Peninsula Reviews

by Richard Lynde

Inna Faliks began the “Music/Words” series in New York, and with her recent relocation as head of the Herb Alpert Piano Department at UCLA, has continued this unique and memorable practice to our state and county. In Ellen Bass, she could not have picked a better partner. Our poet said that for her this new way of thinking about music is “a conversation.” It began with her quiet reading of “Relax,” about bad things that will happen, such as fungus on tomatoes, cats run over, even a lesbian wife, all stated with a wry humor: like those to follow, what she called “talking poems” meant to be read aloud, something she is very good at. Faliks then took to the keyboard in Schedrin’s (b. 1932) “Basso Ostinato,” a blizzard of sound that was wild, fast, jazzy like Gershwin and reflective of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, a tour de force with underlying humor and perfect control.

Then Ellen Bass read again, this time, “Jazz,” about sending her poems out into the world as if a child, a modern take on our great 17th century American Ann Bradstreet’s own similar feelings. In “Waiting for Rain” she tells how the ancient philosopher Lucretius got her through the night with his idea of atoms “combining” and “recombining” amid the void. “When you return,” magically has eggs going back to shells, “letters unwrite themselves” and diamonds to coal to rotting leaves. Amazing imagery, fresh and immediate.

Next, Inna Faliks played the Mozart (1756-91) “Fantasie in D Minor K. 397,” a brief, intensely moody departure from his sonatas, which she made startling with its shifts between the opening Andante, then Adagio than a Presto played almost too fast to hear, but with perfect accuracy to end the high mini drama. Then, in “If you know,” Bass told of ticket takers touching palms with concert goers, followed by “God’s Grief” with startling images of God, Joan of Arc, Houdini – her words as magical as his magic tricks. In “God in Trouble” a beached whale decomposes, then in “Listening” she imagines having heard Keats read his “Autumn” to a friend. To “words like wine/ I listened with my spine,” both funny and profound.

Then in a brilliant stroke for both performers and audience, Faliks departed from the printed program which had Bass reading between movements of the huge Brahms (1833-97) “Sonata No. 2 in F Sharp Minor,” written and played by the composer in 1853 when he was “only” 20 and full of storm and stress along with tenderness. In the often fiendishly difficult and architecturally perfect four-movement work, played straight through and received with tumultuous applause, the noble work was the best-performed these ears have heard on this mighty Yamaha since Yevgeny Sudbin in a big Scriabin sonata almost two years ago. The Brahms began with a huge attack blaring forth the “allegro, not too fast but with energy.” The “andante with expression” was a stroll with purpose, a meditation that becomes intense and moody, alternating playfulness with severity, then lushness – typical of Brahms, and with Faliks sitting, as usual, with her face right over the keys, as expressive as the notes she was playing. The moving Scherzo was hardly a musical “joke,” but a brief lead up to the “Finale,” played with a gripping intensity, blazing keys played flat-fingered for speed like Horowitz, then a maternal tenderness like the famous Brahms “Lullaby,” coherent in all its many moods, and ending with a big bang. All gave a standing ovation.

Then Bass read three concluding poems, ending with “Reincarnation,” not returning as the “totem of a shaman,” but rather as an OYSTER! Very funny, very apt, very original, like all of her works. Faliks then concluded the intermissionless 110-minute program, which passed as if in a dream, with Liszt’s (1811-86) “La Campanella,” a glittering whimsical bon-bon that left a grateful audience with church bells ringing in our heads.

“…in a brilliant stroke for both performers and audience, Faliks… had [Ellen] Bass reading between movements of the huge Brahms (1833-97) “Sonata No. 2 in F Sharp Minor,” written and played by the composer in 1853 when he was “only” 20 and full of storm and stress along with tenderness. In the often fiendishly difficult and architecturally perfect four-movement work, played straight through and received with tumultuous applause, the noble work was the best-performed these ears have heard on this mighty Yamaha since Yevgeny Sudbin in a big Scriabin sonata almost two years ago. The Brahms began with a huge attack blaring forth the “allegro, not too fast but with energy.” The “andante with expression” was a stroll with purpose, a meditation that becomes intense and moody, alternating playfulness with severity, then lushness – typical of Brahms, and with Faliks sitting, as usual, with her face right over the keys, as expressive as the notes she was playing. The moving Scherzo was hardly a musical “joke,” but a brief lead up to the “Finale,” played with a gripping intensity, blazing keys played flat-fingered for speed like Horowitz, then a maternal tenderness like the famous Brahms “Lullaby,” coherent in all its many moods, and ending with a big bang. All gave a standing ovation.”

Full Review

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Inna Faliks – Bringing Humanity to Storytelling

June 9, 2024
Ilona Oltuski

At a recent performance at the National Sawdust in Brooklyn, NY,  Inna Faliks—classical pianist, educator, and author— introduced the program from her new CD, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” (reviewed by Jon Sobel), at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, weaving her personal narrative through a diverse selection of old masters and new music she finely attuned performed at the piano, interspersed with texts she authored in her recently published memoir, Weight in the Fingertips.

