Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Gift

Image from
In the documentary "First Person Singular" which is a glimpse into the life of writer Elie Wiesel, he speaks of growing up in the town of Sighet, Romania on the eve of the Shoah. This film is a revelation to me in the manner that Wiesel describes music in relation to words (he grew up playing the violin in the same village as Josef Szigeti, paying for his lessons with brandy as he had no money; when the bottle of brandy ran out, the lesson was over); he shares his philosophy about teaching and his love for Bach and Beethoven. I especially find helpful Wiesel's penetrating insight into the many gifts we receive from strangers as long as our ears, eyes and hearts remain open. In his view it is the stranger that holds the key to teach us much about ourselves.

Upon my completion of the memoir Frantic, I received many heartfelt messages from various readers, near and afar, many of whom I had never met. I'm most grateful to all, and can boast that a particular e-mail with a few words of praise made me feel as if I had won the Pulitzer Prize, for the messenger is the progeny of a legendary violinist.

I purposely concluded my childhood memoir at a point when I enter the masterclass of Jascha Heifetz. There is much to be written about that experience, of course, and I intend to continue in the near future, but one of the aspects of learning under such a unique artist was that his suggestions were always straight to the point and never convoluted by jargon. "It's just as easy to play in tune as out of tune. So why not play in tune?" Heifetz would ask his students.

I'm reminded of this in part because of a meaningful book I received in the mail from a cellist of renown:
Practice for Performance for Cello and Related String Instruments by Daniel Morganstern.
It is a slim volume packed with useful tips for practice and performance. As a student of both Channing Robbins and Leonard Rose, Mr. Morganstern shares with his readers advice such as "any method of practicing that makes a passage more difficult results in greater security when returning to the original version." The tricks include practicing everything with reverse bowings, practicing in each third of the bow, and playing one octave higher. In a section entitled "Bilateral Transfer" Morganstern writes of the tendency of one side of the body to influence the other. These words strike a chord with me, as my former teacher, Erick Friedman, made a point of using this method to free up tension. I was advised to lead with the bow whenever the left hand had complex passagework, and I felt immediate relief. In Mr. Morganstern's case, it was Channing Robbins who emphasized the use of bilateral transfer by concentrating on the work of the "easier hand"; concentrating on the right arm during shifts, and focusing on the vibrato oscillation during the length of a sustained note. In another section entitled "Using Syllables," Mr. Morganstern delves into the loosening effect provided by mentally syllabalizing notes of a solo with words. This is a wonderful way to suffuse every note with meaning while maintaining a steady and relaxed pulse.

As I look ahead to performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra in May, I will keep this helpful guide to practicing and performance right on my music stand alongside of the score. Morganstern closes his book with a final thought: To spend one's life in the company of genius is the major compensation of being a musician. I couldn't agree more. A valuable gift from a stranger; now hopefully, a life-long friend.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mr. Clean

Reading this article about Baltimore Symphony and its balanced budget makes me curious. Of course, what with the economic uncertainty that symphony orchestras face in this country, any posting of sustainability is encouraging.

In Baltimore Symphony's case, the budget was reduced to $24.3 million from $28.3 million the previous year. Cost reduction measures were taken across the board. BSO musicians volunteered $1 million in reduced pay and benefits and spear-headed a fundraising campaign called Music Matters. Music Director Marin Alsop contributed $50, 000 to that campaign while also donating back $100,000 in conducting fees.

"We're moving in a cautiously forward direction," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. "It feels very different from last year."

And now. Can this man be trusted? It's not that I doubt Meecham's managerial prowess, it's just that my family was on the receiving end of deceit. As I explained to a cellist friend in Chicago, my views reflect personal experience. And some of it is rotten.

In May of 2004, while Paul Meecham was Executive Director of Seattle Symphony, he notified my husband that they were to meet in order to discuss Ilkka's contract. Since 1986, my husband's employment as concertmaster for Seattle Symphony had been subject to a joint individual contract with the Opera and the Symphony and to two separate collective bargaining agreements between the Union and the Symphony and the Opera. As my husband's last written JIC was for the 2002/03 season, he continued employment at both the symphony and opera without a signed agreement. His continuation to serve as concertmaster without the signature was based on good faith, as the organization was regularly delinquent.

