Monthly Archives: March 2014

Franz Schmidt’s Lament

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A revised version of this appeared at Violinist.com in 2008

As the story has it, when Hungarian-born 20th century composer Franz Schmidt received the news in 1932 that his beloved daughter and only child, Emma, had died in childbirth, it was just prior to his setting to work on his Symphony no. 4 in C Major. The loss affected him profoundly, resulting in a breakdown, both spiritual and physical, from which he was able to pull himself up to deliver a gorgeous, evocative, fully realized masterpiece. Completing this symphony in 1933, Schmidt inscribed it as “a requiem for my daughter.”

Schmidt’s Symphony no. 4 in C Major was part of an October 2008 San Francisco Symphony performance I attended. Joshua Bell was the night’s headliner, with Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Ravel’s Tzigane. Normally when the “star” performs in the first half, there is a sense, following intermission, that the best of the concert has passed, particularly when the next piece is by a little-known composer, a little-known 20th century piece of music. This was not the case on Saturday night, however. Far from it.

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I didn’t know I needed sad music. I read the program notes on Schmidt’s Symphony no. 4 during intermission, curiosity stirring the heavy feeling I’d been carrying around all day. I tend to avoid sad movies and books when in this kind of mood. I get too sucked into their sadness and can’t shuck the weight of it afterwards. But bittersweet music often steps right in and connects with whatever sense of loss I myself am experiencing. My lament on Saturday was minor: I was emotionally out of sorts from having just finished the second draft of my novel the day before, putting me one step closer to completing the project. It is never the triumph for me one might think it would be. Granted, there’s a headiness as you cross the finish line, but the next day, upon rising, it’s a sense of emptiness that greets you. Never mind that your brain is fried and you couldn’t have worked on it much longer anyway. Never mind that you’re not done, done. That weeks, possibly months of editing to fit the specifications of an agent are involved. But analysis and explanation did not ease my gloom that night.

There’s something so gorgeous, so soothing, so lush and expansive about Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, from the very first notes. It feels like grief, but the good part of it, that temporary high, that larger-than-life clarity that presents itself amid the process. It did not tear me up inside, the way the Sibelius violin concerto will do. It is more like Mahler, or Bruckner. The rhythmic and harmonic complexity, the shattering reverberating sound of the gong, the crashing cymbals, remind the listener that this is 20th century music. This is not insipid, easy-listening orchestration. It is grief. It is a lament. It is full of highs and lows, moments of ecstatic soulfulness preceding and following desperate conflict.

The symphony begins and ends with a long melody on unaccompanied solo trumpet, a herald. Solos from other parts of the orchestra—notably the cello—pepper the symphony’s four movements, lending it the richness and thrill a violin concerto always brings me. The second movement, the Adagio, is simply exquisite, particularly with the contribution of the aforementioned cello solos (Schmidt was an acclaimed cellist, performing and soloing with the Vienna Philharmonic for fifteen years).  In the San Francisco Symphony program notes, author Michael Steinberg wonderfully describes when the mood during the adagio darkens. “Against a drumming whose relentless beat begins in the timpani but comes to take over the whole orchestra, the cellos begin a mournful threnody—music of searing grief, a funeral march that can stand beside the greatest by Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Elgar and Shostakovich. Its mountainous climax is the focal point of the entire symphony.”  Give it a listen.  (If the embed didn’t work, click here…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRvTthQ3vmU)

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This mood. This elegy. It is so perfect. It makes grief beautiful. It elevates it to something irreproachable, like snow on a mountain peak that, when you’re stumbling around in it, stings and chills and makes you lose your footing, but from the distance, oh, the inexpressible beauty. From this perspective, it not only makes sense, but it seems a necessary sacrifice.

Schmidt’s lament. Small consolation for him and his loss at the time, but how lucky we are, how enriched, to have this work of art that so aptly displays the curious symbiosis between pain and beauty, loss and eternal gain—the ineffable power of the wordless requiem. Such a treasure to discover on a Saturday night in Davies Hall, well after the “headliner” has stepped off the stage.

Five and a half years later, in 2014, I’m still remembering this symphony from a little-known (in the U.S.) composer, his art, his loss, this tribute to his daughter. Through it, they can both live on eternally. Bravo, maestro.

