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To the heroes of the graduating class

If the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” didn’t cause my throat to constrict during my son’s recent high school graduation ceremony, the sight of 180 teens marching in neat lines of two across, dignified in their black graduation robes and caps sure did.

As far as graduations went, it was your typical, garden-variety affair. Held outdoors on the football field, the beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains flanking the campus, we listened to the usual opening address, followed by songs, speeches, recognition for award recipients. Hats off to the graduates who garnered awards. You surely deserved it and your efforts have been duly noted and fêted. Valedictorians, Salutatorians, Principal’s Award recipient, National Honor Society member, Top 10 Students. And so on.

That’s not the group, however, to whom I dedicate this blog.

I am a member of NAMI—the National Alliance on Mental Illness—and I participate in a local support group and its accompanying online discussion forum. Other members of this group are parents such as my husband and myself, who have needed support through our kids’ tricky adolescent years. The group, its supportive presence and collective wisdom, has been a life saver to me, a rope flung out in turbulent waters that just about pulled me under a few years ago. I’m unspeakably grateful for the group, its members and their own stories. Difficult situations abound. Life gets real here.

Prior to parenting, in my early thirties, I glibly thought all kids graduated from high school. Well, certainly kids of well-adjusted parents with college degrees and a stable, loving home environment. You do everything right, the kid will turn out right. Right?

I can hear some of you laughing out there. Silly, deluded Classical Girl. Life, as well, sort of chuckled at my naïve attitude and murmured, “Boy, do you have something to learn.” So Life went about teaching me. Illuminating me. The past eight years, if not the past eighteen years, have forever changed me. Humbled me. Opened my eyes to all the different, subtle ways, all of us—kids and parents alike—struggle. And when your kid is not neurotypical, or is struggling with a mental illness or behavioral differences, or something scary and undiagnosable, all the rules of parenting get thrown out the window anyway.

What seemed impossible to consider two and three years ago—my son pushing past his challenges to graduate from high school—took place this month. And, oh, the pride I felt, the relief, the thorny, crazy wisdom. The bittersweetness. Because not all my NAMI friends and fellow parents have been able to achieve this milestone. Good kids from good families sometimes have to drop out of high school. Debilitating anxiety. Physical illness. Mental illness. Scary, turbulent behavior that risks tearing the family apart. Eating disorders. Self-harm. Suicide ideations. Suicide attempts. The escalation of any of the above, mandating residential treatment. Attaining a high school diploma becomes secondary in importance, often shelved, temporarily out of their reach.

On graduation day, I watched closely as all my son’s classmates’ names were called out and they stepped up to receive their diplomas. Each and every one touched me. I understand now that every last one of those kids had a story. Every one of their parents had a reason to feel proud. We may never know the other guy’s story. If it involves something like anxiety or mental illness, quite possibly we won’t ever hear the story. There are no awards for having gotten out of bed every morning and gone to school, even though, for some teens, it was like scaling Mt. Everest daily. Some teens went through periods of wanting to kill themselves. Some tried.  Families tend not to share that. You just never know.

Those are my heroes. Those kids. The quiet-looking ones (or not) who didn’t garner awards and accolades (or maybe they did. Reminder to self: you just never, never know). They did this. They achieved this milestone.

Here’s to you, heroes of the graduating class of 2017, for all your efforts, the barriers you overcame, to arrive at this place. And to your parents. I raise my glass high to you all. And to my son, I am so very, very proud of you.

 

                      

PS: if you are a parent struggling with this kind of situation and don’t know where to turn, please, please reach out to me, via my “contact me” page, or get in touch with your local NAMI chapter. There IS help for you and your child. You are NOT alone. I promise.

Veronika Eberle and the Schumann VC

The program last Sunday at the San Francisco Symphony was billed as “Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, with guest conductor Roberto Abbado.” Great, enjoyable stuff. But one glance at my playbill once I was seated gave me no doubt which piece on the program would outshine the rest for me: Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Composed in a matter of weeks in 1853, it was his last major work before the madness set in. I adore this rarely-played violin concerto. If you’re a longtime reader of mine, you might remember my earlier blog about it, and the way its spooky, mystical beauty featured into my fourth novel. (You can read that blog HERE.)

