Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Live and Let Die

That was the name of Ian Fleming’s book and the resulting 1973 movie, the first to feature Roger Moore as James Bond. Not a huge critical success, it nevertheless became quite popular with audiences. It opened the eyes of many to drug trafficking.  The title song by that name, sung by Paul McCartney and the Wings, was also a big hit, being nominated for an Academy Award.

Today that title could be given to arts organizations. To quote an article on the mess in Detroit: In recent months, DSO music director Leonard Slatkin has openly acknowledged the possible need for a dramatic makeover. The debate has centered on two scenarios: sharply cutting the number of musicians under contract, or retaining the full complement of 85 musicians but reducing the contract to perhaps 35 weeks a year from 52 weeks.

If an organization such as an orchestra reduces its workforce, it becomes a “live and let die” situation. How to decide which employees are to survive and which are to be terminated? Of course this has become a common scenario in the business world from Microsoft to General Motors, but in the arts world such massive reductions will change the nature of the company. A big symphony ensemble would become a classical or even a chamber orchestra.  Whether it is for the better or worse is of course up to interpretation.

My fondest memories, as far as orchestra playing goes, are with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO at that time had its residence at the Ambassador College in Pasadena, which then was run by Herbert Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God (originally Radio Church of God). The church observed the Sabbath which meant that Saturday night concerts could start only after sundown, a somewhat tricky issue late in the spring with daylight savings time. Also, musicians coming to a rehearsal during Pasadena’s often very hot days were not supposed to wear shorts or expose a bare midriff.

The orchestra itself was going through some major changes. Their previous highly regarded gentleman of a conductor, Sir Neville Mariner, had just left, and a young brass-player-turned-ballet-conductor was named as his successor. During the first year or two under the new directorship there was a mass exodus of the orchestra’s best musicians, but since Los Angeles has an endless pool of excellent musicians working in the studios, finding replacements was not all that difficult. Some were hired based on being attractive to the conductor, but the overall level managed to remain high. The new conductor’s supporters would admit he was still green but that he’d grow. Sometimes the ego does just that but the skill level doesn’t match the growth. At its best, often with a guest on the podium, the orchestra could play splendidly; especially the woodwinds and French horns were better than those of the Philharmonic. Probably the high points of my five years were two tours with Helmuth Rilling and his Gächinger Kantorei, during one of which I served as the group’s concertmaster.

The orchestra was just the the right size to be able to travel and we were on the road constantly. We served communities within 2-3 hour radius from L.A., from Santa Barbara to El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego with an excellent medium-sized hall. We had first rate soloists and most accompaniments benefit from an orchestra of that size. A string virtuoso didn’t have to battle with the orchestra, neither was a pianist forced to break  strings of the Steinway. The diminutive but wonderful Alicia de Larrocha sounded just perfect every time. If the work performed called for additional instruments, finding good extras was no problem. I have always known that people come to concerts to hear their favorite soloist, not to waste their time on some unfamiliar orchestral work which some conductor has an urge to perform and then possibly record. LACO as a group basically went to the people, instead of having the people come to them. Audiences like to attend concerts and other event in their own community and understandably so. In the greater Los Angeles area we performed in numerous colleges and even high schools, and it was in those places I sensed the greatest appreciation.

A few weeks back I was flipping channels and saw an excellent cross-over violinist, 28-year-old David Garrett, perform in a fascinating show in his native Germany, during a fundraiser for the local PBS station. Classically trained by such famous violinists as Ida Händel and Itzakh Perlman, he played his amplified violin extraordinarily well, even when combined with music of “the other side”. It was a show worthy of a pop star, with fancy lighting effects and giant screens that displayed close-ups. The audience went wild and for a good reason. I was wondering what their reaction would have been if the same artist stood in a penguin outfit in front of a typical symphony orchestra, playing the Beethoven concerto, observed from a distance.

We expect everything to be such a show these days. When was the last time a motion picture, which told a simple but powerful story without any special effects, did well at the box office? You might find one in France or another European country, but in our country we are stuck with the familiar Hollywood formula of success: a couple famous movie stars and most importantly, action-packed special effects trying to outdo anything seen on screen before. An orchestra or chamber music concert, not to mention a recital, fares very poorly in this regard. An audience sits far away and sees almost no motion, except a small figure on the podium who looks like he/she is trying to learn to fly and not very successfully. It is just a question of time when someone will install big screens in a concert hall and have cameras zoom in where the action is. That, of course, has already happened in sports arenas. Then the question will be: why not transmit the images directly to a high-definition screen in one’s home and pump up the volume as high as necessary? Parts of  Symphonie fantastique might actually shatter some glass!

I shall visit the topic of Live and Let Die again after the New Year. In the meantime, here’s to your health! Kippis, Skål and L’Chaim!
Roger Moore as James Bond

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Is An Artist Worth These Days?

Apparently, not that much. Every day seems to bring more bad news about financial disasters and resulting cuts. There are also numerous cases we don’t know about or are not supposed to. Perhaps an orchestra is threatening to go on strike as the administration’s demand of a double-digit  percent pay reduction is kept hush-hush by both the musicians and the organization itself. In addition there must be countless smaller arts groups in deep doo-doo, but they are not considered important enough to make the news. Many of these have either been forced to cut their seasons short or have downsized radically. For example, a former symphony orchestra may present fewer concerts and even then in chamber orchestra format, obviously for financial reasons.

This week we learned about an emergency loan of $14 million from local government to the Los Angeles Opera, to keep it afloat. The group had spent an enormous amount of money for next summer’s “Ring” production. As the local paper put it, the opera company had become too big to fail and the bailout in the style of Wall Street was necessary. They must have known for a long time that the funds would quickly dry up, yet went ahead with their grandiose and extremely costly plans. This is not that much different from what happened with certain investment and commercial banks and big corporations, such as AIG. Staging Wagner’s cycle will never bring back the money sunk into the production and, in my humble opinion, such plans are reckless today and should be put on ice until much later. Placido Domingo’s other opera company in our nation’s capital recently announced a smaller season and there was no further mention of their “Ring” which was canceled a year or so ago. Knowing what an economic mess L.A. and California in general are in, there are a lot of very upset people down there who consider financial help of such magnitude, for an elitist cause, a crime.

Leonard Slatkin has postponed his return to the podium in Detroit many times after a heart attack. Reading rather depressing news about the financial situation in that city one understands why he is in no hurry to come back to a situation that could do damage to a healthy person, not to mention one with heart problems. Also, the famed Cleveland Orchestra has its share of troubles. Among other suffering opera companies is Atlanta which has to cut its budget and number of productions for next year.

Although this is not the case universally, most musicians feel some kind of entitlement to their jobs and often insanely large salaries in the top orchestras and refuse to yield as far as their pay, the most expensive part of the budget, is considered. They must see themselves as irreplaceable, although in truth they all could be replaced with fresh talent from the pool of thousands or perhaps tens of thousands. Yes, they are eager to bring up the word experience, but a truly talented young instrumentalist will learn on the job quicker than any of the old-timers is willing to admit. Based on all the auditions I’ve been present in during my long musically active life, I know that in the ranks of orchestra musicians there are a whole lot who got their jobs when interest to play in their ensemble was low, as was the skill level of applicants. Today they would have no chance in finding a comparable job. Unions are, of course, determined to protect their members, just as is the case with teachers nationwide. That is why it would be essential to have a re-evaluation of each individual every so often and throw out the protection in place currently. A miserably bad teacher stays in a city’s system, preventing a young, eager, passionate and talented colleague from helping our youth and schools. Never mind the arts, education is a most important element in a society as it sets up young individuals for life. Add music and arts appreciation to the curriculum and have it taught by capable and inspiring people, and perhaps two decades from now an opera, a concert or a play may still have an audience.

A suggestion for a short-term solution to a fiscal crisis: since musicians of an orchestra insist that they are all equally important, have everybody be compensated with the same amount, even after a necessary cut in base pay, until matters improve radically. This would apply to the music and executive directors as well, and of course to principals and concert-masters and mistresses. That would indicate true solidarity, the backbone of union thinking. On the other hand, since the organization's MD and ED have made fortunes, especially if they have remained in their position for a really long time, they could easily forgo compensation entirely or make large contributions to their employer, just like Baltimore's Marin Alsop just did by giving a $100,000 to the orchestra's educational initiative, OrchKids.

It’ll be curious to witness what 2010 will bring with it. I have a pretty strong sense about it and my intuition is seldom wrong. Sometimes it takes longer for matters to take the direction I foresee, but eventually it seems to happen.

