Well, there you have it, my 200th post. The irony being, of course, I can’t think of anything profound to say. Guess I used up all my ceremonious profundity for my post earlier this year that celebrated 5 years of blogging. That, and my mind is in fiction-creation mode with — shhh, don’t jinx it — a third Ballet Theatre Chronicles book. No worries, we’ll just cut to the chase, because we all know why you showed up here…
To celebrate my 200th post, I am offering one lucky winner a $25.00 (USD) Amazon gift card and a print advance reader copy (US addresses only) of my forthcoming novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, out in stores on October 2nd. If the winner lives outside the US, they will receive an electronic copy (regrettably, postage for outside the U.S. runs a whopping $18.00 for a single print book, so, forget it!). To sweeten the deal for them, I’ll offer the winner electronic copies of all three of my novels. Sound fair?
And for the rest of you — fret not, I will draw two more names as runner-up winners, and you will each receive an Amazon gift card for $5.00 and an electronic advance reader copy of A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. If you’re interested in putting your name in the drawing, you can either reply in “comments” below, or send me an email via my “contact me” tab above. I will print out all names, toss ’em in a big bowl and pluck out the winning names in two week’s time. For anyone who subscribes to notifications during this time, I will put your name in twice.
I’ll contact all winners via email at that time, but I’ll post their names here, too, around July 1st. Feel free to use a nickname or pseudonym, if you’d rather keep your anonymity. Just don’t use an anonymous email address because, well, that’s not going to help me contact you, now, is it?
Here are some stats I created in February for my post, “The Classical Girl turns Five.” I’m too lethargic to revise it now. You don’t mind, do you?
196 posts created and shared (which has now become 200)
207,951 visitors (in the past 3 years because my Google Analytics data only covers that)
552,000 page views (in the past 3 years, because, see above)
819 comments (+ 80 via email)
10 pages (from the original 6)
Wondering what the top 10 blogs have been since 2013? Here you go — click on the title to get to the article.
I served up some great snacks and beverages at my five-year celebration, and the good news is that there were leftovers. Here you go!
Something sweet, perhaps?
And now something savory?
Above all, I want to offer a heartfelt thanks to all of my readers. In the early, early days, there were few readers and it was a crappy feeling. But with each new post came new traffic, and every 20th post seemed to grow white-hot and bring in hundreds of readers (see above Top 10 list). What a great feeling. Special thanks to the site, The Imaginative Conservative, which has been republishing many of my music essays of late, and we’ve agreed happily that it’s a win-win situation. They get new material, I get new readers, there’s been more dialogue and comments here at The Classical Girl, about art-related things, creative, beautiful things. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s a breath of clean, fresh air for the senses after a day oversaturated with media, conflict, bad news, polarity, and such. I love that the arts can connect us all. And it’s my goal to keep forging on for another 200 posts, to do my little bit to make that happen. I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting.
Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner one recent Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations. No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short. The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra. And now, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable.
I’m going to use the words of my character, Rebecca, from Outside the Limelight to describe it, because she does a better job with it than I. At a party she’s attending, she mentions to a group that she’d recently analyzed a classical music excerpt by Emily Howell in a college aesthetics class. (Hint: Emily Howell is not a female composer but a computer program that composes original classical music.)
“So, you listened to some of the music?” the man asked.
“I did,” she said. “We compared it to two other excerpts, traditional compositions.”
“Bach. Jean Sibelius.”
“Good, good.” The man nodded. “So, what was your verdict?”
The Emily Howell composition had pleasantly surprised her, a flood of arpeggiated piano notes hovering around a melodic theme, like something Chopin or Scriabin might have composed. The Bach had been lovely and precise, like music meets mathematics. It was the Sibelius, however, that had stirred her with its rich textures and sonorities and, paradoxically, its simplicity. There were far less notes. The melody was not complex. But the horns’ mournful call, the way they sustained one of their notes against the melody, clinging, holding on, had been the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing she’d ever heard. It had made her throat contract, her eyes sting.
“I preferred the Sibelius,” she told the man.
“Well, it had… humanity. It was art and evoked true emotion. Next to it, the Howell seemed like just a clever, agreeable arrangements of notes.”