With a dramatic feel for timing and declamatory finesse, Falik’s presence was simultaneously strong and emotionally vulnerable. At the piano, her flawless technique and expressiveness connected the dots and pauses between her commentary’s spoken words and the music, making the lessons gleaned from her life experiences as stimulating as instructive. She alternated vivid personal anecdotes from her memoir with more emotional ones, describing her childhood in Soviet Odessa (today in Ukraine), the family’s immigration in the late eighties, the loss of her mother, a found-again love story with her husband (in the audience), and her musical journey, marked by her performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra only five years after she immigrated to the US at the age of ten.

With her deep and warmly resonating voice, Faliks rendered an intimate program based on the playbook of her life with remarkable emotional honesty. That evening, we learned about her juggling home and career as a concertizing artist, a piano professor, and UCLA’s head of piano faculty. Although we did not hear about her thoughts about some of the more profound perplexities in her life, such as the sudden interest in her birth in Ukraine, she describes so aptly in her book:

“In my piano competition years, my name would often appear in the program next to a tiny yellow-and-blue flag, listing me as “Ukrainian American pianist Inna Faliks.” I rarely encountered the flag otherwise. Now, the blue and yellow are everywhere, including a “Ukraine” flavor at a Los Angeles ice cream shop that was just vanilla with food coloring. Being from Ukraine is not a commodity; it is not hip or fun, and it is not an identity to be performed. This is about families destroyed, people dying, and a power of pure evil seeping into a larger world.” Faliks comments on the Ukraine-Russia war.

In addition to her comments on the Ukraine-Russia war in her writing, she also addresses her Jewish identity. With religion banned under communism, and though she “knew she was a musician long before she knew she was Jewish, Ukrainian, or Soviet,” the stamp on her passport marking her as “Jewish” did not refer to her religious practice; it defined a strong ethnic and cultural Jewish identity amongst the Jewish population.

But throughout the Soviet Union’s rampant history of systemic Antisemitism, that stamp also provided a free pass to discriminate against an unprotected minority until the combined impact of a crumbling system and pressure from Western Jews allowed for the tremendous East-Western exodus.

In her recent article in the Jewish Journal, UCLA Response to Antisemitism Hits a Sour Note, Faliks also draws on all of her own experiences of living with Soviet Antisemitism—which she thought she and her family had finally left far behind when arriving in the West, in America, the land of the free— and how these hopes have quickly been dashed given room to the lethal power of the new wave of Anti-Jewish hate as experienced on the college campus at UCLA, where Faliks works as an educator, as part of its piano faculty.

“Antisemitism has impacted my life so much and on so many levels,” says Faliks, fighting back tears in her voice while searching for the right words to describe her disappointment about the failure of the university’s inability to put a halt to the indiscriminate, vicious, and virulent hate that has spun out of control on the American campus.
“I can’t believe the sheer impact and size of the propaganda machine built by the Iranian-led support for Hamas, the erasure of truth and history after its October 7th massacre, and the blatant idolization of its terrorist perpetrators by students and faculty from my school.”
If protecting a minority’s rights once meant equally standing for all minorities’ rights, this seems to have shifted into a different—more radical idea that demands exclusive support for some minorities to the exclusion of all others—like in George Orwell’s famous novella Animal Farm, where some pigs are “more equal” than others, completely undermining existing moral truths. This response clearly  … works against true equality.

“I have experienced horrific degradation, and I say that not just as a person of Jewish descent, but as a human being, as an artist, as an educator. My humanity has been tampered with,” she says.

True to her personal style, Faliks appeals to the individual experience we can all connect with when she opens her article by describing her pre-concert encounter with the piano tuner before her concert, who remarked on Faliks wearing her Magen David necklace. The piano tuner commended her for her bravery since wearing the little necklace with the Star of David, which openly defines her as a Jewish person, has become potentially dangerous on American campuses and streets.

Steven Kennedy: Manuscripts Don’t Burn Review

Feel The Burn in Faliks’ Personal Pianistic Release

By Steven Kennedy

Recording:   ****/****  Performance: ****/****

Pianist Inna Faliks’ new release is a companion to her new memoir, Weight in the Fingertips (Backbeat Books, 2023).  Here, the Odessa-born pianist has taken her love for her homeland, Ukraine, in the midst of war and explores concepts of censorship and dictatorship in a variety of new pieces presented here in Manuscripts Don’t Burn.  The title itself comes from a 1967 Mikhal Bulgakov novel, The Master and the Margarita.  This retelling of Goethe’s Faust also becomes a unifying feature for some of the other works on the album. The release features these new pieces that blend dialogue and music inviting reflection of the music’s intent and suggestiveness.

The opening Master and Margarita Suite (2022) by Veronika Krausas, is provides brief introductory excerpts from Bulgakov’s novel and explores different characters and moments from the work.  Each brief movement takes a more free exploration of earlier musical forms (sarabande, polonaise—with a quote from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, waltz, bagatelle).  The tonal focus of the music lends a semi-extended romantic quality to the music with interesting splashes of virtuosic gestures across the rather intriguing work.  The title work, Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2022) by Maya Miro Johnson focuses on the Satan’s Ball scene of Bulgakov’s novel focusing on Margarita’s vision of the world.  It utilizes some more avantgarde styles of clusters and strumming in the piano strings among more angular lines as it explores the full range of the instrument.

