Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book of Happiness

As I follow this news about disgruntled musicians, I'm struck by a sense of gratitude for what this past year has brought into my life. As my former colleagues engage in a battle of entitlement, believing themselves to be invincible and trying to demonstrate, as if clinging for dear life, that relations have warmed with their baton wielder, I reopen the gift I received from my seventeen-year-old daughter during the holidays. It is "Mom's Book of Happiness" by Sarah Lilian Talvi. I can assure you that if our house were burning down, and if I could only choose one item to rescue from the flames, it would be this book, for it is filled with photos of those I cherish, beloved memories, and messages of love, learning and wisdom. It is a book of joy, and as I turn the pages filled with images of those I have loved and lost, I hear my daughter's whisper: Live your life genuinely, Sarah writes, and all will unfold as planned.

Though some would have believed that the cruel ostracism inflicted upon my family from the disgruntled ones and their cronies would have broken our family apart by now, the opposite is true. I glance back at 2009 and recognize that all our struggles have been valuable, like investments bringing dividends of personal satisfaction and accomplishment. We have built our own community and changed the course of our lives.

This morning, as I listened to a brilliant student from Garfield High School work through Edgar Meyer's Violin Concerto, I marveled how convincingly this young woman played. She has been my pupil for a number of years. When she began with me, she played like a tiny, but cute, mouse. When did my cautious student evolve into a self-assured artist? And where will her path in music lead her? She will enrich others wherever she goes, that's for certain.

Yesterday another student, who is all of twelve years old, handed me the first movement to his own composition, Sonata for Violin and Piano. We played through the work together. I was filled with wonder at his power of originality. True, he has been guided by an inspiring composition mentor, Janice Giteck, but no teacher, no matter how dedicated, can supply a student with talent.

Another gifted violin student has discovered the joy of participating in Young Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra as a violist, learning viola as I did, on the spot. Now he plays Bach solo works with equal beauty and technical mastery on both instruments. He will, as I have done during my previous incarnation, experience the thrill and intimacy of a chamber ensemble where each individual voice counts.

"Don't brag," warns my daughter Anna, even though I cannot believe she is only twenty-two, has attained a Masters Degree in Education, is married to a wonderful young man who shares her values, and leads a promising career. "But," I argue, "as a mother and teacher, I'm entitled."

Have I mentioned that my student Andrew Sumitani received a glowing review from the Seattle Weekly for his performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra?
Solo instruments project gloriously, though, and in the Bruch soloist Andrew Sumitani's serenely elegant, showboating-free performance was beautifully balanced against the orchestra's pillowy richness.

And as I reflect on 2009, I feel a rush of anticipation for 2010, and for all the pages in my book of happiness.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Excuse Me, Lowering What Bar?

As 2009 draws to a close, I feel gratitude for family, students and friends. The recession has hit many hard with hiring freezes, lay offs, and salary cutbacks. Although my eldest daughter Anna and her husband Andrew have been fortunate by gaining full-time, salaried employment, complete with good benefits immediately following their graduations, I worry for many of their peers and colleagues who cannot begin their paths to financial independence and are mired in college debts. Young artists are finding employment opportunities particularly daunting; I advise all my students to pursue skills outside the field of music in order to survive.

It wasn't many years ago, less than five to be exact, when our daughters Anna and Sarah were faced with the uncertainty of their parents' job losses. To this day, I have the uncomfortable recollection of playing in Seattle Symphony's opening gala concert at the start of 2004/05 season as a ringer, and silently observing while the personnel manager stepped up on the podium during the first rehearsal to announce that checks would be waiting for the musicians in the lounge. Knowing my husband had just been illegally terminated and therefore my family's well-being had been compromised, the personnel manager averted my eyes, signaling to me a guilty, but not guilty enough, conscience. This was the orchestra that had proclaimed itself World Class, though most of the players were at that time, how shall we put this delicately, past their prime. Incidentally, most of those players remain to this day. 

This morning I read a web post by Tim Hale, Chair of SSOPO. It appears the local band is in a state of turmoil over recent negotiations. Will decreasing SSO's salaries really "lower the bar" and hamper the ensemble's competitiveness? If "talent sourcing" is suffering, it's because the organization, like several others in this vicinity, has effectively banished many of the community's most gifted and experienced players, and put off potential newcomers by scare tactics and bullying.

Wake up to reality, dear colleagues, before you flatter yourselves by thinking you're indispensable in the event of a work stoppage. There are plenty of unemployed, under-utilized, young musicians everywhere, streaming out of conservatories, eager for any and all opportunities. What makes you believe that your organization, unlike all others across the nation, should be immune from cost cutting measures and reductions to survive the general malaise towards classical music? And classical musicians are becoming a desperate bunch, scrounging round for gigs like sharks circling their prey. What will happen to players from other world class wonders facing extinction? What prevents them from relocating to Seattle, a city as much Paradise as Hell.

With the over-supply and lack of demand facing orchestras today, I imagine there are many truly talented, first-rate conductors eager to experience their own magic moment without the motive of greed. Who knows? A local band might even find an original for a music director, one who has no need to resort to trickery or Morse Code to get messages across.
Great white shark

Monday, November 23, 2009

Love And Marriage

It was a far cry from the way Ilkka and I got married, that's for sure. Last Saturday evening, our twenty-two year old daughter, Anna Mirjam Talvi, was betrothed to Andrew Michael Blick after a courtship of over three years. Anna and Andrew hosted a beautiful, non-traditional ceremony at the Roeder Mansion in Bellingham with a small circle of dear friends and family in attendance. As Anna made her way down the staircase into the gathering, there was an audible gasp from the audience. To my eyes, there's never been a more magnificent bride. If my mother were still alive, she would have kvelled at the sight of her grand-daughter. Perhaps Anna has a sixth sense. Her grandmother had visited in a dream, and appeared to her brimming with joy and excitement for the sacred event.

Native American prayers and Jewish meditations of Kabbalistic origin helped to create an illuminating, spiritual experience. The ceremony was further enhanced by the musical poetry of violinists Rose McIntosh and Alyssa Fridenmaker. A dessert reception followed with a charming and captivationg toast by the father of the bride, who, I might add, appeared radiant. Seated by our side during the ceremony was our dear friend, retired Seattle Symphony violinist, Karen Bonnevie. Karen hosted the baby shower before Anna's birth back in 1987, and has watched over our family all these years. She is also Anna's chosen Godmother.

Our girls, Anna and Sarah, have always enjoyed hearing the tale of our own unconventional wedding,  especially since our reception consisted of a trip to Carnation's, the ice-cream parlor. Ilkka, rather than popping the question, made a proclamation that we would be married when I turned twenty-five. And so, after a grueling recording session in Los Angeles (our wedding was set for eight o'clock in the evening, but due to over-time, we didn't make our appearance until after ten) we tied the knot. Our event was witnessed by four people: the pastor, my late mother Fran Kransberg, and Ilkka's two daughters from his first marriage. I still remember the taut smile on my mother's face; the look of anxious resignation at the thought of losing her fourth daughter, the baby. She herself had been married for thirty seven years before being jilted by my father. I suppose my mom had lost faith in marriage for a while, and trust in the male species. But a few years later, when she laid eyes on Anna, she shook her head and said, "It's meant to be." 

