Friday, February 20, 2009

Fiscal Responsibility

As the stock market keeps on falling, reaching lows not seen in over a decade, I can't help but wonder about the American Dream. A system based on consumerism seems strange indeed to someone who saw real poverty growing up. Although my family was well off compared to most others, I consider those early years a very valuable lesson in life. My neighbor playmate, a year younger, came from such a poor home that my mom regularly gave my old clothes that had become too small for me to his mother. Although Mom had a successful business selling clothing, she would not throw out anything of mine that could be mended. Unnecessary and wasteful purchases were unheard of. She came from a long background in business but her own upbringing showed in her principles. In my early years we were one of the few families with a car. A telephone was a luxury. I can still remember our phone number: 237. A television was a novelty; I actually bought one as a present for my parents with my own earnings at the age of 12. When my grandpa was building a house in 1950, the thought of indoor plumbing didn't even enter his mind. There was a well outside, and he had an old-fashioned outhouse in the same structure where the sauna and his workshop was situated. Early this month I drove past his house on Talventie (Talvi's Road). I'm sure the house today has all the comforts, although to the outside it looked pretty much the same. The well was missing, so plumbing must have been in place for quite a while.

Every day the news talks about new job losses, folding businesses and crooked investors. Today's New York Times has an article about the hard times non-profits are facing. Countless charities have been forced to close their doors and many have had to declare actual bankruptcy. According to the story, "performing arts groups typically are the nonprofits hit first in economic downturns, as donors devote more of their giving to charities that address basic needs and consumers cut spending on entertainment." Even the mighty Metropolitan Opera is facing serious difficulties, in spite of its successful high-definition live broadcasts in movie theaters worldwide. They have been watched even in the city where I recently visited in Finland, although as a recorded version due to the time difference. If 220,000 businesses are predicted to close their doors this year, we must assume that there are no arts organizations, large or small, where their financial uncertain future isn't on top of the list of worries. It is therefore interesting to pay attention to the ones which so far haven't been crying and possible reasons for it. I fully understand why the Los Angeles Philharmonic doesn't want to dampen the excitement Gustavo Dudamel's upcoming first season is creating. But few orchestras have such reasons to celebrate. The New York Philharmonic is getting a new man in charge as well, but I bet you anything they are kicking themselves for not asking the young Venezuelan first. A number of distinguished conductors (yes, there are still some around) had turned the job down and thus the organization was sort of forced to welcome back a home town boy. Based on reports from Sweden Mr. Gilbert is a capable man on the podium but hardly seen as exciting.

Then there are orchestras that insist on flying principal players into town at a great expense, although equally good people could easily be found locally. I wonder how this is explained to the board as a necessary cost when in truth this is just the conductor's way of irking the regular musicians and proving that his/her muscles can still be flexed. When the Washington National Opera, under the direction of Placido Domingo whom everyone admires and loves, decided to cancel their Ring cycle, it was seen as a sign of fiscal responsibility, getting ready for a nuclear winter in the arts. Although there wouldn't have been an empty seat for the performances, such a production would still have cost too much. How is it possible then that some other companies can go ahead with similar grandiose plans, as if money is not an issue? Or is it a case of the dying not caring about the inheritance they are leaving behind? Perhaps there is a desire to go out with a bang.

It is intriguing to learn about the last deeds and desires of those ready to leave this world. I remember listening to NPR in my car and hearing a short interview with Michael Paterniti in which the former French President Fran├žois Mitterrand's last meal was discussed. In France preparing a small yellow songbird, the Ortolan Bunting, is a dish deemed illegal. Here is what you do:

The birds must be taken alive; once captured they are either blinded or kept in a lightless box for a month to gorge on millet, grapes, and figs, a technique apparently taken from the decadent cooks of Imperial Rome who called the birds beccafico, or "fig-pecker". When they've reached four times their normal size, they're drowned in a snifter of Armagnac.