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Popcorn and pas de deux: ballet in the cinema

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Okay, let’s hear your opinion. Is watching a grand, evening-length story ballet on the silver screen better, worse, or the same as the real deal, live onstage before you? My opinion ricochets around, kind of like movie popcorn in its glass case at the concession stand. No, nothing can beat the real deal – nothing! But… wow, the shorter drive, the ease in getting in and out of the auditorium. The price. The little extra perks being promised, like behind-the-scenes footage, a mini-documentary between the acts. Or, wait. Might that be disruptive? Is there going to be an intermission, like in the live productions? I hate those things. I just want the show to continue without interruption. That’s why I love movies. I love the way they keep me in that little bubble of suspended disbelief, so delicious and engrossing, so far from my own tiresome world.

Time will tell.  Tomorrow night, March 20th, I will embark upon my first experience with ballet in the cinema, when The Royal Ballet brings The Sleeping Beauty to movie screens around the world. Woo hoo!

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I have to say, I’m fascinated by the concept, and can’t wait to see what kind of audience it draws. Will it be people who already attend live arts performances? Movie-going buffs? The younger crowd, raised on multimedia and computers and YouTube, who, galvanized by the Black Swan hype, are willing to invest $15 to see a ballet? I mean, think about the implications for the younger set: they don’t have to worry about whether they’re dressed right, when or when not to clap. They can slurp their 54 oz soda and munch on $10 popcorn right through the performance. There wasn’t the long drive into the bigger city, the parking hassles, the crowds of 2000 pouring in and out of the auditorium. Gotta go take a leak during the performance? (The end-result of that 54 oz drink, but hey – free refills while you’re in the lobby.) No worries! Want to offer your three kids some culture at a reduced price and reduced distractability? (And less glares from those around you.) Ticket line is right this way!

Since I have yet to experience this phenomenon, but at the same time, I want to draw it to my readers’ attention right now, since it’s one night only (actually, it’s March 19th in the U.K., March 20th in the U.S.), I’ll rely on the educated and eloquent opinions of Brian Seibert from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/arts/dance/giselle-stars-natalia-osipova-in-a-cinema-broadcast.html?_r=0  and Sarah Kaufman from the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/pixels-and-pirouettes-live-ballet-in-movie-theaters/2011/10/04/gIQAxoeNTL_story.html

So. Ready to give it a try? (Casting includes Royal Ballet principals Sarah Lamb, as Princess Aurora, and Steven McRae as Prince Désiré.) And a special note to my non-ballet readers: if you’ve never been to a story ballet before, this is a good place to start, as it’s one of the five biggies, in my mind. (alongside Swan Lake, GiselleNutcracker and the fifth is a toss-up between La Bayadère, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Don Quixote.) And really, at $15 a pop, it’s hard to beat the price (well, unless you have the fabulous luck at the San Francisco Ballet that I did last season http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/how-i-attended-the-san-francisco-ballet-for-14/).

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Would love to hear the opinions of people who’ve given this a try, or will do so on March 20th!

 

 

9 Reasons to Watch Diablo Ballet

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  1. Robert Dekkers
  2. Jennifer Friel Dille
  3. David Fonnegra
  4. Tetyana Martyanova
  5. Rosselyn Ramirez
  6. Derek Sakakura
  7. Edward Stegge
  8. Mayo Sugano
  9. Justin VanWeest

Okay, so maybe the title’s sort of a teaser.  I mean, certainly, you should watch Diablo Ballet. And the aformentioned dancers are indeed a good reason to go — odds are you’ll see all of them perform, because they are Diablo Ballet. Just the nine of them, with artistic director extraordinaire Lauren Jonas at the helm. When I first heard about the number of dancers in this elite chamber company, I thought, no, that can’t be right, because I’ve heard so much about Diablo Ballet, online, in the news, making national news, even. But once you see them dance, see what they can do with a small troupe, a small budget, and a hell of a lot of dedication and talent, well, it makes more sense.