Three Schubert songs, two inspired by Goethe and one by Heine, are also part of the first half of this recital.  They are all Liszt’s transcriptions and provide a nice palette cleanser stylistically to the contemporary works on the program.  Both Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkonig serve as interludes to the works that follow.  The former to Johnson’s piece with its reference to the young Gretchen/Margarita dreaming of Faust at her spinning wheel.  The latter serves as a sort of postlude to the first half of the release.  Am Meer becomes the transition into the second part of the program with its seascape inspirations.  Psalm to Odessa (2023) by Mike Garson incorporates an Odessan fisherman’s song as it reflects also on the destruction in Ukraine and pulls us into the new directions of the narrative here.

Voices (2011, 2019-20) is an interesting suite in three movements that incorporates historical recordings into the performance.  The piece, by Ljova Zhurbin, uses a 1908 recording of Jewish cantor as the work begins.  At the center is a setting of an Ukrainian folk dance incorporating a 1912 field recording.  The final movement features a 1953 recording from Yiddish actress/singer Fraydele Oysher.  It thus provides interesting snapshots of the rich musical heritage of the region. 

Music by Clarice Assad brings the album to a conclusion.  First is Godai, The Five Elements (2013) which also features poetry by Steven Schroeder.  The music here shifts to Japanese Buddhism and the five elements of the world: wind, fire, water, earth, and sky.  Assad utilizes a lot of interesting effects to imply the ethnic musical inspirations here while also providing a variety of musical challenges for the performer that further highlight Faliks’ skills.  The album closes with Heroes (2013) which was originally conceived as part of the earlier suite but has been featured in other settings.  Here it serves as an upbeat, hopeful conclusion to the storytelling across the release.

The overall conception of the release works superbly with musical settings that invite reflection along the musical and textual journey that Faliks takes.  Her own virtuosic abilities also shine here and are perhaps more apparent in the excellent performances of the three Liszt-transcriptions.  The same dedication and musical interpretations there all can be discerned in the newer pieces written for her that complete the release.  As we move from the storytelling first half into the more personal aspects of history and its connection to modern events, we get a new sense of the dramatic abilities of Faliks.  There are moments that are quite touching here as musical quotations are overcome by intense, contemporary writing styles.  The musical choices tend to point out this interesting struggle between the troubled regional history and its many folk and cultural connections.

The sound captures the piano’s rich quality and provides a solid presence to the instrument.  For those accessing the album through streaming services, there are two additional pieces (one by Fanny Mendelssohn, and one by Fazil Say) to enjoy as well which add another twelve minutes of music to this engaging new release.

Weight in the Fingertips: A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage

Available now, “Weight in the Fingertips”, published by Globe Pequot (Backbeat Press) is Inna’s long-awaited memoir of her adventures in music.

Purchase on Amazon

Blogcritics Review
LA Review of Books

“Inna Faliks’s words have the same fluidity and assurance as her piano playing; both are well worth your attention. There are a lot of musician’s memoirs out there; this one, about a piano prodigy turned professional, is a standout. Highly recommended.”
— Anne Midgette

“In her autobiography Weight in the Fingertips, Inna Faliks gives a very personal account of her life, full of vivid, colorful details and written in a very beautiful, rich language. An interesting, informative, and enjoyable reading.”
— Evgeny Kissin, concert pianist and composer

“The story of Inna Faliks’s life is not your everyday book of a great musician’s beginnings. Like life, it is filled with the unexpected, moving from horror to hilarity, despair to hope. I just kept laughing and crying. It is unforgettable and paints a profound portrait of life; what is lost and what is found.”
— Stephen Tobolowsky, actor and author of The Dangerous Animals Club

“A moving, exciting artistic journey by an important female voice, told with honesty and immediacy. I couldn’t put it down— life’s twists can certainly be more surprising than fiction.”
— Jane Seymour, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actress

Before she knew she was Ukranian, Soviet, or Jewish, Inna Faliks knew she was a musician. Growing up in the city of Odessa, the piano became her best friend, and she explored the brilliant, intricate puzzles of Bach’s music and learned to compose under her mother’s watchful eye. At ten, Faliks and her parents moved to Chicago as part of the tide of Jewish refugees who fled the USSR for the West in the 1980s. During the months-long immigration process, she would silently practice on kitchen tables while imagining a full set of piano keys beneath her fingertips. In Weight in the Fingertips, Faliks gives a globe-trotting account of her upbringing as a child prodigy in a Soviet state, the perils of immigration, the struggle of assimilating as an American, years of training with teachers, and her slow and steady rise in the world of classical music. With a warm and playful style, she helps non-musicians understand the experience of becoming a world-renowned concert pianist. The places she grew up, the books she read, the poems she memorized as a child all connect to her sound at the piano, and the way she hears and shapes a musical phrase illuminate classical music and elite performance. She also explores how a person’s humanity makes their art honest and their voice unique, and how the life-long challenge of retaining that voice is fueled by a balance between being a great musician and being a human being. Throughout, Faliks provides powerful insights into the role of music in a world of conflict, change, and hope for a better tomorrow.

