Monday, May 31, 2010

Day of Memories

When as a youngster I first heard about the American Memorial Day, the term seemed puzzling. I had just started learning English and the word obviously was derived from memory. I found out the meaning in no time, but to this day I think of memories, memorizing and keep the day as a somber reminder that so many of us, especially the elderly, are falling victims of dementia. Of course the Finns have their day to remember the ones who paid defending their country with their lives, but we call it a day to remember the fallen. In America, it has been a long time since we actually have defended our country: the deaths have happened far away from home on foreign soil, as a result of our involvement in affairs of other nations, or our financial or political interests. Originally the Decoration Day, this special day was meant to honor the Union soldiers who had died in battle.

I am a pacifist and only believe in armed battle when defending one's family and home country from foreign aggression. Wars have no victors, just losers. Terrible acts take place but only the losing side is made to pay for their sins. Just a few days ago the only still living member of the Enola Gay crew, the navigator Van Kirk, said that he would be ready to drop the nuclear bomb again as he hadn't lost a night's sleep over the deaths of 200,000 people, mainly civilians. Yes, the Nazis caused horrifying destruction and suffering. How can we ever forgive them for the destruction of the Jewish people and other people they deemed unwanted? But the Allied forces were no angels, either. Cluster bombing of Germany and Japan was more of a test to see what would happen than a military necessity. Yes, we now know that human bodies can melt to a puddle of fat if all the oxygen has been used up, but what good is such knowledge? What if the evil Germans would have won and the British would have had to surrender? The weapons and the scientists in the Third Reich were far superior to the other side, especially in the beginning of the Second World War. What if they had managed to create the first atomic weapon? Would Hitler be the hero of the "free" world?

But let's return to my "Memory Day" concept. Since my mother suffered from Alzheimer's as did one of her two brothers, I naturally wonder if I have the same sad future awaiting. Recently previous theories of the cause of this horrifying condition have undergone a 180 degree turn. We were so sure that the amyloid plaques in the brain were the cause of the disease that all medical research and development of drugs evolved around this concept. Now new information has surfaced and it is very contradictory to the old way of thinking. Oligomers, floating clumps of amyloid, seem to be the cause, at least with mice. The plaques might actually be nature's way of protecting the brain. Some have compared it to the mechanism in an oyster where a pearl is created around a grain of sand, to prevent damage to the life form. By having developed drugs to prevent these plaques we might have made matters worse. Not everyone is ready to embrace the new theory, but when stomach ulcers were first linked to Heliobacter pylori many doctors and researchers laughed. In order to make progress in a dead end situation one has to think outside of the accepted norms for the box. In the case of Alzheimer's we have long known from autopsies that there are perfectly normal people with such deposits and sometimes an early case will present none or very few. Hopefully science will know more before this ever becomes an issue with me.

Although presently many professionals are ready to lump every old-age dementia in the same basket of Alzheimer's, that clearly isn't the case. I have a 99-year-old father who has for well over a decade suffered from some form of dementia but he is still able to talk and carry on a conversation, give ladies flattering comments and so on. After two broken hips he isn't able to walk and there are other signs of extreme age, but clearly the course of the condition is very different from what my mother went through. So, let's not throw out the terms old-age and vascular dementia ("hardening of the arteries"). Different forms of frontotemporal lobe dementia (FTD) are another group of illnesses affecting the brain and a cruel ones as they affect a patient's personality so much.

The mechanism behind memory is most intriguing. What makes us remember a certain event but forget another one? At what age do our first permanent memories form? I was "born old" and can easily remember happenings when I was just two. I also have a very clear image of being in a baby stroller looking up and seeing people, tall as trees, bending down to a closer view. I know that this really happened because I remember the plywood structure of the stroller and my mother admitted that after the war nothing fancier was available. I learned to walk very early, so clearly this would have happened much before. I also remember breastfeeding on what seemed like an enormous source of nourishment. This also had to happen early as my mother was busy returning to her business. Many events are easy to place in a correct time knowing when they happened. The summer home was being built before my second birthday. We didn't have a car and took a taxi to see the hole that my grandfather had dug for the foundation for his house. It was filled with water as the fall was rainy. I had just turned two. At the same age my mother took me to see our next house and I remember holding onto her hand and stepping through the bathroom. The red and yellow tiles left a permanent impression. Of course they later seemed much smaller than at first sight. On my third birthday by grandpa came over in the afternoon and gave me a gigantic box of Fazer candies, one kilo or 2.2 lbs of them. I remember sitting with him by the kitchen table. On my fourth birthday it was freezing and I went to the sandbox all by myself and felt ever so old. No other kids were out but I had received a pocket knife and was admiring it.

