Inna Faliks
Inna Faliks

Ukrainian-born American pianist Inna Faliks has performed thousands of recitals and concerts in her career. The 45-year-old has also written a memoir, Weight in the Fingertips: A Musical Odyssey From Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage, published last October by Backbeat Books. In her upcoming appearance at BroadStage in Santa Monica on May 19 — part of a mini-tour tied to the launch of her new album, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which also lands at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on May 23 — Faliks will not only be demonstrating her musical prowess but also reading from her autobiography.

Born in 1978 in Odesa, then part of the Soviet Union, Faliks began piano lessons at age 5 with her mother Irene. Fleeing antisemitism, her family immigrated to Chicago when Faliks was 10; a mere five years later, she made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Book cover

In addition to playing classics, Faliks is committed to contemporary music and has premiered works composed for her by, among others, Timo Andres, Billy Childs, Richard Danielpour, and Paola Prestini. In 2020, Ljova Zhurbin’s Voices was commissioned for Faliks by the Lowell Milken Fund for Jewish American Music, and for the pianist’s 2021 recording Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel, nine contemporary composers responded to Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, and Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

Now based in Los Angeles, the fiendishly busy Faliks is also founder and curator of Music/Words, an award-winning performance series in collaboration with distinguished poets. Currently professor and head of piano at UCLA, she is also a committed chamber musician. She’ll be in Northern California next month for a solo recital at The 222 in Healdsburg on June 8.

SF Classical Voice had a chance to speak with Faliks about her upcoming performances, her memoir, and her fervent attraction to new music.

How did your early life in Odesa impact you, and why did you decide to pen Weight in the Fingertips, which I understand was 12 years in the making?

My life in Odesa was a really beautiful upbringing, full of books, full of inspiration. I was what one would call a “child prodigy.” My father liked to make a joke that he was the only kid in Odesa who was not a musical prodigy. I was also a composer at [age] 9. Basically, the sounds, the smells, the sights of the city [and] my parents’ immense love for books [and] the arts made me who I think I am as an artist today.

My memories were so vivid, I began to write them down. I was pregnant with my son and had a concerto booked, and these vivid memories that were taking shape were more than just notes. When I moved to Los Angeles 11 years ago, it became a one-woman show, Polonaise-Fantaisie.

The book is based on that, but because of how long and engrossing and deep the process was, it became more than that story alone. Emigration from Odesa and assimilation [were] very complicated for a child in a new place, [but] it’s [ultimately] a book about love — of Hollywood proportions. It’s also a story of grief — I lost my mom to brain cancer a little over two years ago — and COVID. All of these things are in the book. It’s full of adventures and is really for everyone, not only for musicians or for people who know about music. It’s a fun, unputdownable read.

Inna Faliks
Inna Faliks

Your BroadStage program is quite varied. It includes Ljova Zhurbin’s Sirota (2011), Rodion Shchedrin Basso Ostinato (1961), and some Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin, along with a world premiere, Psalm for Odessa by Mike Garson, who’s perhaps best known for being David Bowie’s longtime pianist. How did you decide on these works?

Some are on my recording; some are mentioned in the book in a way that I think is interesting to audiences. [Beethoven’s] Eroica Variations is on the second half and is a small chapter in my book. It’s called “What’s So Great About Beethoven Anyway?” That piece is so delightful and joyful. It’s a wonderful way to end a concert that has moody music. The book has these longer narrative chapters, then shorter interludes. Beethoven is one of those.

Mike Garson knows so much about piano and piano music but comes from a different world. [His piece is based on a] famous song — not a Bowie tune — that everyone in Odesa knows, and I improvise a little bit. It’s a lovely, meditative hymnal that opens the concert. Following that is a piece by Zhurbin that uses a historical recording from [the] Jewish cantor Gershon Sirota. It’s a haunting piece.

You’re also playing a pair of works by Veronika Krausas, “Have You Stopped Loving Me?” and “14th on the Month of Nisan,” two parts of a suite composed for you in 2020.

Veronika is a good friend and wrote a very elegant suite for me on the book The Master and Margarita [by Mikhail Bulgakov], which is a big thing in my new recording. This book was almost like a recurring role in my life. I first read it as a child. It was banned and was an underground novel. I took it through immigration and felt naughty; I was a true dissident.

I read it many, many times, and it always inspired me in many different ways. I read the book to my mother when she was dying. It’s a great big love story — in my book and my life. My best friend from Odesa was living in Israel and picked it up and decided to find me. We [got married and] live in L.A. now and have two kids. Every good book should have a good love story.

That is fantastic — and with quite the Hollywood ending. The Wende Museum also commissioned Maya Miro Johnson to compose Manuscripts Don’t Burn for you as part of your Master and Margarita Project. Her piece makes use of voice, improvisation, and spoken word, correct?

Yes, it’s wild, with a lot of extended techniques. It’s very theatrical and is kind of crazy compared to Veronika’s piece.

Where does your love of contemporary music come from, what are your criteria in commissioning a work, and what is the process like?

It’s very interesting when music dialogues with something else. In Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel, those were nine responses by nine different composers. The idea of creating a bridge between then and now and not having the composer bow down from the past but take it as a jumping-off point — these call-and-response type projects are interesting to me.

My criteria? [A work] has to be imaginative and rich and make me excited. My criteria are very, very wide, as long as the composer has imagination. I like music that in some way communicates powerful emotions. The style, the technique, it has to speak from the heart. I have collaborated with so many different composers, with completely different styles [and] compositional voices, but [I’m drawn to] the ones that are imaginative, honest, and speak with conviction and emotion.

[As for the process], these composers in my program are very good, and I trust them. It’s not like they show me many drafts. When I get the score, if something’s not clear to me — what the intention of the composer is, [for example] — then we have a conversation. It’s always so exciting and a pleasure. It’s also very neat to be able to have these dialogues because we can’t have them with Beethoven or Chopin.

Inna Faliks
Inna Faliks

Once a composer has written something and it’s being performed, they set it free. The best thing that can happen is it’s played differently every time. The fact there are so many different interpretations — that’s what makes it so alive. That’s why AI is not going to win.

I read that even as an 11-year-old, you scoffed at technical perfection as a goal rather than deeply considered music-making. How do you think that has shaped your playing?

I’ve always felt technical perfection in and of itself is not the point — even as a kid. For me, it was always about communication through music. I was always a very emotional performer — communicating the essence of the stuff. I don’t think that has changed. But your musical voice changes. You go through many ups and downs and experiences, but that essence was there for me — and hopefully will always be. In a way, my book deals with some of these challenges.

Since you teach at UCLA, I’m wondering what advice you might have for aspiring pianists?

I think everybody will have a life in music if that’s what they really, truly, passionately want. I have so many students who have a safety route, a double major. I never had that. It wasn’t a possibility for me. If you don’t see yourself doing anything except music, you have to be imaginative, trust your own voice, and be honest with your own voice. But I don’t know how they do double majors. I once thought about maybe getting a creative degree in writing, in literature. I wanted to write back then, and write I did.

What are your thoughts on the state of classical and/or contemporary music today?

People overall have a great sense of doom. There’s a negativity about it, but I don’t see it. I think things are complicated in many ways, but music is booming, and I love that. Borders are being erased between genres. I find it delightful to collaborate with jazz musicians. Billy Childs wrote a piece for me.

It’s the same with Clarice Assad’s Lilith Concerto, which I just performed at the National Gallery of Art [in March]. I think this concerto is going to be a classic. The fact that this is happening now seems so natural. I hope there will be more of that and more opportunities to perform.