Happy first night of Hanukkah!
illustration by talvi

Monday, December 07, 2009

Non-Profit, Really?

Perhaps it is because of my background but I have always had an issue with the American concept of what constitutes a non-profit organization. This time of the year the phone rings almost non-stop. Most numbers I know by heart (in 95% of the cases the Caller ID says “unknown”) and I don’t pick up. Some call so frequently that they are on an automatically blocked list, not ringing here at all. If I happen to answer, the telemarketer usually identifies the organization he/she is working for and thanks me for past support even though I have never had anything to do with them. Since it is nearing the year’s end, they rush to explain that my contribution will be tax-deductible. I have learned to ask if they are a professional fundraiser and what percentage their cut is, and also how much (or rather, little) of the funds collected actually go to the cause. At this point most of them hang up on me, unless they are proud of their track record, in which case I might be willing to help a humanitarian cause.

The IRS has to give an organization their stamp of approval before it can qualify as a non-profit. However, the tax authorities don’t have the manpower to do any investigating and usually give it their blessing. Occasionally fraudulent organizations surface although they probably represent the tip of an iceberg. Recently in New York a totally corrupt “non-profit” was discovered. It had given absolutely none of its collected donations to help the homeless but instead filled the wallets and bank accounts of the people behind this scheme. Much of the money after 9/11 or Katrina never reached the intended victims but provided a cushy income to the founders of new non-profits that sprouted almost overnight.

Many affluent donors give large sums of money because of the tax benefits it offers them. They may also give a gift in poorly performing stock toward an endowment or overvalued real estate. Many actually end up making money by giving it away. A few years back it was popular for common folks to donate their old motor vehicles, often not even in working condition, and get a tax-deductible receipt for much more than the piece of junk was worth. The tax people were quick to pay attention to this and one no longer sees billboards advertising the previously popular method of lowering an ordinary Joe’s tax burden.

Back home, at least when I was still living there, donations offered no tax benefits and were only given by people for causes they saw important, such as to war veterans that the government had neglected for decades, and often to projects in faraway poor countries such as Namibia. If one were to give a thousand euros, that means donating the earnings of two thousand or more, due to the high taxation. Most of what operates with collected money here is paid for by the local or state government in Europe. Nobody would even think of donating money to a hospital or university, not to mention a museum. In America, Scandinavians have a reputation of being stingy and keeping their purse strings tightly closed. This is a purely cultural thing, a built-in way of reasoning.

I think that the United States should change the present rules and laws, and lower the amount of allowed donations to the same that political candidates can receive. Depending on the type of organization, this amount could be deductible, mainly if it is for humanitarian causes. People will give if they believe in a cause, as was evident in both Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the last election and the primary before that. If mega-donations no longer existed or the donor would be taxed for having given a gift, an ordinary person would be more likely to give his $100, or even $1,000, knowing that this contribution mattered. A rich donor would no longer be able to automatically sit on the board and decide how the organization should be operated. No more parties at the executive’s mansion for the well-to-do. If such parties needed to go on, why not choose people on random or through a lottery system? Someone, who had donated $50 when he/she really couldn’t afford to give more, would be pleased indeed to get such an invitation.

In order to qualify for a nonprofit status, certain guidelines should be met. The word NON-profit means just that. How do you justify that when an orchestra pays its musicians $125k, its executive director $500k and the man (or in rare cases, the woman) waving a stick an amount that would be more likely seen in professional sports than in the arts? I would argue that this business model is very much for-profit, at least very profitable to the people employed. “Non-profit” gives an impression that population at large will somehow benefit. With a food bank, a free medical clinic, a homeless or women’s shelter that clearly is the case, but many would question an opera company, an orchestra or a university which spends millions on its sports program. At least these organizations should offer free tickets or great scholarships for the needy. A major hospital is eager to raise funds but does it ever translate to forgiving people for their medical bills which are going to bankrupt them?

How about counting the average salary of people working in an institution? Make the limit somewhere in the 50k-60k range. As colleges and universities routinely pay little to their faculty, not to mention others such as custodians and librarians, a school president’s multi-million salary is easily absorbed. An orchestra such as the Oregon Symphony would no doubt qualify; however, the Philadelphia Orchestra would not most likely, no matter how much they complain about their financial situation. But if people really care about a cause, they’ll come forward to help. A baseball or football team isn’t asking for handouts to survive. They manage to pay their star players’ insane salaries because the 50,000  fans are willing to show up and buy tickets. Who knows, perhaps knowing that the “new” arts are for the people and by the people, there would be renewed interest in classical music.

The other option is to make an orchestra, an opera company or a ballet a state institution, such as a public university, and have the government decide on salaries and artistic matters. This, in my mind, would be the preferred solution. In the public model I bet all such organizations would be downsized and expected to be on the road constantly, to bring an art experience to people who presently live outside the close radius of the existing barn-like auditoriums. With smaller groups, there would be an almost endless number of performing arts centers in local communities, usually attached to their high schools. Locals are known to have greater pride and much more interest in their own events than in something happening in a distant big city.

The above is meant to be more food for thought, in creating a sustainable model for the arts. Just be careful and chew it well, so you don’t choke.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Perks and Benefits

A major part of an organization’s expenses is providing health insurance and pension benefits. While employed, we don’t think about the money spent by the employer and blindly think that we are covered and taken care of no matter what.

This, of course, is wishful or illusory thinking. Most Chapter 7 bankruptcies are caused by medical bills as a result of a major illness or accident. And yet the majority of those filing have initially been insured. Insurance companies routinely deny payment for any reason they see fit and it takes numerous letters and/or threat of a lawsuit to take the patient seriously. An illiterate nation as we are, writing the first letter is a major undertaking and even the thought of having to produce subsequent letters is simply too much for many, if not most. A lawyer will of course be happy to help, but good luck trying to cover those enormous fees from the insurer even if they change their minds. Chemotherapy in a hospital may be covered, but God help you if you have to take a new drug in pill form and pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket monthly, as the treatment will fall under prescription benefits.

We are in the middle of a heated health reform discussion but so far none of the solutions proposed would really remedy the situation. Perhaps the one sixth of the population, which presently has no insurance and costs the taxpayer an arm and a leg since they get treated through an emergency room, will be better off and have some kind of coverage. But for the average Joe the Fiddler matters are not going to improve.

Since this country is involved in two war fronts, one of which, Afghanistan, will take a a decade or longer, our government needs more money. One of the ways I see as certain is taxing health and other benefits. This is when the employees will realize how insanely much their policies, which blindly cover everyone with pre-existing conditions, actually costs. Pressure by healthy young individuals will emerge to have the insurance money added to their salary and make them be responsible for getting their own deal. Anyone who has had to deal with a Cobra payment knows how exorbitant the premiums are. Why would a twenty-something single healthy person volunteer to pay $1,200-1,500 per month for their employers plan if, on their own, they could find coverage for one-tenth of it? Granted, it would probably come with a large deductible and a lousy prescription plan, if any. However, people in that age group tend to be healthy and might even gamble and opt for no insurance at all, unless it would be mandated by law.

Our tax laws differ from most other Western countries. For instance lottery winnings here are taxed, over there not. But any kind of a benefit is generally regarded as hidden income and tacked into your tax bill. If your employer provides you with a car (it may well be necessary for your job), not to mention a house or apartment (that you may need for company parties or a high-tech home office), all that is carefully calculated by the tax officials and added to your income. In many countries you don’t even fill a tax form: the Big Brother has all the data on you, other than what you might have made under the table, in the gray economy.

We cannot print new money endlessly. We are already charging our wars to China which in essence owns the once-mighty United States. It is sort of ironic that we try to force our style of democracy on third world countries which are used to doing things their way and by no means desire to have an American lifestyle. Yes, perhaps they would enjoy our cars and relatively cheap gasoline, but just imagine the chaos India and China would be in if every household had one or two cars. Traffic there already is a nightmarish mess. We feared another political system than the Soviet Union was promoting, often forcefully, to the point that we almost started a nuclear war because of their relations with Cuba. Yet it is the communist China that we presently depend on, a country whose system is the opposite of our beliefs.

So, taxes will have to rise. Most likely some people in the congress will eventually become brave and suggest that the rich pay more, as the regular wage earners cannot be milked disproportionately. It is impossible to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Yet, the tax burden will surely go up for all and those states, our Washington included, that presently don’t have state tax, must eventually change their course in this matter.