I learned to read fluently at three, not only Finnish but music as well. It is just another language with a different notation, right? As I was far ahead of my age group, I read the daily paper and can remember many headlines from early on. That in turn made me very curious of the world and my love for geography and other knowledge was born.

Today I wish I didn't remember so much. I am an old elephant. Some memories can be pushed to the back burner, but there are people who have wronged me and my family. It is easier to forgive than to forget, but when no apology has ever been offered, there is no reason for forgiveness either. Perhaps when I can go to a gravestone and spit on it, the matter has reached its conclusion. If I'm no longer around, maybe a family member will do so for my soul's behalf. My silent and non-violent war continues.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dude and Dilbert

When I first heard about Los Angeles Philharmonic's short American tour with Gustavo Dudamel, I knew that critics in certain cities would grab the opportunity and attack him. Granted, the orchestra may not be as refined as some other ensembles, but this is hardly news. This was the way under Esa-Pekka Salonen as well but then the group got nothing but praise. Yet my countryman hardly created such a stir as "the Dude". Clearly the orchestra doesn't play at a lower level than it did a year ago and the young dynamo on the podium creates enough energy to electrify every musician on stage and every listener in the audience.

One of the most thoughtful analyses was written by perhaps the least biased critic in America, Anne Midgette, in the Washington Post. Ms. Midgette has no ax to grind with Dudamel and sees the situation objectively, unlike the writers in some other East Coast cities. The New York Times published two reviews. In the first, Anthony Tommasini had some unflattering comments regarding the conductor and the orchestra itself. In the second, Allan Kozinn is far more complimentary. It reminded me of a pair of reviews not so long ago where the first critic attacked the NY Philharmonic's solo horn and another critic rushed to praise the player soon afterward. Again, I don't think the horn player's skills improved overnight. Critics often have their own agenda. It is understandable in a provincial city but regrettable in the country music capital. Perhaps a critic is friends with another horn player who would like to have the principal fired, demoted or at least made to retire. This is not different from a provincial "music cricket" attacking a concertmaster, in order to push a mediocre student-level violinist, his pal, to his spot. This is all done in the name of I scratch your back if you scratch mine, in other words mutual brown-nosing.

I don't think the Los Angeles Philharmonic will ever reach the level of Vienna, Berlin or Chicago. Perhaps nobody has noticed but orchestras in hot climate don't usually excel (youth groups excluded), as the climate affects any person's lifestyle, including that of a musician. For example, orchestras in Arizona, Louisiana and Florida are either in deep trouble or have vanished. A number of other states can be added to the list. Texas is an exception but few would place the Houston or Dallas groups among the true elite of orchestras. This is not just an American phenomenon: in a hot climate there are almost no ensembles worth praising other than the Israeli Philharmonic, and that group is more interesting to look at than to listen to, with so many senior members. In the Southern Hemisphere there are probably a few decent orchestras that consider themselves "World Class" but then, who doesn't? Melbourne and Sidney have very good symphonies but they are not in the top tier either; neither are orchestras in South Africa or South America. The latter has a history of loving classical music and is famous for long ovations but they lack the funds for top notch groups. Many years ago I remember reading that the orchestra in São Paulo could have a season only every other year, due to the enormous expenses of stage hands, negotiated by their union. And Paulistas and Porteños (Buenos Aires) most likely prefer opera to orchestral music. Isn't there an opera house in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest?

