Saturday, May 31, 2008


The story about the Honda robot which conducted the Detroit Symphony recently seems to have become a media darling. And indeed it is quite a pleasure to watch the little shiny fellow move his arms gracefully and have the orchestra follow him admirably. As we know that orchestra musicians are supposed to play like robots these days, who better to conduct them than the real thing. Although some baton wielders might argue with this, the function of a conductor is to beat time and keep the players together and this the electronic marvel does truly well. Supposedly ASIMO is also programmed to be polite and mild-mannered and speaks to the audience and musicians with respect. No dirty looks, yelling, bodily fluids landing on nearby instruments or other often customary unpleasantness of any kind, nor toe-tapping! No wonder the musicians were smiling and the audience thrilled. Naturally the “Impossible Dream” was perfectly memorized, thus no score was needed. The printed media could replace the cranky old lady of a music cricket with an expert in computing and electronics; a most welcome change in a provincial town.

Just imagine all the money saved by cash-strapped orchestras. After an initial purchase no astronomical salaries to pay, no egos to battle with, no legal threats in the form of lawsuits either. The young pretty ladies (or handsome men) would be left alone. Name the little man in his shining armor something like Mr. Silber, and the usual donor pool would rush to help the organization. Since the robot would not know how to discriminate, even the oldest patron of the arts would be properly complimented, instead of the usual snickering behind the person’s back. “Yes, we love your money but boy, are you ugly and stinky!” No wonder Detroit’s new music man, Leonard Slatkin, rushed to say that the robot did a good job but it can’t really hear what the musicians play or adjust to their playing. Come on, name all the conductors who do hear and try to follow the musicians! It would be a short list, I’m afraid. Beethoven managed fine although he was deaf. Secondly, I don’t think it would be difficult to come up with software to remedy this ‘fault’.

The orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, might have been saved with a silvery electronic gentleman. Instead, they are becoming another entry in the list of dead and dying music organizations. As the United States is rapidly descending to resemble a third world country, more deaths will no doubt follow. If people have to choose between having food, electricity and fuel or expensive theater, opera or concert tickets, the outcome should be a no-brainer. Even multibillionaire Georg Soros recently told an interviewer that people should realize that the good times are over, perhaps permanently. In spite of optimistic opinions about the greenback going up in value and price of crude oil coming down, both continue in their seemingly unstoppable direction, one upward, the other down. Truckers have been forced to quit with diesel fuel at $5 per gallon. There is talk about ordinary gasoline reaching that mark by Labor Day. Am I grateful to be able to work at home; even the college is only a five minute walk away! I wanted to use my frequent flyer miles to attend a funeral of a close relative in Finland. I could have had my ticket but the fuel surcharge would have meant a measly $650 added to the “free” fare. The family understands.

My wife received an interesting piece of mail, regarding the bankruptcy of her beloved Northwest Chamber Orchestra. It is very evident that dark outside forces wanted the “Little Orchestra That Could” terminated, as the amount of money the trustee holds is larger than all the debts and costs of administration. What kind of bankruptcy is that? There was no reason to kill the orchestra that provided its players with benefits, other than what many see as obvious. It is a-polling indeed that some viewed the little group with its gifted conductors, Ralf Gothóni and Joseph Silverstein, as a thorn on their side. As is the case in life, one cannot awaken the dead. The group that survived for over a quarter of a century is missed.

Photo of ASIMO from

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dying Breed

Last month the New York Times published an article titled "Now on the Endangered Species List: Movie Critics in Print". It points out that with all the online coverage, both by publications and bloggers, there is increasingly little need for a film review in a newspaper. Indeed, many publications no longer have reviews of new movies, or they get theirs from the wire. The fact is that good critical success doesn't often add up to commercial one at the box office. Readers want fresh opinions, not those of the old fuddy-duddies whose taste is quite different from the younger crowd. Yes, sometimes there is an insightful review of a beautiful movie that one knows isn't going to shatter any records and the reader is grateful to be introduced to it. This is especially true to foreign films which are amazingly scarce in this country. Perhaps with Americans becoming more and more illiterate, reading subtitles is too much of an effort. Understanding them in French, German or Italian would be too much to ask. Luckily one can import DVDs from overseas markets and play them on a region-free player or on a computer with proper software.

A more important question is should arts be "reviewed" at all. There was a time when a paper would give its stamp of approval or disapproval on something an individual on their payroll wrote up. Often these critics had their personal agendas and preferences they tried to force upon the reader. I can't say that the average person has become smarter but since there is so much variety of opinion on the internet, who can blame a person from wanting to hear another side to the story. A painting or a sculpture may receive glowing reviews in the newspaper, especially if the writer and the artist are friends, yet someone on a successful blog can negate all that by exposing it as trash. People hardly agree on basic things such as food and drink, so it is easy to understand the vastly different opinions on literature, theater, music and yes, movies. It is amazing to read restaurant reviews as some patrons find the food and service disgusting and yet others praise it to high heavens. Word of mouth, both good and bad, is even more effective than anything online. After a satisfactory movie or tasty meal, it is easy to reach for the omnipresent cell phone and let your friends know about it. There is no need to even talk as texting will do the job. News like that spreads fast and the restaurant may find a full house the next night or the movie theater a long line at the ticket office.

