Monday, December 29, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

More than any other city in Europe Berlin has been a center for sciences and culture, along with Nazism and the Cold War. At one point it was the home to Albert Einstein and Shinichi Suzuki who happened to form a friendship. It also has the famed Berliner Philharmoniker, perhaps the best orchestra in the world today. The Great Depression affected Germany particularly severely and the orchestra was about to go bankrupt. Wilhelm Furtwängler, following in the footsteps of Hans von Bülow and Arthur Nikisch as the conductor for the orchestra, approached the just-elected Nazi regime and Joseph Göbbels in particular. A deal of Faust and Mephisto was signed and the orchestra became a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. Jewish musicians had to leave, including Szymon Goldberg, the Konzertmeister. Although the old name was kept, the organization was also known as Das Reichsorchester, or was even called Das SS Orchester by some, named after Schutzstaffel, the most terrifying force of the Nazi power structure.

Musicians with only one Jewish parent were allowed to stay, at least for the time being, and Göbbels did not insist on anyone becoming a party member, although about 20 of them did so, some showing up in rehearsals in Nazi uniforms. In contrast, the party membership in the Vienna Philharmonic was much higher, almost a half. We musn't forget that Hitler was Austrian and the country of his birth was proud of him, whereas there were people in Germany, even within the party, who thought of the Führer as an outsider. The orchestra kept on performing throughout the war, even after the bombings had destroyed their concert hall in 1944. Facing the loss of the war and seeing an inevitable change coming, the orchestra finally performed forbidden music by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn in a concert in April 1945, just a month before the regime collapsed and the country surrendered.

Nobody at this point talked about the Reichsorchester anymore and the Soviet Red Army which "liberated" and raped Berlin, couldn't have cared less about the SS Orchestra either. They must have given the rights to the name to the Western Allies and it ended up as wartime loot. The Americans in particular were eager to snatch up whatever they could. That is why in this country we commonly call acetylsalicylic acid, or ASA, aspirin although in Europe Aspirin is a trademark of Bayer and only their product can carry that title.

Furtwängler somehow was forgiven for his actions by the Allies and he continued conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker until his death in 1954. Nazism must have still been alive in some circles as Herbert von Karajan was named as his successor. Karajan had been a favorite of Göbbels and had twice applied for membership in the National Socialist Party. During the war he had conducted the orchestra of the state opera. Karajan managed to raise the artistic level of the Philharmonic to new heights, but people did not easily forget his past which tarnished the orchestra's reputation somewhat, especially outside of Germany. He was also strictly against having female musicians in the group, although he was willing to help the likes of Anne-Sofie Mutter reach stardom. She had to act like a good old-fashioned German would, by never showing any emotion physically, not even the tiniest of smile. There are videos of her playing with von Karajan and the lack of expression on her face is almost eerie, as if one is watching a mannequin.

Well, even von Karajan didn't live forever and with his era coming to an end, the "glass jar" was broken, starting with Claudio Abbado in 1989. The greatest changes have taken place under the orchestra's present conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. There are numerous women among the musicians, and although most of the players have been trained in Germany (and thus play incredibly similarly and well together), they come from several countries, even Israel. The number of Asians is small and, unless I'm wrong, they are all Japanese, including one of their three 1. Konzertmeisters. There are no Russians (one was born there but trained elsewhere) although some have come from former Iron Curtain countries. The two principal trumpets are from Hungary and one of the first principal bassists is from my native Finland, as is another one whose title reads just principal. I don't think either of them plays on a plywood bass! Every prominent position is shared which leads to much less burn-out than in a usual orchestra situation and gives the excellent musicians opportunities to play chamber music and teach.

Inspired by the success of the Metropolitan Opera's broadcasts to movie theaters worldwide, the Berlin Philharmonic recently decided to start broadcasting their concerts live via the Internet, for a fee of course. First such concert will take place in about a week. I decided to give my wife and myself a delayed holiday present and for about $130 get to listen and watch in High Definition the rest of the season, plus all the archived concerts from this fall. So far, we only had time for the First Symphony of Brahms and No. 92, the "Oxford", by Haydn. The latter was played with a small chamber orchestra, usually a disaster when such attempts are made with players from large symphony orchestras. Not this one: the first and second violins played immaculately together in spite of being seated on opposite sides of the stage. Of course one must remember that the Berlin Philharmonic Hall has its stage close to the middle of the audience, and the lack of corners amplifying percussion and the brass instruments, such as the horns, take away the dangerous echo-chamber effect. These musicians play as if they are enjoying chamber music. Sir Rattle didn't have to micro-manage his players, in fact much of the time he was just smiling and making motions that didn't resemble a metronome's beat but rather were intended as an inspiration to the musicians. The Brahms was just as exquisite: it is hard to imagine any other orchestra feeling and performing the piece just right. For that the cello and viola sections traded places. The double basses were behind the second violins, the principals in the middle of the section. The cameras are all remote controlled and completely unobtrusive, even difficult to see.

Just listening to and watching the principal flautist of the evening Emmanuel Pahud would have been worth the entire year's subscription fee. What an incredible musician he is! In the Haydn the fastest runs were like child's play. Most of the time Mr. Pahud played with little or no vibrato, with the cleanest sound and intonation, just the way I picture a great flute player doing. Yet in the Brahms in an exposed melody the sweetest vibrato appeared, almost bringing tears to my eyes, and I thought I didn't even like orchestra music! It was interesting to see rotary-valve trumpets being used. Mr. Yasunaga's violin solo was pristine and the audience gave him a well-deserved applause. What a pleasure to look at violinists who all use the same part of the bow and who don't make any unnecessary motions, their leader least of them all. None of the ladies acted like exhibitionists or "eye candy". With many audience members seeing his face, Mr. Rattle couldn't give dirty looks but neither was there any need for them. At the conclusion of the Brahms, the orchestra just stood up, without feeling the need to face the audience with a forced grin. These were all music loving people, not local Madoff-type donors expecting to be bowed down to. What a different experience this was! I can hardly wait to see the orchestra again on my 24-inch hi-def monitor and good sound system. We have the best seats in the house, even when concerts are sold out as they often are, and get to listen to great soloists who don't want to bother with our Homeland Security's ridiculous visa rules and thus often remain unknown to us.

Like our President John F. Kennedy did 45 years ago, I want to stand up and proclaim: "Ich bin ein Berliner".

Das Reichsorchester at Hitler's birthday 1942
Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin ©
Stuart Ramson/AP

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Rest Is History

Life is cyclical indeed. Hardly anything happens that hasn't taken place in some form before. We know that the sun spot activity is eleven years, during which time radiation from the center of our solar system reaches it's maximum and minimum. At the time when listening to short wave radio was the only means of keeping information flowing long distance, every ham and DX radio user knew to switch to a different frequency band, depending on the spot activity. The Chinese horoscope is also based on this same eleven years. Other cycles happen more or less frequently, as is the case with climate. Yes, Greenland was tropical at some point and during the Small Ice Age half a millennium ago the Adriatic Sea outside of Venice, Italy, froze every winter and people enjoyed sleigh rides on it. I'm sure people are responsible, at least in part, for the present global warming, mainly because there are far too many of us burning fossil fuels to keep warm, light our cities and towns and for the "need" of often senseless transportation. Still, the atmosphere has had enormous amounts of carbon dioxide in it before, mainly as a result of gigantic uncontrolled forest fires or huge volcanic eruptions. Today, sea levels are rising but there was a time when one could walk from India to Sri Lanka or when Australia was connected to Southeast Asia. The Atlantic broke through the landmass where today's Strait of Gibraltar is and the resulting higher levels of the Mediterranean eventually pushed water into the Black Sea, possibly resulting in the numerous stories of the Great Flood.

We need to know and understand history in order to learn from the distant and not-so-distant past. Humans make a lot of mistakes but we are supposed to learn from them. CNN has been showing a powerful documentary narrated by the amazing Christiane Amanpour, "Screaming Bloody Murder". The Holocaust was never supposed to happen again, yet the world has since then quietly watched other acts of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans and now in Sudan's western Darfur region. Our financial chaos seems awfully familiar when looking through the history books. Of course, never before have banks and other companies been quite so global, thus the suffering today has spread much faster than would have been possible a century ago. But the threats are the same with recession, depression, hyperinflation, you name it. There are no real winners in any war but people still manage to fight them daily on every continent other than Antarctica. Perhaps if everyone were well versed in historical facts, fewer tragic and avoidable mistakes would be made.

