Friday, April 30, 2010


There are Americans who want to kick Arizona out of the Union because of the racial profiling law, requiring all non-citizens to carry valid immigration documents on them at all times. Clearly this is aimed at the Latino population, many of whom have crossed the border illegally at some point in time but most of whom are legal and lawful citizens or residents. Many see the similarity of a Jew having to exhibit a Star of David during the Nazi era. Yes, crime on the Mexican side is horrendous and cruel, but where do the drug dealers buy all their deadly weapons?  Arizona is not the only state despised by more tolerant neighbors in the North: many would also like to see Texas returned to Mexico. Too bad they have all that oil...

The European Union also has member countries that others would rather see disappear. The financial messes in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland are threatening the very existence of the Union. Well-to-do countries, especially Germany, don't want to pay for these countries' debts, a result of living beyond their means. The Euro had all of a sudden become the Neuro, a very nervous currency. How did all this happen?

Greece has a long history of corruption and everyday bribes. Alexander the Great was followed by way too many Not So Greats. Although democracy may have started there, it seems like today's Greek can't handle it. True democracy in European style doesn't differ much from true Socialism. And a socialist state often demands too much from its people to be successful. The Greeks are not comfortable with the idea that the benefits and a certain lifestyle might not be sustainable in today's economy. Demonstrations in that country are very commonplace: a travel guide warns tourists to be prepared for sudden strikes without warning. But going to the barricades too many times is like the story of the boy who cried wolf: after a while nobody takes you seriously.

I have followed the story mainly through European news sources, especially after learning that a dirty American GS, Goldman Sachs, helped the Greek government to hide billions in loans from the watchful eyes of the EU regulators. The Germans are very upset and it is understandable, since they are the richest member of the Union and thus bear the greatest responsibility of bailing out the nearly-bankrupt nation of Greece, perhaps to be followed by the same scenario in Portugal and - gasp - Spain. For two decades Germany has been bleeding money from its Western parts to the East, as the reunification didn't go as smoothly as it should have. On paper East Germany was better off than other Iron Curtain countries but nobody really knew how vastly different the economies were. Now Germany has a new Eastern part in Greece. Although every politician admits urgent help is very necessary, the idea of aid of such magnitude is wildly unpopular. Not that many people believe any longer in the Euro; many miss the good old Deutsche Mark. A lot of Europeans would like see the entire Union disappear and a return to the old times. Or keep the EU, kick out the poor countries that are draining its coffers. The Scandinavian viewpoint is less emotional and, outside of Finland, the countries are not part of the Euro zone. Norway, of course, is not a member of the Union, either, probably because they'd have nothing to gain from it. With all that oil and less than 5 million people, they would be paying dearly for other countries' mistakes. The British seem almost delighted that there are other member countries where the mess is even worse than at home.

It is a long way from the post-war European Coal and Steel Community, and later the Common Market or EEC, to the present EU. Harsh realities of today would not encourage the kind of ideological dreaming common decades ago and giving birth to the Union would not happen, or it would be a marriage of a few chosen ones. I remember when Finland joined the EU in 1995 (and the Euro zone four years later), there were many skeptics. The farmer near our summer home went mad and claimed that the Union was going to steal his land and make him go broke. He barricaded the road to the area's summer homes with huge pails of hay, with anti-EU slogans, and a new road had to be built through a forest in a hurry. Later he went completely insane and ended up taking his hunting rifle and pointing it to his own head, instead of a moose. His son was old enough to take over, but everyone still uses the new road. Perhaps this poor chap's fears were well-founded: the EU destroyed his life, even if indirectly.

If Greece and those other countries has their own currencies, an easy way out would be devaluing their monetary unit. That took place in Finland a few times: I was studying in this country and all of a sudden my monthly stipend was worth a lot less. When our financial world collapsed a year and half ago, little Iceland suffered horribly but was able to devalue its Króna by 50%. No more McDonald's in Reykjavik but instead a lot of new tourists who for the first time could afford to visit this previously too expensive country. Being tied to the Euro also ties a country's hands and fiscal problems have to be approached very differently and with a lot of outside help.

