Friday, January 22, 2010

Should We Attend a Concert?

It is interesting how aficionados of Western music are eager to return to "authentic" performing practices but very few attempts have been made to recreate early programming. Yet a lot of information on early concerts exists. It is clear that more often than not they were thought of as variety shows, rather than opportunities for the well-to-do to meet and show their newest outfits and jewelry, unless the performance was for the aristocracy. When actual orchestras started to appear, their main function was to play in a pit, as some great ones, such as Vienna and our own Met orchestras, still do. They accompanied operas and operettas, the original musicals, and played other music when needed. Just like soloists who only performed works they themselves had composed, orchestral composers usually conducted their own compositions, in addition to some other material. The first non-composing conductor of any reputation didn't appear until less than 150 years ago. It is difficult to understand why they have become such a focal point and financial drain in today's scene.

The famed French violinist and pedagogue Pierre Baillot gave a lot of thought to where a violinist should stand when performing with orchestral accompaniment. He came to the conclusion that the soloist should be on stage but the orchestra in the pit, just like in an opera. Actually, it is a brilliant idea. The usual problem of musicians not hearing the soloist, and the issue of  the conductor and the virtuoso not seeing each other, are eliminated. I bet the balance would also be better. After all, this was the practice in the days of Paganini. Something else was also very different: a symphony or a concerto would be split into as many parts as there were movements. Other works such as overtures could be inserted. In addition to the violinist's and orchestra's share of the program a third element was important, most often in a form of a soprano, to keep the audience's interest alive. Later in the 1800s some composers didn't want to have their works split unnecessarily and they would write their concertos and symphonies in such a manner that nothing else could be programmed in between the movements. This is evident in such compositions as the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos where the opening movement flows into the second one. Another trick was to write attacca after a movement. Contrary to most beliefs I'm sure that simply meant Do not program anything else here, instead of starting the next movement instantly, without a natural breath.

Our culture has totally been brainwashed to think that only orchestral music matters. What about recitals, the mainstay of classical music for so many decades? That was after all the only way citizens in smaller far-away towns could hear artists and some of the most beautiful music ever written. Sure, star-struck Americans still have a few recitals by names they recognize in their gigantic music barns, but a little violin, usually pitted against an all-too-loud Steinway, sounds rather lonely under such circumstances. And today's typical program, popularized by Isaac Stern in the 1950s, is comparable to eating a meal of four entrees and as such not tempting to most would-be listeners. During violin's golden age one regularly heard  popular concertos performed with piano accompaniment. One could actually hear the dynamics of the solo part as the composer had intended, instead of the constant forte required in today's halls. The second half of the programs consisted entirely of short virtuoso numbers and bonbons, nowadays referred to as encores. Even in a distant mining town a local venue would be packed as people would want hear their favorite songs, which they knew through scratchy 78 recordings, performed live. Every fiddler offered them and each performer did so in his/her own style. How many of today's mass-produced violinists, no matter how quick their fingers are, can claim to sound unique?

I was thinking of my own youth and early adulthood and the concerts I went to. Whenever one of my favorite violinists was coming to Finland, it was a given that I went to hear him. A recital was preferable, partially due to the repertoire, but also because it was easier to hear all the nuances of the sound, vibrato, fingerings and style. An orchestral concert was acceptable, too, as the auditoriums were small and one didn't have to strain to see and hear the soloist. Although I really wanted to leave at the intermission, I usually stayed to the end of the program, at first because I was dependent on my father's transportation and later out of respect for the seemingly hard-working orchestra musicians, many of whom I knew well. But to a young person the mandatory symphony at the end was an exercise in patience, and I was often using a stopwatch to calculate when a certain movement or the whole concert would end. Mind you, I knew most of the symphonies well as I had been playing in an orchestra since before starting elementary school, but playing that repertoire was much more fun than listening to it. Attending a concert that didn't feature a soloist would have seemed like a crazy idea. My taste wasn't limited to violinists: I also heard all the fine pianists and cellists and remember a concert that featured a famed harpist, Nicanor Zabaleta, as the soloist.

