Saturday, January 31, 2009

No Prodigies

It has been interesting to work and spend time in my onetime home city of Pori, Finland. During my early to mid twenties I lived in nearby Noormarkku, of Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea fame, for five years, teaching, playing and raising my first family. I even had a splendid house built there. Already then I had this curse following me as another incompetent conductor had my first wife fired from the concertmaster position on a technicality and made sure that the teaching position, which I held at what later became the Palmgren Conservatory, was eliminated. Of course, it didn’t take long for the conductor to lose his own job and he recently retired from his post as the head of a small local music school some 40 miles away.

I visited this place two years ago and liked what I saw. As a result I was invited to hold master classes and play a recital in this province’s String Festival. There are still former students of mine in the area playing in the orchestra and teaching. It was nice to see so many of them at my concert. Another eight hours of teaching tomorrow and then I’m free to visit my late uncle’s widow, and after that my elderly father, some 200 miles to the east from here. Observations so far: 1. I really don’t like flying although I traveled Business Class and overnighted at Heathrow. 2. Halcion gives a good night’s sleep unlike Ambien which wakes one up after about five hours but it also playing tricks on one’s memory. 3. Tuning to an A at 443 or higher is enough to make music sound strange if one has perfect pitch. I play fine but can’t really tell what notes I’m producing.

Today I listened to almost 40 young instrumentalists perform and gave them both verbal and written feedback. A distinguished Finnish cellist, Raimo Sariola, was there, too, so we both took part in the long day. Tomorrow he’ll present his class and I’ll offer mine. It turns out that we both traveled to Warsaw as representatives of the Sibelius Academy in 1972. He was the only student in the group and I was faculty, although we are about the same age. Now he is a passionate pedagogue in great demand.

Of course I was most curious of the level of the young musicians which started at under the age of ten and continued up to their 20s. Among the older ones there were some amazing young artists in both the violin and cello. The younger ones were all gifted but compared to the American scene, the child prodigies and the stage parents that come with them are totally missing. They simply don’t exist in this system. Yet these youngsters will turn into fine young artists when the spoon-fed American Wunderkinder are ready to pack their instruments for the last time. I think this way is far healthier.

The Finns are great educators and the proof is in the pudding. In regular school achievement Finland competes with South Korea for the #1 spot, yet the methods couldn’t be any dissimilar. While the Korean system practically tortures their children with insanely long days and special classes after school, the Finnish children live a very Western free life. Teaching as a profession is highly regarded and failing schools don’t exist. It is said that the test score difference between the “best” and the “worst” schools is somewhere between 2 and 4 percent, in other words almost nonexistent. Schools are usually small, perhaps 400-500 students, and issues therefore are more manageable. If there is a problem, parents are invited to the schools to discuss the issue immediately and if help, from the social services for example, is needed, the school will take care of the matter, and successfully. I'm not trying to insist that this society is all healthy and perfect, as a couple terrible school shootings in recent years have proven otherwise.

So, these kids may not be trained monkeys sawing away on their Khachaturian concerto at breakneck speed, but they have incredible raw talent and I have no doubt that in a few years their level will have surpassed the other. And since they have pursued the studying from their own desire to learn, they also are able to read music with total fluency. The Finnish system provides not only affordable private lessons but throws in mandatory theory classes and various ensembles. Sadly, the great Hollywood import American Idol has influenced the Finns and they now have their own version of it. More and more people prefer instant stardom rather than working diligently for year and years. Interest in classical music has declined here, too, but it certainly isn’t in a dangerous territory yet. I wish America could export other values than Hollywood images with car chases and endless shooting scenes, or American style investing and consumerism, collapse of which has had a negative impact even this far. We have a great country but don’t often understand its real worth.

Dear Mr. Obama, please make us a proud nation again. It has been such a long time.

Oh, I almost forgot, walking on crunchy snow feels great. No blizzards this time!

Old Pori:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Berlin noch einmal

Between fighting the nastiest cold in years, and teaching, playing and getting prepared for an overseas recital, I have tried to find time to enjoy my subscription to the Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall. The benefits of viewing a great orchestra perform as if I were sitting in the middle of the group are many, although some of the observations haven't been all positive. Firstly, due to the distance and the nature of the internet, connections are not always working ideally. This should not come as a surprise to anyone using one of the numerous VoIP services: sometimes the calls are as good or better than over regular landlines, but at other times there are annoying interruptions. For the most part this hasn't been a major issue. Seeing musicians at work from a close distance is revealing. Some string players seem to play over the fingerboard, thus not contributing much to the orchestra's sound. Who would have guessed that at least two of the trombones and a French horn use instruments which at a first glance look like they came from the Salvation Army, certainly not shining the way everything is supposed to do in America? On closer inspection one, of course, notices that these instruments are a labor of love in the true sense of the word, hand-forged by a master maker. Unlike violins among an American collector's treasures, not even the string instruments have to shine as if they came from Sears. Many of them actually look the way a well-used violin or other string instrument should and would have, before the annoying habit of making everything gleam and glitter as if they were right out of a factory, finished off with glass-like hard layer of French polish.

