Friday, August 26, 2005

Summer reading

In addition to a rather large number of books on music in our bookcases, my wife brings other ones home from the Seattle Library system. Recently I have read ‘Music and the line of most resistance’, by Artur Schnabel, and ‘Virtuoso’, by Harvey Sachs. They were written 40 years apart, in 1942 and -82, respectively.

Old books often open a window to a different era and offer the reader an opportunity to see life from a very different perspective from today. In music, some problems have remained the same: Schnabel writes about music critics and art journalism at length and states:
‘Great men are as rare among the critics as they are among the musicians or any other group, but the consequences of not being great are not the same for critics as they are for musicians who appear in public. Only the musicians are publicly criticized.’ The writer laments the disappearance of amateurs which he, to a point, blames on the radio and the phonograph. ‘It follows that the amateur, as I define the term, always dwells on a plane higher than that of a professional who never produces, and is never keen to produce, what may be classified as art. Not every musician is an artist.’ Schnabel has other refreshing opinions as well: ‘To correct the misconception concerning “virtuosity,” which (I must emphasize once more) must also be completely mastered for the performance of inwardly originated music, although it is generally related to the external (which is about all there is to the other species), Walter J. Turner, the English poet, has suggested giving to the the so-called “virtuoso” a new name. The name is “trashoso”—which would precisely express what is nowadays expected from the virtuoso.’

The other book has short biographies with comments of nine famous instrumentalists, from Niccolò Paganini to Glenn Gould. Right now I’ll stick to ‘The life and art of Fritz Kreisler’. In 13 pages (plus a few for pictures) Sachs manages to spin a fascinating tale of probably the greatest artist violin playing has ever seen. Father Kreisler was the family physician of Sigmund Freud, who couldn’t quite understand why young Fritz was taken by his mother, at the age of 10, to Paris to study. Massart, himself a pupil of Kreutzer, wrote that although he had been ‘the teacher of Wieniawski and many others…little Fritz will be the greatest of them all.’ Another interesting detail is that Kreisler auditioned for a position in the Vienna Hofoper Orchestra (also known as the Vienna Philharmonic) but was not accepted. That tells you something about the fairness of auditions even back then! The author correctly points out that Kreisler’s name should not be used to symbolize sentimentality or schmalz. ‘The recordings he made are evidence enough that such notions are largely groundless.’

A well-known fact is that Fritz never liked to practice; he considered it a bad habit. A violinist friend of my father’s occupied a room next to the master’s during a mid-1930 tour to Finland. For three days the poor man had his ear glued to the wall, as he was determined to find out the secret of Kreisler’s artistry, from the way he practiced. Only on the third day, just before the concert, did the maestro take out his violin: he tuned it and put it back in the case. My dad used to tell me how upset this friend was; on a tight student budget and during the depression years, that certainly wasn’t money well spent.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Finns in the News

My countrymen have shown up in the news during the past week. Finland’s former president Matti Ahtisaari brokered a truce agreement between Indonesia and Free Aceh movement (GAM) which was signed August 15th. Aceh was the area hardest hit by the December tsunami of last year, with 130,000 casualties. GAM has been fighting for independence from Indonesia for almost 30 years. The new agreement calls for more autonomy but leaves the area as part of that nation. Another Finn is there overseeing the collecting of firearms and other weapons. Sometimes it takes a great tragedy for people to understand that peace is the best and only solution.

Now to sports: Helsinki hosted the track and field World Championships this month. Mother Nature wasn’t in her most co-operative mood and many events had to be postponed due to rain and storms. At the same time an American made helicopter from Tallinn, Estonia, crashed into the Gulf of Finland, killing all 14 abroad, during what was supposed to be a regular commercial 15-minute hop to Helsinki. Just yesterday, a Finnish Formula 1 driver Kimi Räikkönen won the inaugural
Turkish Grand Prix. I watched him win the Canadian one in June on Finnish television. While he may not be a rocket scientist, he sure knows how to drive and race.

Today’s New York Times has one of the
best reviews the Mostly Mozart Festival has ever received. The resident orchestra was conducted by Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vänskä, whom I remember as a clarinetist and starting Kapellmeister in Finland 30 years ago. Obviously something remarkable took place in Avery Fisher hall this past weekend, as the orchestra used to be known more or less as a pick-up group. ‘Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the growing fascination with Mr. Vanska is that it is based entirely on his musicianship. Now in his early 50's, and given to energetic podium gestures that are often graceful though occasionally slightly clunky, he is not a picture of conductorial glamour. What Mr. Vanska does on the podium, though, is extraordinary, and on Saturday evening he made Mostly Mozart's resident freelance band sound like a world-class ensemble.’ Wow. I’m happy for the orchestra and Mr. Vänskä. Perhaps all his experience with rather small Finnish orchestras and in Lahti in particular, have given him a perfect know-how as to what a classical orchestra needs to excel.

