Saturday, September 17, 2005

Finns and Conducting

There was an interesting news item during this week, regarding the Sibelius Conductors' Competition in Finland. In a country where more conductors are produced than anywhere, the jury of this international competition decided that none of the finalists were worth the first, second or third prizes. The jury was chaired by well-known Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Read this article in the leading daily, Helsingin Sanomat; it is in English. Perhaps the Finns know more about conducting than others. I cannot picture such a decision taking place in a similar competition in this country.

In my twenties I was living in a city on Finland's West Coast. My first wife, an American, was the concertmaster of the orchestra, while I was in charge of teaching violin, viola and chamber music in the conservatory, also conducting their chamber orchestra. The elderly gentleman, who was the maestro for the Symphony, did his job very professionally. Unfortunately he had been there for too long, and the some of the players were unhappy with the situation. Since in that system there was no danger for the musicians to be fired (they were city employees), they could get away with a lot more than here. The conductor suffered a stroke, and everyone thought that was going to be the end of his story. But the man recovered and returned to work after a long sick leave. To show how miffed they were, the entire horn section went out during a break at an evening rehearsal in the cold winter, and let let the air out of this poor man's car's tires. This was too good a hint and the gentleman retired soon afterwards.

The job was then given to a young conductor, supposedly gifted, who was a member of a conservative party (as I wrote before at some point, in this city the pie was divided this way: the political left had the conservatory). Unfortunately, this man's ego was greater than his talent, and he was involved in the political scene more than in trying to develop his musical skills. My wife, who was a terrific violinist and artist, didn't get along with her new boss very well. At some point, the city's music council decided to fire my ex, because she had, during her own sick leave after an operation, come back to the U.S. to visit her critically ill father. Anything for an excuse; one is supposed to stay put during a sick leave! Soon we left and I took the job as a concertmaster in Malmö, Sweden. Back in Finland, this conductor continued driving his black limousine, but soon it became all too evident he wasn't up to the musical demands of the job and he was ousted by the same council. Today he is the director of a music school in a rather small town, I believe. Such is life. The orchestra's present, longtime concertmaster is a former student of mine, born and raised in that city.

Today, the youngest of my four daughters is officially becoming a teenager. What a great young lady she is! At the same time her 18-year-old sister has been moving her belongings to Bellingham, where she is about to start at the Western Washington University as a junior, majoring in political science and minoring in Latin American studies. Although we'll be seeing her often, as she has her own car and the campus is only about a 90 minute drive from here, I'll miss her terribly. We have a very close relationship and her absence will leave a void in my heart. Of course, to her this is an exciting time, the beginning of a new chapter in life.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hermann Michael remembered 1

This is the obituary in the New York Times:

September 14, 2005

Hermann Michael, Maestro, Dies at 68


Hermann Michael, a conductor who appeared around the world and was music director of the Phoenix Symphony for seven seasons, died on Sept. 1 at his home in Uffing, Germany. He was 68.

The cause was aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease diagnosed in 1999, the orchestra announced.

In addition to working in Phoenix, Mr. Michael had a special relationship with Seattle, where he appeared nearly every season as a guest with the opera company after making his American debut there in 1984. He led three complete "Ring" cycles in Seattle, and regularly performed with the symphony.

Mr. Michael conducted at the Metropolitan Opera a number of times, leading "Fidelio," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Die Fledermaus." Other guest appearances took him to the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and many other major ensembles in Europe and North America.

Born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a Bavarian town, in 1937, Mr. Michael studied piano and cello at the Stuttgart conservatory, but had had no formal conducting training when he audited a master class of Herbert von Karajan's in Berlin in 1960. Afterward he announced to Karajan that he could do that, too. Karajan had him come back the next day and conduct the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. Even more surprisingly, he approved of what he heard.

After this experience and a three-week master class with another acclaimed conductor, Hans Swarowsky, Mr. Michael was invited to take part in the first Cantelli Conducting Competition in Italy, which he won. He later served as Karajan's assistant at the Vienna State Opera and undertook some significant guest engagements before becoming director of the Bremen Opera from 1970 to 1978.

His debut in Seattle came at the recommendation of the American baritone Dale Duesing, who sings frequently in Germany and Seattle. Later in his life, Mr. Michael taught conducting at the Munich Musikhochschule, a position he gave up in 2000 because of ill health.

Mr. Michael met his wife, Brigitta, a violinist, when he was 21. She survives him, along with their four children, Ariane, Angela, Ramon and Dunja, and 10 grandchildren.