BlogCritics Review

Book Review: ‘Weight in the Fingertips: A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage’ by Inna Faliks

By Jon Sobel
April 5, 2024

Concert pianist Inna Faliks is only in her 40s, but has already lived a memoir-worthy life. The title of her book Weight in the Fingertips refers to one of her foundational approaches to playing the piano. But the book is no musician’s manual, nor will it interest only fellow students of the musical arts.

In her memoir Faliks intertwines musical observations and reminiscences with a lively account of growing up in then-Soviet Odessa (in today’s Ukraine); emigrating to Chicago; an unfortunate first marriage and a successful second one; and traveling the world, as her career as a concert artist and educator blossomed.

Beyond Barbie
A child of the USSR, Faliks grew up on a diet of atheism, state propaganda, modest circumstances, and envy for Western culture and riches. As young Inna prepared to emigrate, another girl who is also leaving for the U.S. showed her an unusual doll. “And I assume you already have a Barbie?…Well, I think you may as well forget living in the United States without a Barbie.”

There was also ever-present if nonviolent antisemitism. Though the Soviet Union had essentially outlawed religion, being Jewish was an undesirable ethnicity. Still, Faliks vividly evokes a childhood that was, for the place and time, fairly normal – except for her unusual musical talent, which led to local notoriety as a piano and composition prodigy. Her first encounter with Jewish culture came during emigration, at the Rome home of a musician, where she found Hebrew books, a mezuzah, and Shabbat dinner.

Stranger in a Strange Land
The account of her family’s passage to the U.S. by way of a two-month stay in Rome is striking for both its quotidian yet tense drama and for the way young Inna seemed to coolly adapt and make the most of the culture-hopping. She was an unusually perceptive and thoughtful youngster. “Even as an eleven-year-old,” she writes, recounting lessons with her first influential U.S. piano teacher, she chafed at the idea of “technical perfection [as] a goal in and of itself rather than a by-product of focused, deeply considered and felt music making.”

Years later she’s still struggling with this “agonizing” dichotomy. “It takes years to reconcile the intellect with intuition and emotion so they work together seamlessly.” Throughout the book, she offers remarkably resonant and redolent descriptions of an artist’s interior workings. Her commentaries on iconic pieces and composers are original and thought-provoking. “What’s so great about Beethoven?” she asks herself after playing at an elementary school, and answers herself: “He makes children laugh.” In a studio to record Clara Schumann’s G Minor Piano Sonata, she plays the adagio second movement “again and again…faster, slower, with varied voicings, a deeper legato, more transparent textures…Picking a version [for the album] will take many hours.”

A Life at the Piano
Faliks paints powerful pictures of her successive mentors, the teachers and advisors who nurtured her talent and influenced her thinking and her technique. She sketches with verve her parents, her friendships, and her love affairs with places as well as with other humans. Along the way we meet a variety of outsized characters, from legendary pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher to regal, painfully status-conscious patron Amalia di Medici. She recalls the latter explaining purposely misprinting the pianist’s name on a concert poster: “Well, darrrrling, your name just had to go. This is an elegant society. It was just too phallic.”

The book will also appeal to travelers and fans of travel writing. Of life on the concert circuit she writes, “I would descend on a town for a few days, get drunk on its quirks and characters, and walk the streets of a new miniature world that I discovered and would keep in the pocket of my memory until new experiences diluted it.” That rings so true.

So does the book as a whole. It’s a fine achievement when an artist with skills so advanced they may seem incomprehensible to the average person can write a memoir that can resonate so well with that same person.

The New Yorker: Jacaranda Series Review

How Arnold Schoenberg Changed Hollywood

March 11, 2024
Alex Ross

Of the thousands of German-speaking Jews who fled from Nazi-occupied Europe to the comparative paradise of Los Angeles, Arnold Schoenberg seemed especially unlikely to make himself at home. He was, after all, the most implacable modernist composer of the day—the progenitor of atonality, the codifier of twelve-tone music, a Viennese firebrand who relished polemics as a sport. He once wrote, “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” The prevailing attitude in the Hollywood film industry, the dominant cultural concern in Schoenberg’s adopted city, was the opposite: if it’s not for all, it’s worthless.

Yet there he was, the composer of “Transfigured Night” and “Pierrot Lunaire,” living in Brentwood, across the street from Shirley Temple. He took a liking to Jackie Robinson, the Marx Brothers, and the radio quiz show “Information Please.” He played tennis with George Gershwin, who idolized him. He delighted in the American habits of his children, who, to the alarm of other émigrés, ran all over the house. (Thomas Mann, after a visit, wrote in his diary, “Impertinent kids. Excellent Viennese coffee.”) He taught at U.S.C., at U.C.L.A., and at home, counting John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Oscar Levant among his students. Although he faced a degree of indifference and hostility from audiences, he had experienced worse in Austria and Germany. He made modest concessions to popular taste, writing a harmonically lush adaptation of the Kol Nidre for Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, of the Fairfax Temple. He died in Los Angeles in 1951, an eccentric but proud American.

