Monthly Archives: January 2023

Making History: Leslie’s Dances in Russia, 1985


The phone rang at 5 a.m. It was 1985; spam calls had not been invented. I picked up the receiver. The caller said he was at the American Embassy in London, is this Leslie Friedman? Yes. He called to find out if I would be willing to travel to Russia to perform. I sat up. Yes. Are you sure you could do this? YES. He asked a few more questions which I do not remember. I interrupted him and said, “Russia is the Mecca of ballet. Of course I want to do it. When do I go?” The caller told me there were other posts that would like to have me come to perform and perhaps to teach. The caller was in charge of planning the presentation of American specialists like engineers and artists. He knew about my 1983-1984 work in India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and Tunisia from reports sent to him by US diplomats in those places. The caller, Cal,* said that he would get back to me with the details of other posts and travel dates.

Cal called again. Hungary, Romania, and Spain invited me. None” of them had co-sponsored an American artist before this. There had been no cultural exchange with the USSR for 14 years. I would perform for an all-Russian audience of officials and artists. This was completely new. He did not have to tell me, but he did, that Russia, with its great ballet tradition might not know what to make of me, if they came at all.

Long lines of travelers were waiting to show their passports at the Moscow airport when I arrived, March 13. My papers accepted, I heard someone nearby ask if I were Leslie. It was the Cultural Attaché from the Embassy. I was ready to leave the airport, but first my suitcases needed to be searched and then kept for further inspection. My companion asked if I needed anything in the suitcases. Definitely: fluids and a case for contact lenses. Ted* said the Embassy kept supplies on hand; we could go there.

We got the needed items and looked into a ballroom. It was full of people sitting on folding chairs. I remember only men sitting there, looking half or entirely asleep. Their jackets hung over the backs of chairs; their heads rested on their hands draped over the chair in front of them. I asked Ted who they were. He said they were journalists awaiting news of who would be the new leader of the USSR. Chernenko had died a day and a half before. His death and funeral could have called off my program.

Ted said the sleepy writers knew that eventually Secretary of State George Schultz would appear and make the announcement. He asked me if I was ready to go. I asked him if we could stay. “How long do you want to wait?” he asked. “I would like to hear the announcement.” “You mean you’re interested?” “Yes, this is history, and I am here. If we can stay, let’s stay.” We waited. Nothing happened. Then, George Schultz appeared. The room was suddenly alert, chairs filled, jackets back on, all eyes turned toward Secretary Schultz. He said that he had “had a good meeting with Russian leaders. The new person heading their government will be Mikhail Gorbachev. I have met him. He is someone we can work with.” Secretary Schultz smiled. He beamed positive vibes.

Ted said, “Now I can take you to your hotel.” It was very cold outside. Ice and snow were on the sidewalks. Ted escorted me to my room. It was very small. Bunk beds. The window would not close. The shower had only cold water. Ted had said that Paul Newman had stayed in this hotel. I thought, definitely not in this room. I worried about icy muscles before dancing. The next morning, Ted arrived to drive me to the ambassador’s residence, Spaso House. He told me that visiting artists would normally perform at the residence for an American audience. I met the ambassador’s wife. Donna Hartman, a tall, beautiful, blonde lady, told me that I could do my stretches on the floor of their dining room. Mostly, I remember how good the carpet felt. She got down on the floor and did stretches with me. She asked about my hotel room. I told the truth. I said maybe I could move to another room. She invited me to stay there in their home with Ambassador Hartman and herself. I feel my eyes pop as I remember that moment. I slept in the Vice-President’s room in a wonderful, warm bed.

Before the program, I was introduced to Valukin, the artistic director of GITIS. I was scheduled to do a performance and lecture there the next day. GITIS is Russia’s crown jewel of the theater arts, revered for training choreographers, ballet dancers and folk ensembles. Valukin himself had trained there and became a star of the Bolshoi. After my presentation at GITIS, Valukin asked me to return to teach. A First for an American dancer.

Friendship House, a grand, pre-1917 relic, was to be my performance venue. It is the stage for foreign artists. I changed in a small room with a drapery for a door. Ted surprised me by walking in. There was barely room for one person, me, and one person’s stuff, my costumes and notes. Ted had decided there were things I needed to know and a few minutes before my performance was the best time to inform me. He said that one of their great ballerinas, Olga Lepeshinskaya, a Bolshoi star in the 1930s and ’40s, would introduce me, but there was no guarantee that she would show up. The invitees included artists, art administrators, the symphony orchestra, dancers from the Ballet, ballet students, Russian officials. He added that it would be an all-Russian audience; no Americans except the ambassador and Mrs. Hartman. The Russians might not want to come, and they might be told not to come. I told him that this is not what I need to hear at this time. He emphasized that it was important. I told him, “Please leave. Get out of my dressing room.” As I remember this, I feel nervous; his messages were so distracting. At the time, however, I was calm. Especially once he left.