Once I started studying overseas, my performance attendance remained much the same, whether in Vienna, Paris or in this country. David Oistrakh played the Beethoven concerto during the Vienna Festival Week and had no less than eight major memory slips. I felt terrible for him but the audience loved it nevertheless, giving him a standing ovation of over 15 minutes. The same artist played a recital in Los Angeles that was incredibly boring, until the encores which all of a sudden melted everyone's hearts. Arthur Grumiaux performed the Mendelssohn concerto during an afternoon concert with the French Radio Orchestra, a live broadcast, and a man not far from me was snoring loudly through much of it. My time in Los Angeles was before Jascha Heifetz had his unsuccessful shoulder surgery and the old man was still playing magnificently, as was Gregor Piatigorsky during their week of concerts in the spring. Even then, the audience was eagerly awaiting for the second half of the Heifetz recital as the program was formulated after the old tradition and the real goodies were awaiting. This unsurpassed fiddler hated conductors and when he played a concerto, there was no podium to be seen and it was up to the concertmaster, usually Israel Baker, to make sure it all stayed together.

I refuse to believe that audiences and their preferences have changed that much. If a fraction of money donated toward an orchestra's operating costs was used for recitals or chamber music in a proper setting, music lovers would be served better. Yes, we love our stars, not because they are better than some others, but because we know their names from the media. However, a weekly series in an attractive location would give an opportunity to numerous others to show their stuff and gain fame and appreciation. After all, young people graduating from places like Curtis and Juilliard have been trained to perform such repertoire and have to play two or more recitals, not orchestral excerpts, in order to graduate. Even if one is stuck playing in an orchestra for financial reasons, I bet most of the capable ones would love an opportunity to show what they are all about. Museums and other suitable spaces, even people with big mansions and a decent piano, should open their doors to make such performances a reality.

If I'm wrong about an audience's reasons to attend a concert, have an orchestra play an entire season with no soloists. Think of all the money they would save, as in some cases their megastar will walk off with as much money as a single musician makes in a year. Better yet, see how the group sounds with a lesser-known but capable conductor. Chances are pretty much the same, and another million is saved!
Chagall: the Blue Violinist

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Security and Common Sense

Yesterday's security breach and resulting chaos at Newark Liberty Airport was an indication how ill-prepared we are to cope with something out-of-the-norm. I have my doubts that the man walking in through the exit-only passageway had anything evil in his mind. Sometimes we do such things without thinking or perhaps the person in question looked at the long line and decided that waiting in it was stupid, especially if he didn't have carry-on luggage. Emptying the entire terminal and having everyone re-screened made travelers' lives hell and it could have been avoided with simple solutions.

First of all, why don't we have turnstiles at airports, just like we do at public transit stations, preventing two-way traffic? Granted, the kind used at subways makes it easy to jump over if one is young and has long legs, but there are numerous other types that would prevent such an action. It could be a row of rotating one-way doors with enough space to push along one's carry-one luggage. Next to it would be a guarded gate for people in wheelchairs or babies in strollers. Secondly, once passengers go through their security checks, why can't their hand be stamped with a mark visible with UV-light? We already use this method in paid events where people have to leave for whatever reason and be readmitted. The stamp would show the date, time and area of entrance and could be made of an ink that disappears in 8-12 hours. The personnel checking your boarding pass and identification at the gate could quickly verify the existence of such a marker. Don't tell me this wouldn't have simplified matters at Newark's airport! A similar stamp could also be attached to carry-on luggage.

I have an issue with the body scanners. Personally I don't care if some screener sees my body naked. Finns are comfortable with nudity due to their sauna culture. At issue are passengers who have bags attached to their body as a result of medical procedures, such as an ostomy pouch, also known as a colostomy bag. What about an incontinent person wearing an adult diaper? I can see such a person dreading a scan and the follow-up questions, in front of fellow passengers. Would a religious woman who normally covers much of her body be comfortable with someone seeing her naked? If we are unable to prevent drugs, cell phones and even guns from entering "secure" prisons, what makes us think that we can do a better job screening millions at airports using present methods?

