Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Musician's Life

A true to to life cartoon by Kari Suomalainen ©
From Yrjö Suomalainen's Musical Essays, Otava 1978
(see May 4 2007 post)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Our life spans have increased to nearly double in the last hundred years. Today's average American can expect to reach 78 years, a remarkable number when we realize that the U.S. is only number 45 on the list. Countries with universal access to health care do much better: a woman in tiny Andorra is expected to reach 87 and in Japan, a large country with high stomach cancer rate, just a year less.

With aging we face new problems, least of which is not what to do with people suffering from all forms of dementia. In my youth, when someone started displaying signs of forgetfulness, they usually died within a couple years, although I do remember an aunt of my father's who lived like that for almost two decades. In her case, perhaps her brain chose not to remember as she lost her two children in their youth or early adulthood, followed by the death of her husband, probably from a broken heart.

In today's society it is difficult to care for an aging parent, aunt or uncle at home. Sooner or later we all have to turn to the help of an assisted living program, or a nursing home. At that point many of us feel that the elderly person is now taken care of and that physically being with them in form of visits are not necessary, at least not frequently. Being old often equals being lonely. For a little while my mother was in a large old-fashioned hospital room with three other elderly ladies. At that time the hospital had visiting hours and I remember how sad many of those patients looked when nobody came, except rarely. They were carefully listening to every discussion I had with my mom, often even commenting on something said. Yet all of them had families, some living too far for frequents visits, but others just too busy with their own lives to be bothered. If I brought my then-little children along, everyone in the room became excited. It is as if the elderly need the company of children, and I firmly believe it is also good the other way around.

A few weeks back my wife and I went to play at a retirement home, at a request by the daughter of a lady whose life has always been surrounded in music. Although her memory is quite problematic, it was a delight to see the smile on her face as the music we performed took her back to the past, to happy memories. Just because present-day matters are quickly forgotten, there is a lifetime of events stored in one's mind. Until a couple years ago, my father would regularly attend concerts as long as someone could take care of his transportation. Just because his mind preferred living in another era didn't affect his taste in music. Of all his senses his hearing is remarkable even today, and an out-of-tune note or an ugly vibrato still bothers him as much as decades ago. That morning of our visit, there were others in the audience that we recognized as regular concertgoers from years past; they no longer can attend because of physical limitations. Such a simple effort from our part, donating a little time and talent, made a lot of people happy, us included.

I have new insight to what people go through when their memory starts playing tricks. About a month ago I suffered a concussion, as a result of an accident in the house I don't really remember happening. Initially I thought it just another bump on the forehead, but then all these students started walking in when I least expected them. At other times I would be emailing them asking why they had forgotten to come, getting replies that we had just rescheduled their lesson times. In other words, as a result of my brain swelling, my own short term memory was just like that of a person suffering from dementia. My daughter was a bit upset that I forgot to pick her up from school on a day when she was in a hurry to get to her guitar lesson, but when I explained she immediately understood. Unlike the elderly I know that every day is a better one; the scan showed no bleeding. The head still feels like it's about to explode and it is hard to remember what day it is when waking up, but at least I know to check my online calendar the first thing in the morning. An accident can turn into a blessing: I can sympathize with people suffering from memory loss like never before and the understanding feels like a gift.

And important things do seem to stick in the memory, like the visit to play a short concert for the wonderful seniors. On behalf of them and all the others living mainly in the past: please don't forget us. Our world may not be exactly like yours, but it is a world and a life nevertheless. One day, probably sooner that you realize, you will be one of us. The Golden Rule in all religions says, in different variations: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

picture: Shaolin Studios Publishing

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Although some of the scenes are disturbingly bloody, Kubrick’s “The Shining” is an incredibly well done horror film, considered by many the best ever. Even twenty-seven years later watching the movie sends chills up one’s spine. Hearing Heeeere is JOHNNY! and seeing the word ‘REDRUM’ still manage to evoke fear and anxiety in most of us. At the end, Jack Nicholson’s terrifying image blends in with the beauty of the frozen maze. ‘Frozen’ is a good example of the fact that things seldom are as they seem. In this case the studio decided to use crushed Styrofoam and salt, but all of us viewers sensed it as icy cold.

