Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cleaning house

While taking advantage of some alone time by cleaning closets and drawers, I stumbled upon the divorce sentence my mother received from my father, John Kransberg, back in 1977. Holding this yellow and frayed copy, I remember my mother's reaction as if it were yesterday. I detect tear stains on the papers. My father, after a long standing extramarital affair with a Swedish woman, traveled to the Dominican Republic in order to obtain a quick and easy divorce from my mom, after 37 years of marriage and four children. He never hinted to my mother about his double life, but had become increasingly abusive towards her both verbally and physically. My mother had just turned 55, and I recall her stunned reaction to the sudden abandonment and divorce. He stole the best years of my life. How will I survive without your father? Will he ever return? I was 17 at the time, a new student in the Heifetz Masterclass at USC. My mother, in her sorrow and unrelenting grief, turned to Mr. Heifetz for consolation. Typically, Jascha Heifetz veered away from parents, mothers especially, but in her case he made an exception, and offered these enlightening words: Would you wish to have a malignant tumor return? You're better off without him, if that's the manner in which he treated you.
The comment from Mr. Heifetz gave my mother a boost, and she never forgot his wisdom.

About twenty-seven years later, I would witness my 55 year old husband's shock and grief from abandonment and displacement at Seattle Symphony, after twenty years of service. The emotions and feelings of betrayal were all too familiar. For me, it was like stepping back in time as a teenager. Instead of holding my mother's hand, this time it was my husband's. The dissolution of a career and identity, so quick and easy, like a Dominican Republic divorce.
Who, you might ask, was the executor? He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Over the years, through child-rearing and teaching violin, I've had to cultivate a new art form: Patience. It hasn't been easy, I'll admit. When I studied violin (back in the dark ages), and went to school, expectations were higher. Students didn't receive A's just by showing up to class; a great deal of effort went into pulling those top grades. As for music lessons, based on personal experience, there was no such thing as sandwich criticism. (I just learned that term: you begin with a positive statement, layer with a criticism, and then finish with another positive comment). My teachers didn't know from such a thing; they let it rip, and on numerous occasions I packed up the violin with tears streaming down my face. You think Jascha Heifetz made nice? Or David Nadien? Israel "Izzy" Baker sent me home mid-lesson to "clean out my ears" based on a Sevcik exercise. Henri Temianka, a disciple of Carl Flesch, spent nearly two hours with me on the first page of the Sibelius Concerto. These marvelous task masters tore me to shreds, and due to my respect for them as artists, I emerged less self-satisfied and hopefully, more critical of my own playing.

But I have to learn to play by today's reality. Every now and then, while teaching an under-rehearsed or ill prepared student, the severe task master in me yearns to let loose. How do I pacify that overly critical voice? I glance up at a photograph of my beautiful, late sister Karen in my teaching studio. The image of Karen, with her radiant smile, calms my spirit. Blessed with inborn patience, and a charismatic personality, Karen made the impossible seem possible. It was Karen who encouraged my daughter Sarah to take her first steps, and my daughter Anna to walk on a balance beam, even though Anna was, at first, mortified. And it was Karen who taught my second grade playmates, even the most fearful, to swim. Her zest for life and love of children worked magic.

Getting back to sandwich criticism: I'll bet if my sister had been a violin teacher, she'd have served the sandwich, tossed the middle, yet inspired a feast of learning.

Photo of Karen Leslie Rosen

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Magic Book

A couple of weeks ago, my husband's cute little nose was buried in a mysterious black thing that resembled a Torah with some sort of keypad. I've been introduced to a number of strange objects around here over the years: mysterious wires that wrap their way around desk legs and tangle into knots, GPS devices that overtake my brain, Skype headsets, battery chargers, laptops, atlases, and paper bags filled with newsworthy print-outs plus bank statements. None of these newfangled gadgets and articles particularly interest me. How they wind up in every corner and surface of my house, and proliferate, I'll never know. But by most late afternoons I'm ready for the loonie bin, or at least a goblet of wine, probably due to sensory overload. My step-daughter Silja suffers the same condition and we compare notes. My disorder has probably surpassed hers. I guzzle my wine with eyeglasses or contact lenses removed, so I don't have to see the clutter. But getting back to the smooth, black object:

"What is that?" I asked Ilkka.
He emitted a quiet grunt and made a soft clicking sound on the keypad.
"What's that thing?
"A Kindle Book. I'm reading The Kalevala—in English, for a change. But I'm about to download Atlantic Monthly, TIME, and also a two week trial subscription to The Seattle Times."
"I thought we ended our subscriptions to the local dailies years ago," I reminded.
"But you're forgetting; the music critic has vanished. Have you read The Importance of Being Earnest"?
"Well, now you can, with a click of this button, see?"
Lo and behold, seconds later, Oscar Wilde's play materialized on the magic screen. All women turn into their mothers writes Wilde— that is their tragedy. How true. (I've turned into my mother, that's for sure). "I have to have this," I said. "It's mine now." And I grabbed the Kindle right out of Ilkka's hands. "Knowest Faust?" I whispered to my Magic Book, lifting it close to my heart. Faust appeared, glossary, link to Wiki and others. Secretly, I wonder if Mephisto roams the Seattle musical community disguised as an arm flailing maestro, snuffing out musicians, delighting in destruction, and gloating over ruin. "Knowest Balzac's Seraphita?" Click. And Seraphita, for ninety-nine cents, downloaded in the blink of an eye.

I'm going to be busy this summer, buried in the Kindle, mind traveling to faraway places, and heating wine in my cauldron sprinkled with aromatic spices. Which may be a blessing, after all. Cleaning clutter and picking piles will have to wait—and wait, perhaps forever.

Friday, July 18, 2008


My daughter Anna refers to my parenting as hands-off-care and laughs. My baby will turn 21 on July 21. Anna is my first-born. During my pregnancy, I was rather naive about motherhood, telling myself having a baby would be a cinch. I didn't grow up with younger siblings and never babysat, so, I came up short on experience. But it's not as if I hadn't been forewarned. This is what my mother said after she learned of my pregnancy: It's not the same as raising Boston Terriers, Marjorie Jill. A child is a full time responsibility, and you're a violinist. How will you find the time to balance everything? I couldn't tell if she was mad or glad, but I knew Mom would roll up her sleeves and help. I'd take a short summer respite from performances for maternity leave, and then begin full swing as concertmaster of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Peter Britt Festival with a daunting pile of repertoire, including solo work, to prepare for upcoming seasons. I figured the violin would not only soothe but lull our newborn to sleep.

At the onset of labor, Ilkka was excused from a dress rehearsal of a Wagner opera to assist in the birthing. (That was back in the old days, when Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera still had a few decent individuals in their midst—compassion, then a core value). Our daughter Anna Mirjam burst into this world weighing 4000 grams (almost 9 lbs) after a long, arduous labor. She was more perfect than Ilkka or I ever dreamed possible, with beautiful and wholesome features resembling both our mothers. It wasn't until a week or so after Anna's birth that I attempted practicing, and found to my dismay, that violin playing caused her to scream bloody murder. I tried everything: con sordino, molto adagio, doloroso, even pizzicato, but it was to no avail. My violin playing did nothing but agitate my own child, and I turned into a wreck. Together, Anna and I unleashed a torrent of tears, until Ilkka calmed her down by cradling her and singing Finnish lullabies.

I don't know how we survived those early experiences. Anna wasn't a sleeper as an infant. She gave new meaning to the term terrible twos, and I threw tantrums for precious practice and sleep time. Over the years, I ran myself ragged trying to balance the professional obligations with motherhood, skipping school gatherings and small celebrations for futile board meetings and boring luncheons. I did the best I could, earning the title she coined: Best Hands-Off-Care Mom because in a way, my daughter Anna raised herself, and did so, magnificently.

"Anna," I said to my self-assured, college graduate the other day, almost twenty one years later. I have to look up to her because she's so tall. "How about I do things differently from now on? You know, more hands-on. I have time now."
My Anna didn't even stop for pause, or give the offer a moment's thought.
"Oh no, Ma. Please. No, no, no. It's best the way it is." And she reminded. "I love you."

Photo of Anna Talvi 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Hero's Life

The diagnosis was a large tumor under the shoulder blade; an excruciating condition for any violinist. As concertmaster, perhaps he had been stabbed in the back too many times. His wife, also a violinist, suspected for a long while that her husband might lose his position, especially after the workplace was informed of the diagnosis and required surgery. The conductor's coolness, for one thing, elicited an air of detachment mixed with inner conflict; also, there were stares and whisperings among colleagues; you know, those little tell-tale signs. No one seemed concerned for the surgery or results. After learning of her husband's terminated contract, the wife, somewhat hysterical, phoned the conductor. His reply: We need to move forward. He'll want that too, I'm sure. Several long pauses. Give my love to your family.