Pastori Lehti, a friend to the Finnish community, performed our service with soft spoken dignity. He warned that marriage "for better or worse" is not so difficult when times are good. But when life throws a curve for the worse, he said, that's another matter. This is when marriages tend to fall apart. Devotion, emotional maturity, and inner strength are ingredients for a solid marriage; wisdom which has been embedded into my heart forever. And in turn, I'd like to pass this recipe along to my Anna and Andrew. May their lives be filled with joy, blessings, and devotion to one another at all times.
in photos: Anna Talvi & Andrew Blick
Karen Bonnevie & Ilkka Talvi
Sonja, Ilkka and Marjorie Talvi, Donald Lehti & Fran Kransberg

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Lesson From Marylou

After reading these enlightening words of Boston Symphony violinist Marylou Speaker Churchill who passed away a few days ago, I feel at once inspired and saddened. Speaking about the work of an orchestra musician, she asked: "Is playing in an orchestra a joy or a job? It's wise to make it a joyful job, but remember that no job employs you completely. Working for money is never the real reason for doing any job. You must love what you do, and then you will find happiness and joy in your work. In actuality you are always being employed to express all the best qualities you are capable of, such as intelligence, wisdom, beauty, balance, grace, sensitivity, awareness, love..If you are miserable, it's your own fault. Make excellence, beauty, and truth your goals, and you will rise to that level."

These words, of course, have touched me. In my joyful job of teaching I can put Marylou's ideals into action, with the goal of positively influencing young people. The students I mentor are receptive to lessons, not just related to the beauty of music and art, but in the cultivation of life sustaining values. Regrettably, as I look back on my own years of orchestra playing and the politics involved, I have to admit that all it takes is one rotten egg to turn upside down the workplace, creating a hostile environment. Reading events such as this and this reminds me that orchestras can be breeding grounds for toxicity. I urge young musicians to educate themselves of the realities of a profession perceived by the public as loftier than most.

Almost three decades ago, I went on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Europe. I was twenty-one years old at the time. It was sobering to witness the players in the orchestra turn into mealy-mouthed monsters. If you wish to watch a bunch of kindergartners hurl mud in the sandbox, accompany a group of orchestra musicians backstage during the breaks, or to committee gatherings where mob mentality prevails, or on tours. It is in these instances especially, that players are reputed for launching vitriolic attacks against their colleagues. At the time of the LA Phil tour in 1981, principal violist Heiichiro Ohyama fell victim to such abuse. His colleagues instigated a revolt to have him ousted from the principal post, although Mr. Ohyama had been offered his position by none other than Music Director Carlo Maria Giulini. By renouncing the principal violist, weren't the players contesting their music director's judgment? What made them feel emboldened to do so?

You will find that guiding lights, such as violinist Marylou Speaker Churchill, are a rarity in orchestras. I'm certain that she will be missed by colleagues in Boston, and throughout the world. Hopefully, in years to come (that is if orchestras even survive) there will be more musicians like Marylou.
photo of Marylou Speaker Churchill courtesy of New England Conservatory

Friday, November 6, 2009

Unnecessary Losses

In the past several days, a few of our acquaintances outside the field of music have been victims of recessionary lay-offs. With every fresh casualty, a wound reopens in my heart. I'm reminded of our own personal struggles not too long ago. I detect the strain on peoples' faces who have been cut off from their livelihood, the quickly wiped-away tears, and the look of helpless panic in their eyes. Of course, when one is a public figure, such as a concertmaster, the media swoops in to help stir the pot. A person who sits in a cubicle all day, or sells behind a shoe counter, does not have to face public scrutiny the same way as an artist on stage. Perhaps one can sell shoes elsewhere, or work for another tech firm, but to start life anew as a concert artist is pretty tough, especially in the over fifty age group. I seem to recall the labor lawyers during a mediation session innocently asking my husband, "What about other orchestras in the area? Can't you just make a switch?"

At that time, I served as concertmaster for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, but with only thirty to forty services per year, that could hardly have been considered full-time employment. Besides, NWCO folded a few months later. And yet, during my twenty something years with the group, although the chamber orchestra offered a generous health insurance package and other benefits, my coworkers would routinely opt out of rehearsals and performances whenever more lucrative engagements came their way, costing the organization additional expenses in the hiring of extras. Loyalty didn't exist. When the subject of a tour to Finland was put on the negotiating table, these same individuals, perhaps expecting a Daddy Warbucks to step in and offer unlimited sponsorship, made unreasonable demands for per diem rates, and derailed the entire tour. With the unnecessary loss of the tour, there went the entire organization.

There is a heartbreaking video of Honolulu Symphony musicians in their continued struggle for survival. The players are owed months of back pay, and face the potential of bankruptcy filing this week. Whenever I hear about fellow musicians being forced to eat through their savings, it acts as a trigger, like post-traumatic stress. Honolulu Symphony experienced a turnover of more than a quarter of its musicians as a result of the back pay issue, according to Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians. I ask you, dear readers, what will this country do with all its unemployed and under-employed artists?

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.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Search Of Lost Time

Marcel Proust's Open Sesame and the magic lantern seem to have taken effect. While stepping into "In Search Of Lost Time" I discovered a sort of kindred spirit and guide in the voice of Proust. I picked up my first volume "Swann In Love" over this summer when I was struck by a longing to play Wagner's "Ring Cycle". Although I had sent a personal letter to the general director reminding him of my past contributions to the first violin section in previous cycles, practically begging for mercy from retaliatory behavior by the local snobs, I found myself one of many rejected artists, denied and dispossessed. I tried to be sympathetic to the general director, since he had, years ago in our house, claimed not to have understood what a concertmaster's role is, although himself a former music critic. His orders had come from above; from the dark gods, and he didn't have the spine of bendable zirconium like say, Peter Gelb.

I ordered a Proust 6-pack after perusing Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and decided, right then and there, to succumb to the thousands of  pages. Envisioning "In Search of Lost Time" as a sort of replacement for playing excruciatingly long, sinuous Wagnerian phrases—what notes are to music, words are to prose—I was not mistaken. Every Gospel-like page that I turn, transports me to salons from my past where local braggarts compared stock market successes and flaunted Bar and Bat Mitvah parties. As a music librarian once asked: What do you give the thirteen-year-old child who already has the moon?

