Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Autopsy Results

The human tragedy behind any orchestra collapsing is more than just your ordinary loss of a job. In any other field you just look around and find another place of employment, but not so in music. Take your typical symphony orchestra and try to figure out how many of their musicians in reality could find a similar job in an increasingly competitive situation. An individual might have earned his/her position years ago, but sooner or later the 'orchestra syndrome' would have set in and in most cases this person's playing would have become less accurate and controlled than before (see my blog entry on May 29, 2005). The percentage of success might be in single digits, and I would be surprised if it exceeded 20%. In addition, many have families and it is not easy or possible to uproot. In the Northwest Chamber Orchestra's case, most members were covered under the local ballet company's health plan, but not all. My heart goes out to those individuals who were relying on those benefits, some even with little children.

It is interesting that just a few weeks before declaring bankrupty, the side of NWCO's board that ended up losing in the battle of control, were trying to coerce the organization into hiring a new Southern California-based executive director, with very limited managerial experience, at an expense of over $80k per year. When this faction lost, they used the old 'burnt ground' tactic. Knowing that they were defeated, the Third Reich leveled Warsaw, and Paris almost met with the same fate. It is hard to imagine that these people, well aware of the orchestra's financial situation, were ready to increase expenses and just a bit later the organization folded.

Mr. Goth
óni might have been too cosmopolitan for Seattle with his musical ideas. After all, no other person here has been in such worldwide demand, from China to Africa. Tastes vary, and unfortunately this town still prefers the Pachelbel Canon, the Four Seasons, the Nutcracker and the likes. A person says: 'I know what I like.' The correct interpretation of this is: 'I like what I know.' The person behind impulsively hiring Mr. Gothóni five years ago should have been well aware of the inherent challenges and complexities of this arrangement. Of course, some people wisely wanted to keep a relationship with Joseph Silverstein, a legend in the American music scene, as he knew how to better appeal to the ordinary audience members' taste. In hindsight one might ask: would the NWCO have suffered the same fate, if Mr. Silverstein had been appointed music director and Ralf Gothóni appeared as a frequent guest?

There is a good story on the web in 'Adaptistration' titled 'Throwing in The Towel' , by Drew McManus, about this subject. Of course, it would be too much to expect an unbiased perspective from the local dailies. I haven't read them in years, but it has been brought to my attention that one on-off-on-again music 'cricket', close friends with a former, dismissed executive director of the organization, has written outright inflammatory articles on the issue. What the paper didn't print, however, was a 'this-says-it-all' email from Mr. Goth
óni, sent on March 20th 2006:

Thank you for giving space for the bankruptcy information of the NWCO on March 17th.

If your paper would have given once a while the same space the concert reviews and interviews, this lovely chamber orchestra might have gotten more audience and maybe even survived.

Ralf Gothóni

Preliminary autopsy results thus show the cause of death to be homicide.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Short Lists

Although the news about James Levine’s most unfortunate fall on stage was a terrible shock, at the same time it has given a golden opportunity for deserving conductors to become better known and create a stepping stone to stardom in the orchestra scene. As it is no secret, Mr. Levine’s schedule with the BSO and the Met is very busy and we are not talking about getting replacements for a few concerts and opera performances but a large number of them. It is interesting to see who has made the ‘short list’ of these famous institutions, as it is a kind of ‘Who’s Who’ of today’s conductors of interest. Obviously the music directors of the Big Six (yes, Los Angeles has to be included), what I call the ‘A’ group, don’t need additional exposure and have their schedules fully booked for years. Group ‘B’ consists of orchestras that are not quite as important, but nevertheless have a global presence because of frequent touring and general excellence. Most conductors of these orchestras would consider an invitation to come to Boston an honor. We also have groups ‘C’ and ‘D’, both strictly regional orchestras that seldom venture outside their home turf. The difference between the two is that musicians in the first make living wages, whereas in the second one they have to supplement their income with teaching or doing something else, perhaps outside the world of music. In truth, a number of the leaders of these groups are talented and promising, but one is not likely to see many names appear on a short list of an ‘A’ organization. Although most of them have had an opportunity to direct such an orchestra, often as a result of sudden cancellation, only some have been invited back. Competition from overseas is also fierce, and traditionally American orchestras have had a very high percentage of foreign maestri. One of the reasons may be the fact that when a person feels insecure about speaking a foreign language, they tend to talk less and often give the impression of being wiser and more knowledgeable that if they were completely fluent. Music doesn’t require a lot of talking, and a diarrhea of the mouth certainly ruins it instantly. – May Mr. Levine recuperate soon and stay in better health.

