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.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Toothless Tigers and the Constitution

A lame duck is an interesting term. Originally used in the stock market scene, it today describes someone who is about to leave his once-powerful position. Usually this is a political one but can also mean a departing head of an organization, such as a music director of an orchestra. The dictionary also gives us this explanation: one that is weak or that falls behind in ability or achievement (Merriam–Webster). Often it is difficult to see the difference between the last meaning and the usual one.

Relatively recently we witnessed a rather sad era when George W. Bush was at the end of his presidency and the financial world was collapsing around him. GWB was of course chosen by his party as a folksy figurehead as he tended to be well-liked by ordinary people and even by the media. The real power behind the White House was in the hands of his VP Dick Cheney, who perceived himself above all laws, including the Constitution. Toward the end of second term of Bush–Cheney, the President finally understood (or was made to see) how he had been used like a pawn and put his foot down, causing a rift beyond repair. Cheney, all of a sudden, was like a mighty tiger whose teeth had been pulled out and who had been declawed in the process. Gradually, lawlessness began to disappear and Bush tried to clean up some of the mess caused by his second-in-command. The economic disaster couldn’t be helped and it became a big headache for President Obama as well as for the rest of the world. However, the presidency was named after George W. Bush and history cannot treat his eight years in office with kindness.

Some years ago this blog and that of my spouse, Magic Moments, suddenly disappeared from all search engines. Clearly certain influential people wanted to silence us. I was mainly interested in Google as it is the search engine for most of us. A Bing is a Ding in value and I can’t remember the last time I used Yahoo’s search. I was told by someone in an expert position that someone with a lot of “pull” was behind this. Only after a publication sent an inquiry to Google with their questions  regarding us, our posts became searchable again. This morning I was reading news about Google redirecting their search service from Mainland China to Hong Kong, and this old issue resurfaced in my mind. A quick check on Bing and Yahoo made us not exist at all, or an ugly story about one of us was provided as a link. Clearly this was the case with Google, too, at one point but they came to respect one’s First Amendment rights. Does a financially broke organization or a law firm Beavis and Butthead’s Remains have that much clout? I doubt it. At one time a filter was activated and since no one seemed to care, it remained.

This city has almost no art coverage. I’ve been told of a sort of Blob where dismissed old ladies and their kind write online entries for money. You support them and get a glowing review in return. A community orchestra in a suburb of a suburb is “magic”. Magic will be needed for it to stay in business! Of course Dong has this blob service listed over and over again. I didn’t even bother to see what Boohoo does. If America prides itself with freedom of speech and expression, this all is in gross violation. I have even been given names of people responsible for silencing us but would not rather repeat them here as they would no doubt sue us. Although we are living comfortably, I don’t want to get into a legal battle with filthy rich characters with equally filthy sense of moral values.

A healthy art scene needs a transfusion of  fresh new blood every so often, as if it by nature suffers from anemia or some other similar disease. Without this healthy blood an organization begins to suffer and will soon be fighting for its life. It is a given that chief conductors, in this country called music directors, stay only a few years and then go elsewhere. This transfusion works  both ways and is essential to the artistic health of the individuals as well. Ideally, also musicians should not be stuck in one place but switch orchestras, just like actors and actresses go from one city and theater to another elsewhere. Who really wants to see only the same faces year after year and hear the same speaking, singing or instrumental voice time after time?  This is also true with soloists: one doesn’t usually perform in the same city more than once a year, unless it is your home town and big enough to offer multiple outlets; Itzakh Perlman in New York is a prime example, Isaac Stern before him. It is unheard of having one soloist perform with a major orchestra twice in a season, unless one is a singer in a secondary role, such as in Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth. Orchestra musicians also like to see fresh faces which is the reason for their desire to tour. Taking a bus to a neighboring town doesn’t qualify as such and crossing a river is not really going overseas. Unfortunately traveling is happening less and less frequently as the institutions are hemorrhaging financially. Touring with a smaller ensemble (chamber or classical orchestra) obviously is much less of a burden and thus more realistic to accomplish.