As Germany today has over 130 professional orchestras, it is obvious that classical music is still serious business over there. In comparison, the United States should have over 460 such orchestras, following the same orchestra/population ratio. That obviously is hardly the case, and fundamentally the two systems couldn't be more different. There an orchestra, an opera company or a theater is part of the social fabric and mainly paid for from monies collected in taxes. Here, unfortunately, most such institutions have become a playground, or sandbox, for the very wealthy philanthropists. Often they are crooks (just think of Madoff, Axelrod and some other Murky characters) with no real interest in the Arts. They love to see their names on a wall of a hall and to be treated as if they are great humanitarians. Brownnosing knows no limits: conductors are often masters at that, telling some wealthy old prune that she looks ever-so-youthful and beautiful, with a phony smile. But in any American orchestra there are also individuals among the musicians who manage to flatter major donors, simply to advance their own agendas.

Like their American counterparts, the European institutions are suffering in the present economic crisis. Berliner Philharmoniker is no exception and has had its problems even before today's financial meltdown. One of the reasons the players like Sir Rattle so much is that he went to battle for better wages for his musicians. He has faced a lot of criticism from papers over there, some claiming that he is the weakest conductor they've ever had. That isn't evident from their playing, at least when they are doing standard repertoire. Perhaps the Germans aren't used to someone looking like he is in ecstasy all the time. In any case the group plays very well for him, in spite of the minimal help he is offering to keep them together. But the orchestra is forced to play as a large chamber group this way, listening to each other at all times, and they do so remarkably well. Sir Simon Rattle is no Sir Metro Gnome, that's for sure. The other day I was watching Zubin Mehta conducting Mahler. Either he has had to work a lot with less capable orchestras or his approach to conducting is more mechanical. Observing him carefully beat time even during rests made me understand why the orchestras he spent a lot of time with, Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, usually sounded uninspired. Accurate, yes, but over-conducted as well.

The obvious difference between the people who end up on the podium in Berlin is that they perform the major works always from memory, unlike some self-proclaimed "greats" on this side of the Atlantic. Even all the tricky cues in Mahler were there in Mr. Mehta's performance. The nasty but brilliant Finnish critic Seppo Heikinheimo once wrote a review with a big headline "Pää pahvissa" or "Head in Cardboard" about a respectable musician who felt the need to use music for everything. Yes, playing tricky concertos from memory can be too frightening a thought for some want-to-be soloists, but a conductor doesn't make sounds (although some grunt and hiss) and wrong notes are not an issue. If he/she thoroughly knows the composition, waiving one's arms to the music should be child's play. Of course, if the orchestra is not top notch and there is a possibility musicians might get lost and come in wrong, a score is useful to have. I have played under baton-wielders who have conducted from memory but actually got lost in something like the "Rite of Spring." That's when we write "DLU" for "Don't Look Up" in the parts. But this is more understandable because of the complicated rhythm patterns, and of course with accompanying a soloist a Partitur should be at hand, as many of those artists make mistakes, no matter how seasoned they are.

Visually, due to the stage being in the middle, a maestro cannot make the ugly faces at his workforce some feel the need to do, as much of the audience has a clear view of them. In case of Berlin, there is also a camera that is zoomed on them, and they have to be on their best behavior. This naturally makes the workplace far more pleasant to the players. The new hall in Copenhagen is very similar to the one in Berlin, even more radical in design. Initial reports are that it sounds wonderful. It is satisfying to play in a string section and know that the audience can hear you or your section at all times. It clearly wasn't designed by a brass player whose idea of great sound is blasting horns and deafening percussion.

It has been exciting to follow President Obama's inauguration festivities. It is amazing that we have a leader who can speak in complete sentences and intelligent ones yet. I'll write more about him later but wanted to point out the tiny fraction of performances during the celebrations that would fall into the "classical" category. This art form has obviously become ever more elitist. My darling wife was upset about all the popular music but I reminded her that this has always been the case in America. In the past the pop artist might have been called Caruso or Kreisler; now times are different. Obviously what many of us old-timers regard as noise is appealing to majority of people. Those desiring a profession in classical music can only dream of the tens of thousands of jobs 460 orchestras would provide.