Tomorrow is May Day, a global Labor Day, except this is not for shopping purposes like here but actually for the working class. In Northern Europe it is also a special day for students, who show up in their traditional student caps. The latter may look silly, but every Finn at least is proud to wear one, a proof of completing a thorough school education and the rigorous tests required. Back in my youth this was the first time during the year when ice-cream kiosks opened up and buying a helium balloon from a vendor was a necessity. Special fermented drink was made for the day and strange hard baked goodies, dipped in powdered sugar, were served. They resembled 20-30 deep-fried worms tangled in a ball! The Social Democrats and the People's Democrats (aka Communists) had their separate outdoor speaking events and parades, but I would only observe those from a safe distance. Times were hard and very different, so in that context it all made perfect sense.

This year the holiday might have special meaning in many places in Europe. Mayday is of course also the common distress call signal, used in maritime accidents and in aviation. It is a phonetic rendering of m'aidez or help me in French. In Athens the day might be called βοηθήστε με, at least for this year.
illustration of Neuro by talvi

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mother Earth's Party

Two days ago, on April 22nd, we celebrated Earth Day. This writing was supposed to be published then but the family was grappling with either a  noro- or rotavirus. Both are teeny tiny pathogens that are far too small to be seen with an optical microscope but which behave in a bullish and nasty manner.

Not only was it Mother Earth's Day: it has been her Month and Year as well. Eastern North America and Europe have had a record cold winter; we here in the Pacific NW have enjoyed the warmest one in many decades. Earthquakes have happened unusually often, including a catastrophic one in Haiti and one of the strongest ever recorded in Southern Chile. Mother Earth then decided it was time for some fireworks and lit a Roman candle in the faraway nation of Iceland. The eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier wasn't a gigantic one but managed to melt enough ice and snow to cause dangerous flooding and the closure of Iceland's Route No. 1, a highway that circles the beautiful island. It did, however, cough up quite a bit a volcanic ash which with the prevailing winds traveled to Northern and Central Europe, effectively closing all air travel. Tens of thousands of tourists and other travelers were stuck for many days, unable to get back home. Ironically Iceland's main airport in Keflavik remained open until a couple days ago as the wind blew all the ash elsewhere. Sky at night turned green over there as the photo shows.

Europe is relatively small and has an excellent system of trains, highways and ferries where smaller bodies of water need to be crossed. However, train tickets were sold out in record time, same with car rentals. In most cases people just had to wait. It is no longer really a possibility to cross an ocean on a ship, unfortunately. We have become a world far too dependent on the airplane. Hotels saw an opportunity to make money in otherwise suffering economy. Some did triple their daily rates in places like London. The famed British comedian John Cleese was stuck in Oslo, Norway, and couldn't find transportation back to the continent. Supposedly he came up with a brilliant idea and hired a taxi to take him to Brussels in Belgium. Since Skåne, Southern Sweden, is connected to Denmark with a bridge/tunnel combination, he and the driver didn't even have to worry about overcrowded ferries. The fee I saw mentioned was over €3,000, about $5,400 in U.S. currency. Oslo is pretty far, so we are not talking a nice little ride in the neighborhood.

Although volcanic ash is very dangerous to jet airplanes, melting into glass by the heat and possibly acting as a sandblaster, damaging not only delicate mechanical parts but also the windshield to the point that the pilot will not be able to see. In the past, at least during three recorded incidents jumbo planes had all their engines shut down after flying into a a cloud of ash, becoming overweight gliders with no airport within range. In each case a rapid descent to clean air enabled restarting some of the engines and made it possible for the planes to limp to safety, instead of an emergency landing on an ocean. Since the ash has no water content and the particles are tiny, ordinary radars don't pick them up and at nighttime there is no way of seeing such a cloud. Europeans had a good reason to err on the side of caution and close the airspace. Attached is a picture of a Finnish F-18 fighter jet with glass deposit damage on its engine, after a training mission in Lapland. This was before anyone was alerted of the danger approaching. The airspace over Northern Scandinavia was promptly closed, quickly followed by much of Europe. The flying ban has been widely criticized as overly cautious, but at least in my opinion it was better to play it safe than have lives in danger, literally.