But let's go back to the Dude. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that certain cities are bitter about the Angelinos snatching the young Venezuelan. No headliner really wanted the burden of becoming New York Philharmonic's new Music Director, as with all the interesting visiting groups, the orchestra belongs in the "we also have" category. So, Alan Gilbert's contract in Sweden came to an end very timely, and making him seem larger than life was left to the PR machinery, including the NY Times. He first conducted the orchestra in Central Park and got rave reviews for that performance, although seriously I doubt if any listener would have heard the difference between that group with "Dilbert" and the Cucamonga Symphony with maestro Porkanini at the helm. It was clear then that the local media wasn't going to be objective, and in the view of the Big Apple pride and difficult economic times, it is fully understandable. However, are people really that gullible that if a public figure suffers from flatulence and they hear and read comments how fragrant the odors are, they will go around sniffing the air saying ah, he had wonderful egg salad for lunch? Do they follow a maestro to the men's room and rave about the delicious aroma of asparagus in the air? "It stinks" can become a most positive experience in the hands of the media! Don't get me wrong, I wish Mr. Gilbert the best of luck in his new post, but easy it won't be, as it never was for any of his predecessors.

I haven't ever seen or heard anyone poke fun at Mr. Gilbert's looks although I'm sure a mean person could. Gustavo Dudamel has usually been described as charismatic and youthful with wild hairdo, but a Bay Area newspaper, San Jose Mercury News, described him as short and chunky in one of the first reviews of the tour. What a conductor's height has to do with his musical capabilities is beyond me. Since such body type of a Latino or Latina is stereotypical, perhaps the critic, Mr. Scheinin, was expressing his racial opinion. Who knows, he might be after a job with the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. The San Francisco concerts received mixed reviews in the media although audiences ate up the music making. The everlasting rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a funny thing. It exists in every area from finance to education to the arts. Long time ago I played in the Bay Area as a principal in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the local critic decided to write almost the entire review about our timpani player who wasn't one of our regulars. I didn't know that a nice older gentleman at the kettle drums could ruin an entire concert. This was especially strange because the poor chap was doing a fine job and only played in one piece, a symphony by Haydn or Mozart.

It would be interesting to hear Dudamel in front of another orchestra, preferably in a situation where he could work with the group for several concerts and would learn to know its strengths and weaknesses. He did remarkable work with the enthusiastic young players in Caracas. While watching them perform my large computer monitor sent out sparks. The same excitement didn't quite happen with the Swedes in Gothenburg, but they would probably need a few portions of Akvavit to make that materialize and by then the musicians might fall off their chairs.
in photos Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert

Monday, May 17, 2010

Auditions, Part 1

As repulsive as a thought playing in an orchestra is to most good string instrumentalists, at least for the rest of one's active life, most end up doing it. Options are limited: very few are pretty or handsome enough to manage a career as a soloist. Besides of the eye-candy element, one is also supposed to please conductors and even music critics (if they still exist), whatever that means. The actual skill level doesn't really matter, neither does artistry nor individuality. Some choose to stay in Academia, often as a member of a string quartet in residence, another possibly nightmarish scenario.

The road to an orchestra goes through a process called auditioning. It is a rather faulty and biased system, but more on that another day. These are just some reflections from the distant past, all true.

Although I never intended to become an orchestra musician and still don't consider myself one, over the decades I have had a lot of experience with different groups in different countries and continents. Back home, decades ago, any foreigner was not welcome, a far cry from today's situation. The orchestra where my first wife, an American, became the concertmaster, the audition committee tried every single trick in the book to prevent her employment. After she was named for the post, the conductor was told to call in sick on the Finnish Independence Day, December 6, when the orchestra was to perform Finnish music, including the Finlandia by Sibelius, to a large audience. The contract stated in small print that in case of the conductor's absence, the concertmaster had to take care of wielding the baton. To the players amazement my ex did a splendid job and her picture appeared in the local daily in quarter-page size. 

In Sweden where I worked as concertmaster for a year, a cello assistant principal position was available, and again an older Russian cellist from the back of the section tried out. He actually played quite well and should have won the audition but the players would not allow that to happen. Too many foreigners already, they said. The Saint-Saëns concerto was renamed Sans-Chance for him. Unlike in America, Russian musicians and Russians in general were not thought highly of in that country, at least back then.