“What kind of emotion did it evoke?”
Across the room, she saw Anders, smiling, engrossed in what the beautiful woman across from him was saying. Her heart gave a twist.
“Longing,” she said.
“But how was this ‘longing’ portrayed in the music?” the man persisted. “I’m guessing a minor key, dissonance of two notes, followed by resolution. A solo violin, or maybe a clarinet, a French horn. Am I right?”
“You are,” she admitted.
“So. You teach this rule to the program, which will go on to analyze the scores of any music that is considered soul-stirring, and it will find patterns. It learns to add that dissonance, a little rubato to stretch it out, or the call of a horn, and voilà, you’ve got longing.”
She hated this thought. Hated it. “No,” she protested, “that doesn’t cover it. Longing didn’t come from the instruments or the notes, it came from the man, the human composing it. I’m sure of it. Longing fills a human, it permeates their world. How could a computer experience longing or shortcomings of any type? Nothing is unattainable for a computer. You can just feed it more data.” The thoughts and words tumbled out. “Creating art requires feeling pain, having a soul that’s crammed with complex emotions that have nowhere to go but into your art. A computer can cleverly simulate art. Nothing more. Otherwise, what’s the point of being human, of harboring all that pain?”
This new thought hit her, cut into her so sharply, it made her want to cry, for a half-dozen reasons, most of them hazy and undefined, but so real, so painfully real. She knew, beyond a doubt, that Sibelius had reached from deep within his own heart, his soul, to produce this work. The simple melody was anything but simple. It evoked, in a mere handful of notes, the patriotic cry of a country’s freedom.
Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March. The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)
December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.
This is my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)
Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if WordPress’ auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish text, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)
Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa
Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle Sä että karkoitit orjuuden Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle On aamus alkanut Oi Synnyinmaa
Here is the English translation, although a translation never gets quite to the heart of the piece, so I’d recommend you master the Finnish language and read it that manner. Because, hey, the Finnish language looks so intuitive and translatable, doesn’t it? Kinda like Basque. Easy-peasy!
Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!
Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest thy head now crowned with mighty memory. Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!
And now, I offer to you the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)
PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!
PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.
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 Limelightwill 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 BazaarHERE.
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.
Picture this scenario: a beautiful, young, talented ballet dancer joins an ultra-elite company from its feeder school, and she is mesmerizing to observe. She starts at the lowest rank, like countless others before her, but it quickly becomes clear there’s something extraordinary about this dancer. Something luminous, eye-catching, that whispers “lead roles” and “put her in the limelight.” The big roles come for this dancer, almost immediately, and she excels. Critics take note. Accolades follow. As do bigger roles, increasing challenges, that this dancer rises to meet each time. Hers is a major talent, career potential without limits.
Until one season her body stops cooperating. A nameless fatigue dogs her. Sluggishness. Even—how could this be possible?—weight gain, in spite of all the punishing hours of rehearsals, performing, daily class she endures.
The talent is still there, in droves. So is the will to take this ballet career to the top.
Try harder. Work harder.
For those of you who’ve read my recently released novel, Outside the Limelight, you wouldn’t be off the mark to think I’m referring to Dena, one of the story’s two main characters. A rising-star soloist whose career is knocked off its access by a debilitating medical condition that sidelines her, Dena fights to regain her health, her energy, her sense of the dancer she’d once been. Only this isn’t Dena; it’s Kathryn Morgan, former soloist of the New York City Ballet.
Kathryn shared her story with me over the phone one day several weeks ago. “All of it happened after I’d been promoted to soloist,” she said. “In March of 2010, I started putting on weight for no reason, my hair started falling out and I was also absolutely exhausted all of the time. I thought I was tired because I was working so hard. But the weight didn’t make any sense.”
Her hair grew so thin she was afraid she was going to lose it, and she had trouble staying awake for class and rehearsals. And the weight gain continued. Finally a doctor’s visit and blood tests gave her answers. No, not mononucleosis, as she’d thought, but hypothyroidism. But even with diagnosis and medication, she didn’t return to her old self.
