January 24, 2010


When your head is stuck in a score all day long, it's easy to forget about all the other fascinating things people are studying and working on all around you - like, for example, world history. I've always found history a fascinating subject, albeit a pretty overwhelming one. With too many ancient civilizations, confusing wars, political puzzles and surprising shifts of power to deal with, where do you start to understand all the mess which has happened before today? Visiting a friend in Hong Kong several years ago, I came upon the New Penguin History of The World in a bookshop. Unoriginally titled and 1232 pages thick, I thought this would be a book to own, and so I got it - only to stash it in a corner of my bookshelf behind "Metro maps of the world" for quite some time.

But, lo and behold! The New Penguin History of the World has finally made an appearance outside the bookshelf and my latest mission is to have the thing read and done with by the end of 2010 (or early 2016). One of the most important reasons to finally read this book is to have a clearer overview of history so as to be able to read fiction more easily. Of course, almost all fiction is set in the past, and lately it seems you're bound to make it onto the Booker prize shortlist as long as you set your novel faaaaaar back - consider Amitav Ghosh's superb Sea of Poppies, set in 19th century India, or this year's winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I haven't begun it yet).

The book I'm now reading is Salman Rushdie's latest. Titled The Enchantress of Florence, it's actually set partly in the Mughal Empire and the Republic of Florence. We're talking about the 15th century here, but Republic of Florence? Isn't Florence a city? What exactly were the borders of the Mughal Empire in the 1400s? Enter Penguin's New History of the World. Setting Rushdie aside for a while, I sit up, brace my stomach muscles and plunge the bricklike book onto myself, opening at page 1. Book One: Before History - Beginnings (the book begins). "Where does History begin? It is tempting to reply "In the beginning"" - skip ahead a few pages to chapter one: The Foundations. That sounds more like it. "Scholars have long talked about Ice Ages". ICE AGES? Chapter two: Homo sapiens. Oh dear. How far do I have to read before I get to Indian princesses, ancient glittering cities like Samarkand or the Medici dynasty? That would probably be page 540: Europe's assault on the world. This is going to be a long read!

However, even the prehistoric beginnings of the book turn out to be fascinating. I learn about geological changes which happened "abruptly" - they took between 5 and 10 millenia - and civilizations which "quickly" established themselves all over the world - that is, in several hundred thousand years. Suddenly, a wristwatch looks absurd to me.

January 17, 2010

Falling stars

There's nothing like a good book, and one of the fun parts of reading is looking up words on my Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. We used to use the huge blue books during or English lessons at school. I can just see some of our English teachers right now: a Santa Claus look-alike who once got a student's pencil stuck in his beard and turned red, our bald teacher who year after year shoved American literature down our throats ("This term, we're going to discuss the American dream in literature!" - groans from the whole class: "AGAIN?") and a our red-haired favourite who used to answer almost all questions with the words "shut up" or "go to hell". Anyway, where was I?

The books I have been reading lately have been rich in language, making me consult my dictionary on words such as augury, prurient, trowel and stentorian. The trouble is, what to do when I can't lug the thing along all day? Opposed to the delights of broadening my vocabulary, there's nothing as annoying as finding a misprint in the book you're reading. I don't know about you, but I get the creeps reading a sentence like "they scurried up the gnagway like mice" or "on the way to met his deadly enemy Kashat he strode out so fast and vigorously that his son and the other two men had difficulty keeping up with him." Some people shy away from books that are thicker than their 2 cm, but I enjoy a book with so many characters they have to be somehow summarised first - so that, before the novel even begins, the reader is presented with labyrinthine family trees. One of the books I read a while ago actually had a misprint in the family tree itself, making it very confusing for me to figure out how one of the protagonists could have been born in 1935 when his parents began talking about having children only four years later. It took a couple of hundred pages for me to define the correct date of birth (1940) and correct it with one angry scribble.

I might require absolute concentration with a book, but watching a movie while doing something else isn't too big of a challenge. Just yesterday I spent most of the duration of the fantastic movie Avatar fumbling with my 3D-glasses and trying to sort out the black candy from the colourful candy by holding them up towards the lit screen. And right now, I'm actually watching The Painted Veil on television (it has a slow plot). A cup of tea I'm about to have will probably make me sleepless for a few more hours, but then I can enjoy the relaxed weekend moments a little longer. Starting tomorrow, it'll be back to work with a pile of music to study: Bruckner's E minor mass for choral conducting on Wednesday and Thursday and more Beethoven for the Tampere Philharmonic Choir. There'll also be preparation work to do for Kaamos and SOL, and of course the Slovenian Chamber Choir's program for the concert in March has also been neglected for too long - Schumann, Rautavaara, Poulenc... the list goes on and on.

