Friday, June 27, 2008

Orchestra Etiquette

While attending a recent Garfield High School orchestra concert under the direction of the incomparable Marcus Tsutakawa, I realized it might be useful for local, professional ensembles to learn etiquette from these extraordinary youngsters. The camaraderie between Garfield orchestra musicians is enviable and worth noting. At Garfield, when a student steps onto the platform to embark on a solo, he or she is surrounded by supportive peers, similar to players on the same sports team. I doubt the second desk violinist snickers or sneers if the concertmaster flubs a note. Over the years, Ilkka and I have attended a number of Garfield High School concerts. We share a large roster of instrumentalists from that inspiring program, and our lives have been enhanced and enriched by the talents, ambitions, and diverse backgrounds of these budding artists. I could go on and on in praise of these students, but I'll get back to my point; orchestra etiquette.

Here are some do's and don'ts in my book:

Use mouthwash if you're going to incessantly talk to a stand partner during rehearsal. Ever see the close talker episode of Seinfeld?
Don't pull the music stand away from your stand partner to hog the score. Instead, make an appointment with an optometrist.
If you prefer the lady concertmistress to the male concertmaster, don't make it obvious to everyone by repositioning your music stand closer to the female, or stamping your foot loudly whenever the object of your fantasies plays a solo line. We knew a cellist (the cellists sat next to the first violins) who had this rude and offensive habit.
It's counter productive to bicker with the person in front of you, next to you, and behind to insist your way is the correct one.
One should avoid taking on the role of section music director, as it presents only confusion among colleagues. One conductor is enough, thank you.
If you must wear a seat belt to keep from wild, mannered bodily movements and gyrations, then do so. I don't think it's a breach of dress code if your seat belt is black.
If you're the personnel manager, supposedly setting an example for others, it might be decent to at least acknowledge the section leader, or concertmaster, with eye contact. But then again, guilt is the greatest self-accuser.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Every now and then I'd follow my husband into that Parallel Universe known as the professional orchestra. He'd sit first chair (that's the concertmaster), and I'd sit last, as an extra player. I didn't mind the work. We'd joke that I was concertmaster of the behind, which soothed my fragile ego.

The orchestra had their moments, of course. Some days were better than others. An inspirational figure on the podium infused the musicians, weary from the usual dot and dash talk, with raw energy, vitality, and curiosity. My hands down, favorite guest conductor over the years was Asher Fisch. Sigh. Can you imagine, Fisch turned me from a Wagner hater into Wagner lover? This he did during the Seattle Opera production of Parsifal in 2003, a work I considered a sleep aid. But under Maestro Fisch, playing Wagner was more like having an out-of-body sensual experience, those lugubrious phrases of Wagner's melodies suspended into timeless beauty. And if Asher Fisch, an Israeli Jew with a sexy accent, didn't appear to be offended by Wagner's virulent, anti-semitic remarks, why should I let the well-documented hatred destroy my personal experience? Instead, I chose to focus on Wagner's obsession with French, silk underwear.

The following year after my infatuation with Parsifal, I performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto in addition to all ten piano and violin sonatas. I was in for a surprise: Through Wagner I got Beethoven's slow movements, learning to linger on those beatific phrases without feeling the least bit hurried. Thanks, Maestro Fisch. Too bad I seem to have ended up on the blacklist in this town, or as Wagner might have said: Sie wird in dieser Stadt auf die schwarze Liste gesetzt. It would have been my pleasure to have learned more from you.
Painting by David Hellman 2006

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Beyond

In the Yiddish language, the word for teaching and learning is the same—lernen zikh. When I teach, I'm learning, and I love this.

A young boy enters my studio and has difficulty making sense of the Adagio from Bach's Solo Sonata in g minor. I lead him to the piano. Without the problematic sustaining of chords through bow technique, but through experimentation at the keyboard, Bach's style emerges. My student awakens to the individual voices in Bach's awe-inspiring Adagio, and I feel myself on a journey with him.

