Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Carbonized Santa

As Santa Claus well knows, carbon is an amazing element. It comes in more than handy when he has had to decide what to bring a person who has been naughty and bad, and also what to give an exceptionally good big boy or girl. Rumors are that this year there has been a shortage of coal in the Pacific Northwest and some have just received a pile of soot. The latter of course could come in handy for someone into constructing nanotubes, but I don't think these folks have the slightest idea what those are. At the other extreme carbon forms diamonds and I know a few good people who surely got those. Even in the ugliest situation there often is a diamond in the rough, a sparkle from an individual whose integrity isn't poisoned by the snakes around him or her trying to spread venom with their fangs. Santa also has to come up with a solution for what to give people who don't really fit in either category. Perhaps graphite, yet another form of carbon, in the form of an ordinary pencil would be a fair gift for those, good to have in certain occupations. For Santa's sake I hope his own coal mine deposits aren't running dry.

I don't envy the task Santa has had, finding out about people. Does he read about people in the papers, and if so, in which ones? One's villain seems to be another's hero. But we are used to this kind of controversy. After this country attacked and invaded Iraq, we heard all about fantastic victories and learned that the people were rushing to embrace us. The viewership of Fox News reached an all-time high. "Mission accomplished" our President touted long ago. Of course, people are free to believe the news that makes them feel good and in many ways superior to other ethnicities and cultures. Today we don't hear talk about victory and the main topic seems to be how to get out of Iraq alive and not look like our military might was no match to Muslim militants. I don't watch Fox News so I don't know what they tell their viewers these days. Perhaps Santa used up so much of his coal supply in the nation's capital that Seattle was stuck with mainly soot. I don't think his supply of diamonds was greatly diminished in the District of Columbia, unless some good ordinary people and humanitarians were worthy of them.

Yes, the mainstream news outlets tend to offer their slant on stories. Even a total outsider, a lonely blogger like me, receives questions from strangers wondering why their letters to the editor of a paper aren't published, yet others promoting a different view are. Naturally I am at a loss for words and have to let people come to their own conclusion that propaganda is at work. Long gone are the days when one could actually trust the media. During my first years in the U.S., at the height of the Vietnam War, our brave military managed to slaughter their enemy in numbers that were greater than the entire population of North Vietnam, if one bothered to tally the misleading information on the major networks. At some point even the most optimistic people started to ask questions. This snowballed to the extent that forced Nixon out of the Oval Office. Recently we learned about one last desperate plan of his to nuke Hanoi, but thank goodness that plan didn't materialize any more than Hitler's orders to burn Paris to the ground.

Threatening burnt ground policy is a tactic certain people use to keep themselves in power. "If you destroy me, you'll be destroyed in the process as well." In the world of music we have witnessed this repeatedly. Festivals and orchestras I used to be part of have either gone belly up or managed to struggle back to life after a miserable year or two. This phenomenon is of course universal. A city in Finland had a troubled time with their small Symphony and its conductor that lasted many years. Finally the baton-wielder, a former student of mine, agreed to the termination of his contract for a sizable sum but before exiting he, together with the orchestra's manager who also resigned, managed to spend every penny of the group's annual budget by the end of May. As musicians are employees of the city, their salaries had to be paid, but the group had no funds to program concerts. Paying for hall rental, soloists etc. can be quite costly, and the few performances that took place during the fall were all donated services by the conductors and guest soloists; ticket sales barely covered the rent. During all this the local newspaper took the side of the conductor, portraying the angry, unhappy musicians as only a "small clique." When the orchestra was back on its feet with a new budget year, much of their audience had been frightened away. This is the first year when they have been returning in previous numbers, as memory of the battle has finally begun to fade. Of course there is a moral to this story, but repeating it might be pointless. People are supposed to learn from mistakes, yet they make the same ones over and over again.

The New Year is just around the corner. Many of us are eagerly waiting for it to begin. At least we have some term limits for politicians, and a long nightmare will come to an end. I don't think people really care who'll win the election as for most any change will be for the better. We should have such term limits for other politicians as well and probably also for members of other important institutions such as the Supreme Court. When that court voted strictly on party lines 5-4 to hand the 2000 election to our present leader, any naive belief in an unbiased court collapsed. There are people in both houses of the Congress who have far outlived their usefulness, no matter how hard they've tried to please their constituents over the decades. Perhaps they would have better served us all in other roles, such as the inspiring example on "the Peanut President", Jimmy Carter, demonstrates. Hanging on forever prevents new blood and new ideas from emerging. We can also hope for other changes in 2008 that would be regarded as welcomed miracles.

