Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Summer Capricorn

A fringe benefit to facing the unpredictability of life in classical music, due to the never-ending financial struggles and turmoil, is that I have time to catch up on my reading. The books I read are relevant for today, and I believe, years to come, as is the case with "Summer Capricorn".

Terry Row's first novel, "Summer Capricorn" is about Adam Nicholas, an acclaimed, professional oboist who has abandoned the uncertainty of the classical music profession in favor of a "real" job in computers. He desires a regular life with reliable hours. His choice is ill-timed, however. He embarks on his newly chosen career just as the recession hits Silicon Valley. Adam Nicholas, now desperate with the potential loss of unemployment benefits, must swallow his pride, and find a job—any job, to stay afloat.

"Summer Capricorn" is a captivating read on many levels. As I'm personally familiar with the author's stellar musicianship (we were both members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra during the early eighties), I can relate to the frustration his protagonist shares as a free-lancer. The hours are erratic; the pace is abnormal; job security is job insecurity. When others work, we musicians play. But it is a common misconception that musicians' lives are play and not work. The truth is, that classical artists are so highly specialized that it is not uncommon for them to lose touch with the outside world. As Adam Nicholas admits: "I thought I was only good at one thing, playing music. I felt like a failure, an empty shell, when it came to the rest of my life. I wanted to see if I could do something else, anything else, and do it well."

What transpires in this marvelous tale are unexpected twists and turns as Adam opens himself up to new experiences and potentialities which are far outside of his comfort zone. While his desired career as a computer programmer is in limbo, due to the economic downturn, he has rolled up his sleeves and toiled in the land, as well as reached out to those in crisis. Adam is transformed by these experiences and renewed by a sense of awe and purpose. The world with all its mere "coincidences" takes on fresh meaning. He is awakened to different aspects of himself, as well as hidden abilities and talents. Adam beholds the Universe, with all its wonder, as if for the first time, and Life begins.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Close Encounters

With the weather turning delicious, I've been enjoying the outdoors. About a month ago, we had unseasonably warm temperatures for Seattle. My daughter Sarah and I decided to head for Green Lake. She needed to ease back into running, after a mild knee injury, and I felt determined to strap on my roller blades. It'd been years since I last rolled around the lake. I had to start slow—really slow, but after about 15 minutes, off I went.

You never know who you might bump into at Green Lake, in both the figurative and literal sense. It's a popular outdoor destination: family and pet friendly, and gorgeous. I remember once visiting the lake resort of Trakai in Lithuania, about 20 km outside of Vilnius, and thinking that Seattle's Green Lake is comparable in terms of scenic beauty. Although lacking the medieval stone castle of Trakai, which dates back to the 14th century, a historic relic from the local pit walked opposite my direction. Our eyes met; I kept my balance on the skates and kept on going. (Darn, a missed opportunity).

Allow me a magic moment of digression. To fulfill the obligation of playing first chair and as soloist for a dance company in the pit is unrewarding, to say the least. There is the paycheck, true, but little else. For those who have had close encounters with an audition, take my word for it, the pit band is a road that leads to nowhere; a musical dead end. If you're a violinist who adores music, and has strong artistic inclinations, just try to imagine performing Ernest Chausson's "Poeme" to a click track or Metro Gnome with thumping feet. The concept is probably alien to most thoughtful musicians, but this is a realistic comparison.

One finds soon enough, that dancers and most choreographers are painfully oblivious to interpretive style, and nuance. All that they desire is either a faster or slower beat, a quicker or later entrance, a longer pause. Therefore, it is perhaps sufficient, and even wise, to hire a conductor devoid of musical sensitivity on the podium, or better yet, no conductor and canned music. In all my years in the local pit, whether the repertoire demanded extensive or incidental solos, the offerings were lost to all thumpers, great and small.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Retirement (Not)

I have a great deal of admiration for violinist, Emanuel Borok. This morning I read his philosophy about stepping down from the concertmaster chair with Dallas Symphony Orchestra, after having served for twenty-five years. "Retiring is the wrong word," admits Borok. "I'm just making a change in my life. If you do this for 40 years, 39 of them as concertmaster, you get to the point that you want to do something else that you enjoy. I get more invitations to play concertos and recitals and chamber music than my schedule allows. This is another phase of my artistic life."

These are helpful words for any of us who have departed from an orchestral scene to full-time teaching.
Over the years, Borok's studio has thrived. "This is what I would end up doing anyway, so why not start building up a class now rather than at a later point?" Borok is on the faculty of both Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts, and University of North Texas. 

Seattle violinist Emily Cole, a former pupil of my husband's, is among Borok's current crop of students. She shares these thoughts about her mentor:  
The sound Mr. Borok produces on his violin is stunning. He is always searching for the most expressive bowing, the cleanest fingerings, and the best sound quality; he's always eager to share his discoveries with students. In teaching, Mr. Borok has developed a unique vocabulary to describe what he's after; he isn't merely recycling another person's explanations. Emanuel Borok cares for his students and is invigorated by teaching.

As I obsessively and compulsively edit Frantic the Memoir , chew my nails, and revisit scenes from my childhood, I have vivid recollections of both Emanuel Borok, who spent eleven years as concertmaster of the Boston Pops after emigrating from Moscow, Russia, and Joseph Silverstein, then concertmaster of Boston Symphony. It is heartening to know that both of these wonderful violinists continue to make themselves accessible to young musicians through teaching and concertizing. They are more active than ever; masters who serve as vital links from past to future.

My late violin teacher, Sarah Scriven, pointed out at a Boston Symphony concert, circa 1968, while I sat with her at the age of nine:
You know, darling. That Joseph Silverstein gets better all the time. He keeps improving with age.