We in this country seem to like shiny things, even though we should know that not everything that glitters is gold. In movies where one is whisked back many decades, every old automobile looks like it has just been painstakingly carefully polished. Even after a chase scene the gangster’s car is so shiny one could use it as a mirror to comb his hair. I guess dirt and dust didn’t exist in the 1930s. American women love their big and bold golden ornaments, something most Europeans might see as tasteless and outright ugly. I myself have trouble finding gifts for any of my female family members in mainstream jewelry stores, whereas I would have plenty to choose from in any such shop abroad. Of course tastes and styles differ, and I can always do my shopping while traveling on the other side of the ocean.

I can’t think of a concert hall where they have a beautiful grand piano of any other finish than shiny black. Yet underneath that impressive paint job one might find material of vastly inferior quality, compared to a piano displaying beautifully selected wood, a true piece of art. I have often heard people admiring the magnificently beautiful ‘black wood’ of a Steinway concert grand! —One ‘shining’ I have trouble understanding is the common practice of making old string instruments, particularly violins, look like they have just been manufactured by a Chinese furniture factory, and polished to the max. Such glittering simply didn’t exist in the 17th and 18th centuries, and would have been impossible to achieve with oil-based varnishes. When we visit a museum that has furniture and other articles from two and three centuries ago, those items appear old and worn looking. It would be odd indeed to see an old chair resembling something in a modern showroom, or an El Greco painting glowing in modern, almost fluorescent colors.

One of the oddest chapters of old shiny violins continues to be the New Jersey Symphony’s decision to purchase a convicted tax evader’s instrument collection for 17 million dollars, but supposedly at a fraction of its real value. Now this orchestra is in financial trouble and wants to have the instruments sold. The problem is that many of them have forged or questionable papers, coming from the same source in New York. Also, these string instruments have received enough negative publicity in the press for them to be an easy sell. There is a web site by Fritz Reuter & Sons, originating in Chicago, in which a number of dealers of violins and their questionable selling practices are exposed. Few of us realize that there are a number of convicted felons doing big business with old instruments. And what is the background of these experts who are asking millions for some of their treasures? There is a lot of information on the site and it will take time to skim through it all, but it is quite eye-opening. You’ll learn that many of my colleagues, violin teachers, are in a business relationship with the dealers, and naturally push for expensive instruments to their pupils as it will mean more money in their bank accounts. How many students are brave enough to ask their respected mentor if and how much he or she is profiting from the sale of a violin that will put them or their parents in debt for a long time?

In principle, I couldn’t accept money resulting from recommending a certain instrument. There are plenty of excellent, relatively inexpensive instruments for even the best students. They sound just as good, and are often in healthier condition than others costing ten or twenty times as much. During this past year we helped more than ten students acquire new violins. All the buyers have been pleased and not a dime has ended up in our pockets as a result of these transactions. We did recieve a few bottles of wine but I don’t think that really counts as a commission. Are we stupid and without the famous American business sense? Perhaps, but we sleep well at night and hopefully so do our students and their parents.

Gold has fascinated people since the birth of civilization. For almost that long there have been alchemists trying to turn ordinary matter into that shiny metal, unsuccessfully of course. It is Mother’s Day and a good time to remember that like gold, a precious metal, there are precious people. In fact, the same word, kulta, is used for both gold and Darling, or Sweetheart, in my native Finnish. A majority of these golden people probably fall in the category of mothers. Then there are others, pretending to belong in the same class, but their glitter is like that of fool’s gold. Human nature is what it is. As the late wonderful Mr. Rogers once quoted someone is his beloved show: “Some people are fancy on the outside, some are fancy in the inside.”

ilkka talvi

Friday, May 04, 2007

Brecht and Lebrecht

A summer before I was born my parents bought land for their summer home from a rather famous Marlebäck manor in Iitti, Finland. Today the place is an ordinary farm, but at the time it still had a large and beautiful manor house, and over 100 cows. The previous owner had been an Estonian-born communist party sympathizer and well-known writer Hella Wuolijoki. She had a lot of notable visitors during the country's long summer days, with outdoor parties lasting through the night. One of the guests who stayed a long time was the famed German author Bertolt Brecht (think the Threepenny Opera). As an anti-fascist, he had left Nazi Germany in 1933 for Denmark and after the invasion of that country moved on to Sweden and Finland before immigrating to the United States. Although he had never himself been a member of the communist party, our House Anti-American Activities Committee regarded him as a sympathizer and soon Brecht was back in Europe, living in East Germany but not fitting well into that system either. It was at Marlebäck where during 1940 he wrote his books and even co-authored one with Ms. Wuolijoki, based on the local village characters.

