Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Mr. Silverstein has a long conducting career as well. While concertmaster in Boston for 22 years, he was also their assistant conductor and later became the Music Director of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City for 15 years. Rumors were then that the job almost went to another conductor, but the Mormon leadership had problems with the candidate's lifestyle. At the end they got the better deal, I'm sure, and the orchestra developed into a fine group. I would like to say 'world class' again but that expression is so misused that it has lost its meaning.
I got a very nice letter of recommendation from Mr. Silverstein, something I truly treasure. In it he states: "I have been familiar with the playing of Ilkka Talvi for many years. The discography of [...] is a fine showcase of his playing and leadership. His background is a veritable "who's who" of the 20th century as it includes studies with Ivan Galamian, Jascha Heifetz, Ricardo Odnoposoff, and other prestigious teachers. I would characterize his playing as technically brilliant and stylistically elegant. In the many performances and recordings of his that I have heard there has never been an instance when I felt that there was a lapse of good taste."
Getting such compliments from a true master musician means a lot to me, to the point that I almost blush.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
The inspirational route, without the fear factor, is far more demanding. Your child has the option of doing something that he or she knows is right or wrong. A student with an inspiring teacher will look forward to his/her classes and lessons, even when there might not have been time to prepare adequately every time. In a relationship people want to be with each other because it is inspiring. Yes, it works even in a marriage long-term. And it is possible to be excited to go to work when one knows that his or her effort is appreciated by the boss and coworkers as well.
Being a source of inspiration is not easy. One has to be loving, caring and understanding beyond the 'norm' and constantly make an effort. One has to be open to admit his own faults, yet show an enthusiastic desire to achieve a higher level in whatever the subject is. A child looks at the parent for an example, a student at the teacher for the same. A partner in a relationship may not always do the right thing to please the other, and everyone has their moods and weaknesses, yet knowing that one is always accepted as he or she is, means, without exception, harmony and lack of fear. At work one gives his best and utmost when the effort is genuinely appreciated, not just expected.
A smile goes a long way. I don’t mean the typical empty ‘look at my teeth’ smile most of us have been taught to show, but the often very subtle expression of acceptance, praise and even gratitude one can sense. Showing one’s teeth is a sign of hostility in our cousins the great apes, and I don’t think we would use that as a sign of lovability if we hadn’t been taught it as ‘proper’ behavior. Interestingly, new rules for the passports in EU countries require that person not show his or her teeth in the photo. Of course, whatever form the smile takes, even if it is invisible, it is usually easy for the recipient to understand. One can even smile with his/her eyes alone! All those years when I worked in orchestras, I can remember those conductors who in concerts made their musicians feel joyful and at ease, in spite of being very demanding in rehearsals, rightfully so, given the short preparation time. When a musician senses such approval instead of being faced with almost hateful glances, as if in 'you are making me look bad', not an uncommon approach, he or she tries differently: not just to play correctly but to play with the same kind inspiration the maestro has shown. Making one feel that we are in this together makes a world of difference! The same is true with teaching an instrument: mistakes don’t really matter, as the student knows where they happen, and the professor’s reinforcing the positive can produce miracles. Even criticism can be constructive and to be learned from, not just destructive as often is the case. None of us is perfect, and it is the teacher’s duty to point out where improvement is needed.
Granted, results can be achieved with both methods, but at the end you have a child, spouse, friend or a worker who is either burned out or happy with life. Having experienced both, I know what I would choose; pulling over on a narrow street to let another car through makes one feel a lot better than an episode of road rage.
Monday, April 17, 2006
Here is a copy of a letter Milton wrote a year ago and wanted it published. Somehow it had accidentally disappeared from my blog. In the letter Milton explicitly defines the role of a concertmaster which may appear quite different from what one reads in the dailies. Milton was a musician and string player par excellence, and as such he surely knew what he was talking about.