Cooking l'ortolan is simplicity itself. Simply pop them in a high oven for six to eight minutes and serve. The secret is entirely in the eating. First you cover your head with a traditional embroidered cloth. Then place the entire four-ounce bird into your mouth. Only its head should dangle out from between your lips. Bite off the head and discard. L'ortolan should be served immediately; it is meant to be so hot that you must rest it on your tongue while inhaling rapidly through your mouth. This cools the bird, but its real purpose is to force you to allow its ambrosial fat to cascade freely down your throat.

When cool, begin to chew. It should take about 15 minutes to work your way through the breast and wings, the delicately crackling bones, and on to the inner organs. Devotees claim they can taste the bird's entire life as they chew in the darkness: the wheat of Morocco, the salt air of the Mediterranean, the lavender of Provence. The pea-sized lungs and heart, saturated with Armagnac from its drowning, are said to burst in a liqueur-scented flower on the diner's tongue. Enjoy with a good Bordeaux.

Mr. Mitterrand refused to eat anything after this and died from his cancer eight days later. The funeral became as legendary as the last meal: both his wife of 50 years and his mistress with whom he had children followed the coffin walking side by side. C'est la vie – c'est la mort.

photo: talvi 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

Matters of Life and Death

I hadn't seen my dad, Veikko Talvi, in almost two years. Although I was aware of many close calls with death, I was still rather shocked to see him so fragile and at times in such great discomfort. The leg that was operated on some months ago no longer can be straightened. The physiotherapist doesn't even want to try, saying that such an attempt might break a bone or tear a muscle; probably true. I knew Dad wouldn't really recognize me, as he lives in the past and I would be many decades older than the young violinist son he might remember from back then. Yet my father tried to tell me that he knew who I was and perhaps at some level he did. But what might have been in the memory one minute soon disappeared as does everything. Luckily for me, the last of the four visits was the best. I was able to help him enjoy his coffee from a baby mug and feed him little pieces of pulla, braided Finnish cardamom bread that he has always treasured. I had to cut it into tiny pieces and soak in coffee, in order for it to be soft enough for him to handle. Like much of any tissue in an old person's body his gums have shrunk and the dentist had recommended that the dentures be left out as they were making the mouth bleed. It felt like I was feeding a baby and in a way that best describes it. However, that was the one time when my dad was paying close attention to me and my presence. It was a fitting end to my visit. I knew it probably would be the last time I'd see him alive but my mind was at ease. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. Surely one is missed (hopefully) but death is a part of life for all of us.

On a cold but sunny day I went to visit the old Kouvola cemetery where much of my family is resting. There was plenty of snow and the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, literally. I had just bought real winter boots and they were much needed as only the main walkways were plowed open. Right by the main gate are the graves of my dad's first in-laws and behind them his first wife, my brother's mother who died when he was just six days old. I have seen the graves numerous times, of course, but reaching the stone behind the others almost shocked me because I was staring at my own name. Her married name was HILKKA TALVI, but snow made the first letter almost disappear. It was as if I was looking into my own future. I always wondered why I was given an almost identical name to my dad's first spouse. Perhaps my parents had discussed it at length and my mother found it fitting. In Finland people celebrate name days and according the old calendar I was born on my own mother's special day, October 22. Three years later the date for all of Finland's Irjas was changed to the end of January, something she always had a hard time accepting.

From there I went to my mother's gravesite and admired the beautiful stone I had helped my father to choose ten years ago. From there it was quite a distance to my paternal grandparents' resting place where also my aunt, their daughter and my father's younger sister is. Another long loop and I passed the graves of my dad's uncle and aunt and their two children, both of whom died too young and before my birth. The sun was setting and it was getting cold so it was time for me to leave and return to the world of the living.