A dog's sense of smell is a thousand times more sensitive than a human's. They could easily sense the presence of explosives if trained to do so. It is very difficult to seal anything so tightly that no scent of the substance inside is present, even if it means a few molecules. The bonus of this approach would be catching would-be smugglers of illegal narcotics more easily. There could be a row ten canines sniffing, each of them trained to smell particular substances. No doubt one of them would bark at the oxycodone in my pocket or carry-on but showing a prescription would clear the matter in seconds. And if there was no reaction, I would demand to see the person in charge and ask why the dogs were not trained properly. I am not suggesting that a dog would be allowed to stick its snout in someone's crotch, but that hardly would be necessary. With our technology building an artificial nose or snout shouldn't be something out of a science fiction novel. If we are able to see what elements are present in a star millions of light years away, the "sniffer" should be relatively simple to construct. Built a few extra and send them to penitentiaries to be used on all personnel who can leave and re-enter the premises. Of course, that could result in an acute shortage of guards...

Why not ask the Israelis for help and advice? No matter what each one of us thinks of their politics and treatment of the poor souls in the Gaza Strip, we must admit that they have taken security to a new level. Yes, of course there have been terrorist strikes within the country, but they seem to have lessened in number. El Al would undoubtedly be my choice for an airline if I was worried about terrorism. Probably more attempts are planned to destroy their aircraft in flight than with any other airline, yet the Israelis seem to be a step or two ahead of the bad guys. All luggage is subjected to sudden drop in air pressure, at one time a popular trigger mechanism of explosives once the plane climbs to its cruising altitude. And I don't think the young, naive but dangerous Nigerian man would have been allowed on an El Al flight. A one-way ticket, paid in cash, to the United States via two African countries and traveling with no luggage should have raised a red flag even with Timbuktu Air.

If a foreign banker contacts American officials overseas and tells them of his fears about his son becoming a radical and a militant, such information should be taken very seriously. Why the young man had been issued a multiple-entry and -year visa to the U.S. is beyond my comprehension. There are artists, such as musicians, who have been invited to perform in this country, yet they cannot secure a visa. A couple years back a small orchestra from my native Finland wanted to come and play in cities where there is a sizable Finnish community, Seattle included. They all had to travel many hours to visit the American Consulate  in Helsinki, where each of them were interviewed and questioned. A string player from a peaceful town on the West Coast of my country hardly presents a danger to the United States, not even a violist! Yet normally a Finn can enter this country without a visa, by filling a simple form during the flight here.

So, quickly start training those dogs or build at least a prototype of a mechanical canine! I want to feel as safe as the next Joe, even if he happens to be Joe Camel or Joe the Plumber himself.

Newark Airport mess, AP Photo/Rich Schultz

Monday, January 04, 2010

Du-Bye-Bye and Niceland

Today marks the opening of world's tallest building, the Burj Kalifa tower in Dubai. Until now, it's final height has been a closely watched secret, as if the builders hadn't decided whether to slap on another extension. At an impressive 2,717 feet or 828 meters, slightly more than a half mile toward the sky, it leaves every other structure in the dust. However, it couldn't have opened at a more awkward time as Dubai is in the middle of financial chaos. Most of the dedicated office space in the gigantic tower will take a long time to fill, and although many of the apartments have been sold, few will be filled with occupants as such investments were based speculation that prices would keep on climbing. Like much of this city from the Arabian Nights, illusion has had little to do with reality.

Some have compared Dubai to Iceland which for a number of years boasted a financial empire far beyond its size. However, the two worlds couldn't be farther apart. Whereas in this part of the United Arab Emirates artificial islands were man-made, in the North Atlantic they occasionally rise from the ocean on their own as a result of volcanic activity. Dubai was built with what many call slave labor from nations such as Pakistan and India. Icelandic people are hard-working and stubborn Vikings who have only welcomed foreign workers in the years before the global collapse, because they didn't have enough people to accomplish all their projects. Yes, in both countries the financial dreamers were traveling by magic carpets, but there is a major difference between Western and Islamic banking. For one thing, Islam with its Sharia laws doesn't allow collecting interest, and profits have to be made in ways foreign to Westerners. A bank might buy a house or a car and then resell to its customer at a higher price, thus avoiding charging interest. There are always means to circumvent rules, as the Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem do in order to obey the laws of Sabbath. Special elevators stop on every floor, eliminating the need to press buttons.  A heavy drape can be drawn in front of a light so that G-d won't get angry for turning the bulb on and off; the refrigerator's compressor will wait after its door is closed before restarting as if by magic. How intelligent we humans are, outsmarting even the Almighty!