At some later time I’ll write about a comical experience I had touring with the Lahti orchestra when I was just 16.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Excuse me

When I first heard Michael Rabin perform during the Sibelius Week in Helsinki, prior to his concerto the festival's manager came out on stage. An announcement was made: Mr. Rabin's sister has suddenly died that morning but the soloist would nonetheless go ahead with his performance. All the older ladies in the audience took out their handkerchiefs and cried. I, too, was touched. A couple years later I heard Rabin again, this time in a smaller town in this country. The same story was repeated and I smelled a rat. Later I learned that there was no sister to start with.

Although it is not common for instrumentalists to make excuses, that does happen. A violinist showed up with a bandaged finger, very noticeable to the audience all the way to the last seat on the top balcony, and ended up with reviews which talked about her ‘injury’ rather than playing. Another one insisted on sitting on a stool, as a sore back is not as visible as a taped digit. What about orchestral players? When was the last time you heard an announcement that the principal oboe was going to play the evening concert, in spite of his hemorrhoids, or something to that effect? I do remember a principal string player being wheeled to the stage and off, even after the injury had healed. Once offstage she would hop off the wheelchair and walk normally.

Singers, in opera particularly, are another story. Of course the vocal cords are unpredictable, but that doesn’t account to the fact that during the course of an opera production the audience gets told time after time that Ms. Prima Donna or Mr. Helden Tenor are suffering from this and that, thus their voices are perhaps not in top shape but yet they insist on singing. Seldom is this evident in the performance, however, but conveniently this puts the singers in a taboo category: a critic or a mere mortal listener cannot possibly be critical of faulty intonation or anything else since the performer has such a ‘valid’ excuse. What would happen if listeners would demand their money back when performers admitted they were not doing their best? That would be fair after all, wouldn’t it? Or at least partial refund should take place. I bet those announcements before the start of a show or an act would be far less frequent.

Perhaps concerts, opera and ballet performances would become more interesting if there was a program insert for each show, indicating which performers were not in top shape, and for what reason. We could have a color coded or a point system for different levels of threat to a perfect performance. At the end of the year the points would be tallied and the averages published. A musician, dancer or even a conductor could get a bonus based on this. Question is: how much does a toothache affect one’s ability? What about a chronic condition, such as obesity, or just being seriously unhappy with one’s colleagues, not to mention having something stuck up the rear end?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Better Half

This post is by my wife Marjorie -

Today, while walking and listening to my husband's recording of "Russian Easter Overture" I came home insisting to share an entry on Ilkka's blog. I think a wife deserves that much, don't you? We have lived through a traumatic and sad year but have grown all the wiser and closer for having survived our crisis together.

My first encounter with Ilkka Talvi took place in a chamber orchestra in Los Angeles. I will never forget how mystified and intrigued I became while listening to a violin solo that he performed during a concert. Who was this quiet, humble man that sounded like a beautiful voice from the past? Since I had been brought up on and practically fed Heifetz and Kreisler recordings in my youth, I immediately recognized that this dark, Finnish violinist played with a sound reminiscent of a bygone era. I wanted to know him...KNOW him. I pathetically inched my way close to him to say, "Gee, you play so beautifully". His reaction, ever so typical of my Ilkka was, "So what?" He has always failed to take compliments well and I doubt will ever be at ease with flattery.

So, we did get to know one another well, and in the process have created a life in music and two fantastic daughters. As trying as life can be, and as unforgiving, I feel it an honor to share my life with one who is so remarkable, yet humble. Ilkka, a shy, sensitive man, has not always received the recognition or acknowledgement that he's justly deserved. I am in part writing this for all those who care to know, that I believe there are a few among us who are unsung heroes, my husband included. They unobtrusively perform their tasks and duties so well, yet with such humility, that they go unnoticed and are not applauded for their rare talents and contributions.

I would like to say "thank you" to Ilkka for being a magnificent artist, husband, father and friend. He used to rush home after concerts in order to say goodnight to our girls, and they've flourished from all that love and devotion.

Thank you Ilkka, for sharing your rich, worldly experiences with your family and students, and congratulations for unearthing another marvelous talent in writing, especially in a language that only became yours in your adult years. .

No conscience

Sociopaths are people without conscience. Not only that, but they are unable to feel and express love and compassion of any kind. In many cases, our society idolizes them as they seem to be the successful ones, becoming shrewd CEOs, successful politicians and other leaders. They can also become remorseless criminals, even seemingly charming serial killers (Ted Bundy) and such. In the army they make the best soldiers as they will never for a split second question orders to shoot to kill, as destroying a life doesn’t bother them in any way. In non-military world the same lack of guilt makes them seem like ideal people to lead businesses and other organizations, to function as lawyers and in many other professions, as feelings don’t get in their way. Firing one person or fifteen thousand people is equally easy for them. A destroyed life or career is of no concern to them.

