Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The key to education is in literacy. One cannot form any informed opinions without the skill of reading. And without reading the art of writing cannot exist.

Granted, we don't have to go very far back in history when even the mighty sovereign of the country needed to rely on outside help with documents of any kind. Especially writing was an art form and had to be done in fancy calligraphy, not an easy task. Generally speaking ordinary people did not read. Stories were passed on via oral tradition. With each memorization a word here or there was changed but it didn't really matter. The actors and actresses during Shakespeare's time had to be taught their lines through repetition, not so different from today's opera singers or, for that matter, most of young string players trained in the American Suzuki style. Music notation is another language, after all.

This method of memorizing one's part in a play meant that one had to actually relive the role during each performance. The role became the person and the person became the role, not necessarily a bad thing. If one forgot the exact wording, knowing the play intimately meant that the actor could substitute the line with something that could have been there in the first place.

That was then, today is now. We all go to school unless we live in a poor country where education is reserved for only chosen upper class members. A few countries, mainly sparsely populated Northern European ones, took pride in educating their children early on. Iceland with its tiny population and isolated existence is a fine example. Sagas based on Nordic heroes and, a little later, first inhabitants of the island were written some 800 years ago. As the Old Norse language changed very little over the centuries, it is said that today's schoolchildren can read the sagas with ease. In my home country, Finnish was considered a somewhat vulgar language for the lower class, and most writing was in Swedish, the official language of Sweden-Finland and spoken in the Finnish part by the "better" folks. Law books and other documents existed also in Latin. The first book in Finnish, based on western dialects as there was no "proper" form, was a translation of the New Testament by the Bishop Mikael Agricola, published in 1548. We are not as lucky as our Icelandic cousins, as although understanding that text is possible, it sounds and looks foreign with liberal use of alphabets not used in today's proper Finnish.

Statistics from 2007 show that 42 million Americans cannot read at all and another 50 million read at 4th grade level at best. 20% of graduating high school seniors is functionally illiterate at their graduation time. Illiteracy result is poverty and crime: majority of prison inmates do not know how to read. English may not be the easiest language to read as it is quite illogical with the way its spelling and pronunciation are related, but it is still written with the same easy-to-understand Latin alphabet as other European languages, other than those that use Cyrillic or Greek lettering. Finland's official literacy rate is 100% although with the large number of immigrants from places like Somalia the true number among adults may be somewhat lower. In America many prefer going to see the movie instead of reading the book it's based on. Back home it isn't an easy way out as all foreign films have subtitles and fluent reading is a must.

It is interesting how the Finns never pushed early reading. It is common that children don't read at all when they start school at the age of seven, yet by Christmas break most of them are fluent. I taught myself to read at three and also read music shortly thereafter. It was a shock to begin school and have the teacher start with alphabets, leading to simple syllables. By then, I had read our daily newspaper from Helsinki for at least a couple of years, and finished a sizeable amount of books. Some of those were quite thick; I loved encyclopedias and "How Things Work"-type of books, in addition to Moomin books and fairy tales. My first grade teacher was a dear and wonderful woman. During my first school day I had taken a pack of cards along and was playing solitaire outside during a recess. I could sense a certain worry or disappointment on my teacher's face. Perhaps she, as a religious person, connected cards to gambling and sinful lifestyle. After school I rushed to my mother's business and made her come with me to the local bookstore, in order to buy a small Bible. We found a beautiful one in powder blue and gold. The next day it was in my leather briefcase (I wouldn't use a backpack) and I showed it to the teacher, saying "I don't just have playing cards; I have this, too". I can still see her happy smile. Matilda Varama didn't believe in giving her students high grades: I got an equivalent to B- in both reading and music in my report card: to her it must have been like an A+.

Obviously the more one reads, the better the chances are that his/her writing is on a higher level. At times I make the error of reading comments and opinions which commonly follow an article online. The experience can be quite scary. Perhaps one in five is grammatically correct and without major spelling errors. Yes, as I wrote above, English is somewhat complicated. But how is it then that switching to a British site, most opinions are well written and thought out? Instead of blind rage, disagreements are just that, polite disagreements. Perhaps these sites sensor their content and don't publish the type of garbage so common on this side of the ocean. If so, the writer also knows that the rules and proper etiquette has to be followed in order to have his/her opinion read by others. Reluctantly I have to admit that foul comments and bad penmanship is all too common in today's Finland as well. I blame the culture of text messaging in part. People there are not likely to respond to an email, not to mention an actual letter on paper delivered via mail, but a short text will result in action. A former Prime Minister broke up with his girlfriend using texting: naturally she went public with it. Someone there wrote an entire book using his cellphone and such messages. I don't think such "progress" is good for a civilized society.

