Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Hearse Corporation

Death is an inevitable part of the cycle of life. Animals, humans included, have a limited life span, but at least we can in most cases create the next generation and thus our lives continue. With four daughters, all of whom except for one all have grown up (the remaining one soon will) and a couple of grandchildren, my life's main purpose is over and done with. And unlike many others, I can be proud of what I have produced, although of course it hasn't happened without the help of another person. Unlike former President Bush I can truly declare "Mission Accomplished".

We live in a time when there is an epidemic fatal illness affecting institutions, jobs and businesses. It is as if the dreaded Spanish Flu and the Plague have returned, this time not attacking people directly but the very fabric of our society. Casualties are already many and increasing by the day. Of course there are those whose lives are not yet in jeopardy and others who don't admit that their AIDS is full-blown, no longer a worrisome infection of HIV. Some can be kept alive artificially but most will succumb sooner or later (read sooner). Yes, the organizations can resemble a giant tortoise or some long-living avian species but they can also be similar to a mouse or even a dragonfly. A museum or an ancient library could be compared to a tree that can live seemingly forever.

Today marks the last issue of a local Seattle newspaper. The Hearst Corporation has become the Hearse Corporation. The death of the Seattle P.I. (where the P stood for "Post" but now means "Past") could be followed by others, such as the once-mighty San Francisco Chronicle. Perhaps the time for the printed media is approaching its end. Just about everything you read today was available on the radio, television or the web already a day before. Nobody really is interested in yesterday's news. Yes, there remains the backbone of great newspapers, investigative journalism, but today's average person has a very short attention span and doesn't really care for anything surpassing 300 words. In general, the shorter the information, the better. Today's tech-savvy person seems to prefer the 160 mark limit of a text message to a slightly longer but more detailed email. With the limited length, spelling and grammar have gone out of existence and the resulting texting lingo has created a language, or gibberish, of its own. Thus reading through a long investigative report is too much to ask for most readers and if they attempt to see what the story is about, the headline is read and perhaps the first two or three paragraphs.

Will I miss this paper? Yes and no. On one hand they have done a great service to the local community by exposing numerous scandals and outright criminal activity in local politics and even in law enforcement. They have had a terrific managing editor. Some of the columnists have been excellent. Yet the paper has at the same time kept a few totally inept and thoroughly corrupt people on payroll, especially in areas that were close to me. These "reporters" have shamelessly promoted like-minded people and friends of theirs, essentially wanting to decide who was to survive and succeed. Objectivity was never thought of. I told my wife years ago just to wait patiently as the paper, as we knew it, would be history. She thinks I may be a clairvoyant, as most of my predictions have already materialized, including the present financial mess which I saw coming quite a while ago. I am not overly optimistic a person but not a true pessimist either, rather a realist. The P.I. will continue on the web, just as the excellent Christian Science Monitor will after they soon cease their print edition. However, the competition will be fierce from other such publications and blogs.

The practice of art criticism is rapidly disappearing. There is a thought-provoking article by David Hajdu in the January-February issue of Columbia Journalism Review, titled Condition critical: can arts critics survive the poison pill of consumerism? This link will take to one of the many reprints available on the web. Warning: you need to read more than the first two paragraphs. Other than an occasional issue of the New York Times, the "Arts" section (having in most papers been renamed "Entertainment") has at most one or two reviews or articles about "classic" arts. The pages are full of popular culture which in my humble opinion has very little to do with art. Entertainment is a better description, to most people. But even then I doubt the demand for such topics is there. The audiences know what they like and buy the tickets and support their idols totally independently of any press coverage. The opinion has also long been that if a critic praises something, it is a good reason to stay away from the film or show. Just recently in my home country a new film was ridiculed by the leading paper. The producers took out a whole page ad, printing the worst parts of the review, using this method of reverse psychology to their advantage. After all, how many real success stories at the box office have received raves from the media?

Today's news via the web also tells about the Baltimore Opera filing for Chapter 7. Another article speculates which group in that city will be next to fall. The Baltimore Symphony is mentioned in this context. At least people are openly talking about the grim situation, unlike here, where silence seems to be golden and the topic is next to taboo. There was an item recently in the surviving daily revealing that donations have dropped up to 50%. The local tabloids have been a bit more vocal, bringing attention to a struggling group in a nearby city which, with help from Down Under, seems indeed to be going down under. From back home, a surprising news item just surfaced. The Finnish National Opera (which in the European fashion also includes a ballet company), long a black sheep because of their financial struggles, actually turned up a profit of around $1.5 million last year. This was a result of careful cost cutting much before the current fiscal mess, and also smart programming. The ticket sales have been at an enviable 87% and instead of international (=expensive) superstars the company has relied on the vast talent pool the country has to offer. Nobody knows what kind of figures this year will bring, of course, but if the balance sheet stays in the black, perhaps they have a model the rest of us could emulate.

