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