We all know about Herbert von Karajan's desire to keep his orchestras "pure", free of women (other than a harpist who wasn't really a member). After the maestro's death the Berlin Philharmonic started admitting females; today they make a sizeable portion of the musicians. Not so in Vienna where only a few women have been allowed in, just to be denied tenure, as was the case with a Japanese male tuba player as well. Today they have a woman as one of their concertmasters, but this is widely understood as an attempt to quiet the critics of the all-male club.

Back in Los Angeles, the local chamber orchestra had frequent auditions, especially since so many musicians quit after the departure of greatly admired and beloved Sir Neville Marriner. An unknown brass player on the podium was not in the least to their liking. The concertmaster wanted me in the orchestra and so I auditioned for the principal second violin spot in his house. The conductor had secretly promised the spot to a "friend" and came up with excuses why I wasn't acceptable, mainly because he didn't like my sound. I may have my faults, but a beautiful tone is my trademark, so it was easy for anyone to see through this BS. 

The season started and behind the conductor's back the same "friend" went to the board and said that he himself would make a better leader for the group. Although he was probably right (at least he knew something about string playing), someone leaked this information and the poor fellow with high ambitions was out immediately. By now my sound had improved dramatically in a few weeks and I was named for the post. Not surprisingly, in the first rehearsal I ended up having an argument with the stick-man as he was forcing some idiotic bowings on us in Bach. 

During another audition where I was one of the listeners, there was a man from Alaska who simply didn't know the basics of violin playing. America is a free country and everyone can try, right? We held back tears from amusement and one of us ended up under a coffee table. The concertmaster wanted to bring in an old friend of his, a man that had been a good fiddle player at some point but no longer could play; not an uncommon scenario. The audition started by the concertmaster saying Joe, tell us about your instrument! That was a dead giveaway of what we were going to hear and obviously the man didn't join our ranks.

Conductors try to use their influence and choose their favorites, no matter what the audition committee thinks. I remember a case where a double bass player, who had been kicked out of another group, had been promised a job. He had been placed in the finals but didn't get enough votes to be eligible. The conductor's face turned beet-red from anger. Another opening came but this time rules had been changed so that if someone had been advanced to the finals without going through an earlier round, everyone had to play behind a screen. After hours of listening to the soothing sounds of the double bass, a vote was taken after a discussion. The conductor made clear who his favorite was and this person was elected. This time the maestro's face turned white when the winner was introduced: instead of his old pal, a young skinny woman was brought out.

Years ago it was common that the conductor could have "inside" auditions and move a person from the second violins to the firsts, or to name them as principals. Although he could make such a decision all by himself, usually a maestro had others listening and solicited their opinion. Only when such advice went contrary to his wishes, a second, private audition was held, to justify a move. Today's orchestras are smarter and everyone has to compete. That doesn't automatically mean that the best candidates win, as there are orchestras where half of the concertmasters family has "won" auditions or a girlfriend is chosen over a more capable player. Many East Coast orchestras have numerous such stories.

More on the actually stupid way musicians are elected through the audition process will follow later.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Parents Living Lives Through Children

My wife Marjorie and I have a lot of things in common, but perhaps one fact stands out more than anything: we probably wouldn't have ended up in the field of music had we not had an obsessed parent. In her case she didn't have much choice as her mother was determined to make her a great violinist. My father didn't have such power over me, but I liked to be able to please him. He would spend eight nights a week, to loosely quote the Beatles, listening to me practice and take out his violin whenever I felt like playing duos with him (which was almost daily). One thing led to another and I became a violinist although my true calling would have been elsewhere. It is no wonder that our children, although well trained in music and most gifted in it, were never encouraged to think of it as a profession. We want them to be happy and successful in life and yet appreciate and love music, something a professional musician doesn't necessarily do, no matter what they claim.