For those of you who received a lump of coal from Santa, you can always try to invest in turning it into a synthetic diamond, under High Temperature High Pressure (HTHP) method. However, it would be much cheaper and easier to go purchase a large glittering cubic zirconia, an affordable choice, and pretend the jolly man in the red suit brought it in the first place. For most people it makes little or no difference as long as it glitters, just as fool's gold is good as gold for – fools. Ho-ho-ho!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Musical Podiums

A lot of changes are taking place in the world of orchestras and their maestros these days. By far the hottest name on the scene is Gustavo Dudamel who'll be taking over the Los Angeles Philharmonic post after an unusually long tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who in turn is going to London. I feel almost sorry for Mr. Dudamel. His every move, on- and offstage, has been dissected, especially during his recent New York debuts, both with his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Reading the New York Times, I couldn't help but get the impression that the folks in Manhattan are trying to convince their audience members and donors that the choice of Alan Gilbert as their new Music Director was the right one. Is it possible that they are kicking themselves for not acting fast enough regarding Mr. Dudamel? He in my humble opinion will feel more at home in the heavily Hispanic Los Angeles area.

Reports from Sweden have been generally positive regarding Mr. Gilbert in Stockholm. However, it is interesting that the offer to return home to New York came at a golden moment for Mr. Gilbert as the Swedish orchestra was ready to replace him after eight years, with another countryman of mine, Sakari Oramo. In spite of the fact that Mr. Gilbert had married an orchestra member and started a family with her, the orchestra decided eight years with a conductor was long enough. In that sense they didn't feel any loss for his departure. While I have no doubts about his musicality and great rapport with musicians, Alan Gilbert is not generally considered a thrilling musician, although a capable one. Time will tell how the marriage in New York works out. The denizens of that city are blessed to have so many visiting orchestras appear regularly; their own band doesn't really enjoy star status in their home turf. Also, it has been a long time since the New York Philharmonic has had an exciting music director, so they aren't even aware of what they might be missing.

Detroit will finally hire a new maestro in Leonard Slatkin whose position in the nation's capital will thus become vacant. The (former?) automobile capital of the world is at last getting someone for a job that has been vacant since Neeme Järvi, the Estonian Soviet-trained conductor, left for embattled New Jersey Symphony, best known for their tragic foray into the world of old Italian instruments . The Detroit folks must have felt that there were no qualified candidates in the U.S. or they would have filled the vacancy in 2005. With the value of the dollar plummeting, it is not as easy as before to hire a European or another foreigner, without breaking the budget. A European conductor (that goes for a soloist as well) has little sympathy for American currency nose-diving: they and their agents want to be paid the same as before, which is bad news here. There was a sad article in a recent New York Times about Americans living abroad, many of them retirees on fixed income, who all of a sudden find themselves poor. A fashion executive living in Paris was quoted as saying a beggar girl in Morocco had turned down a dollar bill, claiming it was worth nothing and demanding more.

The Cleveland Orchestra extended the contract of Franz Welser-Möst to a total of twelve years, not necessarily to everyone's liking as this link shows. Personally, I don't understand why anyone would want to settle in Cleveland. Yes, the orchestra is first-rate but the city itself hardly qualifies as such. They do get a lot of lake snow, so perhaps a Scandinavian wouldn't mind the climate; it would be nice to have a vibrant downtown, however, something any European is accustomed to.

My home town's opera company staged a coup of sorts by naming Asher Fisch as their principal guest conductor. Not only does the city gain a world class conductor for the opera's performances, but having a pleasant Israeli on board will certainly not hurt with fundraising efforts among the local Jewish philanthropists. Mr. Fisch was the first artist to make my wife appreciate Wagner, no small achievement. The company must feel financially secure as they rumored to be interested in the property next to the McCaw Hall, for their offices and other necessary space, at a budget of some $40 million. Surely having the help of Mr. Fisch will come in handy if this idea materializes.