Let’s go back to arts organizations which I wrote about in my previous post. What, if instead of providing expensive health insurance, they would include a certain amount in every paycheck and have their employees, musicians, dancers and actors take care of their own package. They should still offer an insurance policy for those who don’t qualify for individual coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Obviously such a health plan, where most participants were actually sick, would cost a lot more, but the orchestra, ballet or theater would contribute the same sum everyone is getting and the employee the significant balance. Would this be unfair? Of course it would if you have a socialist view of life, but not so if you firmly believe in capitalism and the American way. A young and healthy musician would happily pocket an extra $12k a year and might be willing to take a sizable pay cut, thus helping the suffering organization.

Also, instead of money going into a pension fund, such contributions could and should be given directly to the worker, to invest in a way he/she sees fit. In thirty years such an investment would yield much more than the measly pension many presently provide. It would also free the “artist” from having to work for X number of years for the same employer to be fully vested, often the reason why people put up with intolerable bosses and work conditions in general. In many European countries pension contributions go directly to the state and upon your retirement (usually at a mandated age around 65) you will be paid according to the total earned for various employers.

Above should make anybody realize that having a young orchestra would be a lot cheaper than our present way where seniors seem to have seniority as long as they can breathe. To every person in a field who is holding a high-paying job with all the perks and is horrified by my money-saving ideas: what gives you the right to feel more entitled to your privileged lifestyle than a capable young person currently un- or underemployed? Are they all doomed to wait around for you to croak? You believe in a socialist model with almighty unions; the rest of us are stuck with good old-fashioned American capitalism, unless one works for Wall Street or some other Big Business which Capitol Hill has deemed too big to fail.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reinventing the Wheel

Let’s face it: the current, or past, form of classical music business is no longer viable. There are many reasons for it, from grossly inflated expenses to general diminished interest in the art form. We were never intended to have 52-week seasons for orchestras or such fat paychecks for musicians, some of whom only work a few hours per month.

Shrink the size of an orchestra to about 60, large enough to play the classics we love, and hire extras when needed. Of course a contrabassoonist or other such instrumentalist will complain, but when it comes to making money, you’d be surprised for how little people are willing to play. Perhaps an individual chose such an instrument in the first place knowing what an easy life it would be after getting into a group.

Reduce salaries and change the pay scale, similar to what people earn in many other professions. How about a base salary of $30k, plus then a per-service fee? The more you work, the more you earn. Obviously the per-service compensation would be slightly higher for an extra musician. Get rid of doubling and cartage. And what prevents a musician from grabbing a chair and a stand, freeing the need for so many stage hands, expensive as the latter are due to union contracts?

No one could imagine a ballet company where most of the dancers are well past their prime or weigh 300 pounds. The company, in order to be competitive, wants to have new young blood continuously. Everyone knows that a dancer’s career is short. Injuries set in and the body at 45 isn’t as flexible as it was at 20. Unions representing ballet dancers can’t promote seniority and prevent new fresh talent from coming in.

The same should be true for orchestras. Just because an up-in-years flautist brags that he has never played as well in his life doesn’t mean much. Maybe he’s truthful and his skills were lousier before. I bet  there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of younger ones without a  job who can play circles around this old man. An elderly brass player’s lips cannot possibly be in the same shape as someone else’s who just graduated from Curtis or Juilliard. Yes, the experience may be lacking with the youngsters, but as instrumentalists they are far superior and learn fast on the job.

In the past model a string  player gets a position and receives his/her tenure, which simply means there is not real reason to keep in shape. Playing in a large section makes intonation become nontonation as orchestritis rapidly sets in. Yet there are an enormous number of young violinists, violists, cellist and bassists who play remarkably well but who don’t have a chance to show their stuff as the old fuddy-duddies refuse to step aside.

When you go to a game, you expect to find the fastest and most skilled players on the field. Yes, in professional sports some are paid fortunes but they also have tens of thousands of paying spectators, willing to make the circus possible. To a sports fan and an audience member in the arts, entertainment value is the only criteria that matters. Leave all out the nonsense about “artists”: someone sawing away on the violin is nothing but a worker bee, a slave to the organization. An instrumentalist has to accept the ideas of the conductor, no matter how much they go against his own.

Many ballet companies take care that their dancers have something to fall back on, by schooling them in another profession. Why don’t orchestras follow suit? Make every personal contract a short one and at the end of the initial five years, have the individual compete for the job with outsiders, behind a screen, in other words re-audition. This could take place in, let’s say, two-year intervals after the first period. In the meantime the orchestra will have sent the musician to a community  or other college to prepare for “real” life. That would be money well spent.

The President of the country is elected for four years, with a possibility of another term if people agree. Why should we treat music directors or principal conductors any differently? There is a lot of deserving talent out there who never get a chance in our present system. And how much does the President earn annually? Isn’t running the country more demanding than waving a stick in front of a half full, gray-haired hall? Tie the salary to that of a public servant. Orchestras are non-profits, after all. With a lot of new openings a capable baton wielder should have no problem finding a new gig, at least for a while. How would the audience benefit from all this? There would be a lot of new and interesting interpretations for one.  And wouldn’t seeing new faces and hearing fresh musical voices be exciting to an audience? I have always envied the audiences in the Big Apple, not because they have their boring same–old–same–old resident orchestra, but because new ones visit the city every week. Old man Heifetz played well indeed, but never hearing other violinists would have kept people away in no time. And Heifetz was unique, our orchestras are not.

I shall continue reinventing the wheel so keep tuned in. Make the pitch a bright 442, a nice compromise between the Europeans and us.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Yes, even I know there is a hip-hop artist in Los Angeles by that name, but this story isn’t about him, in spite of the picture below. Sorry, fans.

This past summer we learned about the New York Times selling their well-respected classical music radio station WQXR to Univision. Off the air went a powerful transmitter at 96.3 on the dial, to move far to the right, to 105.9 and to a much weaker signal. The station’s AM transmitter had been leased to Disney a decade prior. Most listeners prefer looking for stations in the mid-range of the dial so fewer people searching for serious content will accidentally tune into the station. Also, the coverage of the new transmitter is about half the area of the old one. Naturally, this doesn’t translate into half the listeners because population gets denser near Manhattan, but the drop is significant nonetheless.

When I first arrived here as a student in the late sixties, there were numerous stations offering classical fare on both coasts where I lived. FM radio was still rather new and most people depended on AM, along with their eight-track. The combination of the latter two was standard equipment in most cars. People were not demanding high fidelity. FM or UKW (Ultrakurzwellen) had become popular in Germany which had severe restriction with a possible propaganda weapon as a result of their defeat in the war. They were forced to go in the direction of frequency modulation, to the delight of music fans. The Soviet Union didn’t want Finland to have AM stations of any significance and thus my home country was in the “ULA” ( Finnish for ultra short wave) camp early on. We had only one powerful long wave station situated in Lahti, operating until 1993, and very weak AM transmitters in a couple cities, with instructions to dampen their transmissions toward Karelia and Leningrad in the east and Estonia in the south. The Soviet FM system used a different spectrum so their radios couldn’t pick up Finnish stations without illegal modifications. Even when the Finns obeyed the restriction, the Russians would transmit static on the same AM frequencies, to prevent their population from being “corrupted”.

The other morning I was driving our daughter to her school near the Seattle Center. I was taking a different route from the usual and passed a boarded-up business at a street corner. There were big signs saying the that space was for lease. Something about the location seemed familiar and on my way back I drove around that block again. Sure enough, one could see the text “KING-FM” over the plywood. At some point, this station had been a source of pride for the city, operating from the top floor of the big KING-5 building on Dexter Avenue. Later it was given to a non-profit group which in turn was linked to some of the local arts organizations. Frankly, I had forgotten about the existence of said station, as it mainly broadcasted musical wallpaper or mediocre recordings of local groups ad nauseam. My car has twelve presets for FM and it hasn’t been one of them for a long time. I did some digging on the web and indeed the station has been hit by the same economy that is affecting most of us. Jobs have been terminated and obviously the station itself has had to relocate to a less expensive space somewhere.

The waning interest in classical music is not just an American phenomena. A couple days ago I got an email from the Finnish Soloists Association, asking all members to contact the state-owned Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, regarding their planned major cuts in both production of classical music as a form of recordings, and broadcasting itself. Much of the latter would take place during the night hours according to the plans. The savings for the company would be minimal but clearly someone there doesn’t appreciate this variety of music. Perhaps the idea of sending it during the night is a suggestion that such music will put anyone to sleep. I used to do a lot a recordings for YLE so I can understand how my colleagues back home feel.

My country had an independent classical station but the head of the company got involved in criminal activity with messy finances. Today they send classical music only via the web at classicradio.fi. Wouldn’t it figure that even in Finland one would find crooks among those who try to influence culture. Russia I could understand and the U.S. as well, but my homeland is known for its honesty.

