Category Archives: Life

If it’s not about classical music, ballet or the violin, you’ll find it here.

Green Book and Chopin’s stunning Étude


If you’re a moviegoer who follows the Oscars, you might have seen Green Book, a 2018 movie about an Italian-American bouncer who chauffeurs an African-American pianist on a performing tour through the deep South in the 1960s. It stars actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and I can’t say enough good things about it. What drew me, of course, was the classical music angle hovering on the periphery.

The film’s title derives itself from a publication, from 1936 to 1966, called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which pointed black travelers toward establishments where they would be welcomed throughout the deeply segregated South. The movie is based on a true story (the screenwriter is Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, the chauffeur, who chronicled his father’s shared recollections), although the film condenses the events into six weeks, when in real life, their travels together, on and off, lasted a year and a half. The two men remained friends for life.

Don Shirley, the son of Jamaican immigrant parents, was born in Florida in 1927. Considered a musical prodigy, he was invited at age 9 to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. By age 10, he could play much of the piano’s standard concert repertory. He also composed his own work. He made his professional debut at age 18 with the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor and a year later, he performed one of his compositions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But he would soon come to discover that opportunities for classical black musicians were few and far between. Discouraged, he abandoned the piano as a career and studied psychology at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph D. It was around this time that playing music returned to his life. He was advised that, while American audiences would have trouble accepting a black concert pianist, he’d be brilliant in playing  what Shirley describes in the film not as jazz, but as “pop.” Doing so, as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio, he became highly successful, managing to infuse the music with enough classical elements to make it sound posh, unique.

‘‘The silky tone and supple rhythmic flow of Mr. Shirley’s playing is just as artful and ingratiating as ever,’’ Peter G. Davis wrote in The New York Times of a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971. ‘‘’I Can’t Get Started’ heard as a Chopin nocturne, or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a Rachmaninoff etude, may strike some as a trifle odd, but these — and everything on the program, in fact — were beautifully tailored to spotlight Mr. Shirley’s easy lyrical style and bravura technique.’’

But back to the movie, Green Book. Tony and Dr. Don Shirley — whom Tony quickly takes to calling Doc, embark on the concert tour and initially all goes [relatively] smoothly. One scene appealed to the classical lover in me. Tony joins Don in a hotel lobby, where Don opens up to Tony about how he loves classical music, and finds what he had to settle for, as a musician, to be a step down. Tony’s shocked by this. He’s heard Dr. Shirley play, telling his wife that “he’s like a musical genius — as good as Liberace!” and now says to Shirley, “Anyone can sound like Beethoven. But your music, what you do—only you can do that.”

It was a heartfelt compliment, mind you. Maybe the others in the audience felt the same way, that Tony was telling him the truth. I had this moment of recoiling, worried that this might be a story theme, like “jazz and pop are relevant and good, while classical music is dry and elitist.” But Don Shirley had embraced his classical training; it was where his musical prodigy existed. So Don only smiles over Tony’s words, too polite to scorn them, but likely aware (like myself) that, no, not everyone can sound like Beethoven. Not every professional pianist can play Beethoven, or, Shirley’s favorite composer, Chopin, in a way that is so knowing of the composer’s intentions, nuances, that, when they play it, it is like conjuring up Beethoven and/or Chopin, the composer’s spirit, the music’s spirit. It’s damned hard to play complex, note-heavy music and make it sound, paradoxically, as uncomplicated and organic as water trickling through a stream (or in Beethoven’s case, water thundering down Niagara Falls). Don Shirley could play this way. But the world wasn’t interested in hearing him play classical music, not in 1960’s America.

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly.