As you can see, I get a bit worked up over what must seem like tit-for-tat. It's the Jewish New Year. I'll begin with a fresh tradition. Proust owned a theatre-phone on which he used to listen to live performances. Metropolitan Opera at the Movies will become my new tradition, which hopefully guarantees a snob-free zone featuring first-rate productions, by truly world class singers and orchestra musicians, like oboist Nathan Hughes. No hearing aids or opera glasses needed. Popcorn?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Golden Birthday

Yesterday we celebrated our daughter Sarah's golden birthday. We began by offering gifts of the spirit, for although Sarah is age seventeen, she is, I'm convinced, an old soul. A few hours after she was born, I fell asleep with her by my side, and found that the gentleness of her presence calmed and soothed me. It has been that way ever since.

When my mother lay dying in the critical care unit of Harborview, Sarah, then age 12, stood close by her grandmother's bed, stroking my mother's face with her hand, tears rolling down her cheeks, but firm in her conviction that my mother would forever remain with us. The youngest child of two artists, Sarah has sensed the sorrow of dreams gone awry, but has taught us, by thoughtful words and actions, to perceive each day as a blessing; each day another opportunity to try to improve life's ills. Every Sunday, after she volunteers her afternoons for patients at Children's Hospital, she calmly tells us that to go outdoors and bask in the delights of nature is a privilege not to be taken lightly, as is a bike ride, a swim in the frigid waters of the Puget Sound, or a sweaty climb to the peak of Tiger Mountain. She rushes outside to greet the sunshine, rain and sometimes snow; the scent of fresh air lingering on her face and in her beautiful hair.

Sarah gathers the richness of all things sublime; she is a lover of music and poetry; a believer in the transcendent ability of the arts to transform the spirit and world; a champion of the under-privileged. Her imagination soars to faraway places and galaxies. She has taught my ears to accept different harmonies, my eyes to see beyond the physical, and though I may never quite succeed, she encourages my heart to forgive.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Special Tribute

One of the benefits of creating a blog is that you have your own media platform. So, although I was not invited to share reflections of my former colleague and collaborator, Gerard Schwarz, in the local paper, no worries; my laptop awaits. The only quote from an orchestra member was from an old flute player (one has to wonder why); I suppose it was like asking Donald Rumsfeld for his opinion of Dick Cheney.

Our paths crossed briefly in 1973, at the Tri-State Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma. I was the featured soloist with a youth orchestra performing Saint-Saëns "Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso". Gerard Schwarz appeared as a twenty-something-year-old trumpeter with the American Brass Quintet on the same program. As happens with musicians, worlds meet and, not infrequently, collide. When I turned nineteen, lost in the commercial maelstrom known as Los Angeles, I wandered into an audition for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Word had it that a young, talented trumpet player was to replace Sir Neville Marriner. He was an ambitious, well-connected brass player-turned-conductor, a fellow who appeared to want to be liked by all, and introduced himself as Jerry. His future was pledged in gold with backers rooting for him on both coasts. Schwarz and I realized that we had met years before at Tri-State, and with that revelation, we struck up an immediate rapport. My first professional contract was offered, and the new maestro placed me in the second violin section. I was raw and inexperienced in section playing, having concentrated mainly on solo repertoire. And it was in LACO that, after being reprimanded at least a hundred times for sticking out, I became enamored with the chamber orchestra literature enough to pursue this very course in years ahead, as a concertmaster for Seattle's now defunct Northwest Chamber Orchestra. Works such as Barber's Adagio, Diamond's Rounds, and Grieg's Holberg Suite sharpened my ensemble skills and led me on a whole different path to a form of what I'd describe as disciplined individuality. 

My professional years in Los Angeles, and later New York, is material not for a blog entry, but a personal memoir. Suffice to say, I followed Schwarz's baton in many settings: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (having ascended to the first violin section after one season), Waterloo Festival, White Mountain Festival, New York Chamber Symphony, and as a regular ringer for Seattle Symphony, while my husband served as concertmaster for over twenty years. I recount Schwarz's early years, especially before wife number three, with fondness. There was a certain charm factor in his willingness to seek answers to his questions, or the invitation for healthy debate, his youthful ability to shrug off retorts from players, no matter how snippy and sarcastic. That was before he perfected the art of retaliation.

"I am forward looking," says Schwarz at this juncture in his career. And that is a good thing, because as they say in this cruel business, Gerard Schwarz's future is behind him.
Painting of Schwarz by Roy Munday

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Teacher Shopping

The end of summer usually brings a round of prospective violin students eager to make a switch to a new teacher. Sometimes a youngster enters the studio, violin case in hand, without any music or material, expecting me to provide an instant curriculum. A parent usually follows into the room displaying an expression which reads: Are you, perhaps, the one teacher to be entrusted to transform my wunderkind into the next Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn?

And each potential student that I encounter, with anxious parents in tow, takes me back to my own young years. At the age of fourteen, my mother determined, as she did with anything related to musical education, that it was time to "move on". Qualified applicants for the task of guiding my violin lessons were scrutinized, with a final toss up going to Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Silverstein, and Dorothy DeLay. As it happened, Mr. Heifetz taught at USC in Los Angeles, so studies with him would have required an entire family relocation. Lessons with Ms. DeLay at Juilliard would have meant a continuation of the weekly Greyhound bus commutes from Boston to New York during the night. But Mr. Silverstein, then concertmaster of Boston Symphony, was in my backyard, so to speak. His regular appearances on WGBH television with BSO made him, in my eyes, an icon. To this day, I have a splendid memory of listening to an entire recital of his at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. As he performed the Adagio from Sonata in G Minor of J.S.Bach, I sat mesmerized by the choreography of his bushy eyebrows raising in tandem with the violin bow. So it was with great anticipation that I auditioned for Mr. Silverstein, back in 1973, at his studio in the Berkshires. I presented for him the very same Bach solo sonata movement as he had played at the Gardner Museum. My mother waited outside the studio for Mr. Silverstein's verdict. My father, who drove us everywhere in a pea-green Oldsmobile, and detested driving, went for a sanity walk to smoke a pack of cigarettes.

After the generous hour spent with Mr. Silverstein, a lesson which included valuable insight about bow technique and relaxation, he exchanged a few words with my mother. I believe Mr. Silverstein's message was that to choose to play in a professional orchestra on a par with Boston Symphony in later years, would be an ideal profession for a young woman, especially if that woman had expectations of balancing a family life with a career.

And that was Joseph Silverstein's fatal flaw with Frances Kransberg. Because, you see, my mother's daughter was not to become just an "orchestral" player, but something, in her mind, much more.
photo of Joseph Silverstein

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Gift

My twelve year old student, Lev, arrived for his lesson holding an antiquated composition book of Mazurkas and Waltzes for solo violin. Gino, the composer of these compositions, awaits his 100th birthday in a small village in the mountains of Tuscany, with a longing to hear his music before he dies. Of all the treasures in Gino's life, the violin remains his dearest, though at Gino's age he can no longer play. And it is for this reason that Lev clutches the composition book written in 1930; he will gift Gino with a recording of these never performed, cherished works.