Thank goodness for NPR with its informative programs and all that vintage jazz many of their stations send. When it comes to classical, I like to be in charge of what reaches my ears. That is exactly why I have a CD-changer in my car.  Personally I don’t find classical relaxing but rather the opposite, a source of anxiety. No wonder many businesses purposely blast this type of music through speakers on their parking lots, to keep drug dealers and other unwanted away. A fast food joint downtown pipes classical to rid the premises of homeless people. Why does this music have such an effect? Perhaps these unfortunates associate this genre with arrogant elitist oppressors, the ones who caused their jobs to disappear in the first place and put them on a slippery slope. Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles would suffer if they force-fed Wagner to their elderly Jewish Shoah survivors.

When I have been put on hold and yet another version of the Four Seasons is piped through the telephone, I tend to hang up. Modern Jazz Quartet and Bachianas Brasileiras number 5 would be another story.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Choosing a New Conductor

Today we read an interview of Bernard Madoff and how amazed he was that his gigantic Ponzi scheme wasn't discovered earlier. At the end he had to go public with it in order for others to realize what he had been up to all those years. It was as if a conductor, perhaps another Jewish poster boy, would tell his board and supporters that after a quarter century on the podium he was nothing but a a fake, a fraud. May be there is more in common with two such men than anyone could guess, both sociopaths with no conscience.

We are gullible people. As on paper every investor with Bernie got incredibly high returns, nobody questioned how that was possible. Money is God after all. Before our financial meltdown a little more than a year ago, private colleges increased their tuition to the level of more expensive schools, to "prove" that they were equally good. Needless to say they became more popular. Kids and their parents snicker at more affordable state schools, unless they are situated in another state and thus as expensive as private ones. There are people willing to pay top dollar at Neiman Marcus for the very same product found elsewhere for much less. Just because they stupidly insist on overpaying, their acquired goods are "better" than if they had done their homework and shopped at a discount store or online.

In music, you'll find teachers in every city who charge twice the standard or even more. Some parents are impressed by the large fee and are duped into thinking that this greedy individual must be great. Never mind that he/she isn't able to perform in public. Neither can another violin teacher who accepts only students who aspire to become "professionals". After performing a movement or two of the mandatory Khachaturian concerto, learned by imitation at an early age, most of these kids will disappear from the scene. The said piece certainly isn't one of my favorites. I remember the esteemed Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi telling me about recording it in Moscow on a xylophone. The percussive music suits that instrument far better than the violin.

The Utah Symphony, another troubled arts organization, recently chose a new Music Director. The process was done in secrecy and many were surprised to learn that a relatively unknown Swiss maestro, Thierry Fischer, was chosen. Quite a few names had been mentioned as possibly candidates in the Salt Lake City media, among them an individual that the orchestra rejected for the second time, decades apart. Usually orchestra musicians are involved in such an important decision, or they would like to be. But this business has changed a lot and a board chairperson or the organization's executive director acts more like a CEO of a big corporation. We all know how much they value the opinion of a worker.

Many important American orchestras are presently without a music director. Chicago finally has Riccardo Muti as a music director designate, after several years with Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez guiding the excellent group under different titles. Philadelphia lacks one, although Charles Dutoit came to the rescue by agreeing to serve as their chief conductor. Leonard Slatkin finally took over Detroit which had been adrift since the departure of Neeme Järvi.

It is interesting how negatively European conductors view American music director positions, although our country would love to have them instead of home-grown ones. Perhaps the good and capable conductors would just like to make music as they do back home, and not be involved in fund-raising and all the brown-nosing that comes with it. Having to repeatedly kiss the cheek of an old dried-up but wealthy lady or to pretend to admire an elderly gentleman's opinion of orchestral sound while his hearing aid whistles may be a turn-off to a true maestro. Too often an American conductor resembles a General Motors or Ford vehicle. Yes, most of the time they transport people as expected, but driving one is hardly as exciting as being behind the wheel of a Porsche, a Mercedes or a BMW.
a Maestro for Halloween by talvi

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Happy Boys Club

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that majority of the world's affairs are taken care by a clique of some kind. Even heads of state surround themselves with loyalists and cronies. Just think of the people in George W's inner circle, most of who eventually became disgraced for a reason. Decisions by boards have been decided in advance by a small group of insiders; voting is but a rubber stamp. If you don't agree, too bad: you'll be a former board member in no time. Insider trading takes place on Wall Street every day, however illegal it is. In classical music, a conductor has a small circle of friends and supporters in his band. A musician's success in an audition depends on how likely he or she'll become one of these pawns. The actual professional skill has very little to do with winning a job.

Such cliques and clubs are nothing new. Years ago, to be a successful violinist in America one had to have a relationship with Ivan Galamian and/or the famous virtuoso Isaac Stern. The latter would travel to Israel yearly, listen to the talented youngsters play, and point his finger saying you, you and you will come to the United States. The rest were doomed to become members of the Israeli Philharmonic or accept low-paying teaching jobs. In New York, there was a circle of talented gay composers, all close friends, from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein. They pretty much had a monopoly on whose works got performed. If you fell out of favor, you became a Nobody. David Diamond was one of those less fortunate and rightfully bitter about it.

My last visit to Los Angeles resulted in an interesting conversation with a former colleague. The Pacific Northwest is not exactly a focal point in people's lives down there but there was some curiosity from this person's part. How's the Womanizer these days? He has sort of fallen off the radar screen; is he still up there after all these years? I had to ask which womanizer my friend was referring to, as several individuals fit the term. The matter was clarified. He's probably no longer after young females but rather competing for the attention (and perhaps money) of an older generation. More I didn't know as the person no longer is part of my life. What about the Deadly Duo? Again, as several such combinations exist, I had to repeat the question. The ones with a foot fetish; they're not missed around here. Then I understood. Don't know much about their current affairs. They're probably as busy trying to destroy others' lives and careers as a couple decades ago. For some reason the famous Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus and the Carpenter popped into my head. Those poor misled oysters!

This chat made me think of a discussion my wife and I had with a full-of-himself gay man here years ago. He was bragging about being part of the local Happy Boys Club. The names dropped included some important and powerful local people, from a media critic to a head of a large arts organization. We were made to understand that this club (some members might have been bisexual or still in the closet) pretty much decided who would succeed in this town. This conversation sent shivers down our spines at the time. We are far from being homophobic: both of us have counted many gay and lesbian people among our closest friends. Personally, I have nothing against gay marriage: if two people are in love and want to take care of each other, their sexual orientation shouldn't be an issue. Many of the most gifted and creative individuals throughout history have been gay, or for that matter left-handed, also formerly considered another flaw of character. True, a homosexual critic tried to destroy my career in my teens as I rejected his advances, but as a group gays don't make me feel as uncomfortable as an old heterosexual letch desiring a young woman, possibly a daughter. It is also obvious to me that Nature has to do something about earth's overpopulation and thus an growing number of people are born who won't add to the increase.

But back to the local Club: there was a time when some of its members were eager to ruin my family's well-being. But it is amazing how matters resolve with time and patience. Many of these "Klansmen" have met with an untimely death or are dying; others have lost their jobs and with it their influence. A tiger without its teeth and claws is pitiful indeed. Perhaps we ought to rename it Unhappy Boys Club. The clique has gone the way of once mighty Diners Club in North America, the first charge card. Now it is just another MasterCard, owned by Discover Card yet.

I have no illusions that such cliques won't reemerge in the future or are perhaps being formed as I'm writing this. However, at this stage of my life, it no longer matters. The art scene is rapidly going down the drain and I can't claim to care. Perhaps our children or grandchildren will witness a rebirth from the ashes of the phoenix bird. It has to grow from the ground up. The present model, a sandbox for the aged well-to-do, is most passé indeed. After all, who in his right mind would want to watch half of a local baseball team play against the other half, week after week?

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Victorian drawing

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Dark World

Life is often not what it logically should be. We picture goodness as the opposite of evil, genius of craziness. Yet more often than not, such qualities in a human being resemble a circle, like the face of a clock. An immensely gifted person may be sane at 11:59 and fly over the cuckoo's nest at 12:01. There is sometimes very little difference between a genius and a madman. Love can turn into hate and rage with a snap of a finger; two such opposite feelings, just a tiny bit apart on life's circle.

