In this issue: Mark Morris Dance Group/“Waltz of the Snowflakes” from The Hard Nut; Angélique Kidjo/“Once in a Lifetime”; Jamie Barton/Sibelius’ “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote”; Tessa Lark/ Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances; Sō Percussion/music by Jason Treuting and John Cage; jazz keyboardist Matthew Whitaker on CBS’ 60 Minutes
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 2
The Hard Nut
“Waltz of the Snowflakes”
Mark Morris Dance Group Mark Morris, choreographer
If you’ve seen The Hard Nut, Mark Morris’ joyously irreverent and hilarious take on Tchaikovsky’s timeless Nutcracker ballet, I’m sure there’s already a space in your heart that’s filled with memories of the unforgettable “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” Surprisingly, the reason the dancers here toss the snowflake confetti themselves—those glorious firework finale-shaped explosions of white!—is that, at the site of the premiere performance, there were no technical means by which to drop it from above. What a wonderful example of the serendipitous nature of the performing arts (what was once a simple necessity is now an indispensable component of a classic production)! Occurring just before intermission (another practical demand, given the sweeping-up necessary during the break), this is as pure a moment of theatrical bliss as you’re likely to find during any holiday season. Note the wonderful en pointe footwork of the co-ed cast!
“Once in a Lifetime”
by The Talking Heads and Brian Eno Angélique Kidjo
There is Angélique Kidjo the voice, and Angélique Kidjo the performer. But whatever your focus, few artists on earth are quite as electrifying. Dancing and singing with more energy and ecstasy than many who are decades younger, she commands a stage like few others.
What I love about her recent Remain in Light CD is that it’s a complete “re-Africanization” of the Talking Heads’ landmark 1980 album. Indeed, when she first listened to “The Great Curve,” Kidjo thought, “But this is African music!” It was only after talking with songwriter and band member David Byrne that she came to realize the profound influence of Fela Kuti—the great Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, and human rights activist—on the original music. Kidjo reminds us that “rock music came from the blues and thus from Africa. Now is the time to bring rock back to Africa, connect our minds, and bring all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding.”
For more from this brilliant performer, see the three songs Kidjo has contributed to Rolling Stone’s “In My Room” video series. And for something extra special (and please excuse the video and sound quality!), take a look at what happened when the singer unexpectedly pulled David Byrne from Box 55 to join her onstage for her 2017 Carnegie Hall concert. If Byrne doesn’t seem, at first, to remember his own lyrics, this is still an unforgettable moment, with the original creator not only giving his blessing to a new generation of his work, but also joining in with complete abandon.
Sibelius: “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote,” Op. 37, No. 5
Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano Llŷr Williams, piano
I adore Jamie Barton, a remarkable artist and human being on so many levels, not least of which is that this openly bisexual, proudly plus-sized singer has used her platform so inspiringly to advocate for body positivity and marginalized members of society. The voice with which she proclaims her message is of the most extraordinary quality, and in this monodrama in song (which begins at about 4:25 into the video), you can clearly see her incredible talent as a musical storyteller, as she communicates the full arc of the remarkable woman in Sibelius’ song. Listen for the moment when she goes low—it’s like feeling the resonance from the strings of a great orchestra, coming up through your legs from the floorboards. With her uncommonly broad register, Barton paints memorable and compelling musical narratives, so I encourage you to watch the entire video for her full prize-winning set of songs, recorded here at the 2013 finals of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances
Tessa Lark, violin Yannick Rafalimanana, piano
This is a student video, made while violinist Tessa Lark was still finishing up her studies at the New England Conservatory. It’s several years old now, but you can already see what makes this young violinist so special—a very rare combination of complete technical assurance, burnished sound, and unfailing rhythmic and musical impulse. As with so many of the performances we now see online, this was made before an empty hall, as a service provided to students. One can only imagine the response, had an audience been present!
It’s worth mentioning that Lark, a native Kentuckian, is equally at home in the standard violin literature as she is with bluegrass improvisation. The concept of folk music runs deep in her blood—a quality so vital to Bartók’s music—making this particular performance so hypnotic.
Music by Jason Treuting and John Cage
Sō Percussion NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts
These guys are so much fun, they should be illegal. The mere idea of a percussion quartet as a marketable commodity is really a modern one, certainly within the last fifty years or so, if not much more recently. I’ve always envied percussionists in that they have the freedom to view absolutely everything they encounter as a potential musical instrument. It’s great here to see Sō Percussion’s renditions of John Cage’s wonderful music—some of you in the Cal Performances audience will remember the heady days when Cage and his partner, Merce Cunningham, appeared together in Zellerbach Hall—as well as a lovely nugget of percussive magic by ensemble member Jason Treuting.
So, I hope you enjoy this one. From amplified cactus and Emmy Award to the peculiar music of coins dropping into a tin can (“Dime… dime… nickel… quarter… penny… dime…”), this is great, great fun. That it also displays breathtaking musicianship is just icing on the cake.
Matthew Whitaker, keyboards
From CBS’ 60 Minutes
If this were just a story of someone overcoming adversity it would be thrilling enough. But the fact that the young Matthew Whitaker is such a compelling and versatile musician really distinguishes him. The concept of a jazz prodigy is really something of a recent idea, but one of the things that draws me to Whitaker is the omnivorous nature of his musical curiosity. Superhuman, you might call it. Perhaps even paranormal. This video clip is from a longer segment on 60 Minutes, which you can watch on CBS All Access.