining about missing the ‘real’ high school experience and talks about wanting to transfer. Last week I went to the completely rebuilt Roosevelt HS to hear a couple of our students play their concertos with the orchestra and I better understand what our little one is talking about. That school is a dream facility and the students I met in the hallways acted ever-so-nicely. It is also one of the two high schools in Seattle with a decent orchestra program. The beautiful theater is like an ideal concert hall, sounding better than most halls built for that purpose. I also attended the Center School’s Art Night the following evening and listened to a highly charged Open Slam poetry event. No wonder the school has an ‘artsy’ label attached to it. There young poets showed a lot of incredible raw talent, and the support by peers (and parents) in the crowded large conference room was remarkable. In another room student films were shown and art work in various forms covered all the walls. It was like visiting California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California during its prime, but in a high school version. Those two schools I visited in consecutive days couldn’t have been more different. We want to keep our little one happy and will support her in her choice, whatever it will be.

Lately I have been talking to a number of high school students, juniors and seniors, about their own experiences with school. Most of them have liked the social aspect, but just about everyone agrees that academically too much time is wasted and teaching is dummied down, to accommodate the ‘sloths’. An American high school graduate ranks near the bottom in the table comparing industrialized nations. One of the top ones is my home country, Finland, where everyone has to pass difficult nationally administered exams before graduating. A student has to be proficient in advanced math, at least two foreign languages, geography and sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). School there really isn’t for social interaction and perhaps the Finns lack some social skills compared to Americans, although I think that is more of a cultural issue. Only speak when you have something to say.

The idea of making everyone advance at the same rate is ridiculous. Each person is gifted differently and needs to progress at their own pace. In music, a nine-year-old may be learning the same piece as someone else at sixteen, yet both are advancing and enjoying their improving skills. Sometimes the slower learner will be more successful in the long run as the highly gifted often will burn out. Our society has always loved child prodigies and exploited them, in a ‘freak show fashion. I have known so many who have ended up with miserable lives, having nothing but bitter memories of their young stardom.

Our President has been pushing for his “No Child Left Behind” program, citing the excellent results in Houston, his home turf. We now know those scores were artificially inflated and that city is no better than any other. The slogan could as well read “No Smartie Given A Chance.”