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Fire and Thanksgiving

Last Friday, our house and family came as close to a raging fire as I hope we’ll ever be. I was clueless at first, in my office, working away on a revision. I heard nearby sirens, fire engines, but as we live on a ridge that overlooks the town and the two-lane highway that stretches north deeper into the Santa Cruz Mountains and south toward Santa Cruz, hearing sirens is not an uncommon occurrence. Nor was the smoky haze in the air a real warning. The devastating Camp Fire in Butte Country, north of Sacramento, has filled the Bay Area and beyond with smoke for over a week now.

Finally I stepped out onto our back deck. Glancing over my shoulder to the east, I saw a vast plume of dark smoke rising from a dangerously close distance. Stifling a shriek, I tore around to the front yard, where I was stunned to find two enormous firetrucks disgorging a dozen firefighters. It was like something out of a dream. My legs felt numb as I half-walked, half-ran to them. “Anything I need to know?” I asked in a high, shaky voice, which was surely the stupidest question possible, confirming I’m not half as eloquent as I’d like to be under stress. That the firefighters, hastily donning their protective gear, sounded a little rattled in their response to me, made me understand this was serious for them, too. “A structure fire, in that canyon,” one of them told me, gesturing toward the end of our driveway. “Please don’t get too close. But don’t go anywhere. We might need to evacuate you.”

It was bad. And was getting worse. Never again do I want to see, up close, a pine tree being engulfed in flames, creating this freakish, otherworldly, glowing orange pyramid.

Luck was on our side. Multiple fire crews were able to respond quickly, in great number, augmented by support from the air, massive dumps of water and flame retardant. Within the hour, our home was more or less outside the danger zone, although my son and I had no intention of leaving during such a scary, vulnerable time. All it would take was a shift in the wind, an increased velocity, to put us right back into grave danger. So we stayed, and we watched. It’s a crazy thing, fire. If it weren’t so scary, it would be so beautiful. The flame retardant drops immersed the billowing clouds of smoke into a psychedelic pink. For a split second, the world became soft and pink. It was surreal.

Within six hours, the fire was mostly contained. The area was closely watched for another thirty-six hours, with fire crews dousing any embers that tried to flare back to life, as well as raking over the scorched earth to redistribute the dirt and ashes.

We didn’t lose our house. The help we desperately needed arrived promptly. Talk about a week for Thanksgiving.

There are massive fires to the south of us—the Woolsey Fire—and to the north—the aforementioned Camp Fire. The latter is the deadliest fire in California history. My sense of compassion and sorrow for its victims have now been heightened by fierce empathy. I now have firsthand knowledge of how it feels to watch flames engulf entire trees as a wall of fire steadily approaches. To feel the terror of looking around a house and thinking, “Fast. What do I pack?” But my situation was dire for an hour. Theirs is beyond dire, for ten days now. In Butte County they’ve had impossibly bad luck, with high winds fueling the flames, acres being gobbled up in mere minutes, now far too large of an area to combat and win. At this time, 76 deaths are confirmed. Over 1000 people are unaccounted for. It’s only 60 percent contained.

All of this drama playing out, a week before Thanksgiving.

This year, I know what I will give thanks for. That my family and I are safe. That we were able to sleep in our home that night, wake up in our home the next morning. We are deeply indebted to the local firefighters, the Cal Fire crews, those who were brought in to help make quick work of this fire. I don’t know your names. But I will raise a toast to all of you on Thanksgiving.

*Photos taken by The Classical Girl on her trusty iPhone, except for the last three, which are courtesy of Mr. Classical Girl.

Crazy Rich Africans

Seems there’s a perennial hunger to explore the personal lives of the globally wealthy, evidenced by the recent blockbuster success of the novel-turned-movie, Crazy Rich Asians. Even as a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I admit it, I’m not immune. I realized how much that was the case, sixteen years ago, when I started writing The Africa Novel.  (My regular readers have heard all about this. If you’re new, go HERE and HERE.) The writing stalled; it seemed bland, more earnest than exciting, until a character and a situation sprang to mind. How about, I mused, instead the stereotyped altruistic, liberal-minded, upper-middle-class American girl helping those less privileged, I’d make her humbler. Bumbling. And the main African character, Christophe, would be a wealthy, privileged, pampered African, far more cosmopolitan and privileged than narrator Fiona. It’s not that big of a stretch, either. Every country has its elite, and trust me, this includes African countries. Building on this, I made Fiona a cloistered Midwesterner girl from a good family, but a modest, middle-class one. A ballet dancer, at that, more “save the pointe shoes” than “save the world.” The main reason she joined the Peace Corps was to get far away from her sister’s bitter betrayal. Running from conflict, she landed with a thud in Gabon, Central Africa, where her encounters with the wealthy, charismatic (did we mention sexy and good looking?) Christophe leaves no doubt that conflict will continue in her life. Fiona, over the course of the next two years, is in for an education. Then again, so is Christophe.

