by Michael Tierra

The performance of two divas, Inna Faliks, pianist and Santa Cruz poet, Ellen Bass

Yes, there will be music and — and there will be poetry.

A piano recitalist with a flair for the theatrical, Inna Faliks, originally migrating to the US with her parents from Odessa, Ukraine, has succeeded not only in becoming a concert pianist of the first order but also in now being an Associate Professor of Piano at UCLA.

It was she, who some 8 years ago, with numerous successful performances around the world since, envisioned the concept of Music/Words. Since then she has been seen/heard at important venues throughout the world, including with Russia’s best-selling poet, Vera Pavlova; Mark Levine of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop; Jesse Ball; Sophie Cabot Black; and others too numerous to mention.

Recently she premiered an original work with the assistance of actress Rebecca Mozo reading a monologue of Faliks’ life as a young girl. With her parents, Faliks escaped oppression in Odessa, Ukraine, to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist and incorporating interpretations of music by Bach, Mozart and Chopin, as well as original music.

The only Santa Cruz performance, in February, appears to be a carefully chosen selection of classical works, including Basso Ostinato, by the contemporary Russian composer Rodion Schedrin; Mozart’s beautiful Fantasie in D minor; Brahms’ youthful four movement impassioned phantasmagoric second Sonata in F# minor (which is chronologically really his first); and the Liszt-Pagannini La Campanella. To my mind all of this music lends itself to poetic interludes between the pieces and movements, where Ellen will read a carefully-chosen selection of one or two of her poems.

Poetry communicates to the heart via the mind, while music finds the more direct route – or so it is said. Lovers of only music would certainly agree, while lovers of poetry might wonder, as my wife Lesley and I did when we enjoyed a cup of fine tea and conversation with Ellen Bass at Hidden Peak Teahouse in downtown Santa Cruz.

Ellen Bass’s poetry uninhibitingly bares all aspects of her life as a point of departure for inner musing. Her poetry does what only great art does, ennobling the most mundane aspects of life from the perspective of the universal. At once, intimate, wise, earthy, sensual, occasionally with a touch of humor, it is rich with personal references and metaphor.

I asked Ellen Bass what I thought was the most inane possible question to ask of a poet, “Why do we need more poetry in our lives or more art music?” – Did I ever receive a response! “Poetry is the way I practice paying attention. It’s the way I try to dig deeper into my life and open myself to both the joy and the pain. “There’s a Buddhist prayer that says, I’m a human being and anything that can happen to human beings can happen to me today and I accept that. Well, although I’d like to feel that way, I don’t. But poetry is a way that I can creep or crawl or drag myself closer to that acceptance. As the philosopher Simone Weil said: Absolute attention is prayer.

“Poetry, like the deepest prayer, tries to come into actual contact with reality, rather than our thoughts about reality. That is, to have a more direct connection with the moments of our life, the things we encounter, the experience of this lifetime, not to have it pass by without our noticing it, but be as aware of it as we possibly can be. The Russian literary theorist Viktor Shlovsky said, “To make a stone stony: that is the purpose of art.”

“Like prayer, poetry is a path to seeing the divine in the ordinary. Poetry had its roots in religion—as ritual for both celebration and lamentation. Originally, the poets were priests. Poetry continues to ask the essential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? The work of poets is not to answer these questions, but to deepen them. Rather than speaking about the sacred and the ordinary, in poetry we try to show the sacred in the ordinary. As the poet Paul Eluard said: “There is another world, and it is in this one.”

“Poetry is also rooted in metaphor, in which we see the similarity, the oneness, in disparate things. As a society, we’re endlessly classifying, dividing into categories. We’ve become very sophisticated in our ability to differentiate, but in poetry, we’re reminded of similarities. Poetry is, essentially, metaphor. In a poem things which are conventionally, superficially different are revealed as being in some essential way similar.

Further, poetry honors the details. We’ve all heard the expression, God is in the details. That’s where poetry lives, too. We can’t pay attention to things generically, and we can’t love in general. It’s in the detail, the particular, the specific, the exact, that we can see through and see past, our general, superficial impressions and sink our teeth into the actual. Paradoxically, it’s through the particular, the personal, that the universal emerges.