The ash itself differs in its silicate content. The higher its concentration is, the lower the melting point and thus the more dangerous it becomes to jet engines. Luckily the Icelandic ash has less silicate that volcanoes in the Andes or Western North America, such as Mount St. Helens. Eyjafjallajökull's ash requires a temperature of over 1,200°C (2,200°F) for glass to form, whereas the American type and that from Pinatubo in the Philippines melts at less that 1,000°C (1,800°F), making it particularly dangerous for jet engines at cruising altitudes. Generally speaking the engines become hot enough for the Icelandic ash to form glass only during take-off.

Iceland may have another trick up its sleeve. In recorded history for 1,100 years or so, this volcano's eruptions have been followed by bigger ones from nearby Katla. That would teach the world that the little island-country can indeed be a major factor in global affairs. Of course we have to deal directly with Mother Nature, not the country's government. She makes all terror attacks and wars seem like small potatoes. Yes, there is a humbling lesson to be learned from this: we the humans really don't rule the world after all. Icelanders know Earth's power better than any of us. The eruption of the Laki fissure 1783-84 killed a quarter of the island's population and over a half of its domestic animals. Most died from fluoride poisoning, the result of breathing a deadly mixture of sulfur-dioxide and hydrofluoric acid gas. At least the enamel on their teeth became strong! The eruption had global consequences, causing sunlight to disappear in Europe and widespread famine. Some claim that the French Revolution was partially caused by the social unrest resulting from the events. In North America temperatures dropped by ten degrees and during the winter of 1784 the Mississippi river froze all the way down to New Orleans; part of the Gulf of Mexico was covered with ice as well.

When the two recent earthquakes in this hemisphere happened, experts pointed out global locations where the real big ones could take place. Southern Andes, Alaska, Kamchatka, Indonesia and our own Cascades are all waiting for nine-point-something quake to happen. The one in Haiti would not have done much damage in a modern Western city: the quake in Chile was 500 times more powerful. California's earthquakes are frequent but relatively small. Our home town, Seattle, faces a few catastrophic scenarios. I look at the 4,392-meter-high Mount Rainier daily and often wonder when it might decide to become active again. The last minor eruption was in the early 1800s and it has been a millennium since the last big one. Last year a volcano awakened in the Russian Far East after slumbering for 2,000 years, so what seem like an eternity to us is but a few seconds in Earth's history. Our mountain has so much ice and snow on it that mudflow resulting from an eruption would cause havoc in a large densely populated area. It could also upset the balance with the continental plates deep underground and trigger a massive earthquake. The latter could also happen without any help from Mt. Rainier, of course. The low-lying communities around the Puget Sound are also vulnerable to a tsunami. I sleep better knowing that we are too high up for such a wave to reach us. Any of these scenarios would totally paralyze the greater Seattle area and cause destruction of never-seen-before magnitude, at least for an American city.

It is fitting that this year's Earth Day was celebrated by Seattle's garbage collectors starting their strike.
Northern Lights at Eyjafjallajökull © Reuters
Damage to F-18 Hornet
© Finnish Defense Forces

Friday, April 09, 2010

Golden Age for Conductors

Never in my lifetime have so many jobs for orchestra conductors been available at the same time. A maestro here and there has either passed away, is very ill or has retired for various reasons. There is such a shortage of capable conductors, with some name recognition and good reputation, that many of them have taken more than one orchestra under their wing. Yesterday we learned about Edo de Waart accepting a post in Antwerp, in addition to his present gig in Milwaukee. In his case this might have been a pre-emptive, calculated move, as the Belgian city will make sure its orchestra will exist, no matter how difficult times become. Milwaukee, on the other hand, suffers from the same ailments all American orchestras in this Capitalist system do. The former MD in that orchestra, Andreas Delfs, best known for his work with European youth orchestras, had also taken a second position in Honolulu. That obviously wasn't the smartest of moves as that group presently does not exist or at least doesn't function in its previous form. Mr. de Waart, a Dutch person, has also an advantage with the language: Antwerpen is in Flanders and its denizens speak a language which is almost identical to the one north of the border, in the Netherlands or Holland. My father's forefathers were Flemish Hansa merchants, so I have studied the region well.

