Thursday, October 30, 2008

Orchestra for Mentally Disturbed?

Is Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital looking for new patients? A few weeks ago, I found in my inbox, an invitation to audition for Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra, with notices of vacancies in every string section. Bellevue had sent 14 contracted orchestra members, over the age of 40, non-renewal notices. And these were just the string players; the first ones on the orchestra hit list. Who will be next? Is this an experiment to provoke insanity?

Rest assured, I won't be auditioning for a stay at Bellevue Psychiatric Orchestra, in any unit, and I wouldn't advise admittance for emotionally stable individuals, either. Under Executive Director Jennifer McCausland, the BPO has experienced a loss of its contractual policy guidelines which guaranteed tenure and insured an artistic hiring and dismissal process which was consistent with industry standards. Rumors are that the Aussie Mafia has joined forces with a local Kim Jong Il, a would-be dictator who possibly suffers from delusions of grandeur.

I've had my share of crazy-making instances with executive directors, most notably the one at Pacific Northwest Ballet. After receiving a disturbed, threatening letter from the pit-band conductor, I resigned the next day via email. PNB's executive director accepted my resignation immediately, without even a phone call or a meeting, though I had served the organization for twenty years as concertmaster, and in my opinion, with integrity. Yet PNB's executive director had the audacity to inform supporters that management valued, above all, open communication between employers and employees. That, he claimed, was also the case for me. Perhaps Mr. Executive Director might benefit from an injection of truth serum.

Seattle had one shining star among executive directors: Deborah R. Card. Ms. Card – I remember her all the way back to the 80's when she trained under heavy-weight Ernest Fleischmann at Los Angeles Philharmonic was obviously way ahead of the game here. She helped transform Seattle Symphony with the opening of Benaroya Hall, and substantially increased the orchestra's endowment fund, concert schedule, revenue, and subscriber base. But Deborah Card escaped from Seattle in 2003 for reasons well-known, and fled to Chicago where she became President and Chief Executor of Chicago Symphony, today's most financially successful orchestra in the United States.

You know what they say: A healthy orchestra is a happier one.
Truth Serum courtesy of Slate

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seattle, Too Late!

Dear Friends of Gothónis

To your information:

Ralf Gothóni and his violinist wife Elina Vähälä have been invited to perform on December 10th in Oslo at the Nobel ceremony, where Mr President Martti Ahtisaari will be awarded with the Nobel peace prize. The ceremony will be televised around the globe.

The preliminary plan includes two short performances with Elina and Ralf, probably with music by Brahms and Schubert.

Best greetings

Claudia Krüger

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hocus Pocus With A Focus

This post is for my open-minded, younger readers, in the spirit of Halloween.

One of the most daunting tasks for many young artists is the memorization of solo pieces, J.S. Bach in particular. Fear plays a large factor. Many times an artist psyches herself into believing she'll fail at memorization. In an East Coast music festival during my student years, I played the Chaconne from Partita in D Minor in recital. My mantra was: I'll forget the notes, I'll forget the notes. And of course, I forgot the notes. A huge chunk of the arpeggiated middle section vanished, transforming my rendition into a condensed version. I clocked about seven minutes rather than thirteen. To my great fortune, harpsichordist and Baroque specialist Kenneth Cooper, sat in the audience. Later, Cooper suggested I practice Bach in a totally different manner. "Switch off the lights in the practice room," he said,"play by candlelight. Transform the setting, step back in time, and open yourself to the Spirit." Is it any wonder Kenneth Cooper is renowned for his improvisations and extraordinary authenticity in ornamentation? There is no match for a vivid imagination and sense of curiosity. And to me nowadays, there is no greater pleasure than stealing off in a corner to practice Bach. Fantasy rather than fear.

As artists, we are entitled to escape from the mundane existence of ordinary life. My former teacher, Erick Friedman, maintained that he spoke with his dead mother as he played the slow movement from a Mozart Concerto in Tacoma. Friedman's sense of grief diminished following the performance. A musician's trance is often compared to prayer, the mood altering benefits, similar. The trance-like state is one aspect of performing I never want to relinquish. Perhaps I'm an escape artist at heart.