As in every field, people involved in classical music come in a wide variety of character traits. Some are intelligent, knowledgable in other areas, too, but so many are uneducated and even illiterate. People skills are not necessarily their forte. I just received an eloquent email from one of my very favorite writers of music, Norman Lebrecht. With his permission I'm quoting a paragraph of it, in reference to a beloved European maestro:

"The best conductors never allow an ugly personnel situation to arise, always stepping in and dealing with issues personally and face-to-face. When human issues combust, I tend to suspect maestro failure. If you have the privilege of leadership, it carries with it certain responsibilities towards those who are led."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Corruption and Music

It is no secret that power corrupts. People in charge like to visualize themselves as irreplaceable. A good example of this is in Russia, a country that has never experienced true democracy. Many wondered what would happen to Vladimir Putin as his constitutional options as the president were coming to an end. Of course I never expected him to retire and was somewhat astonished by the Western media being surprised by him continuing as prime minister. That position now all of a sudden has become more important than before. During the glory days of the Soviet Union he would have comfortably remained as the head of the Politburo, but that of course for the time being isn't possible as such an institution disappeared with the final breakup of the empire in 1991. The Russians have always had a Czar (a Slavic word for Caesar), in one form of another; today his name is Putin. Lenin's first name was also Vladimir; Putin sounds just like Rasputin.

Today's most corrupt nations are probably found in Africa. The BBC recently told about corruption in Cameroon, a potentially oil-rich neighbor of Nigeria. Cameroon has had the same president, Paul Biya, for 25 years and there is serious talk about changing the country's constitution again to allow him to continue. The country ranks as number 138 out of 168 countries in the corruption index and according to the BBC story, 79% of Cameroonians have paid a bribe in the last year. As public criticism in the media is quite out of question, the people have chosen a different method of outcry: music, in the form of song and dance. Just about everyone in the country knows the lyrics to anti-corruption songs. Two famed musicians Lapiro and Longue Longue (doesn't that sound like the Chinese pianist Lang Lang?) have spearheaded this revolt and their star status gives them the kind of immunity a reporter for the media can only dream of. Perhaps encouraged by this, protest songs have been spreading in other suffering African countries, such as Sierra Leone.

Although my native Finland ranks today as the world's least corrupt country, it hasn't always been so. In the 1956 presidential election, one of the chosen electors for Karl-August Fagerholm secretly sold his vote to Urho Kekkonen in an extremely tight race, thus changing the course of history. Kekkonen, a former propaganda activist during the wars between Finland and the Soviet Union, seemingly had the support of the country's mighty neighbor, and a deal was secretly made with someone who 'sold his soul to the devil'. Kekkonen loved his powerful position and special friendship with the Soviets. Later research has shown that the KGB actually used him as an informant. A shrewd politician, he had a special law passed after his constitutional six-year terms were over, so that he could again be the candidate 'for the county's best interests'. After that term was over, he was again a candidate, this time as a new one, as the previous six years 'didn't count'. Finally, during that last term he had to leave office, after 25 years, as Alzheimer's had set in and Mr. Kekkonen no longer could function in that powerful role. The country slowly got wiser and today the president is elected by popular vote, although at the same time power-hungry politicians want to change the role of the President to a ceremonial one. Once Kekkonen was gone, Finland started moving forward rapidly and was no longer a rubber stamp for the Russians. Change is necessary as my countrymen finally understood. Perhaps they had done so all along but were afraid to speak up.

Another unusual music-related story was in the news recently, this time closer to home. A trumpet player had been found brutally murdered, a third musician to meet his end this way in a week's time in Mexico. Either our southern neighbors take their musical affairs more seriously than we do, or this is just the way they handle problems in their lives. As Latino gangs are growing more powerful here, not to mention the Russian mafia, perhaps terrible events like this will become more commonplace here as well.

Since this story turned to crime, there is room for the punishment portion as well. I just learned that there is an all-women prisoner orchestra in Alaska, at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. It is unique in the United States and sounds like a wonderful program. I can see it working well for women; men in a similar setup would probably attack each other in no time with bloody results. All in the name of music.