Occasionally a well-published and much praised selection of a conductor and/or music director can go wrong. Christoph Eschenbach, a German conductor and a great musician, had a very successful tenure in Houston, but in Philadelphia matters were different. Relationship with both the orchestra and the city's critics turned less than amicable. As a result the orchestra has been without leadership, sailing without a rudder from one crisis to the next. Since the group was regarded at one time as one of the best in the world, it is difficult to comprehend why Philadephia is having such difficulty in finding a new leader. Another "marriage made in heaven", between James Levine and the Boston Symphony, has turned into a messy affair, mainly because of Mr. Levine's ailing health. Instead of being a presence in the local scene, he is seldom seen in the city as he has had to cancel most of his scheduled concerts this year, too. Mr. Levine has tried to assure us he'll be good as new after yet another operation; I am not the only one who doesn't buy this. Luciano Pavarotti kept on insisting he was going to beat his pancreatic cancer, yet a person with any medical training knew how slim his chances were, even to live for a couple years. Yes, Mr. Levine has also had cancer, although in a location where the prognosis isn't as grim, but his issues with back pain are serious, especially for a conductor. Back operations are often promoted by surgeons as using the knife makes them rich, but the outcomes seldom are what the patients envisioned. In Sweden some years ago a comparative study was done between two groups of patients with severe back pain. One group was operated on (Sweden has generally excellent hospital and the Karolinska Institutet is among the top globally speaking), the other received only physical therapy but long-term. The study concluded that the surgically treated patients fared worse at the end. Many in the other group would no doubt have undergone surgery here, yet with intense physical therapy they were able to return to work and normal life. Mr. Levine is quite heavy which cannot be helpful in his situations. He also has conducted sitting down for such a long time that his spine must have adopted an unnatural curve as a result. Not only do I see him saying his farewells to Boston, I also think that his days in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera are numbered. But he has had such a long career: isn't it time to retire and do something more enjoyable and less physically taxing? I'm sure he could manage to teach future conductors on the side a few hours a week. This would be a blessing as there is such a shortage of such teachers who know what they are doing.

If James Levine were to leave the Met or cut back on his work load there, the opera company would become yet another American institution looking for a musical figurehead. Conducting opera is a specialty field: one has to be an excellent accompanist as many of the vocally sensational stars on stage do not know how to count and anything can happen, yet possess strong and intelligent musical ideas of his own. Ideally a great opera conductor should be fluent in all the languages the repertoire calls for, at least Italian, German and French. A maestro barely literate in English simply won't do. A good singing voice doesn't hurt as it is an easy way to communicate with a soprano or a tenor whose English is nonexistent. Talking to them with a New Jersey accent and trying to sing but sounding like a crow with a sore throat can present problems. I'm sure Peter Gelb has his eyes open, although officially everything at the Met is on track. One thing is for sure: Leonard Slatkin won't be the next Levine after his disastrous experiment to the world of Verdi. Will Slatkin remain in Detroit? That depends on the orchestra surviving. Its members and the union are steadfast in their demands of continuing pay increases which, short of someone donating a few hundred million dollars to them, is an impossible scenario. General Motors is finally supposedly making money again. It took a trip to the land of bankruptcy and starting anew. Being an auto worker today is not what is used to be, that is for sure.

Presently just about any decent American conductor, or a foreigner with a work permit for that matter, has a  whole world of opportunities waiting. Boston, for instance, has had to hire guests to take Levine's place. Even Carlos Kalmar from the Oregon Symphony has been among those invited. The latter group may be stuck in a financial rut but at least they are all pulling together to get out. And in Mr. Kalmar they have a capable leader, a person who unites rather than tears his band apart. I would like to see them succeed, more so than a big-budget group full of self-importance. A maestro, who presently is in charge of a regional third tier group but who has the goods required, may well be discovered in no time at all as demand is at an all-time high. Yes, there must be quite a few truly talented people hiding out there. Board and search committees need to know where to look and also be brave to take a challenge, risky as it may seem at first.

I don't envy all the groups in need of leadership and financial stability. They need lots of good luck and foresight, but also to remember that the reasons for their present situation are often self-evident and should be dealt with. If an orchestra cannot afford to pay sky-high salaries to its musicians, conductors and soloists, then it shouldn't. The often-heard threat of people running to greener pastures is sheer nonsense. Did the GM workers pack their bags and move to Germany to build new Porsches and BMWs?
Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony