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Re-interpreting ‘Don Quixote’ with Strauss, Strik, Francis and TFO

Bill DeYoung

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The classic Quixote "look," in the painting "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at a crossroad," by Wilhelm Marstrand, 1847, Nivaagaard Museum, Denmark. St. Petersburg artist Geff Strik challenges the idea that Quixote was "a weak man on a skinny horse."

Last month, The Florida Orchestra trumpeted the news that French-born painter Geff Strik had been named Visual Artist-In-Residence. His tryout was a triumph: For the mid-spring concert performances of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, the St. Pete resident created a series of oils in his moody, dramatic style, and a film of Strik  – itself equally artistic – had been screened as the orchestra performed the piece live.

The film worked as a time lapse of the creative process, as Strik’s work evolved on a single canvas. Like the music, it was a study in evolution. He painted over each scene as new ones arrived.

The artist’s next interpretive piece arrives this weekend. With Michael Francis conducting, TFO will perform Richard Strauss’ Dox Quixote, an orchestral interpretation of the literary masterwork The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes.

“Geff,” enthuses Maestro Francis, “is exceptional; what he did with Transfigured Night blew me away. It was so much more than I expected. So I said ‘We’ve got to go more of this.’”

Francis gave Strik a copy of the Don Quixote score – with a road map of handwritten notes. The artist furiously sketched, and mused, before approaching his 10-by-5-foot canvas with a brush.

“He has been absorbed in this project for six months,” says Francis, “just living and breathing it every day, this incredible language. So what we’re going to see is something no other orchestra in the world is doing.”

The 42-minute film was produced by Siècle des Lumières, LLC, with executive producers Phil Yost and Strik. It is, itself, a singular work of art, as just one canvas was utilized – the only remaining physical evidence of Strik’s ambitious process is the final scene, never painted over.

Francis sees this as helping to fulfill his main TFO mission. “To me, the real passion is communication,” he says. “I think classical music has these fundamental deep and powerful truths. That are for everyone. We don’t depend upon your political stance, your financial stance, gender, race, doesn’t matter. Music absolutely unites, and here in Florida where we do have a split world as such, politically, we offer a world in which you can come in, turn your phone off, get away from it and go into marvelous things.

“So I’m always looking to communicate, and this is a way of stimulating more thought, through the visual artists and collaborations within our local area. There are so many gifted artists here, our dancers and musicians and museums … I love to draw attention and share this.”

Artist Geff Strik in his studio. Photo: Yen Le.

Before he embarked on his own quixotic journey, Strik re-read the book. “Cervantes was a genius and a visionary,” the artist reports. “A lot of people have misinterpreted history over the past century, and what we do know about Cervantes, and about Don Quixote, is what others think. The usual representations of Don Quixote show him as a very weak man, a crazy knight on his skinny horse, and I challenge that.

“Because he was a knight first. He was, as Cervantes described him, very intelligent. And in the 16th Century Spain, France and Italy were booming. The 16th Century was one of the most powerful, creative centuries in art history. That was the Renaissance. People forget that.”

Most important, for Strik, was the realization that Quixote’s foes in the story are not imaginary, but metaphorical. That will change one’s interpretation. “There were a lot of things that people didn’t show in the movies, or different paintings, or different analyses, because they didn’t want to talk about it,” Strik says. “Because the book is so crazy that you have to go deep in and between the lines to compare what you learn and what others say.”

The actual painting-and-filming process took 10 weeks, once he’d read, sketched and discussed the project with Francis and others in the creative loop. Strik says he frequently sent sketches to art historian friends in France to get their opinions.

“I created some landscapes that were completely imaginary, fantastic, magical,” he reveals, “because that’s the beauty of Don Quixote, he’s dreaming, and I had to find something fantastic and romantic. They have to be as magnificent as they can be to illustrate this fantastic story.”

Filming in Strik’s studio always took place at night, to keep the ambiance in balance, and “to be as close as possible to the light you’ll have in the theater.”

One of Strik’s most trusted confidantes, as with the Transfigured Night project, was TFO librarian Ella Fredrickson.

“Ella and I have coffee at Kahwa every morning,” he says. “We have a debriefing to talk about what I painted that night. Then I get some rest in the morning, I go back to painting in the afternoon, I get a nap in the evening and start to paint again at nighttime.”

The 1897 Don Quixote is known as a tone poem for cello, viola and orchestra. Quixote is represented by the cello, to be played at this weekend’s concerts by guest artist Maximilian Horning; his sidekick, Sancho Panza, is played by TFO principal violist Derek Mosloff.

The finished film will screen in real time as the music unfolds.

The acclaimed German cellist performed Don Quixote with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2017. Said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Mr. Hornung’s clear-eyed interpretation capably sifted through Strauss’ dense musical material, his tone direct yet warm. Like an able guide navigating through an undiscovered forest, he commanded the work during solo passages.”

The program also includes Beethoven’s richly emotional Eroica Symphony, on what’s called a “rare performance” of the Mahler Version, and the world premiere of Kevin Wilt’s Imagined Adventures: AutoBonn.

The concert is presented Friday at the Straz Center in Tampa, Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Pete, and Sunday at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall. A “Pre-Concert Conversation” begins an hour before curtain at each performance.

Horning, Francis and Strik will talk about the project Thursday morning in a moderated discussion at the Dali Museum; that event is listed as sold out.

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