For pianist Inna Faliks, Ukraine’s historic port of Odesa is a symbolic tapestry that connects the most profound threads in her life. The city symbolizes her mother, lost to cancer four months ago. It symbolizes her marriage — to a childhood friend with whom she reconnected years after both their families had fled the city. And it symbolizes her music, which the Odesan child prodigy first shared with the world at the age of 7.
Now, Odesa has taken on a new resonance for the UCLA piano professor, who awoke Feb. 24 to images from social media and friends showing panicked residents shaken by rocket attacks on nearby military bases, airfields, border posts and towns. Explosions from Russian bombs, clearly visible from Odesa’s city center, lit up the predawn sky.
“We are scared for our family and friends who have no way out and really no hope,” said Faliks, who teaches at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
Amid the tragedy and turmoil, Faliks turned to music to communicate her personal pain and her sorrow for the people of Odesa and Ukraine. The morning of the invasion, she posted a 10-minute YouTube video of herself performing Beethoven’s “Appassionata” from her home, a piece with its own mournful wartime history.
“My beloved Odesa, we’re thinking of you. We want this to stop,” Faliks says in the video’s opening, followed by the same message in Russian.
It’s not the first time Faliks has addressed Odesa through her music. In her 2017 piano recital–cum–autobiographical monologue “Polonaise-Fantaisie: The Story of a Pianist,” Faliks described the antisemitism that confronted her as a child in the Soviet Ukraine of the 1980s and which ultimately forced her family to leave the country when she was 10. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, they embarked on a three-month journey that ultimately brought them to Chicago, where they would stay for many years.
While Faliks is grateful that her parents took her out of Odesa when they did, her love for her native city leaves her wanting to return now more than ever, she said. It’s a desire that is particularly heartrending given that her mother, Irene, and father, Simon, had hoped to visit Odesa last fall to celebrate a milestone anniversary but were never able to make it. Instead, 32 years after they left Europe for the U.S., her parents returned, this time to Switzerland, where Irene, suffering from brain cancer, had a physician-assisted death — a decision Faliks wrote about in a Washington Post opinion piece.
Faliks ends her YouTube video by drawing attention to the traditional shirt she dons for the performance, which her late mother used to wear for Vyshyvanka Day, an annual celebration of Ukrainian heritage. “She never got to see Odesa again,” Faliks says, “but I know I will.”
Faliks’ choice of composition was also symbolic, the pianist said, as the sonata has a solemn history in time of war.
“When London was bombed during World War II, the British-Jewish pianist Dame Myra Hess stayed in the city and played recitals at the National Gallery to keep up morale,” said Faliks, who intuitively picked “Appassionata” because it was one of the staples of Hess’ repertoire.
Faliks has a personal history with the piece as well, having performed it frequently at Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts in Chicago as a young artist, she said.
Several days after posting her YouTube video, Faliks grappled with feelings of helplessness as she watched the Russian siege advance further into Ukraine.
“After I recorded it,” she said, “I thought of Myra Hess and felt so inadequate because I cannot not be in Odesa in person and do what she did.”