Sunday, July 31, 2005

Bicycling

It was no surprise my youngest daughter Sarah put away her violin a year and two months ago, as she witnessed the pain and suffering her family was going through, and connected it to that instrument. Since she is one of the few blessed ones with music as her second nature, she merely switched over to singing, and to lesser extent, to the piano. A little while ago, when she realized that peace and harmony were returning to our lives, the violin came out again. She and I both wondered what it would be like after not touching it for so long. The first notes were perhaps a little tentative, and she thought remembering how to vibrate would be difficult. But in a couple minutes the violin that was made for me by a friend and a gifted Finnish violin maker, started singing more beautifully than ever. It was as if she had never put it down and practiced diligently during the hiatus of fourteen months. We all were amazed and delighted to no end. In the days since, we have played and played through numerous duets, something I fondly remember doing with my own dad, and worked on solo repertoire. There is this unique feeling of togetherness and closeness. I am often the one who begs to take a break due to my physical problems. The blisters on the 12-year-old’s fingertips no longer show up.

As a teacher I know how every student has his/her strong points and weak areas. That is why there can’t be a uniform approach to a teaching method. Some have fast fingers and formidable technique, but have trouble with one’s inner clock, our built-in metronome. Some others have trouble producing a beautiful sound or understanding a phrase. Concentrating on improving the weaker qualities, hopefully they all end up well rounded. Sarah is one of the few natural musicians that don’t really need teaching: with an immaculate ear she can correct the slightest error in intonation by herself, and she intuitively knows what a good sound is like, whether she is singing or playing. My wife and I now know that there will be a good home for our instruments after our lifetimes. Should our daughter become a professional musician? Hopefully she won’t. I would like her to play as well as the best of them, but she is too bright, happy and bubbling in every aspect of life to have it limited to such a narrow field, with somewhat questionable future.

It seems that learning to play is like biking: once you’ve mastered it, the skill will remain with you. This week there will be no duets as our baby is at Seattle Girls’ Choir camp. She just left this morning and I’m already anxiously awaiting her return.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

News commentary

This past week brought some interesting news relating to music and specifically to life in orchestras. First there was an unusual announcement from a conductor that she expected to be nominated as a music director of a major orchestra (Baltimore), followed by very critical response by players of said group, and still to come the official hiring of this maestro. While I refuse to comment on her capabilities, it is obvious that opinions have been very split, especially among musicians. May this serve as a wake-up call to orchestra players that no matter what illusions they have, their opinion doesn’t really count in management’s view. Especially in this country, although formally a non-profit organization, an orchestra is often run just as heartlessly as a big corporation. Almost 15,000 people are losing their jobs at Hewlett-Packard and no one blinks an eye. Orchestra members may like to think of themselves as artists who deserve special treatment, but in truth are like any other workers. I wish Ms. Alsop and her new orchestra all the best. There was a good comment in a NY Times article by one of the players: “Most of the great orchestras make any conductor sound good. That's what we try to do.”

Just a couple days ago another interesting story surfaced. A young violinist is suing the NY Philharmonic for not granting him tenure in the second violin section, while giving several women a permanent position at the same time. Although several people try to downplay the seriousness of ‘reverse sex discrimination’, there may be some truth behind the accusation. A man cannot easily wear a Wonderbra or get his wardrobe from Frederick’s of Hollywood, to seem more pleasing to someone who has the power to decide on a person’s career. Also, a young woman is less likely to react to less-than-ideal playing around her than a young man, especially if he comes with an ego. Obviously this man has talent, based on his reported success, but that can never be as noticeable as one’s looks, unless he’s heard in recital or as a soloist. The great French violinist Ginette Neveu was supposed to have been quite the opposite of eye candy, but people stopped snickering as soon as she started to play. Often what is visible to the outside, is far from the whole truth.

There is an excellent interview/article of James Levine in this month’s Opera News, by Paul Driscoll. In it the maestro says: “There’s another thing that I don’t do that I notice a lot of people wish I did. I don’t believe in talking about any artist who’s having a problem while they’re having it. It’s the kiss of death. It is when an artist is going through a bad patch that I am most determined to support them. You can make critical progress only when they’re well and resilient. But you can’t in that other state. If I’m conducting my orchestra and I can tell by the way someone’s acting that they’re in trouble, they do not get a critique from me that day. They get it when they start to look right again. If you want people to work hard on the musical difficulties, then a rehearsal room has to be a safe haven, a constructive atmosphere concentrated on music. This business about shouting and making a player miserable over something that he would be doing better if he could at that moment is just silly. It creates tension that is anti-artistic and unproductive. You can call someone in for a meeting and have a perfectly sensible interchange.”

What a wise attitude. No wonder there is such excitement in Boston and Tanglewood, according to press and musicians. Although Levine is criticized by some for conducting in a ‘minimalist’ manner, what could be better than making an orchestra play chamber music at all times and every member listen to each other constantly? Of course the circumstances have to be optimal and musicians able to hear one another, in order for this to succeed. Music is meant for the ears, after all, not the eyes.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Stinkers

Finally, after claiming the contrary for ages, new research has proven what has been obvious to at least some of us: it is essential that we are attracted to our mate’s smell. Everyone knows that animals sniff each other. Perhaps it is difficult for some to admit that we are just another species on this planet, especially if one believes we were created to be God’s image. Surely the Almighty must be enjoying the mayhem in the Middle East, around the area of the original Paradise. For those of us not schooled in Kansas, we know our closest relative in the animal kingdom is the chimpanzee; not such an innocent cute creature as commonly portrayed but often vicious, capable of murdering his own kind, much like us. We are also closely related to the bonobo, which is the only mammal, in addition to humans, constantly in heat, earning the nickname ‘the horny ape’. At least in that society females are in charge; perhaps we could learn from that. Personally, I would like to take after gorillas, the ‘gentle giants’. They are strictly vegetarian and cannot even be taught to become alcoholics, unlike chimps, as they don’t drink: they get enough liquid from the juicy leaves they eat.

Back to smell: although we cannot claim to possess the sensitivity of a dog’s snout, we are capable of sniffing out plenty of different odors, some of which are very delicate. Don’t forget that senses are intertwined: when we taste food, most of the information comes via the nose: our tongue is able to distinguish only between sweet, salt, sour, bitter and, some say, MSG. This is also true visually: when we look at an apple, we instantly imagine its fragrance and taste. And at least in my case, music also has smell and taste. It can, unfortunately, be easily destroyed. Good intentions can backfire: Mozart can easily be covered with sweet and sour sauce when it is not interpreted naturally.

Twenty-five years ago I first smelled my wife’s skin, her hand or cheek, and instantly knew this was it for me. After all this time I still find her scent intoxicatingly delicious. We obviously are a good genetic match as our children turned out well. So many people try to cover their natural smell with perfume, after shave or similar masking agents. Nature has given us the means to find people we can be happy with forever, just by using our proboscis.

The same studies also claim that gay people are attracted to each others’ scents. Perhaps this gives another proof that they are indeed different from heterosexuals. Gay men prefer the smell of women and other gay men, but dislike that of ‘normal’ men. As I mentioned my feelings about music and senses, is it also possible that a gay listener finds fault in a ‘straight’ artist’s playing or singing, or vice versa? That would be terrible indeed, especially if it ended up harming someone’s career.

Happy sniffing to everyone! But beware: unmasked, there are plenty of real stinkers out there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

French

As I am teaching the Franck Sonata to a tremendously gifted young violinist, I listened yesterday morning to the first Thibaud/Cortot recording of the work, from 1923. This is on an archive cd of Jacques Thibaud’s 1922-23 HMV & 1924 Victor recordings. What gorgeous music making! Thibaud is in his early 40s, plays with very tight and fast vibrato, or none at all, and musically it makes even Heifetz sound like an automaton. On the same disk there are a number of small treasures, such as Rode Caprice No.18 and Wieniawski Caprice in a minor, both done with piano accompaniment and to perfection. Not only are the notes clean and clear and as fast as anyone’s since that time, but nothing sounds like an exercise as every measure is treated with utmost love, care and charm.

Thibaud played on a 1709 Strad that had belonged to Pierre Baillot, a famous French violinist and pedagogue (1771-1842). That magnificent violin was destroyed when Thibaud died in a plane crash in 1953. Thankfully we can still hear its wonderful sound on recordings, even if many of them sound scratchy compared to today’s products. And they are all unedited as all the takes were live. No fixing individual notes like these days.

Today I had some free time and decided to read through Baillot’s famous ‘The Art of the Violin’ again. The first part of the 500-page book is mainly musical examples, but later on the author becomes almost a philosopher, writing about style, musical character and such. One of my favorite analyses is how a violin soloist should stand when playing with an orchestra. Baillot’s preferred solution: keep the orchestra in the pit and give the stage to the soloist. This way he can both face the audience and have perfect contact with the orchestra and its conductor. Also the balance is likely to be better. If this works with opera, why not in a concert!