In some cities people in charge have far overstayed their welcome, and the health of the organization they are responsible for has worsened to the point of approaching death. Even if some old-time diehards manage to donate enough money for the group to limp along on life support, artistically it has one foot in the grave. Such people have for years been lame ducks in the sense that they’ve fallen back in ability and haven’t been a source of inspiration, to either the musicians or audiences in case of an orchestra. Those who continuously attend performances either have nothing better to do, or think that showing up is expected of them in their social circle. Eventually these quacks, the ducks, become truly lame: a once mighty cobra loses its fangs, a pitiful sight indeed, and is in danger of starving. Perhaps a collector of snakes would show mercy, take in the serpent as a new member of a reptile retirement home and have it fed a dead mouse or other small animal patiently by hand.

Bush Jr. had his Cheney and I sometimes wonder who truly has been behind all the often horrendous actions taken by these now lame quackers (check out definition #1). Is the now toothless tiger or fangless snake really the monster himself, or are there other forces involved, perhaps family members, strange friends, collectors or rich donors? Whatever, let them all go away. As people said to our former President: good-bye and good riddance.

Once a person no longer can harm his subjects, he indeed becomes powerless and an object of ridicule. It is easy to picture what Hans Christian Andersen had in mind when he wrote his famous tale Emperor’s New Clothes. As the fat despot, fallen victim to two swindlers, was parading in the nude,  it took a child to expose how laughable he looked with his fat belly. Even his masculine tool, which had frightened and ruined the lives of many young maidens, all of a sudden looked like dried fruit. Nothing would ever be the same for him. But that was how it should have ended; wasn’t that the moral of the story?
in illustration: a toothless tiger, red blood cells

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Orchester, Oркестр & Ορχήστρα

For now, let us leave the bleeding American orchestras alone in their misery and look at what of interest is happening elsewhere.

Herbert von Karajan was a male chauvinist, no one can deny that, and during his long reign the Berlin Philharmonic was a men-only club. In the Teutonic culture this was not unusual. When there was an opening in an orchestra in German-speaking countries, the ad would clearly state is it was for a man (Geiger), usually in the first 4 stands, or if a woman could also be considered (Geigerin). The few women who appeared as soloist with the Berlin orchestra were expected to "behave" properly. Today's hip-gyrating babes would have been banned. Karajan's prodigy Anne-Sophie Mutter looks like a porcelain doll in video recordings with the maestro and his band, with absolutely no facial expression, as an ideal German Fräulein should.

Even Karajan couldn't live forever and since then the Philharmoniker has had to admit numerous females into the group. A year ago I was still regularly watching their concerts transmitted over the web. Although the general level of playing was always high, the orchestra sounded pretty much the same, sort of Wurst und Bier, no matter who was on the podium. The cameras focused on the same people and I soon noticed how many of the string players were slackers, playing over the fingerboard and thus not contributing much to the overall sound. I hate to admit this but it seemed to me that a good portion of these musicians were female. Perhaps it was a cultural thing: women were not supposed to play like men. Before you readers react, let me assure you that I am 100% pro-women. Listening to late Ginette Neveu's recordings it doesn't take long to realize that her playing is more "masculine" (in a good sense) than that of most of her male colleagues.

Österreich or Austria is another story.  Vienna, for many the capital of music, used to have an uneasy mix of Jews and Gentiles. Fritz Kreisler, although raised as a Catholic, couldn’t get a position with the Opera Orchestra, also known as the Philharmonic. During an interview late in his life, he said that had they accepted him, he might still be there playing in the pit. Although the Nazi party was outlawed, its sympathizers controlled musical life long after the war, especially in Salzburg. The Vienna Philharmonic, consisting of chosen members of the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, was strictly all white male until 1997 when their harpist for 26 years, Anna Lelkes, was admitted as a member. This was done just prior to a U.S. tour and was a result of an uncomfortable newspaper article questioning the orchestra’s sexism. Until that time only her hands had been seen on widely watched New Year’s concerts and she was never present in the ensemble’s photographs. Ms. Lelkes retired soon afterwards in 2000.

