Friday, April 29, 2005

Music crickets

One of the first things my violin teacher taught me was this: if you play really well, you can be a soloist; if you are not quite that good, you can play in an orchestra. If you are not capable enough for this, you can teach; if this is beyond your reach, you can always become a music critic.

Since I was little, I knew how much harm and hurt someone could cause with the printed word. My father, in his spare time, conducted an orchestra. Sure enough, he had his nemesis in our home town, a drunken music teacher, who would use every opportunity to ridicule my dad in the local paper. My father was doing a terrific job, and he did what he did because of his passion for music. He never accepted any payment for it. What this music teacher was writing made no sense, but he had the avenue to publish what he wanted to.

At that time a funny review was circulating in my native country: a well-known woman violinist had played a recital in some town, with an old-fashioned program which included a lot of small pieces in it. The review was glowing except that the critic hadn't been present at the concert. She had wrongly assumed that the soloist was a soprano and was praising her diction.

At 15, I played a debut recital in Helsinki. One of the critics went so far as to call me a 'prophet,' which I thought was high but strange praise. Three years later he showed up in Los Angeles, to interview Stravinsky, and wasted no time in calling me. He insisted that I came to his hotel, where he tried to get me drunk in the bar. The bartender was very reluctant with serving me as he immediately figured out that I was underage, and saw through what the man was trying to accomplish. Up to the critic's room I had to go, and he made it clear that it was time to pay up for his glorious reviews. When he went to the bathroom, whistling, and I heard water running, I zoomed out of the room and the hotel, into a taxi. This must have really angered him as he bumped into my father back in Finland a little later, and had the guts to complain that I didn't know how to take care of PR. This man died of a heart attack a few years later.

There was another critic in my home country who got mad at me for not asking Heifetz for a letter, stating that the new Finlandia Hall should only be used for concerts and not for conferences and congresses (for what it was designed). This man was brilliant, wrote extremely well, translated literature, but had a dark and disturbing, almost evil, presence. Many Finnish musicians left the country, promising not to return until this man stopped writing. One summer, Janos Starker and Miriam Fried played the Brahms Double at a music festival; this critic's advice was for Starker to take music lessons from the violinist. Some years later this man completed his autobiography, put the manuscript in the mail, went home and shot himself through the head. I have the book on my shelf, a present from my brother, but have never read it.

There have been many wonderful writers about music, with a lot of knowledge and insight, but usually without an agenda they feel they have to push. Some have refused to write about anything that they have felt didn't fall into their field of expertise. Many decent human beings have given up reviewing concerts, for whatever reasons. I have recently read a few really excellently written, constructive reviews in the New York Post by our opera company's present general director during his time with the paper. Harold Shoenberg's articles on pianists are legendary. Writing, even a music review, is truly an art form.

Then there are those I prefer to call music crickets. Like in a Disney cartoon, these annoying insects seem to play the fiddle, pretending to be experts of sorts, but at the end just making a lot of meaningless noise. They may say, as their defense, that one doesn't have to be a cow to say the milk is sour. It would be good to know, however, that it is milk they are talking about.

Recently, my daughter's college literature professor here in Seattle brought up a local critic's style as an example how not to write a review. "You have to stick to facts," she said, claiming that this person expressed nothing but personal opinions and tried to present them as factual. What about another critic who made a big deal about the local ballet company not using their orchestra at all for the first time, preferring canned music? All this expert would have needed to do was to look into the pit, where players were busy making music.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Musical misfortunes

It is important that one learns to laugh at him/herself. Here are some true musical highlights of my life that seem funny now, but were anything but at the time.

I was seven and in first grade (school starts later in Finland than here). I had promised to play something for the class on the harmonium, but naturally had forgotten all about it. Since I couldn’t disappoint my teacher whom I loved and adored, I decided to improvise. She sat next to me on the bench, to pump air to the organ with the pedals I couldn’t possibly reach, and I started my piece. I was quite inspired and did rather well, playing for perhaps five minutes. To my horror, my teacher said that since it was so beautiful, could I play the piece again? I was sweating, but couldn’t tell her the truth and started again. Of course the second version didn’t quite resemble the first, but I tried to include the same melodies, harmonies and tremolos, my specialty at the time. All the kids and my teacher loved it. I stayed close friends with her for as long as she lived, and she often remembered what a thrill it was sitting with me and pumping those pedals. It took me years to confess to my ‘crime’ but that just made her laugh and I’m not sure if she ever believed me.