Another young student is challenged by sight-reading and rhythmic discipline. His creative mind unleashes an urge to play whatever he desires, rather than adhering to the score. This poses a dilemma: do I let him have his way or rein him in? He's only ten years old. Instinctively, I choose the duets of Bartok and Hindemith. Through this repertoire, my student recognizes and begins to appreciate the value of a steady beat, a pulse. If I make a rhythmical mistake while playing, my ten year old is a step ahead of me, pointing out my silly errors. We laugh together. I'm doing my job effectively if he surpasses me. The method of duet playing reminds me of my early years, the years spent with my mother hovering at my side. She played the violin as an amateur, and lost herself for hours practicing. When my father threatened he'd divorce her because she failed to do the housework, Mom bought a quarter size violin and poured her energies into my studies. "I'll continue to learn through you," she said to me. "What can your father say to that?" She supervised my studies with zeal, and every teacher I had the privilege of working with was scrutinized, assessed, digested and regurgitated by my mother. The result of her insatiable appetite for learning was that I experienced a broad spectrum of genius artist/teachers in my life.

Those teachers are dead now. But when I work with my own students, it's not unusual for a visitation. I hear the voice of Jascha Heifetz: If you don't believe in yourself, how do you expect anyone else to believe in you? Erick Friedman reminds me that playing Mozart can be compared to cutting a diamond. Dorothy DeLay smiles and suggests asking the student to tell a story through music. Leopold Mozart—oh, okay, you caught me, I met with him through reading his Treatise—admonishes: One should not give a beginner anything difficult before he can play things well in time. Sarah Scriven, the teacher I adored more than all the others, whispers: Even the greatest artists have off days. Always remember that, darling.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Metro Gnome, Esq.

"We'll be doing some Magic Moments from Act I and Overture," says Metro Gnome, Esq. He raises his pant leg in order to show off a pair of green and red Christmas socks, and laughs at his own wit.

Year after year, the pit band blasts through the Overture two times, being given the exact directives by Metro Gnome. The band, a bit older and suffering from senior moments, is encouraged to play louder, even louder. Metro Gnome shouts,"I cawn't hear you, violins, play more. Never mind the pianissimo in your parts. This is your moment! More staccato, please."

I move the music stand a bit to the left to block the relentless foot tapping, and confide a few things to my stand partner. Big mistake, by the way. Be careful what you tell a stand partner. Metro Gnome beats time with hand, foot and mouth. Confused in my old age, the multiple time indicators add to my frayed nerves. There is no such thing as delicacy in our rendition of the beloved holiday production. The Overture, marked in 2/4 time (that means feel in 2), stretches into 4/4. Nuances—what are those?

The important thing is Metro Gnome can boast he's conducted the production hundreds of times while thinking about everything from carnal pleasures to gastronomic indulgences, rather than the music itself.

Turducken, anyone?

Saturday, June 21, 2008


The Salvage Store was downtown, in an area unfamiliar to me. Michael, our neighbor introduced me to the place. He had finished transforming a useless basement room in our home into a marvelous music studio, the walls lined with shelves, resembling the library of my dreams. The timing of the renovation was fantastic; the studio was completed while Ilkka and I were away with the symphony on tour. We'd end up needing that extra space, only, we didn't know it at the time. We had no idea our lives would depend on renovation and reinvention, and that teaching would be our salvation, each student a blessing.

The store, crowded from floor to ceiling with rare treasures, fascinated me. An antique, oak banking desk held amazing potential as a dining table. The drawers for deposit/withdrawal slips might have stashed knives, forks and linens. I desperately wanted the collectible desk but couldn't afford it. My spirits sank.