Mental health and a balanced life can never be taken for granted. Our natural reaction is to stay away from a person who's going through a rough period in his/her life. In the eyes of the affected person it is us who turn into monsters and crazies. A key to treating such an imbalance is that the person suffering admits help is needed, that the world isn't mad, but that the individual perceiving it as such might be instead. Yet any health care professional knows that treating an ill person often fails because the patient feels sane. Medication may be taken for a while but then discontinued. In our system there is the added element of expense and the lack of any kind of a safety net.

So, we try to run away from people who are out of the ordinary and whose behavior may be hard to take. As a nation, we like to think that if we close our eyes, a problem doesn't exist. Didn't we have a popular President who said that there are no unemployed and poor people, just ones who don't like to work, or that there are no homeless, just people who don't like living in a house or an apartment? If one surrounds himself will nothing but other well-to-do people, in that world there indeed is no poverty.

Artists, whether painters, musicians or writers, often happen to be on the borderline in the sanity circle and probably more likely past the middle point the more talented and creative they are. Many have been the most productive during an acute phase of what the "normal" people would call a mental illness. Masterpieces have been painted and written in such a state, as well as under the influence of recreational drugs, today illegal but not necessarily so in history. One could argue that the more gifted an artist is, the more likely he/she is to be in very fragile mental health. The great Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was rather mad, at least in the eyes of his very religious family, a true black sheep. When he died, no relative saw any value in the paintings left behind, including the different versions of the famed "Scream". They were given away, made to disappear, as works of a nut possessed by demons. History is full of examples of similar stories.

Of course, being on the "wrong" side of the clock is applicable to everyday people as well. Many such people do dot fit in our society and end up having trouble with the law or as homeless on the street. One study mentioned in a BBC program estimated the percentage of schizophrenic people approximately equal the number we sentence to prisons in this jail-happy country of ours. Clearly locking a suffering soul in such an institution is an inhumane act but we do that to remove them from our midst. Yes, imprisonment is expensive but cheaper than mental hospitals or even long-term outpatient care, as most of these unfortunate people do not have insurance. Even if they do, mental health is usually equally well covered as visiting the dentist, where a root canal and a mandatory crown more than wipe out the annual benefit amount many times over, even in the best of plans.

However, there are situations where we cannot ignore such illness, namely when it involves a family member. An aging parent may suffer from Alzheimer's, another one from a phobia that prevents a normal life. The situation becomes tragic when a raging soul belongs to a member of an immediate family, a spouse or a child. An affected person may suddenly see you as his/her archenemy and threaten to destroy your life. A mother may suffer from serious delusions and paranoia, and feel certain that her daughter is after every knick-knack is her possession. The child's request to have a copy of a key to her house is an indication of ill intentions and plans of theft, when in fact the child is just concerned about the well-being of an aging parent. A spouse (or especially an ex-one) might write terrible letters to all corners of the globe, to make sure that everyone knows what a monster or a criminal yesterday's love is and to do his/her best to be as destructive as possible, short of outright killing this former mate. When such hateful behavior comes from a grown child that a person has always dearly loved, it hurts the most and is tough to swallow and understand. One just has to go on loving and praying that it will all go away. The wrong way is to close one's heart forever but one has to protect him/herself. Why would anybody wish to be abused?

Another one of life's circles involves friends. A quarter to the hour a person pretends to be your best pal with nothing but good thoughts and wishes in mind. Along come a few malicious people who help to push your minute hand well into the other side and all of a sudden this friend is your worst enemy, ready to turn your life into hell. But the same clock ticks for the former friend and the minute hand is stuck at quarter after in no time at all, while in the victim's life it again has passed the half-hour mark and sun is rising after the night.

Actually, I think it is a mad world, a very black one. Universe is filled with dark matter we hardly understand, yet it amounts to much of its mass. But in the blackness it is easy to see the shining lights from stars and galaxies, the bright diamonds from the hearts of those who truly love and care. At age 61 one has seen a lot of it, if not all.
Munch's "Scream" from 1893

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bach to Basics

Anybody who has studied the arts, such as painting, knows that an important part of the training, especially in the past, was to copy old masterworks. For instance Manet spent years in museums, trying to understand the secret of how the Flemish masters handled light, or how and why earlier Italian masters included very detailed landscapes in their portraits. In short, in order to create something new and unique, one had to have an understanding of art’s history. The same is true with music: a composer ought to know why Debussy sounds like Debussy, Hindemith like Hindemith. Part of general music education is to understand counterpoint and harmony, or to analyze a fugue. Unfortunately very few performing artists are interested in the past performance practices, perhaps wanting to stay away from anything “old-fashioned” that could possibly ruin their reputation as instrumentalists. Yes, there have been copycats: Erick Friedman wanted to mimic his one-time teacher Jascha Heifetz and succeeded in doing so rather well. Many spoon-fed students have no voice of their own: one famed violin teacher’s students all make the same glissandi in identical places. Teachers are notoriously inflexible and hard-headed: they teach as they themselves were taught. This is very human. Don’t most parents raise their children in the same manner they were raised? I had four copies of the Tchaikovsky concerto, all with very different fingerings and bowings, and I was expected to execute them properly. Naturally, I later took what I liked from each and added my own to the mix. Gabriel Bouillon had a very simple principle regarding fingerings: in fast passages make them as simple and clear as possible and save the fancy finger work for the more melodic passages. Ricardo Odnoposoff, himself supposedly the favorite student of Carl Flesch, insisted that I use his teacher’s editions, yet changed most of the fingerings.

In my youth it wasn’t easy to learn about performance traditions in music. I has an opportunity to play for a couple old-timers born in the 1800s and learned a lot from them. My first teacher (after being self-taught initially) was a longtime student of Jacques Thibaud (the only male, he used to say, as the maestro had an eye for young pretty females). He had inherited a lot of music with the great Frenchman’s markings, by his own hand. I remember when I was handed a copy of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and the entire slow fourth movement basically read 4-4-4-4-open string. As playing with the pinkie was almost unheard of (that’s why Fritz Kreisler’s fingerings in the printed music almost never use that digit), Thibaud must have had an unusually strong little finger and was able to produce a beautiful sound with it. Kreisler, of course, was famous for never using his own markings, playing even different notes from the printed page in his own compositions. My teacher had a vast collection of old 78s, many in bad shape, but I learned quickly how to filter the sound while transferring them to tape. Most French HMV recordings had been made using copper masters and during the occupation of most of France, the German army melted those down for war materials. I had the fortune of hearing and copying an early Thibaud recording, pre-vacuum tube amplification, the soloist standing right in front of the horn microphone, accompanied by the only source loud enough: a brass band. One side had d’Ambrosio’s Canzonetta, the other Gabriel-Marie’s La Cinquantaine. Thibaud was at his prime and the playing of those works probably among the greatest ever recorded.

Today it is rather easy to find historical recordings which have been transferred onto a compact disc. On them one finds great artists whose names are missing even from books. Not only are early 78s replicated but also the first experiments on wax rolls. One of my personal favorites is The Great Violinists, Recordings from 1900-1913, on Testament label. Of particular interest to me is the way movements are performed from J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. We hear Joseph Joachim in 1903, four years before his death and Pablo de Sarasate from the same year, five years before his passing. Present are also the great French pedagogue and soloist Henri Marteau whose Bach is ten years younger, Thibaud from 1904 and Joseph Szigeti from 1908. Since Joachim was responsible for resurrecting the works and publishing the first truly playable edition of them, with the help of his student, friend and colleague Adreas Moser, one is most interested in him. To my surprise Joachim’s interpretation seems contemporary and it would be hard to believe the recordings age if it weren’t for the scratchy sound. Vibrato is missing or very minimal, intonation and style exquisite. Sarasate plays the E-major Preludio like a virtuoso piece but even that sounds fresh. The Frenchmen and Szigeti sound a bit freer in style but their playing is a far cry from what the “norm” was to become in 15-20 years. The Roaring Twenties and following Great Depression left their imprint. Even baroque music was supposed to sound romantic and the more glissandi, vibrato and other effects were present, the better. No wonder Odnoposoff warned me about the Flesch edition: phrasing and most of the bowings are great, at least thought-provoking as the original is right underneath, but please, pay no attention to the fingerings which made every movement seem like the Air on the G-String. Heifetz, who for an unknown reason never let students use his own mentor’s editions, always played Leopold Auer’s David-influenced Chaconne with the 16th notes on the last page turning into triplets and them to 32nds. Very effective but hardly what Bach’s intention was, although I don’t think the composer would have minded as the performances were so fabulous every time.