That's the key.
cartoon by Kari Suomalainen, Finland

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Cello Suites

A note of warning to any string player who reads "The Cello Suites—J.S.Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece" by Eric Siblin. You may experience a sudden desire to revisit the works of J.S.Bach, as if for the first time, after reading this engaging book, and wish to compare various artists in their interpretative quests to play this timeless music.

Eric Siblin, an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and former pop music critic braids together the lives of J.S.Bach and cellist, Pablo Casals, in a literary style that is immensely entertaining for music lovers and lay people. Like a set of nesting dolls, or boxes within boxes, the discovery of one tale leads to another; an attempt to solve the mystery of the manuscript's disappearance in the eighteenth century, Pablo Casals' historic discovery of the music in Spain in the late-nineteenth century, how passion, religious beliefs and political values shaped the lives of Bach and Casals, and finally, how the suites continue to thrive and evolve in the hands of various musicians, classical, jazz artists, and rock musicians alike. "The greatness of Bach's music," admits cellist Mischa Maisky, "is that it doesn't belong to any time or place."

After rummaging through a Barcelona music shop for sheet music at the age of thirteen with his father, and finding the mysterious manuscript in a dark corner, Casals played the suites every day for twelve years before gathering the courage to perform  them in public. Even in his nineties, Casals kept a routine of playing the Bach Suites beginning with the first suite on Monday, followed by the second on Tuesday, and so on. Casals explained to writer and peace activist Norman Cousins late in his life that Bach touched him "here"—and placed his hand over his heart.

This reminds me of the fierce determination violinist Joseph Silverstein demonstrated while offering up all six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas in performance. These one-time events, in honor of Silverstein's seventieth birthday, were presented as fund-raisers for organizations close to his heart; Northwest Chamber Orchestra among them. 

Mr. Siblin is aware that period police have not been impressed with Casals' style. "These hard-liners dismiss him as more Romantic than authentic" writes the author. Siblin makes a valid point by stating that audience  tastes have changed radically since the eighteenth century, and remaining open-minded to allow for today's listeners might not be a bad idea. From my own past experience, one critic, a Pippy Longstalker, trashed every performance that made use of modern instruments and vibrato. But then, maybe it caused too much static in her hearing aid.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Matzo Madness and Memories

Last day of Passover. One of our guests brought the most delicious matzo: Yehuda Matzos. Ordinarily, I avoid the stuff, as it tastes like cardboard, but this year, the matzo was magnificent. Maybe it was just a good batch, I don't know. Late at night, I wandered for forty minutes around the kitchen, poured a glass of Manischewitz, and slathered butter and strawberry jam on those beauties. The combination of crunchy matzo topped with creamy butter and sweet berries tasted like Nirvana. Truth be told, I'm not ready to return to toast.

Passover, a season of renewal, is also an opportunity for reflection and contemplation. While Sarah and I were driving home from shopping, I mentioned that we've lived in the same house on Queen Anne for twenty-five years. That's half my life.
"Did you expect to live here that long when you moved from L.A.?" my daughter asked.
"No," I said. As I turned into our carport, I had a Proustian experience, and recalled magic moments of lost time.

Over the years, in our humble dwelling, my in-laws, Irja and Veikko Talvi would travel from Finland, and transform our house into a palace. Irja polished the kitchen counters until they gleamed, and Veikko set massive historical books on our dining table. He rattled away on Finland's history in Finnish, as if I could process a labyrinth of information, and strained his ears to hear Ilkka practice. He listened to his son's recordings over and over again with Seattle Symphony, demanding to know which violin Ilkka played.
"A wooden one," was the only response from his son.

My mother, Frances Kransberg, doted on her grand-daughters, Anna and Sarah. She'd go out to our backyard in the late summer, and pick apples, pears and plums from the plentiful trees. Then she'd simmer the fruit together in batches, and create a rich sauce for the girls. The house smelled like cinnamon and cloves. Because her four daughters, myself included, led such separate and disparate lives, my mother wouldn't have her children in the same room with her at the same time until her passing, in 2004. The shiva ritual took place in our living room.

Music has always filled our home. Many talented individuals have enriched our lives within these walls. I remember when George Shangrow accompanied me at the piano with the Beethoven Concerto before an appearance with Orchestra Seattle. Playing the Beethoven with George felt effortless, as he's a wonderful accompanist. Incidentally, the day that George was no longer part of KING-FM, we stopped listening to that station—forever. I think classical KING-FM was doomed right then and there.

Back in the days of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Adam Stern arrived to rehearse Copland's "Vitebsk" for an all American chamber music program. Vitebsk is chock full of quarter tones which confounded me; the tonalities posed a challenge. My husband slipped into the room, appeared at once by my side, and placed my fingers accurately on the fingerboard. Besides having perfect pitch, Ilkka had analyzed the quarter tone interval down to a science. What I didn't realize at that time, but I certainly do now, is that it is vital for a musician to keep an open mind (and ear) with regard to repertoire. We learn the most from our cherished colleagues.

Ralf Gothoni practiced on our Steinway upright, and beamed energy into our home. He mused: It's not enough to be young and talented like we, of course, are. We still must practice.

And, believe it or not, Ilkka and I were once threatened at this address by the SS. The police came right to our front door, sent by a local conductor claiming that my husband had jeopardized his life with his blog. Ilkka then showed his blog to the policemen, and they agreed, shaking their heads at false accusations: the opposite was true. Tainted matzo? Madness? Perhaps, but like the Exodus from Egypt, we remember.