Mme. Lepeshinskaya was onstage introducing me in Russian. It was a moment when everything was in harmony. The dancing went well. When I ended, the audience stood, applauded, even cheered. Mme. Lepeshinskaya praised me in loving comments. She looked into my eyes, held my hand, and told the audience they should follow my example, expanding ballet and expression to bring Russian Ballet into the present. That’s what the translator told me. Praise from a Prima; what a gift.

When I went backstage to the reception room, Valukin picked me up and swirled me around in the air. He was elated. He said I had “done what he had hoped for: showing that a dancer–an American!–could dance beautifully in this new dance.”

Ted accompanied me that night to the Embassy doctor. The unfinished wood floor had left an impression on me. I had many splinters in legs, feet, body. They hurt, but I was too happy to notice the doctor’s needles.

Then, I took the train to Leningrad for performances and meetings with Kirov ballerinas. I stayed in Consul General Charles Magee’s residence. After my Russian program was over, the Consul General told me that my program was so successful it was a significant element in getting a new cultural exchange agreement.

–Leslie Friedman

This article appeared in the Institute for Historical Studies publication, Vol.42, No. 3, Winter 2023. It appears here with permission of the Editor, Maria Sakovich.

*Name changed for publication. ^As Leslie has noted, GITIS, State Institute for Theatre Arts, is Russia’s preeminent training for theatrical arts. Since its founding in 1878 the school has expanded greatly and lived through various changes in name. GITIS is the longest-lived appellation and was incorporated into the 1991 change in status: “Russian Academy of Theater Arts-GITIS.”

Leslie is a modern dancer. “My early training was ballet with Mme. Victoria Cassan, an Englishwoman who was a soloist in Anna Pavlova’s company. Much later, I was offered a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey school and a place in the Martha Graham school’s professional training program. My choreography is musical and expressive. That means that some ballet people think it is modern dance and modern/ contemporary people think it is too balletic.” Editor’s Notes



Leif Ove Andsnes: Astonishing Piano Recital

The program for this recital on Sunday evening, January 22, began with unfamiliar works by Alexander Vustin, Lamento (1974); Leos janacek, Piano Sonata, 1.X.1905 (1905); Valentyn Silvestrov, Bagatelle, Opus 1, no.3 (2005).  After the first three came Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Opus 110 (1821). Was this a reward for the audience which had to pay attention to three new-to-most solo piano works? Not exactly, though one could tell it was Beethoven coming into Davies Symphony Hall as soon as this extraordinary, great artist touched the first keys. Andsnes had looked deeply into Beethoven’s dual vision of happy and something different than happy that propels our lives.

Leif Ove Andsnes

While the first pieces were completely different musically, they shared a background and emotion: each one had been inspired by an act of resistance to a realm of political oppression. Andsnes quotes Vustin writing “aspects, such as style, material, dynamics, tone color and “emotional” character, are of secondary importance. The law which governs musical time may be expressed in numerical terms.” And, yet Lamento is a delicate, deeply felt and purely heard emotion in music. The composer attended a friend’s funeral; a bird sang throughout the event. The bird song plays simultaneously in opposition to the sadness. Though very brief, this music is a heart’s response to the tyranny of death and the tyranny of the Russian control of life. Andsnes comments in his program notes that seeing Vustin at the Rosendal Chamber Music Festival, founded by Andsnes, was a moving experience. He could see Vustin’s reactions to freedom of art in Norway, especially when listening to the music of Shostakovich.

Alexander Vustin, Composer (1943-2020)

Leos Janacek created his Piano Sonata, 1.X.1905 in reaction to the death of 20 year old Frantisek Pavlik, a Moravian who was participating in a protest. He was stabbed by a bayonet. Janacek was a Moravian. Where is or was Moravia? It has an ancient history as a major, medieval kingdom, Great Moravia. Going back into the 4th century, it was populated by Celtic and Germanic tribes. Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia all wanted its land; it was independent until became incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia. In 1526, the Austrian King, Ferdinand–he became Ferdinand I of the Holy Roman Empire–claimed it. Moravia became part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, the map changed. Moravia and Bohemia became parts of Czechoslovakia. The region’s communities included Czechs speaking Czech language and Germans speaking German. Moravians within the Czech community were a minority. The troubles that led to Frantisek Pavlik’s death were over the Czech speaking population’s desire to have a university using their language. German speaking Moravians opposed it. Differences were settled, but not before Pavlik’s death.