Post-war interpretation of Bach changed a lot. Violinists from the Soviet Union started showing up in competitions and their approach with the all-steel strings and a certain hacking style became popular. Other Eastern European fiddlers played very similarly, such as the Polish Wanda Wilkomirska whose otherwise excellent Chaconne has all the trademarks of 1950-60s. In Germany style still remained akademisch and Wolfgang Schneiderhan recorded an absolutely perfect and pristine Chaconne. The only problem with it was that you couldn’t light a match and even smoke a cigarette in the same room as the recording sounds outright flammable, so extremely dry. Arthur Grumiaux played his Bach beautifully as did Nathan Milstein and many others, Henryk Szeryng included. In David Oistrakh’s Soviet Russia there was no real tradition in Bach or other German/Austrian composers. Even Mozart was off-limits unless a violinist was to participate (with the government’s blessings) in an international competition. Oistrakh had a somewhat odd preference to Bach’s violin/keyboard sonatas, not the composer’s most exciting works.

As a teacher, I think it almost criminal not to introduce gifted students to that part of our instrument’s history we nowadays have access to. Yes, the recordings hiss and high pitches are missing, but neither does the Mona Lisa look like it did after Leonardo da Vinci finished painting it. It is up to the individual to decide what is important. In my 20s I was teaching Wieniawski’s second concerto to a student at the Sibelius Academy and lent her a recording of Heifetz playing it. A week later she returned the LP and I asked how she liked it. Her reply said it all: “I don’t know, it wasn’t in stereo.”

First page of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Returning last month with my youngest one from Iceland and looking at the Cascades and sparkling waters of the Puget Sound reminded me of a similar event 42 years earlier, my first landing in the United States. I was just a little bit older than my daughter is now but had been living on my own since the age of fifteen. Back then it was a warm summer Sunday and the sight of what seemed like hundreds of sailboats made quite an impression. I felt like this could be a place I would be happy living in. The SAS flight then took off for Los Angeles after refueling. Once arriving there I was deeply disappointed. There was nothing green to be seen as far as vegetation went and the polluted air made my eyes tear. The taxi driver had no idea where my hotel in Westwood was located and obviously I wasn't of much help, not having even a map of the city. The next morning I decided to leave for a walk, looking for a place to have breakfast. Almost immediately I saw a sign "Coffee Shop" but being European, I assumed that was a place to buy beans or ground coffee. I headed east and after what felt like an eternity arrived in Beverly Hills. During the entire hike I was the only one walking, a strange experience for someone used to getting from place to place with the help of his feet. At least the breakfast at the original Brown Derby was tasty although I thought that the watery coffee was simply awful.

Just a couple days back I was out in Discovery Park during an unusually warm and sunny September day. I remembered my first visit in the park in 1983 when the Army reserves still used the area for training. The tall evergreens made me feel like I was back in Northern Europe and I decided that this city would indeed make a nice place to live. Little did I know that Seattle would represent both Paradise and Hell to us. Professionally locating here was probably a terrible mistake but the nature with its incredible views made a perfect surrounding for raising a second family. Our three Boston Terriers must have thought this was Heaven after the heat and dirty parks of Los Angeles. We bought a house with a big back yard mainly for them. The view of the mountains far in the distance was most pleasing and all the space with the five bedrooms meant that my older children and parents could all come and visit at the same time.

A long time has passed and we have come to accept the combination of Heaven and Hell. Somewhere in the middle there is Purgatory where non-profits and especially certain arts organizations seem to be stuck in these days. Well, that no longer is our concern. If they deserve to survive, let it be so, and if not, no tears will be shed. Times are difficult all over and although groups here are very hush-hush, everyone with a brain is aware of the dangers and even possible meltdowns lurking around the corner. I read today that the Philadelphia Orchestra will need $15 million in the next two years just to survive. This is an orchestra that represented the very best in the field when I was growing up, a far cry from a porkestra in some provincial hick town. Philadelphia used to be a place where the truly well-to-do people of the Northeast lived and it is hard to believe there still wouldn't be plenty of money around. The combination of sky-high salaries and expensive new performing centers has proven a lethal combination in many cities. A great part of the housing market collapse was also caused by people who wanted to live beyond their means. A home is supposed to be a home, not a palace, unless money is no object and one is the ruler of the land. In my childhood we lived in a mansion nine months out of the year but in a humble cottage for the long summer vacation. Although it was fun practicing the violin in a living room the size of a small hall, my fondest memories are from the primitive summer home which at the time didn't even have electricity, not to mention running water.

The Pacific Northwest, at least in its arts, is the place for three R's: our artistic "heroes" are often Retired, Rejected or Retarded. This part of the globe is a nice place to retire but why can't all those alte kackers just enjoy their golden years? Instead they want to be in charge of something a younger and more energetic person with fresh ideas would do much better. Of, course, old age occurs at different times: someone at 50 may be ready to retire and another can go past 60 with ease. True, there may be wisdom in years, but also senility. "Rejected" refers to people who have tried to make it elsewhere but have been kicked out of their other more high profile jobs. That might include an instrumentalist fired for obnoxious behavior, not to mention declined skill level, or even a conductor whose previous many simultaneous contracts have not been renewed. For a reason not clear to me, this part of the country has a tendency to elevate such people, praising their accomplishments. My category of "Retarded" refers to people who have little interest in anything other than their narrow field of classical music and more specifically the instrument they play. I met plenty of these folks in the studios of Los Angeles. I called them MMFW, for Money, Music, Food and Wine. I had very little in common with them. Money doesn't really interest me; I see it more as a necessary evil. Music is but a fraction of my world, although something I am rather good at. Talking about food and wine is like discussing gasoline. Of course there were "misfits" with whom I felt at ease with. The excellent violinist Israel Baker was one of them. All the numerous times we conversed, music was not discussed, everything from technology to recent scientific discoveries was.

One unwritten rule existed in the studios back then: during breaks no playing was allowed. The ears deserved a rest. I was pained to find out that in an orchestra setup there are people who can't put their instruments down and who endlessly, from day to day, play each others' fiddles and try their bows, posing as the greatest experts on the planet. One time an eager beaver had opened my case and was trying my violin without permission. That qualifies them in the last R-rated category, as do "artists" who tote Frank Sinatra's autobiography in their bag, assuming it's worth the Nobel Prize in literature or at least a Pulitzer (assuming they have heard of this prize). The question is does this kind of trash put them ahead of the others whose reading material consists of mail-order catalogs? Help, where is my Kafka or at least an issue of Scientific American?!

illustration by Talvi

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Yesterday was 09.09.09, the last repeating single-number date for a thousand years. As usual, there were many expecting this world to come to an end. In China the digit "9" is a good omen, to the point that an emperor long time ago supposedly had 9,999 rooms built in his palace. In nearby Japan the number means bad luck and is often omitted in hotel rooms and such. Only "4" is worse, symbolizing death and doom. Years ago one of our country's airlines flying to the Far East was advertizing special fares with a toll free number 800-444-4444 and they couldn't figure out why the phone didn't ring off the hook. One should check with local customs and superstition, or just ask a native which GM failed to do when marketing a Chevy Nova car to Latin America. Although the company has tried to deny this, I don't think that "no go" as a name is a good selling point.

We have plenty of different groups deeply involved in the meaning of numbers. The Chabad movement within Judaism often tries to explain matters with numeric help. In Hebrew, the alphabet or alefbet have also numerical values, somewhat similarly as the Romans used I, V, X, L, C, D and M to represent numbers. Especially mystic Judaism finds hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. Likewise, as mentioned before, Asian cultures give a lot of importance to numbers. The Beijing Olympics opened on 08.08.08: "888" means three times the prosperity, "wealthy wealthy wealthy".

Science behind numbers would be useful in our society today. Some financial "geniuses" thought they had it all figured out and computer programs made hedge funds seemingly wealthier by the minute. That might have been the case until the house of cards collapsed a year ago. Global economy took a terrible hit and although there are recent signs of modest recovery, the number of unemployed remains record high and property values record low. We recently received our property tax assessment for next year and it was 25% lower than previously. Other people I've talked to tell of similar stories. In this city and county, property tax income is the main source of funding for schools and many other expenses. Washington doesn't have state income tax so it relies on sales tax. People are buying a lot less than before and actually saving these days instead of spending more than their disposable income as was the case for some years. Property can no longer be used as a personal piggy bank. Many people owe far more on their houses in mortgages and home equity loans than those properties are worth today.