Hermann Michael remembered 2

My friend Hermann Michael sent this recommendation to me in May. He wrote it by hand, in spite of his grave illness. You can sense his loving relationship with Seattle musicians in his writing. How we all miss him!

May 10, 05

To whom it may concern,

I would like to let you know how much I appreciate Ilkka Talvi, the former concertmaster of the SSO.

I know Ilkka from numerous occasions as a guest-conductor with the SSO since 1984. Since then I was guest-conducting more than 30 major orchestras in the U.S.A., including the famous big orchestras as the Chicago Symphony, Boston Philadelphia, San Francisco or the MET.

In my personal judgement Ilkka can bear the comparison with the concertmasters of those great orchestras.

Ilkka is a great artist and a wonderful violinist as well. I do remember my first appearance with the SSO in 1984: despite my poor English at that time I felt immediately a musical oneness with him. He understood every gesture and knew immediately how to “translate” it into violinistic terms. Over all these years he demonstrated his ability to lead a Violin-group, to demand the best quality from his collegues and to communicate with them always very friendly, not hurting anyone’s feelings.

He is at ease with every musical style, Symphony and Opera repertoire as well.

Many outstanding performances remain in my memory, with him as a soloist and as the concertmaster of my beloved SSO.

Hermann Michael

Monday, September 12, 2005

Lahti memories

I was 16 and living by myself when the Lahti orchestra in Finland asked me to come along as a sub to their short tour to their sister city in Sweden, Västerås. I agreed and had to buy my first set of tails. I knew the Lahti orchestra well, having played with them as a soloist at 13. Many of their musicians had come to help out in my dad’s orchestra in Kuusankoski and I had befriended them.

Finnish musicians like to drink (no wonder I always felt somewhat like an outsider there) and the orchestra had insisted that the trip be made by one of the numerous car ferries that take about 8 hours to cross from Turku to Stockholm. “Ferry” is a misnomer as these magnificent floating monsters are like the fanciest cruise ships, Some can be ten stories high or even more. Cars are kept out of sight in the bowels of the mammoth ships. Main thing is that everyone has fun.

So, my colleagues immediately started drinking (alcohol used to be much cheaper then, before the EU) and since I looked much beyond my years, I had no trouble joining them. From early on I knew my limits and never enjoyed losing control, so I was careful. The orchestra had hired a visiting principal cellist who really had a weakness for liquor. After the boat trip we had to bus for an hour. The mayor and everyone important were meeting us. The first bus door opened and the guest principal cellist rolled out, absolutely plastered, to the mayor’s feet, not being able to move an inch, and threw up. I was quite embarrassed but everyone seemed to think this was normal.

The concerts went surprisingly well. The conductor’s violinist son was the soloist (nepotism is everywhere), but he did a respectable job with his Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, the cellist did not play a note but was fine by the time the return voyage started, ready for more fun.

Today this orchestra is a hot item and plays in a fabulous wooden hall. Osmo Vänskä used to be their conductor for many years, before leaving for Minneapolis. The group has recorded an incredible number of compact discs, mainly for the BIS label. After moving overseas I’ve returned there once, to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with them.

Eye Candy

There was an interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times, about music and sex appeal, and an excellent link ( which you should check. Sex has always sold and today such is the case more than ever. If you check some of the pictures available via the link, you’ll soon see that glamorous pictures of these female artists, often with plenty of skin showing, are more important than their musical and artistic skills. It is a sad state of affairs, at least in my opinion. Where would great violinists who were not known for their skin deep beauty, such as Ginette Neveu or Ida Haendel, fit in today’s meat market world?

As I know many of these babes pictured, it amazes me what magic photographers can produce. By showing a bit more bare skin, a viewer’s attention is drawn away from an ordinary face, and a sexy eye candy image is created. Even not-so-attractive features can be transformed to something else with lighting tricks and using filtering effects. How about having mug shots of these beauties taken first thing in the morning, before the thick layers of make-up and outfits suited for an expensive escort service?

Today’s mail brought an envelope addressed to my wife. It was a request for a donation, one of many every day, but the text on the outside caught our attention:



In pictures: Aniela Perry, cello (left), Linda Brava, violin


Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Interesting how one country’s tragedy was cause for celebration in other parts of the world. Many fundamentalist and militant Muslims felt joy and pride for their brothers managing to stick their thumbs up the nose their archenemy, Uncle Sam. Within hours the plans to invade Iraq were in full motion. Of course, history has shown already that instead of curbing terrorism, this invasion and occupation created a whole new breed of it. Interestingly, this was not the only 9/11 with this kind of a scenario. In 1973 Chile’s democratically-elected president Salvador Allende was overthrown and assassinated in a military coup, supported by our very own CIA, code named “Project FUBELT”. General Pinochet and his supporters celebrated, as did many in this country, and yet much of the free world was stunned and wept. Countless number of people were tortured, died or simply vanished as a result. I’m sure there are other similar celebrations that are mourned by equally many.