Meecham ushered my husband into his office. It was just the two of them; Maestro Schwarz had made himself unavailable for the occasion. It was then and there that Paul Meechum stated that Schwarz desired "new leadership". My husband asked innocently: Is my position to be taken by so-and-so? Oh no, she's not good enough to be in the running. And Meecham went on to explain that the orchestra would be auditioning various violinists for my husband's post over the course of the season, beginning fall of 2004.

Although colleagues were by and large fearful of this new managerial approach, something which reminds me of the Kapos in concentration camps, the Union filed a grievance against the symphony on my husband's behalf. Although the Seattle Symphony rejected my husband's grievance of wrongful termination, the case proceeded to federal court with the Union seeking an order that his tenure provision created a binding right to employment. The court compelled the symphony to enter into arbitration. However, the case was settled through mediation.

I hope Meecham's cleaning methods have improved. He was fortunate to have found an ED position after having been booted out of Seattle.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Tonight while I attended Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra's performance of German Masterworks at Nordstrom Hall, I couldn't help but sense that the void left by the demise of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra has been filled at last. It pleased me to watch and listen as this talented group of musicians, under the energetic leadership of founder and Music Director Geoffrey Larson, offered the completely packed hall a program of Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. The ensemble, comprised of young professionals who have each earned numerous accolades including competition awards, is relatively new to the local scene. I believe the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra has an exciting future ahead.

Paul Shure
As I sat listening in the audience, I recalled many of my own rich and varied past experiences as a chamber orchestra player, for to me, there is almost nothing in music more gratifying. In 1978, as a newly elected member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, I received my first taste of participating in a small ensemble. I was only nineteen years of age and had much to learn in terms of blending and diffusing my sound and style to match my veteran colleagues, but loved the work. The concertmaster of LACO, Paul Shure, who sadly passed away on December 8, 2010 at the age of 89, let it be known during my first probational year that I would have to tame my individual tendencies if I expected to remain within the group. Not infrequently, Paul would turn back, look at me, and say: Someone's holding the note too long. Or.  One person in the section is playing on the string while the rest of us are off. Later.  You know, all it takes is one to ruin it for the rest of us. After a sideways glance in my direction. By the way, no open E's.

I learned.

So, it was with trepidation that I reconnected with Paul Shure years later after he and his violinist wife, Bonnie Douglas, originally from Seattle, relocated and retired here. Paul had long been an admirer of my husband's violin playing and musicianship, having recommended Ilkka for the principal position of LACO and helped to establish his career in the film recording industry. I never imagined that Paul would become a devoted supporter and guide to me as well in my capacity as both soloist and first chair player for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Whenever he and his wife Bonnie attended my performances, they would appear backstage with congratulatory words and gestures. Praise from Paul meant a great deal to me; unlike many others in this profession where superficiality reigns, Paul's manner was reliable and sincere; his knowledge, vast.

Paul Shure's career was laudable. After graduating with honors from Curtis Institute, he became the youngest member of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then became concertmaster for the Hollywood Bowl Symphony and was invited by Alfred Newman to join the 20th Century Fox studio recording orchestra. Paul was an original member of the Hollywood String Quartet which gained international acclaim through concerts and recordings. He performed under the batons of many legendary conductors, including Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Neville Marriner and William Steinberg. Paul was also concertmaster for the most sought after film composers, including Charles Fox, Bill Conti, Gerald Fried, Ernest Gold, Bernard Hermann, John Williams, and Jerry Goldsmith. In 1997, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Classical Recording Publications and Critic's Society, and accepted the award in Cannes, France.