Berlin and Copenhagen Concert Halls

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lawyer’s Reunion

Years ago I was reading through "Indiana", the first book published under the pen name George Sand (in real life by Aurore Dupin, also known as Baroness Dudevant). George Sand is of course known as having been the mistress of Frederic Chopin, but she was also a famous writer and feminist. I was intrigued by one of the settings in the book, as it speaks of a tropical island of Bourbon. Being a geography buff since childhood, I had never heard of such an island. The book mentions that there are two volcanoes on it. The web search engines were in their infancy and I didn't get very far. One interpretation I read claimed that the place existed only in the author's imagination. I went through all the world atlases I have (every single major one printed is in our bookcases) and finally discovered the island of Réunion in the middle of the Indian Ocean that indeed had two volcanoes and still was an overseas territory of France. Off to a French web site that gave the history of the island and indeed the place had been known as Île Boubon twice, after the royal house. What made the place even more fascinating was the fact that the island is situated almost exactly on the opposite side of Seattle on the globe. Since it is still a part of France, it is also a member of the EU and the euro is used as currency. Its only neighbor is the island of Mauritius. A vote was taken on both islands ; Mauritius chose independence from Britain but Réunion decided to remain French.

Every so often Réunion pops up in the news. Not long ago it had a terrible epidemic of Chikungunya, a mosquito-born arbovirus that left over two hundred dead on the island of less than 800,000 in 2005-06. More recently an article in Der Spiegel caught my eye. It was about a French lawyer, Jacques Vergès, who has been defending terrorists for many decades. He was raised in Réunion, having been born in Thailand from a French father and a Vietnamese mother. At first the story upset me but I read it a second time, then a third and I began to understand. I made my wife Marjorie read it, too, and her initial reaction was even stronger than mine, especially after learning that Mr. Vergès had been Klaus Barbie's attorney in the late 1980s. Klaus Barbie was of course the Butcher of Lyon who after the war worked for the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, escaped to Bolivia via Argentina, took the name Klaus Altmann and ended up providing weapons to Israel after the Six Day War, and the ensuing trade embargo. A few days ago a DVD from the library showed up here, titled Terror's Advocate. It is a French documentary which helps to illuminate the controversial character of Jacques Vergès.

It turned out that the German article was nothing but a synopsis of the film. The English title is purposely somewhat misleading as "advocate" simply refers to an attorney and a lawyer in a few locations, such as Scotland, South Africa and, of course, France. Clearly Mr. Vergès had a leftist and an anti-colonial viewpoint. On the island a "colored" person was a second class citizen and had to step aside to give right-of-way to a white person walking. The young attorney began practicing law in Algeria and ended up defending women who had placed bombs for the independence movement. He fell in love with his most famous client, Djamila Bouhired, who initially was sentenced to death but whose sentence was commuted to life in hard labor, thanks to the international pressure Mr. Vergès was able to create. She was later freed as Algeria became independent and the two married, although the union didn't last long. In the documentary Jacques Vergès emerges as a very intelligent and sympathetic person but somewhat full of himself, perhaps for a reason. After vanishing from the face of the earth for eight years (obituaries were written, nobody knows where he was and what he was doing during that time), he reappeared and offered to represent Klaus Barbie. At the trial the prosecution featured 39 lawyers, Mr. Vergès was alone. Yet he managed to draw parallels to France's colonial past and practice, proving that it wasn't all that different from what took in place during the Vichy years. Yes, Mr. Barbie was sentenced to life in prison but many of the most serious charges were dismissed. Never claiming that his client was innocent, the attorney nevertheless managed to outsmart the government's army of prosecutors. Barbie died just a few years later in prison of leukemia. The interviewer asked Jacques Vergès if he would have defended Adolf Hitler and his reply was: "I would even defend Bush, but only if he admitted his guilt first."

It is interesting that a defense attorney doesn't view his client "innocent" or try to solicit such a verdict from a jury and a court of law. In this country of ours one is either guilty or innocent, even if the truth is somewhere in between. Mr. Vergès seems to believe that even the worst terrorist has a right for a defense, and if no one else is willing to accept the task, he will. He is a very smart man and able to convince even his enemies. Had I had his legal help years ago, some prominent members of society would have no doubt fallen from grace and perhaps ended up behind bars with other monsters. One can always dream.

Distant as it is, I have a feeling one day in my retirement I'll be able to travel to the mysterious island with the two volcanoes.

in photos: George Sand, Réunion from space, Jacques Vergès