In music, critics shouldn't really exist. Only someone highly educated with literary talent, and a performer or composer, should be allowed to express an opinion and even then, it should be made clear in the text that this is only one person's, not the paper's view. In a city or town where there is basically one organization responsible for musical entertainment and just one critic who writes reviews, the situation becomes unhealthy in no time. When a judge befriends a prosecutor and/or a defense attorney, impartiality is history. Sometimes these reporters have stayed with the publication for decades and are in close social contact with the local big machers. At other times there is a romantic involvement, real or imagined. In a nearby city there was a music critic who would publish reviews of a community orchestra's concerts in a suburb some fifteen minutes away. The conductor was always praised in a manner that could be best described as love letters. The critic had a first name that wasn't gender-specific and most of us thought it was a woman who had the hots for the conductor. We were quite shocked to find out that she was a he, as people didn't think of the conductor as gay. Well, the critic suddenly died and the paper decided to cease publishing classical reviews entirely. A similar decision supposedly has taken place in this town as the main paper's classical specialist received her severance package recently. I don't know the reasons behind it all, but perhaps the paper had to downsize and the least valuable people had to go. It has been great many years since I had read anything written by this critic. I remember an orchestra violinist once getting raves from her and carrying enlarged copies of the review with him, showing them to everyone ad nauseam. Some locals have lost their bullhorn, that's for sure. All I know is that during her Running Start program at the Seattle Central Community College my daughter's English professor used said critic's texts as an example how not to write. Great program that Running Start, although high schools don't like it as it robs them of funds. My Anna is getting her double BA degree in Political Science and Spanish next month at the age of 20.

I believe reviewing the arts should be restricted to only a few first rate newspapers, in cities where there is a lot offered. New York obviously comes to mind and a writer of classical music for the Times can stay plenty busy never setting foot in the local orchestra's offerings. Multiple noteworthy recitals take place daily, with fresh new faces. Art galleries are everywhere and play productions are numerous on any given day. Los Angeles is becoming another center and the greater metropolitan area has a lot to offer, so I would include the L.A. Times on the list. Critic-performer fraternizing should be outlawed and any reporter guilty of that should immediately be let go. Neutrality must be the rule of the land in the media.

In my childhood the local paper had a critic who was an alcoholic and some kind of a music teacher for adults. His mission in life was to make fun of my father and his quite excellent orchestra. Once the critic got fired, an amateur viola player continued in the same fashion, in spite of having sat in the very orchestra. This man played with his mouth always wide open and I often had an urge to stick an apple in it. When I performed the glorious Glazounov concerto, he wrote how it was too bad that I had to play such rotten Kreisler concertos. My opinion about critics didn't improve any when in my teens a Finnish well-known gay critic tried to get me drunk and to his hotel room while I was studying with Heifetz in Los Angeles. He then had the nerve to complain to my father that I didn't know what was best for me nor how to take care of PR. My dear old man was naïve and totally clueless and tried to inquire what I had done wrong to insult the critic. Although I have known great writers of music, most others have been failures in life. The good ones continue to be successful, and I don't feel sorry for any others whose jobs are threatened.

An incompetent critic's defense is "You don't have to be a cow to tell that the milk is sour". True, but sour could as well mean delicious yogurt, sour cream or even Havarti cheese. All of those beat non-fat milk, don't they?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Unlike most of us believe, memories are never the same twice as they are recreated each time we go back in time. Someone called this process “memories of memories”. Remembering biting into a delicious apple for instance will cause the brain to bring together the color, the shape, the smell and the taste. Over the years details change as the brain stores its information in different parts. For this reason eyewitness accounts are often extremely unreliable, and everyone experiences an event differently to start with. When a victim of a crime is presented with a line-up, they tend to pick a familiar-looking person who might be someone working at the supermarket or a neighbor down the street.

Since I installed Joost, an online television network, I have been watching old reruns of the original Star Trek series. Having not seen the episodes in a few years, my mind has altered the details slightly. At times I’m amazed how something seems unexpected, as if my mind is playing tricks. It is possible that a nasty concussion scrambled my brain slightly but a more likely explanation is time passing. Well, the fringe benefit is that the episodes seem surprisingly fresh to me, although of course I remember the basic plots. I should brush up on my Klingon, though.