It's interesting how so many composers seem to have been obsessed by stars. One of the songs in the Slovenian program is Schumann's "An die Sterne" ("To the stars"), in which the poet wonders whether the stars we see are familiar with the feelings we experience on our planet: joy and passion, sorrow and pain. Taneyev's beautiful setting "Stars" to the text of Polonsky reflects on how stars signify rebirth and, at the same time, death. I recently read the biography of the Finnish composer Toivo Kuula, and it turns out he spent a fortune on a huge telescope to watch the stars. As many sopranos have found out, Beethoven took the melodies of his choral compositions to their highest possible point so as to create a symbol for the heavens and, of course, stars. In Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's chilling novel "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich", one of the convicts talks about his belief that stars are born when the old moon is broken every night. New stars are needed, because "Stars fall every now and then and the holes have to be filled up".

That's a nice way to look at it.

January 10, 2010

Who's who?

Finding myself with four hours’ spare time in Lahti last Thursday, I headed to the main library, which proved a pleasant surprise with its large music section, sound proofed piano rooms – one of which I rented for the cost of 1€ - and its helpful staff. I certainly hope the piano room was sound proofed, by the way, because otherwise the library’s clients got to endure a performance of me humming the (very high) violin solo of the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to my own accompaniment. Having a look at the choral section, I was delighted to find a thick book called “Who’s who in choral music”. Published just a few years ago, the book presents over a thousand people from all around the world who have made significant contributions to the choral scene. It’s either that or they’re the editors’ closest friends.

Anyway, since I had nothing but time, I decided to go through the whole list of names and make a note of people I have heard of. From the 1044 names, about 120 rang a bell. And out of these 120, I established a personal connection with 30 persons (this includes people who have conducted a concert I have sung and/or are on my Facebook friend list). Thirty might not seem like much to you, but let me really stress that the book presented a range of people so vast it included Chinese arts managers, people with the obscure job description “clinician” (which, you have to admit, brings more to mind someone in the field of medicine than musicians) and editors of a choral magazine somewhere unheard of.

If browsing “who’s who” didn’t feel quite satisfying, it at least made time pass quicker, and so I was soon trudging through the icy snow back to the Lahti theatre house to resume conducting stage rehearsals of Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, which will have its premiere together with Cavalleria Rusticana in just over a week. It was one of the coldest days of this winter until now. The trees were white with snow, the sky was a beautiful blue and the sun was beginning to set. Not everybody was happy with the weather. “I always said I was born in the wrong country, out here with these bloody polar bears!!!” screeched our lovable director before settling down in her black robes to supervise the proceedings of the rehearsal.

We were at the final scene, where Pagliacco loses his marbles in the middle of the performance and stabs his wife Nedda and her lover to death infront of an (understandably) bewildered audience (that would be the choir I have been coaching all of last autumn!). The killings had to be rehearsed over and over again, with “STOP!”, “CUT!” and “you’re supposed to stab her, not break her neck!” booming around us from the director’s microphone. The singers performing the parts of the murder victims were having problems concerning the direction they were supposed to fall after they had been stabbed. They went swaying and crashing in different directions so many times that Nedda called a halt to the proceedings and went to get herself something to strap to her knees for protection. After many retakes of the scene – one of which ended in unintentional laughter because the doomed lovers had accidentally almost fallen on each other, with the raving Pagliacco stuck under their limbs – we were finally done.

With this year involving quite a lot of travelling in and outside Finland, it’s a relief to once again own a device for listening to music on the go. One of my newest evening pastimes is compiling playlists from my iTunes library. I actually began a playlist called Best of Bach, but soon realised the task was pretty absurd. When I feel like it, I can just select Bach as composer and probably anything the machine randomly plays by him will be some of the best stuff ever composed! Another thing I have discovered are podcasts. Until now, I have subscribed to two pretty good ones: BBC’s “From our own correspondent” and the Guardian’s “Book of the week”, in which the hosts of the program keep dishing out book recommendations so fast I can’t keep up with the typing.