An interesting chapter is about Undulated Sounds: 1. Undulation Produced by the Bow [Portato], 2. Undulation Produced by the Left Hand [Vibrato], 3. Combination of both. This, like every chapter, gives a lot of food for thought. The French may not have been very supportive with us regarding Iraq, but without them music, especially violin playing, would not have reached the heights it did many decades ago.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Dunkin Donuts

It is a strange sight to a Seattle native to see a half empty Starbuck's next to a packed Dunkin Donuts. People in Massachusetts seem to have quite a different taste in coffee from this town. I have watched the documentary on Howard Zinn a few times, and in it he, too, visits DD and states how he likes their coffee. This is about the only area where I slightly disagree with this great hero and inspiration of mine. He has always believed in the constitutional right to express one's thoughts. He was fired from a black college forty years ago, because he was trying to teach his students what rights they had. The school didn't want to rock the apple cart. So, Mr. Zinn ended up in Boston and became one of the key figures in the anti-war movement, even visiting North Vietnam during the war. His book 'People's History of the United States' is brilliant and most thought-provoking and should be made mandatory reading in all high schools and colleges.

A very different book, Mozart in the Jungle, was reviewed recently in the New York Times. In it a free-lance oboist tells about her way to the top (or the bottom, as the reviewer put it), by having sex with the right people. We all have witnessed this take place, time after time. Only recently has more attention been paid to this. Didn't the head of a large aircraft manufacturing company have to resign when his affair became public? The Armed Forces have occasionally been very strict with this as well. So, I'm not going to rush to get a copy of this book. I probably could write a much juicier one, but won't at this time waste my efforts on such trash.

In the meantime, if you're not acquainted with Howard Zinn's work, head for the bookstore or the library.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Fear

I woke up in the wee hours of the night, feeling uneasy, and went to the closest computer to check the news. BBC was just talking about “power surges” in the Underground, resulting in explosions, but soon they changed their tone and admitted that public transport in London had been hit by explosions. This of course saddened me, but did not really come as a surprise, as the United Kingdom has been very involved in the occupation of Iraq, much more so than Spain, which was the target of a worse act of terrorism on March 11th of last year. As many of us have friends or family in the U.K., today’s news hit home differently. A human life is supposed be equally important everywhere, but news about a similar number of casualties among the Pakistani or Iraqi don’t often even make the front page.

Terrorism is like spying: one side sees these acts as horrendous (which they can be), the other as heroic. Then there are all these ‘ifs’: Would these bombings have happened without the war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Had the Soviet Union not collapsed, would there have been an invasion of Iraq? The answer to both is most likely ‘no’. As bothersome as the Cold War seemed, there was a balance of power. Scores of lives were not lost like during this ‘Hot War’. Korea and Vietnam were, of course, exceptions to this line of logic, but I was mainly thinking of the status quo situation during the last two decades before the Berlin Wall came down.

Again I turn to my dictionary. Terrorize: 1. To fill or overpower with terror; terrify. 2. To coerce or maintain control over by intimidation or fear. The second meaning brings the verb to everyday life. Terrorizing can happen at home, school or workplace. An abusive spouse, partner or parent can traumatize his or her victim(s); so can teachers, co-workers or a boss. A threat to fire a worker and make him/her lose one’s livelihood and health benefits is a form of terrorism. Any threat of physical violence is the same. We all have to face many of these fears almost daily.

Perhaps all these terrible events are part of Nature’s way of bringing down Earth’s human population. This happens with every species, people cannot be an exception. We have new terrible diseases; obesity is lowering our life expectancy; it is possible we are destined for a new worldwide war. I was young when the world’s population reached 3 billion, now it stands at 6.5 billion and will reach 9 billion by 2045, at present growth rate. If every person would enjoy the lifestyle and energy use of an average American, the most our Earth could support is 2 billion. We are heading for a disaster.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Independence Day

Happy July 4th! At least here in Seattle it looks like a perfect day. Today, I'll celebrate my personal independence of having no boss, other than my immediate family members, including Seymour the kitty. But those kind of bosses are a pleasure and give life a meaning.