Even the arts world has its own cycles. My father didn't become a professional musician because at the time one couldn't really make a living playing an instrument. The few full-time musicians played in restaurants, cinemas and even on the street. Most often they were people who hadn't succeeded in anything else and lived miserable lives. Of course music was loved by people and the day's pop artists were classical stars, such as Caruso. After WW II it all of a sudden became possible to earn a livelihood in music, either teaching in a conservatory or playing in an orchestra, or a combination of both. More top musicians even succeeded as soloists. This change must have influenced my father's thinking as it certainly did my mother-in-law's. My wife and I were destined to play the violin, we were told. They both lived through our careers.

In the last ten to twenty years the musical bubble grew and now it has to burst as all bubbles eventually do. Twenty years ago it was still relatively easy to land a position in a decent orchestra. I have been in many auditions where people got jobs with relatively poor playing skills. Today the scene is different as the prestigious music schools produce far too many excellent instrumentalists. The salaries in the top orchestras and even in some regional ones are too high to maintain. In contrast, many music schools, even respectable ones such as Manhattan, pay ridiculously little to their faculty although they charge an arm and a leg from the students. So, for purely financial reasons musicians trained to be soloists end up in the few top orchestras, just to become miserable having to play every phrase differently from what their souls tell them. Today we learn almost daily about art organizations having to downsize, shorten their seasons or disappear entirely. It doesn't make the headlines because the news is so grim all over, but the fact that it is hidden makes the general audience unaware of the crisis and less likely to rush to the aid. The now popular $1 CEO salary for music directors would help; instead of stock options they could get the rest of their compensation in free tickets.

I make sure that every serious student of mine gets exposed to violin playing of the past. My teacher in Finland had an enormous collection of old 78s which he let me take home and transfer to tape. In the process I even learned early on how to filter out some of the scratchiness and other surface noise. Today much of the previously unavailable material has been reissued in digital format and it is easy to hear how music was played and interpreted a hundred, eighty or just fifty years ago. Most students are surprised or even shocked to hear how vibrato is almost absent in the very early recordings, circa 1900. But Bach played in that manner sounds almost modern, especially when compared to the style a few decades later.

The big change, of course, came with the beloved Austrian, Fritz Kreisler. He basically invented playing with constant vibrato and developed a sound and style that hasn't been matched since. His life provides an example for today's young violinists. Although he was a prodigy, Kreisler almost didn't become a musician. After failing to get into the Vienna Opera Orchestra's second violin section (those days their musicians must have been quite awful and couldn't stand the idea of someone truly remarkable joining their ranks), he studied medicine and law and even fought as an officer in the Great War, also known as the First World War. Someone must have been very persistent in managing to change Kreisler's mind. Had that not happened, we would have missed one of the musical giants of our time. It is interesting to hear the many recordings he made over the decades, playing the same little gems completely differently each time. One can easily hear that the later fingerings don't match earlier ones; neither do the phrasings or tempi. Nothing bears much resemblance to what is on the printed page: those markings were there to fool the average fiddler to think that he now knew the secret to Kreisler's sound and style. Let's hope that the cycle in great violin playing isn't too long and that we'll one day hear another Fritz.

Those Austrians are an interesting people. For every great artist the country has also had a real monster, from Hitler to the sick father who imprisoned his daughter in his cellar for decades, fathering her children. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the country still celebrates an ancient evil god Krampus at Christmastime. I can easily imagine one wielding a stick.

"Krampus " © Reuters / Der Spiegel
Fritz Kreisler album cover by Ilkka Talvi

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Can the Empire Strike Back?

We live in extraordinary times. Just a few months back few could imagine that the Capitalist Heaven majority of us were so proud of would no longer be. The sky-high oil prices in the summer were a bad omen. Prices of everything went up as a result and the U.S. dollar, to which crude oil prices are pegged, kept on losing its value on a daily basis. Then Wall Street collapsed with almost no advance warning and people saw the value of their investments plummet. Millions have lost their homes and/or jobs, and with the latter, health insurances. Illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are packing their bags and heading home. The land of gold has become the country of fool's gold. The bailout money meant to help ordinary people has vanished and nobody seems to have benefited from it, other than big banks and other financial institutions. Sure, the fuel prices are down to a third from less than six month ago and the greenback has increased its value, compared to the euro and sterling. But this also means that people don't feel the same urge to buy their new hybrid or any other fuel-efficient car. There used to be a waiting list for the Prius; now they are filling the free space around harbors such as Long Beach which have been turned into parking lots for unsold vehicles. Not that many could find financing at present for such major purchases.

It is at times like today when people realize what a nonexistent safety net Americans have. We fear the word "socialism" above all, yet we are envious of the way people are taken care of in most other Western democracies. Yes, those countries are also suffering in the global crisis, but cutting back in what amounts to basic human rights to them, such as free or almost free education and healthcare, is not an option. It is often argued that we cannot afford to pay for universal health insurance. That is probably true, although the money spent on unnecessary and insane wars on the other side of the globe or in these bailouts would easily cover that. The United States spends more per capita on health care than any other country, yet we have precious little to show for it. How do they manage in places like Scandinavia? Simple: there is no health insurance. A medical expense occurs only when a person gets sick and the government pays for the hospitals and health centers directly. A healthy individual is not an expense, except when he occasionally visits the clinic for preventive care. When you eliminate the greedy insurance companies, which are there to fatten the pockets of their stockholders, but not to serve, you save a lot of money. A hospital there is not expected to make a profit. Even the private doctors outside of the public system are reasonable as it is almost impossible to file successful malpractice lawsuits or the rare awards are minimal. Granted, no system is ideal, but even if one has to wait for elective surgery at times, everyone is taken care of. Sick people don't die on stretchers as is increasingly common in American emergency rooms. Infant mortality rate in my native Finland is half of our country.

Young people back home complain that they are not paid enough for studying in a university or other institution of higher education. What a strange concept: instead of bankrupting one's parents or having to pay back student loans for decades, people are actually paid to go to school. Same is true when raising a family. Mothers get a monthly tax-free payment per each child which goes up with more children. Unemployment, never a pleasant situation, is tolerable as benefits are decent and don't expire in a few months like here. The system is actively looking for a new job for you. People can actually retire and they don't have to worry about their final years. Of course, the downside of this cradle-to-grave system is that people don't feel the urge to save. In essence they already do that by paying high taxes.

Americans often like to think of their country being built on Christian principles and values. Many would like to bring mandatory prayer back to our schools and make teaching evolution optional, even illegal, along with other sciences. Everyone can see that the Earth is flat and the sun and the starts circulate it, right? Many want to accept every word of the Bible as literal truth, no questions asked. In this context it baffles me how the teachings of Jesus have been modified to serve capitalism. Wasn't Christ really very much of a socialist, or a religious communist, who believed in taking care of the less fortunate, the poor and sick, the outcasts? Europeans may have forgotten to attend church services but at least they believe in the principles the New Testament teaches.

The majority of Americans clearly want to see a change taking place here as otherwise they wouldn't have voted for Mr. Obama last month. I don't envy him: the empire he's inheriting is in terrible shape. He'll either fail to get us back on our feet or he'll succeed; in either case I'm sure he will have tried his best. Unlike most other politicians, he doesn't seem to have skeletons in his closet. The forces opposing him must have turned over every stone looking for dirt. Accusations of being a Muslim (would that be a crime?), having a middle name Hussein or "flirting with terrorists" didn't have the effect on voters the slimy opposition campaign had hoped for. For the first time in decades we'll have an honest person in the Oval Office with our country's best interests in mind. But an easy job he won't have. At least he seems to have surrounded himself with smart individuals. Some fear that his choices for cabinet posts include people with too big egos; perhaps he'll be able to control most of them if not all. In any case, USA is no longer a swear word across the globe. With Mr. Obama the world sees hope for peace again.

Who knows, like the phoenix bird from its red egg, this empire may rise again. One thing is for sure: life here isn't going to be the same as it was before. In order to survive we must be prepared for major changes.

Firebird photo Ilkka Talvi

Friday, November 14, 2008

Holy Mo

It is no coincidence that many musical audition processes choose to hear a bit of Mozart and another bit of Bach. I could claim that after hearing a few minutes of each I pretty well know how a person plays, or at least how musical the individual is. Naturally, there are other composers whose compositions are better suited to show off fireworks but the musical, or artistic, content of a Bazzini virtuoso piece is relatively empty fluff. There are works where 80% rate in correct notes and intonation is sufficient but with these two giants it is all or nothing.