Mind you, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa has more depth than “impressionable Midwesterner falls under the spell of wealthy, sexy African man.” Alongside Fiona’s desperate infatuation is the struggle to acclimate in this world so wildly different from the one she grew up in. Her American precepts of being a “fun” English teacher, and being an outspoken, assertive female, land her into trouble, time and time again. In a country where family is everything and children are wealth, the single, unattached Fiona is considered poor beyond measure. And then there’s Christophe, his family’s fortune, their mansion, their ocean-front, palm-fringed vacation villa. While he and his family are purely fabrications of my imagination, I’m certain they represent a segment of Gabon’s population. Gabon enjoys a per capita income four times that of most sub-Saharan African nations. (Think: oil, the fifth largest oil producer in Africa. And manganese and lumber and other natural resources.) But there is a high income inequality, and a large proportion of the population remains poor. And the rich—well, many of them are crazy rich.

I’ve been asked, in interviews, what I’d like readers to take away from A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. There’s the obvious: I want readers to enjoy a good yarn, with dance but not too much; with romance and conflict, but not too much. But beyond that, I wrote this story to share with armchair adventurers, incorporating the grit of Africa, the unforeseen challenges, the bafflement and reverence, in the hopes that they come to “see” the Africa I saw. In some ways I wrote this as a love letter to Africa, one that I want to share with the world. The more all people can relate to or simply learn about foreign cultures, understand them at the personal level, the better this world will be. There are rich Africans, here and abroad. There are poor, under-served, struggling communities right here in the U.S. Values can vary wildly between cultures. Life isn’t fair, for so many people. There’s so much suffering in one part of the world, so much entitlement in another part. Fortunately, the hunger to connect, find affiliation and love, seems to define us all. I hope we take that similarity, that yearning for connection, and instead of saving the world, maybe just save each other.

You can find A Dancer’s Guide to Africa HERE or through Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Smuin opens 25th season with a winner

Smuin dancers in Ben Needham-Wood’s “Echo” — photo by Keith Sutter

That Smuin Contemporary Ballet is celebrating its 25th Anniversary season is a testament to so many things. To its founder, Michael Smuin, who died suddenly in 2007 while teaching a company class, weeks before a spring performance. To the company members who decided, in the spirit of their founder, that “we’ve still got a show to put on,” and went on to do just that, and do it well. To artistic director Celia Fushille, who has worked tirelessly since then to carry on Smuin’s vision and mission, cultivating a troupe of lively, engaged, talented dancers willing to work hard, embrace a diversity of dance styles, push boundaries, explore innovation, all while honoring the roots of classicism. It’s a mix that holds great appeal to audiences, and in this era of struggling arts organizations, one thing is certain: Smuin Contemporary Ballet has only grown stronger and better through its 25 years.

Five new dancers, two visiting artists and an apprentice have brought the company’s roster to nineteen dancers, and what is notable is how well they all blend as a company. Over and over I marveled at the pleasing synchronicity, not just in the steps but in the dancers’ intention. They looked polished and well-rehearsed on Saturday’s matinee performance. In a poignant touch, the program opened with Michael Smuin’s 2007 Schubert Scherzo, the ballet that premiered just weeks after his unexpected death. It’s a lovely neoclassical affair set to the third movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major. Nicole Haskins and Max van der Sterre were Saturday afternoon’s lead couple, back by an ensemble of 8 dancers. It was here the cohesive element charmed me: five couples executing partnered pirouettes in perfect unison, no small feat. Later, too, the five male dancers jumped and leapt as one. As the lead couple, Haskins and van der Sterre delivered strong dancing with an easy grace. Maggie Carey, dancing later with Robert Kretz, had impressively soft, silent landings to her leaps and jumps. All five females offered  photo-perfect unison attitude turns. Smuin’s 1969 The Eternal Idol followed, a tribute to Rodin, a romantic pas de deux bathed in golden lighting. Set to the “Larghetto” movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it was sensitively executed by Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood, who arose as if from a sculpture, in skin-toned unitards, to intertwine and spin and stretch into languorous poses.