Cameroon dances to anti-graft beat
photo © BBC 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Some three years plus a few months ago I returned home from the hospital and was recuperating after surgery, under less-than-ideal conditions. Yes, I knew the big lump in my back was gone and that I would finally be able to play again. But the joy of this was dimmed by ugly articles in the local news media, placed there intentionally by evil people. I kept on telling myself that this was nothing but a test. The character of Satan is interpreted differently in our various monotheistic religions. Many Christians see him identical to the Devil, yet in parts of the Old Testament he is God's servant, sent here to test our strength of belief, to tempt us. It would have been easy to put a face, or a few, on my personal Satan, but deep inside I knew everything was meant to be and at the end it all would turn out for the best. I even came up with the "Law of Talvion", a modified version of the oldest law in the books, the talion, or "eye for an eye".

Unrelated chronic pain keeps me often awake at night for hours at a time. I have often used this as an opportunity to contribute to this blog. Lately, as many of my readers have noticed, I have been less active. I do write, but much of it is in my native tongue, some ending up as long emails or perhaps comments on a Finnish website, the rest being filed away. There are too many writers in the family: my wife has been busy with her memoir (she is quite a talent), and last month belonged to my daughter Silja Talvi and her fabulous first book, "Women Behind Bars". Yes, I shall come back to this hobby; after all writing in my own language feels almost too easy, although there is a certain joy in being able to express oneself effortlessly and with finesse. Instead of trying to run away from pain by getting up and attacking the keyboard, I have managed to escape to deep thoughts, to a world where there are no discomforts. Many questions have found their answers this way, even if they are not all pretty. People don't live happily ever after and the world is not often a nice place.

Since this is a festival season, I've spent a fair amount of time analyzing different religions, what they represent and how the people belonging to these faiths live their lives. One easy conclusion is that most congregations are run like clubs or social circuits. Faith and desire to improve the world and help the less fortunate couldn't be farther away from minds of these people. It was at first painful to realize that the little local Lutheran congregation my countrymen have here in town decided to disown me as soon as they read some of the nasty stuff printed locally. No more begging to play for their Xmas morning services, something I always had a hard time turning down as I thought it really meant something for these folks. Based on their dwindling numbers they may be doomed; at least I won't feel sorry if the ship sinks. And, as a benefit, I have a rare free morning!

That fall I played Kol Nidrei at a synagogue which operates on two locations, and did so beautifully and from the bottom of heart, as my two daughters present will always remember. The other location had an amateur child of a "society floater" perform. Guess who was written about at length in the local paper and whose name was omitted? At least my daughter is honored as the president of her university's Hillel and she is doing great work. Most Jewish congregations seem to fit the prototype of a club, or they belong with the loonies, living in Stone Age. Don't get me even started on the corrupt megachurches. Aside from Mormons and other secret societies, there are a number of truly decent independent organizations that serve their members well, yet don't really welcome strangers, and the largest donor usually decides how the congregation operates.

There is an exception, the mighty Catholic Church, where a wealthy individual still is a small fish in a pond and is more or less equal with everyone else. The church has been in the teeth of the public because of past sex scandals. We'll never know how many of the victims are truly such, as these cases have been settled quietly. I would claim that there have far more predators on the loose in the school system, and some of the most vocal popular leaders of other faith movements have been found guilty of terrible sins. As an institution, the Catholic Church has, for a long time, taken the side of the poor and unfortunate in parts of the world where no other power could stand up against the repressive governments and military juntas. They have often been the only ray of hope for many. Obviously I wasn't raised as one of them, yet the church here has been the most welcoming of them all, and has offered powerful healing experiences when I have had the honor of being part of their first rate music making. Yes, I have my issues with some of their ways and traditions, but that doesn't prevent me from appreciating being made feel at home. If I were young and searching, I would give it serious thought, together with a peaceful Eastern philosophy.

So, today I consider myself healed and back on my feet, surrounded by good people who like what I do and how I do it. Perhaps it is fate, or "luck", if those two terms are that different. I like to think of it as a blessing. It is interesting how different cultures wish each other success. In my native Finland we give an onnenpotku, a gentle kick of luck. The French have their merde, and in this country we tell someone to break a leg. Some people may have experienced both of the latter literally, perhaps deservingly. Even with my high I.Q., supposedly surpassing that of Einstein's, I'm not smart enough to answer that. Some things are best left alone.