In 1967 Finland was celebrating her 50th year of independence and I was asked to play at a diplomatic event in Los Angeles. I had the pianist from the Heifetz Master Class accompanying me and he brought a lovely young lady to turn pages. To our surprise the ballroom only had an upright piano, although big in size. Somewhere in the middle of my program my right arm accidentally hit something and my bow flew out of my hand, somehow managing to land right underneath the piano. The three of us were on our hands and knees trying to fetch the bow, but it wasn’t easy to get to and took us several minutes. Finally I had it in my hand again and we went back to finishing the program. Luckily most of audience had enjoyed a few drinks, and they probably thought this was part of the act.

Uprights can be dangerous. I was playing at a summer music festival in Northern Finland with an American-born conductor and pianist. The top lid was open and somehow all the sheet music fell inside the instrument. My friend spoke remarkably good Finnish but was translating from English to my language and forgot that “the music fell into the piano” doesn’t make sense as it means “the sound of music had disappeared into the piano”. All the music students had a good laugh and watched us taking the piano apart. Everything removable had to come out, but finally we managed to get all the sheet music out and start our share of the concert.

Finally, a world record of sorts. I was playing a recital at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. The same day I had visited a violin maker, and he had sold me his remaining stock of Ysayë-brand e-strings. I decided that a new string would be a good idea and changed one a few hours before the concert. Right when I was walking onto the stage, the string broke, and I had to go back to change it. I opened the program with the Vitali Chaconne but didn’t get very far until my e-string snapped again. Quickly back upstairs to the dressing room to put on a new string. This time I got to the final chord until the same misfortune happened again. I managed to break five of those strings that were made of faulty steel (I had no others in my case) during the evening, and finally the concert manager had to ask if anyone in the audience happened to have a violin with them I could use. I finished the program on a fiddle owned by a Hungarian colleague. It was very different from mine, with steel strings and a rather nasal tone, but I managed to play through some Wieniawski Caprices and other showpieces on it surprisingly well.

The headline of the review in the Helsingin Sanomat stated: An Evening of Misfortune.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A tale of two bows

It was a cold February in Paris in 1967. My tiny hotel room on the 5th floor (no elevator!) wouldn’t stay warm but practicing the violin hard produced enough extra heat to make it tolerable. I was studying with Gabriel Bouillon, who at one time had been one of the great French violinists. I had heard a recording of him playing the Bach Double with Kreisler and thought it was simply splendid. Unfortunately, the Nazi occupiers had melted all the copper masters and no re-issues would ever be possible. Bouillon had been active in the French Resistance. At some point a bomb had exploded close to him, causing neurological damage. He could no longer play in public, had a very short temper and had to wear dark glasses even indoors. I don’t think many youngsters of today would put up with such verbal abuse, but I consider him one of the greatest teachers I ever had, as I did manage to learn a lot.

So, off to my lesson I went, a long ride on the metro. This day my teacher had decided to show me how important it was to be able to press the bow in the upper half, in order to produce the maximum sound with a “bite”. While I was trying my hardest, he kept on yelling “press, press!” and then physically grabbed the tip of my old French bow and forced it against the strings with all his strength. All of a sudden there was an audible explosion and my beloved bow had turned into what seemed like hundreds of strands of wood fibers. It looked like a tree that had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Being Mr. Bouillon, he couldn’t apologize, but “oops” was visible all over his face. Quickly he wrote a name and an address on a piece of paper, advising me to tell the dealer he had sent me there, and said they had good bows at cheap prices. Since I didn’t have a spare bow with me, I visited the place immediately and ended up with a nice stick by Vigneron, for what would be peanuts today.

Later when I returned to Finland, a dear friend and violin maker spent over a couple weeks gluing everything back, and my father’s old bow was again like its old self, minus the value, of course. I still use it often, thinking of my dad, my early years and Mr. Bouillon.

