Sunday, August 31, 2008

Les-Pieds-Sont-Nous / Feet-R-Us

Late in July I decided to take a couple days off and head up north to our bilingual neighbor Canada with our 15-year-old pride and joy. It had been two years since our last visit to Victoria together and those pleasant memories were still vivid in our minds.

It was obvious that slow economy is affecting life even there. At the height of the tourist season the Victoria Clipper is usually quite full; now the fast and comfortable catamaran was perhaps one-third occupied. Our check-in time at the Chateau Victoria was 3 p.m. but when we arrived with our luggage around 10 to drop them off, we were told that our room was available. Naturally this was an indication that bookings were not at their usual level. A few times I overheard locals telling that this has been the quietest summer they can remember. Yankees usually amount to a majority of visitors to British Columbia, but Canada is no longer as cheap as it used to be and many people here have more urgent financial obligations than taking vacations. We heard German spoken occasionally but bumping into a Québécois happened far more often. As Victoria has a very British feel to the city, it was as if the French were visiting old England again.

Time after time my daughter remarked how nice people were, polite and caring. Canada may not be a paradise as no place is, but it surely seems to have fewer issues than this country. Walking back from a wonderful Japanese dinner, we discovered a needle drop-off receptacle on a utility pole. Sarah had never seen one and I had to quickly explain it to her. She thought it was a remarkable and advanced idea and I wholeheartedly agreed. An I.V. drug user is going to have his/her needles and in this society of ours has to hide the used ones in a pocket. Emergency workers know that this presents a hazard to them as they often have been injured by a sharp tip, leading to potentially terrible infections of AIDS and hepatitis.

For the past two years walking has been a pain for me, literally. My feet are either numb or overly sensitive and most of the time I feel like there are big blisters on the soles or perhaps rocks in my shoes. I have to rely on visual input to know that I am standing upright. Quite a few times I have tried to walk in the dark and taken bad falls; nowadays I remember to first switch on the light first. There in Victoria I was resting on my bed in the hotel and my daughter was snapping her toes, something we used to do together when she was little. I looked at my own toes in sadness because they wouldn’t obey my will and remained stiff. After hours of torturous walking it became clear to me that the medical advice and drugs prescribed by the neurologist weren’t doing me any good and I decided to benefit from logical thinking I’ve been blessed – or cursed – with. After all, I am supposed to be smarter than those doctors and also capable of thinking outside the box.

So, upon returning home I dug deep in all the information I could find on the internet and also studied the anatomy of the feet in great detail. I learned all about tarsal tunnels and other possible trouble spots where nerves could be compressed. For the next days and weeks I have been experimenting with somewhat unorthodox means of reducing my pain and learning what works in my case and what doesn’t. I ended up ordering stuff from Canada and buying the rest locally. Now, a month later I barely have to take my prescriptions for neuralgia. Yes, the feet are still a bit uncomfortable at times but I can cope with that. I can again snap my toes and with ease. There is no single key element to my improvement; much of it indeed has to do with creative thinking. It surprises me how few people are able to do just that, as it is a key element in making successful discoveries in the sciences as well as in interpreting music. In the latter case most musicians just copy something they have heard or been taught and then try to present it as their own, whether they are instrumentalists, singers or conductors. A pedagogue needs to be able to think outside the box as well, as there are often gifted students who don’t fit the mold and the standard approach would fail in their case.

When my wife is able to keep me company, we often descend to the beach below my favorite Discovery Park. It is a 285-foot climb down and obviously the same coming up, on a narrow path with altogether about 450 steps. I couldn’t even think of doing the trek for a long time; now it is a piece of cake as long as I take care of my balance. To facilitate this I purchased a lightweight Komperdell walking staff from Seattle’s wonderful REI. It also turns into a camera monopod should I need to use one. Half way down the path is an area where one often sees snakes, of the harmless garter variety. My wife freaks out upon such an encounter although she has improved in this respect. I keep on reassuring her that on this side of the Cascades there are no native poisonous snakes, although in the past she has had to frequently deal with a venomous Pit Viper, a European import. Perhaps that explains her disgust with slithering creatures.