The movie is marvelous, plenty of humor, heart, expected (and unexpected) pathos as the two make their way further into the deep South. I’m not here to write a review, but if you’d like one, click HERE, for a good one by Jonathan Romney. But there’s a scene toward the end that I LOVED SO MUCH, I had to share it here. Following a racially spurred incident before a final performance, Doc and Tony walk out of the venue in a rage (whoops, should I have said “spoiler alert”? Um, SPOILER ALERT) and head instead to a roadside joint, which had been recommended to Don because it “served dinner to people of color.” You can visualize this great joint, the jazz playing, the soul food being served, and Tony loves the vibe of the place. He’s far more comfortable there than Don, who’s wearing a tux and can’t help the fact that he has the formal bearing of a king. It’s who he is. But the two take a seat, have a drink, some food, and Don relaxes. The female bartender, curious about Don’s posh looks and attire, asks what he does. When she hears he’s a pianist, she gestures to the piano on a small stage in the corner, currently unoccupied because the musicians are taking a break. Don hesitates, Tony prods him, and finally Don gets up and goes to the piano.

Oh, what a delicious moment. He sits, adjusts the bench, and softly plays eight notes, a simple melody. Dum dum du-dum DA dum dum DA. Repeats it more softly, with chords.

You can tell the other customers listening are bemused, thinking, okayyyyy, that’s the best he can do? But if you know Chopin, or saw the movie, maybe you know what’s coming. I felt the awareness like an incipient ache, a split second of “OmigodIKnowWhat’sComingNeeeeeext” and then, the crashing, stunning, unforgettable, searing cascade of notes that is Chopin’s Étude Op. 25, No 11 in A minor. (Subtitled “Winter Wind,” which is SO perfect.)

I think it’s time for you to hear it.

What I found so unforgettable was how, as Don played, you could feel his rage—but wait, that’s the wrong word. More like an energized sorrow, a lifetime’s lament, that this music by Chopin, this really kick-ass, hard-to-play music, was what stirred his soul, not the mainstream jazz he and his trio performed. Or maybe it was the pent-up frustration of dealing with the indignities of being a black man in the 1960’s, in the deep South, seen for his skin color and not his musical talent. Regardless, it was amazing. I love, love, loved this scene, this movie.

The Academy Awards are on Sunday, Feb 24th, and Green Book received multiple nominations, including for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and, the most exciting category: Best Picture. I’m not sure how well this much-beloved film (to me) will stand up against the others. In the aforementioned/linked review above, Jonathan Romney says:  “Green Book is a road trip into another era, in more ways than one. It’s a quietly mischievous comedy-drama about race, unimpeachably well-meaning in an old-fashioned way—but something of a benign dinosaur in the age of Get OutBlacKkKlansman, and Sorry to Bother You.“ He brings up a good point. But me, I’ll be rooting for this wonderful film on Sunday night. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet, run out and do so ASAP.

PS: Kudos and credit go to film composer and music mentor Kris Bowers, as well, whose hands and whose sound appear in the film. Curious about how much of a part he played in the movie? Click HERE for a great article by Pollstart.

Mystery revealed: Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you’re out and about when you hear a brief passage of gorgeous classical music, which never gets identified, and it goes on to haunt you.

Here was mine: I was in an art-house cinema years back, sitting in the semidarkness with my husband, waiting for the movie to begin. Back in those civilized days, they didn’t bombard you with commercials or junky “shows” before the film; you got to bask in music. This piece, a classical piano recording, was just stunning, dreamy and lyrical. All my thoughts fell away; even my breath stilled, in order to capture every note. “Who is this composer?” I asked my husband in a hushed voice. He shrugged.

“Schubert,” a man two rows behind us called out. I thanked him, murmured it to myself to mentally file it away, and as the piece ended, the lights dimmed, and the movie previews began.

I thought longingly of that piece on and off for the next several months. This was back in the old days, no iTunes, no internet to surf, no Google, Spotify, Amazon. To procure new music you—gasp!— had to go into a record store and hunt for it. It didn’t help that I couldn’t describe it well. (“It’s… very pretty. Haunting. And short.”) I sifted through Schubert’s music to see if I could find it, but we’re talking about a very prolific composer. In his all-too-brief life, Schubert wrote over 1000 pieces of music, 600 of them lieder or “songs”—short, lyrical, vocal compositions that, along with his waltzes (particularly the Austrian Ländler) brought Schubert great fame. (In his native Vienna, where he spent his entire life, these pieces became so popular, they comprised the core of social evenings, called “Schubertiads,” in the salons of the wealthy, where people would gather to sing and dance to Schubert’s music.)