Later that year I was in the Heifetz Master Class. A new Japanese girl had just joined the small class. She could hardly speak any English and as customary to her people, she was very shy and reserved. Her tools of trade were far from satisfactory. As there was a generous violin collector in town, borrowing a good instrument was not a problem. Mr. Heifetz rightfully decided that this young lady needed a better bow as well. Hill of London kept on sending the bows to the old master, as gifts on a regular basis, so one of these should have gone to the student in need.

Mr. Heifetz was somewhat of an odd character and just giving a gift was against his nature. It was this student’s turn to play and Mr. Heifetz asked to see her bow. All of a sudden he broke the stick in half and again in quarters. We were all horrified and the young lady had tears rolling down her face, but she kept quiet as a mouse. Mr. Heifetz looked at her for a while, then grabbed a bow case and handed her a new nice Hill bow and told her she could keep it.

Strange man that Mr. Heifetz, with a strong streak of sadism with his students. But he was well educated, and not only in music, and later in life I had some interesting conversations with him. He hated conductors above all. One of them must have greatly upset him at some point, trying to tell him how to phrase something. Since he stopped touring in the ‘50s, he still performed in Los Angeles regularly with his friends. The orchestra would always accompany him without a person on the podium, although supposedly there was a rehearsal conductor who had prepared the orchestra before the first get-together. Israel Baker, a splendid violinist in the studios and a chamber music partner for Mr. Heifetz, was usually his concertmaster, and the responsibility of keeping the ensemble together fell on his shoulders. The results were surprisingly wonderful.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Understanding Finns

I am presently watching a curling match between Canada and my native Finland. Comments from players are very audible in this Canadian broadcast and it makes me laugh to hear my countrymen swear. The expressions used are so different from this language and culture. Here one wouldn't use "God help", "devil", "paralyzed" or nicknames for private body parts as the strongest swear words known to man.

The is a very informative site on the web,, that explains to a non-Finn how and why the Finnish people are and behave the way they do. It is definitely worth a visit.

I found this chapter, about the value of spoken word, particularly well described:


The conception that Finns are a reserved and taciturn lot is an ancient one and does not retain the same validity any more, certainly not with the younger generations. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Finns have a special attitude to words and speech: words are taken seriously, and people are held to what they say. “Take a man by his word and a bull by its horn,” says the Finnish proverb. A Finn will carefully consider what he says and expect others to do so too. He considers verbal agreements and promises binding not only upon himself but upon the other party too, and he considers that the value of words remains essentially the same, regardless of when and where they are uttered. Visitors should remember that invitations or wishes expressed in a light conversational manner (such as: “We must have lunch together sometime.”) are often taken at face value, and forgetting them can cause concern. Small talk, a skill at which Finns are notoriously lacking, is considered suspect by definition, and is not especially valued.

Finns rarely enter into conversation with strangers, unless a particularly strong impulse prompts it. As foreigners often note, Finns are curiously silent in the metro, the bus or the tram. In lifts, they suffer from the same mute embarrassment as everyone else in the world. However, a visitor clutching a map will have no trouble in getting advice on a street corner or in any other public place, since the hospitality of Finns easily overrides their customary reserve.

Finns are better at listening than at talking, and interrupting another speaker is considered impolite. A Finn does not grow nervous if there are breaks in the conversation; silence is regarded as a part of communication. Finns usually speak unhurriedly, even in their mother tongue (the pace of newsreading on Finnish TV is a source of amusement for many foreigners), and although many Finns are competent in several foreign languages, they may be wary of the speed at which these languages are spoken. Nevertheless, Finns can become excited and voluble, given the right situation. Many foreigners have wondered at the effect the sauna has on Finns: in this familiar environment, they may suddenly become embarrassingly open and candid.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Manuel Rosenthal

He was an 82-year-old French gentleman when I first met him in the production of Manon here in this city. Of course I was familiar with his recording and knew that Manuel Rosenthal was also an accomplished composer and arranger, a student of Ravel himself. At first it was not an easy match between the fiery Frenchman and the somewhat careful group of musicians from this distant corner of Earth. The maestro expected us to feel the music the way he thought would be natural to every musician. There was quite a bit of misunderstanding and even suspicion between the players and the conductor. However, from the onset I personally felt very comfortable and at home with him, as I had studied with another Frenchman (Gabriel Bouillon) who had been far more set in his ways, inflexible and demanding than our conductor was, and yet I had benefited enormously from this teacher, as he knew what he was doing, and I had learned to accept him as he was.