As people live to be older than ever before, problems and illnesses with memory are increasing sharply. Close friends and family members are victims of various forms of dementia. Those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s carry a scarlet letter “A” on them as we tend to label people with such illnesses. My mother died as result of this terrible disease ten years ago and her younger brother suffers from the same. Naturally I wonder if this is something I’ll have to face one day. Although I much resemble my father, physically I am closer to my maternal side and have had similar health problems. But as I have no trouble reading through a Scientific American issue and comprehending it, or memorizing an enormous amount of music, I don’t see any warning signs yet. My dad has age-related dementia which mainly affects his short-term memory. Yet when my brother and his wife visited him just two days ago, he immediately said “There comes my son!” and was actively interested in what was happening in their lives. The fact that they celebrated their 45-year wedding anniversary took him by surprise. Of course some days are worse for someone at 97 and recently he insisted that he has seven children, instead of us three. Perhaps there are others we don’t know about? I should take time off this summer and pay him a visit, although crowded airports, high ticket prices with their fuel surcharges and now the latest, paid luggage, don’t make such a trip an attractive option. We complain about gas prices but over there the cost is at least double. With the weak dollar, we are like paupers over in the Euro zone. Hotel rooms start at $300 even in the smaller cities and the tab for dining out is like in Tokyo’s business restaurants.

People have a remarkable ability to block unpleasant memories, probably part of our survival system. Death camp survivors would have never been able to continue life without this skill. I myself have managed to repress a great deal, such as unhappy moments in a first marriage. It is as if they never existed. I was talking to a former student and I assumed she had stayed put as concertmaster of the same orchestra for the thirty years. I had completely forgotten about her years in Belgium, but once the topic came up, that buried information quickly resurfaced. Likewise I have nothing but loving memories of my mother, yet our relationship was often turbulent. It is also possible to filter out all the good times and remember a person who has hurt us or our family with intense hatred, even if there has been a time when the relationship was not so bad. If a daughter or a son has been murdered, or the family’s well-being seriously hurt, I don’t think it is possible to forgive or forget. We find closure when we read about the death of the evil person, either in a news item or an obituary. I know it is not the way religions and holy men teach us, but need for revenge is a very powerful feeling. Perhaps someone who has been violated gets some pleasure of seeing their torturer and his wife or girlfriend become old and sickly. A once pretty Eva Braun or a SS officer's trophy wife may all of a sudden look like Meryl Streep in the final scenes of “Death Becomes Her”. A once powerful Gestapo man might resemble the living dead when slowly crossing a street. Still, the final closure will have to wait. Horrible as it was, I understand why Saddam Hussein was lynched by the same people he used to torture, or that same fate met the dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife on Christmas Day in 1989.

Simon Wiesenthal wrote a powerful book, “The Sunflower”, subtitled “On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness”. In the first part he tells about a dying SS man at a Nazi concentration camp bringing the prisoner, the author, to his bedside. The soldier wanted to confess his terrible acts to a Jew and ask him for forgiveness. Wiesenthal remained silent. In the second part of the book 53 outstanding men and women give their replies to the author’s question: Had he done the right thing and what would these individuals have done in his place? Interestingly among these people is the only Nazi leader who took full responsibility for his actions, Albert Speer. His admission of guilt was in stark contrast to other Nazis who all washed their hands, claiming they had only followed orders. This action probably saved Speer from the death penalty and put him in prison for twenty years instead.

Admitting guilt and asking for forgiveness might indeed be enough for a Robert Mugabe or another cruel dictator to start a long healing process. Without it they are doomed and their victims and families will be waiting for the inevitable, no matter how long it will take. Just as in The Sunflower, regretting life's terrible mistakes on one's death bed will be too late.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Democracy in Orchestras

Chicago's coup of managing to hire Riccardo Muti certainly didn't go unnoticed in the American music scene. This is the same maestro that had turned down the New York Philharmonic, after all, which then decided to enlist a homegrown boy Alan Gilbert for the job, hardly a household name. I don't get excited about conductors as many of them are just overblown with ego and possess less talent than most realize. Muti is, however, a true musician and if things had gone as expected in Europe, he probably would have stayed there. He had declared never again to accept a position of Music Director in the U.S., following a less-than-ideal period at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We may advertise our brand of freedom but it is elsewhere that one sees democracy at work. The great Muti had to leave his beloved La Scala because the people under him had had "suffered" enough and protested, shutting down the institution with a strike. I wish people in American orchestras would have the same clout: our musical landscape would look very different as far as orchestras are concerned. I think Muti will fare well in Chicago, better than Barenboim who was at odds with many Jewish donors because of his political views, mainly about the situation in the Middle East. And in Chicago the orchestra is the name of the game, whereas in New York the most interesting concerts are given by visiting groups.