I intended to use this space to write about one of my pet peeves, the all-too-common musical illiteracy. However, it will have to wait for later as it warrants a long entry of its own.
My daughter Sarah at her favorite activity

Friday, August 20, 2010

Make It Fake

I grew up loving the masters of the Baroque music. J.S. Bach was my favorite, of course, but I also studied and performed everything else I could get my hands on. This was in the 1950s and -60s and naturally many works were edited to suit the times. It hadn't been all that long from an era when Baroque was supposed to sound bombastic. Orchestral Bach often meant a Stokowski transcription; everyone was familiar with Disney's Fantasia. The big church in my home town had large Romantic organ, tuned to a pre-war A=435. It was pneumatic which meant that the organist was able to see what was happening in the church but the system also created a delay. I performed there with my friend the organist countless times and it was always an interesting experience as he had to play ahead of me. In a sense I was the accompanist as I had no choice but to follow him. We had to rehearse a lot as sight-reading would have been totally out of question. Much of our repertoire was from the Baroque era, but in our recitals we also played Negro Spirituals and quite a bit of Hebraic music. 

Years passed and all of a sudden it became clear that I wouldn't be allowed to perform old music again, as I supposedly played it all wrong. I had a beautiful vibrato and saw no reason why I couldn't or shouldn't use it in these works, especially in the slower movements. But the experts, who were popping up all over like mushrooms in a forest, claimed it was an absolute no-no. Baroque music had to be played and performed in an authentic manner. Naturally these experts couldn't quite agree with each other what authentic was, other than using no vibrato and lowering the pitch. In principal, I had nothing against this "new" way of playing but most of the people attracted to this fad were quite awful, mediocre at best. It was as if instead of becoming violists, they had decided to follow this newly discovered style. After all, it didn't require a vibrato or nimble fingers; as much as possible was played in the first position.

All the fun pieces edited by David or Auer, from Vitali's Chaconne to Corelli's La Folia, were off-limits, at least in concerts where a critic might be present. I had already been vilified for playing concertos by such composers as Wieniawski and Glazounov. I remember one review where the writer said that it was a pity I was wasting my talent on "Kreisler concertos". Many of the Vivaldi works I had learned were editions by Hungarian violinist Tivadar Nachéz, very popular at the time. My main mentor in Bach's solo sonatas and partitas was Ricardo Odnoposoff, himself a Carl Flesch student. I was using his teacher's edition, but I was told not to follow the 1920s fingerings although most of the interpretive markings made sense. This book comes with the original version printed underneath each line, so it is easy to see instantly where Flesch differs from the manuscript and understand why.

How was it that after 250+ years we all of a sudden knew for certain how Baroque music was intended to be like, and a bit later, Classical works? Having used gut strings and no shoulder rest, mandatory requirements in the Heifetz class, I knew how different a violin sounded when its volume wasn't boosted to the maximum. I especially loved the sweetness of gut E-strings, although they would always snap if one played aggressively. Yet at the same time violinists from the Soviet Union were all the rage and I knew that they used nothing but all-steel strings, to produce a loud and piercing tone. Talk about a paradox! Many chamber orchestras suffered greatly from not being "allowed" to play anything from Baroque's treasure chest. Some symphony orchestras had Baroque and Classical series: they would often feature guest conductors who opposed vibrato. It was easier said than done. Especially Russian-trained violinists didn't know how to comply, and often a concert would sound ridiculous with half the people playing straight tone and the other half vibrating madly. 

All the research I did on the topic made me less than sure that these new discoveries had solid foundations. Although some pianists would use a fortepiano for older music, no famous virtuoso would switch the shiny black Steinway grand with a smaller and intimate sounding piano. Yet we knew that Chopin's favorite instrument was a French Pleyel, with only two strings for each treble key, and that was the timbre the composer-pianist had in mind when he wrote his Nocturnes and other great works for the piano. Orchestras had become increasingly large in size; woodwind and brass players simply didn't know how to play softly as normally they were expected to carry over a gigantic string section. How did we know what Bach would have preferred? His organ works certainly were loud; those poor men who were pumping air in the midst of the pipes must have gone deaf. But Bach didn't have the use of thirty-something violins, only a small fraction of them. Across the English Channel, at the same time, Händel certainly was fond of loudness and generally had access to better musicians than his fellow German on the continent. Joachim, who popularized Bach's solo works, didn't use vibrato in them but this was true with his entire repertoire. Pablo Casals resurrected the cello suites and he played them from his heart. Many experts snicker today at his interpretations but they bring tears to my eyes. Bach, unlike many other Baroque composers, did not write wallpaper music; I always felt he was a Romantic far ahead of his time.

