Saturday, August 30, 2008


When Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, made an impromptu visit at Talvi household in 2004, deeply apologetic and pained by not being able to honor a signed letter of intent (due to SS orchestra's choke-hold on the opera's affairs), he expressed fascination with our teaching of young violinists. "Isn't that difficult?" he asked, with a look of disbelief.

"Yes," I remember thinking. "Teaching violin can be a challenge but it's a labor of love." What I didn't realize at the time of Speight's visit, was that my opinion of music as a profession was slowly evolving, creating inside of me a whole new approach to violin teaching. While I had once conceived of music as a laudable and viable career, my views altered after a series of politically motivated, musical mishaps, including Speight's retraction of employment, which profoundly impacted our family.

Ilkka and I encourage our students to create balance in their lives with an emphasis on broader education and academics. The study of a musical instrument, when tackled in a thoughtful manner, is soul food; nourishment for the brain and senses; a life enhancer. And if one develops the skill of detailed study, as one tends to do with violin playing, the payback can be most rewarding. I'll use one of my friends from Meadowmount, Robert Portney, as an example of what can go right when a well-rounded, talented person is properly nurtured:

Robert Portney claimed first prize in the International Mozart Festival Competition, and due to his aptitude for science and violin, was awarded the Leonard Bernstein Scholarship, full tuition, to study at Harvard, while concertizing extensively. Alongside a fulfilling concert career of many years, Bob Portney is currently geriatric neuropsychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General. He admits success in both fields proved a challenge, yet he attained his goals in both areas. With medicine, Dr. Portney explains, the quantity of life is extended. But with music, one benefits from quality of life.

You know what I think? The world could use more well-balanced, educated musicians, like Robert Portney. With more like him, perhaps colleagues would stop their petty ways.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The In-Laws

Tomorrow will be our 24th wedding anniversary. I laugh as I recall my husband's marriage proposal. Ilkka didn't ask for my hand in marriage. He stated, "We'll be married."
And since I had a fondness for European men—especially, dark, hot-blooded Finns shrouded in mystique, I said,"Okay."

The next hurdle was to learn some choice Finnish phrases, in order to converse with my in-laws, Irja and Veikko Talvi. After we purchased our home in Seattle, Ilkka's parents visited us at least once a year, for many weeks at a time. They loved Seattle, preferring it over all other American cities, and I thought Irja and Veikko were adorable; holding hands one moment, teasing one another the next, arguing over trivialities, and then forgetting they had ever argued; to me, an ideal married couple.

After my mother-in-law passed away, the highlight for Veikko when he visited was following us in our everyday lives through music. Those days, we were actively involved with Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Northwest Ballet. For Veikko, a duo performance of ours at Finnish Lutheran Church was no less meaningful than a concert in front of thousands at the opera house. And when Anna, our young cellist, performed in her teacher's student recital at a church in Magnolia, my father-in-law sat in rapt attention, his white-knuckled hands gripping the pew. Little beads of sweat dotted his forehead as he endured the other cello students. He couldn't comprehend why the students were performing works beyond their capabilities, and it made him edgy. I could always sense when Veikko was dissatisfied with a performance; he'd pull himself into a rigid sitting position, perspire profusely, puff out his cheeks, and slowly exhale. At the cello recital, I was afraid he'd drop dead.
I whispered, "Don't worry. Anna's cello teacher is excellent."
"Toivon niin," he replied, pulling out a hanky to wipe his brow. I hope so.
And sure enough, once Anna took the stage, tuned, and stabbed the cello endpin into the donut, she soared through a piece by J.S. Bach. Veikko's cheeks deflated like a tire, his pallor returned to normal, and the sweating subsided.

After shindigs at the opera house, my father-in-law would expect tea and cake while he'd offer a blow by blow description of each composition played, as well as the performers' standards. And I swear, I think Veikko counted audience attendance at each event, because sometimes he'd say: "niin paljon ihmisiä", so many people, and then, try and calculate the exact number. The program book he would clutch in his hand, like a hard won prize. And then he'd chuckle softly to himself and say: The conductor likes himself too much. That was it? His whole opinion of the conductor? He had such deep opinions of everyone else. I'd ask him to elaborate. "What do you mean?"
He shook his head, pointing to each and every photo of the music director in the program.
Another sip of tea.
"Hän pitää itsestään liian paljon." He likes himself too much.
Veikko Talvi, tea and cake 1996

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mother Of All Commutes

I know what it feels like being schlepped around for violin lessons. So, when anxious mothers and fathers call to set up lessons for their offspring at Talvi Studio, I at least make every effort to factor in mileage costs, and traffic issues, while offering scheduling accommodations.