But the mystery music was neither lieder nor waltz.

I searched on. I taste-tested. I bought compilation CDs. I bought a trio of Schubert CDs. No luck.

“Are you sure he said Schubert?” one of my classical music friends asked when I shared my frustrating search for this piece of music. “Was it maybe Schumann? Because that mystical, haunting feeling can be found in a lot of Schumann’s music.”

So I commenced a search through the Schumann repertoire. Bought those compilation CDs. I got to know his symphonies and concertos, some of which, indeed, carried a sense of the otherworldly (which I blogged about HERE). I read a biography on him that was as compelling as a novel. I fell in love with his music. But I never found the composition that haunted me.

The Great Search continued for, believe it or not, a decade. Granted, it didn’t occupy my every thought, but it was always there, in the back of my mind, this mysteriously beautiful piece that either Schumann or Schubert had composed. Every time I went into a music store, I’d grill whomever best knew classical music. I discovered more and more delightful pieces through obscure compilation CDs that I’d buy, which, actually, went a long way in expanding my classical music preferences.

And then one day I heard it again.

I was in the car, driving. And this is probably something other classical music lovers can relate to, as well. You hear it on the radio, and you sit in your car, still as a mouse, having arrived at your destination, but determined NOT to leave the car until the piece ends, at which time the radio announcer will state in that silken broadcaster’s voice that which you just heard, and if ANYTHING gets in the way of your hearing the title or the composer’s name, you will FREAK OUT.

“And that was Franz Schubert (“Aha!” you scream inside) and his Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major,” the broadcaster purrs, and as he continues talking, you’re frantically grabbing for a pen and paper to scribble that down, and finally, you’ve got it. The name of the song that has haunted you for well over a decade.

It was another few years before I actually bought a recording of the Impromptu No. 3. Yes, I could have bought a CD of the 4 Impromptu collection for $16.99. Call me cheap — I spent most of my pennies back then on budget compilation CDs. For some reason, this astonishingly beautiful piece isn’t as well-known as other short classical compositions. It’s rare to find it on a compilation CD. Strange, since Schubert had such a keen sense of melody. Possibly because he himself began his music studies as a singer, and lieder truly was his claim to considerable fame during his lifetime. (The majority of his other music was published posthumously, where it found even greater popularity.) Thank goodness for the advent of iTunes, where I could buy a single piece of music, simply by typing in the name and clicking “buy.” Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 is now mine to listen to, whenever I want.

Oh, the emotional images it stirs within me. A whiff of my childhood, dusk on a wintery Sunday, when the younger, chilled me has gone inside and Mom’s got a roast cooking in the oven, filling the air with an intoxicating aroma and a sense of security. An adult version: arriving home after a long day out in the world, but you’re home now, changed out of constraining clothes into something loose and roomy, and someone has just handed you a glass of red wine and told you not to worry, dinner will happen when it happens. In the music, I also catch a prescient glimpse of old age: the sweet ache of walking through a quiet house and seeing all the family photos, each with their own story, each story over, now, consigned to memory. Life lived, life passing.

Your turn to give Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 a listen. Here are two different interpretations. First one is Vladimir Horowitz and the second one is Inon Barnatan.


Which do you prefer? Horowitz’s fingers are so flat against the keys, it’s crazy to watch. But shut your eyes and feel the way he channels a story. The guy is a master, a once-in-a-generation kind of talent. It’s slower than Barnatan’s; I can’t decide if that leaches some of the intensity from it for me. Pianist Inon Barnatan (whose recording is the one I bought through iTunes) creates such a marvelous mood with his articulation, the way he crescendoes and decrescendos — really, it renders me a little breathless, with awe, with pleasure. It’s just so many delicious aural sensations, packed into six minutes.