Showing determination and courage, the concertmaster performed his final task at the workplace in the face of hostility, ridicule, and intense pain. The violin solos soared above the adversaries and battlefield with imperturbable dignity and strength. Richard Strauss himself might have recognized the pure Romantic style of those violin solos. From where did this strength arise?

The wife sat in the audience, defiant. She would speak to the conductor once more. How dare you, she would say. After the concert finished, she picked up her belongings and strode to the conductor's dressing room. By the way, it was not lost on her that the conductor's wife pretended not to see, not to know, not to hear. Hadn't they been on friendly terms for a good many years? By the time the concertmaster's wife found the conductor, she screamed (but quasi sotto voce) at the doorway: Why? Why? What more do you want? No answer, just a shrug from the conductor.
She added: He's in a different league, my husband, from all of you—and the door was shut like a slap in the face.

A few magic moments later, when the conductor emerged from his dressing room, it wasn't unnoticed that he gave a smile and nod to a female violinist, as if to say: Done deal. The concertmaster is out of the way now.

Illustration Dover Publications

Thursday, July 3, 2008

All My Students

Back in the 70's, when I was growing up outside of Boston, I'd receive numerous invitations to appear as soloist with the various, local orchestras. The engagements were always accepted for me by my mother, who insisted exposure would be essential for a developing artist, and never refused an opportunity. Although I'm certain Mom intended to sit through my concerts in those days, nerves would get the best of her, and she'd make a mad dash for the bathroom the moment I stepped on stage.

The Sunday afternoon I performed with Newton Symphony as soloist, my mother surprised me. She sat through the entire first half, and listened as I played Bloch's Nigun and Saint-Saƫns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso from the audience. What happened? Later, my mother explained to me: An elderly Jewish lady seated next to her in the balcony, urged her to calm down and enjoy the program. "But that's my daughter," said Mom to the white-haired, bespectacled lady. "I can't relax; I'm dying here; my Marjorie hasn't practiced enough; she's not ready."
"Dayge zakh nisht," the elderly lady replied in Yiddish. In other words, don't vorry.

I played those pieces convincingly, and by intermission, the two ladies came strolling backstage to greet me, arm in arm. Although they had struck up a friendship of sorts, my mother had no idea that the woman was Jennie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein's mother. And when my mother learned of her seating partner's identity, she was astonished. "You're Leonard Bernstein's mother? Why didn't you tell me? Oh my goodness, you must be so proud of your son!"And then every other word out of my mother's mouth was Lenny, Lenny, Lenny.
Mrs. Bernstein drew in a breath, sighed a long exhale and announced: I'm proud of ALL my children.

And this little admission my mother never forgot, for when she attended my concerts here in Seattle, as I performed as soloist, chamber musician, and concertmaster, audience members would make a similar comment: Mrs. Kransberg, you must be so proud of your daughter. My mother, never forgetting Jennie Bernstein's statement, would sigh. "I'm proud of ALL my children."

This evening, I've returned home from an exciting performance of young string players enjoying quartet literature in the admirable camp called Mini-Mania founded by cellist, Leslie Marckx. One of my most gifted students, ten year old Lev Roshal gave a spectacular performance in works by Mozart and Villa-Lobos. I think Lev was born to play the violin. Quite a few of our talented students have gone on to make names for themselves in the challenging world of classical music: Carla Leurs, first prize winner in Tibor Varga International Competition after continued studies at Juilliard with Itzhak Perlman, Andrew Sumitani at University of Chicago studying privately with famed virtuoso, Ilya Kaler. Irene Cheng furthered her education at Yale Graduate School with Sidney Harth, and went on to pursue a career in teaching and concertizing. And many more lovely students: enough concertmasters and first chair players of Garfield High School and the various youth orchestras that it's difficult to keep track. Just a few weeks ago, I felt a surge of pride as a few of my top-notch students participated in a ground-breaking program at Music Works, organized by pianist Nino Merabishvili. These dedicated youngsters lift my spirits and enable me to feel hopeful for the future. But when they perform in public, even at Talvi Violin Studio recitals, I have to remind myself to calm down and sit still. I guess I inherited my mother's jitters. But here's the bottom line: Not everyone is destined to become a professional musician. Yet, I'm convinced all our students will lead successful lives because they've learned dedication and the attention to detail through the study of great music, and they will always respect and understand the art form, feeling music from the inside. I still hear Jennie Bernstein and my mother's voice chiming together, and from the bottom of my heart:
I'm proud of ALL my students.