We are almost anal in trying to replicate the sound and style of Baroque and Classical music, although even the best efforts are no closer to the truth than, let's say, a film describing the life of Louis XIV of France. We can build new instruments resembling old ones, the latter having been converted to modern needs. It is said that Stradivari would not recognize any of his instruments today, due to the differently angled longer necks, silver- and aluminum-wound strings, chin rests and most importantly, the shiny hard new varnish that makes the instruments glitter like they came from a furniture store. The new-old instruments equipped with gut strings most likely sound more like the ones from the great makers once did, but we really don't have much to compare them to. Tuning to a lower pitch seems to be mandatory although we know that the frequency of an A varied widely in both directions. We can be quite certain that vibrato was not used as frequently as today but it did exist, of course.

However, no one seems to pay attention to the only historic style we certainly know about, the early recordings. Violinists dismiss the artistry of Fritz Kreisler as "old-fashioned", even in his own compositions, simply stating that one can't play like that today. I look at it differently: "cannot" becomes "is not able". Developing a required skill to produce such exquisite tone and vibrato varying both in speed and width, not to mention shifting using glissandi unique to each performer, is all a lost art form. Kreisler was said to be the first one to use continuous vibrato. That probably was not the case as others such as Eugene Ysaÿe experimented with the style before him, the vibrato being faster and tighter, almost sewing-machine-like. Kreisler had other contemporaries who adopted his principles, starting with the great French Jaques Thibaud and Leopold Auer's first truly successful student Mischa Elman.

In other art forms we have a visual record, be it architecture, painting or literature. Part of an artist's training is (or was) studying the history of famous painters, their styles and technics very carefully. They were expected to know each master's special tricks and paint replicas of their canvases. I can remember going to art museums long time ago and see young people at work. Reproduction of paintings on paper did not do justice, so sitting in front of the actual artwork was required. Most authors of books are well versed in literature and composers have analyzed great masters' compositions carefully, or at least they should have. Performing musicians, on the other hand, often have little or no historical knowledge of the styles of the last 110 years, although much of it has been recorded and later transferred to digital form. Yes, in spite of all the filtering and magic the older recordings still hiss and pop and the high notes are almost impossible to hear. But the essence of the style and the very soul of musicianship are present underneath the surface noise.

Building a replica on a Roman villa will resemble the original in every detail. Yet most new buildings are truly modern as our demands for space have changed greatly. We have contemporary museums, yet the art in them is old. Nobody is demanding that such structures should look as old as the paintings. Granted, the Getty Villa is a gorgeous setting for it statues, but most art museums don't look like that. Yet we are aware that the building in Malibu is a fake, a rather modern copy.

Where do we stop with imitating the past? Do we dress up in period clothing, both performers and listeners? Do we not bathe for weeks before a concert and cover body odor with perfume? Powdered wigs are a given, again both with the artists and their audience. Candles would be lovely for illumination but what would the fire officials say? Should we allow violinists to gyrate furiously, as often seen, or do we stick to the proper behavior where only the hands move?

Yes, today I play Baroque differently from decades ago. Same is true with my Mozart and Beethoven.  I admire the true masters of the "authentic" style, even if it isn't genuine, as it presents new palette of colors and makes it possible to hear inner voices, so often covered under blaring "music for the deaf". Learning is a lifelong process. One doesn't have to agree with something in order to admire and appreciate it. I don't attempt to copy something I've heard: it is still my very own interpretation.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

End of an Era

Last weekend I suddenly felt my age as if I had moved from middle age to senior years. Reasons were simple to understand: our youngest, Sarah, was off to her Summer Start orientation at Western Washington University and I felt that my 40+ years of parenting was approaching its end. The other cause for feeling like I did was having filled and signed retirement forms. The monetary value of said benefit amounts to little more than pocket change. The Scandinavian and generally European pension system, luxurious compared to ours in monetary terms, was initially created because people had on average 5-10 years of "golden years" left. These days, of course, people live longer and it remains to be seen how long the benefits can stay at current levels. Take my father as an example: he left work at a mandatory retirement age of 65. In two years his pension had climbed to a higher amount than his salary had been and today he is enjoying his thirty-fifth year of ever increasing pension. Now that he needs permanent care, the system takes a set percentage of his net income; in other words he ends up paying more than someone with a lower earnings for the exact same care.