An entertaining review of the Czech Chamber Philharmonic was picked up by a search engine. This one comes from Lebanon of all the places (I didn't know the country was safe enough to have concerts) and was published in the Daily Star. This is a prime example of writing which results in the reader actually witnessing the event. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Missing Notes

Every musician knows how difficult, and also expensive, it is to get hold of sheet music these days. Major cities may have a music store with some standard literature in stock but if one is after something rarer, mail order is generally the obvious solution. Another option is a public or university library and the help of a copy machine, illegal as it may be for works still under copyright. Amazon.com may be able to send a book to your door in a day or two but getting hold of a few sheets of music published overseas may mean a waiting period of weeks or even months. Much is simply impossible to obtain. I have three all-in-ones, the largest of which handles 11 by 17 inches, for the out-of-print and fragile pieces. Sheet music is seldom letter sized and especially older copies from early 1900s are gigantic in size.

To someone teaching music the availability problem is even more acute. I generally recommend getting all available CD Sheet Music discs, including orchestra repertoire for those taking auditions or interested in having a clean copy. Granted, many of the scans have mistakes and resemble old Kalmus editions, but they are convenient and priceless when a student needs a quick copy. And the CDs are surprisingly affordable and a good backup even when one owns the actual printed version.

Publishers are not necessarily honest folks. The popular Barbara Barber Solos for Young Violinists series had five pages missing in volume 6 until recently, as the Vivaldi-Respighi Sonata in D was in her audio recording but not in the printed form, probably stemming from copyright issues. Then the composition all of a sudden showed up in new shipments. Surely all the old stock was returned to the publisher so that every new purchase would include the work. Wrong. Except for a few online sources every sheet music dealer was trying to get rid of their old stock even if the buyer had specifically requested that the newest edition be sent. Another example: all the recent copies of the "other" Barber, Samuel B's Violin Concerto have notes missing on the next to the last page in the solo part. There must have been a piece of paper stuck on the plate or during the digitizing process as the identical fault appears in every copy. The publisher surely must know of this defect but doesn't have enough self-respect to pull back the edition and reissue correct parts. I am tired of writing in the missing notes after having done so too many times. Now I have a stack of copies of the page to give out, to be glued or taped over the faulty page.

That Samuel Barber concerto is an interesting composition. As it is to this day rather unknown in Europe, I didn't grow up playing or even listening to it. Yet it is a wonderfully beautiful piece of music, especially the two first movements which the composer intended as the entire work. The perpetual motion last movement was added later as violinists refused to perform a concerto lacking fireworks for a standing ovation. In my opinion the work makes an ideal concerto for a student to learn. The first two movements are technically rather easy, yet full of unexpected harmonies and thus good for intonation. The second movement calls for an advanced bow control and vibrato to sound the way it ought to. And the add-on last movement is really not that difficult, more like an etude. Yes, there are four or five nastier passages in it, but all in all a good student will learn it quickly. As a matter of fact, the Barber concerto is one of the few works where the accompaniment is harder to pull off than the solo part. Or perhaps I have had the misfortune of having played the orchestra part with conductors that haven't been up to the task. Accompanying is an art form of its own, after all.

Teaching gives an instrumentalist an opportunity to revisit old friends. I have recently enjoyed helping someone with Wieniawski's First Concerto in F sharp minor. I remember the time I had to learn it in my teens. My teacher told me that there were two concertos in that key, both having the reputation of being the most difficult ever composed, and he wanted me to learn and perform each of them. The other one was by Ernst who probably wrote his own first, and Wieniawski decided to answer with a work of equal difficulty. I can't tell which is harder. Ernst seems totally impossible at times but Wieniawski is longer and has three movements, although the slow one is short and by no means as well developed as the gorgeous Romance of his Second Concerto. The latter is as beautiful as his L├ęgende which was written after Isabella Hampton's parents wouldn't let him marry their daughter. After hearing the piece they quickly changed their minds and Wieniawski got the young woman he loved. I have a habit of asking a student to play scales in the same key as the concerto or other major composition he/she is working on. F sharp minor is about as difficult in this respect as it gets, especially when both melodic and harmonic varieties are included. Only when played in sixths does the key become "easy".

When growing up the Sibelius Violin Concerto was heard in my home country ad nauseam and I refused to perform it then, but of course had to learn the music. It has taken me decades to appreciate the work but, as a bonus, I don't have someone else's forced interpretation weighing me down when teaching it to students today. Having been away from Finland for so long has taught me to appreciate the famous composer's music from a new perspective. People here don't care for it and the few attempts of performing a symphony of his by an orchestra or two have resulted in failures, by both the interpretation and the audience reaction. Concluding a program with his Fifth is the only time when a conductor didn't have to return for a second bow in my memory.

For a person who dislikes classical music I seem to be surprisingly fond of it, at least when I get to pass my knowledge of Prokofiev's First or the Glazounov Concerto onto others. Even the old war horses, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and others, don't appear half bad. Perhaps I'm just getting old and soft in my head and/or heart.

illustration by Joseph Farris/cartoonstock.com