“A poem may start out being about the writer, but if it is successful, it ends up being about the reader. Through poetry I am reminded that my experience is not unique. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron advises that, in difficult times, even if we can’t manage to do anything else, it’s helpful if we can just remember to say to ourselves, ‘Other people feel this too.’ Poetry helps us to join the human race.”

Later in correspondence with her, she offers as epigraph to her most recent volume of verse, Like a Beggar:

“Oh tell me poet, what do you do?

– I praise.

But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,

How do you bear them, suffer them?

– I praise.”

I invite you to attend this rare performance by two masters of their art, a pianist and a poet, and encourage you to pick up autographed copies of their respective CD’s and books.

Lesley and I recently enjoyed a cup of tea with Ellen in Santa Cruz. It was the first time I’ve ever sat with her face to face. Before the meeting, that morning, I luxuriated in taking in as much of her poetry as I could. I confided how it was difficult at first and it took me a quarter into the reading of the short volume of Like a Beggar before the expression and meaning suddenly came into focus. It’s meaning seemed to lift off the page only when I stopped looking for meaning and took in the knock-your-socks-off emotional experience of her poetry. Then it was sheer revelatory delight and an experience that I have returned to several times since with even deeper appreciation. Of course I had an extraneous reason, I was about to have tea with her later, but I hope you, dear reader, find reason to embark on the same inward journey with Ellen Bass’s poems of her maturity.

While other poets whose works I have admired when they were younger seem to fizzle as they age, Ellen’s poetry, to be a bit prosaic, just keeps getting better.

It was Ellen who modestly intimated at tea how music speaks more directly to the heart than poetry. After the experience I had with her poetry just that morning, I could only disagree- her poetry communicates and touches the same place in me that great music does. Poetry is, after all, first and foremost a performance art, like music and theater. Instead of sounds, its music is words and ideas. I took advantage of our tea soiree to shyly ask if she would read one of her poems to Lesley and me sitting across the table from her. She graciously obliged, and hearing her give a one-on-one reading was a cherished moment that afforded me an even deeper glimpse into her inner world, where her poetry takes root. It was in the focused conversational tone and cadence, with no melodramatic exaggeration or accent, that what at first seems shocking in print or unduly important, is just offered in the spirit of focused intimate conversation.

If you enjoy truly inspired performances of great music and/or if you like great poetry, this can only be a feast for both head and heart, and as such, a performance not to be missed.

Come prepared to suspend your judgment as to how the two may or may not relate. The reward comes with risks for sure, but if we are easy with accepting them, then it is possible for fresh new insights and perspectives to arise.

It seems worth being in the audience for this ‘extra’ musical ‘extra’ poetic experience to me.

At the time of this writing, neither performer knows what poems will be chosen to read at the performance. Though I am not able to share Inna Faliks’ piano artistry with you in print, you will be able to find her on YouTube or Spotify. She’s a truly great pianist. However, I can share one of Ellen Bass’s poems from her newest book Like A Beggar.

The World Has Need of You

I can hardly imagine it

as I walk to the lighthouse feeling the ancient

prayer of my arms swinging

in counterpoint to my feet.

Here I am, suspended

between the sidewalk and twilight,

The sky dimming so fast it seems alive.

What if you felt the invisible

Tug between you and everything?

A boy on a bicycle rides by,

his white shirt open, flaring

behind him like wings.

it’s a hard time to be human. We know too much

and too little. Does the breeze need us?

The cliffs? The gulls?

If you’ve managed to do one good thing,

the ocean doesn’t care.

But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,

the earth, ever so slightly, fell

toward the apple.




Stephen Harrison


Music with a Latin Twist, fine wines and chocolates featuring cellist Stephen Harrison of the Ives Quartet and pianist John Orlando performing music of Albeniz, Scarlatti, Ginastera, Piazzolla and others at John’s home on Sunday, October 12th at 2 pm . Fine wines from Stockwell Cellars and delicious chocolates from Donnelly’s will be served.  To confirm your reservation and purchase tickets, click here or visit

Seating is limited to 45 guests so make your reservation right away. We hope to see you there.



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