Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Happy 95th, Dad!

Six days ago, on the 21st of June, my father Veikko Talvi turned 95. Although his short term memory is at times problematic, this picture taken at his party proves that he still enjoys life a lot. Even having had prostate cancer for over 30 years hasn’t affected him as it has been kept in control with hormone therapy.

What an interesting life my father has had. He was adored and pampered by his mother, much more than his younger sister. My grandfather was capable of creating anything with his hands: my childhood home was filled with wrought iron lamps and light fixtures, and he even built several violin cases for me. My dad didn’t inherit any of these skills; they seem to have jumped a generation. Instead, he become very involved with the academic life in the Helsinki University and started researching local history, publishing a number of books over the years, some of which are used as textbooks in higher education. He was also a journalist and a respectable musician, both as a violinist and a conductor. During my childhood and until his retirement he worked for one of the world’s largest paper manufacturing companies as their head of publishing and public relations. Although he didn’t have a head for business (unlike my mother), he didn’t have to worry about money as he was well paid. An idealist, he would always do things for free if it was for a good cause. I don’t think any of his many violin students ever paid for their lessons. Although the well-to-do corporation would have given him a nice car to use, he preferred using our family car, never even charging for mileage.

The Winter and Continuation Wars (1939-40, 1941-44) were hard for everyone in Finland. My father had recently been married when fighting started and he was on the front, unable to get a leave, when my brother Tuomo was born. Just a couple days later the mother died and grandparents had to take care of raising the baby. A brief period of peace followed, but then war started again and my dad had to leave once more for the front lines. When I was growing up, he never talked about his experiences. As he was an officer and an adjutant to the commander of the regiment, he didn’t actually have to fire a weapon and kill enemies. This probably was a blessing as he wouldn’t have taken it lightly. Death was still all around him and sometimes he had to send a platoon for a dangerous assignment, knowing that many of the men wouldn’t return. One time a new soldier was waiting for instructions when a Soviet bullet went through his head, less than three feet from my dad. Later my father developed some heart problems and was sent back to a military hospital. This is where he met my mother Irja, a volunteer, and the two fell in love. Their marriage lasted for 55 years, until my mom’s death on the eve of my 50th birthday.

It is interesting to see what parallels there are in one’s life compared with his parents. Although I inherited my mother’s quick thinking and business sense, I also resemble my father with my willingness to teach and help, and his love for music. More than anything I enjoyed playing duets with him: we performed together numerous times when I was little. He didn’t force me to have a teacher as I was able to teach myself at first. I had observed my dad carefully enough to know what to do and how; my perfect pitch took care of the rest. He would listen to me practice, and then play a few card games with me, and afterwards I would practice more or we would play duos until late. He, too, had a long friendship with a man whom he trusted. About 25 years later this ‘friend’ showed his true colors, tried to defame my dad and even to destroy archived material, and to take credit for work my dad had done. This betrayal almost killed my father, and it took him years to get over it. However, wounds eventually healed and he was again busy doing more research and writing books even in his late 80s. It was always important for my dad to be recognized for his achievements. The regional central library in Kouvola has a small exhibit featuring my father's literary output, in addition to having a research room named after him. When he lived near there, he would visit the library almost daily, perhaps to admire his life's work. This is where we differ: I don't even own most recordings I've made. Perhaps a generation is skipped again, as some of the younger ones seem to be much like him, rightfully proud of their achievements.

I look forward to your 100th birthday, Dad!

photo by Silja Talvi

Monday, June 19, 2006

Stepping Aside

Last week the main news topic seemed to be Bill Gates and his decision to leave the reigns of the company he founded, Microsoft. Naturally with his wealth it is easy to retire and concentrate in philanthropy. Health and education for the world’s poor is obviously close to his heart, and being the richest man alive, he has the means to make a difference in this area. Also, he wants to be remembered as a great humanitarian, not just as someone who started a software company at the right time and place. But there is a much bigger issue behind wanting to step aside: the well-being and future of the very enterprise Mr. Gates had been a father to. After all, times have changed a lot from when IBM refused to see the potential in personal computers, and instead of creating an operating system for the then primitive PCs, gave the task to the little startup company of Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen, resulting in MS-DOS. Microsoft has had great success since, mainly with operating systems from Windows 3.1 on (the first versions were rather awful) and their Office software, a standard today with any company and institution. But times are changing and with broadband access to the internet everything in computing is very different from just a couple years ago. Microsoft needs people with fresh ideas and insight; otherwise the company could turn into a dinosaur and become extinct. It has already made a number of mistakes and wrong predictions in the past. Perhaps Mr. Gates realizes that he no longer can be the visionary his child needs and wants to give others the challenge. I salute his wisdom of stepping aside now, instead of growing old together with the corporation.

