Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dubious Deals

photo from
This morning I glanced at Norman Lebrecht's breaking news on Slipped Disc and almost fell off my chair: Swiss police arrest major violin dealer. You can read all about it in The Strad publication.

Ilkka and I had some interesting experiences with violin dealer Dietmar Machold beginning in 2000. He ventured to Seattle from Vienna with a few instruments including a couple of Strads. As Ilkka and I were both concertmasters of the local orchestras, Machold suggested that we perform at various events using one of his Stradivarius violins. He was wooing a group of local investors into jointly purchasing the instrument which was price-tagged in the millions. And with Machold's soft-spoken, European charm, most found him to be irresistable.

We were allowed to borrow the violin on one condition. We'd be "on call" to play the Strad and talk up the instrument's rare qualities at unique functions arranged by Machold Rare Instruments and his Seattle lackey, a colossal egotist. This way we'd be free to play the violin whenever we desired. Ilkka, with his dog's sense, smelled a rat immediately. In terms of sound the Strad was way past its prime, crafted prior to the luthier's Golden Age; certainly not worth the hefty price tag. It was obvious that the instrument had been thinned (which shortens the life span) and revarnished to the point that it gleamed. I have an unpleasant memory of playing the Strad at a private luncheon for local bigwigs. A drunken philanthropist reached up after my performance of unaccompanied Bach and thrust two hundred dollar bills down my bra. Someone had to pry him away, possibly his wife. As it turned out, there were no buyers here in Seattle, and for a short duration Machold, his lackey, and the over-priced violins were out of our midst.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to Carnegie Hall. My husband was ordered by the Semi-conductor to play on one of Machold's other violins—a Guadagnini? Gagliano?—(can't seem to recall) for purposes of generating interest with local investors for the orchestra. The instrument was initially spotted in the hands of the conductor's protégé during 2003 season, but even she rejected the violin, sensing that it was seriously flawed. Since my husband was told that he had to perform with this particular instrument on tour, he looked for an obvious way to boost its tired croaking sound. Ilkka finally settled on a shoulder cradle which, by its design, actually amplifies the tone. But, wouldn't you know, he was ordered by the conductor to "play softer"and thus, placed in a disadvantageous situation in performance against the entire orchestra.

A few years later, Machold's reputation was tainted when New Jersey Symphony led an inquiry into the  collection of "rare" instruments sold to them by Herbert Axelrod. The inquiry was focused on whether Axelrod had knowingly inflated the value of instruments as a means of padding his tax deductions. The appraisals were performed by none other than Dietmar Machold of Machold Rare Instruments. Some of the appraisals were indeed found false.

In 2005, Herbert Axelrod was sentenced by U.S. Court to eighteen months in prison for tax fraud.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Music Worth Remembering

I still remember the day I returned home from an errand and switched on the television to the local educational channel. On the screen was a baton wielder in the midst of an interview relating his connection to the Holocaust; he had recently composed a work in memory of his grandparents that were murdered in Riga. I examined the familiar, round, jovial face on the screen and asked myself: How could someone who had personally suffered the legacy of Nazi extermination through familial relations perpetuate the sardonic action of banishing colleagues? At various times during my career, I've been struck by the sad realization that the oppressed can, and often do, turn into oppressors themselves.

By now the world is well aware of the injustices heaped upon not only Jewish artists during the Holocaust, but the decent souls who stood in the line of their defense. Clearly, to deny an established and well-respected artist the right to work, or to be heard and read, as in the case of Viennese author and playwright Stefan Zweig, is to blot out his identity and existence. We know that all of humanity stands to lose when its creative forces are silenced. One cannot help but contemplate the amount of sheer talent and genius that was extinguished at the self-destructive hands of the Third Reich.

Recently I reconnected with Bob Elias, President of The OREL Foundation. I clicked on this site and listened to an audio welcome by founder and artistic director, James Conlon. The OREL Foundation, through their website, is devoted to providing a resource for scholars, musicians, and music lovers. Its aim is to inspire further research and performances of music by composers banned and suppressed from 1933-1945. I couldn't believe the wealth of material on this website available for exploration.