The concerto is enigmatic in a variety of ways. From its earliest days, it was dismissed as fatally flawed, the product of a declining mind. And not by the public but by Schumann’s closest associates. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim gave the score a run-through and privately expressed his concern to Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, who all agreed they’d be acting in Schumann’s best interests to stash the unpublished, unperformed concerto deep in a drawer. (By now he’d checked himself into an insane asylum where his mental state was in rapid decline.) Best to let it sit for 100 years before letting Schumann be judged harshly for what they perceived as weak writing.

Lest we now judge them harshly, it should be pointed out that it’s not a flawless work of music. It’s more orchestral than violin concerto-oriented. It’s difficult for the player, and yet, paradoxically, not terribly virtuosic, aside from the wide-ranging arpeggios better suited for a piano/pianist than a violin/violinist. The third movement repeats simple thematic passages far too many times. But I’ll argue that it’s still a charming, spirited movement. And nothing beats the concerto’s second movement with its aching beauty, imbued with something ephemeral, mystical.

Indeed, the concerto’s presence, its resurfacing back in the 1930’s is steeped in the mystical. Joachim’s great-niece, Jelly d’Arányi, herself a brilliant violinist, claimed to have learned about the concerto’s existence only through a séance and contact with the spirit of her great-uncle and/or Schumann himself. But that’s a story in itself, which you can read in that other blog I wrote.

Let’s return to 2017 and the San Francisco Symphony, last Sunday afternoon, where German violinist Veronika Eberle delivered a gorgeous, transcendent rendition of the concerto. Wow, the rich, evocative sounds she pulled from her instrument (the 1700 “Dragonetti” Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.) I loved everything about Eberle’s performance, the way she articulated and emphasized certain notes so beautifully. The sound reminded me of birdsong, the way so many different colors and textures are revealed, coaxed out of the instrument (or the bird’s throat).

Photo: Jan Northoff

That’s what makes this concerto rather tricky, in my mind. If a violinist can’t conjure all those voices–querying, tremulous, plaintive, yearning, demanding–then the concerto becomes, as its critics will argue, meandering, repetitive, overly orchestrated.

Speaking of orchestras, I must share how much fun it is to watch this concerto being performed live when you’re used to only hearing a recording. Like the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Schumann’s work features a great deal of interplay with the orchestra throughout. It was fun to watch. I was able to observe and hear an intriguing dialogue between the soloist and the principal cellist (Michael Grebanier) in the second movement, that I’d never realized existed. It was so beautiful. The entire second movement was simply transcendent.

I so appreciate that the twenty-six-year old Eberle chose to perform this concerto for her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, in lieu of one of the better known works of the violin repertoire. The kind performed over and over and over: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, etc. Mind you, it’s not that I don’t love these concertos. It’s just that the Schumann Violin Concerto is uniquely lovely and needs to be championed. The audience on Sunday afternoon didn’t give Eberle the rousing ovation she deserved, and I wonder if it was because they didn’t know what to make of this “quieter” or admittedly different concerto. She certainly deserved it, after pouring her heart, energy and considerable talent into it. I give her top marks across the board. And kudos to the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Roberto Abbado. It takes a team effort to make it all come together.

I can’t share with you what I heard on Sunday afternoon, of course, but here’s one of my favorite recordings of the Schumann Violin Concerto, performed by Gidon Kramer. Don’t miss out on the second movement; it starts at 15m30. It’s mystical.

It’s Acoustic Neuroma Awareness Week

Acoustic neuromas seem to want to feature into my extended family. If you’re one of my regular readers, you’ve likely heard the story of my sister and her acoustic neuroma, but a different sister found herself with an extra chapter to the story. Two years ago, she and her husband had an appointment with an ENT specialist following up on his own symptoms (headache, ringing in the ear). An MRI had been performed and the doctor now told the two of them, “What he has here is a rare condition, affecting 1 in 100,000, known as an acoustic neuroma. Now, what an acoustic neuroma is…”

“… is a slow-growing, benign tumor, located on the eighth cranial nerve,” my sister finished for him. “Yes,” she added, noting his surprise, “our family knows all about acoustic neuromas. My sister had one removed six years ago.”

