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