May 6, 2005
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Americans are notoriously unaware of the rest of the world. Especially if one lives away from the coastline, news about anything outside of the country's borders seem unimportant. Yes, we talk about Iraq, Afganistan and now Iran, and we know that just about everything in a Wal-Mart comes from China. Our electronics are from Japan which also designs our favorite automobiles. Yet put Joe Shmo in front of a globe or a standard map and he will have difficulties in identifying these places without studying names of countries and cities carefully.
Time has come for this nation to take responsibility for the global mess we have helped to create. The warming climate is affecting us as well as others; the bird flu will reach us in no time. Gasoline is climbing in price but do we even know where the crude oil is coming from? That geography, ecology and world affairs are not taught in schools early on is inexcusable. Most of the news we read or watch seem centered in the U.S., and often only serve the interest of our government and politicians, plus, of course, big business.
Since the school system will not be changed overnight, what can we do to educate ourselves? By carefully selecting our sources of information is a good start. You cannot expect to learn the truth by watching Fox News, and even CNN no longer offers an unbiased view. Personally I turn to the internet and read what people in different countries think. We do get the New York Times, which is a pretty good newspaper, even if its tainted articles helped us to get into the frenzy of invading Iraq. Actually, I prefer that paper's and other publications' joint production the International Herald Tribune, which thankfully is available on the web. I used to get the print edition of the Christian Science Monitor but now subscribe to their online PDF version. This publication is probably the most neutral and best informed paper available in this country. It is rather small in size, so obviously it cannot cover many topics. They put out a marvelous email newsletter in which one can read opinions from leading papers of the world. The Los Angeles Times is also on my list: it has come a long way from the provincial paper it was when I first started reading it in the late sixties. The Guardian's newsletter gets read every day and I also try to read the Times from London. Perhaps my favorite news source is the BBC which has numerous sites serving different populations, such as Mundo for the Latin world (great for brushing up your Spanish!). Obviously I also carefully read Finland's leading daily, Helsingin Sanomat, for which I pay an online subscription. They also present news in English, although those understandably are centered around Finnish events.
For many years I was a loyal reader of the Economist which produces some wonderful and insightful articles. However, during Bill Clinton's troubled times, the magazine openly stated that he should resign. Since I felt it wasn't the publication's business to try to decide who would be in charge in the White House, I canceled my subscription. Too many other leaders, whether politicians or in other civic positions, not to mention in the business world, have had their own Monicas, and yet their authority hasn't been questioned, even if it should have. The Clintons were subjected to a witch hunt from the very beginning, something the Republican party should not be proud of. The Economist should have had the integrity to stay out of it all.
Journalism is close to my heart because so many relatives have been involved in it: my father, brother and eldest daughter in the immediate family. Each one of them have obeyed the highest principals and never written or broadcast propaganda to serve as mouthpieces of a few. Silja, my daughter, just won her second national PASS award in the magazine category. Last year she shared it with The New York and Los Angeles Times Magazines; this year she didn't have to.
Of course, every journalist has an editor whose duties are to check the facts and truthfulness of content before the story goes to print. This is to protect both the publication and the people the paper is writing about, and also the reader by providing the most reliable information possible. It is obvious that some publications want to have a slant to a story and some editors simply don't always do their job. Just re-read a case (scroll down to June 22, 2005) involving yours truly from a year ago. Some star journalists in even the top papers have been fabricating stories, such as was the case in the scandal with Jayson Blair and the New York Times. As Slate put it: "What can you say about a trusted professional who makes stuff up and publishes it as fact?" As readers, we have a right to expect to see the truth on the printed page of a paper we pay for. It is a sad fact that public's trust in the media has diminished year after year. Reader's Digest shouldn't have become Reader's Indigestion.
Long live hyperlinks! ¡Vivan los enlaces!