"The Eighth Night of Hanukkah"
by Ilkka Talvi © 2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

90 and going strong

At the end of the First World War, and following the unrest in her occupier for little over a hundred years, Russia, Finland decided to declare independence on December 6, 1917. Ironically, Lenin was one of the first foreign leaders to acknowledge this brave step by my forefathers. His motives were not very noble though, as he was sure that a socialist revolution would soon take place and Finland would thus join the empire of the upcoming Soviet Union. This did not happen, although a terrible civil war followed and Lenin openly supported the"Reds". For the Finns, this was a bloody struggle between those who believed in the idea of social equality and thus socialism (which included the milder Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists) and the farmers, other conservatives and those who sensed a danger in the new, untested labor movement. The country was divided geographically; the bigger cities in the south were in the hands of the Reds and everything further north belonged to the Whites. Often a brother was fighting against another, and had it not been for the unpopular Russian, or Soviet, interference on the Red side, perhaps the civil war would have had a different outcome. At the end, the Red side collapsed after fierce fighting and a large number of 'enemies' were put in prison camps, soon to be freed as the young nation couldn't afford to keep such a large part of its population locked up and in miserable conditions. My grandfather was a socialist (not a communist) but at the time he was living well beyond the war front under peaceful conditions and my father was starting first grade far from the unrest. One brother was not so lucky and ended in one of these camps. My grandfather, working for the Finnish Railways, used his free travel privilege to take food and clothing regularly to his brother.

Finland was to have a king, just like all its Scandinavian neighbors. A German prince was elected as such, but in no time the Finns decided that a democratic republic with a president was a better solution for them. The first decades were not easy and the wounds from the civil war were still deep. Only after Stalin and his Soviet Union started to openly threaten and bully Finland, the people managed to unite and fought bravely against the Russians in the Winter War and the following Continuation War. Although they ended up having to give up large areas of land in Karelia and Finland's access to the Arctic Ocean in the north, Finland remained the only 'new' nation which was able to keep her independence after WW II. The country was barely 30 years old when I was born, poor but determined to make it. I remember looking at statistics at an early age and realizing how much more advanced and better off our neighbors were, not to mention a place like the United States. The gap seemed impossible to overcome. Yet today the little country is managing with the best of them and in many ways is among the very top. From having a wood product based industry in my childhood the country has branched out to other areas such electronics (Nokia etc). Just yesterday I read how Finland competes with South Korea for the top spot as the world's best education system. Honesty and literacy are on the very top, and corruption is on the bottom of the list, as is infant mortality. Finland also produces an incredible number of top-rate musicians for its small population of 5.2 million.

When my country celebrated her 50th anniversary, I was a teenager in Los Angeles, studying with Heifetz. The orchestra in Burbank had a special concert honoring the anniversary and I played the Sibelius Humoresques with them, a group of rather unusual pieces, the great composer's only other works for violin and orchestra besides the famed concerto. More freshly in my mind is the diplomatic reception which I think took place in the same hotel ballroom where Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months later. Although I was a featured artist, people were busy drinking their cocktails and obviously had enjoyed a few before my turn came. The room did not have a grand piano but a large Steinway upright (or vertical). In the middle of one of my selections, I managed to hit my hand on the piano and my bow fell and slid right underneath the heavy instrument. A piano like that is very close to the floor and I was on my knees trying to fetch my bow. But in addition to my being in this ridiculous position, my pianist and his page turner were on their knees as well. Finally one of us managed to get hold of the stick and as if nothing had happened, we continued playing. As said, people were quite plastered and didn't see anything odd having taken place; perhaps they thought it was all part of the act. Every December 6th I relive this memory.

While I'm proud of my country's success, I also maintain that in many ways people were better off when life wasn't so easy. One had to work hard and in spite of very limited free time, people used it very wisely and efficiently. Everyone was physically fit and many Finnish athletes were legendary, especially in long distance running and skiing where speed was less important than being able to remain strong and tough. I often feel that seeing the poverty of my young years and people succeeding against all odds has been one of the greatest gifts in my life. Just to think that only two or three classmates during my first school years had a telephone (our number had three digits, 237) tells me how different life was, yet I have mainly pleasant memories. My childhood best friend was very poor and when I had my one and only birthday party at seven, his mother sent him over with a flower she had cut, instead of a gift. Strangely, that was more meaningful to me than other presents and the only one I can still remember.

Here's a toast to the little country that could!