Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taming of the Shrew

Just in time for the new year ahead; I've been tamed. And here I am with my much, much better half. I can't compete with this man's intellect, wry humor, or sense of rubato, but I've been told we make a good pair, and that's a good thing, especially after a marriage of 25 years. Even our own children, Anna and Sarah, still like us!

As the year 2009 comes knocking at my door, I'd like to list a few of my favorite magic moments from this past wondrous year.

I'll begin with the most recent experience, which was a sensational book club meeting at our dear friends, the Roshals, as we dissected Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. I traveled all the way to Zembla with my daughter Anna to buy just the right Onhava pickles, placed them in a jar, and shook them onto a plate. Those Zemblans! They know their pickles! Oh, how I love Zembla and Nabokov! Pravda Vodka went down smooth and warm; I could feel my capillaries open. A hard potato bread and peppery cheese plus Russian Tea and blacker than black coffee made all six senses come alive. Anna and I left the book club still fascinated by Zembla, and Charles X Kinbote, the supreme delusional narrator and voyeur. Kinbote reminds me of someone...(a secret, I mustn't tell).

So, dear readers. Here are a few more of my favorite 2008 magic moments: At St. James Cathedral, I felt close to tears during the performance of Mozart's Requiem under the inspiring leadership of Dr. James Savage. Each note and phrase of the Requiem was played and sung with tenderness, reverence and compassion. As I write about this St. James experience, I recall Lisa Cardwell Pontén's magnificent soprano solos illuminating my heart and soul; her voice soared with Mozartean beauty. I also sensed an all-embracing love emanating from the choir, orchestra and congregation as tenor Howard Fankhauser slowly lifted his head to sing, his eyes moist with grief from the sudden loss of his young son, Colin; Howard's performance was a triumph of the spirit; I felt Howard sang for his child. In moments such as these, I feel blessed to be a musician.

I've adored combining goals with that renegade Finn Ilkka Talvi. I admire his multi-faceted talents, and if we weren't married, I might be jealous. Together, we've watched our dedicated violin and viola students aspire to new challenges. We've shared well-guarded secrets of interpretative style and technique with our pupils, passed down from the Great Masters, such as Heifetz, Galamian, Odnoposoff, Temianka, Granroth, Bouillon, and Nadien. Our musical backgrounds are similar, yet different, which makes it all the more intriguing.

We performed a duo concert together at Western Washington University through a generous invitation from Professor Walter Schwede last October. Ilkka and I met the excellent pianist Dainius Vaicekonis during our collaboration at WWU and offered works by Khatchaturian, Ravel and Sarasate. Ilkka will feature many of these compositions during his return engagement to Pori, Finland, after an absence of many years, while also leading master classes.

Life is gathering momentum for our family. My absolute hands-down favorite magic moment came as a welcome surprise during the recent blizzard that swept Seattle. I played Principal Viola for Emerald Ballet Theatre for their production of The Nutcracker under Artistic Director Viktoria Titova and Musical Director David Waltman, and you know what? I never knew the Nutcracker could be so charming! The EBT production lifted my spirits high enough that I'll never want to say good-bye. Not a single show was canceled due to snow. And I'm eager for next year's run.

I wonder how and if they say "Live Long and Prosper" in Zemblan. Vladimir, can you help me?
Photo by Anna Talvi

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Twas the day before Christmas, with my family snug at home, when I looked from a bin of potatoes and onions at Metropolitan Market, and thought about Shalom. But glancing up from the bin, here's what I saw: Two ghosts—a married couple—from my Christmases past. Sure enough, the husband had observed me, and then quickly spun round, appearing to float from aisle unbound. A ridiculous hide-and-seek proceeded to begin. The ghost from Christmases Past presided over the cheese, while I whizzed with my cart in tow down cereal and grain. As I made my way (with heart pounding through my chest) towards olives and cheese, the apparition wafted down Spice Lane, nose in the air. His pale, garrulous wife seemed to hover near the fruits. I left the market with only a breast of turkey (free range, I'll have you know), a few potatoes, and a heavy heart. The snow covered hills and winding streets offered me an opportunity to reflect on life, and I trampled home, recalling books and perspectives which have become my own.

