Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sounds in the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is an area of contrasts. From lush evergreen forests and an annual rainfall of well over 100 inches in some coastal mountain slopes we can travel to desert areas receiving less than 10 inches annually. Temperatures are mild year round in Oregon's Banana Belt around Brookings, but it gets almost as hot as Phoenix, Arizona, during the summer months in many locations and with the mountains subzero readings are not unusual in the winter. Our home in Seattle benefits from the short Olympic Mountains range which prevents fierce storms from the Pacific Ocean from hitting this city. Although sunshine is not exactly abundant, neither is rainfall which is less than any outsider is willing to believe. Travel sixty miles up or down the coast and conditions are very different.

This past Sunday we decided to remind ourselves of this variety by driving down to Oregon's largest city Portland, little more than three hours away. As it happened, this was the third time within a month for Marjorie, but I hadn't spent time in that place for many years, just driven through. Sun was out, the city looked beautiful and the 85-degree temperature felt soothing. We had a reason for the trip as the Oregon Bach Festival had sent their troops up from Eugene to perform Verdi's mighty Requiem in Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Hall that afternoon. I had expected such a concert to sell out even in the summer and bought tickets plenty in advance, printing them out but still having to pay Ticketmaster ridiculous fees. Later I saw notices online that discounts were available, an indication that advance sales were not filling the house. However, they were only discounted by 15% for Portland whereas an online search revealed up to 50% off in Eugene itself for the same production. Whatever the ticket prices ended up being, the hall was almost packed.

The Schnitzer auditorium was a pleasant surprise, after a number of years of not being there. I have always sat near the front of the balcony but this time we were on the main floor, in an area than in many halls is a dead spot. This was not the case there. The strings sounded smooth and silky, the brass and percussion was never deafening like in some modern echo chambers. I believe the chorus was amplified but discreetly so. All in all the balance was fine except for the four vocal soloists and the concertmaster in her short solo. Solo violin carries through very well up to the balcony and I assume the same is true with any soloist. However, I seem to remember there having been some balance problems with different orchestral sections, but this was not noticeable where we were seated. I much prefer old concert halls to new ones for their beauty and ambience and certainly Oregonians can be proud of this 1928 landmark. While I don't believe classical music should be performed in an almost 2,800-seat hall, Schnitzer fares no worse than any other such auditorium. The venue is reason enough to make sure that the Oregon Symphony will survive this financially difficult time. At least their expenses are far smaller than most other orchestras in their league as the musician salaries are down to earth. Portland's location would make the ensemble an ideal one for touring both in Oregon and southern parts of Washington State. Many cities fall within a 2+ hour radius from the orchestra's home base, from Eugene to Olympia. Unless I remember incorrectly, the group used to come regularly to perform all the way up to Tacoma a decade or so ago.

I didn't have high expectations for the orchestra as I knew they would be local Eugene musicians, augmented with principals mainly from the Los Angeles area. But the fine playing in the quiet beginning of Requiem aeternam made me feel at ease and the bloopers were very few throughout the long work. Even the off-stage trumpets were fine: I have never taken part in a performance where perfection was achieved. The larger the hall, the more complicated the situation becomes. The inner voices in the strings came through beautifully (having the seconds sit next to the firsts was a good choice) and the woodwinds were a pleasure to listen to for the most part. An announcement was made before the concert, trying to explain why so many sopranos had been advertised as singing the solo part. The audience was informed that the previous couple weeks had been rather hectic for the festival's management. One can only speculate the reasons behind the situation and come to the probable conclusion that the singers and the conductor, Helmuth Rilling, didn't see eye to eye as far as how Verdi's heavenly music should be interpreted. Luckily the third choice, Tamara Wilson, proved to have a beautiful voice and was the strongest member of the vocal quartet. At least to these ears, her high G-flat was gorgeous. Singers, no matter how great, usually possess only a few truly extraordinarily beautiful pitches. The difficult opening of Agnus Dei for soprano and alto in octaves was quite lovely: occasionally the alto, Marietta Simpson, vibrated too much, creating some intonation problems.

Mr. Rilling, of course, is best known for his work in J.S. Bach's music. A few "experts" may disagree with some of his musical opinions, but no one can argue about his incredible knowledge of Bach. Personally, I feel like he has taught me more about this great composer than anyone. His interpretations of the B-minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion will always stay in my mind as the ultimate experiences. Mr. Rilling's forays to later choral/orchestral works have sometimes been criticized, but at least this Requiem was fabulously and faultlessly done. Naturally he conducted from memory as every measure of the music filled his mind: for the moment nothing else mattered. Verdi would have been pleased.