Another heavyweight, in more ways than one, Sarah Caldwell passed away a few days ago. She was one of the most illustrious characters of the American music scene. The New York Times wrote a fascinating
obituary of her, telling about her life and career as it really was. Not only was Ms. Caldwell the first American woman conductor to become truly famous, she also was, as Andrew Porter put it, "the single best thing about opera in America." Few if any people in today’s opera world would have the guts and the talent this musical giant possessed.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Opium to the People

All the lives lost and money spent on liberating Afghanistan has seemingly gone to waste, as far as democracy and human rights go. It is terrifying to read news about a convert to Christianity being on trial for that and facing a probable death penalty for giving up Islam. What has happened to the religion that saved the Western civilization a thousand years ago with its tolerance? Since all the monotheistic religions supposedly believe in one God and share a common foundation, wouldn’t it be a given our Almighty would be the same, no matter under what tradition the worship happens? After all, an Arab calls God ‘Allah’, even if he or she happens to be Christian or even Jewish. Instead of our country’s pushing for American-style democracy, we should insist on mutual tolerance and same respect for human rights everywhere. American values will never be accepted by most other cultures and for a reason. Can you, for instance, expect the Iraqi people be enthusiastic about private health insurance or having to pay fortunes for an education? But we could by our own example, show that different cultures and religions are able to coexist. Unfortunately, this country is not doing a very good job at it. However, we are not likely to execute someone for his beliefs, although a crazed intolerant fundamentalist might go after the life of someone else whose different values irritate him to no end. Intolerance, whether religious, political, racial or socioeconomic, is truly criminal and should be treated as such by law. We should all get along, even in the workplace.

A few days ago I was reading the Guardian and on the front page was a story on the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Anglican Church, who insisted that schools must not teach history and science based on the stories in the Bible. In other words, he strictly opposes the teaching of Creationism. Here is a very religious man, an intelligent believer, who has the courage to say that our Holy Book is not to be taken literally. Kansas could use a leading figure like that! He reminded me of my first and second grade teacher in Finland (we start a year later there). She was a true believer: looking into her eyes was like seeing peace and infinite wisdom; but she insisted that God was the same for everyone in the world. Religion was (and still is) a mandatory subject in school. These days every student has the right of getting educated in it according to his or her beliefs, or if desired, in philosophy. Having read through the Old Testament when I was just seven, I remember asking her about the obvious contradiction in Genesis regarding the creation of the world. Her reply was the wisest I have ever come across: to God a day can be a million of our years. No wonder I stayed close friends with her until she passed away well over 30 years later, and I still feel her presence in my heart.

Love of fellow man and tolerance of others that are different are by many considered to be signs of weakness. I beg to differ. The real weaklings are the pitiful people who cannot see the big picture of life, and resort to threats and destruction in order to advance their own point of view, or to strengthen their seemingly all-important position in society, politics, corporation, organization or even family. God have mercy on them, although I have a difficult time seeing how they would deserve it.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Another Obituary

The past year and half has not been very kind to us as far as deaths are concerned. My wife lost her mother in an accident and just recently her dearest sister to cancer. Many of my beloved friends and colleagues have died: in addition to Hermann Michael and Milton Katims, a longtime friend, violinist-turned-diplomat Edgar Borup passed away last summer in Bellevue. I had known him since he was the U.S. Cultural Attaché in Helsinki around 1970. Later we found ourselves living here in the Pacific Northwest and were able to renew our friendship again.

