Friday, April 27, 2007

Good-Bye Time

Knowing when to politely bow out is a difficult thing to know, especially for performing artists. Dancers usually have enough physical problems preventing them from continuing a daily routine at an early age, so they gracefully exit, either to start a second career as a teacher of dance, or graduate to a completely different field. Singers normally know when their vocal chords no longer function as they once did, or their reduced lung capacity cannot sustain the high notes as long as before. Sometimes they continue singing past their retirement point, having become celebrities like the trio of men we all know; only one of them being in decent vocal shape. Conductors can become respected and honored sources of knowledge and tradition, or they burn out like a dwarf star, and have little or nothing to give. Even in the first case they are seldom a true inspiration to an orchestra, although an ensemble can play wonderfully well for someone whose knowledge and style the players admire. With instrumentalists aging is a touchy subject, and although there have been some wonderful pianists up there in years, most other seniors playing should have waved good-bye to their audiences long ago. Yet the last two decades has seen woodwind and string players enjoying their star status but torturing true music lovers by their performances, hardly reminiscent of the playing in their prime.

Today's New York Times has a review of a famed chamber ensemble giving their farewell performances. The Vermeer Quartet has been in the spotlight for almost forty years, and instead of an individual bowing out and being replaced by another, a common scenario, they decided to end while still on top. The Vermeer has left enough wonderful recordings behind for us to enjoy them for decades to come, and their concerts surely will live on listeners' memories. The sound and style of a quartet is usually a product of years of hard labor, ironing out stylistic differences and reaching a common understanding of how music should be interpreted; no easy task. Keeping the name but having different personnel is controversial. I personally feel that if one person in a piano trio or two in a quartet, sometimes one (in case of the first violinist), are new, the group should adopt a different name. Keeping a well-known and established trade mark is great for marketing but fooling the audience. Many would disagree with my opinion.

Regrettably some incredible artists perish while still young. This past week I have been listening to recordings of two such violinists. Ginette Neveu was only 30 years old when the plane carrying her and her brother (her accompanist), crashed into a mountain in the Azores. What an amazing musician she was! She played with more balls than most male violinists, especially today. Her Ravel Tzigane is surprisingly slow, yet in complete accordance with the composer's wishes; today we seem to think that the fastest performance is the best. A real find was to listen to Viennese-born Ossy Renardy's early recordings of Sarasate's gems, performed at the age of 18. This violinist would have become a household name and as great an anyone, had he not been killed in a car accident in 1953. Both violinists died on their way to work: Neveu on her way to a tour in the U.S. and Renardy (originally Reich) driving a car to play a concert.

Today's news tells us about the death of a great Russian musician, Mstislav Rostropovich, at the age of 80. There had been rumors for many months that his health problems had become unmanageable, but nevertheless such news makes one sad. A genuine product of the Soviet Union's music training machine, he represented both the good and bad of that system. The first performances I heard in my youth were not exactly to my liking. The harsh attacks on the then-not-so-common steel strings were a far cry from the refined sound of Pablo Casals and others. One heard complaints that Slava prevented other Soviet cellists from achieving his star status, and the cellist was eager to push his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, into the same international fame he was enjoying. Westerners always admired the top Soviet instrumentalists, but singing was a different story: being compared to a Russian soprano was hardly a compliment. Times changed, as did both Mr. Rostropovich's style and my taste. I no longer had trouble enjoying his playing and, while working with him on numerous occasions, his tremendous creative energy. Even if one didn't agree with his interpretation, it never left anyone cold. In his later years a new Rostropovich gradually emerged: gone was all the harshness of the Soviet era and instead one was allowed to peek inside this artist's tender soul. As a result of the Cold War, our government rushed to place him in charge of the National Symphony, after the Soviets kicked him out. It served well as a political move, even if he didn't fulfill all the expectations with his baton. I had a nickname for him: the 'National Semiconductor'. He himself admitted that when he played the cello, he suffered but the audience enjoyed; when conducting he enjoyed and the listeners suffered. Yet he was able to make many orchestras sound great in Russian repertoire as a guest conductor, especially where people weren't used to such radiating musical energy and know-how on the podium. I miss his dogs: a little pooch would follow him on the stage for rehearsals. At least one of them knew all the repertoire and would get up when the piece was nearing its end.

Life continues and great personalities live on in people's memories. Of course I will always remember fondly this extraordinary man and musician who kissed me many times on the cheeks in front of a packed audience. May he enjoy making music for and with the angels.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mass Killings

People are still feeling numb about yesterday's shooting on a Virginia college campus. 32 victims before a suicide is a large number, yet unfortunately everyday news in certain parts of the world. I am somewhat surprised that there has been less written about this incident resembling a suicide bombing in many ways. In both cases an individual knows that he will not survive but wants to take as many innocent lives as possible with him. In this writer's eyes a human life has absolutely the same value in Iraq or Darfur as it does in this country, although it is easier to pretend that the distant horror exists only on the television screen.