Daniel Barenboim emphasizes in his latest book, "Music Quickens Time" the difference between power and force. It is an illuminating topic, as the two entities are often confused in politics, music, and everyday life. Barenboim makes this point: The idea of music, as we see, could be a model for society; it teaches us the importance of the interconnection between transparency, power and force. During my formative years as an orchestra musician, I felt most respondent (as opposed to despondent), in the presence of inspirational and thoughtful leaders. There were so few in my life that I can count them on, perhaps, one hand. Orchestra musicians tend to revere leaders on the podium as parishioners do their priests, congregants to clergy. We seek guidance and encouragement from our music directors especially, for they have the potential to become role models, allowing us to transcend our own limitations. That is partly why Barenboim, a defiant individual, tower of power, symbol of acceptance and integration of humanity, is unique in my eyes. A feeling of communion is also the force that compels me to play with Rainier Symphony— the music director, David Waltman, an innovator and motivator.

I have mentioned in several previous entries of this journal, my indebtedness to Ralf Gothoni as a source of personal enlightenment for my own artistic achievement. As a Christmas gift to my readers, I'm including the CNN link to Ralf and Elina's recent performance for Nobel Peace Prize recipient, former Finnish leader, Martti Ahtisaari.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Few Of My Favorite Things

This morning I was awakened from a blissful encounter with my dead sister Karen, to a clap and roar of thunder. I bolted upright, stared out the window. My eyes rested on my favorite thing: a thick blanket of snow. Even Seymour, our one-eyed, black cat who sometimes behaves more like a terrier, pounced on our bed, as if to announce the wintry delight.

Play day!

Bundled in layers, and dragging an old, rusty sled, my daughter Sarah and I whizzed down a steep hill at Rodgers Park, and then trudged to the top of Queen Anne. I was reminded of years ago, sledding down the counterbalance and slipping into a pit-iful Nutcracker.

By the time Sarah and I returned home, shaking snow off our boots and warming ourselves, we felt grateful for our creature comforts. My eldest daughter Anna might poke fun at my cooking, but sure enough, a batch of bean soup simmered, a pot of coffee brewed, and just for me, a bottle of cheap red graced the table.

I curled up in bed and watched one of my favorite movies: English director Tony Palmer's "Testimony, the story of Shostakovich" a deeply, unsettling film based on Solomon Volkov's often disputed book. The film opens with the 1975 state funeral and Shostakovich's voice (Ben Kingsley): I am dead, how else should I be smiling?

Just when I thought life couldn't get any better or the day more perfect, David Waltman showed up, fearless in the face of hazardous driving conditions but having to hoof the last steep climb, with score, parts, and bowing ideas for an upcoming concert of Dvorak's Seventh. Well, at least it kept the two men busy. I remember when Ruth Galos, wife of the late concert violinist Andrew Galos, quipped: You know, if our husbands aren't busy, they're driving us crazy!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Blind (Recording) Date

This morning, Ilkka and I had the pleasure of recording a set of string quartets by Seattle composer, Doug Palmer. Although Mr. Palmer and I had not met in person, after perusing his blog over the course of many months, and exchanging brief emails, I felt a connection to this fellow artist whose contributions to Seattle's musical community appear to have been insufficiently recognized. It's no longer a secret to the international music world, that Seattle has a knack for bungling careers and mangling reputations. It wasn't lost on Mr. Palmer, a conscientious observer, that my family received antagonistic treatment from a hostile workplace and the media. I'll always appreciate his concern and support.

There's a saying I hold dear: Adversity introduced me to myself. Sometimes, it's not until almost every door closes, that we discover our true, innermost potential. I wish Mr. Palmer continued success with his writing. His three string quartets are accessible, original and varied in character; mellifluous melodies interlaced with utterances of despair. I'm pleased that Ilkka and I were enlisted to play, along with our marvelous colleagues cellist Walter Gray, violist Rachel Swerdlow, and pianist-vocalist-composer David Paul Mesler.
Seated from left: me, Ilkka, Walter, Rachel
Standing from left: David and Doug

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


There's nothing like a good fantasy. When I was a youngster, practicing sometimes up to six hours daily, I'd imagine myself on the greatest stages of the world. Without a vivid imagination, I doubt I'd have slogged away for so many hours in the practice room. My imagination took flight during any session with Music Minus One, as I visualized myself as soloist with the finest of the finest. Tap, tap, tap went the click track. And I played every concerto from Bach to Paganini. I guess I experienced a dynamic inner life as a youngster. Years later, the Finnish polymath, Ralf Gothoni, whispered to me that if you fulfill 25% of your dreams, you're considered lucky.