Ilkka and I have a little competition going as to which one of us spent more hours on buses commuting to and from violin lessons during our young years. He says he did, with travels back and forth from Kuusankoski to Helsinki often twice a week, usually by himself. Ilkka's travels clocked up to twelve hours weekly, plus one day a week of missed school. But I'm convinced I spent more time traveling for lessons, especially with the additional car time from Beverly to Boston. Round trip from home to Lincoln Center took me about twelve hours as well. Here's how it started:

My late mother, Frances Kransberg an amateur violinist, kept an eye on Boston area young violinists in the 60's. One little boy caught her attention in a big way; his name was Lynn Chang. Lynn outpaced all the other violinists, according to my mother, and I'd sort of have to agree. The secret of Lynn's violinistic wizardry, in my mother's mind? Lynn Chang traveled from Boston to New York every weekend for lessons with Ivan Galamian at Juilliard, and Frances Kransberg wasn't about to have her daughter outdone.

You can probably guess the rest. Every Saturday morning, at 2 A.M., my mother and I boarded the Greyhound bus from Boston's Port Authority and arrived in Manhattan for an 8 A.M. lesson at Juilliard Pre-College, followed by a full day of classes: theory, orchestra with Isaiah Jackson, and later James Conlon, solfege, and string ensemble with Wesley Sontag, and chamber music with Bruce Berg. Afterwards, we'd head back for Boston. I'm shaking my head as I write this. At that time in the New England area, there were phenomenal artist teachers; Joseph Silverstein for one, Emanuel Borok, another. Robert Koff, founding member of the Juilliard Quartet, taught at Brandeis. Greater Boston Youth Symphony offered terrific opportunities for youngsters, including solo competitions, and these events were practically in my backyard. Were those hours spent on Greyhound necessary? Shrug.

The seeds for my becoming a conspiracy theorist were sown years ago. On one of our Greyhound travels to Juilliard in mid-winter, my mother awakened to find her boots missing. (She had a habit of removing her shoes before falling asleep on the bus). We arrived at 42nd Street Port Authority in the middle of a blizzard, and my mother's boots weren't anywhere to be found. She tapped the shoulder of the passenger in front of us; had he seen her boots? He shook his head. Naw, lady. She nervously asked a couple of women behind us. Had they seen her boots? Maybe the boots had slid under the seat. Uh-uh, replied the women, yawning. Nobody had seen her boots; they vanished into Greyhound oblivion.

Margie, some wise guy stole them, she said. Crazy people. She marched up to the Greyhound driver in her stocking feet. Please, Mr. Driver, make an announcement. It's snowing heavily outside and someone snatched my boots. Oh, and they're navy blue.
I slunk in my seat. Did I know this lady without shoes?
The microphone made a loud hiss, and then the driver announced:
This lady here tells me her navy blue boots are missin'. It's not funny to steal someone's shoes, so whoever took 'em, give 'em back.
Stifled giggles.

The boots had disappeared without a trace. So, what did she do?
Ilkka laughs when I remind him. Even he has to admit my mother was clever; an original.
Mom plucked a pair of brown leather gloves from her pocketbook and pulled them over her feet. And this is what she said:
It's New York—stop laughing. Nobody will notice and they'll keep my feet warm. Who knows? I might set a trend, yet.

And off she waddled, through Port Authority to Woolworth's, in search of a pair of inexpensive shoes, with gloves on her feet. You know what? Come to think of it, she was right; those New Yorkers didn't give her a second glance.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


With another school year only weeks away, and summer drawing to a close, it's always a mood lifter to receive a phone call from Walter Schwede, former Associate Concertmaster of SS orchestra (the best they ever had) and now Professor of Violin at Western Washington University in Bellingham. I've always admired Walter Schwede's soulful artistry. He's a beautiful violinist, caring teacher and supportive colleague; rare attributes this day in age. So, when Walter bubbles with enthusiasm for having spent another summer teaching at Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York, I inhale his exuberance. My mind travels back circa 1970's, before cell phones and the internet, to the days when I attended that unique summer school for strings. Indeed, Meadowmount is so close to my heart, that it's one place I must revisit before I die.

My parents sent me to Meadowmount because it had the reputation of being a Boot Camp for Musicians. Meadowmount had nurtured the artistic talents of such luminaries as Michael Rabin, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Erick Friedman, and Miriam Fried, among an impressive list of others. The Meadowmount schedule was rigorous; five to six hours of daily practice, with private lessons, coachings and performance gatherings. My first year of attendance in 1971, I was eleven years old, a student of Sally Thomas. My tiny cubicle of a room was directly above Ivan Galamian's studio in the Main House. The first thing my mother said as she unpacked my belongings:
Sweetheart! Put your ear to the floor and you'll be able to hear Mr. Galamian teach all day long! You'll be that much ahead of the other students. I sat on the lumpy cot and stared at my mother. Picking my fingernails, I wondered how I'd survive the homesickness, not to mention the exhaustive, tedious, painful hours of relentless, unendurable practice.