With my own good medical success comes upsetting news from Finland. My father Veikko Talvi had somehow tried to climb over the rails that are up around his bed for the night. He had fallen onto the floor, breaking his "good" hip and rushed to surgery. I was able to get through to the hospital when he had just come from the operating room. As general anesthesia is often risky at that age (97), the surgery was done using a spinal block. The next few days will be critical. He will be moved away from the hospital to specialized recovery center, in part due to the dangers of MRSA, present in all Finnish hospitals although perhaps not widely as in similar institutions here. Silja, my eldest, is leaving for Finland tomorrow. My dad has managed to fool the Grim Reaper many times; perhaps he’ll be successful this time as well.
Photos: Sarah in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria
Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mostly Finnish Festival

This summer's Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center seems to have a strong Finnish component to it. Osmo Vänskä has returned to conduct the resident orchestra, with a fellow clarinetist Kari Kriikku as soloist. A rare female conductor success, Susanna Mälkki, conducted the visiting City of Birmingham Orchestra from England and received an excellent review in the NY Times. There was music by Kaija Saariaho for the cello soloist Anssi Karttunen, yet another Finn.

As proud as I am of my countrymen, I need to correct the misconception of my native country being some kind of classical music heaven, a European Venezuela. Yes, more Finnish artists have reached international status, but in the country itself the number of young people interested in studying classical music is down, particularly true for string instruments and voice. Conservatories and similar music schools are reluctant to fill open vacancies because they notice this downward trend and fear there are not enough students to offer full-time faculty members. They feel safer by hiring people on hourly basis, sort of like the tendency here to prefer having adjunct professors instead of those on a tenure track.

Mostly Mozart has experienced an amazing second life after almost ceasing to exist in 2002. Much credit must be given to the festival's resident conductor Louis Langrée, a Frenchman who has been more successful in the United States than his home. Granted, he hardly is an unknown in Europe where he has conducted in numerous opera houses, often with period instrument orchestras; however, one would not call him exactly a household name. But chemistry between New Yorkers and Langrée has obviously worked well, with both audiences and musicians. Good reviews in the NY Times, just about the only newspaper where this matters, haven't been in short supply either. The festival, whose concerts used to be as exciting as a dinner at Denny's, has all of sudden added more exotic flavors to its menu, serving meat loaf only on occasion.

It is interesting how few musicians reach the top in their home countries. To paraphrase an old saying, nobody is a prophet in his own land. Most Finnish orchestras, for example, have principal conductors or artistic directors that are generally second-tier. I'm avoiding the usage of "music director' as such a position as we know it doesn't really exist there. People come and go, as they should. Since local and state governments more or less foot the bill, the decisions take place in the political machine. This has the obvious healthy advantage that a filthy rich donor doesn't get to dictate how an organization is run. At least in my country monetary donations to an orchestra are unheard of. Everybody becomes a "donor" by paying taxes. Of course not all appointed politicians understand music or other forms of art, but they usually listen to experts in the field, the working artists and public opinion.

So, in order to reach the top tier, Finnish musicians have for a long time moved to other countries, usually starting out elsewhere in Scandinavia and then moving onto the United Kingdom and Germany. Some have ended up in faraway Iceland and fairly distant Spain. Kaija Saariaho is more French than Finnish at the moment. In the least twenty years or so, an increasing number have landed in the New World. Jukka-Pekka Saraste was in Toronto; Esa-Pekka Salonen is wrapping up his fruitful years in Los Angeles and moving to London. Osmo Vänskä, whom I remember as a clarinetist, developed a name for himself with the small Lahti orchestra and ended up in charge in Minneapolis. Of the three, Salonen has left a lasting legacy, not only by improving the orchestra but also getting Los Angeles to build the fabulous Disney Hall. I have a suspicion that he let the architect and acousticians with good hearing take care of the design and didn't insist on his own ideas. Interestingly, Saraste's tenure in Toronto came to an abrupt end as the orchestra's finances took a nosedive, partially because his programming alienated listeners. Vänskä has been praised in the media, although privately there have been a number of complaints. Still, it was somewhat of a shock to learn that the ensemble had to cancel an outdoor concert due to lack of funds and let it be known that they expect this upcoming season to be financially difficult to pull off. Minnesota is full of Scandinavian descendants, and donating to non-humanitarian causes is not part of that background. But perhaps this has more to do with the sad shape our country's economy is in. Although there seems to be some form of self-censorship in place here, reluctance to let people learn about unpleasant facts, European media seems to think that we are in really deep do-do. At the same time they admit that matters at home are not any better, but at least they seem honest about it.