9-1-1 is also a quick way to send the police to someone’s door. We had a disturbed resident a couple blocks up who decided that either my wife or her students’ parents were driving too fast past his house. The strange part of the story is that the street is very narrow at that point, and it is very difficult to see down the hill, so nobody wanting to stay out of harm’s way would drive faster than 10-15 mph. I guess that by sending the policemen here made my wife seem a criminal in his view. He soon moved away, to the relief of everyone in the neighborhood.

Breaking news just told about the resignation of Mike Brown, the head of FEMA. Duh. Although our President initially praised him for handling the hurricane aftermath, the fiasco grew too big to sweep under a rug. Perhaps Mr. Brown can return to the area to head a Seahorse Association, as his expertise is better with horses than people.

Just a couple days back HBO showed a terrific “Real Time with Bill Maher.” We need more people who can speak their mind, and the truth, about the way our country and world is headed. This show started with a joke about a certain former White House intern from the Clinton era becoming a psychotherapist; so that she can blow peoples’ minds, and went on to attack the intolerable handling of Katrina’s aftermath, addressing our head of state directly in the famous “New Rules” section. I wish I could speak my mind like that, or even a fraction of it, without threats of lawsuits. I am happy that Mr. Maher is allowed to exercise his first amendment rights: we all need to hear something different from the censored picture of events even CNN gives us these days.

Friday, September 02, 2005


Granted, they are black and poor, except for some tourists that were left behind or patients in hospitals, but that is no reason to treat these people like rodents. Footage from New Orleans is worse than if Port-au-Prince in Haiti had been hit by a tidal wave. The world is following the worsening disaster with amazement. How can the richest country be so inept with helping its own citizens? If America didn’t already lose its face in Iraq, it surely is doing so now. Do we not care about these people, most of whom were too poor to get out on their own? They had little to start with: now they have nothing. Granted, these people are not likely to be supporters of the governing party or even registered voters, but they are as much human beings as you and I. This wouldn’t have happened in West Palm Beach or in Orange County. May I suggest a mandatory 4-day stay in the Superdome for all those members of our government in charge of aid? And don’t clean the toilets beforehand or remove the dead left sitting in the spectator seats.

Ratlantis is truly a lost city under water. It is ironic that we have known for a long time how vulnerable that place would be: two different studies, just seven years ago or so, suggested improvements to protect the city from a disaster like this. Of course, nothing got done as a result. We refused to take part in the Kyoto Agreement and help do our part in curbing the warming climate. We should therefore expect more frequent catastrophic storms and rising seas, both extremely dangerous to low-lying areas, not to mention places below sea level.

What upsets me the most is that people seem to be worried about the Mississippi Delta area for the same reason the war in Iraq bothers them now all of a sudden: sharply higher fuel prices. Is driving to work in a big SUV really more important than human lives? How about improving public transport and getting used to the idea of utilizing its services?

And bring back the National Guard from Iraq! They were never meant to be used to invade a foreign country, but to provide critical help in domestic tragedies such as this. I’m sure they would much rather be saving lives than taking them, or losing their own.

When do you think will be the next time a symphony concert will take place in Ratlantis?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Hermann Michael In Memoriam

I just received word that my dear friend and Seattle’s favorite musical guest for 20 years, Hermann Michael, passed away this morning, after a long illness, at his home outside of Munich, Germany.

Hermann first came to Seattle to conduct a Wagner opera production in 1984, and was a beloved regular guest conductor for both the opera and the symphony since then. As this town was the site of his first American appearance, it always held a special place in his heart, and he had a large number of loyal friends and and admirers here. He was one of those rare maestros to whom music was everything, not his own career and fame. When I think of him, I instantly see a smiling face. He radiated love for music and for his musicians, and always managed to make everyone do their best by his positive and inspiring approach. I had the fortune of playing as soloist with him twice, with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and also the Brahms Double. We had a perfect musical understanding and could have performed even without rehearsing. Playing the ‘Ring’ cycles with him made those endless hours go by quickly and painlessly.

Like many others, I will miss this incredible musician and human being terribly. I had last spoken with him in May over the phone and had just sent him a letter which he hopefully got to read. I am happy, however, that he is no longer suffering. Death is part of life after all. We all wish he could have been with us much longer, but his time had come. My heart goes out to his wife and family, and other beloved ones.