Peter Kurta, Erica Felsch, “The Eternal Idol” – photo, Keith Sutter

Fostering new choreographic talent from within the company was important to Michael Smuin, and Celia Fushille has carried on the legacy. The Choreography Showcase, first presented in 2008, allows aspiring choreographers among the dancers to explore and set their work on their fellow dancers. Featured in Saturday’s program were three such works, developed in 2016’s Choreography Showcase, by Rex Wheeler, Ben Needham-Wood and Nicole Haskins, respectively. Wheeler (since retired from Smuin) offered Sinfonietta, an engaging neoclassic work set to the music of Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation to the master). Susan Roemer’s costumes of white chiffon skirts and bodices with swaths of pale yellow-meets-green (men in similarly colored unitards) brought the “lovely” factor up even higher, emphasizing the expansive, flowing movements from the ten dancers, Wheeler’s efficient use of the stage space, too, added to the work’s artfulness. Notably good were Mengjun Chen (through the entire program), and lead couple Lauren Pschirrer and Max van der Sterre.

Tess Lane and Mattia Pallozzi in “Sinfonietta” – photo by Keith Sutter

In Echo (formerly titled Reflection), Ben Needham-Wood offered narrative invention, as the ballet opened with its spotlight on a bare-chested dancer in white slacks (Peter Kurta), representing Narcissus, of the Echo and Narcissus myth. A turntable beneath him was slowly rotated by five dancers in indigo blue (think: the sea). Valerie Harmon, as Echo, joined him on the turntable in what surely was a tricky balancing act of a pas de deux. Set to music by Nicholas Britell, this ballet brought movement, emotion and lyrical dancing from lead couple and ensemble alike, its ending repeating the beginning, like, fittingly, an echo.

Nicole Haskins’ Merely Players offered more contemporary fare with a jolt of indie-pop music, selections by Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. Reminiscent of the choreography of Amy Seiwert and Twyla Tharp, the dancing from the ten-dancer cast was joyous, playful, quick-moving.

The program concluded superbly with Trey McIntyre’s Blue Till June, his fourth work for the company since 2010. Watching the vivid, endlessly inventive, entertaining choreography served to remind me what a master he is. The opener is dramatic: smoke, red overhead lighting, a dancer (Nicole Haskins) seemingly hewn from rock, cactus arms pointing up, looking like a Polynesian goddess. Rocks surround her as the music swells. Then, in the blink of an eye, she steps forward, and the rocks—dancers hidden beneath rock-colored cloth—roll away swiftly. It was so not what I expected to see, executed so efficiently, that I knew right away I was in for a rollicking good ride with McIntyre’s Blue Till June, created in 2000 for the Washington Ballet.

Haskins in her solo dancing was fierce, angular, proudly defiant. Smuin would have loved McIntyre’s choreography, the way it showed Smuin dancers at their finest, all high energy, high level of artistry, mixed with a certain rebel nature that seemed to define Michael Smuin as well. The soulful, power-infused ballads of Etta James provided the music. Her laments about love and life were an apt counterbalance to the humor and irony McIntyre injected into his work. One movement flowed into the next, like life, from high to low, despondent to energetic, casual to sharply precise, often with a whimsical or comic flair, even as the dancer maintained a serious expression. Erica Felsch was laugh-out-loud entertaining as a dancer rigidly opposing the intents of an amorous Robert Kretz. Their pas de deux, and its ending, was sublime. An ensemble of five delivered their number with slumped shoulders, a zombie demeanor, with an energetic counterattack. Ben Needham-Wood’s “One for my Baby” all but stole the show. Ian Buchanan and Peter Kurta offered an affecting, unconventional pas de deux, and Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood brought the ballet to a satisfying close.

These dancers are powerhouses. Not once did I ever see a sign of fatigue, although they had to have been damned exhausted by the end of the program. Not the audience. We left, happy and energized by yet another successful Smuin program. I think it’s safe to say the company’s 25thanniversary season is off to a fine start, indeed.

 

A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA is born!

Classical Girl Press is proud to announce the release of A Dancer’s Guide to Africa — recently named a quarter-finalist for the 2018 BookLife Prize! You can find it in print and electronic formats HERE or distributed through Ingram Book Company and Bookshop Santa Cruz. As a special in conjunction with World Dance Day 2018, enjoy A Dancer’s Guide to Africa at the discount price of $2.99 all month long!  After that it returns to its regular price of $4.99.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Fiona Garvey, ballet dancer and new college graduate, is desperate to escape her sister’s betrayal and a failed relationship. Vowing to restart as far from home as possible, she accepts a two-year teaching position with the Peace Corps in Africa. It’s a role she’s sure she can perform. But in no time, Fiona realizes she’s traded her problems in Omaha for bigger ones in Gabon, a country as beautiful as it is filled with contradictions. 

