Saturday, October 31, 2009


So, I attended Seattle Repertory Theater's first preview last evening of Opus, Michael Hollinger's play about a highly neurotic and dysfunctional string quartet. I suspected the story of Opus to be partly inspired by the break up of the Audubon String Quartet. Anyone who idealizes the so-called privileged life of a quartet player might treat themselves to one of these performances, although if you're a musician, it's annoying to find that the roles are played by non-musicians. You'd think there would be actors also trained as instrumentalists, and thus able to portray the characters in a realistic manner. Adding to the lack of hand movements over the violin, viola and cello fingerboards was the consistent mispronunciation of Concertgebouw, one of Europe's most famous concert halls. The quartet used tacky black binders, like the sort you find at school orchestras, rather than actual music scores propped on their wire rimmed stands, and the sound system had minor glitches. But, like the first violinist of the fictitious Lazara String Quartet, played by Allen Fitzpatrick, maybe I'm being uptight.

There were some fine moments of comic relief, and the Lazara Quartet portrayed the idiosyncrasies of their counterparts with flare. My favorite character is Dorian, the squishy violist with endearing issues, played by Todd Jefferson Moore. Dorian and first violinist Elliott have suffered a tumultuous romantic break-up, though Dorian still wears Elliott's underwear. The quartet infighting continues, with finger pointing and a blame game over dynamics and intonation. Divo Elliott suffers a meltdown after being criticized and storms out of a  recording session of Beethoven Opus 131.

Dorian, now off his meds and in full-blown mania, is replaced by young pretty Grace (actress Chelsea Rives) for a performance at the White House. Dorian and Elliott's parting of the ways has resulted in Dorian's having to return his precious viola to the quartet. Grace now has the coveted instrument under her dainty chin. (Heart breaking, huh?) Alan, the shlumpy-looking second violinist (Shawn Belyea), does more than make eye contact with blond, doe-eyed Grace. Cellist Carl (Charles Leggett), with troubles of his own, eats enough for the whole quartet. As art mirrors life, there's a nice twist in the final scene.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tosca for Today

Any conscientious string player strives for a bel canto style and the naturalness of phrase that characterizes great singing. The Heifetz protege and my beloved violin teacher, Erick Friedman, would encourage all his students to learn from singers and pianists for secrets of interpretation. My personal exposure to singing has essentially been while playing in the pit as an orchestra player. Sadly, one of my most vivid recollections, before I was blacklisted from the local opera orchestra, was performing "Carmen" and being forced to endure, as a stand partner, a violinist with loose lips who pointed to the stage during lengthy bars of rest and laughed. "How could anyone be seduced by that fatso? That's Carmen? I can feel the stage shake with every step she takes—"

To replace those regrettable memories, and enrich my life with a meaningful operatic experience, I now attend Metropolitan Opera at the movies. Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, has been criticized for pandering to audiences but I detect the genetic genius of a Heifetz. "Classical music used to be pop music," says Gelb, and indeed, his maternal great-uncle Jascha Heifetz composed light, popular songs under the pen-name Jim Hoyle, as in one such song: When you make love to me, don't make me believe. During the Great Depression and war years, Gelb's great-uncle Heifetz composed numerous contemporary tunes in keeping with the times. Gelb states that his commitment to the art form is to revitalize opera and make it accessible to the general public; I have no doubt that he's on the right path. I'll bet other opera company general directors are kicking themselves. But then, even if others chose to offer live simulcasts on the big screen, how many companies could compete with the Met?

In the recent production of Puccini's "Tosca", Gelb boldly replaces the definitive Franco Zeffirelli production with a lean version by Swiss director Luc Bondy. Although this interpretation of "Tosca" got a thumbs down from those resistant to change after 25 years of Zefirelli, Bondy makes an honest attempt to emphasize the "true essence of character" through the device of theatrical realism. In the words of Gelb, Bondy's Tosca demonstrates that "our art is not locked in the past."

Puccini's tragic heroine was played by the tremendously beautiful Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. She has been one of the most prominent singers at the Met for more than a decade. Baritone George Gagnidze made his second Met appearance, this time as the evil police chief Scarpia. With Gagnidze's splendid intensity and depth of voice, he suits the part of the despised Scarpia to perfection. In the "Te Deum" scene, I was spell-bound by Scarpia's eyes, crazed and wild; he reminded me of a raving music director from my past; close up at the theater, one can even spot drool on Scarpia's lips as he lusts after Tosca. The role of Tosca's doomed lover, Cavaradossi, was superbly sung by the passionate Marcelo Alvarez, a self-proclaimed Romantic. He has been hailed as a Puccini tenor by The New York Times.