Non-profits are feeling this pinch. Services for the less fortunate are suffering, such as food banks. In a "socialist" system which we seem to fear more than death, the system steps in and people are fed and sheltered, without the need for private donations. Here more and more of the poor have to go hungry, children among them. In this context the cries for help by elitist arts organizations seem ridiculous. Classical music or ballet will not fill an empty stomach. I am not saying that preserving the arts isn't important, but there has to be a proper order of priorities. We could easily live for a year or two without a symphony orchestra or an opera company. Music wouldn't die: everything is readily available on both audio and video recordings. The well-to-do snobs could have different events where the ladies could show off their latest wardrobes. Perhaps these gatherings could serve as functions to collect funds for the needs of the poor and suffering, not to fatten the wallets of conductors and such.

A provincial opera house is advertising discounts which are greater by each additional production one subscribes to. Three shows are 30% off, four 40%. With this logic the Metropolitan in New York would have free subscriptions for ten productions and they would actually pay the subscriber for the eleventh. An orchestra, having already lowered their ticket prices, is giving 20% discounts to American Express cardholders. Other groups have totally free concerts and other performances, in some cases projected onto giant screens outdoors. While this may create interest in the performing arts, it is a lousy business model. Once people get used to the idea of getting something for free, they will be reluctant to pay for it in the future. Arts organizations will become increasingly dependent on wealthy donors and even their ranks are thinning out. A matching grant becomes a reality at the last moment with an involvement of an E.T., extra-terrestrial. That's all fine and a figurehead's face is thus saved, but don't call the organization a product of civic pride. It would be more appropriate to give it a name of the Godfather: so-and-so's orchestra, opera, or ballet. Leave out the city and call the institution by the name of the benefactor. This has been done in the past so why not today? There is no 'Baltimore" in Johns Hopkins University, or "New York" in Carnegie Hall, after all.

If ticket income becomes a non-issue, more money would be saved if no such tickets need be printed and events wouldn't have to be advertised. In the winter time auditoriums could double as shelters from the cold and in the summer from the heat. Offer free ear plugs to those which classical music makes feel ill, or in fairness, play Country or Hip-Hop every so often. During my youth in Philadelphia there were movie theaters in poor areas that featured old Westerns. For a quarter you could sit in an air-conditioned space for two different movies. The theaters got their reels for nothing and provided the impoverished population an important social service at low cost.

I wish I could be a clairvoyant and see what this society will be like in a decade. On the other hand, perhaps it is a blessing I can't.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Health and Old Age

It is not often that I've had the luxury of traveling just for fun and relaxation. Too frequently the mandatory violin case has accompanied me and those few 'vacations' with younger children were in part an obligation to visit my parents and thus their grandparents. This summer I decided to take a little time off and fly to Finland on Icelandair's new route via Reykjavik and spend a few days in Iceland, a country often present in my dreams since childhood, during our return. My only remaining 'child', a young lady soon to be 17, accompanied me; this was her second visit to her second home country over the summer. It was bittersweet to see my aging dad but at least we had some nice and memorable moments together. At 98 life is approaching its end; there is precious little we can do about it.

With all the outright violent town meetings over President Obama's health care plans most Europeans are shaking their heads in disbelief. Yes, they pay high taxes but care for the sick and old and, most importantly, preventive care for children and grown-ups alike is a value no one would be willing to give up. No system is perfect and it is true that in the European model sometimes one has to wait for elective surgery. At least all the money spent on the system isn't aimed at making health insurance companies, their CEOs and hospitals rich. A healthy person is no expense to the state and there are no premiums to pay. Yes, if you want your knee or hip operation in a hurry, you can opt to go the private route. Even then the system reimburses you but only to a limited amount. Emergencies are taken care of immediately at almost no cost to the patient. Excellent prenatal care results in much lower infant mortality than here.

I was thinking about how lucky my father is, being cared for so well in an assisted care facility. He has a little 'apartment' of his own and the kind nurses feed and bathe him as he's too weak to do so by himself. The cost for this is a fixed percentage of his net income: he pays more than most as his pension is so high, but someone less well off will receive exactly the same level of care, just for less. We socialize banks but fear the idea of such principles in medicine. The Europeans are equally capitalist in their daily affairs as we are, just not when health and education are in question. So, I'm ever so grateful that my dad is well taken care of and the quality of this does not depend on his savings and investments.

It was sad to hear about Teddy Kennedy's untimely death. Surely we all knew about his grave condition and dire prognosis but Michael Jackson's addiction-related death was much more interesting a topic. I could almost sense a slant in media's reporting, to remove people's attention from a truly serious matter in favor of tabloid journalism. Senator Kennedy was trying for decades to make our citizens realize that health care for all was but an illusion. With so many unemployed losing their benefits we are indeed ill-equipped to face a possible swine flu pandemic. The only source for many to receive medical attention is through an emergency room. Tens of millions people with no insurance would result in a chaotic scene should a pandemic happen. People blindly think that they have nothing to worry about as they have health coverage through their employers. But what happens when they fall ill with a long-term or eventually terminal sickness? They will not in many cases be able to continue working and they are forced to temporarily continue their coverage under a Cobra plan (if they can afford it as it is the ultimate rip-off). Once that avenue has been exhausted no insurance company is going to cover them with a pre-existing serious condition. After all, an insurance company's sole purpose is to turn a profit, not to help the sick. If anyone can claim otherwise, I'd be the first one wanting to hear about it. We talk about the importance of having a choice, but what if the choice turns out to be between getting a doctor's help or being turned away? Interestingly a majority of people with illness-caused bankruptcies were initially insured and under the false impression that they were invincible. Threatening the loss of medical benefits as a 'punishment' is another scenario, one that I'm well familiar with.

Just like the housing bubble had to burst, we indeed have a health care bubble and one in education as well. If a person has accumulated almost $200k in loans for a basic Bachelor's degree, what kind of a mess is he/she going to be in if it is necessary to continue in higher education as so often is expected and required today? People are so naive to think that education's quality is somehow related to a high tuition. The state school back home isn't good enough: why not drive over the state line to another's similar institution and pay out-of-state rates? Are we stupid in this regard or what? Back in Scandinavia where studying is free and students actually get a monthly stipend to live on, a study calculated the point when a plumber, a nurse and a doctor would break even. The plumber was ready to retire before the doctor had caught up with his total earnings; the nurse was somewhere in the middle. This is in a system where huge student loans simply don't exist. What would happen in America if medical school would be paid by federal or state government but in turn doctors would be much more affordable since they wouldn't have huge loans to pay back? An expensive, fancy wedding doesn't guarantee a happy marriage. Ours cost a grand total of $200 and we'll be celebrating 25 years in a couple days. That was a smart investment in my book.

I'm writing this while flying over the Arctic. Yes, the climate change is obvious: Greenland's formerly pristine ice and snow has a number of blue lakes visible as a result of melting. It looks interesting and even beautiful, the blue against the white, but the polar bears and other Arctic animals must be in trouble. However, evidence shows that a very long time ago Greenland was tropical or at least thickly forested. As the Earth's magnetic field keeps on weakening, we are bombarded by more radiation from the sun. It has to have an effect on our climate, so perhaps man-made greenhouse gases are not the only culprit. It is possible that our Earth is getting ready for a reversal of magnetic poles. With the Sun this happens regularly every eleven years. In our planet's case such a switch doesn't take place regularly or frequently but we know this has happened numerous times in our Earth's history. I'd love to read a good study on this subject, regarding climate.

So, no more SAS flights between Copenhagen and Seattle as of a month ago. I first came over on one in 1967. This Reykjavik route is fast, even though the 757s are smaller than the jumbos we have been used to. Iceland makes a fascinating stop-over but that's a topic for another story. And yes, they firmly believe in universal health care and education, in spite of last year's economic collapse that hurt them unusually hard. Vikings might have been fierce warriors at one time, but deep inside they must have valued life as a basic right for all.

Sharing a book with my dad Veikko Talvi

Friday, July 31, 2009

Little and not-so-little Piggies

In the middle of a record-breaking heat wave of the Pacific Northwest the three of us, my wife, our youngest one and I, set out to drive towards the Canadian border early in the morning. Our older daughter was giving a presentation of her research in Bellingham at Western Washington University, as a final requirement for her M.Ed. degree. We are fortunate to live so close: in light traffic the trip takes only an hour and a half. This also means that during her four years there we have been able to see each other on a regular basis, not so common with most families these days. Anna has been on a fast track: the presentation took place six days after her 22nd birthday. It will be another three weeks until the actual graduation which both Sarah and I will have to miss. We have decided to try Icelandair's new route to Seattle and fly to Finland for a quick visit (my daughter's second one this summer), to see my 98-year-old dad one more time. On the way back we'll take a mini-vacation in Reykjavík as Iceland is a place we both are fascinated by.