Severe hypothyroidism can be slow to remedy, because it involves slowly upping a medication dosage and then waiting six weeks to see if it was what the body needed. And until that dosage is correct, the body doesn’t respond. Weight stays on. Forty pounds on a small frame is a tremendous weight, both physically and psychologically. For a ballet dancer, the agony is tenfold. (Kathryn would later come to find that treatment was complicated by the fact that she had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—inflammation of the thyroid gland—an autoimmune condition where immune cells mistakenly attack healthy thyroid tissue and the muscles.)
“It was a terrible time,” she told me. “I hung on for two years and finally left the New York City Ballet to go back home. There, it got even worse. When I was no longer dancing, the weight really came on, and my hair was falling out, too.”
Here’s another scenario: a sidelined soloist, facing longer recuperation time than she’d ever expected, feeling discouraged, depressed, fearful of how long she’d be kept away from her dance, finds a solution through a surprising avenue: social media. And what an avenue it is–a dozen ways to share ballet with the world, through words, photos, networking, videos. All those people out there, eager to learn about this cloistered place, this ivory tower, the professional ballet world. And here she was, a sidelined dancer, all the time in the world to share it with people.
Dena’s story, or Kathryn Morgan’s?
Trick question. It’s both.
Although with one key difference here. Dena’s challenge in Outside the Limelight included dealing with one-sided facial paralysis, an un-pretty condition. Katie Morgan—she invites her friends to call her Katie, and the moment you meet her she feels like your friend—is, on the other hand, still as beautiful as a model. She has the kind of creamy, unblemished complexion, movie star eyes and expressive brows that compel you to stare at her, mesmerized, as she speaks. But what makes her better than a model or actress is the difficult journey you know she’s taken to be where she is now. She’s honest about it all: the thyroid and health-related challenges; the slow recovery; the desire to finally return to where she’d been at the NYCB, only to find out there was no longer a place held for her. Her earlier dance years. The surprising challenges of being a soloist, a professional ballet dancer. You don’t magically arrive at the finish line and stay there, on a pink, buoyant cloud. It’s work. It’s a tremendous struggle, this dream career of being a professional ballet dancer.
No surprise, Katie’s a big hit with the social media public. How could you not adore someone who’s beautiful, caring, engaged, an ultra-elite ballerina from the highest echelons of ballerina-dom, who’s suffered like you have, who’s had to live with staggering setbacks and frustrations like you have, who is sharing these fantastic, amazing tidbits and secrets about ballet, that just lift you out of your own mundane world, and make you feel a part of hers, if only for the length of the video. All of this, free. All of this, she keeps giving and giving and producing.
She has 24,000 Instagram followers and 62,129 YouTube subscribers. There’s Twitter and Facebook. She’s an advice columnist for Dance Spirit. She visits Facebook groups and offers advice, support, sometimes just a friendly “hello.” She has fully regained her health and now also performs, teaches, and speaks around the country. (And this past year, she got engaged – congrats, Katie!) She’s been featured in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit Magazine and Teen Vogue. New in 2016 is The Kathryn Morgan Show, a podcast and part of the Premier Dancers Network.
My personal favorite is her YouTube channel. There are scores of interesting YouTube episodes to watch; here are examples of the popularity of just a few of them:
Thyroid Illness – 40,700 views
Stretching and Flexibility Routine – 163,000 views
Classic Ballet Barre – 65,800 views
Turns/Pirouettes – 100,000 views
Fouettés – 180,000 views
Pointe Shoe Tips/Tricks – 164,000 views
Diet for Dancers – 85,00 views
You can find tutorials for hair, stage makeup; daily ballet workouts; monthly Q&A from readers sending in their questions; what it’s like to be a professional. Her engagement story. A fun section called “hacks” – for ballet, for hair and makeup. Also a “favorites” section, where she shares her favorite gift, ballet and lifestyle items/ideas.
Here’s one that’s perfect for this time of the year, also known as Nutcracker season. It’s Arabian Dance, with the Mobile Ballet, when Katie was only fifteen years old, but clearly bound for great things. Warning: it’s so beautiful, it’ll make you cry.
I asked Katie how the idea of a YouTube channel first came about.