In Chicago, another famous figure is leaving his post. Daniel Barenboim just conducted his last concerts as the music director of the Chicago Symphony. Fifteen years at the helm of an orchestra is a long time, twice the norm for someone in that position in this country. The beginning of his tenure with the orchestra was somewhat rocky, but with time the musicians and Mr. Barenboim learned to see eye to eye and understand each other well. His decision to leave certainly was not caused by the orchestra’s players’ unhappiness with him; he just felt that his time was up. A first rate pianist even today, he has garnered respect from everyone as an artist. And instead of fraternizing with the Jewish community in order to raise funds, he chose to alienate many of them with his openly pro-Palestinian opinions and actions. This is not to say that Mr. Barenboim wasn’t proud of his heritage: he just couldn’t quietly witness the apartheid politics of Israel and spoke up time after time. It takes a person of courage to say and do what he firmly believes in, unpopular as it may be. With more people like him in leadership roles, both civil and political, we might see peace in the Middle East one day.

In the review of Mr. Barenboim’s farewell concerts in today’s New York Times, it is pointed out how many in the orchestra were initially unhappy with the conductor’s tendency of doing things differently from one performance to another. Of course this is a sign of inspiration and spontaneity on the podium, but requires much more attention from the musicians. In time the players adapted to this and the former ‘fault’ became a ‘virtue’. It will be interesting to see what artistic direction Chicago will take in the future. There is no doubt that Mr. Barenboim will be even more visible as an artist, now that he no longer has to handle all the baggage that came with his former job. Freedom is priceless, and a true artist needs that.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Mozartsky, Anyone?

There are numerous studies claiming that listening to classical music has a calming and positive effect on a person. Even surgeons are known to listen to their iPods while operating on a patient. Some years ago it was claimed that listening to the music of Mozart made a person smarter. This ‘Mozart Effect’ also worked in reverse, as some people claimed that a bad performance of this music actually lowered their intelligence.

I seldom listen to classical music in order to relax. Perhaps all the years of playing and teaching put me automatically in a ‘find the mistakes, poor phrasing and faulty intonation’ mode. This is an unfortunate result of work vs. pleasure. Yes, I can treasure a wonderful performance from the past, but even then listening becomes very involved and not to be taken lightly. Recordings of more recent years tend to sound very unnatural because every little mistake that would have made the music sound live and true has been edited out. Even a bad instrumentalist can sound note-perfect and a very mediocre orchestra well-balanced and faultless. A listener often expects this perfection to carry onto the stage. It is surprising that anyone would even bother to come to hear a recital or a philharmonic’s concert as the performance inevitably won’t be as polished as on a compact disc. We often expect the unnatural in today’s world: why for instance is an old string instrument supposed to shine and shimmer when it has only remnants of the old varnish left? Sure it is easy to add a layer of hard polish on it to make it sparkle, but the result is no more genuine than a recording that has been artificially made to sound good. An old 78 could not be edited at all: the take was either accepted or a new one made. Artists are not machines: from some historical recordings we learn that a great instrumentalist like Rachmaninoff would make over 20 takes on a piece before he was happy with the results.

My daughter had been watching and listening to ‘Classical Arts Showcase’ on cable the other day, and I was about to turn the television off when I saw a group of musicians playing a piece by Johann Strauss, standing up, other than the cellos of course, in one of Vienna’s castles. It was obvious that these were not members of the Philharmonic as their playing wasn’t quite as polished and even their conductor wasn’t a familiar face to me. What caught my attention was the impeccable style and phrasing their music-making had. Growing up in the birthplace of great music has its benefits: the heartbeat of the Waltz was perfect, not just correctly played but lived through one’s soul. A bit later the Vienna Philharmonic played, again Strauss. They had a well-known conductor in this New Year’s program, but the musicians chose not to look up as they intimately knew how the music went, better than him.

