Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Shining Light of Music and Humanity

It is interesting how differently we react to someone departing. Going away may not be even permanent as there is a likelihood that a person’s face will be seen again; yet people are elated and talk about a new beginning, in my field a Musical Spring. Then there are deaths which of course are permanent. Most of these are quickly forgotten, except by family and close friends. Occasionally a truly great individual passes away and thousands will keep on thinking of the person as he/she has deeply touched their lives. 

This past August 19th the father figure of Seattle’s classical music left us at an honorable age of 96. Vilem Sokol did more for young musicians than anyone I can think of, anywhere. He headed the Seattle Youth Symphony for 28 years and taught at the University of Washington for even a longer time, 1948-1985.  He inspired countless young people to become musicians and music lovers over the decades. With him at the helm, the SYSO organization reached its high point, an envy for the rest of America. Sokol was a father figure for everyone, beloved and admired. His own family was large with ten children, but his extended family was as huge as a big town. He worked tirelessly every day, bringing joy to the hearts of those thousands who were fortunate to have him as their guiding light.

Doing violin-related research I discovered a photo from not too long ago in which Vilem Sokol is having a conversation with two esteemed colleagues. The article linked to the picture talks about a famous violinist in Prague, Otakar Ševčik, whose life and work as a soloist and well-known pedagogue was quite familiar to me. What I didn’t know is the fact that Vilem’s parents in their wisdom had sent their son back to Czechoslovakia to study. Not only did he get a great musical education but also mastered the difficult language, unlike so many children of immigrants whose parents did their best to Americanize them, thinking this would make their success in the New World easier. Often elderly parents started forgetting what little English they had learned and their children had no way of communicating with them, a sad situation. I can remember the local opera company turning to Mr. Sokol for help with pronunciation when they produced a Czech opera, such as Dvořák’s Rusalka.
I remember playing as a part of a Mass honoring Vilem Sokol’s 90th birthday at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle. At the time it seemed like the iconic figure would live forever as he, a devout Catholic, gave us all an image of being close to a Saint. That he indeed was for so many music lovers. The orchestra in Heaven now has another great conductor on the podium.

I must return to a document of a very personal nature. I would not have made it public under different circumstances but since it refers to a difficult period in my life and Mr. Sokol's kind words and encouragement greatly helped me to survive, I think showing it here is in order.

The letter unexpectedly arrived about a year after a certain Mr. Meecham (today in Baltimore) called me in to discuss my contract and informed me that Gerard Schwarz was looking for new leadership. This was done shortly after I notified the Seattle Symphony that I needed surgery to remove a large tumor from my back. Mr. Schwarz never had the guts to talk one word to me about his unhappiness after my serving him for over a quarter of century, 20+ years of which here, or discuss his possible hormonal overload man-to-man. Add to the equation a local Mr. Kollektor who, I was told, offered the organization money to have me replaced. Anyway, by this time Schwarz, Meecham and the city’s most expensive law firm had lost their case in court and the issue was heading for mediation. This letter from Vilem Sokol gave me back my belief that goodness and compassion still existed and provided me with more strength to fight for justice than anyone else had been able to give. I shall treasure it for the rest of my life.

24 March 2005
Dear Ilkka:

Ever since you have been dealt an appalling blow by people you considered friends, I have tried to rationalize the reasons behind all of this.  Try as I might I cannot find any logical reason that has anything to do with your musicianship, your ability to play the violin superbly or your ability to lead a section of violinists, or for that matter the entire string section.

I’ve concluded after thinking about it for a long time that the reasons can only be political. You have become the scapegoat. You know as well as I who the culpable one is. Your dismissal from the orchestra is just a distraction from something else that may surface someday. It is my hope that it will.

Jenny and I continue to pray for you and for Marjorie. We admire both of you. You are not only admirable musicians but also high-principled human beings.

Continue standing up for your rights. Justice is on your side.
With my warmest regards,
(Bill Sokol)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stranger in the World

Last month I made the mistake of purchasing a licence to watch television programs from Finland, country of my birth. Due to their strict copyright laws only news broadcasts and such can be broadcast for free over the web. This service I subscribed to,, charges a yearly fee similar to what every Finnish household must pay for such a licence, a common practice in Europe. The main channels are ad-free; some others are financed by commercials. Naturally I watch local television there whenever I visit but do so seeing it as part of life and culture over there. All of a sudden the distance has been removed and part of my old home has followed me here. The broadcasts have all been recorded and are available on demand, similar to using a DVR or a service like TiVo. My feed comes from Chicago which is closer and thus more reliable than trying to reassemble data packets ten timezones away.

