Wednesday, March 31, 2010


There are times when I absolutely despise Microsoft. Not only has some bigwig there made my writing (and my wife's) invisible to their Bing search engine, I just spent a considerable amount of time creating an over a thousand word essay for my blog, using their Windows Live program. Just when I was ready to publish it, the Windows 7 computer responded with a blue screen of death, as if someone had decided the topic shouldn't go any further. Normally a program makes an automatic copy; Google certainly does and even MS Word saves something. But nothing remains of my creation. Poof! That much for the software giant's magic.

No other art form in music is as little appreciated as accompanying. Yet great accompanists are far rarer than good instrumentalists and conductors. Seemingly simple piano or orchestra parts turn out to be the hardest of all. Whether they are arias for singers or encores (a misnomer) for a violinist, some of the most beloved music falls in this category. Old man Jascha Heifetz knew this very well: in his later recitals in Los Angeles he used two pianists. The well-known pianist colleague would play the sonata with him, but when the second half came with its bonbons, the true treasures, a real expert, the seasoned accompanist with his keen ears and fast reflexes, was on stage.

Many years ago I had the honor of playing as concertmaster when perhaps the last of his breed, an old great Romanian violin virtuoso Ion Voicu, performed the Paganini D-major concerto. His playing was truly old school, with a rubato within another rubato. If performed straight without intimate knowledge of what lies behind the notation, the concerto sounds almost stupid. Knowing Mr. Voicu's age and experience, most of us knew that we were about to witness a performance from a time almost forgotten today. In spite of being up there in years, he still possessed an incredible technique and sound, and as a musician he was superb. This was the only time I had heard him live, but I had listened to numerous of his recordings since childhood. The accompaniment to the concerto is Rossini-like, silly in its simplicity and requires a conductor (or pianist if done in a recital as often was the case) capable of sensing every heartbeat of the soloist. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The South American conductor, rather well-known at the time for his operatic work, didn't see eye to eye with the violinist and the result was one of the worst collaborations I can recall. It was as if these two people came from two different worlds, even planets, and obviously there was a generation gap between them. However, none of the rubatos or little fermatas here and there, the real essence of the work, meant anything to the conductor. I felt terrible for Mr. Voicu. If there had been no one on the podium, enough people knew the concerto and by listening to the soloist the accompaniment would have been far more successful. Ion Voicu died not long after this performance; I always wondered if we managed to shorten his life.

used by permission, VoiceActing LLC
I read with an interest a rather awful review in this morning's New York Times. The paper's critic Anthony Tommasini titled it In Revival Of Verdi, A New Note Of Drama, and goes on to claim that the conductor of Met's La Traviata, Leonard Slatkin, did not fully know the score. Reading the article, I felt like I was following a report of an unbalanced women's hockey match in the Vancouver Olympics, with a final score of 30-2. Mr. Slatkin is, of course, best known as a champion of American music. The writer does explain that Slatkin was initially hired to conduct a contemporary opera by John Corigliano, something more likely in his territory. Financial reasons made the Met change their schedule and thus the conductor ended up with the Verdi war horse. Interestingly, I remember having similar trouble with another not-to-be-named conductor whose claim to fame also was American music. A simple, yet difficult, oom-pah was too much for him to toss off as well. For a younger conductor such a review would mean an end to a career. Mr. Slatkin has been suffering from heart problems and his present job with the Detroit Symphony cannot be easy as the orchestra is facing a financial nightmare. Perhaps this all will encourage him to retire earlier and gain some meaningful years as a pedagogue or just enjoying life. Fame isn't everything. Besides, the day you are gone, you are also forgotten.

I routinely try to give my students repertoire which is not often done here, by composers such as Jean Martinon, Karen Khachaturian (Aram's nephew), Jules Conus, Josef Suk and my Finnish countrymen. A number of students are presently working on Suk's Four Pieces Op. 18. I was first introduced to them by recordings of the great French violinist Ginette Neveu. The second one is titled Appasionato and in it violin and piano play a chase, sort of like in the Scherzo of Beethoven's Spring Sonata. Both instruments have the same figure but an eighth apart. I have performed the works too many times to count. Once I played them in the capital of Lapland, Rovaniemi, on the shortest day of the year. My pianist was a famed Finnish accompanist Pentti Koskimies. For some reason something snapped in his mind and every time when this figure came up (they are many), he insisted on playing in unison with me. Luckily I knew the piece well and didn't blink an eye. Afterwards the face of my pianist was beet red and he kept on apologizing. I'm only telling this story to remind readers of the fact that even the most seasoned artist can have an off-day.

Otherwise it was interesting to be on the Arctic Circle at that time of the year. Exactly at noon the sun, a fiery red ball, climbed to the horizon at the end of a long street running North-South, just to disappear moments later. The next morning we drove to the airport in -35° C weather (about -30° F). The Northern Lights danced across the sky in a fascinating manner. The only negative memory of the recital was the hall itself. Designed by the famous architect Alvar Aalto, it is sort a miniature version of Helsinki's Finlandia Hall, and acoustically both leave a lot to be desired. The building in Helsinki was never intended to be used for music but to be a hall for conferences and such. The 1975 Helsinki Accords, Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, was held there. Helsinki sorely lacks a decent concert hall and the Finns are presently building one, calling it the Music House. One can only know if the acoustics work out after the building is finished. Too often a concert hall is talked up to be something it is not. Sooner or later people start listening with their own ears and come to their own conclusions. Finland has good halls but they are smaller and away from the capital.

During this Passover let us not only remember and honor the freedom the Hebrews were able to achieve long time ago, but also give special credit the musical underdog, the small but mighty oom-pah.