Johann Sebastian's genius seldom opens up to a young person. I have heard numerous absolutely awful interpretations of sonata and partita movements for solo violin, performed by otherwise capable wunderkinder. Even my first teacher Arno Granroth, a pupil of Thibaud, got almost nothing out of Bach. Luckily I had an opportunity to study those works with others, especially Ricardo Odnoposoff, who had an incredible understanding of the architecture of the composer's works. All of a sudden I clearly saw where the sometimes little motives started and ended, and learned to look for polyphony written for a single four-stringed instrument, as if it were an organ. I still discover new things, or possible options, wherever I play or teach these works. Even the great Jascha Heifetz seems to be often at a loss as how to interpret Bach and speeds the movements up, perhaps to cover up this uncomfortable feeling.

Wolfgang Amadeus doesn't necessarily call for an overly analytical interpretation, of course depending on the work. Sometimes one hears an incredible performance of a concerto by a mere child or youngster. Such an innocent soul hears the music as it was intended to play. At the other extreme is an orchestra conductor whose parts are so full of most artificial markings it is difficult to see the notes. Mozart was not a complicated person. You either get his music or you don't. Just the other day a new student played the first movement of a concerto of his, for the first time but with astonishingly natural phrasing. I really like this song! she declared. Mozart was blessed with very rare musical genius and at his best he could compose masterpieces without thinking. He was also a cursed individual with almost uncivilized tendencies, although having grown up entertaining aristocrats and royalty, one would assume he should have known what proper behavior and etiquette called for. Many have labeled him as a victim of Tourette's and numerous other diagnoses have been made centuries later, to explain the paradox between his heavenly compositional skills and outright rude style of writing in his letters.

Mozart wrote his great Sonata in D for two pianos for a supposedly brilliant Josepha von Auernhammer. The composer was not exactly eye-candy himself but yet he used these words to describe his patron: If a painter wished to portray the devil to the life, he would have to choose her face! She is as fat as a farm wench, she sweats so that you want to vomit, and goes about so scantily clad that you can read as plain as print, 'Pray do look here.' True, there is enough to see; in fact enough to strike one blind – but one is punished for the rest of the day if one is unlucky to let one's eyes wander in that direction. Tartar is the only remedy, she is so horrible, so loathsome and so dirty! Augh, she is a very fright!

It is hard to imagine that someone capable of writing such heavenly music could at the same time be so crude. Perhaps aspects of this tendency sometimes transfer to compositions as well, such as in the dark moments of Don Giovanni or the less-than-delicate "Turkish" part in the Finale of the A major violin concerto. Like so many other musical greats, such as Mendelssohn and Schubert, Mozart met with an untimely death and thus it is even harder for us to understand what made him 'tick.'

There is one piece of music, mostly by Mozart's hand, that I either love or deeply dislike. I am of course talking about the Requiem which was finished by someone else. It is as if there are two versions of the Mass for the Dead: one for Christ, the other Antichrist. Most performances during my life have been of the latter variety, bombastic, with no understanding of the sacred content behind it; a blasphemy if you want to call it that. Then there are those magic moments when the Requiem is done in the proper form, as a part of a Mass, by people who know the work inside out. Every minute detail's meaning is clear and the performance is so full of spiritualism that even an agnostic or an atheist finds himself floating half way between Earth and Heaven. I have experienced this on different continents over the years but of course the strongest association is the most recent one right here at St. James Cathedral just two weeks ago, for their All Souls Requiem. This was my third year being part of it and every year the experience and musical level seems to ascend to new heights. It is simply astonishing that a local congregation with its own choral and soloists can create something so splendid. Word gets around: no wonder the mighty cathedral had standing room only for the last half hour before the start.

There are a few times when I have to think like a Catholic. My grandfather's favorite books, and thus mine, were about a post-war Italian priest Don Camillo and the little town's communist mayor Peppone, as told by Giuseppe Guareschi. The stories can only be fully appreciated when the reader becomes a simple witness of unfolding events in the valley of River Po. Living utterly alone as a teenager in Vienna and in Paris, visiting their magnificent cathedrals brought me inner peace. I don't think I've ever been to New York without a trip to St. Patrick's, although at times it resembles a sight-seeing destination for tourists. But being and working with the nice and genuinely loving people at St. James is probably the most meaningful of all at this time of my life. Father Ryan's wise words and the musical accomplishments of Jim Savage and his troops keep any Antichrist far away, at least well over on the other side of the freeway.

Mozart 1790 by Johann Georg Edlinger
All Souls 2008 © St. James Cathedral

Friday, October 31, 2008


Today's hails us from the United Kingdom with an article, an Editor's pick (George Bush Culture vulture?) about Bush's cultural legacy. Twelve prominent Americans give their verdict on our lame duck President's impact on the artistic life of our country. It makes a sad read: the only positive point made is the rise of political satire as an art form. True: Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have all had a heyday at the expense of Dubya and his Dick. The Guardian story pretty well tells what the rest of the world thinks of us. Yes, there are many Americans who feel that only we and our opinions matter, but in an increasingly global society nothing could be farther from the truth. Before his death, Albania's dictator Enver Hoxha also told his people that the rest of the world was evil and filled the isolated small country with enough nuclear-attack-proof bunkers for everyone. Today's North Korea is similar. The only radios available are permanently tuned to a government station frequency. Officially South Korea is a poor and backward country. It isn't until recently that smuggled receivers from China have enabled people to tune in to South Korean stations. Also, as the southern neighbors dumped their VCRs for new DVD players, the old machines have found their way to the north, along with music videos and such which show the "chosen" people a very different picture of the outside world.

Yesterday's web news reminded us about a near-death experience of Ronald Reagan in 1976. He was campaigning, unsuccessfully, for his party's presidential nomination when a peanut got stuck in his airway while on board of his plane. Only a quick reaction by his aide saved his life with the Heimlich maneuver. History might have unfolded very differently without Reaganomics. One could argue that there wouldn't have been the present economic crisis as the craze for deregulation wouldn't have taken place. Who knows, perhaps this country would still be considered great in the eyes of "the others". Never underestimate the power of the little peanut: the same year a peanut farmer Jimmy Carter won the presidential election. Although later unpopular as president, mainly for reasons beyond his control, Carter went on to become a great humanitarian and statesman, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He is rightfully considered one of our most successful ex-presidents. A similar story comes from my native Finland where Matti Ahtisaari received this year's Nobel Peace Prize for decades of successful diplomacy for the United Nations, being responsible for the independence of Namibia and negotiating peace treaties in Indonesia and Kosovo, among other places. Yet, as a Finnish President, Mr. Ahtisaari was not particularly well liked.

Many people still think of the Reagan years with nostalgia. However, have we forgotten that already by the time the former actor took office, Alzheimer's must have already started to manifest its terrifying symptoms? It is said that during much of his second term his wife, the First Lady Nancy Reagan was running the show. True to her California lifestyle, astrologers and other fortune tellers were employed in the decision making progress. Having a real senior citizen in charge of a country is a gamble: on one hand the person may have more wisdom than someone younger but on the other, physical and mental health issues are going to pop up. John F Kennedy was only in his forties in 1960 but was wise beyond his years. He also had the ability to look into the future and care about it, something that is not often in the mind of a person with one foot already in the grave.

A public figure's legacy often depends on when he or she has the foresight to step down. Nobody forces a sitting President to run for a second term. A positive legacy can quickly turn to a very negative one. Same is true in every area of life. Perhaps Bill Gates will be remembered as a great philanthropist rather than the co-founder of Microsoft. His foundation has already done remarkable humanitarian work all over the globe. Such deeds will not be forgotten but the software company might well be history in years to come. A director of an arts organization could be remembered with fondness for his/her accomplishment, or with bitterness and hatred. At least with presidency we have term limits. How welcomed they would be in other positions of leadership!

We have an interesting election ahead of us. If Mr. Obama were white, the outcome would be clear and even the Supreme Court could do nothing about it. But the Klan is still alive, even if less well than in the past, and racism will no doubt play a part. Interestingly Mr. Obama is not embraced by all African-Americans, the reason being that he doesn't decent from slaves, and thus mainly West African tribes, but is half East African having his father's roots in Kenya. To the white supremacists none of this of course matters. It is amazing how many of us have a little Hitler, Stalin or Klansman in our souls. A miracle took place 48 years ago when we elected a Catholic as our President. Perhaps it is time for another miracle now, and who knows, one day we might even elect a Jewish person to the Oval Office.