The orchestra’s tour to the U.K. this year was the cause for another article, this time in the Independent, about the sensitive fact that only three percent of the members are female and none are non-white. A small number females have been accepted into the orchestra during the last decade, just to be fired later on. A woman was appointed as concertmistress in 2008, soon after the only one outside the string section, an oboist, was fired. Many saw this move as political, intended to quiet critics. The orchestra had a Japanese tuba player but he was fired in 2003 before his trial period was over. This in spite of the Philharmonic’s Chairman stating that Mr. Sugiyama was perhaps one of the best in the world in his field.

Let's go next to Russia, although this story involves us Americans. The Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra is on a tour of the U.S. and Daniel Wakin wrote an interesting article in the N.Y. Times about the low pay and substandard accommodations the musicians are stuck with. Other publications and web sites soon joined in. Yes, $40 a concert seems like a little and sharing a room in a motel may not be what some American musicians consider adequate. However, many of us work for that amount or even less, sometimes even for minimum wage. Every tour I did with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra involved long bus rides and one could only get a private room by paying the difference. Another orchestra, which shall remain unnamed, offered single rooms but paid the musicians more if they agreed to double up. Isn’t this just another way of making one pay for privacy? The same people eager to complain about the Muscovites'  low pay would no doubt rather buy piece of clothing, coming from a foreign sweatshop, for less money than what an American-made one would cost.

For those Russian musicians the $40 fee may be a lot;  they also get an opportunity to travel overseas and perform for audiences other than their usual crowd. Surely they all would love to stay in a five-star hotel and be paid $500 a night, plus a hefty per diem. But with that price tag, would they be invited to visit here? Of course not. For that much money you could instead get one of the two famous orchestras mentioned above. I don’t think people are dying to hear the rather unknown Russian group, no matter how well they play. I toured a couple times with  the great Helmuth Rilling and his  fabulous Gächinger Kantorei. Unless I remember incorrectly, every one of those singers took a month off from work and personally paid for all their expenses, airfare and all.

Now I’m off to yet another country with funny-looking alphabet. Greece has been lately in the news frequently, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. Its financial problems threaten the stability of the Euro and if Greece can’t keep up with its obligations, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and others might well follow in the wake of its collapse. In the true Balkan style, Greek people are used to corruption and strong unions; sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. I read with some amusement how many professions over there are considered so dangerous that early retirement is encouraged, if not required. People in our military retire early, but how about hairdressers because of the chemicals they have to handle? What about people in the media who have to hold microphones which might be contaminated with dangerous microbes? With that logic any profession which requires turning door handles would qualify. My favorite hazardous profession is playing a wind instrument. Those poor musicians “must contend with gastric reflux as they puff and blow”, according to the NY Times.

Now I understand why so many of those musicians are so sour, with all that acid backing up. As they get older, reflexes are replaced by refluxes! Conducting might also be dangerous as a baton wielder’s blood pressure could easily rise, increasing the risk of a stroke (we wish). And all that yelling at the orchestra members must be harmful to his vocal cords. While we are making these colleagues retire, let us not forget the hazards a Concert-Mistress might face daily: those tight Wonderbras cannot possibly be harmless and the spike-heel shoes must be a torture to wear every day but mandatory in the job. I can’t fathom how anyone over 40 could continue under the circumstances.
in pictures: Johann Strauss
ancient Greek wind player

Friday, March 05, 2010

Snakes in Paradise

Probably the Bible is to blame for our fear of snakes. Satan, as the Tempter, took the form of a serpent and convinced Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, soon to be followed by Adam.  As a result G-d banished them and the human race from Paradise. Even people who haven’t bothered to study the Bible know this legend, along with the stories of Noah’s Ark and the great flood, and Jonah in the whale’s belly.  Granted, many of these carnivorous reptiles are poisonous or can kill an animal bigger than a man by constriction. However, attacks on humans by snakes are quite rare and usually done in self-defense, while threatened.

