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