Leos Janacek (1854-1928) with his wife, Zdenka, 1881.
Janacek had many career pursuits. One was collecting and publishing Moravian folk music. His first big success as a composer was the premiere of his opera, Jenufa, in Brno. The opera was set in Moravia, and the home town music lovers gave it great support. This Sonata brought attention to Pavlik, a carpenter’s apprentice. By writing music in his memory, Janacek embraced him as a folk hero to be added to the Moravian consciousness of their identity and long history. Leif Ove Andsnes did not stand up between the first pieces on his concert. Instead, he waited in silence before beginning the next music. One could sense the intensity of Andsnes’ feeling for the oppressed and those who resist.

Valentyn Silvestrov, born 1937, Kyiv, Ukraine,

Before 2022, many Americans may have known as little about Ukraine as they might have known about Moravia. Russia’s invasion in February, 2022, changed that. The war is in headlines daily; many, many thousands have died; millions have become refugees. Valentyn Silvestrov, born 1937, in Kyiv (previously known as Kiev) escaped the war at age 85. He now lives in Berlin. Andsnes gave Silvestrov’s Bagatelle, Opus 1, no. 3 the expert treatment it deserves. The Russian establishment did not approve of Silvestrov’s style when he was a conservatory student. Instead of capitulating to fit in, he retreated into his private life and began writing music that pleased him. It was a nearly Romantic style. Judging from this composition, his music is sensitive and expressive. He wrote, “I do not write new music. My music is a response to send an echo of what already exists.” This does not mean it is not original. It means he writes music. It has been called post-modern and neo-classical. It is music and really does not need a pigeon hole. Silvestrov’s music has emotion, drama, and delicacy. I was surprised and delighted to hear the Bagatelle take us to a brief moment of the blues. The melody picked up the audience like the breeze lifts a boat gliding along a lake. Silvestrov stated that his music is “Not a philosophy, not a system of beliefs, but the song of the world about itself, and at the same time a musical testament to existence.” Silvestrov’s opposition to the invaders of his country can be found in his music. His choral work, Diptych, 2014, expresses patriotism and is dedicated to Serhly Nigoyan, an Armenian-Ukrainian killed in 2014, the beginning of the current catastrophe. The music is for the 1845 poem, Testament, written by Taras Shevchenko.

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Leif Ove Andsnes paused after playing Silvestrov’s Bagatelle and then changed the world of sound with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Opus 110. It is shorter than other sonatas and on first impression, it seems to be so pleasant. It is pleasant, but there is more. The first movement is Moderato cantabile molto expressivo; it sings. We have lyrical charm. Beethoven was a nature lover; in this movement one might almost see a green hillside and daffodils. I wanted to write we might see him skipping in the park, but that is not moderato. It is a delight. Where is it going? The second movement is a scherzo Allegro molto. Now we have still more movement and more bright, happy harmonies. There are playful folk songs. This music takes us away from Beethoven’s real world: Napoleonic Wars, blindness, chronic illness. He and we are taking time to breathe, to relish being alive. The last two movements are played without a break. Now Beethoven gives us life in the round. Sadness flows over us. Our thoughts are serious but cannot find the remedy for sorrows. The third movement is Adagio ma non troppo; we go slowly into the experiences and feelings which stretch us and can dominate us with regret and even pain. The last movement, Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo, lets us rise up but not too much. We will see beyond today’s pain. The music, so beautiful, ascends gently. Somehow, we are alive and grateful to be so.

Antonin Dvorak (18411904)

Poetic Tone Pictures, Opus 85, by Dvorak, is a surprise. It is Dvorak music for solo piano, a rare phenomenon. Leif Ove Andsnes has made it a mission to perform this wonderful series of brief, expressive pieces. Andsnes says it is “the great forgotten cycle of 19th century piano music.” It is definitely a great experience to be able to hear 13 Dvorak pieces. Each one is about 5 minutes, has a title, as Dvorak described them in a letter, and each one is a Tone Picture of places, seasons, emotions. There is Twilight Way, In the Old Castle, Reverie, Goblins’ Dance, Bacchanalia, On the Holy Mountain. And, that’s only six. It was fascinating, touching, and even entertaining. The variety of musical structures combined with expressive emotion and evocative style was a rich musical experience. The audience fully appreciated the Poetic Tone Pictures; they jumped from their seats and gave Leif Ove Andsnes at least 5 curtain calls.