Every parent tries his or her best raising children, or at least they believe so. One's cultural background has a lot to do with it. Anna has praised us for our hands-off care. Perhaps it has something to do with the way children grow up in my home country. It is the total opposite of some Asian country where parents think that a child needs guidance 24/7. In South Korea schoolchildren spend enormously long days in school followed by after-school classes. Yet both countries score about the same, as they are on top of the global achievement list. If I were Korean, I probably would think theirs was the only way, but I cannot pretend to be what I'm not. My wife Marjorie and I always wanted our children to find their own destinies. We had both been expected to endlessly play the violin in our youth, as if there were nothing else of importance in life. Some parents decide to raise their young as they themselves had been, others learned from their parents' mistakes. So our two girls were provided with a lot of love and a safe home environment. They knew if something was wrong: the word punishment never was in our vocabulary. No taking away privileges, no groundings or other limitations. The girls knew early on how much we trusted them and what was expected in return. They probably were some of the youngest ones around with their own credit cards, instead of allowances. Interestingly, money never became an issue, as from early on they never misused their financial freedom. Of course every child makes mistakes, just as grown-ups do, but those are important lessons in life. In the end, we have a young adult and a not-quite-yet 17-year-old who both get praise from everyone that they are in contact with, old and young alike. We are proud of their 4.0 GPAs, Student-of-the-Year and other awards, but most importantly of the love and warmth they both radiate.

As teachers, we have seen all kinds of children-parent interactions. There have been many cases where a mother or a father has decided to live her/his dreams through the child. Of course it is important that a parent is a supporting force behind a young musician, especially when the child is young and doesn't quite understand the meaning of diligent practice. But the will to work and excel in music has to come from the child, and an overbearing parent does much more harm than good. A time comes when the growing offspring will need to try how well his own wings will carry him, be it in music or any other area. Of course many parents follow along simply because the child still needs help getting here. I took public transit to my piano lessons before starting elementary school, but of course the time and place were different. And I rather see the student arrive here safely, instead of wanting to show off his two-week-old driving permit. Besides, most parents have been really wonderful and incredible, although I often have to remind my spouse that it is the children we teach, not the parents. An occasional bad apple shows up in the crop but then the relationship soon sours and off they go, to become someone else's headache.

At college level the parents are usually no longer a part of the equation. At most they might be present when the student performs, plays a recital or other solo. But young adults, insecure as they might seem during their freshman year, no longer need the same support system. A teacher easily becomes a parent figure, especially when lessons are on one-to-one basis. The 18-year-old may be shy at first but will soon realize there is nothing to be scared of. If the chemistry is right, both parties benefit from it. At least I have always felt that I learn in the teaching process at least as much as the student does. Show an interest in a young person as an individual, not just as a musician, and she/he rewards you with hard work and rapid progress. Someone looking at the clock tick will of course not be so fortunate. A snob or a slacker will soon get a reputation as such.

There was a time when someone with money could buy his offspring a good education and even a career. In today's financial climate the danger of this is lurking around the corner. A school will accept a student based on his parents' ability to pay full tuition, rather than merit. So far, at least in music, the leading institutions have kept their standards. A young "star" from the Wild West may not cut the mustard, no matter how much pressure is put on the institution. Instead, an unlikely youngster will get in, as he/she deserves it. To rewrite an old rhyme:

This little piggy went to Curtis
This little piggy stayed home

This little piggy got to Juilliard

This little piggy didn't make it

This little piggy cried "Daddy you promised"

All the way home

photo of Anna Talvi with her Culmination Portfolio

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Satan’s Siren Songs

The interpretation of Satan's role varies within Judeo-Christian religions. Alhough Christianity often compares Satan to the Devil, the opposing force of God, the Jewish Bible (or the Old Testament) and the Talmud portrays him as the Accuser (ha-Satan or השָׂטָן), or the Tempter. He is working for God, testing the strength of people's faith and morality, tempting them to sin. Bulgakov's famous "Master and Margarita" is based on this theme. Although in Genesis Devil takes the form of a serpent in the paradise, not generally regarded as a pretty creature, in other biblical passages Satan is described as the most beautiful of God's angels, powerful enough to have other angels follow him and supposedly desiring to replace God. Many stories tell of the fallen angels being cast down from heaven, Satan as their leader. The temptation of Christ mentions Devil as the tempter of Jesus in the desert in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew but Satan in the Gospel of Mark. None of us can deny the existence of evil as it surrounds us constantly, yet I for one wouldn't call it Satan's work.

It is interesting that we are told of God being omnipotent and yet at the same time some writings, held sacred, admit that there is a constant war between God and Evil. The Jewish faith generally believes in demons, king of whom is often mentioned as Asmodai or (אשמדאי). According to some writing he was married to Lilith (Lilli or similar names), his queen. He is overseer of gambling, prince of revenge and demon of lust. He is also one of the seven princes of hell and has seventy-two legions of demons in his command. Some tales claim Asmodai is the same as Satan but in general Satan's role is quite different as he is only supposed to act with the permission of God. Among many interesting items in Derfner Judaica Museum in the Bronx there is a deck of old playing cards from the 1920s Palestine, having pomegranates, stars of David, fig leaves and menorahs replace the usual suits. Asmodai is also pictured, as the Joker.

We are seeing an increase of anti-Semitism these days, both globally and here in the States. Neo-Nazi sites are all over the internet and the Aryan Nation flexes its muscle whenever it can. Not that Americans are strangers with this: it is not that long ago when Jews couldn't join clubs or even rent a room in many hotels ("Hebrews are not welcome"). In 1939 Cuba turned back a German ship, St. Louis, full of Jewish refugees heading for Havana, letting in only 22 Jews, those with visas. Those almost a thousand people then slowly sailed towards Miami and saw the lights of the city but weren't allowed to disembark. Western Europe finally accepted most of them but with the swift invasion of the Third Reich, 532 were trapped and of those 254 died.

Part of this raw emotion is understandable, disgusting as it is, with the worsening economic crisis and seeing so many Jewish names connected to failed institutions, not to mention the Jewish poster boy Bernie Madoff. Finding a scapegoat is a result of any crisis and pointing a finger at a certain ethnic group is easy. Muslims are treated even worse but it is because we associate them with 9/11 and terrorism in general. Jews, on the other hand, didn't improve as human beings with wealth and power. Gone is the humble piety of a poor person from the Pale. Today we more likely see a Jewish public figure that pretends to be religious only to have the support of the well-to-do community, has a lavish Bar or Bat Mitsvah for his offspring, and yet at the same time takes perverse pride in having a shiksa as a girlfriend or mistress.

We learned from Greek mythology about the deadly singing of the Sirens. Sailors couldn't resist their tempting voices and headed for their deaths. The famous anti-Semite Richard Wagner wrote some very seductive music which has brought music lovers, his intended victims, to his world in hoards. In many ways his music is that of the Sirens. The Nazis blasted it in the concentration camps so that it made the poor suffering souls even sicker before gassing them. The idea of praising a Nordic pagan religion in the Ring cycle should be revolting to Christians, but what about all the Jews who embrace the same music and ideology? Isn't the Jewish character of Mime enough of an insult? Granted, the music is very tempting at times, but do we have to give into an anti-Semite's plan any more than to fall for every seductive woman or man? We, in the West, haven't accepted the use of the swastika after the defeat of the Nazi party which stole the sacred symbol in its anti-clockwise form from India and other cultures. I would rather embrace the ornamental cross, which was never intended to cause harm, than the music of a dangerous but gifted maniac.

Is Wagner's music another test by Satan the tempter or is it a product of Asmodai the demon of lust? I don't have the answer to that but although I had to take part in numerous productions of the composer's operas, today I wouldn't be caught dead attending a performance. For reasons he never told me, my father deeply disliked Wagner's music, and thus I had very little exposure to it until much later. In my dad's situation, I think the music made him feel uneasy early on, even before Hitler's time. In any case he didn't fall for the seductive qualities of Wagner's works and genuinely hated the bombastic overtures and other such sections that he had heard. Never did his orchestra play any of the composer's music although other German music was to his liking, with the exception of Bruckner. He was a violinist after all, not a brass player, and I don't think there are too many of us who love endless tremolos.

May Israel's ban on Wagner's music remain in place in spite of the work to the contrary by some wonderful musicians, such as Barenboim. Perhaps they have given in to the lust, just like Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, formerly one of the strongest voices demanding the impeachment of President Clinton and his Monica. Take the operas to China: people there are accustomed to such stories. Ling cycle, anyone?

"Satan" by Gustave Doré
Palestine playing cards at Derfner, NY Times