My little Lev dutifully sets the composition book onto the music stand. He opens the first page to a Mazurka. The composition is nearly impossible to decipher; ink blotches conceal many of the notes, and some others have squiggly tails for stems covering the bar lines and rhythm. "Is that note a D," I ask, "or a B?" Both tones could belong to the key. Lev plays the D. "It's this," he asserts, and repeats the phrase from beginning to end. I observe closely as my young student strokes the thin, frayed paper with care, slowly turning to the next page: Waltz. The opening measures of this Waltz have faded over time. Other notes appear to have vanished. "What's that?" I point with my bow. Lev squints. He strokes the composition book as if it's a piece of parchment of Dead Sea Scrolls. We play our violins together and try to telepathically reconstruct the score. "That's called artistic license," I say, as Lev adds a flourish to a final measure, psychically sensing his way to the end. The creation makes musical sense, and we are both satisfied.

Gino's music has taken up much of the hour; it is time to work on the beloved Mendelssohn Concerto. Lev's sound is sweet, his interpretative style, innocent; perfect for the classicism of Mendelssohn. But an occasional incorrect rhythm and wrong note stubbornly reappear week after week, like an uninvited guest. "Lev" I say. "Play for Felix the way you do for Gino, with regard for every note, as if he, too, will hear his music for the last time—as a gift."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pistachio Anniversary

A few days ago, we triumphed to our 25th wedding anniversary. Ilkka returned the day before from Iceland and Finland, in honor of our event. How, exactly, did we celebrate? Well, I found my husband glued to the television as he watched Ted Kennedy's funeral, a carton of Haagen-Dazs Pistachio ice-cream on his lap, the spoon lovingly held between his fingers.

"It's our anniversary," I said. "Are you just going to sit there, stare at the funeral procession, and pig out on ice-cream?"
He looked up, spooning the remainder of the ice-cream, which had melted into a sweet syrup. "What more appropriate way to celebrate a wedding anniversary than by watching a funeral?"
"Like, you mean, it's symbolic?"
"Kind of—" he shrugged.

Which reminds me. My daughter, Anna and her fiance Andrew Blick will be getting married in a matter of months. Twenty two years ago I waddled around Green Lake, in my almost tenth month, while desperately trying to prompt her out of the womb. Anna was a large baby; just under nine pounds, with elbows and feet that kept jabbing my insides. Ilkka was given time off from one of the Wagnerian operas to assist at her birth. I seem to have a hazy recollection of trying to use all the various labor techniques with my husband, like deep breathing exercises and whooshing sounds, only to conclude that his presence in the delivery room fueled my discontent, though admittedly, he looked handsome in scrubs. After two grueling days of non-stop contractions, Anna Mirjam Talvi announced her way into the world with a piercing scream, while bewitching the entire birthing unit by her fine, cherubic features. "No Cone-Head for us," muttered my husband. "She's beautiful."

"You smell just right," my husband says to me, alluding to pheromones and their powerful means to attract, which results in a "perfect genetic match". The ice-cream carton is emptied; the television switched off; Facebook can wait for one more day. I inhale. He smells of pistachio. I can tell you, I'm good for at least another twenty five years with this man.
Photo by Sarah Talvi

Friday, August 14, 2009

Music: The Seattle Treatment

Summer reading hasn't exactly been light. I've been exploring the works of Thomas Mann, and found while reading Doctor Faustus, that I was wading through dense, theoretical material, enough to make my eyes glaze over. I reserved Mann's Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus from the local library for insight into the background of this austere, mind-bending work. One thing led to the next, as often does with literature, and while reading Mann's memoir during his later years spent as an exile in Los Angeles, I found a reference to the late concert violinist and my former mentor, Henri Temianka.

Henri Temianka, a pupil of Carl Flesch, was the first violinist of the famed Paganini String Quartet, third prize winner in the Wieniawski Competition, after David Oistrakh and Ginette Neveu. He was founder/conductor of the California Chamber Symphony. As a nineteen year old, I studied chamber music with Mr. Temianka at his home in Los Angeles, in a string trio with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Stephen Balderston, and performed in his chamber orchestra at Royce Hall, on the campus of UCLA. Little did I know back then, how successful my compatriots were to become in their future musical careers, and how generous and patient Mr. Temianka was with his vast wealth of knowledge. He taught chamber music in the manner of Flesch, with careful attention to each detail. But all I seemed to care about during an admittedly delayed adolescence, was that Mr. Temianka, with his puff of feathery white hair, iridescent blue eyes, and short build was fun to ridicule after coachings. We were all guilty of doing impersonations, but our gifted cellist, Steve, performed the most hilarious impression of the great violinist by walking on his knees, reducing his own height by half, and offering Temianka-like musical suggestions in a high-pitched, affected voice.

My behavior was slightly naughty, but I take comfort in knowing that Henri Temianka left the musical world a treasure by way of his personal memoir "Facing The Music: An Irreverent Close-Up of the Real Concert World". As I enjoy this charming book filled with irresistibly candid anecdotes about his colleagues, I can't help but shake my head while reading the chapter "The Music Critic". It is in these pages that I learn of famed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham being driven out of Seattle. Mr. Temianka piqued my curiosity. Besides having been vilified by an incompetent Seattle critic—what else is new?—what prompted Sir Thomas to refer to Seattle as the "Aesthetic Dustbin"?

I sit down, open my laptop, do some searching, and find this. Music: The Seattle Treatment. The story was published in 1948 but it may as well be a current affair: Last week, Seattle's musicians were on the barricades again. They marched into a symphony board of directors' meeting in the stuffy, ivied Rainier Club. They had a simple solution to the orchestra's problem: if the directors would only just stay away, 40 members of the orchestra would run it themselves. They would plan the season, pick their own conductor...They're musical mobsters. They're out to have Ali Baba for a chairman—

Sound familiar? Read on, fellow sleuths:

Whoever Seattle's next conductor was, he would have to be a man who could be decorative at teas in the fashionable Highlands and Broadmoor as well as forceful on the podium. Said one Seattleite: We ought to start him out right—with a baton of poison oak.

Come to think of it, such batons would make ideal farewell gifts; I'll start wrapping.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Show Me de Botton

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my Eurovan crossing the Ballard Bridge and listening to "All Things Considered" when I heard these sharp words articulated in a fine, British accent: Is my boss sane? I practically careened off the bridge, as the question brought to mind a former workplace, where I was derided for ruining a production by the playing of an incorrect note. The thought-provoking question was offered by philosopher and author Alain de Botton during the promotion of his latest book: "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work". Mr. de Botton states in his NPR Opinion piece: The probability that a boss is well-adjusted is not as high as we might like. Many bosses manifest "paranoid-insecure" patterns of behavior, which make for mood swings, excessive suspicion, anger, inability to focus, over-obsession with status, and a diminished capacity for empathy.