A friend sent me an article that appeared on July 1st in
the Guardian. In it Susan Tomes, pianist in the Florestan Trio, talks about how musicians in Europe view the possibility of raising their mandatory retirement age (which is low compared to what our colleagues are used to on this side of the big pond). Take the time, click on the link and read the story.

Here are two excerpts:

  • Of course, a great artist who is loved by the public can afford to show the vulnerability of old age. But most musicians live in fear of the least sign of degeneration. A doctor attached to a symphony orchestra told me that almost all the players who consult him about physical problems beg him not to let their secret get out, because they know that there are plenty of other musicians waiting to take their place.
  • Playing a concerto with a Swedish orchestra last year, I was amazed to see a box of earplugs by the door leading to the stage. It's unfortunately telling that orchestras should need to wear earplugs to protect them from the sound they're making - the very sound the audience has come to hear.
We need to discuss openly about all the physical (and emotional) damage our work as musicians causes to our bodies over many decades. Personally, I can't even count the number of steroid shots given to both shoulders for tendinitis and bursitis, or the battle with multiple shingles outbreaks that have caused havoc in my nervous system. I'm still taking a drug for post-herpetic neuralgia; the last outbreak a couple years ago spread to my fingers and I still have residue pain from it. As it stands right now, I wouldn't be able to withstand the physical demands of an orchestra job. Being a fool, I didn't use my sick leave when I should have. Our bodies tell us when rest is needed. The human body is not like a machine that can be tuned up time after time; spare parts don't really exists. Ideally, I should have been able to go on disability; however, it was decided otherwise.

For those who have little children: please have them get the chicken pox vaccine. Although the disease itself is just a nuisance for a child, Varicella Zoster hides in the body and is ready to strike again as shingles. The pain from that can be horrendous and almost impossible to treat. Get it on your face and you can lose your eyesight or hearing. In my twenties, I couldn't bear the weight of a shirt during my second outbreak: students came to my house for their lessons with a topless teacher for two months. But being Finnish, they didn't think anything of it.



Friday, July 01, 2005

Diamond in the Sky


While overseas I was saddened to learn about the death of David Diamond, an important American composer for more than half a century. I met him numerous times, and recorded his Second Violin Concerto for Delos, presently out on Naxos, as well as some shorter pieces for the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

To most listeners Mr. Diamond’s best known piece is his “Rounds” for string orchestra, an early work. It is a very rhythmical work, full of unexpected and tricky accents, and a lot of fun to play. Being European, I didn’t know this piece, nor had I heard of the composer, until I came back to L.A. from abroad. My intention was just to hear the chamber orchestra concert in Pasadena but I was asked to sit as principal second and sight-read the work in the performance. My eye-sight was better those days and I could always basically play what I could read, so I ended up enjoying the challenge and the composition. At the reception afterwards, a lady came to talk to me and told me how she had enjoyed watching me and gave all kinds of compliments. Then she popped the question: had I ever considered becoming a professional?

Perhaps Mr. Diamond unintentionally became a victim of writing rhythmical pieces, as his initial success was with this style. Personally I always felt that his melodic, slow works were deeper and had tremendous beauty in them. In the concerto I recorded, I started counting the number of accents he had written in one fast movement alone and the total came to several hundreds. Like Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, having that piece played on a percussion instrument might have done it more justice (Neeme J√§rvi told me once that he had recorded that work in the Soviet Union long time ago, playing the solo on a xylophone or marimba; I can’t remember which).

Just like Sibelius, David Diamond was a violinist by training and, like my countryman, tried to write some almost unplayable passages for the instrument. In one of his smaller works for violin and piano he uses tremolo for the solo violin, something that is only successful with many people playing simultaneously. I had to change those passages. Late Stephen Albert also wrote tremolo passages while he was composing In Concordiam, which I also recorded. I asked his for the reason as he thought the sound would be louder, like in an orchestra. Needless to say, I managed to make him change his mind quickly.

Mr. Diamond would have made a good honorary Finn, as he was very serious and seldom smiled. After my performing and recording his concerto, he sent me the nicest letter with a $100 bill with it. He knew I wasn’t ever paid for any of my solo work and wanted to give me something. I promptly donated the money to some good cause.

One time I was driving him to his hotel in Seattle and told him that he had become a household name in Seattle. He took it as a great compliment, but then I pointed at a sign “Diamond Parking”, very popular in this town. He may have got mad at my prank, but I knew that deep inside he was amused. I will always miss this man, my Diamond in the Sky. At least his compositions will continue to live with us.