Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Crime and Punishment

Often it seems like bad people can get away with anything. Being ruthless and having a heart of stone are signs of a successful person, a leader. They are also trademarks of criminals. But if you look at life from a different perspective, as if it was a history book, you'll see that in most cases there is a judgment day for these utterly selfish and cold-blooded people.

He may be up there in years and have one foot in the grave, but Chile's general Pinochet is finally coming face to face with his past. Hitler ended up committing suicide with his mistress. Chairman Mao may have ruled to the end but the real evil force in his shadow, his wife, was made to pay for her cruelty. Although at one time he was a great friend of many members of our government, Saddam Hussein is going through his trial, as a result of becoming an enemy to the United States. If you believe like most of Americans seem to these days, that we were brainwashed and misled to go and occupy Iraq, there is some satisfaction in knowing that people are finally seeing the truth,
at least a partial one. After this all is history, those warmongers responsible for this bloodshed will have to always watch their backs. I don't think they would feel at ease traveling abroad as there are plenty of people willing to do anything to pay them back. Everything comes at a price.

All this is true for the common man as well, not just world leaders and such. There are plenty of us who think they are untouchables, for whatever reason. Some are able to operate above the law, or at least above common decency, for a long time, but finally the handwriting on the wall becomes too visible to hide. We live in a democracy, even if it seems questionable at times, and in such a system everyone has a right to his or her opinions and beliefs. Decades may go by, but if one is patient he/she will see justice done. Unfortunately, exceptions will always remain and innocent ones get punished instead of the guilty ones, but in this age of information and the internet, truth is harder to hide. People don't automatically think that just because they read it in the paper, it must be true and correct, no questions asked.

Just recently I had the pleasure of playing three concerts as soloist of an orchestra which doesn't pretend to be one of the best in the world, but which took me by surprise by how good they sounded. What made the difference was the attitude of the musicians. They clearly loved what they were doing and there was genuine joy in the music making. There were no phony smiles in the group, meant to impress the audience. These faces expressed true pleasure - what an enviable situation.

Today's 'oddly enough' section in Reuter's news has an item titled
'Longer needles needed for fatter buttocks.' It has become a strange world indeed. Interestingly, where I spent almost a week, the population was far trimmer and in better shape than one would have expected. Active people equals active bodies and active minds.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Last week in Sweden there was a serious shortage of cash. Half of all ATMs were totally empty because the companies responsible for transporting money and other valuables refused to make deliveries. The drivers and their union insisted on better police protection, as a record number of armored vehicles had been attacked, with weapons and explosives, probably by organized crime. A good Svensson would not commit such an indecent act, but the country has a lot of immigrants from countries where criminal deeds are a normal part of life.

A different kind of shortage was evident when I was living in that country in the mid-1970s. One couldn’t buy beef in any form, for reasons that are not clear to me even now. Restaurants were able to purchase some from Poland and steak dinners were very expensive indeed. A mere mortal didn’t have this option and ‘the other white meat’ was all that was available. We used to joke that Sweden had invented kosher pork. There were small billboards on utility poles with pictures of bread, of which every good citizen was encouraged to eat seven slices a day. This was a strange phenomenon in one of the richest countries of the world, true at least at that time.

Although I was used to a Western-style socialist welfare system, the Swedish way was at times hard to understand. Never mind the more than 60% income tax rate I was paying; if one felt sick, a government healthcare office needed to be notified, as the salary for the sick days came directly from there. Because it wasn’t fair to expect everyone to have a phone, a postcard mailed on that day was sufficient. Although the pay for the first two sick days was reduced to 80%, after which it went to full pay, it was too much of a temptation to pass. A card mailed on Friday would not reach the government office until Monday, and so many people took an extra long weekend on a regular basis that even then-mighty Volvo could operate only on four days a week. The system provided incredible tax-free benefits for the less fortunate, or to people who opted not to seek work. Below us lived a woman who had children with different men. Based on her mail accidentally delivered to our apartment, her net income was greater than mine, so there was no need for her to work. No, I didn’t open any envelopes; in such an open society all such payment forms were mailed as postcards.

The city of Malmö had a very respectable orchestra which also served the opera and ballet, housed in the same complex. I got to do an endless number of Show Boats in Swedish, plus the mandatory Swan Lakes and even a modern Swedish opera, where my opening solo in harmonics imitated an SOS signal emitting from a lost spacecraft. We had some excellent guest conductors and soloists. Arthur Grumiaux played one of the best performances of the Brahms concerto I’ve ever heard. The legendary Emil Gilels came over with a Soviet conductor, whom he obviously didn’t have much respect for. It was humorous to see the pianist standing up and conducting the tutti sections behind the guest maestro’s back, quite differently to say the least.

It was in that city that I heard the New York Philharmonic perform during their European tour in the spring of -77. Thomas Schippers conducted Bartók absolutely brilliantly and it was shock to read about his death just a short time afterwards. What a talent he was and there was good chemistry between him and the musicians. What sticks in my mind, though, was a female first violinist, sitting on the outside, who decided to turn the concert into her own show. She would insist on using the entire bow when others quietly played at the tip, and often make a point of bowing long passages differently from everyone else. Tremolos she didn’t care for, and needless to say, her outfit was more suited for an escort service than a symphony orchestra. Perhaps she had a healthy attitude: so many string players like to compare orchestra work to prostitution, as they feel used and get very little in return, other than money. It just might be that she saw her job in a more realistic light. In fact, I have observed many similar individuals in numerous orchestras, usually youngish women. Obviously someone in these institutions likes and tolerates it, as otherwise such exhibitionism would come to an abrupt end. Perhaps audiences feel more entertained this way: whatever sells tickets is good. Even if people don’t know a good musical performance from a bad one, at least they can appreciate visual delights and temptations.