The last recession we had in the early 1990s resulted in increased burglaries and all forms of petty theft and shoplifting. We suffered our own losses then, too. Cars were broken into and the bolts on the mag wheels on my VW GTI were loosened before the would-be thief was disturbed. Even our little daughter's jogging stroller disappeared one night, along with bicycles whose locking cables were cut. I have been waiting for this behavior to reappear and sure enough yesterday morning my wife discovered that both cars were broken into by smashing front side windows. Two GPS devices were stolen, not much joy to the thieves because of electronic locking. But it came to about $2k in damages and naturally the insurance company is trying to avoid paying for much of it. It is a business that likes to take your money but not return it. This time the thieves managed to part with only one bike as the new cables are too tough to break. It was a rainy night and although my car's horn alarm must have gone off, we couldn't hear it from the storm. We suspect our street has been worked on by the same gang for weeks since many of the neighbors have a similar recent story to tell. Unless this was an act of orchestral terrorism, reportedly rampant in Seattle, this is an omen of very troubled times ahead.

In photos: Mälkki, Vänskä, Kriikku, Karttunen
CTS and Eurovan vandalized

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

News on the Thirteenth

Today is the 13th and as usual, I’m curious on this “unlucky” day to read the news. In my case it means the New York Times, unless I find the time to visit online publications and other sources.

Russia’s czar Vladimir Putin has decided to teach little Georgia a lesson and has ordered an attack on the country, causing countless deaths and injuries. One would have thought that he had more respect for the home of his idol from the past, Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known to us as Josef Stalin. Georgia’s friends in the West have been watching the bloodbath and destruction helplessly. American opinion has no clout after our invasion of Iraq and the plummeting dollar. Our verbal protests carry as much weight as, let’s say, Argentina’s. Even if we wanted to help Georgia militarily, we simply don’t have the resources. Sometimes I wonder what prevents the Mexican army from crossing the border and taking back what was once theirs, from Texas to California. At present we probably couldn’t stop them unless we withdrew our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan in a hurry.

There is a horrifying story on the front page of the Times about the imprisonment of an Indo-Chinese-born but very American man who at some point in the 1990s overstayed his visa. Married to a U.S. citizen, he was applying for a green card when he was arrested and jailed for this “crime”. Never mind that Mr. Ng was a computer engineer in the Empire State Building and had two young American-born sons, in addition to his wife. A few months back he started complaining about excruciating back pain but the detention center officials just accused him for faking his illness and refused medical help. Pleas for a wheelchair were laughed at. He was taken shackled for a purposeless long car ride just to prove he was "well". Finally a judge ordered him to be medically evaluated in a hospital and a MRI discovered a cancer that had spread throughout his body and a fractured spine. He died five days later, with a guard at his side to prevent him from escaping. In my view of justice the people refusing his cries for help should be tried for murder and torture, but knowing how law works in this country, they will at the most receive a slap on a wrist. After all, we can sleep better now that this dangerous individual no longer lives among us.

So, the Chinese managed to fool us all with the cute and pretty nine-year-old Lin Miaoke singing at the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The real voice belonged to an even younger 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who wasn’t judged as visually appealing as young Miss Lin. So, even in this Communist-Capitalist country it is the eye-candy factor that matters the most. The truth managed to leak and the officials behind this lip-syncing farce rushed to explain that the reason was for “national interest”. The Chinese are learning the American ways with astonishing speed. In our country it is essential that a performer falls into the eye-candy category these days, never mind the skill. I first became aware of this a long time ago in an orchestra setup. A youngish female string player had exhibitionist tendencies and dressed up accordingly for concerts, in spite of an agreed dress code. I asked the conductor about this and he just remarked that the female in question was “so sexy” and asked if I had noticed her stiletto heel shoes. I just shrugged and remarked that I didn't have a foot fetish; perhaps I didn’t know what I was missing. Today we wouldn’t hear the violin playing of a Ginette Neveu, Erica Morini or Ida Händel as none of these great instrumentalists would have fit the required mold. Seeing them in semi-nude pictures, as is today’s style, would have turned audiences and buyers of recordings away for good. Perhaps we could have a string player’s version of lip syncing, let’s call it bow syncing, and have a visual crowd pleaser with a silent instrument “playing” to the music-making of a hidden master.

To top today’s good news, one mustn’t skip the article about people either getting married or divorced, not because of love or lack of it but to gain access to health insurance. It never ceases to astonish me how the U.S. is the only “civilized” country that doesn’t take care of its people’s basic needs. We spend more money per capita than anyone on health care but have little to show for that. Even in poor Latin America adequate health care costs a fraction of ours and is available even if the patient has a pre-existing medical condition.