“There are vlogs out there [vlog = video blog] that cover lifestyle and wellness, but none of them incorporating ballet. And when I was young, looking for help or advice on ballet issues, I couldn’t find it. With my first pair of pointe shoes, there was no one to show me even how to tie the ribbons right. I like that I can be here for young dancers, that they can get answers here, and send me their questions. I love doing this. I love helping people.”
She’s currently dancing again in a freelance capacity. I asked her if she missed being part of a company. “Yes, sometimes,” she admitted. “But if I were to join a new company now, that would mean restrictions on what I can or can’t say via social media. It’s another reason you don’t see more ballet dancers doing this. When you’re under contract to a dance company, there are strict policies on what you can and can’t say, or share. It’s been really liberating for me, to create what I want and say what I want.”
As Kathryn Morgan, New York City Ballet soloist, she served an elite, localized crowd. But as Katie Morgan, ballet’s social media icon, her reach is enormous: an audience whose size and demographic diversity are staggering. Not thousands, then, but hundreds of thousands. Millions. Young women and old. Guys. Little girls. With fans and subscribers growing daily. Having followed her progress since my earliest days of writing ballet novels (circa 2008) and having addressed the issues of infirmity in the ballet world in Outside the Limelight, it both warms my heart and thrills me to see her succeed so brilliantly here. There exists no better example of rising from the ashes of an insurmountable challenge and pursuing what is artful, beautiful and important inside you, and extending it out to the world.
Thank you, Katie, for all that you do. You rock.
PS: the above was taking from “The Red Shoes,” a 2015 dance film based on the fairy tale, choreographed by Donald Garverick and performed at Kennedy Center in March 2016, for “An Evening With Kathryn Morgan.” Fortunately, for those of us who couldn’t be there, we can watch it on YouTube HERE. (Be sure and keep watching for the eerie way the shoes start to take control, around 4m20. Music is Franz Lizst’s “Dante Symphony”. All great stuff.)
PPS: check out my related guest post at fellow dance blogger Grier Cooper’s site, called “When Life Calls for a Plan B.” This one’s not just about Katie, but also about former NYCB dancers Zippora and Romy Karz. You can read it HERE.
OFF BALANCE is thrilled to announce the arrival of its sister novel in the Ballet Theatre Chronicles series. Welcome to the world, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT!
So, the baby got a lovely write-up in Kirkus Reviews, whichsummarizes OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT as “a lovely and engaging tale of sibling rivalry in the high-stakes dance world.” And remember my recent post on “Ballet Terms Made Simple?” Happy to report that Kirkus liked it, saying, “the glossary of dance terms at the end of the book proves a marvelous resource for the uninitiated,” and announcing, “this is a novel both for ballet lovers and those new to the art.” Cool! You can read the whole review HERE. (Editor’s note on Nov 15: woo hoo, an award! See below for the press release!)
I’m thinking this calls for a glass bubbly tonight. Care to join me? Come join me, as well, on my virtual book tour this week, where I’ll be interviewed or reviewed by the following bloggers, courtesy of Sage’s Blog Tours.
October 30th Freda Hansburg ~ INTERVIEW
October 31st Eskiemama Reads ~ INTERVIEW
November 1st Jessica and Gracie’s Tree ~ REVIEW
November 4th Comfy Reading ~ REVIEW
November 5th Reecaspieces ~ REVIEW
Visit Sage’s Blog Tours to enter a giveaway for a print copy of OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT, matching tote bag and $10 Amazon gift card. Or cut to the chase and buy your own copy right now, HERE.
And by the way, Happy Halloween, San Francisco style! Below is a very cool photo, not retouched or photoshopped, which I saw in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back, and now feels like the perfect time to use it. Spooky, elegant, and as I was in San Francisco last night, at the symphony (look for a blog on that later this week), it just felt right. The Civic Center was animated, beautifully lit, crowded, crazy, a little weird and unsettling — everything you could hope for in a pre-Halloween Saturday night in San Francisco. And if you’d like a soundtrack to your Halloween, remember to check out my Top 10 Halloween Classical Faves HERE.
And that award I was talking about, from Kirkus Reviews?