The Dwarf: Rodrick Dixon (L.A. Opera)
As I perused this repository of musical treasures, many of which were unfamiliar to me, I felt a yearning to surround myself with more books and materials devoted to this important subject. For starters, I viewed the live Los Angeles Opera production of Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky's one-act masterpiece, "Der Zwerg" or "The Dwarf" based on Oscar Wilde's fairy tale "The Birthday of the Infanta" on DVD. The story is about a cruel and spoiled Spanish princess "Infanta" that is sent an ugly dwarf by the Turkish sultan as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. The dwarf has never been allowed to see his reflection in the mirror; therefor, he is unaware of his hideous appearance and believes that others laugh at him because they are charmed by his good nature (God has created us all blind to ourselves). As the princess coyly pretends to be enchanted by the dwarf, even teasing him about prospective marriage, he falls hopelessly in love with her. When the dwarf ultimately sees his reflection in the mirror, and learns the cruel truth, that he's a hideous monster and has merely been a plaything, he convulses in despair and dies from a broken heart.

Zemlinsky's expressive score is spell-binding. Orientalist idioms recall those of Mahler and lighter sections, those of Lehar. The music is perfectly suited to Wilde's fairy-tale plot, although the opera's psychological complexity might have been somewhat of an obstacle to its initial success. Ridiculed for having been "ugly as sin" and referred to as "the gnome" by his lover, the Viennese femme fatale, Alma Schindler (who later married Gustav Mahler and a few other leading men), "The Dwarf" might be the closest window we can crack open to probe Zemlinsky's wounded self-image. Although he emigrated to the United States in 1938 to join his brother-in-law, composer Arnold Schoenberg, after having witnessed strong anti-semitism in Vienna, Zemlinsky lived out the remainder of his years in relative obscurity.

My exploration continues. In the next day or two, I'll receive Franz Schreker's "Die Gezenchneten".
I fell madly in love with this prelude. Listen yourself. You might catch strains of "Star Trek: The Movie".

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Turning Point

My memoir "Frantic" seems to have resonated with an astonishingly gifted eighteen-year-old violinist from the Iberian Peninsula. He reached out to me with these words: Having come across your memoir and being currently in the process of reading it, I found my heart sinking at numerous passages, both the ones whose situations I could relate to and the ones I never came close to experiencing.

My new reader, from the age of four, has been molded into an accomplished violinist having made his debut at the age of eight, and now, is a full-fledged artist; I listened with admiration to a recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto he sent this way. This young man became a violinist, in part, to please parents and esteemed, highly sought-after mentors for he is bestowed with natural abilities. But like most teenagers, he is now conflicted by the toll and demands the art form snatches from his youth. I find myself reading his words as if from a page of poetry. My spirit connects with his as he unburdens his heart:
My violin teacher asked me what my free time was like, and it was then that my blood completely froze. I loved music, but music is about life; in Zigeunerweisen are the bonfires of the Gypsies, in Beethoven's Spring Sonata the Viennese gardens. I couldn't give up on life—i.e., my precious free time—for the sake of those dreaded scales and exercises! It would be like tearing down a house, regardless of its cracks and paint smears, in order to labor tirelessly and put up the flawless painting of a house in its place. What for? I could certainly not live there.

And a bit later, a probing assessment:
I've met more stressed than happy musicians. I've met the accompanists with fully booked schedules and piles of sheet music to learn, the orchestra musicians with long rehearsals and back pain, and many of those people who studied hard in the most prestigious schools. What for? The fact that music, a food of the soul rather than a cold austere exact science, must be worked for the same way (or maybe more so) as accounting or engineering is a disheartening concept to grasp, one which may often miss the perception of general audiences, but which I, as a supposedly aspiring musician, can't hope to neglect if I really am serious about what lays ahead of me. And why I ought to be serious is the question that plagues my mind daily.

Since my memoir "Frantic" concludes at about the age of this reader, he asks that I expand upon the experience of studying with Jascha Heifetz, and what my present perspective is regarding the classical music profession. I will happily oblige for all readers out there, young and old.