But once my parents left the premises, I gathered my courage and reached out for friends. I met students from all over the country, and far away places. For a kid growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts, the varied backgrounds of Meadowmount campers was a culture shock. And with newly acquired friends I learned the most amazing things: I discovered how to fake practicing, by first playing into a Sony cassette recorder and pressing playback for 45 minutes while contentedly playing Solitaire. I learned how to sneak away with others in the middle of the night to visit the boys' dorms (Robert Portney, Chin Kim and Gil Morgenstern were heart throbs). I perfected the skill of tuning excessively and making chit-chat during lessons to avoid nasty scale and etude work. I learned to snatch extra pancakes when Judith Galamian turned away in the dining hall. She had quite a temper, that Mrs. Galamian, but those pancakes were worth the struggle. Two Meadowmount beauties, Heidi Carney and Sharan Leventhal instructed me on the art of applying Maybelline products, and caused my addiction to Entenmann's Chocolate-Chip Cookies.

But the jewel at Meadowmount was violinist/pedagogue Josef Gingold. Mr. Gingold taught chamber music to Meadowmounters for over thirty years and influenced a whole generation of string players. He had introduced 13-year-old Itzhak Perlman to chamber music and 14-year-old Pinchas Zukerman to the viola. Gingold's studio was at the opposite end of Mr. Galamian's in the Main House, and his teaching style couldn't have been more of a contrast. While Ivan Galamian appeared rigid and strict, snapping his fingers and urging students to practice, Mr. Gingold, round and bear-like, suffused Meadowmount with affection and charm. Every comment Mr. Gingold offered during coachings was followed by a witty and applicable story. Humor served Mr. Gingold well. I don't recall him ever losing his temper, or having a bad day. I'll never forget my first session being coached by the eminent professor. My group had prepared Haydn's Lark Quartet. The quartet of students faced Mr. Gingold, and behind him a large, panoramic window. As Mr. Gingold interrupted the quartet to make an instructive comment by sharing a humorous anecdote, a decapitated dolly dangled up and down the window behind him, displaying a bizarre, circular dance. Suddenly, headless dolly disappeared, only to be replaced by a mangled, one-eyed teddy bear, and later, a limbless Raggedy Ann. The quartet tried to stifle giggles but it was to no avail. We burst out laughing until tears rolled down our cheeks. Mr. Gingold was infected by our laughter, mystified by what was so funny. He didn't think to turn around at the window. "Oh, vot children," he laughed. Above his studio, a few impish Main House girls had tied dolls with defects and stuffed animals to a rope, and dangled them up and down the window, intent on derailing our coaching. Poor Mr. Gingold! He never caught on; such an innocent and sweet man; probably thinking we were laughing at his anecdotes. When I visit Meadowmount in the future, I'll pay homage by first stepping into Mr. Gingold's studio.
Drawing of Josef Gingold
New Yorker 1991

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cruel Business

Why was Angela Fuller, the highly gifted violinist from Seattle, denied tenure as concertmaster from Houston Symphony after serving for two years in that post? Did she not play her cards right? I know she's a marvelous musician. Houston Symphony will be searching for a new concertmaster as of next season. Cruel business; denial of tenure can be likened to a stamp of rejection. But Angela Fuller is a young woman, and I'll bet the best years in her career are yet to come. If I remember correctly, Angela was the only Seattle musician invited to join the parade—or shall we call it a charade—of violinists who auditioned for Seattle Symphony concertmaster opening during 2004/05 season, the result of my husband's sudden terminated contract after twenty years.

Personally, I think being slapped with a rejection is tough at any age. But then, how many of us come through this profession unscathed? It seemed obvious years ago to a number of people, including myself, that Gerard Schwarz had someone in mind as concertmaster for Ilkka's replacement. It wasn't tough to read between the lines when I was hired as a substitute immediately following my husband's dismissal. The organization wanted me on their side. If I approved their actions, I'd be for hire like the good old days. If not, they'd teach me a lesson I'd never forget. But I would never play their silly game; my family is my life. What did they hope to accomplish, destroy my marriage?

One of the most memorable occasions following Seattle Symphony's announcement of a concertmaster search occurred during a rehearsal for the gala opening of 2004/05 season. I had the privilege of still being among the sub list in the first violin section. Prior to downbeat, former executive director Paul Meecham strode to the podium for an official announcement in front of the orchestra:
Many people have asked about Ilkka and our future plans for the hiring of a new concertmaster. We will spend this season auditioning prospective concertmasters. We'd like to assure you that your input is integral to our selection process. And Mr. Meecham concluded his speech, while I sat seventh or eighth stand and cried. As he left the podium, those around me stared in silence. I doubt Mr. Meecham knew that he'd fall victim to a process a couple years later.