Another plug was pulled last night when the board of my wife's Northwest Chamber Orchestra voted to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, right before two planned tours to Michigan and Finland. After 33 years of bringing beautiful music to the Seattle community the group has had its financial ups and downs, but this time it fell victim to a certain clique's ill will. Although the orchestra's main fundraiser just a couple weeks ago was well attended, a lot of wines and other items to be auctioned off were withdrawn last minute, thanks to outside interference and the proceeds did not meet expectations. Even an article with a negative spin was planted in one of the dailies just prior to the event. Obviously the orchestra had been a thorn on the side of certain local influential folks and they had done their best to set the organization up for failure. Some sizable pledges given were not honored, although this would have been pocket change for the 'philanthropic' individuals. Others who wanted to be in charge of running the ship were not willing to donate a dime. Some terrible miscalculations were made a number of times, whether artistic or administrative. This group, unlike most others of its kind, provided health and other benefits to the core musicians, so the innocents will suffer once again.

Seattle is a progressive community in many areas, but also hopelessly provincial. Neither the Sante Fe nor Seattle International Music Festivals could last in this environment. The classical music scene in town seems to be governed by two 'mafias', one hiding behind a religious-cultural shield, and the other being a sexual minority club. Corruption and greed for power are prevailing dark forces once again.

With hundreds of emails in my wife's prossession, the true story will make a fascinating read one day.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Today marks Purim, which commemorates the victory of the Persian Jews over the evil vizir Haman, who wanted to have all the Hebrews killed but ended up being hanged himself. Of course this wouldn't have been possible without the intervention of a beautiful woman, Queen Esther. We all have known a Haman or two, perhaps even many, and secretly wish a similar fate will be awaiting them. These Hamans are in a leadership positions like the famous one, whether in government or in a company or organization. The festival itself is a merry one, belonging to the "they wanted to kill us; we won; let's eat" category. The old story is acted out by "Purim Shpielers". Perhaps I ought to participate as such, to witness the victory of good over evil. In any case, Hamentaschen or Haman's Pockets taste delicious. My daughter Anna baked a wonderful batch and a student brought over more. Interestingly, in Israel, a three-day festival called Adloyada is celebrated. The name means "until he did not know". It must have been invented by early politicians, since the idea is to eat and drink so much that at the end you cannot tell the difference between Haman the criminal and Mordecai, Esther's uncle and the good guy.

Spring seems to be arriving in Seattle, although some days have been surprisingly reminescent of winter, with strong, cold winds and even a dusting of snow. However, our Sun is at its closest to Earth at this time of the year and one feels its powerful warmth whenever the skies are clear. Many allergic people are suffering from all the pollen in the air but the blossoms are a beautiful sight, not to mention the new leaves which are uniquely "baby green" in color. A walk in a forest or park can do wonders to one's mental state. Spring break is almost here and I can hardly wait for my college junior to come home for almost two weeks. Hopefully she'll take care that her old man gets a hike of a few miles done on a regular basis.

Two days ago maestro Milton Katims was remembered in one of the most wonderful memorials I can recall, in Meany Hall at UW. Pianists Bela Siki and Robin McCabe played, as did my wife and I, accompanied by a quartet from NWCO, with the help of a senior student of mine from Seattle Pacific University. At the end there was a fabulous video presentation of this great man's life. We felt very honored to be part of this occasion. A lot of people showed up, but almost more noticable was the absence of the ones who should have been there but opted not to come, from certain organizations which more or less owe their existence to Milton. After all, he was the force behind Seattle getting their Opera House which became the main venue for these groups to perform and grow. One doesn't need to agree with everything a person did or said, but one has to be able to to give credit where credit is due. Ingratitute is the way of the world. Enough said.

Last week brought sad news from my home in Finland: it is basically a one-company town and that company, the world's largest maker of magazine-quality paper, decided to eliminate thousands of jobs and move them elsewhere where people will work for much less and trees grow faster. Naturally, the company's stock price went up sharply. This is so typical to todays's world and global economy: to benefit a few, far more many have to suffer. Although people there will be protected much better than in this system and the place will not become another Flint, Michigan, it will still negatively affect the lives of everyone there, from subcontractors to businesses and lowered real estate values. Managements seldom have a heart and those in charge only think of themselves.

Time to take out Purim's noise makers and protest. I just passed a car with a bumper sticker that stated "Stop bitching - start a revolution". Wish it were that easy.