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.