Arts & Minds: A piano prodigy, 'North by Northwest' and the American slave trade

Inna Faliks performs her autobiography; the CSO plays a classic Bernard Herrmann score; and the Illinois Holocaust Museum opens an exhibit on American slavery.

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Pianist Inna Faliks will perform at the Music Institute of Chicago on Feb. 10. Photo credit: Hugh Kretschmer.

In 'Polonaise-Fantasie,' pianist Inna Faliks spins her autobiography in words and music

Pianist Inna Faliks was 10 years old when her Jewish family emigrated from Odessa, in what was then the Soviet Union, and settled in Chicago. Although already quite the piano prodigy (she began taking lessons at the age of five with her mother, Irene Faliks, herself an accomplished pianist and teacher), she knew no English. But she very quickly learned the language and thrived. And in 1994, at the age of 15, she was one of the stars of WTTW-TV's annual program, "The Illinois Young Performers Competition," playing a work by Tchaikovsky with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Faliks, who now lives in Los Angeles, where she serves as head of the Piano Department and professor of piano at UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music, will return to Chicago on Feb. 10 to perform "Polonaise-Fantasie: The Story of a Pianist," her autobiographical monologue/recital.

It was about six years ago, while she was living in New York and pregnant with her son, Nathaniel, that Faliks began writing down the vivid memories of her childhood in Odessa and her family's move to the U.S. And these notes eventually evolved into a book about her life in music.

As she explained: "This all happened at the same time that I was performing and curating my series, 'Music/Words,' in which poets read their work between musical performances. And a few years later, after moving to L.A., I was urged by a producer to create a recital monologue.

It was an easy leap for Faliks, even though she never studied acting.

"I guess I'm a natural performer," she admitted. "Plus, many of the memories described in the book had musical pieces inexorably connected to them-works that had been with me since childhood, and others that had found their way into my repertoire through the years."

In addition, the pianist, who has performed all over the world, including a recent tour to China and Mongolia, noted: "I know I am the artist I am today partially because of growing up in the Odessa of the past. There were seven people in a three-room apartment, surrounded by books, music, ideas, and friends. One of those friends, Misha Shpigelmacher, later became my husband and the father of my two children [Nathaniel, now seven, and daughter Frida, four], and you will meet him in the story."

Among the music laced into Faliks' program will be works by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin ("a bracing, exciting piece that wakes up the audience"), Bach (whose work Faliks described as "where the challenges of music begin and end"), Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, as well as a series of bagatelles by Beethoven, and a 2011 work composed for Faliks by Jan Freidlin, a Russian-born musician now based in Tel Aviv.

Inna Faliks will perform "Polonaise-Fantasie, The Story of a Pianist," at 3 p.m. on Feb. 10 at the Music Institute of Chicago, Nichols Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. For tickets visit If you can't make the performance, there is a 2017 recording of the work on the Delos label with actress Rebecca Mozo featured as narrator.

CSO to play a classic Bernard Herrmann film score

Without taking anything away from the genius of film directors Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, it would be no exaggeration to say that what propelled many of their greatest movies were the soundtracks composed for them by Bernard Herrmann.

The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Herrmann (1911-1975), was born in New York. And in the course of a multi-faceted musical career he scored more than 50 films-from Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), to such Hitchcock movies of the 1950s and '60s as Marnie , Vertigo , and Psycho . (His final project was Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver , completed just before his death.)

Among the other Hitchcock films Herrmann scored was the 1959 suspense classic, North by Northwest , which starred Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint. 

North by Northwest will be screened Feb. 15 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., as part of the "CSO at the Movies" series. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Kaufman, will play the Herrmann score live. The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. A pre-concert conversation (6:15-6:45 p.m.) will bring together Kaufman and Dorothy Herrmann, the composer's daughter, and is open to all North by Northwest ticketholders. For information, visit

Illinois Holocaust Museum sheds light on dark chapter in history of American slavery

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has never limited itself to chronicling the horror for which it is named, but continually looks beyond its Jewish roots to consider the violence and oppression faced by others. A case in point is its latest exhibit, "Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808-1865," running Feb. 10-Aug. 25.

On loan from The Historic New Orleans Collection, the exhibit, comprised of more than 75 original artifacts, personal stories, and interactive displays, reveals the "machinations and widespread persistence" of the domestic slave trade that existed in America for many decades after the actual importation of slaves was made illegal by an 1807 act of Congress. (The first slave ship had arrived in Jamestown, Va. in 1619.)

As Erin Greenwald, the exhibit's original curator explained: "The law, put into effect in 1808, only applied to the international slave trade, so the enslaved Africans already on these shores could still be traded within the boundaries of the United States. And slave owners in the Upper South (Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.), sold and shipped their 'surplus laborers' to the expanding Lower South (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas), as both sugarcane and cotton had become hugely profitable crops. A major destination was New Orleans, the largest slave market in antebellum America, to which 70,000 slaves were sent to be auctioned.

Among the most disturbing objects in the exhibit is a slave collar. A relic from a Louisiana plantation, it is made entirely of metal and weighs about six pounds.

"Purchased Lives" runs Feb. 10-Aug. 25 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie. For information, visit


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