Thursday, June 23, 2011


Veikko Talvi, 100 on June 21 2011
Upon arriving at the public senior home to see my dad, I heard sentimental songs, originating many decades ago. At first the sound came from loudspeakers but as I walked on, a Roma (or Gypsy) with a golden voice came to my sight and I realized this was the home’s dance hour. The dark-skinned baritone (for a Finn) was accompanied by a skillful accordion player and the old tunes were familiar to all present. As there were more women than men, the caregivers helped out by dancing with those who hadn’t found a partner. There was sweetness in the air and I had to delay entering my dad’s section of the building. Had he possessed the strength, I’m sure he’d have been the first one on the floor. I was mesmerized by the healing power of this quite basic but sincere and melancholic music making and spent quite a while witnessing the scene.

Today no one seems to know what direction music performances should go. Orchestras are particularly at a loss as nothing simple and small is cost-effective. By seeing the pleasure and happiness on the faces of the seniors I couldn’t even begin to deny the power of live music. There he was, a singer from a minority group in my native country, probably not particularly well known, giving joy to the elderly and even to me. One doesn’t need a star soloist or a bombastic performance of a Mahler symphony to fulfill the needs of a music-loving listener. In its simplicity the slightly amplified vocal-accordion duo hit the spot.

Two serenades
My dear dad turned a hundred years old two days ago. Although his age shows by now, he was amazingly perky for the two-hour reception. I had forgotten how proper my countrymen are in such events: just about all the male visitors were wearing black suits in spite of the festivities falling on the longest day of the year. I was the exception in an orange short-sleeved dress shirt and a Moomintroll tie with no jacket. However, my old man was admiring my colorful outfit which naturally pleased me. He was serenaded by two violinists: his very first student, now up in his years, played a long czardas from memory and amazingly well considering his age. The other musical greeting was by my niece’s daughter, four generations younger. In spite of the pressure of an audience and a grown-up’s impressive solo right before, she stood her ground and her great-grandfather was a keen listener.

Midsummer Eve is tomorrow and my brother Tuomo was busy getting ready to play the keyboard for a daytime dance with one of his bands. They were expecting hundreds of participants and I was admiring the enthusiasm with which the over 70-year-old was packing his car with sound equipment. Even in my childhood I was outright envious of the pleasure my elder brother got out of playing and performing music. The fact that he never did it for living didn’t hurt. I “retired” from studying the piano at 7 or 8 (I actually used this expression to notify my teacher) mainly because I felt I could never reach the level of my sibling who was eight years older than I. The Chopin Etudes seemed too difficult ever to master for a little tyke and I listened with amazement to the skilled improvisations that came directly from my brother’s heart. So, I concentrated on the violin, teaching myself and soon others. The fiddle was my father’s instrument and I knew he would be thrilled by my rapid progress. However, I must admit that I probably never got the kind of satisfaction out of performing my brother did and still does. I can play very well, no doubt, but the love and enjoyment doesn’t reach the level of my brother. I should have followed my mother's advice and have had a career outside of music: that way I could still love it. The wise French said that one should never work in a field what they love most as it was too close to one’s heart. They also claimed one shouldn’t marry the person they loved above everyone else: that one I can’t quite agree with.

It was interesting to hear again complaints about young people losing interest in classical instruments, in spite of Finland’s generally excellent and widely available music education. In particular violin has suffered in popularity, probably because there is no way one can get instant satisfaction from it. No matter how good one’s ear is, learning the instrument takes a lot of hard work. Edison said that a genius is composed of 95% sweat. With a string instrument, particularly the violin, the percentage must be closer to 99. There are really no shortcuts, no magic bullets. My country, even during these globally hard economic times, invests a lot of public funds in classical arts, annoying the larger part of music lovers who prefer a lighter fare. Helsinki is finally getting a decent concert hall which should be ready any day now. Probably it will be packed for many years like new auditoriums tend to be, even when their acoustics leave a lot to be desired. How my country (and the rest of Europe) will be able to finance classical arts in the long run is of course a big question mark, but at least people assume the funding will come from the government or big cultural foundations which are large in number. Music there is not for the wealthy by the wealthy, a much healthier approach that we have on this side of the Atlantic.

This plane is approaching Seattle and I’m eager to see my loving family again after a week. Without them there would be very little to keep me here; add to that our gorgeous nature, a lush version of Scandinavia. My values differ too much from the American norm. Money is nice to have but it shouldn’t become an obsession. I like a system where people are taken care of, whether they are well off or less so. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of wonderful people here; they just don’t make much noise. And we have more than our share of ignorant fruitcakes: anti-science, anti-women, anti-progress but pro-guns, pro-war and pro-greed. After witnessing the care every person in my dad’s home gets makes me realize what a primitive society we in so many ways have.

Happy Midsummer to all!