To end this post, can I just complain about the outrageously short time it takes particles of dust to unite and create all these grey ugly balls flying on the floor? I just found another one although I’ve just vacuumed the flat. According to Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust), “approximately 6 mg/m²/day of house dust is formed in private households”. Well, say that in English, and it probably means a lot of dust. I sometimes wonder whether dust somehow gathers at an exponential speed, with one of the factors being the frequency of vacuum cleaning – the more often you sweep the floor, the faster you’ll have more dust..?

Whatever. The Beach is on tonight, so I can watch that and imagine I’m somewhere far from all this dust and this endless web of “who’s who” we're all supposed to master so well.

January 05, 2010

Steady as usual

I’ve just finished an impressive novel by one of Britain’s newest writers, Sarah Waters. I’d heard of her before, but now that her latest book “The Little Stranger” was shorlisted for the Booker Prize last year, I decided it was time to find out whether she was any good. As it turned out, the book was a great read – an old-fashioned haunted house –story with doors slamming shut, scribbles appearing on walls and telephones ringing in the middle of the night. Some of the scenes were so creepy I woke up after a restless night, calling out “what was that sound!??!” instead of a more usual “thank God for the snooze button”.

While on vacation in snowy Iisalmi, one of the books I brought along was “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë. Loyal to my new reading strategy (don’t read the book description on the back before you’ve finished the novel), I began the book without the faintest clue what it was about. Heights – that’s a geographical term for a sort of mountainous region, isn’t it? But wuthering? Use that in a sentence! So, with only vague conceptions of some sweeping love story to guide me, I found Wuthering Heights (which, by the way, is the name of the house in which the story is set. Sorry if I spoiled it for you!) a truly shocking and even disturbing read, featuring physical and psychological violence, cruel characters, necrophilia (ew) and even a hint at incest. While Northern Savonia slept, I scratched my eyes, turned page after page and wondered whether the front door was properly locked.

Had we stayed any longer away from Helsinki, I would probably have started even speaking English with a touch of Savonian dialect – (“how ooware you? I’m so gleeyad to ssee you!”). Down here, things have been proceeding steadily as usual. Well... we had a couple of train cars go wild and crash themselves into the railway station, passengers on the Silja Europa ferry from Stockholm to Turku didn’t quite get what they paid for when they realised the ship had been going in circles all night because of a faulty rudder, and oh did I mention the mysterious flooding at the main metro station which still hasn’t been opened up to traffic again? Otherwise we’re fine, so touch wood.

Musically speaking, 2010 promises to be an action-packed year, possibly even outdoing the adrenalin and euphoria of last year’s international competitions, beautiful a cappella concerts and one big chunk of workload carrying the title: Mozart’s Requiem. Kaamos will begin rehearsing new a cappella repertoire next week, including Bruckner, Purcell, Poulenc and contemporary Finnish works. The ladies of Diafonia, no doubt still ecstatic about the success of their first traditional Christmas concert (pun intended), will get working on – among others – a very special hymn which was composed at a prison camp in Indonesia during the second world war. (I just need to find the music first). A very important event will take place on next week’s Thursday, when I will conduct my first rehearsal with the student choir Savolaisen Osakunnan Laulajat.

In addition to these three choirs, I will be visiting conductor at the Tampere Philharmonic Choir, preparing them for a performance of Beethoven’s larger-than-life Missa Solemnis. I’m expecting lots of high notes, an army of red faces, frantic waving about with my arms and some breathless train rides back home to Helsinki. Rehearsals with the Lahti opera chorus are over, but there are still stage rehearsals left before the premiere, which is in two weeks. I will be in Lahti at the end of the week to see how rehearsals are getting along. In addition, I have been asked to conduct the Slovenian Chamber Choir and the Chamber Choir Ave in Ljubljana this year. Stay tuned for updates on how work will progress with these two fantastic ensembles!

So as not to finish off too boastfully, let me assure you my life is (still) full of embarassing moments. One of them happened while I was visiting this year’s first Bodypump session. Needless to say, my performance at the lesson itself was top class, but after the session, I couldn’t find my underpants upon leaving the shower. I went through the contents of my locker several times. I’ve lost towels, shampoo and a lock before, but considering the temperature outside, this was one thing I didn’t want to lose - I just had to find those pants! The university fitness staff had recently warned against a thief who was breaking into the lockers, which is why I left my phone and money at the counter during the lesson – this, however seemed highly unexpected. I was just contemplating the possibility of a secret admirer when the pants revealed themselves from inside my work-out bag (so sorry, not much of a story after all, although I can see from your faces you were expecting more - maybe next time). Upon leaving, I said good-bye to my fellow bodypumpers – nobody replied.