When I accepted the concertmaster position for Northwest Chamber Orchestra in 1984, after a thrilling escapade serving as first chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute under Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein, I envisioned part ownership in the NWCO, an orchestra bursting with potential, ready for the launch pad. A few of the players lacked adequate training and skill, but in general, the overall musicianship standard was respectable, due to the musicians' dedication. I felt pride as the appointed leader, and took my role seriously, substituting Vogue and Cosmopolitan Magazines for miniature orchestral scores during flights to and from Los Angeles, where Ilkka and I maintained part time residence. I fancied myself a Seattle version of the late Iona Brown, indomitable leader of St. Martin-In-The-Fields turned into a force-to-reckon with Music Director of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The NWCO was repeatedly in the throes of financial turmoil, but always some benefactor, in the last minute, out of mercy, prior to bankruptcy, would dig into his or her pockets, sometimes refinance a mortgage, and grant a merciful stay of execution. Once or twice, an antiquated audience member left this world—no fault of ours, and we'd find the NWCO named as beneficiary. In such magic moments, the orchestra heaved a collective sigh of relief. We carried on—business as usual—while fantasizing that NWCO was one of the jewels of Seattle's community; too precious to lose.

This might be the year of magical thinking for a number of musicians and arts organizations, but nothing beats a good fantasy. Some groups, such as this one, are on the brink of reality. I wonder what would have happened if the Northwest Chamber Orchestra had reorganized, cloaked itself in a new identity, and tossed the archaic bargaining agreement before calling it quits. The ensemble had, after all, many top-notch artists at the helm, including Sidney Harth, Ralf Gothoni and Joseph Silverstein.

Well, I can still dream, can't I? As long as my fantasy ensemble doesn't become the Belly Up Royal Philharmonic – BURP.
Illustration from Disney's Fantasia 2000

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Death and Life

In Sidney Poitier's latest book, Life Beyond Measure, he offers wisdom and inspirational advice through letter writing to his just-born great-granddaughter, Ayele, realizing he'll probably be dead by the time she can fully grasp his reflections and meditations about life, for he's now in his eighties. I'm crazy about Poitier; I fell in love with the actor while watching the film "To Sir With Love" when I was eight years old. And I remember my parents shaking their heads over "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," as the concept of inter-marriage between blacks and whites was a disgrace, or a shande, according to my Jewish family.

By the twenty-second letter in Poitier's book, he ponders:
Do our parents actually live on in us, or does just their memory? If so, is it more than memory? Is inside us the actual resting place of that elusive quality deemed their "soul," and thus is it passed on from generation to generation?

I've wondered the same mystery. Death snatched my mother, father, and two sisters within a couple of years. Where have my loved ones gone? My imagination plays tricks on me, or does it?

Sarah, my sixteen year old, awakened to a desire to play the viola, and also the violin, less than a year ago. Whenever Sarah plays, I hear my mother's musical voice, as if a direct link of interpretation and style exists between grandmother and granddaughter. The way Sarah's fingers wrap themselves around the fingerboard—my mother's hands. The determination and hint of softness in Sarah's eyes; my mother again. We play duets together, as my mother once played with me. Nature, the great Recycler.

My sisters, Judy and Karen, both of blessed memory, were endowed with the Kransberg ability to extract humor from almost any situation. Judy and Karen could make anyone see the light through laughter. My daughter Anna, I'm convinced, is a fusion of my sisters. Look what she did now. My Anna started her own blog. And guess what the topic is? Her parents! Gulp.
Photo of Sarah Talvi by Donglok Kim