Friday, April 14, 2006
This country is a wonderful mix of people, although there has always been a lot of pressure to assimilate. Obviously, a grown man or woman is not going to be able to do that to the same extent as a child. Parents wanted their children to fit in, gave them American names and didn't want to pass on their native language. This was especially true in the earlier part of the 20th century. "John" would certainly not have been a choice for a son's name in the Pale: here it became very popular as it didn't carry the same label attached to it as 'Mordechai'. Often parents and their children grew so much apart that they couldn't even verbally communicate with each other well enough to remain close. Recently much of this has changed, and especially Latinos and people from different parts of Asia are proud of their heritage, and make sure their children have a tie to the old homeland. I personally could have done better: out of my four daughters only the eldest speaks Finnish completely fluently, the second one fairly well, but the two youngest only know words and phrases. At least they have visited in their second homeland often, and know the customs and understand the special qualities their people have.
What usually sets an immigrant student apart from an American is their work ethic and desire to learn and learn well. As classical music and playing the violin may not be part of their background, being at ease with our Western music can be in some ways be more difficult to them, but most of them overcome this in no time. As a teacher I feel more challenged but I simply love that. I just wish I could learn about their music and culture as much as they learn about ours. I'm doing my best and have always enjoyed listening to songs and other works from all over. Since early on, I was a short wave radio buff, and I would spend hours listening to faraway exotic radio stations. These days it is easy as you can hear them on a web stream, as clearly as your local stations.
This country has not always treated its immigrants, legal or illegal, very well. The Chinese were singled out for a long time: they couldn't become citizens or own property, although we had brought them here to build railroads as they were willing to work under conditions our own people wouldn't. The last couple of weeks have seen massive demonstrations against proposed legislation that would make criminals out of people here without legal documents. Yet, like the railroad builders, they work the jobs we wouldn't touch. Without them our economy would completely collapse, and it isn't doing so well at this point anyhow. People from the Middle East are treated with suspicion, even when they have been born here, and anyone dark-skinned is lumped easily in the same category. Many stories are simply heartbreaking, but it is not easy to find them in the media. If you have the time, read this article by my journalist daughter Silja, who has dedicated her life to writing about social injustice.
Our differences are our greatest blessing.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Every once in a while I end up going to hear a community orchestra, sometimes out of curiosity, having been asked to attend, or having a friend or family member playing as soloist. In an earlier blog entry (March 26, 2006) I divided orchestras into different categories, based on their importance, but left this important group of musicians purposely out of the story. Like their full-time professional counterparts, community orchestras can vary from excellent to awful. Most of them do fill their function rather well though. This last week I was pleasantly surprised by a local group which performed admirably. To most people in the near-capacity audience there would have been no difference between this orchestra and a professional one. Better yet: this was music for the people, by the people, performed by their family members, friends or neighbors. I paid close attention to the musicians. It seemed to me that all of them were truly enjoying their music-making, and they wanted to show their audience what they were able to accomplish. This was not playing by snobs, for the snobs: the unpaid musicians must really love what they do to give up so much of their time for this cause. Ticket prices were cheap, so an entire family could easily afford to come to listen; the percentage of young audience members was high. Four or five different live concerts a year is plenty enough for most friends of orchestral music. If they want more, it is all too easy to put on a cd or listen to a classical music on FM, cable, satellite or internet station. It would be difficult to explain to that audience why millions should be spent on something they get for practically free.
Of course I have a biased view in this matter. After all, I was playing in such an orchestra before my 6th birthday, as my father was the conductor. We had some excellent concerts as many of the principals came from the country's leading orchestras, such as the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Orchestra, for the dress rehearsals and concerts, and the group itself had some amazingly talented instrumentalists, who had gone to other fields, as was the norm those days. Everyone got along famously, which in that one-company town meant people at the very top and your ordinary lowly workers. Music was what they had in common, and in that situation they were equals. Well, my native country changed, got rich, and soon such idealistic organizations were history. After my father retired from conducting his beloved orchestra, they folded in a couple years. Nothing nice and wonderful seems to last forever.