But Mr. de Botton, how did you know? Have you interviewed my former colleagues? He continues: Then there is paranoia. How much damage is caused in this world by fragile egos. Whatever the dangers of bumptious overconfidence, they are nothing next to ravages brought about by a fragile self-esteem. It is this that will cause explosions of rage, intemperate waspish e-mails, and snide remarks.
---To those cursed with one, the bad boss is an object of constant thought.

Recently, a former co-worker informed me that his boss, a baton wielder, had chided him for not "looking smart or sharpening up his image"and not being "trained to look like those around him". Told that he was "one of those kind of unsophisticated Americans that should be living in Tacoma" this musician, a young man of Native American descent, had an unfortunate Staph infection on his forehead at one time. The boss ridiculed that he was "beginning to look rather like a unicorn", then proceeded to blow cigarette smoke right into the musician's face.

Which brings me back to ruminations about Alain de Botton. His books "Status Anxiety" and "How Proust Can Change Your Life" accompany me on my twice weekly hikes to Discovery Park. "Status Anxiety" is particularly helpful if you're grappling with the issue of having gone from a perceived somebody, to a percieved nobody. I suppose anyone who has lost a job might benefit by this valuable insight. And I've kindled "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work", a book I find immensely enjoyable as it enables me to peer into the hidden professional lives of others. We are reminded that most of us are still working at jobs chosen for us by our sixteen-year-old selves; what is the magic ingredient that makes our careers either fulfilling or soul destroying? What happens when we become so specialized in one area that we lose sense of the whole? As if my interest wasn't already ignited by de Botton's charming and enlightened essays, his internet outburst to New York Times reviewer Caleb Crain, after receiving an unflattering review: I will hate you until the day I die added a whole new dimension to my level of respect and admiration for the writer. I genuinely hope you'll find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon. He went on. You've now killed my work in the United States.

Not for this reader. Show them, de Botton!
Image ©

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Our Irene

Today I received a phone call from a former student, Irene Cheng, now a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony. We had a lot of catching up to do. Irene was my first pupil, back in the days when Sidney Harth was Music Director of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, in the late 80's. I was pregnant with Anna then, trying to conceal my pregnancy by wearing lots of Laura Ashley jumpers. But one day, Irene's mom asked, "Are you pregnant?" And we all broke into laughter.

Irene and I took a trip down memory lane, just a few moments ago, by telephone. She reminded me how I took her to task for not practicing and paying enough attention to details when she was a teenager. Actually, Irene was light years ahead of many students these days, as she always came prepared for lessons, but as a 16 year old, just didn't understand the perfectionism required for great violin playing. It wasn't long before she grasped the rigor of the art form, and as a result, her progress went full speed. After a few years with me, Irene worked exclusively with Ilkka, and completed the undergraduate requirements at the UW. She, very wisely, picked up a degree in a field outside of music, to have as a fall back. Later, Irene Cheng was awarded full scholarship at Yale University, and completed her Masters in Music with Sidney Harth.

For a short time, Irene played in the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra, as a core second violinist. That was her first professional gig. But one day, she showed up in tears backstage. "This isn't the place for me" she said, recognizing that life in the pit leads to nowhere, and colleagues of lesser abilities were judging her, making her feel like an outsider. The stick man wasn't able to divine her musical ability by reading her face, as was his custom. "I want to better myself, not stand still," she confided.

And that is a vivid recollection I have of Irene, because her words came true. And, as we were harkening to the past, we returned to the present. The Music Director of Pittsburgh Symphony, Manfred Honeck, commended Irene for her individual European approach to violin playing, a style which reflects traditions from the past, and is rarely heard nowadays. Although Seattle doesn't seem to appreciate this originality, preferring the cookie cutter approach, it's all the better. Pittsburgh Symphony does, and they're not suffering from bad press or fiscal irresponsibility. So, one might say, Irene's in a better place. What more could a teacher ask for?

In the picture: Irene, me and violinist Irv Eisenberg (who just celebrated his 90th birthday), mid-1990s

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Turning Fifty

I have less than a week left before turning fifty, or forty-ten as my husband puts it. My daughter Anna keeps a stack of retirement home brochures in a special drawer, and assures me that she'll select the perfect home, when the time comes. Anna proposes a "nice Jewish environment" for me when I can no longer take care of myself; a residence where I can participate in hat-making contests, hamantaschen baking, Purim parties, sing-a-longs, and of course, my favorite (NOT)—flower arranging. She even insists that I'll be able to play a Fiddler on the Roof medley during visiting hours for family and friends.

But, for now, I'm still in relatively good condition, walking up and down hills in Queen Anne, browsing the library shelves and comparing grocery prices, like my own mother, Fran Kransberg, used to do. My youngest daughter, Sarah, assures me that I'm a youthful almost fifty, and Ilkka still makes me feel like a blushing bride.

The one thing I most look forward to in my old age is telling tales from my life. I'm not talking about pleasantries, which I find boring. No, what I want to share with my readers are some of the more bizarre happenings which I've experienced. At my age, am I not entitled?

Back in 1999, a twenty-year-old girl swinging a violin case showed up at our front door and introduced herself as Esther. She wanted an assessment as to whether or not she was qualified to become a professional violinist. Expecting a student-like player, I escorted Esther downstairs and encouraged her to play a piece of her choosing. After making a set of excuses for herself in advance, I haven't practiced in months, she slowly unzipped her case, and propped the violin under her chin. A few uncomfortable giggles later, Esther rendered an incomparably beautiful performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.
"You'd give even Hilary Hahn competition," was my remark after she finished, although I secretly noted the unfortunate Nadja mannerisms.
"Really?" she quizzed. "You mean—I shouldn't—um, quit?"
"Why would you do a thing like that?"
"The church," she said, eyes downcast. "I'm to be wed, and a path has been chosen for me."
Oy, I thought to myself, such a waste of talent.

In the ensuing days and weeks, I tried to learn more about this mysterious Esther. How had she found my name and why did she come to me? She returned to play for Ilkka, and the two of us were dismayed. Esther, it turned out, was being dissuaded from pursuing a career in music by her Fundamentalist Christian host family. She had arrived in the United States from Europe in search of a cure from her past. One thing for certain, Esther had been privileged with a strong education. Like her violin playing, her spoken English was pitch perfect.

Ilkka and I offered to come to Esther's aid, as we felt she was in need of a stable environment. We provided free lessons, free meals, and free transportation, as she was almost totally without funds, and helped to support her goals of resuming a musical career. As Esther's host family increased their fundamentalist ultimatums, we took her in as a lodger, free of charge. It was then we stumbled upon one small detail: Esther's name was not Esther. A whole new identity had been created for her, or had she created it herself? Esther's narrative resembled a suspense thriller, and whenever we asked for details about her real family and personal history, our guest would pass out and collapse onto the floor. Medical personnel shook their heads and ruled out any physical abnormality as a cause.