The United States and other Western nations often pointed to Dubai as an example for other nations in the area to see what an American-influenced Islamic paradise would look like. It is hard to think of another place on earth with such excesses. Now the fun is over and time for judgment has arrived. In order to prevent a total collapse, neighbors such as Abu Dhabi have agreed to help. The question now becomes what will happen to the religious and behavioral freedom Dubai has enjoyed. Abu Dhabi, like the other neighbors, is very conservative compared to the Paradise City, and will most likely want to curb some of the Western-influenced bad behavior and sinful lifestyle.

Iceland, too, lived for many years in a fairy-tale existence. A number of young financial geniuses were schooled in the United States and decided to turn their island state into another Luxembourg or Monaco. It seemed bizarre that banks from a country of just 300,000 inhabitants would be major players in global economy, at least in certain markets. As the country is not a member of the European Union and has its own currency, it was probably hit harder by the bursting bubble than any other nation I can think of. The Icelandic currency was devalued by about a half, forcing the closure of the Reykjavik's three McDonalds among other things. But the average income was so high before the economic crisis hit that people still manage to live enviably well. A year ago Reykjavik became a shopper's paradise because of the exchange rate, but the smart Icelanders started thinking in Euros instead and tourists were soon paying close to what the price level had been before. The people have lived through far worse situations and I expect them to bounce back in no time at all. The greedy bankers have long since departed, and the banking industry is overseen by the government, for quite a while I suspect. In the meantime people have gone back to what they know best, working hard in fishing and related industries.

Last summer on our way back from Finland my youngest daughter Sarah and I decided to spend three days in that country. Obviously in such a short time we couldn't see very much of what the large island has to offer, but nevertheless the place left quite an impression. We both continuously visit there in our dreams, among the endless number of sheep and horses and with landscapes that seem to be from another world. Just a couple nights ago I was accompanying an Icelandic piano concerto, performed twice for a native audience. I compose well while asleep! Reykjavik doesn't boast skyscrapers like Dubai, quite opposite: most of the buildings in the old city have just a few stories. But while Dubai has barely touched the idea of democracy, Iceland can claim the world's oldest one, dating back over a millennium.

A few things seemed a bit odd to us, such as a shortage of parking spaces and lack of ATM's (they do exist but are not plentiful like here or in my native Finland). The Leifur Eriksson terminal in Keflavik, a former NATO base, is huge, yet we had to wait for 30 minutes at a Hertz rental car desk. Everyone drives, but gas stations are few and far apart. They don't accept American credit cards, as we don't have a smart chip embedded in them like in Europe. One seemingly cannot pay with cash inside the station either: it is necessary to insert Icelandic bills into the dispensers. With the final receipts one can get a refund from the attendant. But why make everything easy?

We were so taken by the mystical world of trolls and other spirits that both of us are already talking about our next trip. If I were younger, I could even picture my family living there. My Sarah would gladly have spent a whole week in one of the geothermal pools; I in turn welcomed the solitude, peace and quiet. No Icelander will openly admit that the country was once covered with forests. Growing up, I was taught that the country's climate was too windy for trees to grow, but based on the old sagas that wasn't the case. In a cold climate there always was a need for fuel to burn, especially before people learned to harness the seemingly endless reserve of volcanic heat.

While Dubai may end as Du-bye-bye and return to being a much more humble place, Iceland represents a true Niceland to me. Its serious, hard-working and well-educated people deserve to succeed again.

Burj Kalifa; Icelandic sheep

Saturday, January 02, 2010

New Year, Old Problems

Although it is the only American daily newspaper we read, since downsizing its physical dimensions the New York Times can no longer claim All the News That's Fit to Print is true with a clear conscience. Or perhaps it continues to be the case but less fits in the smaller size. We also get the Christian Science Monitor but that has become a weekly magazine. A reader still finds excellent journalism within its pages and the topics would not typically be found in another competing publication. We enjoy the Economist which unlike American money-centered magazines covers a multitude of subjects from global politics to sciences and arts. Thank goodness for the internet and access to different viewpoints from other parts of the world. If they are written in a language I do not read fluently enough, there is always an instant translator available. Yes, the results are often funny sounding but with a little imagination the reader gets it right.