"Hey, what about this?" Michael asked, inching his way through stacks of knick-knacks and furnishings to an imposing, red velvet covered pew.
"You've got to be kidding."
"It'd be perfect for the studio," he said.
We stared at one another. I could no longer be an impulsive shopper. Gone were the days of reckless spending and the sneaking of merchandise into the house. During the mid 80's when we lived in Los Angeles, I had a soft spot for Boston Terriers and adopted three of them from Beverly Center. I bought them while Ilkka was guest concertmaster of Seattle Symphony. By the time he found out about the dogs, it was too late; they were my children. It'd be tough to sneak an eleven foot pew into the house. I sank deeper into my thoughts. Would we even have students after the media's slanted reporting?
Michael rattled away. He discovered donation envelopes still hidden in the bench: First Christian Church on Broadway
And his finger traced a beautiful etching of a cross on the side.
"I'm Jewish," I said.
"I'll carve a star of David for you right next to it," he persisted. "You'll need this—for students and their parents. Students will sit and listen to one another, like a class. It'll be a fresh beginning, a new life for you and Ilkka."
I thought about it.
"I don't know, maybe—ok." I caved in. "I'll buy the pew. Who knows? After being vilified by the press and having our reputations smeared, if students still come to us, I might turn into a Believer, yet."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Almost Always on Sunday

My mother, Frannie Kransberg, almost never missed a Sunday matinee of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra. I'd walk onstage, scan the half-empty hall, and there she'd be, in her usual aisle seat; a fixture. Even at the age of 82, Mom was fiercely independent, insisting on taking buses everywhere from her home in Bothell. She'd flit away the hours prior to concerts shopping for bargains, mostly at The Rack. By the time my mother wound her way to Nordstrom Recital Hall, she'd be loaded up with shopping bags, bundles, she called them. I was tipped off by a concertgoer that Mom innocently whacked the person a row ahead of her in the head with her pocketbook. I suppose my mother got a bit excited at concerts. She'd boast to the person next to her:
See the concertmaster walking onstage? That's my daughter! And do you realize, she's married to Ilkka Talvi, the other concertmaster? And, on top of everything else, they have the world's most beeeautiful daughters—my grandchildren, Anna Mirjam and Sarah Lilian!

At the end of concerts, she'd appear backstage, and make the same comment time and time again. "You look so much better now that the performance is over!"
And I'd think, Gee, I wonder why. Like, it's not pressure having you here?
Then we'd leave the hall, take the elevator down to garage level, and I'd drive her home.
"Our time together," she'd say.

One of Mom's favorite violinists on the planet happened to be Joseph Silverstein, the Principal Guest Conductor of NWCO. My mother remembered Joey Silverstein from her days as an amateur violinist in Harry Ellis Dickson's Brookline Civic Symphony, back in the late fifties, early sixties. Silverstein, during those years, regularly tested out repertoire with community orchestras before solo appearances with Boston Symphony. Understandable and logical. Joseph Silverstein was BSO's young concertmaster, and took the role seriously, practicing (according to my mother) his violin right up until the last second before entering the stage. I noticed whenever my mother spoke of Mr. Silverstein, she'd lower her voice, and lift her eyes heavenwards.
"His tone is like the finest wine," she'd say.

So, the Sunday concert on November 14th, 2004 was penciled in my mom's calendar. Silverstein was slated to conduct with Mark O'Connor as soloist. But there was a problem. And the problem was NWCO sold out that entire weekend, due to Mark O'Connor's popularity.
"I'm sorry, Mom," I said. "No more tickets."
Secretly, I felt a little relieved. I mean, I loved having my mother in the audience but let's face it, I was a little concerned about what she might say or do.
Once the concert finished, I walked to my car, and realized I felt lonely. I missed my mom that day, November 14th. I missed her so much that I called her house as soon as I drove from the Benaroya Garage. It was 4:44 on the dot. The phone rang and rang: no answer. If she wasn't at my concert, then where was she?