Initially, before I had an inkling as to the psychodynamics at play, I had thought our guest might respond to the numerous lessons, food and lodging, in kind, by assisting with a few light chores or watching the children. But this mysterious stranger helped herself to whatever she needed from our home. She raised eyebrows at competitions. The woman was, after all, twenty years of age. One is still eligible to participate in solo contests until the early to mid twenties. She talked endlessly about her musical aspirations, weighing one scenario against the other, comparing one violin teacher to the next, and pointing out deficiencies of those around her. I should have taken it as an omen that our cat, Seymour, got hit by a car and lost his eye that year. And each time a possible confrontation arose, she'd land on the floor.

Almost six months passed before I felt emboldened to insist the guest leave. We needed our lives back; our children, the top priority, not to mention financial obligations. Our visitor furthered her education with artists of renown at reputable institutions, and went on to collect top prizes in international competitions. Her guest appearances also included many hospitals, as an inpatient. The medical bills and student loans in the United States went unpaid. Collection agencies tried to locate her. Wouldn't you know, she had given our address as her own? The phone calls and letters demanding repayment persist. These days, she's back in the country of her origin. With piles of unpaid bills, I doubt she can return to the States. I don't profess to know what path she chose for a religion, as it's irrelevant. However, it's been pointed out that she features an endorsement on her website by an Antichrist, as opposed to any of her esteemed mentors.

You think this story is bizarre? Just wait!

Thursday, May 28, 2009


There was a time, during my young years, when I'd drive to Portland and back just to hear James DePreist and the Oregon Symphony. Those concerts must have quickened my pulse, for on the way home, I'd hear the distant siren and get pulled over for speeding. This evening, I didn't have to drive far to hear Maestro DePreist. He's in town as a guest conductor for Seattle Symphony. DePreist's presence provides a stark contrast to the usual. The maestro drives onto the stage in his power chair, greets his audience with a benevolent smile, then whirls the chair around to face his colleagues. To the accompaniment of a soft hum from the machine, the chair lifts to the level of music stand and score. The audience remains noticeably quiet; intrigued. He then proceeds to lead the ensemble with specific gestures and minimal fuss, deflecting the attention away from himself onto the players. It's a pleasure to watch a conductor who doesn't look as if he's about to sprout wings and fly away. DePreist's relaxed and inspiring approach induces the musicians, even the most glum, to play with heartfelt joy.

The program opened with Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Despite tempo discrepancies and some scrambled playing between the first and second violins during entrances (most likely caused by the two sections positioned at opposite sides on stage which makes for difficult hearing in that hall) the performance was spirited.

After the overture, the audience waited with eager anticipation for the appearance of Joshua Roman, former Principal Cellist of Seattle Symphony, featuring a world premiere of David Stock's Cello Concerto. The work was composed in 2001 to fulfill a commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony and the famed Norwegian cellist, Truls Mørk, but for some reason, the scheduled performance didn't take place.

The opening bars of the first movement evoke a futuristic Sci-Fi character, with an Outer Limit-like quality. Mr. Stock's composition makes full use of a large wind and percussion section. The movement ends with a lonely exchange between cello and timpani. Roman performed the concerto as if he owned the piece. He displays a full-bodied, pure tone in each register of the cello with crystalline intonation and sophisticated musicality. The second and third movements are bridged by an extensive, awe-inspiring cadenza which makes full use of the palette of colors and virtuoso tricks Roman has up his sleeves. The charming third movement jolts the listener to Eastern Europe by incorporating melodies and chants from Jewish liturgy. I had a flashback of Tevye singing the blessings by candlelight to his children in Fiddler on the Roof.

It's no small loss for Seattle Symphony that Joshua Roman chose to depart from the orchestra as Principal Cellist. I'll bet his letter of resignation was a tragic moment for the local organization, but I'm glad he keeps one foot in Seattle with his Town Hall Series while maintaining residence in New York City. The cello section looked and sounded inspired by Roman's performance; his colleagues listened with obvious delight and respect as he performed the Sarabande from the G Major Suite by J.S.Bach as an encore.

Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances Op. 45 concluded the evening with the musicians appearing engaged and responsive. I could sense a joie-de-vive throughout the orchestra which has been, at least of late, missing. Most notable were the alto-sax solo in the first movement, and a ravishing violin solo performed by Elisa Barston. As if viewing a black and white film, tonight's Seattle Symphony concert was a study in contrasts from the routine; even the Banaroya parking garage was full.
in photo: James DePreist

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Questions for Napoleon Bonaparte

This article motivated me to interview Napoleon I Bonaparte. I'll admit, the emperor appeared woozy about being questioned for my blog, but I assured him that I wasn't seeking musical expertise; just answers regarding leadership. After making my pitch that a professional orchestra is like a battlefield, Napoleon agreed to be interviewed. Perhaps his perspective on power might enlighten us during these chaotic times.

MKT: I know, Emperor Bonaparte, that the orchestral world is foreign to you, but I'll bet if you observed a music director's role, you'd sense a certain kinship as emperor. A search is in progress for a new music director; a successor to a local orchestra. The process is being headed by a committee.
N.B : Well, that's silly.
MKT: What do you mean—silly?
N.B: There can be only ONE leader. Committees are ineffective. They're composed of dullards that slow down a process to the point of stagnation; timing is everything. I believe in swift action.
MKT: Early in your career, you were respected, not only for your successes in the battlefield, but for your diplomacy skills—
N.B (laughing): It was a matter of knowing the right people at the right time.
MKT: Then you became a tyrant.
N.B: You mean, strict. There's a difference. I believed some of my best performers were cut out to make great leaders. Perhaps I miscalculated. In war, everything is perception—perception about the enemy, perception about one's own soldiers. I'd suspect the same for music directors and their musicians, correct?
MKT: I'm asking the questions here. Was your marriage to Josephine a happy union?
N.B: Oh my dear, the betrothal to Josephine was a tactical move; an opportunity knocking at the door. You should know better than to ask. I was never at a loss for, how do you say? Drop-dead gorgeous ladies. I spoiled them with fur coats of many colors, diamonds, and other lavish gifts.
MKT: What's your true feeling about religion?
N.B: Religion? A means to an end. I surprised the English by occupying Egypt. In the meantime, I studied the Qur'an, and learned the laws of the land. I became as one with the Muslims, as I did the Jews. Clever?
MKT: Why did you turn from diplomacy to tyranny?
N.B: My armies grew too large and too fractured. I had to rein in the little guys. They were the loudest complainers and whiners. I should have poisoned them all, as I did with the plague-stricken ones after the battles with the Ottomans.
MKT: Do you still believe in micromanagement?
N.B: Indeed. As the Supreme Leader, it was my duty to make all decisions.
MKT: And what about the effectiveness of espionage?
N.B: A necessity. How else can one know what the opposition is plotting? In your world, the internet is perfect for tracking that sort of thing.
MKT: Tell me about the Russians. I thought they were, at first, your friends.
N.B: Yes, initially I thought so, but they got me in the end. Not only did the Russians carry on a scorched earth campaign, but they poisoned me. You thought I died from stomach cancer? It was— Arse-niks! The Slavs should all be made into slaves!
MKT: I can't help but ask this. What was not to love about your home in the Island of Elba? I mean, you were granted the title emperor for life, right?
N.B: I suppose. Elba was a pretty place but ever-so-boring. What was I supposed to do? Just sit around, admire the view, eat bon-bons and sip champagne? I prefer the taste of blood and battle.
MKT: You were defeated at Waterloo, weren't you?
N.B: I refuse to divulge family matters.
MKT: As I mentioned, a local orchestra is on the look-out for a new music director. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to a successor. And yours?
N.B: Open your history book, my dear. You may learn that I abdicated to my son. Nothing like nepotism, as a rule. Any other questions, Madame?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Magical Healing