When I received a threatening letter of hostility from my own former workplace last winter, I felt the sting of rejection. Thumper had it in for me after twenty years of service as concertmaster. Maybe he had someone else in mind for my job; I'm familiar with that scenario. But who knows? One day Thumper might be processed and feel the sting. Like I said, cruel business.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Rat King's Barbecue

There's an unspoken rule at my daughter's high-school that in order to avoid being harassed or singled out by a certain clique, you soothe the insecure teenagers by making a token appearance at a hang-out, or group gathering. I'm grateful when my daughter Sarah, along with her closest friend, a lovely Finnish girl, reassure me that such appearances will be kept to a minimum, perhaps once a year, and only as a means of avoiding confrontation or backlash. Of course, the parent in me would prefer for Sarah not to have any interaction with such cliques; hanging out is tantamount to wasting time, as far as I'm concerned. But my daughter and her friend insist that their method of inclusion dilutes hostilities and aggression, thus preventing them from being perceived as stand-offish and unfairly targeted. If Sarah were still a little girl, instead of going on 16, I would sit her on my lap and tell her a story:

Once upon a time, there lived a stick-wielding Rat King. Each spring, he'd invite his spit band of mice to attend a barbecue at his home. What Rat King lacked in ability and talent, he aspired to make up for with his brand of hospitality. The Rat King kept tallies of which mice appeared, as well as the ones who declined. For those in attendance, especially if they brought the required sacrifice (ego strokes), they were rewarded with job security and salary increases. For those mice who preferred to stay away from Rat King's barbecue, they suffered torment, retaliation, and threats of demotion. A violinist mouse told her side of the tale:

We are so afraid. If we don't do everything according to Rat King's wishes, our jobs might disappear. That's why at the most recent barbecue there were more mice than ever before! Even the Assistant Rat participated, and I don't recall him attending in the past. Maybe he's scared also, or has dreams of being anointed Vizier. And you know so-and so mouse, a ringer cellist? She was immediately placed on top of the hiring list just for showing up and stroking Rat King. What can we do? This is our means of survival. She looked up in despair with tears in her eyes.

And all the little mice felt more vulnerable and less worthy than ever, because they accepted Rat King's sinister ways.

"King Rat" by Priscilla Nicholson

Monday, August 4, 2008

Hitler Effect

Yesterday, while riding my bike on the Burke-Gilman trail, I bumped into a former violinist colleague, now retired from the SS orchestra. He's a sweet guy, affectionately compared to a "bull in a china shop" by co-workers due to his manner of playing and demeanor.
His first question: How's your mom?
She's dead, I replied.
Oh, when did that happen?
And I reminded him that my mother was killed in 2004.

His next question: Are you and Ilkka still married?
I'm not sure if he was just joking because he laughed, but the question offered me an opportunity to reflect on my marriage, and my good fortune in sharing my life with such a wonderful husband, a deep thinker and soul mate. Contrary to what others might have wished in that former, anti-human workplace, I said, our marriage is stronger and more loving than ever. And yes, I added, we intend to remain in Seattle—(just in case, like others, he was about to ask).

Another question: How's the Northwest Chamber Orchestra?
Gosh, I said. You're really out of the loop. NWCO was silenced a couple of years ago.
Oh yeah, he said. Now I remember.

Final question: You still play?
And I thought of the book Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, an excellent resource for understanding hidden aggression among so called friends and a guide for peeling away phony smiles.
"I guess I'm in a kind of exile," I said.
And then we exchanged pleasantries before going our separate ways.

Later that evening, I finished watching a film worth the seven hours of intense, critical self-examination: Our Hitler by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Our Hitler, in the tradition of Wagner's Ring Cycle, is in four parts, and grandiose. Like Richard Wagner, Syberberg distends time and unfolds the narrative in polyphonic style. He layers confessions of Nazi tormentors, and reveals their psychological demons at an excruciatingly slow tempo. The viewer begins to perceive Hitlers and hell everywhere, today and throughout history, from corrupt judges and lawyers to democratically appointed leaders espousing terror. A bone-chilling statement from Himmler: "It is the curse of greatness that its path is strewn with corpses."

Beware of the Hitler substance which outlives Hitler. The substance thrives in power hungry individuals resulting in brainwashed masses and herd mentality. Syberberg's phantasmagoria will resonate with me for a lifetime.

Hitler as Lohengrin