Saturday, October 31, 2009

Choosing a New Conductor

Today we read an interview of Bernard Madoff and how amazed he was that his gigantic Ponzi scheme wasn't discovered earlier. At the end he had to go public with it in order for others to realize what he had been up to all those years. It was as if a conductor, perhaps another Jewish poster boy, would tell his board and supporters that after a quarter century on the podium he was nothing but a a fake, a fraud. May be there is more in common with two such men than anyone could guess, both sociopaths with no conscience.

We are gullible people. As on paper every investor with Bernie got incredibly high returns, nobody questioned how that was possible. Money is God after all. Before our financial meltdown a little more than a year ago, private colleges increased their tuition to the level of more expensive schools, to "prove" that they were equally good. Needless to say they became more popular. Kids and their parents snicker at more affordable state schools, unless they are situated in another state and thus as expensive as private ones. There are people willing to pay top dollar at Neiman Marcus for the very same product found elsewhere for much less. Just because they stupidly insist on overpaying, their acquired goods are "better" than if they had done their homework and shopped at a discount store or online.

In music, you'll find teachers in every city who charge twice the standard or even more. Some parents are impressed by the large fee and are duped into thinking that this greedy individual must be great. Never mind that he/she isn't able to perform in public. Neither can another violin teacher who accepts only students who aspire to become "professionals". After performing a movement or two of the mandatory Khachaturian concerto, learned by imitation at an early age, most of these kids will disappear from the scene. The said piece certainly isn't one of my favorites. I remember the esteemed Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi telling me about recording it in Moscow on a xylophone. The percussive music suits that instrument far better than the violin.

The Utah Symphony, another troubled arts organization, recently chose a new Music Director. The process was done in secrecy and many were surprised to learn that a relatively unknown Swiss maestro, Thierry Fischer, was chosen. Quite a few names had been mentioned as possibly candidates in the Salt Lake City media, among them an individual that the orchestra rejected for the second time, decades apart. Usually orchestra musicians are involved in such an important decision, or they would like to be. But this business has changed a lot and a board chairperson or the organization's executive director acts more like a CEO of a big corporation. We all know how much they value the opinion of a worker.

Many important American orchestras are presently without a music director. Chicago finally has Riccardo Muti as a music director designate, after several years with Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez guiding the excellent group under different titles. Philadelphia lacks one, although Charles Dutoit came to the rescue by agreeing to serve as their chief conductor. Leonard Slatkin finally took over Detroit which had been adrift since the departure of Neeme Järvi.

It is interesting how negatively European conductors view American music director positions, although our country would love to have them instead of home-grown ones. Perhaps the good and capable conductors would just like to make music as they do back home, and not be involved in fund-raising and all the brown-nosing that comes with it. Having to repeatedly kiss the cheek of an old dried-up but wealthy lady or to pretend to admire an elderly gentleman's opinion of orchestral sound while his hearing aid whistles may be a turn-off to a true maestro. Too often an American conductor resembles a General Motors or Ford vehicle. Yes, most of the time they transport people as expected, but driving one is hardly as exciting as being behind the wheel of a Porsche, a Mercedes or a BMW.
a Maestro for Halloween by talvi

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Happy Boys Club

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that majority of the world's affairs are taken care by a clique of some kind. Even heads of state surround themselves with loyalists and cronies. Just think of the people in George W's inner circle, most of who eventually became disgraced for a reason. Decisions by boards have been decided in advance by a small group of insiders; voting is but a rubber stamp. If you don't agree, too bad: you'll be a former board member in no time. Insider trading takes place on Wall Street every day, however illegal it is. In classical music, a conductor has a small circle of friends and supporters in his band. A musician's success in an audition depends on how likely he or she'll become one of these pawns. The actual professional skill has very little to do with winning a job.

Such cliques and clubs are nothing new. Years ago, to be a successful violinist in America one had to have a relationship with Ivan Galamian and/or the famous virtuoso Isaac Stern. The latter would travel to Israel yearly, listen to the talented youngsters play, and point his finger saying you, you and you will come to the United States. The rest were doomed to become members of the Israeli Philharmonic or accept low-paying teaching jobs. In New York, there was a circle of talented gay composers, all close friends, from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein. They pretty much had a monopoly on whose works got performed. If you fell out of favor, you became a Nobody. David Diamond was one of those less fortunate and rightfully bitter about it.

My last visit to Los Angeles resulted in an interesting conversation with a former colleague. The Pacific Northwest is not exactly a focal point in people's lives down there but there was some curiosity from this person's part. How's the Womanizer these days? He has sort of fallen off the radar screen; is he still up there after all these years? I had to ask which womanizer my friend was referring to, as several individuals fit the term. The matter was clarified. He's probably no longer after young females but rather competing for the attention (and perhaps money) of an older generation. More I didn't know as the person no longer is part of my life. What about the Deadly Duo? Again, as several such combinations exist, I had to repeat the question. The ones with a foot fetish; they're not missed around here. Then I understood. Don't know much about their current affairs. They're probably as busy trying to destroy others' lives and careers as a couple decades ago. For some reason the famous Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus and the Carpenter popped into my head. Those poor misled oysters!

This chat made me think of a discussion my wife and I had with a full-of-himself gay man here years ago. He was bragging about being part of the local Happy Boys Club. The names dropped included some important and powerful local people, from a media critic to a head of a large arts organization. We were made to understand that this club (some members might have been bisexual or still in the closet) pretty much decided who would succeed in this town. This conversation sent shivers down our spines at the time. We are far from being homophobic: both of us have counted many gay and lesbian people among our closest friends. Personally, I have nothing against gay marriage: if two people are in love and want to take care of each other, their sexual orientation shouldn't be an issue. Many of the most gifted and creative individuals throughout history have been gay, or for that matter left-handed, also formerly considered another flaw of character. True, a homosexual critic tried to destroy my career in my teens as I rejected his advances, but as a group gays don't make me feel as uncomfortable as an old heterosexual letch desiring a young woman, possibly a daughter. It is also obvious to me that Nature has to do something about earth's overpopulation and thus an growing number of people are born who won't add to the increase.