Every so often stories from another American landmark orchestra surface and resurface, this one in Cleveland. In the good old times they were about George Szell, the legendary dictatorial maestro in charge. Although his longtime concertmaster Josef Gingold never directly criticized his boss, he told enough details to make one understand that working under this man was not necessarily a joy, in spite of the high level of performances the orchestra consistently gave. These days the news of the Cleveland Orchestra are about their concertmaster for the past dozen or so years, William Preucil. In this time period he has managed to become a more powerful figure in the organization that anyone else. He also managed to get numerous close relatives, such as a sister, a brother-in-law and a daughter into the orchestra through what players claim have been most unfair auditions. This kind of nepotism is usually expected by the person on the podium, not a concertmaster. Finally last year Cleveland changed their audition procedures for the first time in 85 years, making it impossible for a family member to vote for his/her relative. As a sign of effectiveness of this change Mr. Preucil's violinist daughter didn't get in, and yet everyone knew that under the old rules it would have been a given. Naturally the concertmaster was very upset, and as a student of his from the Cleveland Institute at the same time filed a complaint about sexual harassment, Mr. Preucil went through a most unpleasant period. Unlike in many other cities, the local press had a heyday with these stories. I know conductors who view young females (and in some cases, males) as fair game and perhaps as "perks" of the job. They are not afraid of the consequences as these young players know that if they speak up, their careers are finished or at least greatly harmed.

I have sat through an enormous number of auditions during almost four decades, on two continents. In the past nobody had thought about screens and indeed a pretty young female violinist, often fresh from school, held a definite advantage to a middle-aged balding man with a beer belly, no matter how well the latter played and knew the repertoire. Without the identity being hidden, a conductor could almost always push his favorites (for whatever reason) through, as the orchestra members of the selecting committee didn't have the backbone to stand up against his/her boss. In the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra a violist, a girlfriend of a first violinist, was judged inadequate for the job. A little later she landed the principal position in Gotham city. She must have made remarkable progress in that relatively short time. With screens the amount of verbal commenting between the committee members seemed to increase. Often I would hear remarks that were dumbfounding in their stupidity, in the class of a music critic who praises someone's intonation when in fact it was highly erratic, or talks about "beautiful Mozart" when it was butchered enough to turn one's stomach. One of my favorite comments was about a cello candidate: "My wife says he's hard to get along with". The two of them had played in a chamber orchestra setting and they obviously didn't like each other enough. Needless to say, the candidate was disqualified based solely on this statement, as his cello playing was rather fine.

As in the finals the screens disappear unless someone has been invited directly to that round, it makes it easier for the conductor, or alternately the musician's friends, to push the person through. Yes, the players can prevent a conductor's favorite from getting a majority of "yes" votes, but the baton wielder can also decide not to hire someone that every musician has voted for. There have been bloody scenes where a brass player or a low string player hasn't made the cut and he had been promised the job in advance. But what function does a selection committee have if they are reduced to a mere rubber stamp? Instead of handing the job to the person with most qualifying votes, the conductor often acts like the Supreme Court which handed our President the victory in 2000, in spite of his lower vote numbers. Music directors sometimes like to be the jury, the judge and even the executioner.

Obviously it is stupid to determine how well a person would fit in based on a few measures of music. Some orchestras invite candidates to sit in for a week or two, sometimes based on their present job descriptions, not an actual audition. For instance, I got a call from across the border a few years ago. Someone wondered why two violinists titled "concertmaster" from this side of the border were sitting on the vacant leader's chair over there, in a B-class orchestra even under Canadian standards. The local "heroes" didn't seem to be to Canadians' taste as neither was considered for the post. In principle, the tenure system is supposed be in place to weed out misfits, but in practice it often isn't used properly. Some jobs remain vacant year after year, as a conductor is expecting a new Heifetz to plop down from heaven into his group. Likewise, tenure is granted to people who until that point have watched their behavior but then turn into little monsters.

With supposedly two million Chinese studying the violin seriously in the Mainland, their overtaking all jobs in orchestras here and elsewhere is just a question of time. They will be able to play perfectly and just as masterfully as they perform in gymnastics. They are more serious about achievement than anyone in the Western culture and work far harder. Also, as they don't have a long tradition of playing a certain way, such as those trained in Russia, making them ideal members for an orchestra. They're willing to do exactly what the conductor wants and will never question his authority or musical ideas.

The two million may not make the greatest soloists unless they have been exposed to Western tastes early on, but great musicians and orchestras have never made good bedfellows. After all, the great Fritz Kreisler in his 20s wasn't considered worthy a position in the Vienna opera orchestra's second violin section. This was at a time when a typical orchestra player was rather primitive by today's standards. As vibrato was a no-no, they must have viewed Kreisler's beautiful sound and style as an oddity. We were lucky as the score was 0 for the Orchestra to 1 for Music.