It is time to choose between Gloom and Bloom. One might say Doom and Boom, but domestically the latter will take time, and presently can only be heard in explosions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dictators and Art

Josef Stalin, everyone's favorite Georgian, as a teenager studied in a seminary in order to become a priest. He was also busy writing romantic poetry, an image not usually associated with someone better known as a brutal dictator and a mass murderer. The following is from "Morning", published in Kvali, an intellectual magazine:

The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

The young Yoseb Dzughashvili was a rising star as a poet but then switched his focus to revolutionary Marxism. He still continued to write essays and prose, never letting a ghost writer touch his texts. A supporter of Maxim Gorki, Stalin was well educated in literature, in spite of a lack of formal university education. The fact that he wasn't of the same intellectual background made Leon Trotsky mistrust the Georgian. This feeling was obviously mutual as Trotsky quickly learned and later paid for it with his life in Mexico.

Adolf Hitler
, another bloody dictator, also wanted to be an artist, painting with water colors. His literary accomplishments didn't quite match Stalin's, but Uncle Adolf didn't need help with spelling when he wrote Mein Kampf during his time in prison. To Hitler's credit we must admit that his range of interest in the arts was quite extensive and included architecture and music. Every Richard Wagner lover must have a bit of Hitler in him or her as the composer's music was made the official sound of the Third Reich. Without that support Wagner's ever-so-long operas might have remained in the curiosity closet. Yes, the Nazi regime also had Richard Strauss, but his fame and position paled in comparison to the great Aryan hero. Hitler made sure that all of Josef Joachim's editions of Mozart and other composers also disappeared from the vast empire of the Reich. The father of serious violin playing was born and raised as a Christian but he had Jewish ancestry in his background. I have seen some quite amazing cadenzas replacing those of Joachim's for Mozart's violin concertos, published in Nazi Germany. The person put in charge of this editing was no other than Hans Joachim Moser, the son of Joachim's student and best friend Andreas Moser.

Vladimir Lenin didn't care for the arts. It is said that he visited a theater only a few times and even then because he had to. However, he was responsible for saving the Bolshoi Ballet. Not that Lenin loved ballet and the art form, but he understood what a tremendous propaganda asset he and the Communist Party had in the company. After his death, the same way of thinking continued in the Soviet Union, with an added twist. Whenever a high ranking party official was in the audience and fancied a particular ballerina, there was a little wink after the performance and the young lady with long legs knew what her duties were. When the German army was closing in on Moscow, the entire Bolshoi was put on a big river boat and off they sailed to safety on the Moskva and Volga rivers.

I haven't read enough about another henchman, Mao Zedong, to know of his connection to the arts. However, with the Communist revolution anything Western became a sin against the system. This of course reached its climax during the Cultural Revolution which was orchestrated in part by Mao's last wife Jian Qing. For example, a splendid Chinese pianist of international statute whom I heard in my childhood, related by marriage to Menuhin, committed suicide after his fingers were systematically broken by the Red Guards, with well-aimed hammer blows. A bizarre historical fact is that Beijing had a functioning symphony orchestra during this madness, obviously for the same reason the Soviet Union had its Bolshoi: propaganda. The musicians even wore tails, the only ones in China, when everyone else had to dress in their grey uniforms. Anything is acceptable in the name of a good show.

Not every budding artist can become a powerful political leader but many try to reach a position of dictatorship in their little world. As a rule of thumb, the less talented such a person is, the greater the urge to be in charge. Of course this is true as well in other fields than the arts. Incompetent people become our leaders while the capable and smart ones hide in the background. The propaganda machinery works hard to make these individuals look like something special, be it a politician or a musician. Usually truth is of no value and can't be seen from the jungle of lies. History will eventually tell us the true state of affairs, but by then it is too late. A little miserable newspaper reporter or critic in the media with a soul of a scorpion can pretend to run a town's public opinion, to the benefit of others like him, his soul brothers and sisters. With this help a truly inferior baton wielder or "soloist" can broadcast that he/she is in high demand and sought after worldwide. Cucamonga is not London or even Liverpool, but to these people it is the center of the world and they like to make the townspeople believe just that.

Yes, Stalin and Hitler have had many secret admirers who have wanted to emulate them, living among us. Destroying other people's lives is fun after all, isn't it? What separates the wannabe dictators from the real ones? It seems like the successful ones were much better orators and could actually write coherent sentences, without the help of others. One thing these little monsters have in common with the big ones: they all expect their protégés to be available to fulfill their fantasies, just like the Bolshoi ballerinas did. Perhaps the willing ones see this as the only way to be promoted, be it a dancer, writer, musician, or just an intern. Wink, wink.

"Ghost of Stalin writing" collage by Ilkka Talvi

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Honey, What Happened To Our Money?

Greed and gambling go hand in hand. Money in the form of profit-making has long been de facto god for Americans and denizens of most market economies. Of course this is nothing new: a century or so ago a German sociologist, Georg Simmel, warned about this and criticized banks for being more powerful than the church, already back then. A couple decades later we had a global collapse and the Great Depression. Lessons from that seem to have been forgotten as people don't like to learn from past mistakes, such as wars. Once we were back on our feet, we came up with the American Dream and expected the world to follow in this ideology. We have promoted our value system heavily around the globe and now that we have ended up with the American Nightmare, everyone is suffering.

Gambling is said to be very addictive. I don't take part in it so my knowledge comes only from observing others. The higher the stakes, the more thrilling it becomes, ultimately leading to a catastrophe. Karl Marx wrote: Capital is as terrified of the absence of profit or a very small profit as nature is of a vacuum. With suitable profits, capital is awakened; with 10 percent, it can be used anywhere; with 20 percent, it becomes lively; with 50 percent, positively daring; with 100 percent, it will crush all human laws under its feet; and with 300 percent, there is no crime it is not willing to dare, even at the risk of the gallows. This is true except that in this society of ours the greedy CEOs and others behind this mess are forgiven, even applauded for their efforts. Only in China would they perhaps be executed, as the Chinese tend to do that with people in power who fail.

This administration will no doubt be remembered for its failures as one of the worst ever. People can only blame themselves for naively believing in lies during the past elections and voting the way they did, or for not voting at all. From having a surplus, our balance sheet is now so much in the red that our grandchildren will still be paying for the debt, unless they all are in a poorhouse. The next president will have an almost impossible task of trying to normalize life in America, a job not to be envied. It is not very reassuring that one of the candidates is a lifelong gambler who is still known to frequent casinos for his favorite pastime. We've already had eight years of gambling which has bankrupted the nation. We are horrified by the thought of socialized health care, yet at the same time we are ready to socialize Wall Street and the financial sector for the benefit of the really-well-to-do. Something is thoroughly wrong with this picture. Much good did the almost-a-trillion-dollar bailout do: the market has taken a turn for the worse in the days after, and not just here but globally. Today we learned that after the insurance giant AIG secured their $85 billion bailout package, the company's executives went on a $443,000 retreat in California. Another uplifting news item: our country's retirement plans have lost $2 trillion in value.

Nowhere has imitating the American financial model backfired worse than in Iceland. Just a year ago, the country with a population of only three hundred thousand was often mentioned as a bright star of global economy, and even promoted as the "best" country to live in. Mainly American-trained young financial "geniuses" decided more than a decade ago that time had come to make Iceland an important financial center. The small nation's banks and investment firms opened branches in many other countries, expanding with the help of borrowed capital. In my native Finland these banks promised a higher interest rate for savings than national banks and lured a great number of people to become their customers. Although they never were a major player in the U.S., Icelandic banks took a much bigger role in the United Kingdom. 200,000 people in that country have to fight for their money after the collapse of Icesave, an extension of Landsbanki which has gone into receivership. Icesave also has Dutch customers. Of the Icelandic banks, only the largest, Kaupthing, might be able to survive. Interestingly the western powers decided not to help their tiny ally in the North Atlantic, close to Greenland, and Iceland's government had to turn to Russia for help, in form of an emergency loan. Knowing that the nation has weathered difficult times in the past, often caused by natural disasters, they have always managed to survive and will do so again, even if life for some years will suddenly be much harder. We would have a much more difficult time in coping with a disaster of that magnitude. Katrina's ripples are still being felt and yet the hurricane destroyed only one city, not an entire country.