Andsnes acknowledged the thrilling response from the audience with two encores. The second one happened because after the first the non-stop applause continued without a pause. His first selection was Ballade of Revolt, by Norwegian composer Harald Saeverud. This music of struggle begins quietly and ends in an avalanche of refusal to bend to oppression. It had an enormous impact. Andsnes closed with Chopin’s Mazurka, Opus 30, No. 4. Chopin’s mazurkas are at the heart of Polish culture. The Poles, dominated by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet Russia, struggled to stay anchored in their culture. Leif Ove Andsnes kept true to the theme he projected through the first pieces on his program. He is a brilliant, extraordinary artist.





San Francisco Symphony: Power & Versatility

The San Francisco Symphony demonstrated its expressive depth and powerful musicality playing inventive “new” music by Jorg Widmann and inventive slightly older music by Gustav Mahler, on January 21, 2023. Robin Ticciati was the superb conductor. He succeeded in seeming, first, a conductor devoted to and promoting new works and then became a great Mahler exponent. He was equal to the challenge in San Francisco; a population of Mahler-ites thanks to Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. Maestro Ticciati is the music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Jorg Widmann, Composer

Widmann’s Violin Concerto occupied the first half of the concert. It demonstrates the composer’s interests in varying emotions, colors, tonality. Widmann’s Violin Concerto called upon the violin soloist, Alina Ibragimova, to play straight through the 30 minute piece with tremendous vigor, emotion, and the stunning, wonderful, all embracing philosophy which is heard in Widmann’s creation. The concerto could not have a more fitting soloist. Ms Ibragimova embodied the very three dimensional world of sound. There are two brief moments of silence which intensify the the sound through its absence. The San Francisco Symphony was with Ms Ibragimova as though the music had grown organically especially for them. The music demanded focus from its audience in order to hear the layers of music and accompany it on the many paths that made its journey. The concerto was premiered in 2007, Essen, Germany. This was its first performance in San Francisco. The Alban Berg Violin Concerto may be an ancestor of Widmann’s; however, Mr. Widmann’s concerto comes to Earth 88 years later than Mr. Berg’s. There is so much more to consider, consolidate, commune with in the look and feel of our world even though our loves and human lives carry forward similar longings. All this was compressed and still audible in Widmann’s blazing work.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Composer

Then, it was Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It is called the sunniest of Mahler’s symphonies. It is a Mahler symphony so there are recognizable meetings with love, country folk, heaven on earth, Death and the Devil. Mahler is about life in its largest, most world encompassing ways of expressing the back bone of human existence and the beyond 20/20 human vision. While this No. 4 visits the country folk, it is not for buffoonery. The tune of the violin is pleasant but cannot be brushed off because of the very quiet, pianissimo way it presents itself. The sections of the orchestra take turns interrupting or interpreting one another’s rhythms and melodies: from the clarinets and bassoons to a horn, then a bassoon, and then cellos and basses carry the musical thoughts away. It could resemble athletic practice on a field passing a ball while running and dodging, jumping in time, and crossing over the line of runners. Michael Steinberg, the late, great music writer, points out that Mahler had wonderful titles for his movements but did not like “to betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners” who would not understand their meanings. Mahler’s name for the Scherzo, for example, was Freund Hein spielt auf (Death Strikes Up – Freund Hein being the evil one in a fairy tale).

The Adagio could lull the listeners into a peaceful but absent minded state. There are warnings. The tempting melody is punctuated with a quiet tolling sound from the basses and even quieter harmonies from cellos and bases.

Ying Fang, Soprano

A solo voice appears suddenly. Soprano Ying Fang entered the stage quietly to sit near the percussionists. Her voice is arresting, beautiful, and, in this context, somewhat alarming. Her performance must have stopped everyone in their mental tracks. Mahler gave the vocalist a very silly song to sing, and yet the three movements that preceded it were intentionally directed to this goal. As the Symphony No. 4 began with bells, bells return. Mahler chose a Bavarian folk song for his uplifting conclusion. It is Der Himmel hungt voll Geigen (Heaven is Hung with Violins). The song lets us know how well the Saints live in Heaven. There are “Good greens of all kinds” and “Good apples, good pears, and good grapes!” If meat is what you want, “deer or rabbit,/they run free in the streets.” It seems that the good things of Earth are in plenty in Heaven. That includes the finest music which fulfills its purpose: Saint “Cecilia and her family/are first rate court musicians!/The heavenly voices/gladden our senses,/and everything wakes to joy.” If you know people who think Mahler is always tragic or difficult to understand, do a good deed and take them to Symphony No. 4.