Thursday , May 23 2024
Inna Faliks
Photo credit: Hugh Kretschmer

Book Review: ‘Weight in the Fingertips: A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage’ by Inna Faliks

Concert pianist Inna Faliks is only in her 40s, but has already lived a memoir-worthy life. The title of her book Weight in the Fingertips refers to one of her foundational approaches to playing the piano. But the book is no musician’s manual, nor will it interest only fellow students of the musical arts.

In her memoir Faliks intertwines musical observations and reminiscences with a lively account of growing up in then-Soviet Odessa (in today’s Ukraine); emigrating to Chicago; an unfortunate first marriage and a successful second one; and traveling the world, as her career as a concert artist and educator blossomed.

Beyond Barbie

A child of the USSR, Faliks grew up on a diet of atheism, state propaganda, modest circumstances, and envy for Western culture and riches. As young Inna prepared to emigrate, another girl who is also leaving for the U.S. showed her an unusual doll. “And I assume you already have a Barbie?…Well, I think you may as well forget living in the United States without a Barbie.”

There was also ever-present if nonviolent antisemitism. Though the Soviet Union had essentially outlawed religion, being Jewish was an undesirable ethnicity. Still, Faliks vividly evokes a childhood that was, for the place and time, fairly normal – except for her unusual musical talent, which led to local notoriety as a piano and composition prodigy. Her first encounter with Jewish culture came during emigration, at the Rome home of a musician, where she found Hebrew books, a mezuzah, and Shabbat dinner.

Stranger in a Strange Land

The account of her family’s passage to the U.S. by way of a two-month stay in Rome is striking for both its quotidian yet tense drama and for the way young Inna seemed to coolly adapt and make the most of the culture-hopping. She was an unusually perceptive and thoughtful youngster. “Even as an eleven-year-old,” she writes, recounting lessons with her first influential U.S. piano teacher, she chafed at the idea of “technical perfection [as] a goal in and of itself rather than a by-product of focused, deeply considered and felt music making.”

Years later she’s still struggling with this “agonizing” dichotomy. “It takes years to reconcile the intellect with intuition and emotion so they work together seamlessly.” Throughout the book, she offers remarkably resonant and redolent descriptions of an artist’s interior workings. Her commentaries on iconic pieces and composers are original and thought-provoking. “What’s so great about Beethoven?” she asks herself after playing at an elementary school, and answers herself: “He makes children laugh.” In a studio to record Clara Schumann’s G Minor Piano Sonata, she plays the adagio second movement “again and again…faster, slower, with varied voicings, a deeper legato, more transparent textures…Picking a version [for the album] will take many hours.”

A Life at the Piano

Faliks paints powerful pictures of her successive mentors, the teachers and advisors who nurtured her talent and influenced her thinking and her technique. She sketches with verve her parents, her friendships, and her love affairs with places as well as with other humans. Along the way we meet a variety of outsized characters, from legendary pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher to regal, painfully status-conscious patron Amalia di Medici. She recalls the latter explaining purposely misprinting the pianist’s name on a concert poster: “Well, darrrrling, your name just had to go. This is an elegant society. It was just too phallic.”

The book will also appeal to travelers and fans of travel writing. Of life on the concert circuit she writes, “I would descend on a town for a few days, get drunk on its quirks and characters, and walk the streets of a new miniature world that I discovered and would keep in the pocket of my memory until new experiences diluted it.” That rings so true.

So does the book as a whole. It’s a fine achievement when an artist with skills so advanced they may seem incomprehensible to the average person can write a memoir that can resonate so well with that same person.

Weight in the Fingertips from Backbeat Books is available now.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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