Friday, January 30, 2009

In His Shoes

While Ilkka is away in Finland, performing a recital and offering masterclasses at Pori Conservatory, I've stepped into his shoes. If my readers are disappointed by fewer posts this week, I hope these excuses are sufficient: I'm coaching Ilkka's batch of talented, eager students, as well as my own pupils, feeding our cat Seymour numerous times a day (Ilkka spoils him with an array of dishes—buffet style served on my best China). I sit in the passenger seat chewing my thumbnail as Sarah, our 16 year old, drives herself to school each morning (at least Sarah plays Oldies - Billy Joel and Simon & Garfunkel - for my benefit). I'm acting concertmaster for Rainier Symphony for two weeks, and at the suggestion of David Waltman, guided the responsive and supportive strings through a sectional last Tuesday. I returned home from the rehearsal, as Ilkka often does, feeling uplifted from adventuring into challenging repertoire in a nurturing and positive environment. I could write a whole essay contrasting the Egotism of so-called musical professionals (Parallel Universe, remember, in my That's Gratitude post) as opposed to the Humility of the music lovers, who are accomplished in other fields. If I had my life to do over, I'd choose another career besides music; a sort of back to the future is taking place in the arts nowadays.

As I look forward to another day of teaching Ilkka's students, I remind myself, first do no harm. Listening to the various styles and noting the different techniques of learners, I'm mindful of a trait known as Individuality. One youngster plays with a too-careful approach. What to do? We play-act, and I conjure up Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian theatre director, writer and actor, in my imagination. We're going to dramatize the Barber Concerto and allow each scene to unfold, step right into the composition, and lose ourselves in the process. The crucial goal for teachers should be to energize students into finding the way themselves!

A phenomenal pupil of my husband's, violinist Rose McIntosh from Seattle Pacific University, is blessed with dramatic flare, and strong musical conviction. Her playing reminds me of the late Ginette Neveu. Rose will be performing the Sibelius Concerto with Thalia Symphony this Saturday afternoon, January 31, and I'll be there, bursting with pride. I hope you'll join me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vilnius String Quartet

I decided to flirt with becoming a self-proclaimed music critic this evening. With notebook in hand, I attended a concert of the Vilnius String Quartet featuring guest pianist, Dainius Vaičekonis, presented by the Seattle Lithuanian Community, at Latvian Hall. In true critic fashion, I sacrificed the post-concert reception of tantalizing finger foods, booze and shmooze, in order to meet my deadline. What do those critics really do, anyway?

The Latvian Hall was bustling with audience members, eager to hear their countrymen. After a warm greeting and introduction by Mr. Vaičekonis, the Vilnius String Quartet proceeded with Schubert's Quartet #10 in E-flat, a youthful work composed when Schubert was only 16 years of age. The ensemble performed with sensitivity, poise and precision, though I found the opening bars of the first movement overly cautious and thin, particularly in the low registers of the first violin, as if sufficient calories had been lacking at dinner. By the Scherzo movement, however, the quartet's sound thickened to my taste.

The second composition on the program, Quartet #2 by Osvaldas Balakauskas, captivated this listener's interest and imagination. Balakauskas, one of Lithuania's most prolific composers of today, utilizes a technic of diatonic tone rows in his string quartet which guides the listener into an auditory Rorschach test. To my mind, the haunting groans, moans, and shrieks emitted by the quartet evoked images of Ponary (Paneriai), the killing fields, a forest six miles from Vilna. It was at Ponary that between 70,000 to 100,000 Jewish victims were murdered by the SS and Lithuanian collaborators during the Shoah. I shivered throughout the ghostly second movement; bones clattered through the use of col legno, the elegiac cello, played magnificently by Augustinas Vasilauskas, sighed through the device of glissando pizzicato; the viola maintained a contrapuntal voice of rhythmic reason amidst the cries. The quartet of Mr. Balakauskas offers a kaleidoscope of sounds, and I hope to hear more of his compositions performed in Seattle.

The program concluded with an insightful and robust rendition of the Brahms Piano Quintet in f minor. This work, a tour-de-force, offered Mr. Vaičekonis, a daring and technically assured pianist (these days on the faculty of Bellevue Music Works and staff accompanist for Western Washington University) an opportunity to collaborate with his former mentors from the Lithuanian Music Academy. The first violinist, Audronė Vainiŭnaitė (she has been a member of the Vilnius String Quartet since 1965) led the stellar ensemble with a no-nonsense, authoritative approach. The Brahms Piano Quintet exploded with rhythmic vitality, seering intensity, and pathos. Tonight's superb performance makes me want to put away the critic's notebook, have a bite to eat, and practice.
Vilnius String Quartet, Dainius Vaičekonis

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Something Fishy?

Today I found some Icy Point red salmon shelved in the cupboard. The stuff was on sale at Bartell's a couple of weeks ago, so I threw a couple of cans in my shopping cart, along with post-its and Panda black licorice. I remembered my mother's salmon croquettes from my childhood—tasty fish cakes loaded with onion and celery for the perfect crunchy texture. I must have skimped on the egg though, because my salmon patties were crumbly and didn't hold together. Worse yet, the outside layer was slightly burnt.

"Gee, I'm sorry the patties didn't bind and that they're burnt," I said to my husband, as he squirted lemon on the moist pieces while bits of celery and onion dropped onto the plate.
"It's ok," he said. "I don't mind."
He'll eat anything, I thought. "Maybe I should have tried fresh rather than canned."