The Schoenberg family retains a strong presence in L.A. today. Two of the composer’s children—Ronald, a retired judge, and Lawrence, a retired high-school math teacher—still live in the area. Ronald occupies his father’s house, sharing it with his wife, Barbara Zeisl Schoenberg, the daughter of the émigré composer Eric Zeisl. Ronald and Barbara’s son Randy is a lawyer who specializes in the recovery of art looted by the Nazis; in 2004, he won a landmark case before the Supreme Court, resulting in the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt. (The episode was dramatized in the film “Woman in Gold,” with Randy portrayed, somewhat against type, by Ryan Reynolds.) Members of the clan regularly attend performances of Schoenberg’s music in Los Angeles, delivering brisk judgments in the tradition of the paterfamilias.

Last summer, I was invited to a private concert at the historic Brentwood house. Three generations of Schoenbergs were present: I sat next to Randy’s son Joey, who collaborated with his father on a genealogical documentary titled “Fioretta,” which follows the family’s history back to sixteenth-century Venice. On an armchair sat a photograph of Schoenberg holding a class in the same space. Members of the basc Quartet, a young L.A.-based group, were on hand to play the composer’s First and Third Quartets, which they had been studying in advance of a residency at the Schoenberg Center, in Vienna. (The center houses Schoenberg’s main archive, every page of which has been digitized and made accessible online.) The First Quartet precedes Schoenberg’s break from tonality; the Third is from his twelve-tone period. In this setting, though, all the old mishegoss over dissonance and dodecaphony seemed beside the point. The basc Quartet—perhaps spurred on by the gaze of so many look-alike eyes—found the through line of Schoenberg’s personality, which is by turns impassioned, whimsical, savage, and melancholy. This is difficult music, to be sure, but it is fully human, bristlingly alive.

The hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Schoenberg’s birth arrives in September. A dedicated Web site, Schoenberg150, documents a surge of performances in Europe. Activity in America is far more meagre. The only top-tier orchestras that are playing original music by Schoenberg in the 2023-24 season are the San Francisco Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, and the Minnesota Orchestra. The L.A. Philharmonic, Schoenberg’s home-town ensemble, has performed only four of his works in the past ten seasons; the Berlin Philharmonic has featured as many in the past two months. Next season, the L.A. Phil will make partial amends by mounting Schoenberg’s gargantuan oratorio “Gurrelieder.”

It fell to Jacaranda Music, a twenty-year-old, exuberantly inventive chamber-music series based in Santa Monica, to give Schoenberg proper honors in his final homeland. Under the leadership of Patrick Scott, Jacaranda has presented scores by more than two hundred composers, most of them active after 1900. And, one evening in 2013, Jacaranda persuaded the keepers of the Santa Monica Pier Carousel to entertain riders with an all-twentieth-century playlist, ranging from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony to Gubaidulina’s St. John Passion. Sadly, in the wake of the pandemic, the organization found that it was unable to keep going. Its farewell season, “Planet Schoenberg,” unfolded from September to February, at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. The title alluded to a line from the German Symbolist poet Stefan George, one that Schoenberg set to music in his Second Quartet: “I feel air from another planet.”

Works from various stages of Schoenberg’s career anchored the series: the string sextet “Transfigured Night,” a feast of overripe Romanticism; the First Chamber Symphony, a hard-driving exploration of tonality’s outer edges; the song cycle “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” which hovers vertiginously at the border of atonality; the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, an inaugural exercise in twelve-tone writing; and the semi-tonal “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,” which uses Byron’s verbal assault on Napoleon to commemorate the war against Hitler. Together, these scores showed the spectacular variety of Schoenberg’s language. At no time did he call for the end of tonality; nor did he stop writing tonal music. Tonality, he said, “is not a necessity for a piece of music, but rather a possibility.”

That radical expansion of the harmonic field had a sweeping influence on all subsequent composers, whether or not they followed Schoenberg explicitly. Hollywood composers paid particularly close attention to Schoenberg’s music, and some studied with him directly. The great man was not displeased to receive these genuflections, although he appeared to resent the idea that his non-tonal vocabulary was useful primarily as an expressive crutch for scenes of tension and terror. Years ago, David Raksin, who wrote music for “Laura” and other classic films, told me that he once asked Schoenberg how he should score an airplane sequence. Schoenberg archly replied, “Like big bees, only louder.”

At the final Jacaranda concert, the pianist and conductor Scott Dunn illustrated the Schoenberg-Hollywood relationship by playing three pieces by Leonard Rosenman, who took private lessons with Schoenberg in 1947. Rosenman wasn’t writing for the movies at the time; that transition came about when one of his piano students, James Dean, was cast in “East of Eden” and got his teacher hired along with him. (Dean, a modern-music fan, liked to tell an anecdote about Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto: after Jascha Heifetz complained that he would need to grow a sixth finger to master the piece, Schoenberg supposedly said, “I can wait.”) Rosenman began employing twelve-tone methods in his film scores. During the planetarium scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the orchestra dissolves into a magnificent Schoenbergian melee. It’s hard to imagine how Hollywood could have functioned without the language of dissonance. The horror genre wouldn’t even exist.