In the final chapter of "Frantic" Jascha Heifetz enters the class nonchalantly and remarks off-handedly that all human beings are members of the animal kingdom. I believe Heifetz was attempting to set the record straight; to level the playing field; in class, we were all to be equals, including our mentor, the legendary Jascha Heifetz himself. But then, with a light touch of humor, he directed the class to acknowledge that unlike animals, or the herd, we were each responsible for our own actions. With Heifetz, every single facet of his life appeared to be a conscious act of will and self-determination. Though he may have felt nervous prior to performances, he imparted this message to students: If I do not display confidence in my work, who will have confidence in me? Before launching into a scale, he'd warn: Don't be afraid of the scale; make the scale afraid of you! He seemed convinced by the power of mind over matter as a means to prevail over impulse; he recognized the force of opposites; the triumph of the spirit. Heifetz was not to be duped. I was dismissed from the class, along with several other members at the end of the year, in part because (as my young reader might best comprehend), Jascha Heifetz felt that I was conflicted about becoming a violinist in the first place. That ambivalence manifested itself in my temerity during class. The choice of becoming a violinist had not been mine, he noted; I was the vessel for my mother's musical desires. Heifetz then advised me to depart from the class and sort things out for myself.

My young reader and I agree that to become a classical artist might be compared with the priesthood or  ministry. It is fair to conceive of music as a calling. In a marvelous book about Yehudi Menuhin by his nephew, the Los Angeles writer Lionel Rolfe, entitled "The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey" it is revealed that Menuhin was a direct descendant of Russian rabbis who created the mystical sect of Judaism known as Hassidism. Rolfe describes his uncle as having been a kind of latter-day musical Baal Shem, the 18th century Russian Hasidic prophet. For Menuhin, playing the violin was a spiritual quest; his life was one of sacrifice devoted to the service of mankind through art. Practicing, like the call to prayer, was a  pursuit leading to his own enlightenment and through performance, an offering of glory to the world.

We cannot all be like Heifetz or Menuhin, of course. In response to today's consumer driven, technological absorption, it might be wise for a talented young artist to think long and hard about the bumpy road that lies ahead for the future of the arts. I secretly wonder whether Heifetz or Menuhin would have succeeded as concert violinists in today's superficial, self-centered culture.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Terminator One and Two

The classical music scene is shifting in Seattle. As the final weeks of a musical leadership draw to a close (but not soon enough), our phone machine is filled with deliriously happy messages from colleagues, near and far.
"He's leaving...finally," blurts one musician, "and his cronies along with him! That player just resigned...but we all know what that term 'resignation' really means!"
Another message.
"Break out the champagne! It'll be a new dawn; a psychological cleanse; c'mon; we'll heal together."
"There'll be one hell of a party sailing around Lake Washington. Soon! Let's begin the count down. But don't you even think about bringing a cell phone to this one!"

I open my e-mail and find copies of recent press releases with glowing praise for a first chair player stepping down. My, how the organization displays its double standards!  Back in the days when my husband served as concertmaster (for over twenty years), and was illegally terminated, he wasn't the recipient of praise or gratitude from the media, but the victim of harrowing abuse, thanks to the terminator himself, who appeared to have an agenda of destroying our livelihoods for the sake of his favorite.

I'll let it be known that my husband never required multiple takes for violin solos during recording sessions. With the clock ticking (every minute is very costly to a symphony orchestra) and displaying the composure of a brave Finnish soldier, I recall hearing only words of praise from the terminator for Ilkka's astonishing ability to nail difficult solos in one smooth take. Then, of course, there was the work ethic. I believe it's an inherited trait from a long line of hard-working Finns; I witness this marvelous attitude through our own children. The unspoken rule is that one never calls in sick unless one is practically slumped at death's door. Organizations might do well to applaud employees with such commitment and honor them, rather than giving them the boot.

Unlike others in the orchestra milieu, Ilkka never abused the system. Take, for example, an ingrown toe-nail, lack of night's sleep, or tooth-ache; none of those would have qualified as legitimate reasons to take time away from work, as it has for others.  It goes without saying, that he'd never have failed to show up ten minutes prior to a concert just to spite a soloist.

And another thing. (You can tell I'm all keyed up this morning.) My husband didn't have it in him to blow the whistle on colleagues; to be a kapos; to wield a stick over others and browbeat them. No. The boss was out to terminate a couple of naughty violinists and Ilkka wouldn't comply. Let's just say that complicity is not his thing. Perhaps someone else in my husband's position wouldn't have thought twice about destroying others, and perhaps such a fembot actually took over my husband's position. Perhaps a battle was won but the war was lost. Might it be that a few got a taste of their own medicine, finally?

It is said that what goes around comes around. Law of Talion. Talvion.