The orchestra, under the direction of Joseph Colaneri, played so rapturously throughout the production that during magic moments, all I needed to do was close my eyes and enjoy.
In pictures: Heifetz, Gelb, Tosca's original poster

Friday, October 23, 2009

Birthday Finnish Style

Yesterday was my husband's birthday, and we celebrated in typical somber fashion. The mentality of "one is born, suffers, and dies" was so palpable in our home that it felt as if a dark cloud had sunk its way into our living quarters. We began the morning with coffee, cards, and gifts. Sarah, our youngest, creates hand-made birthday books with beautiful photographs of treasured moments from our past, messages of hope and love, and poems flowing with words that caress and soothe. Anna, our soon to be betrothed daughter, gave her father a Jewish Zodiac shirt. It turns out that Ilkka, born in 1948, is the Year of the Bagel. The shirt reads: You're pliable and always bounce back, although you feel something's missing in your center. If this persists, get some therapy. Compatible with Schmear and Lox, Latke and Knish, not so much.

I had struggled with what to give my husband for a birthday gift for days, and finally settled on basic necessities: two pairs of corduroy pants, as replacement for the threadbare ones which Seymour, our cat, likes to use as scratching posts when they cover his daddy's legs. I bought my husband yet another olive-green shirt, having forgotten that I bought this same shirt three years in a row. And underwear. Here I confess, I was daunted by the various styles. Boxers, Briefs, or Boxer Briefs? As I held the package of Jockey Boxer Briefs in hues of gray and navy blue, I had a fleeting image of my husband in his late thirties and early forties, and while debating whether or not to purchase the underwear,  recalled how jealous I felt whenever women in love with him would try and snatch my husband away. One lovesick string player even climbed the pear tree in our backyard to catch a glimpse of him, just to make certain he was alone in the house!

After dinner, which had consisted of a steaming bowl of cabbage soup (as in our late years chewing may become increasingly difficult) and plateful of home-made cookies by two of Ilkka's  precious students, the phone rang. An unknown number was displayed on the caller I.D. I picked up. The voice of a renown investigative journalist, in cryptic style, reported the name of the person, a big-wig from the Eastside, who might be responsible for having at one time, but unsuccessfully, removed our blog posts from all search engines, beginning with my obituary on the late Mark Paben. This message was followed by a hang up and dial tone; birthday Finnish style, indeed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Rise Of The Peoples' Orchestra

It's been interesting to find messages alerting Talvi Studio of new, exciting community orchestra opportunities in our Inbox, requesting advanced students. These community orchestras are mushrooming throughout the Seattle region. Perhaps this is the direction future ensembles will take, if one speculates on how "unsustainable" the professional arts business model has become. If you're like me, you're probably sick and tired of the term "unsustainable business model" which is frequently tossed about by vapid, arrogant executives, but without innovative or cogent solutions for viability. Hence, these creative enterprises. Take, for example, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra. What happens when you invite young, enthusiastic instrumentalists to become active participants in the creation process? What if you present solo and chamber music opportunities as a means to entice and keep capable string players? What if you offer remuneration for conductor and musicians alike based on audience interest and support?

The best instrumentalists have at least one thing in common: they need to maintain their skill level before atrophy sets in. I think one of the worst things a talented player can do is mope around and bemoan the fact that gigs are drying up. Seek and you shall find, and be creative. But FYI, I'll bet you're making the pros nervous, as you might just stumble into sustainability.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a rehearsal for Lake Union Civic Orchestra. There, two of our phenomenal students were hard at work, delving into the Brahms Violin Concerto in a spirited atmosphere of congeniality and open-mindedness. I didn't spot any musicians glancing at their watches, or kvetching during the half-time about labor contracts. Because, you see, there aren't collective bargaining agreements to kvetch about. The players participating are there because they wish to be there, honing their skills, learning through volunteerism, like any other craft. And, not surprising, given their training and enthusiasm, these young people offer their professional counterparts competition due to their consistent, high level. Sometimes, in a community setting, you find more seasoned players who have been beleaguered, under-valued, and rejected by their so-called peers. Thus, a fine community orchestra might provide a second chance, like Rainier Symphony does for me. (By the way, you have no idea what a difference it makes to perform Stravinsky's Firebird Suite without a Thumper.)

It'll be interesting to observe how these community orchestras develop. As more well-trained individuals emerge from conservatories and universities with skills superior to their "professional" counterparts who are often in their declining years, and plagued by delusions of grandeur, paranoia, and entitlement (we won't mention any names here, but let's just say, they've got tenure and if on leave can return to work at any time), these burgeoning groups might just take over and hopefully, thrive. To top it off, the once feared, full-of-himself music critic has practically vanished like the phonograph. We have now the peoples' reviews.