I feel privileged to have worked with Paul Shure, and grateful for all he taught me, which hopefully I too can pass along.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reflections for the New Year

Well, here it is 2011. I'd like to make a toast for a post. I'd like to thank my wonderful husband Ilkka for encouraging me to publish Frantic in weekly installments. When he offered the suggestion to post my memoir in blog format, I couldn't imagine doing anything of the sort. But then, Ilkka had a vision that was beyond my grasp. (Take note, dear readers: The soft-spoken, humble souls that whisper suggestions might actually be visionaries.) I had no idea that recollecting and sharing stories related to my life in music would bring so much joy, laughter and memories, not only to me, but to others from here and afar. I'm most grateful to the readers who have taken the time to send heartfelt messages of support and encouragement this way. They have also shared their own experiences, many of them similar to my own. My husband is already nudging me to begin a sequel with adventures through adulthood. For this purpose he surprised me with an i-Mac over the holidays. I'm also especially proud to be a contributing writer for  Chamber Musician Today, a publication which I admire for its inclusivity and fun diversity.

Strange as it may seem, when I was growing up, I felt that my youth was mundane. I almost never had time for parties or social gatherings outside the musical commitments. But I can see that dedication spent in one art form feeds into another; the time and effort I spent devoted to music was not wasted, and I can apply the skills that I developed into other pursuits, such as writing and teaching. I have found that the characters I met along the way, on the journey so to speak, have become absorbed into the fibre of my being.  Listening to music and shaping phrases has been a helpful guide for listening to words and trying to shape stories. At this point, I feel ever so fortunate to have lived the contemplative life of a growing artist. Bumps and bruises that I survived as a young person trying to attain the unattainable, in terms of performance standard, and interacting with artists from diverse backgrounds, paved the way for me to not only endure trials through later in life, but thrive.

Many readers from near and afar have shared intimate reflections about the beauty of music, their love for it, but have admitted to the unfortunate dark-side; the back-biting, jealousy and opportunism that gets in the way of joyful art and is so prevalent onstage and behind the scenes.  One reader referred to that dark-side as the underbelly of the profession. By now, my blog readers understand the hardships and travails that my husband and I faced here, and they've responded by offering glimpses into their own narratives. The path of an artist is not an easy one, and takes courage and belief in one's mission.

Add to all this the additional angst as many arts groups are trying to survive budgetary cuts along with the decreasing demand for what we, as artists, wish to do. It's a time of redefining ourselves collectively. Here in Seattle, although organizations present an optimistic front, all is not well economically. Seattle Opera switched the repertoire for next summer's scheduled production of "Tannhäuser" and substituted it with "Porgy and Bess", due to poor ticket sales from last summer's "Ring Cycle" and low ticket sales for the current season. In other words, audiences will be treated to Opera Light. Artistic Director, Speight Jenkins, is currently taking a 20% pay reduction and opera staff will have a one day furlough per month this season.

According to local Wikileaks, the Seattle Symphony is undergoing a severe cash flow problem. Perhaps with the new Music Director, a new donor pool will emerge. The Pacific Northwest Ballet is due for contract negotiations with their musicians at the end of this season. Most dance companies are cutting costs by reducing orchestra size or substituting live music for canned. Naturally, it would be far more cost effective to employ a small complement of players as a core orchestra, and add free-lancers as needed, or just hire a pick-up crew, as that would relieve the burden of health insurance and other costly benefits for the organization.

And there are, of course, the struggling regional orchestras that boast of their "professionally-paid" musicians which makes them, well, professionals. I received a desperate letter not too long ago, from one of these orchestras, touting themselves and the maestro as World Class. "Please," the letter stated. "Magic comes at a price. As the economy slowed, we had to dip mightily into our reserves. Won't you help us?"

I, for one, would only consider helping an organization that would prove to honor basic core values, characterized by dignity, honesty, integrity, and serving the needs of the musicians through respectful communication.  I wasn't fortunate enough to have experienced those values at my former workplaces. Perhaps while ushering in the new year, it is an opportune time to reflect on how we treat our fellow colleagues and artists. For, whenever a gifted member of the arts community is discarded and ill-treated, it is not only the artist, but the community itself which suffers the loss.