Obviously a ballet company cannot expect to find capable dancers in their community for free, and Wagnerian opera singers are not that common, either. Instrumentalists are plentiful, however, as so many excellent musicians have either switched careers or gone to a non-musical field to start with, knowing well what an unpleasantly difficult field being a professional musician is. If we encouraged these community orchestras and gave then more of our support, perhaps we wouldn't need all these regional expensive orchestras in every city and town. How about having up to ten truly great symphony orchestras in the entire country, and they would spend most of their time touring all over? It certainly would be more interesting to the listeners than seeing the same faces and hearing the very same music-making year after year, sometimes with no change for decades. Certainly an enormous amount of money would be saved, and some of it could be spent on bringing in interesting chamber music ensembles and recitalists. Isn't it a fact that many listeners go to an orchestra concert just to hear the soloist and then leave the hall before the Bruckner? Somewhere I remember seeing a string teacher show up with his more advanced students whenever there was a well-known fiddler playing a concerto, and carefully writing down bowings and even fingerings. After intermission they were never to be seen. Certainly this was a less expensive and more convenient an approach than taking lessons from the artist, or going to his/her masterclass. Had there been a video dvd of the piece by the same artist, the teacher and the students would have stayed home. I am in no way condemning this pedagogue's action: what better way to learn than to see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears. Great playing is worth a million words. I just don't think an entire program should have been put together by the orchestra just for this reason. This might have been a cheap lesson for these listeners in question, but at a great expense for a lot of others.
Monday, April 10, 2006
People in general fall into three categories: followers, leaders and free thinkers. Most of us obviously belong to the first group: even in the best functioning democracy an ordinary citizen has very little say as to how things are run. The larger the country, the more true this fact is. Perhaps in Iceland, with its 300,000 inhabitants, an individual vote is important; certainly more so than in the United States with a population a thousand times that. In a true democracy everyone's opinion is heard, but it also requires everyone's participation in decision making. For the followers, it is easier to delegate this power to others and then do as one is told. Those who crave to be in a leadership position, the reasons too rarely are what they should: being capable of improving lives of everyone, educate them and take care of their needs, to care about the environment, to promote peace over war. Most often greed and being power-hungry are the main factors behind their desires. As far as the free thinkers go, they are not usually well accepted by either of the other two groups: the followers don't understand them, and the leaders are afraid of them, as they are the best educated ones and possess superior intelligence and knowledge. It is no wonder that often they are targeted by the ruling class, and the followers that follow their orders. Just remember the Cultural Revolution in China, the atrocities in Cambodia, Uganda or Zimbabwe in recent history. The last on the list, Zimbabwe, former Southern Rhodesia, used to have a high standard of living for an African country, yet the news just a couple days ago told us about the shortest life expectancy in this world: all of 34 years for a woman.
The Biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews from slavery to freedom is inspiring but also presents many questions. Surely the Hebrews could have assimilated better in Egypt and thus not have been threatened: after all, Joseph, a slave, had managed to rise to a seemingly impossibly important position in the Pharaoh's court. Of course, being submissive would have meant giving up their own special identity, at least to a degree. Moses and his people had to pay a price for their freedom: the biblical story tells about wandering in the desert for forty years. Since anyone knowing geography realizes there is not that much desert to wander in, unless the Hebrews decided to go sightseeing in the Arabian peninsula, the only explanation is that the people did not know what to do with their their new freedom and lived in chaos for a long time. Doesn't this resemble the situation in Iraq today? Granted, there were no plastic explosives, car bombs or even guns then, but these are not the only manifestations of a chaotic society. Without our present government's invasion of Iraq, life in that country would probably have continued in relative calm. Granted, their leader was a tyrant who was responsible for a large number of deaths. However, whom do we hold responsible for the casualties, both Iraqi and our own, that resulted from the invasion and the mayhem that has followed and which seems unstoppable? A hero today, a villain tomorrow: it all depends how matters turn out. Of recent history's despots, Mao had the largest number of his own people killed, followed by Stalin, yet both are thought of as great leaders by many. The Pharaoh probably listened to his advisers, Hitler to his (although we like to blame him as the sole architect of the Holocaust). It is naive to think that our president alone was behind the idea of the Iraqi war; nor was the decision to drop the two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the brainchild of then-president Harry Truman.