And they are marketing wizards. Their motto: Be creative. Be real. Be loud. Their strategies: use social media to interact, engage, involve the online community. They were the first dance company to solicit “text-perts” (audience members who’d tweet their thoughts during a performance), and in 2013, premiere a ballet created via suggestions from the Internet. The company just celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gala performance on March 6th. Yes, I went. Yes, I loved it. Check out my review here:  http://us.bachtrack.com/review-diablo-ballet-20th-anniversary-gala-march-2014

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But back to my point about these nine reasons to watch Diablo Ballet. Artistic director Lauren Jonas is very picky about whom she selects for the company. She hunts down strong, seasoned dancers who are gifted in both ensemble and soloist work. Often they hail from bigger, higher profile companies where competition, politics, stress and high demands made them reconsider their choices. Diablo Ballet gives them the chance to let their artistry shine through, onstage, as well as offstage, in community outreach, which is a big deal for Diablo Ballet. Several of the dancers are also ballet teachers around the Bay Area. Choreographers. All of them are intensely dedicated and hard-working. Allow me to introduce them to you in greater detail…

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1. Robert Dekkers, one of the company’s best known dancers. Named “25 To Watch” by DANCE Magazine in 2011, founder and artistic director of Post:Ballet, recently named Diablo’s resident choreographer, creating cares you know not for the gala. He’s been with the company since 2011. Helluva dancer.

2. Jennifer Friel Dille, with the company since 2012.  A solid classicist, clean lines, with a great sense of ensemble, at the March 6th gala, in both Kelly Teo’s Dancing Miles and Balanchine’s Who Cares?

3. David Fonnegra, company member since 2004, formerly a dancer with Miami City Ballet. Also choreographs and was named artistic director of San Mateo’s Peninsula Ballet Theatre in 2013. Gave a wonderful performance at the gala (Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camellias) with Diablo Ballet alum Tina Kay Bohnstedt – my favorite piece of the night.

4. Tetyana Martyanova, new to the company in 2013, hailing from Odessa, Ukraine. She’s a striking dancer, engrossing to watch, with her long limbs, height, and strong technique. Performing last with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, I’d call her Someone To Watch.

5. Rosselyn Ramirez, company member since 2011. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, and danced first with Ballet Nacional de Caracas. Very strong classical dancer, appearing in three of five pieces at the gala. Especially sweet in the Sweetheart pas de deux from Billy the Kid. 

6. Derek Sakakura, with the company since 2011, paired up nicely with Ramirez for Billy the Kid, and, if I’m not mistaken, they are paired up in real life as well (as in married), which always charms me to see. Sakakura, like Ramirez, had lots of stage time at the gala.

7. Edward Stegge, Company member since 2002, Stegge survived a horrifying mugging attack in 2009 with injuries that threatened not just his career but his life. I’d read about it, back then (Dance Magazine article on it HERE) and I was delighted to see him onstage performing at the gala. Best yet, I couldn’t pick him out of the ensemble dancers initially, which means the guy is 100% back in his game. I love stories like this.

8. Mayo Sugano, born in Japan, joined the company in 2005. In 1997, she’d won a Prix de Lausanne award, a scholarship with the San Francisco Ballet, and went on to dance with the San Francisco Ballet from 2000 to 2004. That’s some stellar pedigree, in my mind, and it shows in her fine dancing.

9. Justin VanWeest, new in 2013, gave a strong performance with Sugano and Martyanova in Dekkers’ cares you know not. Coming from the North Carolina Dance Theatre, he’s a solid technician and tossed out a really great triple pirouette toward the end of Balanchine’s Who Cares? Very satisfying to watch.

I’ll say this about Diablo Ballet as well. Their audience loves them. Sitting among them on the night of the March 6th gala celebration, I could feel it all around me, a palpable sense of community and enthusiasm and pride for this local company of theirs. Small companies (or even bigger ones) can’t exist without regular support, through subscriptions, donations, volunteer time. Artistic director Jonas has been the powerhouse behind keeping this all going, through these challenging economic times, and the Walnut Creek community, not to mention the considerable online community they have drawn, has reached out to help. It’s a pretty cool thing to see.

Here’s raising my glass to a ballet company that’s getting it right, in so many ways. Congratulations, Diablo Ballet, on twenty years of success. Keep up the great work.

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The Classical Girl turns one year old!