It took an hour to drive a few miles in a traffic jam on I-5 to the bridge crossing the Columbia River but we enjoyed each other's company. By the time we approached Seattle, it was drizzling and temperature was almost twenty degrees cooler. Still, our home town surrounded by all that water and mountains looked more beautiful than ever.
Oregon Bach Festival in Portland – photo by talvi

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Midsummer Madness

Days in the Northern Hemisphere are getting shorter again. Another Summer Solstice Parade with its nude bikers took place this past weekend in Fremont, an easy walking distance from home. No, I didn't go and watch as I was busy teaching. We Finns, at least us baby boomers, grew up with a healthy attitude toward the human body. In a hot sauna it wouldn't cross anyone's mind to wear anything but our birth suits. People would go and cool off in the cold lake in the nude: nobody raised an eyebrow. Seeing a hundred naked bicyclists would have struck us as totally silly, thus such stunts never took place.

My parents' birthdays are very close to Midsummer. Of course, I get to celebrate my mother's day tomorrow in memory only as she has been in another reality for over eleven years. But my father stubbornly lives on and turned 99 yesterday. I would have made a point of being there if it mattered to him. He lives in the past most of the time, visiting family members and friends who have been gone a long time but who are very real to him. I envy him: today's serious global problems don't bother him. Yet my dad can be very much present, too, and has an eye for beauty. He gives compliments to the caregivers and visitors, commenting on their good looks. His appetite remains good and he loves his desserts that are part of every meal. Yes, he has cheated the Grim Reaper many times and surprised us all with his will to live. He has had prostate cancer for over forty years but it has responded well to hormone treatment all this time.

Our Father's Day this year was just a day before my dad's birthday and it made me think of him a lot. The Finnish version takes place the second Sunday in November but this way I get to remember my father twice as often. Since he has visited us so many times, I can almost sense his presence here. What an interesting man: a prolific writer and historian who never knew how to tell a lie. Sometimes his honesty was painful, especially when it came to music. Even at his advanced age his hearing is excellent and he always trusted his ears more than concert reviews or falsely praising press releases. Already in Los Angeles when I brought him to concerts, he would say that the conductor obviously "liked himself too much" and therefore wasn't much of a true musician. Seattle didn't get any better rap and I couldn't really argue with my dad as I knew he was right. My wife was responsible for a chamber music series and one time when her father-in-law was here, a newcomer violinist who was well-liked by local critics was playing. Dad wasn't very impressed as he remarked "It played like a good student". The Finnish language makes no difference with gender and "he/she" can easily be replaced with "it". Naturally, I was happy that my old man loved the way my wife played. He would have no doubt told me if he felt differently.

Almost a year and a half ago I was in my home country performing and teaching. We in America had just suffered our financial meltdown and people back there were shaking their heads and talking about an American crisis with bad mortgages. When I tried to warn my countrymen that all problems will eventually affect everyone in the new global economic order, they just shook their heads and insisted that life in Europe was going to continue as before. Iceland was seen as an exception: the tiny country had no business playing ball with the big boys. Well, today they know better. The situation in various EU countries is very serious indeed. Just today we learned about tough measures the United Kingdom's new Conservative government has taken to cope with the worst depression since 1930s. Even Finland has taken a hit but at least real estate prices haven't slumped like here. Our stock market has tried to stage a comeback but at least this individual doesn't believe our problems are over. Here in Seattle there have been some hurtful cuts in social services, education and even the way parks and libraries are run.

Although the local arts organizations have been unusually tight-lipped about their finances, the picture cannot be rosy. I can foresee the death of a number of such institutions nationwide or at least near-death experiences. There is no reason why Seattle wouldn't be affected as well. An elderly opera lover recently told me that a Ring cycle last summer must have made a fortune to the company behind it! Wagner hardly is Tchaikovsky; the Ring, a bottomless money pit, is the total opposite of ballet's cash cow, the Nutcracker. Since there is very little in music making that would interest us here, I ordered tickets to hear Verdi's Requiem in Portland this coming Sunday. Not that we expect to hear fabulous playing from Oregon Bach Festival's orchestra, but at least the singers should be good and the Maestro, Helmuth Rilling, first class. One of us will write about the concert, I'm sure. We shouldn't have rushed with the ticket order, though, as in today's email there was an offer for a 15% discount. If such an unusually attractive concert fails to sell out, the situation with your ordinary program must look far grimmer. The manual laborers, in this case the orchestra musicians, like to think of themselves as "artists" and feel a strange sacred entitlement to their high salaries. It is not that much different from the Greek people who think that everything in their system is just fine and life can continue in its corrupt but merry way just as before. Only a fool would report his income correctly and pay taxes accordingly. But the well-to-do don't like to be taxed here either and do anything in their power to avoid it. A much admired philanthropist never gives away money without benefiting from the transaction, after all, yet our society admires such people to no end.

The Fremont bikers, the sauna-loving Finns and an emperor in his new clothes all show true transparency, the latter out of his own stupidity. We should expect to see the name fiscal nudity from all non-profits and also from those who like to be thought of as benefactors.

For those interested in the Finnish midsummer, may I recommend a fabulous children's book, equally fit to be read by grown-ups, Tove Jansson's Moominsummer Madness, also known as Moomin and the Dangerous Midsummer Night.
picture from the original "Farlig midsommar"