Soon it became obvious to even the most doubtful orchestra members that we were in the hands of a master and that opera had never sounded as splendid from a musical point of view. Like everyone else, I was looking forward to each performance with excitement. The run was over all too soon and I was sadly wondering if our paths would ever again cross, due to Rosenthal’s age. He didn’t act his years on the podium so I was hopeful.

Then the opera company had a crisis: their new Ring production was soon to start and Armin Jordan had to cancel, due to health reasons. Where do you find a great substitute conductor for this gigantic undertaking? The opera’s general director took a huge calculated risk and hired Mr. Rosenthal. I don’t know how the maestro felt about Wagner in general, and he certainly has never conducted the Ring before, but by the first orchestra reading it was clear he had done his homework and done it well. Wagner sounded different through a French interpretation, that was for sure, but the elderly musical genius managed to add elements and colors to the music that are usually absent. There were some clashes between the singers and the maestro, mainly because of interpretation, but they were ironed out by the time the first cycle started.

My admiration for Mr. Rosenthal grew by the day and I felt honored to be working with such a musical giant. At the end of the run he told me I had been the best concertmaster he had ever had, and I took it as the greatest compliment of my professional career, even if he was being overly polite. I can still feel his kisses on my cheeks when we said good-bye.

At some point I found out Manuel Rosenthal had actually been here in Seattle long ago as the Music Director of the orchestra, just for a little while. Some people here didn’t have tolerance for his enormous musical gifts, as he was made to leave, based on the fact that he wasn’t (yet) legally married to the lady he had presented as his wife. What fools they were.

My friend and inspiration passed away on June 5th in 2003, just days before his 99th birthday. He continues to live on in this person’s heart, and surely in many others.

More on vibrato

I have a love-hate relationship with old sheet music. It tends to have an odor and using it is not very practical because it is often unnecessarily large in format and made of paper high of groundwood pulp content, similar to newspaper, and breaks apart easily. But one can come across most interesting discoveries and learn the unexpected from studying it.

Yesterday I wanted to have a student start on dé Beriot's Scène de ballet, op. 100. Having misplaced my usual copy I found a thick folder of the composers music in my library, all dating back a century or so, most of it being part of the Bosworth Edition. Surely enough this famed piece was there as well, with a title page that stated it was "Revised and fingered for modern requirements and with explanatory remarks by Emil Kross" and printed in 1901.

We went through the first three pages so that this young Chinese-born man would have an idea how the piece was supposed to sound. He looked puzzled and I didn't realize why, until he pointed to some unusual markings on the printed music, as I was not really looking at it and was merely playing the piece from memory. There it was! The editor has clearly marked the notes that were to be vibrated on with a squiggly line, which is explained on the first page as "Bebung des Fingers", trembling the finger. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that on the first page there are but six such notes. Even when the main slow theme is introduced, vibrato isn't indicated until the second time it comes around and then only on two notes. Clearly vibrato was being used as a special effect.

What a refreshing discovery which opened up a window to what performance practice of a romantic showpiece was just a hundred years ago! Mr. Kross is much more concerned with the art of playing harmonics than vibrating. "Touching of strings the at the exactly correct mathematical points is necessary for the production of the Harmonics otherwise the notes will not sound clearly. The bowing should be soft and flaky in character, the stick of the bow inclined as (m)uch as possible towards the fingerboard." There are many more instructions in the footnotes, both technical and musical in nature.

I had to explain to my confused student that I didn't expect him to follow all the printed advice, as the music he was going to order would most likely look quite different. On the other hand, this might have been a golden opportunity for him to learn with a hands-on experience about the history of the art of violin playing and opened his eyes at an age before I myself could have had the chance.