Perhaps the finest recording ever made of “Transfigured Night” came from a group of studio-orchestra players: the golden-toned Hollywood Quartet, augmented by two colleagues, in 1950. As it happens, Jacaranda’s longtime resident string group, the Lyris Quartet, is also made up of veteran studio musicians, and their “Transfigured Night,” in January, extended the local tradition of back-lot Schoenberg love. (The full complement of performers was Alyssa Park, Luanne Homzy, Luke Maurer, Erik Rynearson, Timothy Loo, and Charlie Tyler.) They brought out not only the work’s sumptuous Klimtian hues but also the almost cubistic sharpness of its contrapuntal lines. Similar virtues were evident in a rambunctious version of the First Chamber Symphony, under Mark Alan Hilt’s direction, with the Lyris forming the core of the ensemble.

Jacaranda illuminated another aspect of Schoenberg’s wide reach: the sympathy he elicits among jazz musicians. Pioneers of jazz hardly needed to take direction from European modernism, yet Schoenberg’s pungent chords caught their ears. The jazz guitarist and composer Dennis Sandole was a close reader of Schoenberg’s textbook “Harmonielehre”; Sandole, in turn, mentored John Coltrane. That connection justified the most surprising choice of repertory in Jacaranda’s series: a nine-piece arrangement of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” featuring the composer-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, the saxophonist David Murray, and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This was a joy to hear, despite sound-balance problems. There may be a Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco, but his music doesn’t benefit from church acoustics.

On the same program, Steven Vanhauwaert, one of several brilliant local pianists who added lustre to “Planet Schoenberg” (others were Gloria Cheng and Inna Faliks), played Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op. 23. I don’t know if Vanhauwaert was deliberately searching out phantom jazz moments in the music, but his free-floating, semi-improvisational approach fit the cross-genre agenda. In the final measures of the third piece, four-note chords jangle against the elemental fifth of C and G, each giving off a smoky, sassy vibe. If it’s not jazz, it’s not from an entirely different planet. And, if it’s not for all, it’s for anyone who wants it.


LA Review of Books

The Journey of a Musical Émigré: On Inna Faliks’s “Weight in the Fingertips”

By Herb Randall
March 18, 2024

“I KNEW I was a musician long before I knew I was Jewish, Ukrainian, or Soviet.” So begins the captivating memoir Weight in the Fingertips: A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage (2023) by Inna Faliks, a distinguished concert pianist and now a music professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Her journey from child musical prodigy in Soviet Ukraine to an émigré artist at the highest levels of her profession takes several surprising twists, described in prose alternating between thoughtful and delightfully breezy but always deeply wise in its contemplation of a life spent pursuing an individual musical voice true to the disparate components of her identity.

Memories of Faliks’s upbringing in the Odessa of the 1980s filter through nostalgia about an “ideal childhood” and the naivete of a precocious wunderkind whose time is mostly spent practicing at the keys. Despite later realizations of the antisemitism and other injustices of the Soviet system, Faliks has a special fondness for the Odessa of her childhood, a city that so often casts a spell upon the many members of its far-flung diaspora. It is there, in the shadow of the city’s famous opera theatre, that Faliks begins her musical training and career, while also discovering a lifelong love of literature, particularly Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1967).

Born in Ukraine but baptized in the totemic works of Russian culture, Jewish by ethnicity but not practice, Faliks reflects often on her conflicted sense of identity via her writing and music-making. Her sense of belonging (and not belonging) manifests while probing for a unique musical identity of her own:

How the arm was used, the body was centered, the shoulders lined up—all changed the sound and the expressive intent. In a performance, musical simplicity and directness were more moving than fanciful, histrionic pyrotechnics, giving sense of continuity and inevitability. I had been trained as a virtuoso—and [my instructor] was helping me use this technical confidence to channel the elegance and depth of the music. She was showing me that the sound I could coax from the piano was specifically mine—like my own voice. The voice had to speak honestly, naturally.

Faliks’s relentless practice schedule, intense training, and performance in competitions force her to grapple with the dichotomy that faces all musicians who take their art seriously: head versus heart. The most satisfyingly accurate performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations might astonish with its perfection in rendering every marking of the score but still leave the audience cold, while some of the most emotionally powerful music might involve little more than a punk band’s three power chords on an amped-up guitar, accompanied by a mighty scream. Equilibrium between these two extremes is the musician’s elusive Zen.

The quest to fuse technical brilliance with emotional depth drives Faliks’s formal education, from Europe to the United States, before she eventually returns to Europe. Like an apostolic succession of priesthoods, she recounts the series of piano teachers who ordained her, an unbroken line connecting generations of famous pianists and composers. This sort of authority counts for much in the elite world of professional musicianship, where the pupil’s teacher may matter just as much as his or her talent when it comes to competitions or securing a position. As she matures as both a performer and an adult who marries young (and disastrously), trying to balance a grueling practice schedule with domestic and social life, Faliks comes to realize that her instructors both fostered and sometimes frustrated her music-making. Finding her own musical voice requires her to choose the best elements from these mentors while digging deeply into her own rich experiences of joy, love, and tragedy to breathe life into her performances.