Over the years and decades it has been interesting to watch the dynamics between a parent and a child. It can vary from not caring or understanding at all, to being quite supportive, and all the way to being the main force behind a child's "interest". The latter is mainly a mother-daughter situation although I've had my share of nutty fathers as well. One had read a book on Paganini's life and after that would lock his son in his room for 8-12 hours, expecting to hear non-stop practicing and ending up with a great virtuoso in a couple years. I think (or hope) that the boy learned the old trick of recording his practicing and then playing it back while doing something more useful or fun. It worked with my father during the weekends when he expected me to forego all the playtime with friends. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder with the longest available tape ready. With the 9.5 cm/sec speed it gave me an ample opportunity to leave the house, yet keep the old man happy. I was into high fidelity recording early on and had great equipment, so there was no way he could tell the difference between the real thing and my recording. I was finally caught when Dad was enthusiastically listening to my practicing behind the door and I walked in from the outside at the same time.

But those Übermothers and their daughters… I love seeing a healthy loving relationship, with support not only in music but in other areas as well. As parents drive their younger children to lessons, it is natural for them to stay and listen, unless they live close enough or prefer doing errands during that time. Usually when the teenager gets a driving license they start showing up on their own, a healthy sign, although I'm not always at easy with a thought of a 16-year-old navigating through traffic by herself. However, I dread mothers who show up with daughters plenty old enough to be on their own, writing notes or behaving like they are taking the lesson instead of their offspring. Often these mothers are musicians of some sort themselves, and can think of nothing better for their daughters than to follow in their footsteps, hopefully achieving something the parent wasn't capable of. Given the fact that these parents should be aware of how glum the employment prospects in the field are nowadays for new graduates, it never ceases to amaze me why they don't see the whole picture. Musical talent often skips a generation or two and even if the youngster is capable of learning the skill well, it might not be the job that would keep her/him happy. 

I grew up among music lovers and very capable individuals who loved music above all but did something else for living. There were doctors, dentists, judges, heads of big corporations, even priests, you name it. My own dentist was a very decent cellist and horn player who free-lanced almost every night. My father had been close friends with his violinist father, also a dentist and the nicest man. Even people in the professional orchestras had jobs on the side. One of my favorites, the solo oboe of what became the Helsinki Philharmonic, was a beekeeper and sold a lot of honey. His specialty was packing it in tubes: I always got one when he came over to play in my dad's orchestra. We may well be heading back to that direction again, not necessarily a bad idea, as it would be an affordable option in today's world.

Of course mothers who live through their daughters interfere with every aspect of the girl's life. Many are very active in the school's PTA and befriend teachers, to assure good grades and preferential treatment. They also get involved in school and youth orchestras, putting pressure on the conductors to use their "younger sisters" as soloists and get placed in the front of a section. Some even follow their daughters to college, relocating in a city near the school, sometimes even leaving their husbands behind. These young ladies are going to have a heck of a time getting used to reality when they finally are forced to face it. They may get married and even have a child, but their parent will become a mother-in-law from hell. I remember touring with a great talent who shall remain nameless. She played fabulously but even during rehearsals her mother sat with the baby in the hall. The husband was nowhere to be seen. A remarkable violinist, her name has disappeared from the headlines. Perhaps she learned to abhor the life her mother had designed for her, not an uncommon scenario. Another one was a rather famous name as a Wunderkind and earned a lot of money in soloist fees. After turning 18 she wanted to have access to her account, in order to buy a car. But darling, there were all kinds of expenses… In other words, all the money had been spent, her account depleted. The daughter put away the violin, only to dig it up a decade or two later in order to eke out a living as a free-lance violinist.

To many parents it seems a natural thing to live a new life through their children. It does, in most cases, destroy the growing experience for the child, and the future will likely not be as rosy as the mother or father had envisioned. We as parents believe in what our 22-year-old calls "hand-off care". Our daughters know that they have our love and support, but also that they are expected to be responsible for their actions, mistakes and successes. So far we have reason to be nothing but proud. Something in our philosophy must be correct. And yes, they love us in return and will continue to do so; I have no doubts about it.
Photo © Richard Walker/ImageNorth