Never again will I complain about the smell of old music.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Proud father

I just found this about my eldest daughter on the Evergreen Monthly site:

Kudos for Our EM Columnist

The honors keep stacking up for our columnist, Silja J.A. Talvi. Her story about the impact of three strikes sentencing on African-American men in Washington for ColorsNW Magazine was just named one of only three PASS Award winners for magazine writing. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency sponsored the awards; PASS stands for Prevention for a Safer Society. The other two winning stories appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and New York Times Magazine.

Impressive company, Silja.

“I spent time with three amazing guys behind bars in the Monroe prison who are serving out life sentences for relatively minor and mostly non-violent felonies,” says Silja. “Pending legislation in Olympia right now would fix the more extreme portions of three strikes and give these guys a shot at freedom at some point in their lives.

“Having said that, I’ll go on the record as saying this kind of legislation was a politically convenient but (fiscally and socially) irresponsible idea to begin with. The toll in many lower-income African American communities has been just tremendous and terrible to witness, including here in Washington.”

Bob Condor is the editor of Evergreen Monthly

This past Friday and Saturday The Washington State Model United Nations took place at the University of Washington. As the year before, my third daughter Anna Talvi came home with an award for Best Speaker and gave the closing speech at the event. Just a few weeks before she had taken part in in the NHSMUN in New York, a national and international event. It was a non-competite conference at the actual U.N. with meetings taking place at the N.Y. Hilton.

Anna is in this state's wonderful Running Start program and will graduate this June from Seattle Central Community College with an AA, two-year degree, at 17. She is a member of two different honor societies and will start as a Junior at Western Washington University in Bellingham in the fall. It is important for her to be away but yet close to home (a 90 minute drive). This school is medium sized (around 11,000 students) and has its act together, even in its small but excellent Music Department.

All my four daughter are true musical talents but none of them have wanted to go to this field as a profession. I am grateful for that. It is important to give one's children an opportunity to be what they want and desire, instead of trying to make them follow in one's own footsteps. It feels good to be a proud father of such fabulous children. What could make a parent happier?

Monday, April 04, 2005

The gifted student

It is every violin teacher's dream and nightmare: what to do when we end up with with a truly gifted student? By this I just don't mean a youngster whose fast fingers fly across the fingerboard, but especially a player who seems to understand what music is all about, someone whose sound commands immediate attention.

More likely than not such a student is not your typical wunderkind because that type, although being able to play with great technical ease, is usually spoon fed every detail by his/her teacher, with barely no attention given to the art itself. Everything is done by imitation, not by recreating art on one's instrument. Child prodigies often burn out early, have their nervous breakdowns in their late teens or early adulthood, and are completely helpless without a teacher guiding them, even at an age when they themselves should be the ones teaching.

Playing the violin should not be a circus act, nor should a student be happy just copying down every fingering, bowing and special effect from the teacher's music. I have known enough cases where the individual already has a career of sorts as a soloist and yet they can barely read music.

My real worry is about the student who is living and breathing music and comes up with natural phrasing so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. A Bach sonata or partita movement is so thoughtfully played than you listen to it in silence and amazement. Granted, a lot of hard work has been done until this point, years of sweating by both the student and the teacher. But then you both realize what has been created and, at least in my case, it produces a dilemma.

What right do we have to push a young talent towards a career in music when we very well know how slim the chances are he/she will be able to find joy and happiness in it later on? Since the odds of becoming a soloist in demand are similar to winning the lottery, and not everyone would even be interested in living out of a suitcase and probably with no family life, we have an obligation to tell the student about all the pros and cons, mainly the latter. Overall interest in classical music has been on the decline for decades. Orchestras are folding, there is less money for education, especially in the arts, and there simply isn't a demand for recitals except with some high profile cases. Even if the young musician is "lucky" to end up in an orchestra, is that satisfying in a long run for someone who would have a lot to say on his/her own but will not be able to ever exhibit these talents at the workplace? Of course there are some exceptions where a musician will find the extra time to work on chamber group and gets pleasure from occasionally showing off their skills to small audiences. Most instrumentalists that don't go to orchestras, however, end up becoming teachers, whether they have a talent for it or not, and the never ending story starts again.