After the war communism was allowed and even encouraged as a result with the peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Ms. Wuolijoki had hidden a Russian spy on the farm and had been sentenced to life in prison. This situation changed overnight and she became the head of the Finnish Radio Corporation. The manor was sold to a well-to-do evacuee from Soviet-occupied Karelia who was famous for raising race horses. There was a large sauna by the lake, and it was said that on Saturdays the men went first to get clean in the hot steam, then the horses (they sweat), and after that women and children. It was from that owner that my parents bought their land. A few years later the manor was sold again, and this time the owner, being short of cash, decided to burn the beautiful mansion down to get his insurance money. People rushing to help in the wee hours were surprised to see all valuable books, paintings and other items neatly packed; all they had to do was to lift them away to safety. An investigation followed, but since there were no eye witnesses other than a young woman walking home from a Saturday night dance (she had seen the light on in the kitchen before the fire), the owner ended up receiving his money. My father was called as a character witness and he would never suspect anyone, let alone a man who had served with him on the war front. With subsequent owners the place went downhill, an ugly farmhouse was erected where the mighty mansion had once stood and the last farmer I knew supposedly went crazy, claiming that the European Union was after him. First he barricaded the road so that people couldn't get to their summer homes and a new road through the forest had to be built; later he used his hunting rifle to end his life.

I usually stay away from books that are about music. With this art form, reading is not sufficient; one has to experience music, either by listening to it or playing. At least a book with good reproductions of great paintings is almost like visiting an art museum. Most biographies of composers or musicians from the past are either products of fantasy or make the main character seem much larger than life. Even the most common form of writing on this topic, music reviews, proves how incompetent people are at it. But there have been exceptions. My father's longtime violin teacher Yrjö Suomalainen, whose son Kari was Finland's most famous political cartoonists and as such quite influential a person, wrote reviews that were masterpieces. He also was often on the radio reading his music-related essays. As a young child I was fascinated by them and never missed one. Mr. Suomalainen also wrote a book about the violin and violinists in which every sentence on this seemingly dry and boring subject was vibrant and alive. I must have read it over a thousand times and probably knew it by heart.

Just recently I read a book by Norman Lebrecht titled "The Life and Death of Classical Music" and found the writing so engaging I couldn't put it down. It's original British title is "Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness" but that probably was considered too sophisticated for American audiences, although it better describes what the book is about. Mr. Lebrecht has more knowledge than any music encyclopedia and he certainly knows how to write. The book is, as the original title says it, a history of the classical music recording industry, its zenith and present low point, or as some see it, death. The author must have heard a lot of first-hand accounts of what really happened behind the scenes, and on a number of occasions he was there in person. After the history part Mr. Lebrecht lists 100 classical recordings that he considers milestones in history and then 20 recordings that never should have been made. Naturally, I read the last section first, then the history and finally the writer's favorites. I'm not going to ruin a prospective reader's fun and tell about the details. What I will say is that most of us will be shocked by some of the entries on the "worst" list, and also that many of the one hundred also happen to be on my list of favorites.

The writing is better and more entertaining in my opinion than in Mr. Lebrecht's other popular book "The Maestro Myth" in which he seems to have a point to prove (and with which I wholeheartedly agree for the most part). Yesterday my wife picked up the author's fictional work "The Song of Names" from the library and claims it is fabulous. I have learned to take her opinion very seriously after almost 30 years, thus I'll probably find the time to read it myself.

All things in life are interconnected, even Brecht and Lebrecht via horses enjoying a sauna and burnt mansions.