Emotionally derailed by Christophe, a charismatic and privileged Gabonese man who can teach her to let go of her inhibitions but can’t commit to anything more, threatened by an overly familiar student with a menacing fixation on her, and drawn into the compelling but potentially dangerous local dance ceremonies, Fiona finds herself at increasing risk. And when matters come to a shocking head, she must reach inside herself, find her dancer’s power, and fight back.

Blending humor and pathos, A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA takes the reader along on a suspense-laden, sensual journey through Africa’s complex beauty, mystery and mysticism.

I wrote a bit about the story’s inception HERE.

HERE’S WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING…

“Vivid prose and rapt evocations of the African surroundings make the story come alive.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Hilarious and poignant, with a frank, observant narrator who seems forever on the outside looking in, and all the more lovable and relatable for that.”
— Sarah Bird, bestselling author of The Yokota Officers Club and Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“Terez Mertes Rose knows dancing. She can make us feel its soulful allure. And in A Dancer’s Guide To Africa she captures the wonder, the culture divide, the longing and loneliness of being an outsider in the nation of Gabon. Better still, she delivers a cast of characters and a story that holds our attention from beginning to end. With this novel, Terez Mertes Rose, a savvy, insightful and entertaining writer, has come into her own.”
— John Dalton, award-winning author of Heaven Lake

“Rich with the smells, sounds, sights and culture of Africa, this novel takes us on an exquisite journey, through the eyes of a ballet dancer turned Peace Corps volunteer. A Dancer’s Guide to Africa is at once funny and dark, and superbly nuanced.”
— Marika Brussel, choreographer and former dancer

“A textured, sensuous, coming-of-age story that had me turning pages until the very end. I could almost hear the drums and see the firelight as I followed these believably drawn characters through their cultural and romantic escapades in this wonderful novel.”
— Anne Clermont, author of Learning to Fall

“Terez Mertes Rose has drawn on her considerable passions—dance, music, and storytelling—to take readers on a sometimes mystical and often suspenseful journey. The spiritual, visceral, and sensory-laden beauty of Gabon was a believable and riveting backdrop for this touching story of a women discovering her truth and power. A Dancer’s Guide to Africacommanded my attention from the first page to the last sentence.”
-– Jennifer Haupt, author of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills and curator of the Psychology Today blog, One True Thing

Join me on my blog tour this week, hosted by Sage’s Blog Tours! Here are my stops:

October 2nd Corinne Rodrigues ~ BOOK SPOTLIGHT
October 4th Viviana MacKade ~ AUTHOR INTERVIEW
October 6th Reecaspieces ~ AUTHOR INTERVIEW
October 7th Jessica Rachow ~ BOOK REVIEW
​October 8th  The Book Adventures of Emily ~ BOOK REVIEW

Yuja Wang, Wittgenstein and Ravel’s curious Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

 

I suppose it’s not all that curious. If you are a concert pianist and your right arm is a casualty in World War I, afterwards you have two options. One: give up your music career and calling, do something inferior and cry into your soup for the rest of your life. Two: tell yourself, “All right. Time to learn how to make my left hand do twice the work on the keyboard to produce the same sound. Create new arrangements of the music I love to play. Commission new works for the left hand alone. It can be done. It is what I will devote my life to doing.” It helps the Option Two scenario considerably if you are not a musician of the destitute persuasion, and, instead, have a generous amount of pennies (or Austrian schillings) tucked away in the family coffers. Which Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein had. Option Two, therefore, became his plan, and he succeeded marvelously.

French-Basque composer Maurice Ravel might have been approaching his own crossroads in the fall of 1929, just before Wittgenstein contacted him for a commission. We know, through hindsight, that he was nearing the end of his creative output. The year before he’d been exposed to jazz music during a U.S. concert tour. He was captivated by its richness, its diverting rhythm, and following the tour, he no longer felt compelled to create the same pictorial music he’d been doing. Instead he yearned to work with something sharper, leaner. When Paul Wittgenstein approached him with the commission request, Ravel happily accepted. At that time he was working, coincidentally, on his own Piano Concerto in G major, which he set aside temporarily. For this Concerto for the Left Hand, he decided to let that sharper, darker voice within him speak.