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The Classical Girl was a concept I’d created on the eve of 2013, a New Year’s resolution of sorts. My ballet novels were long completed, out being shopped, and I missed researching and living inside the dance world far more than I’d anticipated. Further, I knew, as a writer, that it was good to enforce some assignment-like work into my writer’s life. Nonfiction assignment-like work. And yet, it was daunting to consider. I knew what blogging would require: commitment, perseverance, patience, long term vision. And with a blog, you’re all out there, baby. Whatever you write, the world sees. As a writer, this would become my calling card. If I lost steam, let the quality of my writing drop, the world would see that, too.

Starting a blog on a self-hosted site was both easy (thank you, Mr. Classical Girl, my indispensable IT man) and not. Following the euphoria of setting up the first few posts, the electric “I just published something!” thrillthings got quiet. There were some lonely, “is anyone out there?” spells those first months. One day in mid-March, I called up one of my sisters and asked her to go read some of my blog entries. And maybe leave a little comment. She did. I watched the numbers for that day shoot up, which, while encouraging, was also depressing. She alone had been my audience that day. A new blogger on a self-hosted site is merely a drop of water in a very big lake, particularly if your subject is as obscure as ballet and classical music musings by an amateur enthusiast. But I’d made a goal before starting, to give it my all for twelve months, regardless of response. Most personal blogs, I’d learned, fail within six months for this very reason. What feels effortless and fun those first few weeks becomes a trudge through a social media desert as friends and family lose interest in returning yet again, and those other future readers out there have not yet found you. But, If you blog it, they will come, as the saying goes (not really). And “they” finally did.

Here’s what the year looked like:

  • 27,152 views (and thank you 81,335 spammers, for pushing me past that 100,000 mark).
  • 93 posts
  • 350 comments
  • Best day: 264 visits on “10,000 views for my Birthday” which was the best birthday gift I’ve ever gotten. Cyber kisses flung in the direction of all who participated. (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/10000-views-for-my-birthday/)
  • First big hit: “Bombs or Ballet?” in April with 190 views in the first day and something close to 500 views within a week. An astonishing, exhilarating feeling, in spite of the sadness of the subject. (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/bombs-or-ballet/)
  • Averages: currently 100 views a day. Back in April, pre-Bombs, it was 20. By June it was 50, and September brought me up to 80. Some days are inexplicably good (over 125), some inexplicably bad (under 80). There are lots and lots of ballet readers from around the world. “Popping into Palais Garnier” continues to garner a large number of hits every day. Readers love learning more about their favorite ballerina: Ulyana Lopatkina, Yuan Yuan Tan, Alina Cojocaru. A more recent blog getting lots of hits is “What do ballet dancers eat?” (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/ballet-dancers-eat/) And “John Cage’s As Slow As Possible,” in the classical music department, has been very popular too. http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/john-cages-as-slow-as-possible/

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I’ve learned not to judge my blog by others’ standards, those who get 1000 views a day and 20-30 comments to each post. Mine’s humble and I’m okay with that; I’m writing about what I love, not what I’m trying to market. A blog can be as specialized and/or commercial as the blogger desires. And if reading all this is giving you the “hey, I could do that too” feeling, I’d urge you to consider going for it. There’s a nifty feeling to starting a blog, like getting your first apartment, and looking at the empty space, feeling the excitement build in you as you imagine how you’re going to decorate it. A blog is one big giant room of possibility, powered by your imagination and creativity. And spending time researching and writing about this hobby you love so much—well, how’s that for a satisfying afternoon of work?

There are hundreds of articles circulating on how to start blogging, which platform or host to choose, what the difference between WordPress.com (all inclusive) and WordPress.org (self-hosted) For the record, this is a WordPress self-hosted site. Here are a few links if you’re interested in learning more.  http://michaelhyatt.com/ez-wordpress-setup.html and http://www.jeffbullas.com/2013/07/17/the-art-and-science-of-creating-a-successful-blog-post/

Lastly, I’d like to shout out a big “THANK YOU” to the online friends and fellow dance bloggers whom I’ve met this past year. Their sites have inspired me; their support has helped me get through those first out-at-sea months; and many have included a link to my site on their blog roll. Which every blogger LOVES. So, here’s sending out a thank you (and of course a blog link) to the following:

Thank YOU, as well, dear readers, for coming to my site, reading my musings, commenting, subscribing, bookmarking my site, posting a link to a favorite article on Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter. It is no exaggeration to say that your presence here, your support, has made this all worthwhile for me. So, from the bottom of my Classical Girl heart, I thank you.

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