So. You add two family members and my beloved character, Dena, from my novel Outside the Limelight to the equation, along with the fact that I’ve pledged to donate 10% of the proceeds for Outside the Limelight to the Acoustic Neuroma Association, and that’s why it seemed important to pause the button on musings about classical music and ballet to give the condition and the association a shout-out this week. Happy Acoustic Neuroma Awareness week to all of you!

What is an acoustic neuroma? Also known as a vestibular schwannoma, it’s a benign tumor that arises on the eighth cranial nerve leading from the brain stem to the inner ear. This nerve has two distinct parts, one part associated with transmitting sound and the other with sending balance information to the brain. The eighth cranial nerve and the facial (and/or seventh) cranial nerve lie adjacent to each other; they pass through a bony canal called the internal auditory canal. It is generally here that acoustic neuromas originate, from the sheath surrounding the eighth nerve. When they grow large, they press against the brain stem, which gets dangerous, as you might have guessed. Acoustic neuroma patients often deal with post-op issues that reflect the state of these compromised nerves: hearing can be compromised or destroyed on the tumor side. Patients can experience different levels of one-sided facial paralysis, as well, based on the condition of the facial nerve, and whether or not it has to be clipped during the extraction surgery.

I lived vicariously in the world of the acoustic neuroma patient for three years while writing and revising my novel, Outside the Limelight. I frequented the Acoustic Neuroma Association’s invaluable discussion board, which is an amazing place, a source of not just information but powerful stories of both struggle and success. Check it out HERE — you will learn so much and have the opportunity to hear the stories of real-life heroes and survivors.

To help celebrate Acoustic Neuroma Awareness Week and increase the opportunity for more people to learn about acoustic neuromas and how they impact a person’s life, Outside the Limelight will be free from Wed, May 10 through Friday, May 12 HERE. It’s Book 2 of a series, and, while easily read on its own, I’ve discounted Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Off Balance, to 99 cents for the month of May, if you’d prefer to start there.  You can find that book HERE.

Want to hear others’ stories about acoustic neuromas? HERE is a great blog from writer Lucie Smoker, an acoustic neuroma survivor. And actress and fashion designer Tara Subkoff tells her story for Harper’s Bazaar HERE.

Today, and all week long, I will lift my hat to all of you who’ve had to deal with this rare and challenging condition. You are warriors, survivors and heroes, each and every one of you.

 

Me and my sisters. Orange Classical Girl next to white-shirt, acoustic neuroma survivor, Maureen.

May 7-13, 2017 marks the fifth annual ANAwareness Week hosted by the Acoustic Neuroma Association®(ANA). ANA invites you to raise awareness of acoustic neuroma and the challenges facing acoustic neuroma patients, their family members and caregivers while recognizing their accomplishments. Visit www.ANAUSA.org and follow them on Facebook.

10 odd facts about Handel’s Messiah

This weekend Handel’s Messiah gets pulled out at the Classical Girl household, an annual event during Triduum (more formally referred to as the Paschal Triduum), that three-day sacred period commencing with Holy Thursday and culminating with Easter. Although Messiah was written in three parts to depict Jesus’ life and resurrection, and therefore works for Christmas as well as Easter, it has Easter morning written all over it for me. Check out my blog about it HERE.

Messiah is an oratorio, which is sort of like an opera without the acting, grand pantomiming and expensive sets, and tells a sacred story, not a racy one. Handel composed over twenty oratorios. He’d composed plenty of operas (final tally: forty), but they were more expensive to produce and the popularity of his opera works had begun fading. In 1741 he decided to take a break from it all, and leave his London base for a sabbatical in Ireland. It was here that he composed Messiah. It premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, during Easter season.

Want to listen to it as you read? Here you go! (A three-minute BBC introduction precedes the music, which starts at 3m40.)

But what you really want to know are the odd facts, right? So, without further ado…

 

                                       10 Odd Facts about Handel and his Messiah

1) The original [German] spelling and pronunciation of George Frideric Handel’s name is Georg (GAY-org) Friedrich Händel (HEN-del). His father was a barber-surgeon (I know, right?) and Georg’s original game plan for life was to study and enter the practice of law. While in law school, he started playing the organ for a local church, and, well, that started the composing music ball rolling.