Close to the cottage where I spent all my childhood summers was a nest of adders, the only poisonous snakes in Finland. Once in a while one would venture to our property and I could never quite understand why my father rushed to kill it. I watched them slither in fascination, keeping a safe distance. I soon learned that the only way a person would be bitten was to accidentally step on one or near its head. Snakes are very sensitive to vibrations and easily sense when people or large animals approach. Usually they rush into hiding. I would often go with my parents, especially with my mother, deep into the woods, to collect berries or wild mushrooms; wearing rubber boots was a no-brainer. One time we returned to the summer home after a week’s absence and a viper had shed its skin right on the table on our deck. I was truly amazed by the beauty of the scales and it didn’t bother me that we were soon eating dinner exactly where the snake had spent probably days going through its molting.

The idea of serpents attacking people and causing mass hysteria has been used over and over again in books and movies.  Terrible films such Snakes on a Plane and numerous primitive low budget series for television don’t do justice to these remarkable creatures. Their slithering is an amazing form of moving about, many species being able to climb trees using the same motion, not to mention swimming at high speeds. Harmful rodents are a delicious dinner to many, as are other snakes. Of the poisonous varieties, all have different neurotoxins. Obviously a snake needs to be immune to its own lethal cocktail, yet it has to be able to kill or at least paralyze another one of its cousin. Fast food is not on a snake’s menu. As it lacks the teeth to chew or tear into the flesh, its mouth and digestive tract has to expand and stretch enormously when needed. A snake eating another one practically its own size will take a long time. One end has been digested and is on its way out when the other is still waiting to be swallowed.

It is the human form of these serpents that I find more toxic and dangerous than the real ones. I have had my share of them during my lifetime. They have varied in size, origin and toxicity. Some have appeared in pairs: Easter European Viperoff and its Western counterpart Adderall come first to mind. Western Rattlesnake and a Burmese Python (digesting a Florida alligator),  Dendroaspis polylepis alias Black Mamba and its partner Israeli Robotic Snake are other examples. The latter is not a live snake, but since it has no feelings, it qualifies. Not entirely a snake, there was a Fang in one workplace driving people crazy. Another little pesky serpent with a Napoleon complex, a Meek Puff Adder, has last been seen on the East Coast. Down Under they have more poisonous snakes that on any other continent, however my encounters with Australian human legless reptiles are limited. Perhaps they are doomed to fail outside of their home territory.

Snakes and their toxins are a treasure chest for pharmaceutical research. Decades ago anyone traveling to the Soviet Union from my home country had trouble finding merchandise to buy. They all brought back snake ointment, Viprosal, made in part from a viper and supposedly quite effective for treating pain. Recently, I found an article about Cobra venom in the Time Magazine, being used to treat cancer pain. With some research I discovered that the substance has been used for centuries in China and other Asian countries and has finally found its way to mainstream Western medicine. Supposedly 30 times stronger than morphine, it must be a gift from heaven for those who are suffering and have developed a tolerance to opioids. I was surprised to find that it is possible and legal to buy diluted Asian (Chinese) cobra venom in this country where it is sold under the name Cobroxin or Nyloxin, both as an oral spray and a topical gel. A stronger Nyloxin Rx is available by prescription only. I am the ultimate skeptic but had to try the stuff. To my amazement it seems to be effective. After the few initial uses my heart rate increased but by now there are no side effects. Pain signals are blocked quite successfully as the  treated area (with the gel) becomes numb. Best medicines have always come from nature!

I have definitely lived in this country for too long, now that I’m willingly buying snake oil, the butt of jokes. Perhaps there always was some truth to it being effective; it was the doctors who wanted to stay in business and purposely gave it a bad reputation. Another ridiculed saying, being able to sell ice cream to the Eskimos, is probably equally twisted. Why wouldn’t they enjoy it as much as you and I?
illustration by talvi