We love our guns, and even after yesterday's bloodbath some prominent politicians, not to mention the firearm lobbyists, tout gun ownership as a way to increase safety. According to them, if faculty and other students had carried handguns with them, the shooter might have been killed before he shot so many; never mind the bullet proof vest he was wearing. This is one type of logic, but the world's opinion doesn't agree with it. Even the Australian PM John Howard, usually sympathetic to anything we Americans do, blames our lax gun laws and easy access to firearms for this tragedy and the overall shockingly high number of gun-related deaths in the United States. The laws in Britain regarding weapons are so strict that the country's Olympic pistol shooting team is barred from practicing in its own country. The British published some interesting statistics: the population of England and Wales is 55 million, yet the number of deaths from shootings was just 46 last year. In New York City proper, with a population of 8 million, at least 579 victims died from the same cause. Doing a little bit of math tells us that the likelihood of any of us dying as a victim of a shooting is 83 times higher on this side of the Atlantic. Let these politicians explain this fact; while they are at it, perhaps they will also tell us why matters in Iraq are going so well.

Other than target practice in sports, the sole purpose of firearms is to kill. Yes, hunting is killing, too. Some consider it a sport, and sometimes it is done to curb an animal population that the ecosystem is not able to support (although it hasn't been offered as a solution to this planet's human population crisis). Mainly weapons are used as a means to threaten other people, and to pull the trigger if necessary, or sometimes just for the thrill of it. This applies to the military, law enforcement, criminals, and just ordinary citizens who feel threatened or are in a rage. A flying frying pan might be replaced by a different kind of a projectile, a bullet. In the troubled Middle East people have found it easier to use plastic or other explosives in car bombs or suicide belts. An Iraqi person, wanting to cause similar destruction as the Korean student in Virginia, doesn't even have to know how to load or aim a gun or disable the safety latch in a pistol. Pulling a string or pressing a button is all it takes. What makes them terrorists and the student in Virginia not? The intention in both cases is the same: take as many lives as possible along with your own. If suicide vests were on display at a local gun dealer, perhaps Cho Seung-Hui would have opted to purchase one and march to a crowded dining hall.

Australia used to have similar gun laws to ours, but after a madman went on a terrible shooting spree in Tasmania little over a decade ago, resulting in 35 deaths, they were changed, to the vocal opposition of many. If people down under have seen the light, and our closest neighbors in Canada have done the same, how many more tragedies is it going to take for the tide to turn here? We are too obsessed by our war against drugs (which is going about as well as the 'the other' war in Iraq and Afghanistan) to see the real threats to us and the generations following. Finally people are beginning to understand that the warming climate is a reality, and it doesn't just mean more pleasant winters but rather extreme weather events all over the globe. Scientists have warned us about this for decades but we seem to hear only what we want to.

As I mentioned the war on drugs, would someone be able to explain why cannabis (including marijuana) is a Schedule I drug, but PCP, cocaine and meth are listed as Schedule II, together with oxycodone and morphine, according the 1970 Controlled Substances Act? I have witnessed crazed behavior by people on PCP and can't understand why it would have any medical use. Marijuana is proven to bring relief to pain, as has another Schedule I drug, heroin. The latter is widely used in the rest of the world, to successfully alleviate the often horrendous pain cancer patients suffer from. You might ask what the difference between the two classifications is. In the eyes of the law, it is a lesser crime in this country to be in possession of PCP or meth than cannabis. No wonder our prisons are bulging. Killers are often treated more leniently by our legal system than those poor souls who are substance abusers and in need of help, not punishment. Go figure.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Clearly No Wire

Earthlink did it again, now having been Earth-No-Link for five days. The company also provides us with one phone line, which went dead five days ago and obviously the dsl connection with it. I have been on the phone to India and the Philippines again, trying to understand sometimes very heavy accents. It seems to me that with the increased demand for outsourcing customer and tech support, language skill requirements have been lowered. Normally I teach students whose parents come from many different countries and I'm comfortable communicating with them even when a native might have trouble. Being a foreigner has its benefits: understanding other immigrants is easy.

So, after telling the first two people (in different countries, based on the accents) that the problem was local in origin, and that they would have to contact their contractor here in Seattle, Washington, the United States, the phone came back to life after 12 hours. No dsl though, and I was back on the phone between students and playing. At some point on Friday the dsl light on the modem lit up and the activity light blinked, both to disappear then altogether. This would happen again repeatedly. I had seen this problem earlier when Earthlink first became our phone/long distance/internet provider and knew the reason: our house is too far from the central office to handle the kind of speed (6 mbps) they had initially promised. I told the tech rep to contact their people here (Covad?) to have it lowered. This was on Friday and the person on the phone said that this problem would be taken care of on Saturday morning. Of course this didn't happen and due to the busy weekend, and knowing that nothing would happen on Sunday, I called back this morning, Monday, to inquire how the issue was progressing. Again, the representatives seemed more interested about my father's middle name and my mother's maiden name than in solving the problem. I have been promised now that I should have a dsl connection in two days, making it an interruption of a week.

For a while I was able to connect to a neighbor's unsecured wireless network, but then got kicked out, probably by their firewall. I had to come up with another solution and was able to establish a connection using my Cingular 3G phone as a wireless broadband modem (it isn't quite as straight forward as it sounds). Early in the weekend, while my daughter was having her guitar lesson, I quickly drove to the nearest shopping mall where I had seen a Clearwire booth. When the company initially started service in Seattle I had been interested, but due to our location on the 'wrong' side of the big Queen Anne hill, their signal didn't reach us. Sure enough they've adding antennas and I found out that our address is now being served by no less than three transmitters. I quickly took care of the paperwork, got the rather big but lightweight antenna and was on time to pick my little one up from her lesson.

Back at home I set up the antenna (it requires to be powered) and connected it to a computer and – bingo – I was online. My wireless router was set to connect with Earthlink's PPPOE settings and I didn't want to alter them, so we were down to two computers, one using Clearwire and the other my cell phone. Printing and other network problems existed, however, so after this morning's call I reset the Linksys router, connected the Clearwire cable, renamed the wireless network and gave it a strong password, and we are back in business. When I hear back from the Earthlink people, I'm going to find out if we are stuck in a long term contract or if we can terminate the account. However, getting a second phone line with unlimited long distance would cost almost as much, so we might for the time being keep things as they are but not use the dsl, unless we decide to hook it up to a single non-essential computer, as a backup.

I have read a lot of pro and con opinions regarding Clearwire. Obviously many people have had trouble, but equally many have loved the service. I belong in the second group. At least in my case nothing could have been easier to set up. I get a download speed of over 1600 kbps; upload speed is slow, around 300, but since I'm not running a business server, it will do. What they have managed to do is to provide the first truly simple broadband connection. There is no software to install, no settings to worry about; in other words anybody could set it up. That can't be said of any dsl or cable provider. Also, although I haven't done the actual math, they seem to be priced lower than the competition, especially if you stick with the slower connection offered, plenty fast enough for most needs.

And I didn't forget to ask them about an important issue: their customer service and support. They used to be overseas but now they are located back here, in Las Vegas. It didn't hurt that the sales person at Northgate mall was as pleasant and helpful as I've ever encountered.

Look Ma, no wires!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Diamonds from the Deep

We all know that life doesn't treat people in a fair manner. In the arts and in music particularly, this is quite evident. Those who shamelessly promote themselves often get noticed when the quiet and modest ones remain hidden, even if they are more able than the exhibitionists.

Every so often I go and hear a school, other youth or community-based orchestra play, to keep track of what is taking place locally. Although the level of groups varies greatly, they have one thing in common: the musicians, young and old, seem to enjoy what they are doing. It is easy to forgive a slightly messy passage or not-quite-perfect intonation if behind it there is a warm smile and an effort coming from the heart. It is a stark contrast to the often dour expression of a burnt-out professional whose technical execution may be closer to perfection but whose soul is not in it.

The reason for my 50-mile excursion this afternoon was to hear a native Seattleite violinist play the Vaughan Williams "Lark Ascending" with a community group in one of our more distant 'burbs'. Adrianna Hulscher can normally be found deep in the pit, playing in the Pacific Northwest Ballet's capable orchestra. I brought my fourteen-year-old nightingale of a daughter, and a gifted violinist herself, along to have a young pair of ears listening, in addition to my dinosaur ones. Miss Hulscher is the total opposite of her "look-at-me, ain't I sexy" colleagues, with their tight outfits aimed at seducing some members of an audience. Refreshingly, she has no need to focus attention to anything but her playing. It is hard to name many local violinists who could match her intonation and beauty of tone. Granted, she could come out a little bit more and play as if the audience was part of the performance, but hopefully this will develop with more solo opportunities. It is a pleasure to hear natural and musical phrasing, not having to witness a bizarre dance act in front of listeners.