To the facets of identity that Faliks lists when asked “where are you from?” she adds the reality of being a young woman facing the inherent sexism—and occasional bullying—of the old guard of male critics, teachers, composers, and celebrity artists that dominates the industry. She recounts an incident when she was 18 and the teacher of a master class she was attending leered over her shoulder and down her shirt while playing a piece that required extreme dexterity—and that, coincidently, also had the effect of accentuating the breasts of female artists. “The best revenge is living well,” she writes,

so instead of reporting this incident and every other similar incident throughout my career—as I perhaps should have—I simply chose to forge on. It has never been about the discomfort and fear of speaking out in the treacherous, male-dominated […] field of classical music. For a long time, I simply didn’t know that speaking out was a choice.

Today, many victims of such abuse have come to understand that they do have this choice and perhaps more power than they once did to bring offenders’ misdeeds to light and break the cycle of predation. Much progress still must be made in the rarefied world that Faliks inhabits, as witnessed only this spring when the renowned conductor John Eliot Gardiner was forced to withdraw from an opera tour after assaulting a young singer who vexed him by exiting the stage on the wrong side. However belatedly, the idea that such musical “geniuses” are untouchable is finally being challenged.

Faliks cleverly adopts the musical device of the interlude several times throughout Weight in the Fingertips, momentarily pausing or shifting her narrative with beautifully descriptive essays that focus on specific musical pieces or artists that have touched her deeply. One of the most affecting of these interludes is devoted to Clara Wieck-Schumann, a rare female composer in the first half of the 19th century. Married to the more famous Robert Schumann, she abandoned her own promising career to support her husband’s. Yet despite her admiration for Wieck-Schumann’s music and its inspiration for the women who would forge ahead as composers after her time, Faliks conveys a sadness when performing the woman’s music, recognizing that, like others of that time and place, Wieck-Schumann expressed troubling antisemitic views and disparaged the works of female composers. “Not all great artists have the opportunity, the capability, the historical circumstances to see past the assumptions of their time,” Faliks writes, “as much as we’d like to view them as perfect heroes.”

This nuanced appreciation for the fact that timeless art can come from flawed individuals is a lesson Faliks clearly applies to her own artistic progression, taking the best of what she can from her various instructors to strengthen her own voice. Having found in that voice a sense of adventure, and an openness to creating innovative interdisciplinary programs, such as her pairing of piano performances with poetry readings, she naturally turns her love of music towards fostering the success of tomorrow’s classical musicians. Her first official university-level teaching position was at Northeastern Illinois University, but fortunately for the classical music community of Los Angeles, she applied for a position as tenured professor of piano at UCLA in 2012, where she has taught ever since.

Faliks looks forward to the future of music while describing a tour she takes through China in 2019. She is greeted by enthusiastic crowds, showered with honorary degrees, and besieged by students eager to learn. Her vivid, colorful descriptions fascinate throughout, although the reader might wish for a deeper consideration of why classical music seems so vital in contemporary China. Why do crowds of all ages and incomes flock to see performances there while American orchestras struggle to fill seats and coffers, resorting to gimmicks to court a younger audience and relentless philanthropic appeals to stay afloat? Faliks draws comparisons to the elevated role of artists in the Soviet culture of her youth, and the expectation of dedicated practice and competition that underpinned it. Whatever the reason for the fascination about classical music in China, one must admire Faliks’s advocacy for the many young Asian musicians who come to the United States to continue their studies and build their careers. She warns against the stereotype often expressed by critics that non-Western musicians are too in thrall to technique, feeling that performers of any background must be given permission by their instructors to feel, and to express that emotion in their music. Regardless, it is encouraging that an educator and performer of her stature is so optimistic about the future of classical music, at a time when that feeling is not widely shared.

Weight in the Fingertips ends appropriately with a somber reflection on the current war in Ukraine. The poignancy of her questions is shared by many in, and formerly of, that country: “Did I feel Ukrainian? What did this mean to me? Suddenly everyone wanted to know, and I had no idea how to answer. I have always dreamed of going back to beautiful, elegant, funny, gritty, and culturally bubbling Odessa to perform. But I have never been back.” Even for an émigré like Faliks, who long ago left Ukraine behind for a new life that afforded her nearly limitless possibilities to grow into an esteemed professional artist, the land of her childhood still exerts a profound claim on her heart.

Today, despite the tragic war that rages there, the neo-baroque confection of the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theatre, where one can still hear the sounds of student rehearsals while strolling through the surrounding gardens, stands ready to welcome home the prodigy who traveled the world, performing her art and fostering the next generation of classical music’s vanguard. After reading Weight in the Fingertips, the reader can only wish for that long-delayed reunion in a happier, peaceful time.



San Francisco Classical Voice: Jacaranda Music Series

Jacaranda Goes Out on Its Own Terms With Exciting Schoenberg Celebration

Feb 25, 2024

Jacaranda, the maverick Santa Monica music series whose home base is a block away from the edge of the North American continent, is no more. Felled in midseason after a bit more than 20 years on the boards.

The reasons are not a surprise — rising union costs, a deficit that couldn’t be tamed. Co-founder/artistic director/prolific program annotator Patrick Scott hinted that “there will be something next” but can’t say what or when. In the meantime, we are left to mourn the loss of one of the more imaginative alternative music series in Southern California, one that was in the middle of celebrating the influence of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) during his 150th birthday year.

