Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blizzard, part one

My secret wish of having to drive in a winter storm soon become a reality. On Sunday morning March 18th I said good-bye to my father, who was in great spirits and had no trouble recognizing me. We talked a couple of hours and then it was time for him to use his wheelchair to go to eat lunch. Naturally it was a somewhat sad moment for me, but seeing how well he was taken care of made me feel good and at ease.

So, I checked out of my hotel, had a bite to eat there and won a freshly baked loaf of bread in a scratch-it lottery ticket I got with my bill. At first the weather was ideal for driving, with lots of sunshine, brightness of which was amplified by a fresh coat of snow everywhere. Soon the skies turned dark, however, and I was in a hurry to find a gas station to fill the tank of the Renault. This is when I discovered as an unpleasant surprise that most pumps were automatic, working either with a credit card or €10 and €20 bills. They wouldn’t accept any of the numerous credit cards I tried and then it became clear to me that most European cards come with an ‘intelligent’ microchip and require a PIN number stored in it. Luckily I had taken out enough euros from my Bank of America checking account using an ATM in Kouvola, and was able to fill the car with €40 ($53) worth of 95-octane gasoline. Fuel is expensive in Europe, as that paid for only a little more than a half of the tank. It is a bit strange that we Americans haven’t added that extra safety feature into our plastic money. New European passports also come with an embedded microchip which makes them far harder to forge.

Soon a powerful snow storm started and the next few hours I was driving on a two-lane highway under complete white-out conditions. I could only see the tire marks of one car that was a few hundred feet ahead of me and even they sometimes disappeared as a result of a gale-force wind and blowing snow. My brother’s car radio is always on and I was listening to many interesting programs. This was Election Day in the country and politics were talked about, but my attention was grabbed by a couple of other programs, first of which I’ll tell about here.

The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki is celebrating its 125th year. For an hour I listened to a program about its history, which of course parallels the history of Finnish music. The institution is the largest one of its kind in Scandinavia, with about 1,700 students. Universities in the European system don’t offer instrumental or vocal instruction and only produce musicologists; the rest is left for conservatories. What really interested me (some of which I had forgotten) was how even in the early years, when Helsinki hardly counted as an international metropolis, there were bitter musical ‘wars’ taking place. Unlike in many American cities, there has always been room for more than one strong personality, not just one individual trying to be ‘Mr. Music’, a dictator in this field. For a long time there were two competing music schools in Helsinki, one of which concentrated on the ‘important’ instruments (piano, violin, cello) and voice, and the other, run by a well-known conductor, offered an ‘orchestra school’ where all orchestral instruments were taught. Also, the orchestra scene was never a monopoly: even today Helsinki has three full-time professional orchestras and there is a chamber orchestra, Tapiola Sinfonietta, just a few miles to the west of Helsinki’s borders.

Just about every musical figure in Finland has gone through the conservatory in Helsinki, which changed names a couple times after the fusion of the before mentioned two schools, ending up honoring Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius, himself a former student in the early days. Based on the many interviews in the program, the most beloved director of the Sibelius Academy was Taneli Kuusisto, a composer, organist, but above all, a wonderful human being. His son, Ilkka Kuusisto, is a well-known musical figure for his own accomplishments and the two grandsons, Jaakko and Pekka Kuusisto, are excellent concert violinists who finished their training in Bloomington, Indiana. Taneli Kuusisto was always a great supporter of mine and in many ways responsible for my choosing music as my profession. I don’t know whether I should be thankful to him or blame him: perhaps my contributions to the society would have been greater as a scientist or a doctor. Later, he didn’t hesitate to offer me a position as a teacher in the same institution when I was just 20; many of my students were older than I was. I taught there for seven years, during many of which I flew in from another city every week to teach a couple full days.

That other city, Pori, was my destination that day. I wanted to visit old students there and see how the city had grown. The music school there is now known as the Palmgren Conservatory, named after a composer from than area. They have a fabulous location which I toured the next day with a former student who is now in charge of the conservatory, at least for the time being. Decades ago when I was teaching violin, viola and chamber music there, and also conducting their small but rather good chamber orchestra, the school occupied a humble old building and there was always a shortage of space. Now they have three floors with seemingly endless number of large rooms for teaching, a lecture hall, recording studios and a nice auditorium. Any school in our country would be envious of such a facility. They have about 870 students, most of who are pre-college but about 10% are enrolled in a department for a professional degree. I asked about the cost of the tuition and my guide looked at me puzzled. “Studying is free, of course, as the law mandates.” Not only that, but in higher education students get a monthly stipend from the government for living expenses. No wonder the country is able to produce great instrumentalists, singers, conductors and composers; the same is true in academic fields where Finland truly excels.

Another former student has been the concertmaster for the city’s professional Pori Sinfonietta for two decades. For a time I was involved with the orchestra, well over 30 years ago, but at that time they didn’t have a hall of their own. I was taken late at night to marvel at their new home. Not only is the hall impressive and probably sounds good as it has only 688 seats (the city has a population of 80,000) and this brings the kind of intimacy to music which is often totally absent in American gigantic concert barns. But the most amazing thing to see was the all the space musicians had for themselves backstage on two levels: dressing rooms, practice rooms and other spaces big enough for even the largest sectionals. They also have a large pit and produce a few operas every season.

Even in this paradise of a workplace there is trouble brewing. Musicians, no matter where they are, seem never to be satisfied, and the group has had some rough times with personality clashes. Behind it all is a familiar story: the person on the podium who has put his own interests ahead of the orchestra, almost destroying the latter in the process. My student and colleague there told me she is tired of being the lightning rod which a concertmaster so often is, and she wants to step aside. The city has agreed to that, but will not lower her pay. Finnish people may have their faults but they respect one’s rights and dignity. Our society here should learn from such honorable principles, although I have my doubts it ever will.

And yes, driving fast in a blizzard is exciting.
Veikko Talvi 3/18/07

Jean Sibelius