A bit more than a week ago I helped out a few times in PNB's "Carmina Burana", every measure of which I know by heart. Orff was an interesting composer: his music is never too deep but full of catchy tunes and unexpected rhythms which are hard to get out of one's mind. The company has presented the work often, so it is no wonder everything went smoothly with minimal rehearsal time with the orchestra. Stewart Kershaw did a decent job conducting; the only thing missing were the children in the third part. Women's voices can never duplicate the sound of young singers, but logistics dictate that children cannot be working night after night.

A major problem arose with the sudden illness of the soprano soloist. Help was closer than anyone could imagine: a young pianist from the pit got ready with a few hours notice and brought the house down with her glorious singing. People might have known that Christina Siemens sings in addition to her job as a rehearsal pianist, but I don't think many had an idea how fabulous she is. A beautiful young woman, she has a voice to match her looks, with faultless intonation. Every one of her colleagues in the pit seemed to be anxiously awaiting her appearance, towards the end of the lengthy work. The following week the regular soprano, a fine singer, was well enough to return and Ms. Siemens was back in the pit, this time a heroine.

Sometimes one discovers the finest diamonds unexpectedly. Who would have thought that a pit orchestra was hiding such treasures! Perhaps there are more that will be discovered in due time.

About a month ago I played the same Burana (they sell ibuprofen by that name in Europe!) downtown with my own group, Rainier Symphony, in a fine concert and to an enthusiastic response. We also performed the Saint-Saƫns Organ Symphony in that program. It has some notoriously tricky passages which almost never go faultlessly. I've come home from many performances unhappy, shaking my head. It is ironic that it took a group of dedicated and enthusiastic music lovers to get it right, perhaps not a 100% but 99% will do fine.

In photos: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Carl Orff

Friday, April 06, 2007


The Jewish Passover (Pesach) and the Christian Easter are interconnected, although due to the different calendar system they don’t always fall during the same time period. The Last Supper is generally thought to have been a Passover Seder, although some scholars place it a night before. Nevertheless, this year we are celebrating both festivals during the same week. Every Christian ought to either experience the Seder, an increasingly common practice, or at least study all the meaningful symbolism behind it. We had quite a few of our non-Jewish friends over and had the most wonderful Seder ever, enjoyed by all of those present. It was a pleasure seeing our two young daughters splitting the duties of a ceremonial leader: there is a difference when something is forced upon our children or when they want to discover it on their own as part of their heritage.

Typical to the Jewish people, there is a variety of interpretations of the words and symbolism, and even the restrictions on foods allowed differ greatly between the two main groups, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim. In addition to that, even some truly orthodox groups in Israel differ from the mainstream. No wonder Israel has such a large number of political parties, as interestingly do the Finns.

The ten plagues inflicted upon the Pharaoh and his Egyptians, in order to let the Hebrews leave with their families and possessions, are also subject to many interpretations. Usually they are listed as Blood, Frogs, Lice, Beasts, Blight, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness and Striking of the First-Born. Some of these sound very benign in today’s world and we have to find a more fitting meaning for the present time. The river of blood could be a senseless war where the blood of innocent victims flows like a river. Today’s Iraq would well be an example of that. Frogs or amphibians can have an easily understood meaning as the enclosed picture exhibits. Lice, in some translations fleas or gnats, are symbolic to anything parasitic, such as people. Blight in this context refers to disease and death of cattle; mad cow? Boils could be an indication of an incurable disease, perhaps a pox during ancient times and AIDS today. Hail with fire can be an indication of an environmental disasters, caused by global warming. An attack by swarms of locusts still cause a complete loss of crops, and even leaves from trees are eaten by these insects, yet it is easy to see as symbol for famine, all too common with our overpopulated world. Darkness today would mean terribly polluted skies that plague much of the heavily populated areas of Asia, not to mention the Los Angeles smog. It could also be a warning about a nuclear winter or a large meteorite hitting the Earth. The final terrifying plague could, at least in my mind, be a promise of a new fatal disease that could overwhelm the world. In ancient times the firstborn child had special privileges and was considered more important than other children, thus the wording. In today’s world all children are equally important and such a horrifying disease would not choose its victims as selectively as the Haggadah story tells.

But of course the main idea behind the Passover story is freedom from slavery, which for each of us can have a different meaning. We can be suffering in a hostile workplace, a bad relationship, poverty or sickness. The story teaches us not to give up hope, even when odds seem against us. We have to watch out for the Pharaoh or Laban the Aramean, supposedly even more evil. They may well be hiding among us, pretending to be one of the Hebrews.

Today is Good Friday, a dark day for Christians (Finns call it Long Friday). Like the Jews found freedom, Christians did also, although in a slightly different manner, just two days later, on Easter. But this quest to be free from slavery is not the property of those religions, it is universal and applies to all people. Let us hope we don’t have to go through our ten plagues before we and our leaders see the truth. We have suffered enough.