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A poem, a painter, a 'transfigured' performance — and it all came together over coffee

MONICA HERNDON   |   Times Artist Geff Strik poses for a portrait in front of his 5- by 12-foot piece, which was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (which translates to “Transfigured Night”).
MONICA HERNDON | Times Artist Geff Strik poses for a portrait in front of his 5- by 12-foot piece, which was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (which translates to “Transfigured Night”).
Published Mar. 22, 2019

Ella Fredrickson was sipping coffee and firing off messages at Kahwa Coffee on the north side of downtown St. Petersburg, with an item on her to-do list near and dear to her heart.

As the head librarian for the Florida Orchestra, she was tasked with pulling together music director Michael Francis' vision for a performance of Verklarte Nacht, an 1899 string piece by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. It happens to be one of her favorite classical works, a piece she wants played at her funeral.

"I love this piece," she said. "I always have, ever since I was in college, and I started playing cello."

Fredrickson needed a visual component to go with it, and she wanted it to feel local. So she Facebook-messaged a friend named Geff Strik, a successful French artist living in St. Pete.

J'ai une idée, she wrote. I have an idea.

A few minutes later, who walks into Kahwa but Strik himself.

More than two months later, the seeds of that caffeinated meetup will bear fruit this weekend, as Strik and the orchestra pair up for a Masterworks series performance with a uniquely local twist. As Verklarte Nacht unfolds in an extra-darkened theater, so will a short film of Strik creating a multilayered 5- by 12-foot oil painting inspired by the piece.

The goal of the performance is to "raise the bar higher than people expect," Strik said — something the composer was known for as well.

"Schoenberg is a name that usually strikes fear into the ears of listeners," Francis said. "They all know Schoenberg is the guy who invented 12-tone music, or atonal music. Actually, this piece was written before that. It's extremely romantic."

It tracks back to a controversial 1896 poem by the German Richard Dehmel, also titled Verklarte Nacht (which translates to "Transfigured Night"), in which two lovers meet in a moonlit forest, with the woman telling the man she is pregnant — but the baby isn't his. The poem inspired Schoenberg to compose a tribute for a string sextet: two violins, two violas and two cellos. Schoenberg expanded his arrangement for a string orchestra in 1917, and again in 1943. But clocking in at a robust 30 minutes, it was never meant as accompaniment for the relatively short, six-stanza poem.

Enter Francis. He had conducted the piece elsewhere a few years back, and wanted to project the poem overhead as the orchestra played below. It was Fredrickson's job to procure a copyrighted translation, as well as some affordable, maybe even public-domain, artwork to go with it.

Fredrickson's idea: What if the orchestra partnered with a local artist to create an all-new work pulling from the same themes as Dehmel and Schoenberg?

When she bounced the idea off Strik, an award-winning artist in his home country, he was in. More than in, actually — he not only knew Verklarte Nacht, but found Schoenberg's habit of "breaking all the rules" a great source of inspiration. Then and there, Fredrickson dashed off another email to orchestra leaders, including Francis and new CEO Mark Cantrell.

A few days later, Strik was back in Kahwa for his morning coffee, when who walks in but Cantrell himself.

"Bada-bing, bada-boom, as we say here, I explained the idea of what I want to do," Strik said. "I said, It's now or never. I'm going to go in right away and make him believe in me and believe in this project. And that's what happened. I did not have to do too much to convince him, because he understood perfectly the importance of the work."

For the next few weeks, through meetings and sketches, Francis' notes and Fredrickson's research, the orchestra's first-ever performance of Verklarte Nacht came together. It had to be meticulously timed to the second — each line of the poem, each layer of Strik's painting, each cue in the video, had to sync with the themes of Schoenberg's piece.

Bringing to life such a scaled-up performance of Verklarte Nacht "was on my bucket list," Fredrickson said. But what became just as important was watching it evolve from the coffee shop down the street to performing arts halls across the bay. It's a nesting doll of inspiration spanning 120 years: Dehmel inspired Schoenberg, who in turn inspired Fredrickson and Francis, who in turn inspired Strik. The final link is the audience.

"I can listen to Verklarte Nacht on a half a dozen different recordings," Fredrickson said. "But seeing it live is a completely different experience, because you're feeling it. It surrounds you. It becomes what you are."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go: Florida Orchestra

Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht will be performed between Brahms' Tragic Overture and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor. Michael Francis conducts. 8 p.m. March 29 at the Straz Center, Tampa; 8 p.m. March 30 at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; 7:30 p.m. March 31 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.

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