The New York Times has excellent opinion pages, with some superb columnists. And its weekly Science Tuesday is so popular in this household that unless I have read the paper online the night before or get up before anyone else, I often end up waiting for my turn. As far as science goes, I get my share with the Scientific American but many of its articles are a bit too in-depth for everyone. Often I find the magazine challenging and enjoy having to learn and understand something totally new. It is one publication that can be finished and picked up again and there are still new discoveries to be made.

Today's NY Times has an Op-Ed on art museums and their financial problems, plus a short ArtsBrief Blog about the Musée du Luxembourg closing its doors in Paris, laying off around 100 people. During the years of (imagined) wealth museums bought very expensive paintings and other art and often built additional wings, obviously at a high cost. Now, faced with economic reality, they are ready to sell some of their prized art to stay in business. Many condemn them for even thinking of such a horrific act, but in all reality, if an individual had built a new home which he/she couldn't afford today, there would be a For Sale sign outside. Would it be wrong if a performing arts organization put their fancy auditorium, often the real reason for their fiscal misery, for sale and return to performing in less glamorous surroundings? Could they also auction off a conductor, perhaps with his women and/or inner circle of friends, or other executives? Then we could clearly see what these people are worth. Hiring equally or more adept but less expensive replacements should be easy in today's world. New Jersey has had to sell at least some of their prized instrument collection; the situation became so messy I gave up trying to follow it.

The television was on and tuned to the local PBS station in HD on New Year's Eve. We saw part of NY Philharmonic's concert. Someone who didn't know what the occasion was remarked on uninspired looking musicians, some of whom resembled "washer women from Eastern Europe". I personally was disappointed by the small amount of joy radiating from the podium. It was pretty much what Swedish colleagues had complained about. Perhaps Copland's music calls for little or no expression, I can't say since his works never managed to "move the earth" for me. Lennie's West Side Story would have been far more fun to listen to, but that would have brought out an unfavorable comparison to the DudeWhat should have been a festive occasion ended in the television being switched off. Reading the rave review in today's paper made me wonder if this was the same concert I had watched. The otherwise excellent and normally objective paper has an occasional tendency of sounding like regional press, especially when it comes to praising their resident orchestra. Yes, it may be necessary to be overly supportive in today's situation which cannot be all rosy. This would be more understandable in a provincial town, which advertises just about everything being World Class, an expression that carries as much weight as calling a hamburger World's Best does. Is it possible for an old musician, who has had to sit a lot, to suffer from a World Class Hemorrhoid? New Yorkers unfortunately (or should I say fortunately) hear many of the world's top orchestras rather regularly, so it is easy to compare the local band to others. Complaining about the acoustics of Avery Fisher will only go so far: we all know the sad ending to the story of the boy crying Wolf! too many times.

The next night's telecast from Vienna was the total opposite. Yes, one knows how the waltzes and polkas by different Strauss family members are supposed to go and no one can question Vienna's pit band's expertise in playing them. However, there were also some works Offenbach and Lumbye (the "Danish Strauss") that received the same tender and loving treatment by the musicians and their elderly French conductor for this occasion, 85-year-old Georges Prêtre. I think that the Viennese all suffer from a slight case of arrhythmia. The second beat in a Waltz comes exactly when it is supposed to and so does the third. We cannot build an auditorium as gorgeous as the Musikverein in Vienna, neither will an American orchestra ever be able to understand what makes a Viennese Waltz tick. Our musicians come from too many cultures and backgrounds; the opera musicians in Vienna probably feel the correct musical pulse while still in the womb. All the orchestra members have received basically similar training which has its benefits. The concert was splendid; the only thing bothering me was the need to add additional elements to the broadcast to America, such as visiting a bakery and confection manufacturer, absent from the European broadcast. The French senior baton artist was clearly having fun. I don't know if anyone was looking up as the musicians know this stuff by heart, but the main objective was achieved: everyone was having a grand time, truly World, no, First Class.