It's not unusual for people like ourselves to possess a heightened sense of awareness. Ayke Agus, the longtime assistant and accompanist for Jascha Heifetz and ultimately his confidante, reported in her book "Heifetz As I Knew Him" of having this dream: I saw Heifetz in a beautiful blue suit, standing afar; I was sitting in the same room with him, dressed in a long gown and looking at him. He came closer and closer, and when he got to me he gave me a big hug and said,"I will be gone for a while, but I'll return to get you. Wait for me." I could still feel the warmth of his hug when the telephone rang. His private night nurse called me before she called anyone else, with the news that Jascha Heifetz had passed away."

One of the most fascinating psychic stories was the life of Rosemary Brown, a spiritualist who claimed dead composers, most notably Franz Liszt, dictated new works for her to share with the world. Brown insisted that each composer had his own way of dictating to her. Liszt controlled her hands at the keyboard, Schubert sang to her, and Chopin pushed her fingers onto the keys. Mrs. Brown maintained that she had never had musical training except for a few years of piano lessons, yet she produced music and works of art that stumped the experts.

Lucky are those who can transcend the physical world, commune with dead souls, and focus on a moment of bliss.
The Ghost Pianist by Morgana88

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I don't mind that a few bloggers lifted a paragraph from my recent post Musical Sandbox. Truth be told, I'm flattered. What better compliment for a wannabe writer? My topic might have resonated with a number of esteemed colleagues; I'm pleased to be plagiarized.

I also felt strangely amused when Seattle Symphony announced the appointment of four concertmasters, a year or so ago, though the deal collided with the terms of collective bargaining agreement. Here's my admission: In a telephone conversation to the conductor in 2004, I broached the subject of hiring more than one concertmaster, as a remedy. I believe the term in orchestra lingo is splitting the books. I offered this suggestion in a state of shock and awe, after receiving news, without prior knowledge, of the conductor's secret fantasy for new leadership.
Look at the European model.
Multiple concertmasters are the rule rather than the exception, I said. I think I made a dent.

A dear friend sent me a link to Creation of a Dream. This heart-warming video offers a glimpse into the world of Emanuel Borok, concertmaster of Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and respected pedagogue. It's uplifting to hear Borok's philosophy about teaching and his role as concertmaster after so many years in the business. I remember Emanuel Borok from my childhood. He was the new kid on the block as Associate Concertmaster with Boston Symphony. After winning an opportunity to appear as soloist with BSO in 1976, I performed the last movement of the Paganini Concerto for a youth concert; Emanuel Borok sat first chair. I made the mistake of glancing up at the tiers in Symphony Hall during the brief tutti, and was struck by a panic attack so severe, I almost puked on stage. In that awe-inspiring majestic venue, I felt self-conscious and vulnerable. My knees turned to jelly and the bow ricocheted through the entire movement. But Borok, with a genuine smile and words of encouragement, kept me from falling to pieces afterwards.

I admired Borok then; I admire him now; a great master, mentor and mensch. Enjoy the video and share with friends.
Emanuel Borok, courtesy of Dallas Symphony

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Musical Sandbox

The preeminent violinist and conductor Joseph Silverstein once quipped, "Seattle is a great place to live, but it's a cul-de-sac for classical musicians." In other words, the road to nowhere if you remain too long.

After reading David Brewster's recent blog entry, it occurred to me that Seattle has been the nursing home and final resting place of many greats. Milton Katims and Henry Siegl, two national treasures that were made to feel irrelevant in old age, withered and died here. Rainer Miedel, passed away in 1983 after a brief battle with cancer. Manuel Rosenthal, one of the last of the living links to musical Paris of the 20's and 30's, home to Ravel and Stravinsky, was terminated as music director of Seattle Symphony after locals discovered the woman he was with wasn't (yet) his wife. For almost seventy years Rosenthal was France's most important conductor. It may be advisable for the next maestro-in-waiting to take a long, hard look at Seattle's Cult of Provinciality.