2) Handel was British but not, just like King George I was British but not. King George I was German-born, from Hanover. (He is also the one who had that terrible time with those pesky “American” colonists who revolted.) Before the young Handel moved to England, he’d served as Kapellmeister for George (then the Elector of Hanover) in Germany before he became King of England. Once they were both in England, well, it was likely an easy choice to stay affiliated. Handel loved England, and 1726 he became a naturalized British subject.

3) By 1741, Handel had fallen deeply into debt, and was even threatened with debtors’ prison. Instead, he departed to Ireland for a sabbatical, where he wrote his Messiah.

4) Handel composed Messiah in just twenty-four days, a staggering feat, given the original score is 259 pages. Yikes. That’s some productive off-time. (Author’s note to self: sign up for sabbatical.)

5) In spite of the fact that Handel himself was in bad shape financially, he premiered Messiah in Dublin as a benefit, to help out some of the inmates stuck in debtors’ prison. The benefit performance was a rousing success, and 143 debtors were released from prison as a result.

6) As a gesture of thanks, Handel’s Irish backers returned the favor by paying off some of his own London debts.

7) The first London performance, a year later, wasn’t as unequivocal a success. Criticism was voiced that the work’s subject matter was “too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singers.” Handel tried to appease the conservatives by using a different name, calling it the “New Sacred Oratorio” instead of “Messiah.” Even then, however, the London reception of the production remained cool, and the oratorio was only performed three times that year instead of the anticipated six. Until, a few years later, at the London Foundlings’ Hospital…

8) Handel performed a mix of new music and older pieces including the “Hallelujah” chorus at London’s Foundling Hospital, in 1750, for a charity concert. At the time, Messiah hadn’t made its splash with London audiences (see above), but the concert was so well received that Handel was invited back the next year, where he performed the entire Messiah oratorio. Performances of Messiah became an Eastertime tradition there until the 1770s. Earnings from many early performances of the oratorio were used to help the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, and sick. (A great article about this by The Telegraph can be found HERE.)

9) The complete oratorio of Messiah has fifty movements, but it was otherwise a modest production. In the years after Handel’s death, Messiah was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. Mozart, as well as a few other composers, played around with it, offering a fresher (at the time) adaptation. Today you can buy the Mozart adaptation, the original, an abridged version, popular excerpt version, Part I & II version, etc.

10) Audiences typically stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus” movement of Messiah. One story as to why dates back to when King George II (son of King George I) heard it being performed for the first time. Story has it, he was so dazzled, so overcome with emotion, he rose to his feet automatically. And when the king rises, all rise. So, there it is. Fact or myth? You make your own call.

Bonus fact: Handel died on Good Friday, 1759. He was buried, with honors, at Westminster Abbey, during which time a portion of his Messiah was performed. He will be forever remembered for his contribution. Somewhat poignantly, once after being congratulated on providing audiences with such fine entertainment, he’d replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. For I wished to make them better.”

Oh, Mr. Handel. That, you did. And for that, the world will be forever grateful.

Diablo Ballet Celebrates 23 Years

It was an evening of celebration and great dance as Diablo Ballet fêted its 23rd anniversary Thursday night at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. Adhering to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas’ mission to offer diverse and relevant works that inspire and engage, the company presented Sally Streets’ 1994 Three to Tango, excerpts from Petipa’s Raymonda, and Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination. The celebration program included a short film, plus a slideshow that commemorated the company’s PEEK outreach program, to live music performed by Minor F Jazz Quartet (comprised of students from the Oakland School for the Arts), all of which demonstrate the wonderful synergy between company and community. That Diablo Ballet thrives at twenty-three years is no small feat, and no coincidence.