No doubt, the non-profits will suffer a great deal from the mess in the United States. It is hard to imagine people willing to donate to any such cause at this time. Food banks are running low and shelters have to turn many needy away. Those organizations that exist in order to entertain audiences better be prepared for a long winter. There are stories of empty auditoriums all around, and I don't see why going to an opera or ballet performance, or a concert, would get priority today in people's lives. Perhaps that part of American life has also come to an end as we have known it, or it will take enormous sacrifices from the part of people working for such enterprises or leading them. It is time for people to come down from their ivory towers. The sense of entitlement they have is as real as the housing bubble, after all. I feel sympathy for the hard-working person who has lost or is in danger of losing his or her home, rather than for a self-glorified snob.

Before you go to the polls, watch the video of a vice-presidential candidate playing the flute if you haven't already done so. The skill level shown should satisfy the spousal criteria for a right-wing orchestra conductor.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Innocent Blood

Yesterday my shocked countrymen learned of yet another bloody school shooting within a year. This time a young man of 22 entered his classroom in a small vocational college, in an equally small town, Kauhajoki. With a legally purchased handgun he shot ten students plus the teacher to death, then started a fire in the classroom that has made identifying the victims difficult. Finally when the police and firemen arrived, he turned the gun to himself, after shooting at them first unsuccessfully. This was in an eerie way a copycat act of a high school shooting late last year in another small town, Jokela, where eight people died; even the weapon used was identical.

Finland has the world’s third highest gun ownership, after the U.S. and Yemen. The reasons are quite different from here: with the vast forest-covered land hunting is very popular. Most weapons are indeed hunting rifles and shotguns; handguns are more rare and usually found in shooting ranges and concealed pistols for self-defense are not allowed. In this case, however, the young man had been granted permission to purchase and use a handgun just last month, his first firearm. People had been alarmed by videos made my Mr. Saari on YouTube and notified the authorities. The shooter was actually interviewed by the local police just the day before, but no reason to revoke his license was found, in spite of a type of candle associated with death, funerals and cemeteries found lit on the school yard a couple days prior.

Today people are asking why this was allowed to happen with all the warning signs. There is a lot of finger-pointing, at the policeman who interviewed the killer, letting him go, and at the government minister who had promised a change after the killings of last year. Typical to politics here and there, such promises seldom count. In spite of the high scores that prove Finnish children are better educated than their counterparts in other countries (South Korea is their main rival), obviously the emotional well-being among the young people doesn’t rank as high. The Finns resemble in some ways Native Americans with their troubles. Neither hold their liquor very well and although my countrymen do financially very well, this success has resulted in unhappiness and problematic mental issues. Back when life was simpler, it was also healthier emotionally.

Unlike in the U.S., Finland’s constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to bear arms. Nevertheless, they are commonplace and lethal as guns always are. There is no powerful Finnish NRA lobby but the culture of owning a firearm goes back a long time. Even in my youth the priest and organist of the town’s main church were avid hunters.

The sign of changed times was evident in the news coverage of the country’s leading daily. They pointed out how this tragedy had placed Finland in the global headlines and almost bragged that it was item number two in France, right after the American financial chaos. Had they checked the BBC news on the web, it was actually the first one. However, it is perverted to be proud of such publicity. Helsingin Sanomat used to be a most respectable publication; in recent times more and more people see their journalism resembling British tabloids. They also publish an afternoon paper (available in the morning) which totally falls in the latter category. Attitude of the press has changed as it has here, and neutral, trustworthy news coverage in difficult to find.

What an interesting language Finnish is: the word for attitude is “asenne” which comes from the root “ase”, meaning a weapon.

At least hunting over there, with dogs leading the way in the thick of a forest, can be considered a sport. Shooting helpless wolves from a helicopter hardly qualifies as such. It would only be fair if the helicopter one day crashed in the snowy wilderness and the pack of wolves turned from hunted into hunters, dreaming of a tasty meal, lipstick and all.

MIKSI (WHY), headline in the Ilta-Sanomat extra

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sweetest Sixteen

One realizes he/she is getting old when the youngest child reaches early adulthood. There is a 22-year spread between my four daughters, enough years between each of them to have seen them grow up without being in another one's shadow. I'm proud to say that they all are high achievers but also more importantly great human beings. One's success in life isn't measured in material wealth or power but in the way one's children are. In this regard I'm among the most successful on the planet.

The youngest of them and the only one still home, Sarah, turned sixteen yesterday. In many ways I feel a unique closeness to her as she resembles how I was then, except in a greatly improved version. We share our values, our love for music, and our compassion for others. She is the only one who has ever been able to beat me in a Finnish card game that even my incredibly smart mother refused to play with me. Sarah thinks very similarly to me and anticipates my unorthodox moves; often I'm dumbfounded when she ends up victorious even when I have had a better hand and clearly should have won. But she also has the warmest heart of anyone: her love knows no bounds. To borrow the line at the end of Goonies: she is my best invention.

Last night I saw this poem on a large poster for her humanities class and with Sarah's permission publish it here:

I Am From My Sense of Belonging

I am from Mother Earth,
Born from her beautiful belly
In allegros and minuets
A melody in
Eb major.

I am from cultures intertwined,
Finnish vodka
Jewish wine
And a drop of mystery
Middle Eastern moonshine.

I am from Frida Kahlo,
Not knowing my insecurities
Would stem from every
Hair follicle;
But I am from Sisu,
My sisters of strength, and
Depth, and
Stubborn intelligence that lurks
Beneath dark curls.

I am from happiness,
Reverberating on the peripheral
Of my vision;
The sun melting on the playground,
The scent of a mowed lawn
And woodchips
Inviting through an open window.

I am from an introvert,
The coffee-sipping dragon
Who shares with me his shy
And sensitivity,
I am from a heart that thumps

I am from Rugrats and grape popsicles,
From rollerblading to
Slip'n slides,
From the friendships of
Satu and Hilary.

I am from my sense of belonging,
The address I could repeat
A thousand times over
From memory,
I am from home.

By Sarah Talvi

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Listening to Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique on a Philips recording of Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with John Eliot Gardiner conducting is eye-opening. In general I am not a great fan of so-called authentic performances, not because I prefer modern style to the old, but simply due to the fact that so many mediocre musicians have seen an opportunity to become experts overnight in that venue. A bad and unsuccessful actor doesn't just start doing Shakespeare and receive instant recognition. That skill takes years and years of dedicated labor; the same is true with learning to master performance practices of centuries ago. However, this recording shows the colorful palette Berlioz invented by using instruments supposedly similar to those available in 1830. In this case the musicians play too well: that degree of technical capability in an orchestra musician simply didn't exist for over a hundred years. The breakneck tempi so perfectly executed would not have occurred back then except in the composer's mind.

Ah, the composer's mind. This long composition is often seen as a tribute to opium and hallucinogenic drugs in general. In the 19th century such substances were far more accepted than today; in fact most creative artists were regular users and were not in legal danger for that. Wine was often laced with opium, and later cocaine, and praised as being healthy. I can think of a conductor or two today whose unimaginitive interpretations might greatly benefit from this type of new insight. A well-known fact is that late in that century Bayer in Germany decided to forego aspirin in favor of the drug with more potential, heroin. After all, pain relief was immediate with the latter and the lift in one's mood as well. Heroin seemed like the ideal answer to the day's quest for perfect drug. It wasn't until later when society turned against all drugs, including alcohol, and passed laws of prohibition. In case of alcohol, these were eventually overturned, but the rest of now illegal drugs remained as such. It is interesting that in this country such drug use is at an all-time high and surpasses the usage in other countries. Actually a liberal-minded country, Holland, doesn't seem to score high at all, even though marijuana is available legally and other substances are generally tolerated. In America the usage is high in spite of the law enforcement concentrating their efforts in catching drug users and dealers and sending them to prisons. Ordinary criminals such as burglars can practice their trade in peace these days. Only the clumsiest and dumbest of them have a chance of getting caught.

The present economic downturn and lack of coverage for basic needs causes many to search for an escape from reality. I can't really blame them. Taking care of what is grossly wrong in this society would be far more humane, and for that matter cost effective for the taxpayer, than sending these unhappy and miserable people to jail. The upcoming elections don't promise much of change. As one foreign-born parent of a student said, the election at this point resembles television's American Idol. Nobody cares about real values and desire to change things for the better. Instead the country seems fascinated by a former beauty queen whose ideals regarding a woman's rights are from medieval ages. Even pregnant Ashkenazy Jews test their fetuses for Tay-Sachs disease routinely; this one candidate would encourage every premenopausal woman to get pregnant, never mind what cost to society the resulting Down syndrome children would be. Caring for a developmentally challenged child is a mighty big task and takes most of a caregiver's available time. Yes, there are wonderful parents with disabled children who make sure that the quality of life for them is good. However, I fail to see this person in question in that camp, knowing that such caring is a full-time job and keeping in mind her track record with raising children.