In my youth I knew many people who passed away soon after their mandatory retirement. Although people knew they would be taken care of, many felt utterly useless being forced away from their jobs, and as a result their health would deteriorate. This "broken heart" syndrome is an unfortunate byproduct of the European system. Many people, for example those in education, are in the middle of their most productive years. Some are able to continue their creativity: my father started writing and doing research more vigorously than before. A large history book was commissioned and he was paid handsomely for years, on top of his pension. My pianist in Finland was a professor in the Sibelius Academy with an excellent class. He, too, had to leave, but at least the employer was able to hire him as an hourly instructor. He would also travel within the country performing and giving master classes and private lessons. Feeling useful, he reached his 90s. Part of the logic behind the mandatory retirement is to provide young people with job opportunities.

A couple days ago the New York Times had a heartbreaking story of "99ers", people who have exhausted their now-extended unemployment benefits and who have nothing but despair to look forward to. Yesterday's editorial touched the topic of our Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan paying too much attention to laws of other countries. This seems to annoy many Republican hardliners. On one hand we are eager to promote the American system as an ideal one for other nations to follow, yet we don't want to allow others criticize faults in ours, no matter how educated and civilized the people are. Basic human rights should be universal and they include education for all and taking care of the sick and less fortunate. Americans cry "Socialism" whenever such ideas are discussed; they could as well blame "Christianity" as those principles are well established in that religion which majority of Americans claim to follow.

Understandably this "milestone" in my life affected my dreams and death was very much present in them. Waking up in the middle of the night I decided that I would try to outlive certain other people, to have their obituaries appear before mine. No tears would be shed and I know that we wouldn't end up in the same place, assuming afterlife exists. First thing in the morning I went to check my email, fearing that something had happened to my dad. Nothing alarming appeared in my inbox to my relief, but later during the day I saw a headline Local Conductor Killed in a Crash. For a split second Schadenfreude took over until I learned the identity of the previous night's victim. George Shangrow was one of this city's and state's most gifted musicians. His show on a local radio station, "Live by George", was so popular that many people tuned in just to hear him talk, not necessarily to listen to the music.

Then Seattle did what it excels in, getting rid of the top talent and promoting mediocrity instead. This has happened over and over again, in academia, arts and probably in many other fields. We build fancy temples for very average sports or arts groups and then we call these organizations "world class". Media's PR machinery does its best to elevate the not-so-gifted while destroying the lives of those truly deserving. Someone (no name here) decided that George was too popular and witty, and it was time to have him fired from the radio station. I remember him sitting by our dining table not long afterward, still feeling like lightning had struck him. He was worried about finances and told how he had visited his doctor (whom I knew well) to get medications to help him cope. He had told the doctor about his disastrous situation and was shocked when a bill came in the mail. I said "George, this is America: you can't expect anything for nothing" but he was too upset to comprehend this fact. Of course he had his Orchestra Seattle and other gigs, but his pride and the former feeling of certain security in life had been smashed for good.

George was an extraordinary multi-talented musician who was equally at ease in front of the microphone, at the keyboard of a harpsichord or piano or on the podium. Many years ago he was conducting a couple school concerts with a local orchestra. I had never seen kids so excited: he turned the concert into a funny, entertaining but informative show. Needless to say, he was never invited back to conduct (to my knowledge), although his incredible ability of reading a continuo line with the left and improvising with the right hand was acceptable to the same organization numerous times, as it would have been hard to find someone else locally. He was a true pro: my father, a critical music lover himself, was present at one of George's live broadcasts when one or both of us appeared as guests, and my dad didn't stop praising the host's incredible ease with the microphone. Rumors are that a local string player recently needed a dozen takes during a recording of a most standard work: George on the keyboard would have been perfect with just one.

After he was ousted we stopped listening to the classical station. Yesterday I was driving toward the Canadian border, to pick our little one up from her orientation in Bellingham. Normally I like to tune in to the station in B.C. transmitting in Quebecoise French but for some reason yesterday's conditions were not the best for listening. Scanning through the dial I realized that the same Seattle station which had turned George's life upside down was trying to cash in by repeatedly playing music he had recorded with his orchestra and chorus. Since his abrupt departure the station's popularity has gone downhill: I found it ironic that George was resurrected from the dead to help them. Of course there were many listeners who were grateful to hear his music making one more time, but I wish the circumstances had been different.

You will live on in our memories, George.

“Retirement” © Elliot Shoemaker
George Shangrow © John Cornicello