Maurice Ravel

Wittgenstein was a compelling figure, a powerful inspiration to anyone, even now, whose art or vocation appears doomed by sudden infirmity. Born in 1875 to a wealthy, influential Viennese family, he was the seventh of eight children, all of whom were musically gifted. The family’s considerable fortune, and likely his family name, enabled Paul to commission over a dozen works for left-hand piano. With his empty right jacket sleeve, he powered past naysayers and pitiers to make his musical future happen. Among the numerous composers he employed were Franz Schmidt, Erich Korngold, Hindemith, Richard Strauss, and later, Ravel, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten. He wasn’t particularly easygoing; he didn’t always like the end result of the commissions. More frequently than not, he grumbled over them. In fact, with Ravel’s concerto, completed in 1930, he went beyond just grumbling.

Paul Wittgenstein

There’s an entertaining (to me) story here. In 1931, as Wittgenstein was struggling over the new commission from Ravel (“What’s with the jazz-infused rhythms and harmonies? This is classical music. And this long piano solo as my entrance? If I’d wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”) and readying it for performance, Ravel himself was preparing for the premiere of his now-finished Piano Concerto in G minor. The two piano concertos were premiered at almost the same time. Pianist Marguerite Long performed the G minor Piano Concerto in Paris on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. Thereafter, the two presented the concerto on a tour of twenty European cities. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Wittgenstein gave the premiere of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, the very same month, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Ravel, of course, couldn’t attend the premiere since he and Long were off doing their G major Concerto thing. But when they came to Vienna to perform, three weeks later, Wittgenstein welcomed them, threw an elaborate dinner in their honor. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Wittgenstein performed the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, except with changes he himself had incorporated, which he felt made the concerto better. Not little changes, either. Big whopper ones, like taking lines from the orchestral part and planting them in his piano solo. Changing harmonies, cutting out bars of music, adding a series of dramatic arpeggios to his final cadenza.

Ravel freaked. After the performance, he angrily approached Wittgenstein. “But that’s not it at all!” he sputtered, to which Wittgenstein confidently replied that, as a pianist, he knew what he was doing, to which Ravel snapped that, as an orchestrator (not to mention the composer), he knew what he was doing. They parted that evening angrily. Eventually both of them calmed down, reached an agreement, and the Paris premiere of Piano Concerto for the Left Hand had Ravel conducting and Wittgenstein performing—presumably the version Ravel had written.

Yuja Wang, Michael Tilson Thomas, SF Symphony

It’s a masterpiece, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and fiendishly difficult to play well. Which brings us to last weekend, Davies Hall, San Francisco where Yuja Wang nailed it. She continues to be my favorite classical musician, bar none. She’s exciting to watch, she’s dedicated to her art, she’s a brilliant technician, and her dresses are eye candy, something to buzz about after the show. I blogged about her and the dresses HERE and I will argue that, all these years later, she is just as exciting a performer to watch, one who garners equal praise from critics and audience members alike. I love the way she can be ferocious yet precise, at turns lyrical and boldly insouciant.

The concerto starts off in the low register, with cello and bass as the only strings, more of a mood than a sound. Then we hear the even deeper contrabassoon playing a theme, soon followed by low horns. It’s brooding and dark for close to two minutes. Then the piano presents its part of the musical conversation in that two-minute solo Wittgenstein griped about. The jazz elements, now that I know to listen for them, abound. Ravel has a Debussy-esque sound I find very appealing, with its Oriental flavors. When the piano takes a second solo, around six minutes in, the music becomes dreamy, pensive.  And later there’s Ravel’s unforgettable “Bolero” that we hear traces of. Not just its notes, but its mood, the way the orchestral sound builds and builds in a delicious intensity that’s more about power than volume. But this is no “Bolero” knock-off.  There are so many original, inventive musical ideas in this nineteen-minute concerto, each one distinct, uncluttered. Yuja delivered on everything.

Lucky you – here’s a YouTube of her performing this very piece with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, June 2016, Lionel Bringuier conducting. As icing on the cake, she’s wearing yet another stunner of a dress. And something fun that I noticed here—she uses an electronic score. I sensed that was the case when I watched her perform, since it looked more like a finger swipe than a page being turned, but from my angle in the concert hall, I couldn’t be sure. Now I am.

A fabulous concerto, a sublime pianist — give both a listen if you have any opportunity to. And if geographic circumstances don’t allow, well, gotta love those CDs! HERE is the Amazon link for her Ravel piano concerto CD (with Fauré’s Ballade in F sharp thrown in too).