What is wrong with this picture and how is it different from a time long ago? I often think of my father who played the violin very well, with a beautiful sound. Yet it had never crossed his mind that this would have become his profession. Music was greatly valued those days and everyone with an ear got trained to a point. Kreisler and Caruso were were the day's pop artists. But people wanted to be music lovers, amateurs, not musicians by profession. How the meaning on that French term has changed over the years! From being a lover of an art, now it describes someone not very capable in what he is doing. It were these very amateurs that filled the concert halls, and once in a while got together to read chamber music and perhaps play a game of cards.

There was no money to be made in music and that was accepted as a fact. Someone who did ended up as a full time musician, usually had it hard and had often failed in some other field. These people worked long days playing and teaching non-stop, just to make ends meet. Simply put, it was not a respected or coveted profession. Yet there was a tremendous amount of joy in music making in homes and even in non-professional orchestras, often formed by people from similar backgrounds, such as doctors. -- When I was in Vienna in -66 and -67, I was shocked to find out how little the members of the Philharmonic (or rather, the opera orchestra) were earning. The same was true in my home country, but of course in both these cases the musicians were civil servants and enjoyed certain perks and privileges that came with a steady job with the system, even if the pay was lousy.

Back to the original question. As today's demand is far smaller than the ever growing supply, is it fair to encourage a student to continue on this difficult route? Yes and no. The art of music, like any art, has to continue, but we have to be honest about the likely future waiting for even the most gifted. Personally I would insist that young people seriously study another subject in addition to music, so that they have something to fall back on if and when the dream bubble finally bursts. If that happens, they will still be able to enjoy making beautiful music, and I want to emphasize enjoy, which might not be the case if they were doing for their livelihood. Didn't the French warn us not to take something we loved to do the most as one's profession? They also said something about not marrying the person one loves the most, but that might be better advice for the the French than the rest of us.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


This morning I was thinking about all the Rosens in my life and started smiling at some memories. That smile froze quickly when the doorbell rang. I had forgotten about the return of Daylight Savings time and there were two students with their families waiting for my wife and me at the door when I thought it was only nine o’clock. We all had a good laugh about it and the two gifted young ladies had wonderful lessons.

After lessons my mind wondered back to Rosens and particularly an icon of yesteryear in the musical life of Los Angeles, Ben Rosen. This man was known by every musician in town and he was a landmark for a reason. He ran a sheet music business of an unusual kind on Western Avenue. It was a messy place and smelled quite awful. Every space was covered by sheet music which didn’t, to the outsider, seem to be particularly well organized. Yet you could find just about every piece of instrumental music in there, even works that had been out of print for several decades.

Old Ben Rosen (he lived to be over a hundred) told me his trade secret: he used to go to estate sales where he could often find boxes and boxes of old sheet music that nobody wanted. I don’t think he ever paid for any of it. Quite the contrary, he was bragging that people were paying him up to $30 per load (quite a lot in the ‘60s) to haul it away. At home he would go over the contents carefully and any interesting item would be stamped with “BEN ROSEN EDITION” in large block letters, Xeroxed and put on the shelf with a reasonable price tag. No publisher ever went after him and why would they, as that music was usually out of print anyway. He did, however, carry the mandatory brand new International Edition Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Paganini 24 Caprices and such, so not everything was copied.

Ben Rosen was respected by everyone in the business. Occasionally he would visit the Heifetz Master Class at USC and I would see him at concerts. He was always most cordial to me and I have nothing but the fondest memories of him.

Since he had lived through the depression and learned to stretch a penny, he lived on an incredibly low budget. Although it was strictly against the city law, he lived in the back of his store where he had a small kitchen and a bedroom. Later in life he started speaking in a slightly unusual manner. He admitted that he had inherited his brother’s old false teeth and since they didn’t fit his mouth particularly well, every time he would open his mouth to say something, it would take the dentures a fraction of a second to follow!

I’m sure everyone who knew him, misses him as I do.