We are not the only country in trouble financially. Europe is hard-hit, from Iceland to Spain. Italy's Berlusconi is more preoccupied with passing laws that would protect him from the many lawsuits against him than helping the struggling country get back up to its feet. Yet people elected him to office again, probably thinking that the richest man in the country will make everyone a winner. Today's news from home tells about big cuts in Finland's paper and pulp mills. The two big multi-national companies will reduce their work force by about five thousand, closing sites where the factory has been a town's main employer. At least people there are covered to an extent with benefits Americans can only dream about. Still, a lot of people are going to have a hard time, both financially and emotionally. Everything has gone up in price due to inflation and in a system where people are not used to saving for a rainy day, every cut hurts, no matter how little. For someone in their fifties learning a totally new skill is almost impossible, and in a system that forces a retirement in the mid 60s, prospects of finding employment at such an age are next to nil. The reason for such drastic cuts in a country of little over five million is same as here: pleasing stockowners in our global economy. No one seems to care about the human cost. It is no wonder many of these laid-off people will turn to escaping reality. There the drug of choice is alcohol, especially for someone middle-aged. Perhaps they would have been better off in the 1800s France, being able to take a voyage fantastique as described by Berlioz.

I may be unfortunate in not knowing what pleasures would await me in the parallel existence. Not being in control of my thoughts and actions is an unpleasant prospect and will keep me on this side of the law. Falling into a ditch at a great-uncle's birthday party when I was seven was enough to scare me for life. The moonlight-spiked malt beverage given to a small thirsty boy was potent indeed. Even "harmless" Ambien caused me to remain stuck in a screen saver for hours. Although it was interesting to run around the kangaroo on the screen and hide in the forest behind it, I decided that it was far too dangerous a substance to help with sleep problems. Perhaps if I were a composer in the class of modern-day Berlioz, I could write a Symphonie zolpidem and eventually become immortal.

Fantastic Symphony by Harvey Dunn

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Les-Pieds-Sont-Nous / Feet-R-Us

Late in July I decided to take a couple days off and head up north to our bilingual neighbor Canada with our 15-year-old pride and joy. It had been two years since our last visit to Victoria together and those pleasant memories were still vivid in our minds.

It was obvious that slow economy is affecting life even there. At the height of the tourist season the Victoria Clipper is usually quite full; now the fast and comfortable catamaran was perhaps one-third occupied. Our check-in time at the Chateau Victoria was 3 p.m. but when we arrived with our luggage around 10 to drop them off, we were told that our room was available. Naturally this was an indication that bookings were not at their usual level. A few times I overheard locals telling that this has been the quietest summer they can remember. Yankees usually amount to a majority of visitors to British Columbia, but Canada is no longer as cheap as it used to be and many people here have more urgent financial obligations than taking vacations. We heard German spoken occasionally but bumping into a Québécois happened far more often. As Victoria has a very British feel to the city, it was as if the French were visiting old England again.

Time after time my daughter remarked how nice people were, polite and caring. Canada may not be a paradise as no place is, but it surely seems to have fewer issues than this country. Walking back from a wonderful Japanese dinner, we discovered a needle drop-off receptacle on a utility pole. Sarah had never seen one and I had to quickly explain it to her. She thought it was a remarkable and advanced idea and I wholeheartedly agreed. An I.V. drug user is going to have his/her needles and in this society of ours has to hide the used ones in a pocket. Emergency workers know that this presents a hazard to them as they often have been injured by a sharp tip, leading to potentially terrible infections of AIDS and hepatitis.

For the past two years walking has been a pain for me, literally. My feet are either numb or overly sensitive and most of the time I feel like there are big blisters on the soles or perhaps rocks in my shoes. I have to rely on visual input to know that I am standing upright. Quite a few times I have tried to walk in the dark and taken bad falls; nowadays I remember to first switch on the light first. There in Victoria I was resting on my bed in the hotel and my daughter was snapping her toes, something we used to do together when she was little. I looked at my own toes in sadness because they wouldn’t obey my will and remained stiff. After hours of torturous walking it became clear to me that the medical advice and drugs prescribed by the neurologist weren’t doing me any good and I decided to benefit from logical thinking I’ve been blessed – or cursed – with. After all, I am supposed to be smarter than those doctors and also capable of thinking outside the box.

So, upon returning home I dug deep in all the information I could find on the internet and also studied the anatomy of the feet in great detail. I learned all about tarsal tunnels and other possible trouble spots where nerves could be compressed. For the next days and weeks I have been experimenting with somewhat unorthodox means of reducing my pain and learning what works in my case and what doesn’t. I ended up ordering stuff from Canada and buying the rest locally. Now, a month later I barely have to take my prescriptions for neuralgia. Yes, the feet are still a bit uncomfortable at times but I can cope with that. I can again snap my toes and with ease. There is no single key element to my improvement; much of it indeed has to do with creative thinking. It surprises me how few people are able to do just that, as it is a key element in making successful discoveries in the sciences as well as in interpreting music. In the latter case most musicians just copy something they have heard or been taught and then try to present it as their own, whether they are instrumentalists, singers or conductors. A pedagogue needs to be able to think outside the box as well, as there are often gifted students who don’t fit the mold and the standard approach would fail in their case.

When my wife is able to keep me company, we often descend to the beach below my favorite Discovery Park. It is a 285-foot climb down and obviously the same coming up, on a narrow path with altogether about 450 steps. I couldn’t even think of doing the trek for a long time; now it is a piece of cake as long as I take care of my balance. To facilitate this I purchased a lightweight Komperdell walking staff from Seattle’s wonderful REI. It also turns into a camera monopod should I need to use one. Half way down the path is an area where one often sees snakes, of the harmless garter variety. My wife freaks out upon such an encounter although she has improved in this respect. I keep on reassuring her that on this side of the Cascades there are no native poisonous snakes, although in the past she has had to frequently deal with a venomous Pit Viper, a European import. Perhaps that explains her disgust with slithering creatures.

With my own good medical success comes upsetting news from Finland. My father Veikko Talvi had somehow tried to climb over the rails that are up around his bed for the night. He had fallen onto the floor, breaking his "good" hip and rushed to surgery. I was able to get through to the hospital when he had just come from the operating room. As general anesthesia is often risky at that age (97), the surgery was done using a spinal block. The next few days will be critical. He will be moved away from the hospital to specialized recovery center, in part due to the dangers of MRSA, present in all Finnish hospitals although perhaps not widely as in similar institutions here. Silja, my eldest, is leaving for Finland tomorrow. My dad has managed to fool the Grim Reaper many times; perhaps he’ll be successful this time as well.
Photos: Sarah in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria
Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mostly Finnish Festival

This summer's Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center seems to have a strong Finnish component to it. Osmo Vänskä has returned to conduct the resident orchestra, with a fellow clarinetist Kari Kriikku as soloist. A rare female conductor success, Susanna Mälkki, conducted the visiting City of Birmingham Orchestra from England and received an excellent review in the NY Times. There was music by Kaija Saariaho for the cello soloist Anssi Karttunen, yet another Finn.

As proud as I am of my countrymen, I need to correct the misconception of my native country being some kind of classical music heaven, a European Venezuela. Yes, more Finnish artists have reached international status, but in the country itself the number of young people interested in studying classical music is down, particularly true for string instruments and voice. Conservatories and similar music schools are reluctant to fill open vacancies because they notice this downward trend and fear there are not enough students to offer full-time faculty members. They feel safer by hiring people on hourly basis, sort of like the tendency here to prefer having adjunct professors instead of those on a tenure track.

Mostly Mozart has experienced an amazing second life after almost ceasing to exist in 2002. Much credit must be given to the festival's resident conductor Louis Langrée, a Frenchman who has been more successful in the United States than his home. Granted, he hardly is an unknown in Europe where he has conducted in numerous opera houses, often with period instrument orchestras; however, one would not call him exactly a household name. But chemistry between New Yorkers and Langrée has obviously worked well, with both audiences and musicians. Good reviews in the NY Times, just about the only newspaper where this matters, haven't been in short supply either. The festival, whose concerts used to be as exciting as a dinner at Denny's, has all of sudden added more exotic flavors to its menu, serving meat loaf only on occasion.