The 23rd anniversary is referenced in a charming fashion through Three to Tango. In 1994, choreographer and Diablo Ballet artistic advisor, Sally Streets, set this work on Lauren Jonas in the company’s inaugural season. On Thursday night, pianist Andrea Liguori (who performed it in 1994 too), was joined by by cellist Andres Vera for a lively rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s alluring tango music. New company member Felipe Leon, replacing Jamar Goodman for the performance, dazzled with his clean, articulated movements and focus in this classical-based choreography with Argentine twists. Also new to the company is Oliver-Paul Adams who partnered the reliably excellent Rosselyn Ramirez in a pas de deux with proficiency if not particular ardor. Streets’ stylized blend gave us partnered pirouettes with a knee in parallel passé, some ending in a tango step. Ramirez stretched into a beautiful 180 degree partnered arabesque, and the men’s solo passages showcased their strong scissoring leaps.

Oliver-Paul Adams and Rosselyn Ramirez in Three To Tango, photo by Aris Bernales

Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda, like his earlier creation, The Sleeping Beauty, seems to embody Russian Imperial courtliness and grace. Set to Glazunov, it’s old school classicism at its finest. Thursday night’s performance gave us the Pas de Deux and coda, staged by Joanna Berman, company régisseur and former San Francisco Ballet principal. Raymond Tilton and Jackie McConnell, as the pas de deux couple, mostly succeeded, although a few initial rushed poses kept McConnell from looking fluid, her movements fully inhabited, stately and deliberate. Otherwise, the two were a pleasure to watch on the Lesher Center stage. Costumes designed by Sandra Woodall (and Renee Rothmann, Rebecca Crowell Berke), courtesy of Marin Ballet, looked great. A partnered arabesque released from a challenging balance for McConnell, reminiscent of Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” in The Sleeping Beauty, gave way to a confident, self-supported pose. Tilton, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a perfect fit for classics like this. A solid final partnered pirouette ended the piece impressively for both dancers, and the coda that followed, which included three more couples, a flurry of tutus and brisk, well-rehearsed movement, was well executed.

Diablo Ballet

Jackie McConnell in Raymonda, photo by Aris Bernales

Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, a 2016 world premiere, is set to Camille Saint-Saêns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux, and conjures the rich, colorful inner world of a boy’s imagination. Christian Squires reprised his role as “Seven,” or “Our Protagonist” with the same engaging, theatrical flair as last year. Some roles seemed more refined this year, such as the buoyant gleefulness of Pippas (Jackie McConnell), Seven’s imaginary playmate, which hit all the right buttons for me, without ever feeling over-the-top. I particularly enjoyed McConnell’s red-sneakered, flex-footed leaps, their momentary suspension midair. Standouts this year included “Constellations” a dazzler with fiber optic costumes for the women that, along with Jack Carpenter’s dimmed, dappled onstage lighting, simulated a midsummer’s night. Partnered leaps and lifts (Amanda Farris, Larissa Kogut, Rosselyn Ramirez with Oliver-Paul Adams, Jamar Goodman and Raymond Tilton) looked nothing short of magical. “Colors of the Rainbow,” too, offered visual appeal and strong dancing by Adams, Tilton and Felipe Leon. McConnell and Squires charmed in “The Shadow,” and later were poignant in their depiction of a boy outgrowing his imaginary friend. Dekkers’ choreography flows throughout, engaging and creative. An all-cast pillow fight at the end, everyone now clad in onesie pajamas (all costumes designed by Christian Squires), feathers flying, was just plain fun.

Carnival of the Animals

Christian Squires and Amanda Farris in Carnival of the Imagination, photo by Bérenger Zyla

Twenty-three years as a successful dance company is indeed something to celebrate, and Artistic Director Lauren Jonas had every reason to be proud of this troupe and the full house and enthusiastic audience Thursday night brought. Really, it does the heart good in these times to see a vibrant local community supporting a vibrant dance company. While a trip to Walnut Creek might not prove possible for everyone (good news: they tour the region), Walter Yamazaki’s short films featuring Diablo Ballet give all a chance to see these talented dancers. Thursday night marked the world premiere of Libera; gorgeously produced, with an original score by Justin Levitt, narrated by Jamar Goodman.  Here’s one from 2015, AETERNA XXI created by Yamazaki for their 21st Anniversary celebration, with a gorgeous score by Brian Crutchfield. Enjoy.