Schubert composed the Impromptu No. 3, part of a set of 4 Impromptus, in the two-year period before he died in 1828. He’d found tremendous success in the popularity of his short works, but surely he felt the sorrow of putting so much of his energy into longer works — operas that he could never find a publisher, patron or venue to champion, which had been his lifelong wish. His health was lousy (he contracted what was likely syphilis in his early twenties and spent a good deal of time in hospitals) and he struggled with depression. Readers who already are familiar with Schubert’s work might know that he wrote “Winterreise” during this time. I have to say, when I read the description, a “heartrending diary of the Winter Journey of a rejected lover, whose unquenchable pain leads him to quiet madness and a longing for death” — well, I took a pass. It’s a song cycle of 24 pieces, so if you’re a reader who likes [dark] lieder, HERE is a link. More cheerful and more recognizable is Schubert’s Quintet in A major, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. I’m a longtime fan of the Rosamunde Overture.  I am currently listening to his lovely Piano Quintet in C major, which I prefer over the Quintet in A, actually. You will recognize the middle “Adagio” movement here — it’s been used in several movies and commercials. There’s his Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” that’s a must-listen, its first two movements in particular. His symphonies. His “Ave Maria.” (Maria Callas’ rendition HERE is simply stunning.) And more, and more.

Have you been haunted by a piece of classical music in a similar fashion? Do share! They are such fun stories to hear, and what fascinates me is how different each classical music lover’s tastes are. Beethoven, Liszt, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner, Dvorák, Britten, Schumann, Brahms, Barber, Debussy, Hindemith—the list goes on and on, of composers who’ve written something either stunning or stark (or both) that speaks to the soul in a way nothing else can.

3 Gifts from Classical Girl Press

Here at the Classical Girl household, it’s been a spiritual month. We celebrated my husband’s Jewish heritage with a menorah and latkes during Hanukkah. I took my annual Winter Solstice retreat at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center last week (redwoods, silence, space, contemplation = heaven), and now it’s time to celebrate my Catholic heritage with Christmas and its sister holiday, Christmas Eve day, which, as I get older, becomes more and more precious, filled with enjoyment, good cheer, a brimming sense of happiness in having given, and the sweet anticipation of the buzz generated in a crowded Catholic church that evening. And, post-Mass, Christmas Eve at home with the family, fire in the fireplace, candles twinkling, a glass of wine, Christmas tree lights and ornaments glowing – aah. Followed by Christmas Day. Where magic meets spirituality in a delicious, undefinable way that has little to do with the presents you receive.

The season’s holidays, of course, expand well beyond what I myself celebrate. In November, there was Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, and Mawlid al-Nabi, the Islamic celebration of the birth of the prophet, Muhammed. There’s Kwanzaa, starting the day after Christmas. And January 7th, the 12th day of Christmas, marks the day Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas. I’m a rebel Catholic girl. I say there’s room for all flavors of religion and/or spirituality. They all share this: beyond each religious holiday’s story, there is a giving of yourself involved, which activates a spirit of goodwill, which allows you to observe the divine coursing through everything, everyone. (Granted, during extended-family holiday gatherings, one might observe discord coursing through everyone, but let’s overlook that for now, shall we?) One other thing I’m going to hazard a guess that all the holidays have in common: eating lots of good food. Probably too much. Ah well, t’is the season.

Back to those “3 gifts” I dangled in the subject line. Classical Girl Press, my sister business, would like to extend three gifts in this season of giving. For the next five days, enjoy the Ballet Theatre Chronicles–Off Balance and Outside the Limelight for FREE. A Dancer’s Guide to Africa has been reduced to 99 cents through the 27th, and will be FREE on December 28th. 


Have a wonderful holiday week, however you choose to celebrate (or not). I am well aware of how hard holidays can be for some people, for varying reasons, something to just “get through.” Been there. I say, no better way to escape it than with a good book. Getting a Kindle for Christmas? Perfect timing! Don’t have a Kindle or any other reader, but want to enjoy these freebies on an old-fashioned desktop? (That’s me, actually.) Click HERE (if you have a Mac) and HERE (for a PC)  to obtain and download a free app that turns your computer or laptop into a Kindle device.

And let me be the first to offer you a HAPPY NEW YEAR and best wishes for 2019.

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.