Unlike many organizations that pull the plug with no time for goodbyes, Jacaranda gave us fair warning in advance that it would be folding its tent. And rather than slink quietly off the scene, it went out Sunday afternoon and evening (Feb. 25) with a three-part concert “Fierce Beauty,” which hammered together some at-first-glance unlikely juxtapositions of material, forming a sprawling yet somehow coherent and fascinating whole. A dinner break and an intermission separated the segments. All told, the lingering farewell took about six hours to run its course.

There were two brief surprise cameo appearances by two eminent local pianists — Inna Faliks playing up a storm in one of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 piano pieces and Gloria Cheng offering a quiet, introspective selection from Op. 19 — and the charismatic young pianist Andreas Apostolou tore into the Gigue from the Suite for Piano, Op. 25.


B’nai Br’ith International

Inna Faliks and Bar Avni: Top Jewish Musicians in the Spotlight

March 26, 2024

As a piano virtuoso, educator and highly regarded author, Inna Faliks’ Jewish heritage is an integral component of her artistic persona, in all its aspects. Dazzling audiences during her recitals, guest appearances with noted orchestras, and recordings, Faliks is also known for her concert series which feature repertory by Jewish composers including Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg, These concerts shine the light on innovative contemporary works, some of which include the spoken word, that pay homage to Jewish legacy, history and tradition.

On March 10, during a concert with the Inscape Chamber Orchestra at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, Faliks premiered the three-movement “Lilith,” a concerto for orchestra and piano soloist written especially for her by Brazilian American composer Clarice Assad. A musical portrait of Adam’s first wife, of myth and legend, whose licentious and transgressive behavior resulted in her banishment from Eden, the music was also a journey, taking listeners on a wild ride as they experienced the mythic demon’s transformation from steamy and exotic temptress to a nearly combustible, destructive purveyor of erotic chaos and unrestrained desire. Underscored with colorful jazz and klezmer motifs, as well as snatches of melodies rooted in traditional Jewish and Arabic folk melodies, “Lilith” was an explosion of sonic energy, whose heroine, or more likely anti-heroine, was made visibly palpable through Faliks’ brilliant technique and interpretive gifts.

Another notable Jewish work performed by Faliks is composed by Lev Zhurbin, a Russian American composer and instrumentalist. “Voices” was jointly commissioned by the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music at the University of California at Los Angeles, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, and Faliks herself, to whom the work is dedicated. This tri-part composition begins with “Sirota,” in which a simple, chant-like lament repeated by the pianist introduces a vintage recording of a prayer sung by Gershon Sirota, a widely celebrated Polish cantor and concert singer who died during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Not of this world, the haunting sound of his voice evokes a lost time and place, one of the life and culture that flourished before the Shoah. In essence a collaboration between two artists, one living and one who exists as a memory, “Sirota” is a muted expression of grief, an elegy that signifies and distills those emotions which cannot be translated into words.

Faliks, who also teaches at UCLA, joins forces with distinguished poets during her “Music/Words” concerts, performed across the country and broadcast on Chicago’s classical station, WFMT.

Faliks is now celebrating the completion of one of her latest projects. Published in 2023, “Weight in the Fingertips” is a compelling and intimate memoir which traces her musical journey as a child prodigy in her native Odessa and her family’s exodus from the Soviet during the 1980s to her years as a music student in the United States, her relationship to her faith and ethnicity, and her experiences as an emerging artist. Her life continues to be filled with seemingly infinite creativity.

Listen to Falik’s “Sirota” performance here.

Bar Avni

Selected from among 197 contestants from 47 countries, 34-year-old Israeli conductor Bar Avni has attained the coveted title of “La Maestra” as the first prize winner of the eponymous international competition for women conductors. Established in 2019, the contest is sponsored by the Philharmonie de Paris and the Paris Mozart Orchestra, whose young musicians performed the final movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 under Avni’s baton live on the European arts television channel. Judges and observers praised her gestures, expressivity, charm, power and determination.

In addition to the award of €20,000, Avni also received the French Concert halls and Orchestras Prize, the ARTE Prize, the €2,500 Paris Mozart Orchestra Prize, and the European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO) Prize, which was awarded to her by its representatives.

Making guest appearances in Israel, Germany and Austria, Avni is a percussionist who began her studies when she was eight years old. She just completed a three-year term as Chief Conductor of Düsseldorf’s Bayer Philharmonic.

Listen to Bar Avni and the Bayer Philharmonic perform music by Brahms here.

Cheryl Kempler headshotCheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B’nai B’rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.





Inna Faliks and Bar Avni: Top Jewish Musicians in the Spotlight


  1. La Campanella, Paganini - Liszt Inna Faliks 4:53
  2. Rzewski "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated" (excerpt, improvised cadenza) Inna Faliks 8:36
  3. Beethoven Eroica Variations Inna Faliks 9:59
  4. Gershwin: Prelude 3 in E-flat Minor Inna Faliks 1:25
  5. Mozart Piano Concerto #20 - II Inna Faliks with Chamber Orchestra of St. Matthews 10:27
  6. Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) : Scarbo - Ravel Inna Faliks 9:07
  7. Sirota by Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin Inna Faliks 7:45