Last week, as I was having my usual trouble with my shoulders and neck and couldn’t do much practicing, I read an interesting book on this subject. 'The Sociopath Next Door' was written by a Harvard psychologist, Martha Stout. Many of the case histories reminded me of people from my past and present life, some family members included. Ms. Stout claims that about 4 % of the U.S. population consists of sociopaths; in some other societies, such as Taiwan, the frequency is much lower. That percentage is frightening as it means there are about 11 million of these monsters in the United States, five in a small business or organization of 125. The purpose of the book is to teach a reader to recognize a sociopath and protect oneself from becoming a victim. The book has 13 rules for dealing with these people in everyday life, a most interesting and useful chapter. It also tells in detail how the brain function of a sociopath differs from normal people with a conscience, as a result of fascinating research done all over the world.

Although the book is not intended to be a literary masterpiece, it offers a lot of important information, and makes a normal person aware of this subspieces of the human race. For instance, how many of us would suspect that a sociopath can pretend to have feelings: tears are easier for them to produce than for me and you, even though they are meaningless and meant to trick us. A sociopath may end up marrying but will always think of his/her spouse and children as possessions, like trophies, as love cannot be part of his or her life.

Since early on I have had a different theory on this subject. As I believe in reincarnation, I don't think there are enough human souls to go around, especially today with the rapidly expanding population. Perhaps the person next to me got his from a hyena, a shark or even an insect; it wouldn't surprise me a bit. Not so nice to meet you, Mr. Portuguese Man-of-War.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Quick fix

As I had the pleasure of playing as concertmaster of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra for three summers, it is only natural that I follow closely their situation at present. They seem to be in fine shape today; a far cry from the strike and canceled season just a couple years ago that almost killed the orchestra.

The Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall opened in 1962 and was initially praised. Its acoustical problems became evident soon, however, and by 1976 it had undergone a major acoustical reconstruction, with Cyril Harris as the acoustician. By this time the building had already been renamed Avery Fisher, after a major benefactor. Midsummer Serenades started in 1966, to be called Mostly Mozart in 1972. The series proved to be a big hit, perhaps partially because people could enjoy an air-conditioned space, with easy-to-listen music, in the middle of a hot and humid Manhattan summer.

Happiness with the new hall design didn’t last all that long and for many years the primary occupant, New York Philharmonic, had expressed dissatisfaction with being stuck there. A deal was almost made which would have returned them to Carnegie Hall, but that fell through. This summer the Mostly Mozart Festival has moved the stage into the hall, as a rather expensive experiment. There are now seats behind the orchestra, right where musicians used to sit. Initial reactions from audience members, musicians and the press have been somewhat mixed. Just about everyone agrees there is more intimacy, which is not surprising since distance between the new stage and the listeners is shorter. Some prefer the new sound, others complain that the sound of the higher strings is too muted. Many simply feel that anything new and different is a step forward.

Perhaps a hall would have to be built from the ground up, to fully benefit from this setup. After all, this experiment is intended to be a quick fix. Sometimes one doesn’t work, other times it does, but seldom as well as in this story a friend forwarded to me:

Doctor Bloom, who was known for miraculous cures for arthritis, had a waiting room full of people when a little old lady, completely bent in half, shuffled in slowly, leaning on her cane.

When her turn came, she went into the doctor's office, and, amazingly, merged within half an hour walking completely erect with her head held high. A woman in the waiting room who had seen all this walked up to the little old lady and said, “It's a miracle! You walked in bent in half and now you're walking erect. What did that doctor do?”

She answered, “Miracle, shmiracle ~ he gave me a longer cane.”

Give or take

Philanthropists often want to be seen as almost superhuman heroes of the arts, sciences and education. Recent times have not been very kind to them, at least as patrons of the arts. First, there was the curious and messy Herbert Axelrod affair, with his instrument collection sold ‘far below market value’ to the New Jersey Symphony. Then a long time opera benefactor Alberto Vilar couldn’t fulfill his pledges and ended up defrauding an investment client, to keep up his own image. A tragic third episode occurred last week when Arthur Zankel, of the Carnegie Hall fame, committed suicide.

What would drive a philanthropist to do such things? With all that excess wealth one would think these people have everything money can buy. Well, as I have noted before, happiness is not for sale. In Axelrod’s case, there was greed behind it all: by ‘helping’ an arts organization he ended helping himself financially much more. Thus he became a common crook, a criminal that escaped the country and was caught by Interpol. Vilar was probably more of a genuine patron, but couldn’t face the fact that his diminished wealth wasn’t enough to enable him to keep his promises and therefore he was stuck in a potentially humiliating situation. In his case, turning to crime made matters only worse.

Of the three, my heart goes out only to Mr. Zankel, who by all accounts was as decent a person as a financier can be, but who suffered from severe depression. Any of us, who has known a victim of this illness, is well aware of how devastating it can be. Sometimes depression can be treated, at least to a degree, but not always. May this man’s soul rest in peace.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more donors remained anonymous? There is a lot of joy in giving, without one’s name being broadcast to the public. Must we be so vain that we cannot feel happy about sharing our wealth and good luck without seeing our names in print, whether in a program or on a wall of a building? After all, we are supposed to be giving, sharing and helping, not buying advertisement space for our inflated egos.