Back in 1941, world famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham made this remark of Seattle's musical audiences and its arts patrons: If I were a member of this community, really I should get weary of being looked upon as a sort of aesthetic dustbin. With programming choices becoming more market-driven, orchestra musicians and their saviors will be forced to pander to the lowest common denominator of artistic taste in order to survive. Back in the days when Northwest Chamber Orchestra was still on life support, teetering on the verge of demise, the ensemble was reprimanded by management for venturing into the Moderns; Prokofiev in the same program with Shostakovich was a no-no. Whitish blue-haired audience members canceled season subscriptions—what, no Pachelbel Canon or Albinoni Adagio? A spellbinding composition by Alfred Schnittke created pandemonium in the audience, followed by apoplectic fits in NWCO's boardroom.

I have a message for hopeful superstars stepping onto the Seattle scene: wannabes turn into hasbeens around here. The clever ones pack their bags and leave before it's too late. Oboist nonpareil Alex Klein fled from the University of Washington's environment of self-satisfied mediocrity to become Principal of Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim. Alex now teaches at Oberlin. Paul Coletti, the prominent viola soloist and chamber musician, departed from the ADS (Aesthetic Dustbin Seattle) and is currently a faculty member of the Colburn School at University of Southern California. Los Angeles seems to attract geniuses and hold onto them. Joshua Roman, young cellist extraordinaire, caught on in the nick of time, stepping out of you-know-where: the kindergarten sandbox.
Illustration from

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Whenever my mother heard Jascha Heifetz speak, she'd say: Heifetz is a Litvak, like my Pa. He talks like my Pa, even breathes the same—I know it sounds crazy.
You're nuts, I thought.

I never knew my maternal grandfather, Yankl Sroluk, as he had passed away in the mid 1950's, and I was born in '59. My grandparents were from the Pale of Settlement: Korycin and Janowa, outside the main city of Bialystok. The Jews from that area, as well as Vilna and Minsk Gubernia, who settled in Congress Poland at the end of the 19th century, were known as Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews); they spoke with the same dialect.

My mother communicated to her mother in Yiddish, so I heard the language up until my grandmother's death, in 1970. Years later, while unearthing my roots, I was struck by a fierce determination to speak, read and write Yiddish. If for no other reason, I reasoned Yiddish was the language of choice to use on the Other Side with dead ancestors. Over a dozen years ago, thumbing through the Guide to Jewish Washington in search of Yiddish classes in Seattle, I found my mentor: Ruth Emmerman Peizer.

I still remember my first meeting with Ruth. I missed the class she gave at the Jewish Federation Building by a few minutes. I had come straight from a Nutcracker matinee.
"I know I'm late for class," I said, huffing and puffing. "Can I have a private lesson—please?"
She was just about to leave the room. I noticed her orangey-red hair, multi-colored scarf, and dazzling beads. "I don't offer private lessons," she said, as she gathered her books and materials. I could tell Ruth was in a hurry to see me off.
"I'm sorry I missed the class. I play in Nutcracker at the Opera House, and the show ended late."
"Nutcracker? Really?" She set her books back on the long table. "Tell me, what instrument do you play?"
"Violin?" The dark eyebrows raised. "One of my most talented students is a violinist—Wendy Marcus from the Mazeltones. Now she's terrific. You know Wendy?"
"I know of her," I replied.
"Let me hear you read some Yiddish." Ruth pulled out Yiddish for School and Home. "Don't worry," she said. "There's transliteration on the side. But I teach using the Hebrew alphabet, so if you're serious about Yiddish, you'll have to learn your alef beys. I suppose you know all ready to read from right to left—"
After recalling my grandmother's voice, I pulled myself together and offered my best shot. After the Yiddish audition, Ruth declared, "You're a Litvak!"
And I felt as if I had returned home.