I have a hard time understanding that we value human life, no matter how dismal and hopeless, that we do just about anything to keep people alive. Yes, life is precious, all life (I still won't kill anything other than a mosquito but that's self defense and I always make sure that they are female and thus the biting kind), but keeping a beloved pet alive while they are suffering is considered cruel. The ultimate act of love with an animal is to free them from pain and misery. Yet fortunes are spent keeping dying people alive for another two weeks or even for just days. Why is it so difficult to let people leave this world with dignity? I would never want to be like my mother towards the end with her Alzheimer's, or my father now. Knowing myself I'll probably take care of not becoming a burden to anyone when the time comes. It won't be a selfish act but out of love for those who care about me.

That said, life is beautiful, although not always happy. There just are too many of us. As I probably have written before, I strongly believe in a soul returning, in reincarnation. But there simply aren't enough old souls to go around and many humans end up with a spirit of a not-so-evolved life form. I could name a few rodents, or even insects. I have an easier time with a snake than some people. Nature has a way of limiting the growth of any species that has become too successful and numerous. In spite of huge families, the earth's population remained around one billion and now we have surpassed six. Something will have to happen to drop the numbers back down: maybe we will do it to ourselves (our world is getting quite mad these days) or new deadly diseases will surface. Then there might be a balance of human souls again.

But until then: to life, l'chaim! And I love you, Dad. I'm happy I could come and visit you. You have been in my mind constantly during this long day of flying, even now when we are just leaving the coast of Greenland and flying over the Davis Strait heading towards Northern Canada. Another five hours for more memories.

In Nokia N96 photos by Ilkka Talvi:
Kouvola Old Cemetery, Veikko Talvi

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Land of Sibelius

Having been spoiled by the mild weather of the Pacific Northwest, I have forgotten how cold a clear winter night can be. I was grateful indeed to walk into my warm hotel room after a brisk walk. Yet in my much younger years had no trouble riding a bike at 20 or 30 below. Now I have much more sympathy and understanding for the seniors who in my youth seemed overdressed in weather that seemed just great to me.

It was a blast teaching in my native tongue, something I don't get to do too often. Old friends seem amazed how well preserved my skill is in my own language. Of course I read news and other articles in Finnish daily and have spent considerable amounts of time back at home over the decades. There is something truly neat about a Finn returning to his home country, ten time zones away, to teach the Sibelius violin concerto to a most talented young lady of seventeen, speaking in Finnish although her roots are in Hungary and Romania. I used to dislike the work as it was almost force-fed to any Finnish violinist and listener of classical music, but these days I have new respect and admiration for the composition. It took a few decades for the concerto to become popular and one certain Jascha Heifetz in particular. He always took a liking to rarely performed works. Some remained in his very own territory, or he "spoiled" the compositions with his interpretation and no one else dared to challenge him with a different, or probably inferior, viewpoint. The Sibelius concerto, however, was soon adopted by others, namely the French Ginette Neveu, and encouraged by her, others such as the young Soviet violinist David Oistrakh. Interestingly, Sibelius did not care for the speedy but immaculate performance of Heifetz and did not hesitate to make his opinion known. When asked whose interpretation was his favorite, Sibelius said "Oistrakh's". The reason? He was the only one playing the last movement almost slowly enough.

Another interesting fact about the work, other than the composer intending to write a symphony but being encouraged by his publisher to write a concerto instead, is the close attention Sibelius paid to the piano accompaniment. His friend Karl Ekman wrote a more pianistic and thus playable version than what we usually hear. It seems like violinists today prefer a piano version of the actual score; personally I like Ekman's workmanship better. Of course, the concerto we hear today wasn't Sibelius' original. The work was to be performed in Stockholm and all the music was lost during the voyage by sea. Sibelius only had his sketches left and had to recreate the work. The parts turned up decades later and the two versions can be heard together on a recording by Leonidas Kavakos and the Lahti orchestra.

I'm finishing this at Heathrow. London has been paralyzed by record snow (nothing at all by Finnish standards) which finally is melting but looking through the club room window in the new Terminal 5, one can see thick fog developing in turn. I better zip this off before hearing news about more delays. Sibelius might have turned this weather into another masterpiece.