It is interesting how few musicians reach the top in their home countries. To paraphrase an old saying, nobody is a prophet in his own land. Most Finnish orchestras, for example, have principal conductors or artistic directors that are generally second-tier. I'm avoiding the usage of "music director' as such a position as we know it doesn't really exist there. People come and go, as they should. Since local and state governments more or less foot the bill, the decisions take place in the political machine. This has the obvious healthy advantage that a filthy rich donor doesn't get to dictate how an organization is run. At least in my country monetary donations to an orchestra are unheard of. Everybody becomes a "donor" by paying taxes. Of course not all appointed politicians understand music or other forms of art, but they usually listen to experts in the field, the working artists and public opinion.

So, in order to reach the top tier, Finnish musicians have for a long time moved to other countries, usually starting out elsewhere in Scandinavia and then moving onto the United Kingdom and Germany. Some have ended up in faraway Iceland and fairly distant Spain. Kaija Saariaho is more French than Finnish at the moment. In the least twenty years or so, an increasing number have landed in the New World. Jukka-Pekka Saraste was in Toronto; Esa-Pekka Salonen is wrapping up his fruitful years in Los Angeles and moving to London. Osmo Vänskä, whom I remember as a clarinetist, developed a name for himself with the small Lahti orchestra and ended up in charge in Minneapolis. Of the three, Salonen has left a lasting legacy, not only by improving the orchestra but also getting Los Angeles to build the fabulous Disney Hall. I have a suspicion that he let the architect and acousticians with good hearing take care of the design and didn't insist on his own ideas. Interestingly, Saraste's tenure in Toronto came to an abrupt end as the orchestra's finances took a nosedive, partially because his programming alienated listeners. Vänskä has been praised in the media, although privately there have been a number of complaints. Still, it was somewhat of a shock to learn that the ensemble had to cancel an outdoor concert due to lack of funds and let it be known that they expect this upcoming season to be financially difficult to pull off. Minnesota is full of Scandinavian descendants, and donating to non-humanitarian causes is not part of that background. But perhaps this has more to do with the sad shape our country's economy is in. Although there seems to be some form of self-censorship in place here, reluctance to let people learn about unpleasant facts, European media seems to think that we are in really deep do-do. At the same time they admit that matters at home are not any better, but at least they seem honest about it.

The last recession we had in the early 1990s resulted in increased burglaries and all forms of petty theft and shoplifting. We suffered our own losses then, too. Cars were broken into and the bolts on the mag wheels on my VW GTI were loosened before the would-be thief was disturbed. Even our little daughter's jogging stroller disappeared one night, along with bicycles whose locking cables were cut. I have been waiting for this behavior to reappear and sure enough yesterday morning my wife discovered that both cars were broken into by smashing front side windows. Two GPS devices were stolen, not much joy to the thieves because of electronic locking. But it came to about $2k in damages and naturally the insurance company is trying to avoid paying for much of it. It is a business that likes to take your money but not return it. This time the thieves managed to part with only one bike as the new cables are too tough to break. It was a rainy night and although my car's horn alarm must have gone off, we couldn't hear it from the storm. We suspect our street has been worked on by the same gang for weeks since many of the neighbors have a similar recent story to tell. Unless this was an act of orchestral terrorism, reportedly rampant in Seattle, this is an omen of very troubled times ahead.

In photos: Mälkki, Vänskä, Kriikku, Karttunen
CTS and Eurovan vandalized

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

News on the Thirteenth

Today is the 13th and as usual, I’m curious on this “unlucky” day to read the news. In my case it means the New York Times, unless I find the time to visit online publications and other sources.

Russia’s czar Vladimir Putin has decided to teach little Georgia a lesson and has ordered an attack on the country, causing countless deaths and injuries. One would have thought that he had more respect for the home of his idol from the past, Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known to us as Josef Stalin. Georgia’s friends in the West have been watching the bloodbath and destruction helplessly. American opinion has no clout after our invasion of Iraq and the plummeting dollar. Our verbal protests carry as much weight as, let’s say, Argentina’s. Even if we wanted to help Georgia militarily, we simply don’t have the resources. Sometimes I wonder what prevents the Mexican army from crossing the border and taking back what was once theirs, from Texas to California. At present we probably couldn’t stop them unless we withdrew our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan in a hurry.

There is a horrifying story on the front page of the Times about the imprisonment of an Indo-Chinese-born but very American man who at some point in the 1990s overstayed his visa. Married to a U.S. citizen, he was applying for a green card when he was arrested and jailed for this “crime”. Never mind that Mr. Ng was a computer engineer in the Empire State Building and had two young American-born sons, in addition to his wife. A few months back he started complaining about excruciating back pain but the detention center officials just accused him for faking his illness and refused medical help. Pleas for a wheelchair were laughed at. He was taken shackled for a purposeless long car ride just to prove he was "well". Finally a judge ordered him to be medically evaluated in a hospital and a MRI discovered a cancer that had spread throughout his body and a fractured spine. He died five days later, with a guard at his side to prevent him from escaping. In my view of justice the people refusing his cries for help should be tried for murder and torture, but knowing how law works in this country, they will at the most receive a slap on a wrist. After all, we can sleep better now that this dangerous individual no longer lives among us.

So, the Chinese managed to fool us all with the cute and pretty nine-year-old Lin Miaoke singing at the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The real voice belonged to an even younger 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who wasn’t judged as visually appealing as young Miss Lin. So, even in this Communist-Capitalist country it is the eye-candy factor that matters the most. The truth managed to leak and the officials behind this lip-syncing farce rushed to explain that the reason was for “national interest”. The Chinese are learning the American ways with astonishing speed. In our country it is essential that a performer falls into the eye-candy category these days, never mind the skill. I first became aware of this a long time ago in an orchestra setup. A youngish female string player had exhibitionist tendencies and dressed up accordingly for concerts, in spite of an agreed dress code. I asked the conductor about this and he just remarked that the female in question was “so sexy” and asked if I had noticed her stiletto heel shoes. I just shrugged and remarked that I didn't have a foot fetish; perhaps I didn’t know what I was missing. Today we wouldn’t hear the violin playing of a Ginette Neveu, Erica Morini or Ida Händel as none of these great instrumentalists would have fit the required mold. Seeing them in semi-nude pictures, as is today’s style, would have turned audiences and buyers of recordings away for good. Perhaps we could have a string player’s version of lip syncing, let’s call it bow syncing, and have a visual crowd pleaser with a silent instrument “playing” to the music-making of a hidden master.

To top today’s good news, one mustn’t skip the article about people either getting married or divorced, not because of love or lack of it but to gain access to health insurance. It never ceases to astonish me how the U.S. is the only “civilized” country that doesn’t take care of its people’s basic needs. We spend more money per capita than anyone on health care but have little to show for that. Even in poor Latin America adequate health care costs a fraction of ours and is available even if the patient has a pre-existing medical condition.

There is one other disturbing art-related article in the NYT which I might visit later on. In the meantime, enjoy the Olympic Games and the fact that American news media has decided to count all medals where the U.S. leads as of now with 29 to the host country’s 27 in totals. The golden ones are the only ones that matter to the Chinese and this is where the count is 17-10 in their favor. Had the results been reversed, I’m sure our media would have used the gold medals as basis for being the “best”. As usual, the mission has been accomplished and we should feel pleased.
Lin Miaoke (top), Yang Peiyi

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Hardly Haydn and Summer Snow

Back home in Finland our planet's global warming has taken strange forms. This last winter snow didn't really arrive until March which is when it should normally start melting. Then summer took forever to arrive, June and half of July being much colder than usual. Yesterday my brother wrote that "summer" has lasted a week and a half. That day they had a severe thunderstorm which brought four inches of snow plus hail over an inch in diameter near his house, some twenty-five miles from the Gulf of Finland. Clearly Mother Nature is either angry or confused. Never in my life had I seen snow fall in the summer, early in May perhaps and again in October. On my birthday 10-22 we would often get our first snow showers but only a couple times would the white magical stuff remain on the ground until the spring.

The Finnish media, while sympathizing with people on vacation (people get a minimum of a month off, fully paid of course), tells about the bright side of this all. The country has an enormous number of festivals of all kinds occurring during the summer and, due to the cold weather, attendance has been at an all-time high. It is difficult to spot a town, no matter how little, where one can't find a "Festival". I had built a house in the small township of Noormarkku, near Pori. The tiny town is famous for its architectural masterpiece "Villa Mairea", designed by Alvar Aalto. This summer they created an opera festival, presenting a new work, "Vierivä kivi" or "Rolling Stone", about the town's past and its industrial strongman Antti Ahlström. Pori itself has an annual jazz festival which had 66,000 paid listeners and 97,000 attending free concerts this summer, surpassing the most optimistic forecasts. The total number of people present just about equaled twice the city's population! Even the small township of Iitti, where my family's summer home is located, manages to have a music festival with both Finnish and foreign artists.