And home is where I returned a couple of nights ago, joining Ruth (Rochel) in her beautiful West Seattle house for dinner. We had a lot of catching up to do. I brought over-cooked curried chicken, and Rochel didn't complain. I knew I should have brought Chinese instead.
"Malkele, (the diminutive of my name in Yiddish, which means Queen), you've experienced some bumps in the road. We all have."
I took a sip of Chardonnay. "What about you, Rochel? You lost your husband Sam, broke both hips, and required a pace-maker. That's no picnic."
"But I have the most wonderful friends. And you, Malkele, I could never give up on you."
"I've been a lousy friend, Rochel. Every bump in the road causes me to hide out, to run for cover. I've been out of touch. Yet, you're always there for me. I want to be like you."
She leaned against her walker, and rolled it to the freezer. "Let's have ice-cream. I've got the best in town." She scooped Husky's Chocolate Orange Chip into two glass bowls. We reminisced about our Yiddish lessons together over the years.

Through her humanitarian aid contacts with the Baltic States, Rochel had made it possible for me to connect with Holocaust survivors in Vilnius. I was escorted like a true queen around the Lithuanian city in 1996, and taken to the shrine which was the conservatory of Jascha Heifetz's childhood. Through Ruth Peizer's knowledge and commitment to the Yiddish language, I learned to read, write, and even speak fluently enough to challenge my mother.

Of Ruth Peizer, my late mother would say: Du host a tsveitn mama.
Here's what I have to say: I should be so lucky.

Photo of Ruth Peizer 2008 by Marjorie Talvi

Monday, October 6, 2008

All The King's Men

The fringe benefit of not attending or playing Seattle Symphony concerts, nor visiting Pacific Northwest Ballet these days, is that I'm open for new performance experiences. That being said, I treated myself to an afternoon at the Intiman Theatre for All The King's Men, after being introduced to the novel by my spirited book club. What splendid timing. Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-honored novel is as relevant in America today as during the Great Depression era; a tale of politics and power, lust and greed, tracing the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a character loosely based on the life of idealist-turned-opportunist Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. I think Artistic Director Bartlett Sher must be an Oracle for featuring All The King's Men at Intiman prior to our Presidential election. I loved every facet of the production including the rollicking, folksy songs by Randy Newman. You can be sure, I'll be attending more Intiman Theatre events in the future.

I've been soaking up phrase after phrase of Robert Penn Warren's novel. Not only does All The King's Men resonate with the present political landscape and our rickety economy, but Penn Warren's prose is so musical that I find myself reading passages aloud before copying them into a notebook: Dirt's a funny thing. Come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and made me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.

During the performance of Adrian Hall's stage adaptation at Intiman, directed by Pam MacKinnon, I sat front row, enchanted by Willy Stark, played by actor John Procaccino. I found myself completely caught in his clutches. Stark's metamorphosis from a demure, impoverished hick to an emboldened, tough-guy leader of social reform swept me away—away to the Deep South, during that place in time with likker running through my veins. Stark's initial political speeches for Governor are filled with facts and figures; specifics for creating a better economy with the creation of job opportunities. But Jack Burden, a journalist assigned the task of following and chronicling Willy Stark's campaign sets him straight about public speaking: Maybe you try to tell 'em too much. It breaks down their brain cells. Just tell 'em you're gonna soak the fat boys, and forget the rest of the tax stuff. That line, by the way, received an explosion of laughter. I witnessed Willy Stark triumph, once the oratory techniques were fine-tuned, and his opponents were disposed of: You can't make omelettes without breaking a few eggs. But I came back to my own reality in the final, heart-throbbing scene, when Jack Burden, the journalist who became Stark's trusted right hand man, reflected on his newly acquired picture of life after chronicling Willy Stark's rise and fall. All the pieces fit together, and it's Jack Burden (played convincingly by charismatic Leo Marks) who is responsible for illuminating the picture which is my own life. Jack Burden ruminates: I can now accept the past which I had before felt was tainted and horrible. And I thought, characters move in and out of my life also, filling in the blank space which has been my picture of the world.

Burden responds to his revelations by promising to write a book; the unburdening of his tale.
Time will bring all things to light. The truth shall make you free.