Mozart is another composer whose music doesn’t require a pre-calculated interpretation, other than agreeing on some basic facts. There is no one ‘correct’ way of playing his music as it lends itself to almost an indefinite number of them, all equally valid. Yet Mozart can be butchered, a common way of hearing his music today. A pianist will do his best to chop the Steinway into logs for the fireplace; a violinist will try to turn a simple passage into a virtuoso showcase. An overly romantic vibrato and unnatural phrasing will easily ridicule the very essence of this glorious music. Instead of the real thing we are likely to hear Mozalt or Mozartsky, with an ethnic twist far removed from Austria. Since many of their idols play in this manner, it is no wonder our youngsters try to imitate this style. We often accept fakes as originals: Chop Suey and Chicken Chow Mein, followed by fortune cookies, are part of our ‘genuine’ Chinese cuisine, and many of our favorite Mexican dishes are purely domestic Tex-Mex and almost unknown south of the border. Not to blame Americans and their ignorance: people have always liked phony ethnic music. Mozart himself wrote numerous ‘Turkish’ pieces, Rimsky’s ‘Indian’ melodies are well known, Puccini became ‘Japanese’ in ‘Madama Butterfly’ and even Kreisler wrote a ‘Tambourin Chinoise.’

In an orchestra it is often refreshing when musicians are handed almost clean parts, with very few markings, and the conductor is able to show with baton what to do, often changing his ways from one performance to another. Nothing is worse than to have this great music dissected to death as this makes inspiration completely disappear, and instead of using one’s eyes for subtle indications, the poor musician is busy trying to decipher all the information penciled in. Mozart and other composers from that era don’t even necessarily need a conductor, as a good soloist is fully capable of indicating what is needed and desired, either from the keyboard or by playing along on the violin. A really first-rate chamber orchestra can play remarkably well together without anyone on the podium, as long as they hear each other and have keen eyes, just like in a string quartet.

Thank goodness Hershey’s never started manufacturing ‘Mozart Kugeln.’ Enough baking experiments exist under the name ‘Sacher Torte’: luckily ‘mit Schlag’ is universal and helps the bites go down.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Time for Bravehearts

People are often known to say and act the opposite of what they think and believe. This is a sign of weakness, as we don’t want to become targets of the anger of someone who is in a position to hurt us, perhaps even destroy our lives. We also seem to need to save our face. In politics this is an everyday fact. Did all the senators and house representatives really believe in the reasons presented for the invasion of Iraq? Surely Colin Powell knew he was fabricating facts when he spoke in the U.N. about the weapons of mass destruction; he is an intelligent person, after all. How can every member of one political party support the same idea, and all in the other oppose it? Why are we not allowed to say what we really think?

It takes a brave person to stick his/her neck out and speak the truth. In the story “Emperor’s New Clothes” it was a child, who hadn’t yet learned to be a coward, who finally spoke up. During the Nazi era most Germans publicly supported the country’s policies, even if in their hearts they might have been appalled by them. During the Cold War, Americans were taught to despise every communist on the globe, most of whom had no choice but to believe in their own political system. Today’s Palestinians automatically hate their Israeli neighbors: the brave ones talking about peace are few and always live in fear for their lives.

Every day we are faced with situations that are less than ideal, often harmful and in a long term destructive. These may be as diverse as the national problem of discrimination, such as in immigration or other ethnic issues, lack of health insurance, or an intolerable atmosphere at the workplace. A person in a position to help remedy the situation may, in a private conversation over coffee or a drink, admit the problem and say that something ought to be done about it urgently, yet contradict himself by giving a very different viewpoint to the media the next day.

People are reluctant to act alone and it takes time to build the momentum needed to act as a unit. Mass demonstrations do happen, and although they seldom bring immediate results, they don’t go unnoticed, and are often effective in the long run. They eventually brought an end to the war in Vietnam, and have resulted in troops being withdrawn from Iraq by many ‘coalition’ countries. In a workplace results can happen faster if the employees have the courage to stick together for a worthy cause. Surely they will be threatened, both individually and collectively, but in the end the employer will realize that the business cannot go on without the willing participation of the workforce. The more specialized the jobs are, the harder it is to replace workers.

We need strong leaders to help us protect our rights and improve our lives, and we need courage to stand up for what we believe is right. Threats are likely to remain empty, if people stay firm and united. It is easy to be a coward and only care about one’s own paycheck, rather than admit that something has to be changed for the benefit of all. But let’s be optimistic: even the Cowardly Lion finally overcame his fears and became brave, saving Dorothy and the magic world of Oz.