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