As our conversation glided to the topic of fish, I found myself wondering: Whatever happened to that stunning, vibrant Israeli conductor, Asher Fisch? Wasn't he named Principal Guest Conductor for Seattle Opera and awarded the company's Artist of the Year award back in 2006/07? Asher Fisch turned me from a Wagnerphobe into a Wagnerphile during productions of Parsifal and Lohengrin.

My curiosity got the best of me. After clearing the dishes, and scraping the remaining crusts of croquette from the frying pan, I sat down at my computer to look for Asher Fisch and Seattle Opera on this year's roster. Funny, except for his playing a piano recital with tenor Ben Heppner and assisting Speight Jenkins with auditioning new singers for the International Wagner Competition, Asher Fisch is hardly to be found on the Seattle scene. You know me by now, dear readers, my imagination lets loose. Does his staggering talent and ability pose a threat? I scan the Seattle Opera season searching for my Israeli heart throb: I find Fish, Fisch, Fishy..

Gerard Schwarz conducts Seattle Opera's production of Pearl Fishers this month.
Photo of Asher Fisch from Playbill

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Am I turning into Pollyanna? I was describing my coming-of-age revelations to my daughter Anna a couple of days ago, telling her life is good. Anna, by the way, gleans obvious satisfaction from tormenting us mercilessly with her own blog: Life With My Parents Seen through Anna's lens, I suppose we're characters. She refers to Ilkka and me as Ma and Pa Raisin.

Over twenty years ago, when Anna was a baby of four months, she looked up at us from her baby swing—as if to study our faces—and burst into peels of laughter. Nowadays, my Anna jots one-liners and keeps a note-pad handy at all times. Every so often, when I'm on the phone with that college girl of mine (in a Masters in Education in Student Affairs Administration, GPA 4.0, no less) she'll stop me mid-sentence. "That's it, Ma. Thanks for the material." And I'm left with a dial tone wondering what she's about to publish.

I have to admit—I love life. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is about to become The Past-Intelligencer, and critics are from the days of yore. Collective bargaining agreements between managements and players have indicated fermatas, or in some cases, tacet signs. As Blair Tindall eloquently states in "Mozart in the Jungle": The classical music business is experiencing a kind of market correction. If seen in a positive light, by a Pollyanna, this opens a whole new vista for artists, opportunities for innovation, and collaborative creativity. An orchestra player should enjoy an active role, not passive. If you check Daily Observations you'll see what I mean.

Which brings me back to Bildungsroman: As I play among enthusiastic music lovers at Rainier Symphony, cradle my late mother's violin, and nourish myself with friends, students and family, my faith in this journey is being restored.
Photo of Anna Talvi by Ilkka Talvi 12-08

Monday, January 12, 2009


As I've mentioned in previous posts, sometimes the best lessons I receive are from students. Hallie Golden, one of my most dedicated pupils, suggested we head on over to Ronald McDonald House to perform for youngsters and family members undergoing treatment during the dinner hour. My daughter Sarah was excited to join us, viola in hand. Hallie, Sarah and I found ourselves in the midst of a most appreciative and warm audience bustling about in the RMH cafeteria.

In the film "A Portrait" of violinist Hilary Hahn, she explores the calming effect baroque music has—J.S. Bach in particular—on children. As Hallie, Sarah and I performed works by Telemann, Corelli, and Bach, our young audience members wandered within inches of us to watch and listen, transfixed by our playing, and bursting with questions. It's unfortunate that many musicians feel the need to dummy down to children by performing pop tunes when really, if given a chance, children's ears and imagination are receptive to beautiful classics. While packing up my violin and viola after an hour's worth of playing, I realized the benefit I reaped from my appreciative, new audience. I'm beginning to feel purposeful in ways I never imagined, as if a whole new me is emerging. I find myself surrounded by people with positive energy, rather than being in the company of disgruntled orchestra musicians and sadistic bosses.

A few of our young listeners voiced an interest in taking violin lessons. From the look on their faces, and the enthusiasm they conveyed, I wouldn't mind teaching them. My daughter and I will return to Ronald McDonald House along with other Talvi Studio musicians, with pleasure. As Daniel Barenboim writes in "Music Quickens Time": When you teach, you learn and when you give, you receive.

Friday, January 9, 2009

That's Life

The man on the left is my late father, John Kransberg, seated under the Brooklyn Bridge with my Uncle Harry. I found out about my father's death as abruptly as I found out about my parents' divorce.

A year ago, my one remaining sister Susan, sent Dad a birthday card. It was returned with the word "deceased" scribbled on the envelope. No apologies, sentiments, or pomp and circumstance; John Kransberg was no more.

Until my dad walked away in 1976, he was subjected to endless violin practice sessions, lessons, rehearsals, music camps, student recitals, and confrontations with irate violin teachers, who had suddenly found themselves dumped and replaced by more "famous pedagogues" thanks to my mother.

I have to give my father credit—he was practically tone deaf. Dad tried to like the stuff I played. Except for the opening bars of Kol Nidrei, my father barely recognized a tune. I think Bartok's music grated his nerves like a dentist's drill.

When my mother would compare her little angel (me) to violin prodigies in the early 70's: Lilit Gampel, Dylana Jenson, Stephanie Chase, and Lynn Chang, he'd roll his eyes, fumble into his front pocket for a cigarette, light up, take a long inhale, and say:
Christsakes Frances, can't you let her be a normal kid for a change?

I was a late child—eleven years younger than my youngest sister, Karen. All my sisters were assigned music lessons at the insistence of my mother: Judy, the eldest, tickled the piano keys, Susan, the middle child, engaged in a protracted battle with the violin, and cherubic Karen (if only she had practiced) might have polished Old Black Joe to perfection. I guess I was my mother's last hope.

Mom, Dad, Judy and Karen: are you happy now?