In my life, I am presently enjoying the first real time of freedom from slavery of any kind. I am in a position to make a positive difference in lives of quite a few young people, something I truly treasure, instead of being a mere entertainer. Of course, like in the Passover story, this freedom has come with a price. For example, there are a few people in this, sometimes very provincial, town who are seemingly upset by my writing this blog, keeping an online diary of my thoughts, thus exercising my rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Spreading lies in the press or blacklisting a family member hardly comes as any surprise. Of course, even this chaos will come to pass eventually, just as the Hebrews reached their promised land.
Happy Pesach and Easter! May you all learn to be free and enjoy life.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
The purpose of my writing is to talk about a slightly younger group of people, those that cannot pretend to be twenty- or thirty-year-olds, but who might be in the prime of their lives, creative and with all the wisdom they have managed to collect. This society of ours often thinks of youth as their idols and heroes. Granted, a young person can run faster, can have more nimble fingers and many young bodies, if well kept, please more people looking for 'eye-candy' than those a couple decades or more older. But where is the wisdom, the experience and the know-how that can only come from having lived through life, with its difficulties and also pleasures? Of course, we all age very differently: Altzheimers can strike a person of 40 and there are others who also have less and less to give as they grow older. In the arts, such as music, there are instrumentalists, and even conductors, who are truly 'geriatric' before they have reached 60, with no creative spark left. Yet others are just starting to bloom, once the highly competitive 40s and early 50s are past. It is incredibly hurtful to hear a self-made expert call a wonderful violinist a 'hack', 'past his prime' or 'uninteresting', just because he is no longer young. Of course an age comes when an instrumentalist cannot control the movements of his fingers quite as well as before, but even then he or she should not be forced to disappear into retirement and oblivion. These people should be our greatest teachers and sources of inspiration! They are the ones who relay messages from bygone era, from their own teachers.
While in my early teens, I showed up at the door of a famous French pedagogue while visiting Paris. He had previously written to me that he was too old to teach any longer but I tried my luck. At first the old frail man in his 80s was angry but then asked me to take my violin out and proceeded to give me an incredible lesson. I learned more during those two hours than from someone else in a year. He wouldn't accept any money, and once I returned to Finland I sent a pair of old-fashioned black shoes that went over the ankle (my teacher in Helsinki knew what style and size!). I got the sweetest thank-you letter as reply.
It is amazing to hear from a number of people, in the arts in particular, who have been deeply wounded by age discrimination. For instance, somewhere in this country I bumped into a singer who had been dismissed from his opera company. His voice was 'showing his age', he was told. Yet he said that after his last role, European guest artists had praised him for his youthful voice, supposedly in front of his former employer. There are many instrumentalists with similar stories who have confided in me. Perhaps the person guilty of such cruel demeanor should take a good look in the mirror and realize that possibly the wrong individual was forced to retire. Naturally everyone who feels they have been discriminated against, whether the cause being age or AIDS, could fight it in the court system, but most of these victims are too emotionally injured to pursue this course of action, and it can become awfully costly. Public, of course, should often be enraged, but in most instances they are kept in the dark by a cozy arrangement between the media and the perpetrators. Much hasn't changed in this area since the overly friendly relationships between the mafia and the police many decades ago.
Those of us who have watched the documentary on the incredible Cuban 'Buena Vista Social Club' and listened to their music, realize that none of that fabulous music-making would have been possible with younger singers and instrumentalists. Now, just a few years since the filming, many of these fantastic artists are gone. Respect age and rush to hear and see performers who are in their upper years, as soon they may not be with us any longer! On the other hand, the little, cute sex-kitten might have turned into an old hag in the meantime, and if there was little substance to start with, there isn't going to be anything left when the youthful looks are gone.