There is one other disturbing art-related article in the NYT which I might visit later on. In the meantime, enjoy the Olympic Games and the fact that American news media has decided to count all medals where the U.S. leads as of now with 29 to the host country’s 27 in totals. The golden ones are the only ones that matter to the Chinese and this is where the count is 17-10 in their favor. Had the results been reversed, I’m sure our media would have used the gold medals as basis for being the “best”. As usual, the mission has been accomplished and we should feel pleased.
Lin Miaoke (top), Yang Peiyi

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Hardly Haydn and Summer Snow

Back home in Finland our planet's global warming has taken strange forms. This last winter snow didn't really arrive until March which is when it should normally start melting. Then summer took forever to arrive, June and half of July being much colder than usual. Yesterday my brother wrote that "summer" has lasted a week and a half. That day they had a severe thunderstorm which brought four inches of snow plus hail over an inch in diameter near his house, some twenty-five miles from the Gulf of Finland. Clearly Mother Nature is either angry or confused. Never in my life had I seen snow fall in the summer, early in May perhaps and again in October. On my birthday 10-22 we would often get our first snow showers but only a couple times would the white magical stuff remain on the ground until the spring.

The Finnish media, while sympathizing with people on vacation (people get a minimum of a month off, fully paid of course), tells about the bright side of this all. The country has an enormous number of festivals of all kinds occurring during the summer and, due to the cold weather, attendance has been at an all-time high. It is difficult to spot a town, no matter how little, where one can't find a "Festival". I had built a house in the small township of Noormarkku, near Pori. The tiny town is famous for its architectural masterpiece "Villa Mairea", designed by Alvar Aalto. This summer they created an opera festival, presenting a new work, "Vierivä kivi" or "Rolling Stone", about the town's past and its industrial strongman Antti Ahlström. Pori itself has an annual jazz festival which had 66,000 paid listeners and 97,000 attending free concerts this summer, surpassing the most optimistic forecasts. The total number of people present just about equaled twice the city's population! Even the small township of Iitti, where my family's summer home is located, manages to have a music festival with both Finnish and foreign artists.

Having taken part in more festival performances than I can count, I have mixed feelings about them. Throughout the fall-to-spring season the same featured artists often appear in front of semi-empty halls, playing compositions they have worked on for a long time to perfect. Then summer and the festival season arrive. Audiences are duped into believing that they are about to experience something incredible when in fact they are listening to performances that have barely been rehearsed, often played by people who don't regularly work together. Of course a capable musician can wing it, especially if the piece is well-known. However, why would, for example, a string quartet spend every day rehearsing in order to find a uniform style and interpretation, if four string players thrown together could produce a performance of similar level after one, or at the most, two quick rehearsals? What about a pick-up orchestra performing a full two-hour program having had the time to barely read through the works and then managing a dress rehearsal, a run-through? It takes a gifted and inspiring person on the podium to make these often very average musicians surpass their normal limits.

So, people in the audience must in most cases be convincing themselves that these performances are great; otherwise they wouldn't be part of a "Festival". This is the same mentality that makes people pay $50 for a bottle of water, or spend fortunes on art "masterpieces" on a fancy cruise ship, just to find out after returning home that the paintings or prints purchased are worth only a fraction of their "bargain" price. It wouldn't surprise me to see a crooked violin dealer peddling his wares on a Carnival or Royal Caribbean vessel next.

Festivals are given catchy names, such as "Hardly Haydn", "Barely Bach" or "Endlessly Elgar". I remember taking part in one in Gotham City which stays in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, I had never met a group that despised their boss as much, and eventually managed to get rid of him. Secondly, a respected European guest conductor got completely and hopelessly lost in a performance of a slightly tricky baroque overture that he hadn't bothered to study. Then there were festivals on two continents carrying the name of J.S. Bach where everyone simply revered their leader, not because he was a great orchestral conductor but because he was literally inhaling and exhaling the great composer's musical ideas and knew every phrase inside out. As long as he pursued Johann Sebastian's music, each performance was electrifying. This wasn't quite the case with the accompaniment to the Mendelssohn violin concerto, however.

Perhaps we ought to discontinue ordinary in-season concerts and recitals, and simply rename everything a festival. Whatever it takes, organizations will be desperate to fill their emptying halls and meet payrolls during this time of economic depression. Perhaps we can fool the folks for a while longer and make them believe that the $50 bottle of water is really incredible. Better yet, fill those bottles with H2O from tap and sell it for the high price. That should about equal an "instant art" performance: just add water and mix.