Moomin family on Finnish TV
Why am I calling this wonderful opportunity a mistake? Simply because I am able, or rather forced, to compare life and values here and back in the place of my origin. Instead of American predictable documentaries and movies with chase scenes and special effects but little else, I can follow very smart science programs from numerous European countries, deep philosophical conversations and European movies, crime and other dramas from the U.K., Germany, Italy, you name it. I have been especially impressed by Finnish educational programs. There is a classical music series where most of the presenters, both in speaking and musical roles, are just kids themselves. Naturally classic arts are not to everyone's taste there either, but watching these youngsters talk and play or sing certainly might make others of the same age at least somewhat curious about the subject. I'm beginning to understand why my home country has done so well in global comparison. Unfortunately I grew up in the old system. Living away from the big cities meant that instruction after elementary school was for the most part given by teachers with no interest in making students learn. Many of these people were bitter because they hadn't been able to land better jobs. In today's Finland there are no bad schools and teaching is one of the most competitive and respected professions.

Since the end of a busy summer has finally been less hectic, I have had the opportunity to follow politics, geography, various sciences, medicine and many other interesting topics. It has been twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and freedom for Finland's neighbors to the south in the Baltics. A lot of most interesting programs from the old archives have been rebroadcast, especially about Estonia, a small country that shares so much with its northern neighbor. Programs have subtitles but in most cases I don't seem to need them. Danish is hard to understand when spoken fast as is Dutch. I heard plenty of the latter today in a long documentary on Rembrandt. Having read quite about him, I was amazed to learn results of recent discoveries and the methods of investigating the true nature of many paintings attributed to him but recently found having been created in his workshop, by gifted students who had been taught the master's technique and style.

Rembrandt had no problems with signing his name on the bottom of a picture which wasn't his but this way fetched a far higher price. In the violin world the French master Vuillaume was a similar businessman. Most of the numerous Stradivarius copies were indeed done by students or workers in his shop; only relatively few truly unique instruments were actually Vuillaume's handiwork. He was an expert in creating fake Italian master instruments that look and sound as good as the originals. Actually they are better than the real things as they are newer and less damaged from wear and tear. There is absolutely no way of telling which is which: the famous Hill of London admitted long time ago that at least a third of Stradivari violins they had authenticated were most likely in made by the Frenchman a century later.

All this information has suited my plans well. As Alzheimer's runs on my mother's side of the family, I try to challenge my brain by studying numerous different topics every day, supposedly the best way of keeping the dreadful illness from developing. Obviously my newly discovered television programs are not enough: I also read a lot and do daily research on the computer. Family members and people who know me well often call me a walking encyclopedia. That I hardly am but admittedly know a lot and increasingly so every day. Seeing the mental decline in my mother and later in her brother, both extremely smart people, was enough to scare me for good, and I certainly don't want ever to be in a similar situation and become a terrible burden to those who love me.

I wrote earlier in this post about having to compare life in two different worlds, whether I want it or not. My extended stay in this country spans over 36 years and yet I have difficulties in understanding American value system, or rather the lack of it. We are a country without a collective conscience, often hiding behind a religion and living contrary to its fundamentals. As a rich nation it is a shame that our poverty level is so high, that our people are uneducated and that the sick and old suffer under our very eyes which we prefer to close. A problem unseen isn't there, right? I should not complain: my family does fine, but it is the less fortunate and their misery that bothers me to no end. Pro-life seems to mean more frequent executions: is the life of a fertilized egg really more important than that of a grown-up who as mentally ill or in desperation has committed a serious crime but who possibly could be returned to society with proper mental health care or by re-educating and giving this person another chance?

At times I wish I could return. Theoretically I could, but most of my family lives here, three of my four daughters (one has returned) and the same number of grandchildren. Most of my old friends back home have passed away (I was "born old" and always gravitated toward wise people decades my senior) and my family there has shrunk. Additionally, I am approaching an age when the system expects one to retire: one cannot continue in a job past 65 or 67 years of age, unless one is his own employer. For now, people are well taken care of but the financial uncertainty is a curse there as well, with the failing Mediterranean EU economies causing havoc. Finnish companies have followed in America's footsteps of capitalism: paying 200 euros a month in India is twenty times cheaper than hiring people back home.

Perhaps something truly horrible will happen and our eyes will open. Mankind seems unable to start anew, with any humbleness and social justice, except after a global-scale catastrophe. As it stands now, our paper currency, rapidly losing its value, should say In Greed We Trust and leave God out.

If it weren't for my wonderful loving family and the happiness of seeing a thriving new grandchild, I indeed would feel homeless and truly a stranger in this world.