I found out two hours later. True to Mom's character, she had taken a bus to and from the grocery store, her cart loaded with bundles. Mom was probably tired and hungry. She must have missed hearing the NWCO. I wouldn't be surprised if her thoughts were music-related, envisioning my performance. She certainly didn't sense the car coming. And the driver didn't see my mother. Time of fatal accident: 4:44.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Not too many years ago, I sat with two of my dearest friends, Dianne and Mara, and enjoyed a couple glasses of wine. We were pondering life's mysteries; why bad things happen to good people, that sort of thing. Mara's husband, cellist David Tonkonogui had tragically died from an incurable blood disease at the young age of 44. Dianne, victimized by an abusive relationship and enduring litigation, was also grappling with her mom's age-related dementia. I sat there, legs crossed, sipping Merlot. "Well, nothing earth-shattering has ever come my way," I announced.
"Oh?"asked Dianne.
"Come to think of it, I haven't even suffered the death of a close family member other than a grandparent. And I couldn't ask for a more fulfilling career." I went on to enumerate the long list of concert engagements, including an East Coast tour with Seattle Symphony, and a guest appearance in Orange County with the phenomenal musical duo, Ralf Gothóni and Elina Vähälä.
Dianne looked at me, eyebrows raised. She seemed to slink deeper in her chair. Mara's dark eyes filled with tears. "Good, Margie," Mara said. "Hope it stays that way. Maybe you're blessed with good karma."

But I hadn't heard of Woland...

Months later, my husband lost his job as concertmaster for Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera without so much as an explanation. My mother was killed by a car while stepping off a bus in Bothell, a few blocks from her home. Less than two years later, my sister Judy died. Colon cancer—runs in the family. My orchestra, the child of my musical creativity, Northwest Chamber Orchestra, went belly up. My father died after disinheriting his children, and my sister Karen ended her life.

Mara had recommended a book: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a perfect antidote. She told me that David had found it fascinating, revisiting the story during his illness. I read it, reread it, and carried the novel around with me everywhere, including the orchestra pit.
'Cowardice is the most terrible of vices' and 'manuscripts don't burn': two messages central to Bulgakov's masterpiece. Woland, the devil in disguise might be anywhere, not necessarily a force for evil, although I'd admit, the reader might be challenged to recognize him as an enabler, a catalyst for positive change.

Which brings me to my point. I'm more careful with my proclamations these days; Woland might be listening.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

That's Gratitude

Taking a classical musician’s job away is a form of murder—premeditated murder. Well meaning colleagues ask, “What are you going to do now?” What they mean is: how does it feel to be black-listed and could it happen to them? I can’t answer that question. All I can tell them is that over the last four years I’ve learned the art of reinvention, out of necessity, of course.

If you know anything about professional orchestra musicians, they move together in tight little groups, similar to middle school children. The most insecure become Mean Girls. To me, the world of the professional orchestra player is a parallel universe.

In this parallel universe, dedication over many years, say for instance twenty, is obliterated when a music director takes it upon himself to end your career. Out of fear or excitement, colleagues turn into denouncers, pointing fingers at one another, perhaps with an underlying hope of advancing their own careers. A note played incorrectly has a far stronger impact than a trillion beautiful phrases, especially if you happen to be the concertmaster. Speaking from a female perspective, the odds are stacked against you if you forego make-up, gain weight, or lose your hair. I remember a phone call after a concert from a woman I'll name Doreen. She served as a Trustee for the now defunct Northwest Chamber Orchestra.

“That dress you wore last night was all wrong,” she said. Doreen’s voice was raspy.

“Huh?” I asked. The dress she referred to featured a slit up the side.

“Do us all a favor and shove that dress in the back in your closet. Don’t wear it again until you’ve lost seven, twelve, maybe fifteen pounds.”

“Have you looked in a mirror, Doreen? Because you look as if you smacked head first into a wall.” My heart pounded loud enough I thought Doreen might hear it over the telephone.

I was still recovering from a previous confrontation with Doreen:

“We’ll have to do something about your hair,” she said, sitting across from me at lunch one fine day. “Your skin is okay, actually nice, but your hair—your hair bothers me.”

Welcome to “magic moments” from my former life.