My late mother, Frances Kransberg, would have turned 87 today. I'll be visiting her grave later this afternoon. Rather than a bouquet of flowers, I'll bring Mom a note, crumple it up, and place it underneath a stone, as is Jewish custom. I can hardly wait to tell her about my year, and especially this past weekend.

For those of you that never met her, my mother was an amateur violinist; she loved music more than anything in the world. As a child, the violin held her fascination. Although she begged and begged her parents for lessons, my grandparents didn't have money for such frivolities. In the fourth grade, at Saltonstall Elementary in Salem, Massachusetts, ten-year-old Frannie picked up an old, broken down violin from the unwanted instrument heap, wiped off the caked rosin, and planted herself in the first violin section of the school orchestra. No lessons; my mom taught herself to read music. Her violin was put on hold after elementary school, but her love for music grew.

Sometime in her mid thirties, my mother struck up the courage to take private violin lessons. An attractive woman with dark hair, olive skin, and a petite figure, she had no trouble snagging the most accomplished teachers—all men from Boston Symphony, even though she was at beginner level. By the time she was pregnant with her fourth and last child (me), my mother played under Harry Ellis Dickson in Brookline Civic Symphony, and had become a respectable musician. She practiced seven hours daily and took three lessons per week. Brookline Civic ignited her spirit, lifting my mom from an existence of mundane domesticity, to a supernal world of magnificent sound. But her teachers admonished her for having begun lessons too late in life for a professional career. Frances Kransberg was the talent that could have been.

So, I was gifted with a quarter size violin on my fourth birthday, and I let you, patient reader, imagine the rest. My mom would say: Either you'll love me for this or hate me one day.
And there have been times, at least recently, that I've considered the classical music business a nasty, insular bubble. To be a professional artist, one has to be acutely sensitive, yet Teflon-coated, just to survive the cut-throat competition. These days, it's not enough to offer stellar performances; audiences demand eye candy as part of the package. Erica Morini had been my mother's role model, not some sex kitten.

Meanwhile, I have a tendency to walk into a room, and absorb the atmospheric vibes. If there's friction, or negative energy, I'm out. During this recalibrating period of the arts scene, some workplaces are growing ever more hostile, while others are undergoing a resurgence of recognition. At the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra concert yesterday, the First Presbyterian Church was packed to capacity with well-wishers, fans and supporters of the organization. It was heartening to see and hear the dedication of those eager to help usher in a new era for the BPO, as the group has been fraught with daunting challenges. In his gracious, farewell speech to the audience, Maestro Fusao Kajima reminded everyone not to remain passive, especially when faced with the task of rebuilding an institution. The orchestra is the Eastside's cultural jewel.
As my mother used to say: When you have a diamond, just take care and polish it.

One of the highlights of my year so far, were the performances of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony with Rainier Symphony and Maestro David Waltman. Not only did I have my favorite concertmaster at the helm and Anna in the audience, but I had the honor of Andrew Sumitani, my accomplished student, sitting by my side and playing like an angel.
Somehow, I couldn't feel luckier, and yes, healed.
left to right: Andrew Sumitani, me, Ilkka

Monday, May 4, 2009


Jewish tradition tells us that Elijah the Prophet travels incognito from Heaven to Earth revealing secrets of the cosmos to those who are willing to listen and learn. As long as he is explicitly invited by these words: This is the chair of Elijah the prophet, he'll make an appearance at Seders, circumcisions, and other festive gatherings. Elijah is teased for acting like a schnorrer, showing up for a free meal and glass of wine. But Elijah's central role in Judaism is that of a messenger, helping to transform the physical world into the Divine. There are stories from saintly rabbis who studied Elijah; they tell of righteous people who were plucked by Elijah from disaster at the last moment, and not-so-righteous given their chance to make amends through Elijah's intervention.

Which leads me to think: A year ago I was ready to throw in the towel as a violinist. In a frenzy, I tossed black concert dresses and pantsuits from my closet, heaped them into a pile in the back of my messy Eurovan, floored the gas pedal to Ballard Goodwill, and dumped them into the donation bin while holding my nose. End of story?

For classical musicians, the month of May concludes many subscription seasons. A few of my colleagues complain they're exhausted while, to tell the truth, I feel as if I just awakened from a nap. This week, it's off to St. James Cathedral to perform Mendelssohn's Elijah with Seattle Pro Musica. The vibrancy and musical leadership of conductor Karen P. Thomas is remarkable; she's a dynamic force that energizes musicians, singers and audiences alike. This is my first time performing Elijah, and my first experience working with Seattle Pro Musica.

The following week, I'll be performing Mahler's Second Symphony "Resurrection" with Rainier Symphony . The "Resurrection" is a colossal work; a long journey from inner torment to peace, and as with Mahler's music, therapy for the wounded soul. Resurrection of the Dead is a fundamental belief in classic Judaism, and Mahler's Jewishness resonates to the core with me.

But is there life after death for professional regional orchestras during a Great Recession? A few hours after the Rainier Symphony performance on Sunday, May 17th, I'll step in as guest concertmaster for Bellevue Philharmonic's final concert of the season. Besides the fact that I can't find anything to wear, I'm secretly hoping that the spirit of Elijah will be there.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

No Longer Mine, Ayn

"I'm about to fling Ayn Rand from my bookshelves," I tell my daughter Anna.
"Why, Ma?" She asks, a mug of coffee in one hand, coconut macaroon in the other.
"She's contaminating my other books with her virtue of selfishness and mantras on individualism. Rand has shared the same shelf with humanists Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl and Karen Armstrong. I'm throwing her out."
"Ayn Rand's flying off store bookshelves these days, Ma. She's in demand. Let her stay, please. Besides, it's good to have dissenting views. Builds character. Let them all argue with one another."
"She's toxic," I maintain. "Look at what's become of this country. Capitalism. Greed. Each man for himself. What will happen to those in need? Social welfare? The arts? I'm scared to think—"

But I think back to the past, and what initially attracted me to her writing. Ayn Rand might be a useful companion for anyone undergoing the painful process of litigation or mediation, especially if you're a classical musician or artist like Howard Roark in Fountainhead, possibly facing the dismantling of your career. Rand's philosophy speaks:

Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to stand together. But the creator is the man who stands alone.