But back to the local Club: there was a time when some of its members were eager to ruin my family's well-being. But it is amazing how matters resolve with time and patience. Many of these "Klansmen" have met with an untimely death or are dying; others have lost their jobs and with it their influence. A tiger without its teeth and claws is pitiful indeed. Perhaps we ought to rename it Unhappy Boys Club. The clique has gone the way of once mighty Diners Club in North America, the first charge card. Now it is just another MasterCard, owned by Discover Card yet.

I have no illusions that such cliques won't reemerge in the future or are perhaps being formed as I'm writing this. However, at this stage of my life, it no longer matters. The art scene is rapidly going down the drain and I can't claim to care. Perhaps our children or grandchildren will witness a rebirth from the ashes of the phoenix bird. It has to grow from the ground up. The present model, a sandbox for the aged well-to-do, is most passé indeed. After all, who in his right mind would want to watch half of a local baseball team play against the other half, week after week?

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Victorian drawing

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Dark World

Life is often not what it logically should be. We picture goodness as the opposite of evil, genius of craziness. Yet more often than not, such qualities in a human being resemble a circle, like the face of a clock. An immensely gifted person may be sane at 11:59 and fly over the cuckoo's nest at 12:01. There is sometimes very little difference between a genius and a madman. Love can turn into hate and rage with a snap of a finger; two such opposite feelings, just a tiny bit apart on life's circle.

Mental health and a balanced life can never be taken for granted. Our natural reaction is to stay away from a person who's going through a rough period in his/her life. In the eyes of the affected person it is us who turn into monsters and crazies. A key to treating such an imbalance is that the person suffering admits help is needed, that the world isn't mad, but that the individual perceiving it as such might be instead. Yet any health care professional knows that treating an ill person often fails because the patient feels sane. Medication may be taken for a while but then discontinued. In our system there is the added element of expense and the lack of any kind of a safety net.

So, we try to run away from people who are out of the ordinary and whose behavior may be hard to take. As a nation, we like to think that if we close our eyes, a problem doesn't exist. Didn't we have a popular President who said that there are no unemployed and poor people, just ones who don't like to work, or that there are no homeless, just people who don't like living in a house or an apartment? If one surrounds himself will nothing but other well-to-do people, in that world there indeed is no poverty.

Artists, whether painters, musicians or writers, often happen to be on the borderline in the sanity circle and probably more likely past the middle point the more talented and creative they are. Many have been the most productive during an acute phase of what the "normal" people would call a mental illness. Masterpieces have been painted and written in such a state, as well as under the influence of recreational drugs, today illegal but not necessarily so in history. One could argue that the more gifted an artist is, the more likely he/she is to be in very fragile mental health. The great Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was rather mad, at least in the eyes of his very religious family, a true black sheep. When he died, no relative saw any value in the paintings left behind, including the different versions of the famed "Scream". They were given away, made to disappear, as works of a nut possessed by demons. History is full of examples of similar stories.

Of course, being on the "wrong" side of the clock is applicable to everyday people as well. Many such people do dot fit in our society and end up having trouble with the law or as homeless on the street. One study mentioned in a BBC program estimated the percentage of schizophrenic people approximately equal the number we sentence to prisons in this jail-happy country of ours. Clearly locking a suffering soul in such an institution is an inhumane act but we do that to remove them from our midst. Yes, imprisonment is expensive but cheaper than mental hospitals or even long-term outpatient care, as most of these unfortunate people do not have insurance. Even if they do, mental health is usually equally well covered as visiting the dentist, where a root canal and a mandatory crown more than wipe out the annual benefit amount many times over, even in the best of plans.

However, there are situations where we cannot ignore such illness, namely when it involves a family member. An aging parent may suffer from Alzheimer's, another one from a phobia that prevents a normal life. The situation becomes tragic when a raging soul belongs to a member of an immediate family, a spouse or a child. An affected person may suddenly see you as his/her archenemy and threaten to destroy your life. A mother may suffer from serious delusions and paranoia, and feel certain that her daughter is after every knick-knack is her possession. The child's request to have a copy of a key to her house is an indication of ill intentions and plans of theft, when in fact the child is just concerned about the well-being of an aging parent. A spouse (or especially an ex-one) might write terrible letters to all corners of the globe, to make sure that everyone knows what a monster or a criminal yesterday's love is and to do his/her best to be as destructive as possible, short of outright killing this former mate. When such hateful behavior comes from a grown child that a person has always dearly loved, it hurts the most and is tough to swallow and understand. One just has to go on loving and praying that it will all go away. The wrong way is to close one's heart forever but one has to protect him/herself. Why would anybody wish to be abused?

Another one of life's circles involves friends. A quarter to the hour a person pretends to be your best pal with nothing but good thoughts and wishes in mind. Along come a few malicious people who help to push your minute hand well into the other side and all of a sudden this friend is your worst enemy, ready to turn your life into hell. But the same clock ticks for the former friend and the minute hand is stuck at quarter after in no time at all, while in the victim's life it again has passed the half-hour mark and sun is rising after the night.

Actually, I think it is a mad world, a very black one. Universe is filled with dark matter we hardly understand, yet it amounts to much of its mass. But in the blackness it is easy to see the shining lights from stars and galaxies, the bright diamonds from the hearts of those who truly love and care. At age 61 one has seen a lot of it, if not all.
Munch's "Scream" from 1893