As part of Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! series, Lydia Kavina and others perform “Spellbound: The Theremin Returns” on Monday, June 20.

Share story

The theremin, that strange electronic instrument whose spooky “woo-woo” sounds left its unforgettable mark on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie “Spellbound” and the Beach Boys’ classic “Good Vibrations, ” is back.

After decades of mainly sound-effect status, the theremin is making a return to concert stages. Theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina, 48, will mine its uniquely expressive powers Monday, June 20, as part of the Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! concert series.

Kavina joins 11 musicians from Seattle Symphony and other area ensembles to present a wide-ranging concert that includes Anis Fuleihan’s romantic “Concerto for Theremin”; Miklos Rósza’s famed “Spellbound Concerto”; contemporary composer Christian Wolff’s Exercise 28 for Theremin, French Horn, Violin and Double Bass; and film music by Bernard Herrmann, Danny Elfman and more. Several of the pieces were composed especially for Kavina.


“Spellbound: The Theremin Returns”

7:30 p.m. Monday, June 20, Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (tickets limited, check with box office, 866-833-4747 or

“I don’t want to limit myself to one kind of music,” Kavina said in a Skype interview from London. “It’s good fun for me to create an atmosphere where the audience gets excited, and I bring them joy. I also derive great pleasure from playing film music because something like Danny Elfman’s music for ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ is so technically challenging.”

Kavina is the ideal person to make the theremin sing. At the age of 9, she began studying the instrument in Russia with her distant relative, instrument inventor Leon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen). In 1997, four years after Theremin’s death at age 97, she performed and taught at the First International Theremin Festival in Portland, Maine.

With her background and skills, Kavina — who played the theremin in Howard Shore’s score for the 1994 film “Ed Wood” — is a natural fit for performing Fuleihan’s concerto, which was written in 1944 for theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.

“Classical music is always in my repertoire,” Kavina said. “It’s where all thereminists start. Saint-Saens’ ‘The Swan’ [which Clara Rockmore recorded] is one of the first pieces that everyone plays.”

That work, along with other classics by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Ravel and Tchaikovsky, can be heard on “The Art of the Theremin,” which Rockmore recorded in 1977 thanks to synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog. Moog, who began building theremins when he was a teenager, is credited with reviving interest in the mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind instrument that is played in the air, without touching its two antennas.

“At some point, Clara Rockmore asked Moog to repair her theremin,” Kavina said. “Then, in the 1990s, he returned to building them.”

These days, theremins come in many shapes and sizes. Modern ones use transistors and can span seven octaves. On the classic theremin, the distance of one hand from one antenna determines pitch, and the distance of the other hand from the other antenna controls volume. Tavina and other master thereminists are capable of the same fleet fingerings and minute gradations in volume that distinguish the greatest violinists.

While some theremins sound “better” than others, their ultimate sound, Kavina said, is determined more by the performer’s skill than anything else.

“If you switch on the theremin by itself, its sound can be not interesting at all,” she said while emitting a buzzing, whirring noise. “But when you start playing it, add a little bit of vibrato, add a touch of glissando and change the volume, it starts to live and becomes the sound of the theremin we enjoy.”