A grueling day was spent in mediation. The mediator, a plucky middle-aged woman, relied on local newspaper clippings to support her arguments, supplied by the executioner. She held up a compilation of blog entries that was like Sunday School material, compared to what has circulated on the same subject since then, and unsuccessfully tried to scold the blogger. The media had been slanted in the direction of a local public figure, and the blogger stood up for himself. Little did the mediator know, a few years later, the dailies and "reporters" she relied upon would cease to exist. And the public figure, whose reputation was being fiercely protected, would wind up the subject of an exposé in the nation's leading paper.

I suppose I needed the staunch, individualism of Ayn Rand back then, at a time when I accepted selfishness as a virtue. But, no longer.
Ayn Rand - PBS

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Mad Desire To Dance

I've been busy observing Passover, the holiday which commemorates Israel's birth as a nation with an emphasis on reawakening or renewal, and catching up on my reading. Our holiday began with a wonderful Seder, in our home, among our dearest ones. There were many works of culinary art on our dining table, but the gefilte fish, made lovingly by David Waltman took center stage.

Passover induces us to ask questions, and obliges each and every parent to teach the story of the Jews' Exodus from Egypt to their children, the goal being that we feel as if we're reliving the event. Jews all over the world meditate on what it means to be freed, released from enslavement. And enslavement comes in so many varieties, one of the worst being my tormentor; self-doubt.

So for the past days, I've been reading Elie Wiesel's latest book: A Mad Desire To Dance translated from the French by Catherine Termerson. Wiesel has always preferred questions to answers; it is the quest which intrigues him; he has a soft spot for madmen and visionaries. Wiesel writes in his memoirs: Aren't we all a little mad, each of us in his own way? Mad to wish to live and to refuse to live, mad to believe in the future and also to negate it, mad to think we have eluded death and the dead?

A Mad Desire To Dance is a tough read. The primary character, Dorial Waldman, a 60ish-year-old man, displaced in New York City, turns to Dr. Therese Goldschmidt, a Jewish psychotherapist, for help through his dark journey. Slowly, in disparate sequences and painful silences, he reveals his burdens. Waldman is a tormented soul; as a child he survived the Holocaust hiding in a barn with his father in Poland. His mother, passing for a gentile, worked for the Jewish Resistance. He lost his siblings to the Nazis, and his parents perished in a car accident right after the war, on the way to Palestine. Except for his Jewish Orthodox aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, Waldman is accompanied day and night by ghosts and images from the past, unable to decipher the spectral encounters from reality. While immersing himself in Jewish religious studies and undergoing spiritual wanderings, Waldman becomes convinced that he's possessed by a dybbuk. The telling of Dorial Waldman's tale to Dr. Goldschmidt is convoluted, devoid of chronological order, and may result in dizziness for the reader.

There are nuggets of Jewish mysticism and folklore sprinkled throughout this novel, making it well worth the struggle to piece together a cohesive narrative. Waldman shares this insight with his analyst:

In my tradition man is supposed to believe that Satan chooses as his favorite prey the just man, not the sinner. Satan is brave. And ambitious. Cunning. He deals with minor everyday sinners out of habit, between two yawns, almost without giving it a thought. He prefers to go where he isn't expected. Where the challenge means a struggle. Where victory, always uncertain, will create a sensation even in the loftiest spheres. Parenthetically, Doctor, do you believe in this theory?

Elie Wiesel has helped to guide me towards my own spiritual quest; perfect nourishment for Passover.
Photo by Talvi: gefilte fish, this time salmon

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My Big Skinny Greek Recital

Last night I decided to head on down to Benaroya Hall to hear Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos with Italian pianist Enrico Pace. This will conclude my eye-witness account of the local music scene facing economic survival for the time being. Passover begins next week, so I'll be pre-occupied with Chometz, the stuff that causes leavening in food and puffing up of the ego, as well as what it means to be liberated. I didn't want to miss Kavakos, especially after reading this quote: "Music is about devotion, and knowing when to be free."

I'm an admirer of this unique violinist, having enjoyed his recordings, especially the Ysaye Six Solo Sonatas, over the years. As a violinist myself, I'm grateful that Kavakos is not the cookie-cutter model, like most American players streaming out of Juilliard. To be sure, if Leonidas Kavakos were growing up in Seattle today, the local puffed up "pedagogues" might take him to task for displaying an unorthodox bow hold. They'd probably insist on sending him to "violinist rehab", a place to be molded like everyone else.

Kavakos and Pace presented a program that might have been considered too austere and esoteric for the Seattle crowd. They offered an entire menu of sonatas by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Richard Strauss. The main floor appeared rather full, but like the last two events that I attended at Benaroya, the tiers were empty, even more so. I suspect the house was papered to a degree. A student I bumped into admitted he had been given a free ticket. Also, clapping occurred between movements, even during Beethoven's Third Sonata, suggesting the audience might have been unfamiliar with concert etiquette. Personally, I see no harm in bursting into applause at the conclusion of a movement—don't opera audiences cheer after a beautiful aria?—but Mr. Kavakos appeared perturbed by the disruptions in his performance. At one point, he wagged his bow like a finger, as if to indicate the audience had been naughty, and to serve as a warning. After the initial movement of the Strauss, he gestured with his hand to prevent applause.

I was surprised to not find more music students, particularly violinists, in the audience. True, Leonidas Kavakos is not a household name in Seattle. However, he conveys an originality of style and mercurial technique seldom heard these days. The collaboration of Kavakos and Pace in the Beethoven Sonata Op. 12 displayed elegance and integrity between both partners. The Shostakovich Sonata Op. 134, a work created for David Oistrakh, casts a gloomy, forboding mood which, to my mind, could serve as commentary for the decline of cultural standards and current affairs. During the second movement, the sinister sounding Allegretto, Kavakos and Pace played as if they were demonically possessed. Theirs was an electrifying performance, which caused this listener to bellow "Bravo".

The program concluded with the Violin Sonata in E-flat Major of Richard Strauss. Although it was played beautifully by both artists, and Kavakos possesses a suave, sumptuous tone, I felt the piece fell short on the Viennese cafe style for which, especially the slow movement, it was conceived. It could have used just a tad more, let's see—how can I word this—schmaltz.

Clearly, if orchestra programs are a tough sell, recitals today are even less in vogue. Perhaps such programs might be better served in smaller venues, as they were originally intended; one misses a more intimate setting.
Photo by Yannis Bournias