Having taken part in more festival performances than I can count, I have mixed feelings about them. Throughout the fall-to-spring season the same featured artists often appear in front of semi-empty halls, playing compositions they have worked on for a long time to perfect. Then summer and the festival season arrive. Audiences are duped into believing that they are about to experience something incredible when in fact they are listening to performances that have barely been rehearsed, often played by people who don't regularly work together. Of course a capable musician can wing it, especially if the piece is well-known. However, why would, for example, a string quartet spend every day rehearsing in order to find a uniform style and interpretation, if four string players thrown together could produce a performance of similar level after one, or at the most, two quick rehearsals? What about a pick-up orchestra performing a full two-hour program having had the time to barely read through the works and then managing a dress rehearsal, a run-through? It takes a gifted and inspiring person on the podium to make these often very average musicians surpass their normal limits.

So, people in the audience must in most cases be convincing themselves that these performances are great; otherwise they wouldn't be part of a "Festival". This is the same mentality that makes people pay $50 for a bottle of water, or spend fortunes on art "masterpieces" on a fancy cruise ship, just to find out after returning home that the paintings or prints purchased are worth only a fraction of their "bargain" price. It wouldn't surprise me to see a crooked violin dealer peddling his wares on a Carnival or Royal Caribbean vessel next.

Festivals are given catchy names, such as "Hardly Haydn", "Barely Bach" or "Endlessly Elgar". I remember taking part in one in Gotham City which stays in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, I had never met a group that despised their boss as much, and eventually managed to get rid of him. Secondly, a respected European guest conductor got completely and hopelessly lost in a performance of a slightly tricky baroque overture that he hadn't bothered to study. Then there were festivals on two continents carrying the name of J.S. Bach where everyone simply revered their leader, not because he was a great orchestral conductor but because he was literally inhaling and exhaling the great composer's musical ideas and knew every phrase inside out. As long as he pursued Johann Sebastian's music, each performance was electrifying. This wasn't quite the case with the accompaniment to the Mendelssohn violin concerto, however.

Perhaps we ought to discontinue ordinary in-season concerts and recitals, and simply rename everything a festival. Whatever it takes, organizations will be desperate to fill their emptying halls and meet payrolls during this time of economic depression. Perhaps we can fool the folks for a while longer and make them believe that the $50 bottle of water is really incredible. Better yet, fill those bottles with H2O from tap and sell it for the high price. That should about equal an "instant art" performance: just add water and mix.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Personality Is Instrumental

Professional musicians, as a rule, are not known to be rocket scientists. Perhaps all those hours spent practicing since early on and lack of good general education are partly to blame. Before my generation becoming a musician simply meant that you couldn’t do anything else for living. The profession was often compared to working in a circus and was bunched together with a vague title of ‘entertainer’ with actors and clowns alike. A concertmaster from my home country was in love with an army officer’s daughter. In spite of the suitor’s stable job with the state-owned radio orchestra, the father of the young woman would not tolerate the prospect of such a serious involvement with a mere musician. So, she was sent out to the far corners of the globe but the fellow in love was persistent and followed her. Eventually they got married but, if my memory serves me correctly, they didn’t live happily ever after, ending up divorcing like so many others.

A couple days ago marked the 31st anniversary of my immigrating to the United States. Although I have often questioned the wisdom of that move, at the time I had no options as my first wife had promised her dying father to return. During the first year in Los Angeles I went to my local branch of Bank of America on Larchmont Boulevard to discuss the possibility of a loan to buy a Vuillaume violin from a retiring colleague. At first the banker was very friendly and misunderstood me, taking my accented ‘musician’ for a ‘magician’. No problem, she said, but when she finally learned of my true profession, her smile froze. No, they didn’t lend money to buy furniture, especially to a musician. To no avail, I tried to convince that a violin was not like a piano collecting dust in someone’s living room. Well, I found another bank with a better attitude and took my business elsewhere. Luckily I was able to pay the loan off in no time.

Since I grew up with top musicians coming to help in my father’s orchestra, I soon learned about the peculiar characteristics players of different instrument tend to have. I have a soft spot for oboists as my favorite guest artist was the principal of the Helsinki Philharmonic, those days known as Helsinki City Symphony. Asser Sipilä was not only a great oboist but a wonderful man. As he was also a beekeeper, he would always bring honey for me. For some reason, he preferred it to be packaged in tubes. I watched him make reeds and even learned the technique of continuous breathing from him, how to blow air out with the muscles of the cheek while inhaling. In addition to him, principals came as needed from Helsinki, occasionally from Lahti, to play the rest of the wind and brass family. Also, string instrumentalists would often come to play as soloists. All in all, I met with a whole bunch of different top musicians over the years.

I learned early on that French horn players were somewhat an odd bunch. There were two brothers who both played the instrument, one in Helsinki, the other in Lahti. It wasn’t until some years later when I met the great Vitali Buyanovsky from what was then the Leningrad Philharmonic that I learned to appreciate the instrument and to understand that someone playing it could be a great person as well. His entire horn section all vibrated in unison; a splendid sound not well known on this side of the Atlantic. The visiting trumpet player suffered from the ‘rooster syndrome’ which is often so typical to that instrument. It wasn’t until much later that I met a few trumpeters that were nice and truly wonderful as people. Mr. Sipilä explained to me that when young brass players practice too much, especially when they play an instrument that goes high up and demands tremendous air pressure, blood flow to their brain is interrupted. Perhaps that occasionally results in some form of brain injury, I don’t know, but the personality of such a musician often is that of a cock. I guess the trombone is easier on the system; at least the jolly fellow nicknamed “the Duck” was very nice indeed.

Back to the winds: in addition to the aforementioned oboist I was very fond of one of the clarinetists. Mario Sgobba was an Italian gentleman who had ended up in Finland through marriage. When my father turned 50 and I was 12, I had written a composition for my father with a dedication in Italian which I had an interest in and had studied on my own. Upon my father proudly showing him my present, Mr. Sgobba started rattling away in that language, thinking that by some miracle I was fluent in it, so obviously the text was correct. Like the hornists, the bassoonists struck me as odd, but I felt that anyone taking themselves seriously tooting the big cigar all day long had to be out of the ordinary. The flutists (we didn’t often use one as our own was very good) seemed full of themselves. In addition to the violin, the flute is the most popular orchestral instrument and often players of note are excellent. However, a voice in me told never to trust one. Still, one occasionally hears simply splendid playing on that instrument. When my student Lydia Kye played a movement of the Sibelius with the Garfield High School orchestra last month, the program also featured a phenomenal talent on the flute, Angela Potter. She played with incredible brilliance, faultless rhythm and perfect intonation, and without the omnipresent vibrato many older players use to cover up their mistakes. My only gripe was that like all flutists, she insisted on using the music for her concerto. Miss Potter’s playing left some old-timers in the dust and one can only wish her the brightest future with her studies at Northwestern University with the legendary Walfrid Kujala. He in turn has at least some of his roots in Finland as his last name could only originate there.

I shouldn’t even go there, but the string players always were and still are my least favorite group of musicians. First violinists can’t understand why someone else is playing as soloist and not them, or why someone gets promoted for reasons other than skill. They can also be such petty people. Second fiddlers suffer from an inferiority complex and granted, it is not fun to have to play off-beats endlessly. True to their reputation, it isn’t difficult to find ‘experts’ in any viola section. When I make fun of them, I include myself and some members of my family in the group. Our one-eyed cat is very sensitive to the high overtones of the violin and leaves the room, however sound of viola is to his liking. Cellists are often too preoccupied with what’s between their legs and bassists can get by with murder: an out-of-tune note is a half-inch or more in the wrong place. The latter can also be deaf and yet be actively playing.

This leaves only percussionists and conductors. A great timpani player is a treasure but someone banging on a loud bass or snare drum will eventually suffer damage from the noise level. As for the last category, a slightly modified old joke is in place. In New Guinea the cannibals have differently priced human brain for sale. The cheapest is that from a great scientist but the most expensive is the conductor variety. What is the logic behind this? You have to catch so many baton-wielders to come up with a pound of brain.

The illustration on top is from an online collection of toilets. It shows how a horn can be useful even for men who don’t care for classical music. Obviously it is not of the English kind; at first glance I thought it was modified French but then realized it didn’t have any dents on it so I was mistaken. How about a Wagner-Tuba-Loo?