Saturday, April 30, 2011


We can argue over whether change is good or bad, but it is inevitable. Who could have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union or the recent events in the Arab world? The uneasy balance between Israel and her neighbors is about to collapse now that we so eagerly wanted to "liberate" Egypt and other countries. Our memory is astonishingly short when it comes to previous "freedom" and "democracy" campaigns. To our unpleasant surprise Egyptians want to discontinue their peace agreement with the Jewish State, and worse yet, want to become friends with Hamas and Iran. I don't think too many freedom advocates saw that development coming. The Libyans are killing each other, Yemen and Syria are in a messy situation which will most likely benefit militant radicals. In Marrakesh, Morocco, the bombing of a popular tourist cafe has all the trademarks of Al-Qaeda. Germany just arrested three bomb makers trained by the same organization. I can see bloody times ahead. Is another global war in the works? Nature has her ways of shrinking any unsustainable overpopulation, even in seemingly cruel ways.

There are many colleagues of mine who stubbornly expect the world of the classical arts to remain the same as it has been for a number of decades. Yet this is but a fantasy, based on their dreams, not on facts. My father will reach the milestone of a 100 years in a few weeks. In his youth he found a popular area of making music: playing for silent movies. He was the violinist in a piano trio, performing in the shallow pit in front of the screen. Movies were becoming very popular and the field seemed like a great way of expressing one's musical talent and making money at the same time. In America, improvising a live "soundtrack" was usually left to an organist, some of whom were incredible in their skills. Well, the talkies arrived and the seemingly lucrative careers for these musicians came to a screeching halt. My dad kept up his playing but started to conduct an orchestra instead, just for the love of music. 

I myself grew up in the time of reel-to-reel tape recorders and became quite good in recording not only my own performances but others as well. This was the pre-transistor era and changing a vacuum tube was a common event. Microphones were rather large and connecting cables had to be double-shielded to eliminate any electronic noise. Soldering wires to the tight spaces of a European three- or five-prong DIN plugs made me burn my fingertips more times than I can count. Editing recordings required skill and I became quick with splicing the tape at a 45-degree angle and attaching it to another piece with special white tape. This all seems old-fashioned now, but it is a part of the past I miss today. If someone had told me all this knowledge was going to be obsolete in a few years, I would have laughed.

Not long ago I was reading an article in the leading Helsinki daily, lamenting the fact that orchestras in my native country have trouble attracting qualified Finnish instrumentalists and have to hire foreigners instead. It isn't that there is a shortage of music education as just about every town has a publicly sponsored music school. On the college or professional level schooling is completely free and at least until now student are actually given a stipend for their living expenses. Playing in an orchestra is not thought of as a glamorous occupation, and unlike here, the musicians think of themselves as musical civic employees, not artists. As salary is tied to the common pay scale structure system, it usually makes no difference if one teaches or plays in an orchestra. At least when I was younger, I couldn't call myself a "violin artist" unless I performed regularly as a soloist or recitalist. The country has its own "soloist association" which I think I'm still a member of.

In the U.S. orchestral playing wasn't that greatly valued either as it seldom gave a musician enough of an income. Seasons were short and working hours lousy. Perhaps in certain large cities with a long tradition of orchestral music matters were better, but those would have been few. Then something happened after WWII and with the country's increased wealth it became fashionable to donate large sums of money to education and arts institutions. Cities felt a need to build mega-halls and have large orchestras to fill the stages. At the same time interest in smaller groups, chamber music and recitals waned. As the donors aged and became increasingly hard of hearing, perhaps a deafening level of brass and percussion was needed to prevent their hearing aids from whistling. Musicians' appetite for larger and larger salaries grew and soon the financial balance became impossible to sustain; the orchestra bubble began to burst, something we are witnessing now. Philanthropy continues, of course, but instead of entertainment, it is focused on global health and such issues.

Glancing through online reader comments, musicians seem to receive little sympathy for their salary and other demands. It is quite easy to discover which opinions were written by the orchestral musicians themselves or their friends. The ordinary people are far more concerned about their own employment or lack of, not to mention health care and education. State universities are increasingly taking in out-of-state students because they can be milked for full private school level tuition, no matter how low they have scored. In Seattle straight A students, even class valedictorians, haven't been admitted to our #1 school, University of Washington. The school openly admits that it prefers outsiders as it sorely lacks funds. If we as a society expect every high school graduate to continue in college, we have to make it accessible and financially realistic. Of course, one could make an argument that attending college should be a privilege for the deserving, not an automatic right.

Back home a rather significant event took place. In the recent parliamentary election a formerly small party known as True Finns scored a tremendous victory. Many of my countrymen have been horrified as they see this relatively anti-EU party as a big step back. Even foreign media calls the election a major shift to the extreme right. I'm not so sure about it. Young voters, usually uninterested in politics, perceive them as a worker's party (wouldn't that qualify them as extreme left?) which wants to preserve Finnish values and not bail out other EU countries that are on the brink of collapse because of fiscal corruption. My brother, an astute observer whose political views hardly match those of the country's conservatives, says it is a good thing for the country to have so many new faces in the new Parliament, most belonging to ordinary men and women who campaigned with ideas, not with big budgets. People have spoken and now we must listen to what they have to say, whether we agree with the message or not. 

It must be spring as I smell all kinds of changes in the air.