In this issue: Yuja Wang/Prokofiev’s Toccata; Nina Simone/“My Baby Just Cares for Me”; Lucia Popp and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Strauss’ “Beim Schlafengehen” from the Four Last Songs; Danish String Quartet/ Beethoven’s Harp Quartet; Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch/excerpts from Le Sacre du Printemps.

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 8

Prokofiev: Toccata

Yuja Wang, piano

This is an encore, following a performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2018. I don’t know which concerto pianist Yuja Wang had just finished playing, but I imagine it was something big. All the more amazing that she had the emotional and physical reserves necessary to take on this astounding work, which Prokofiev wrote for himself to perform as a dazzling showpiece. An abundant display of the diabolical drive that characterizes so much of the composer’s music, Wang’s playing here is note perfect and full of bristling energy. And I still find it hard to understand, when witnessing this kind of virtuosity, how the human brain is able to send signals quickly enough to the fingers to explain such speed and precision. Wang continues to be a much sought-after guest in the world’s great concert halls, and here you can see why. It must be intoxicating—perhaps something akin to a runner’s high—to possess this kind of skill.

“My Baby Just Cares for Me”

Nina Simone

I’m not sure if this performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival is from 1987 (the song appears on Nina Simone’s set list for that concert, although this version may be from another appearance there). In any event, it comes from a time towards the end of her career, after she had endured significant personal hardship, including a peripatetic, rootless period that even found her living in self-imposed exile in Liberia for a while. This eternally fascinating artist had taken long breaks from performing, becoming more and more enigmatic, but here she’s back in rare form, revisiting one of her earliest hits—if in an almost unrecognizable way. (For comparison’s sake, listen also to a happy go-lucky, coquettish version of the same song, recorded for Bethlehem Records in the 1950s, which she delivered more in a seductive mezzo-soprano range. Here she sings in a harder, more declamatory alto). She’s using the raw material of the song but turning it into an astounding set of variations, something almost like what you hear in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. I showed this to a friend once, who commented, “She looks completely joyless,” but I couldn’t disagree more. (Consider the multiple moments of happiness that flash across her features, such as at 1:30; she is enjoying this as much as anyone!) I’ve watched this video at least 20 times and find Simone’s performance both hypnotic and liberating. On some very internal, personal level, it conveys to me an overwhelming feeling of freedom and transcendence: she seems here to be leaving behind the troubled memories of her earlier international, brilliant stardom, now becoming the person and artist she was always meant to be. (Please forgive Simone’s encore appearance in these video playlists; I just couldn’t help myself!)

Strauss: “Beim Schlafengehen” from Vier letzte Lieder

Lucia Popp, soprano
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

It’s easy to fall down a deep Lucia Popp rabbit hole once you start browsing through her YouTube videos—there are so many amazing moments. From her early coloratura triumphs as The Magic Flute’s Queen of the Night, to her heart-wrenching, plangently beautiful Pamina later in her career, to her Dvořák and Strauss heroines, everything is extraordinary. There’s always the timbre, but then there’s the way she uses it, the shading, the sensitivity to language, the emotional energy and honesty. Popp is nowhere more impressive than here, in this performance with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony, of—to my mind—the most beautiful of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. When she hits the grand moment at the start of the third stanza (at 2:40, with the words “Und die Seele” introducing the lines, “And my unguarded soul/Wants to soar in freest flight”), it truly feels as if Popp’s soul is rising up towards heaven, so sincere, effortless, and touching is her singing. During these early days of spring, as we face together the difficult challenges of the current health crisis, this music—and this singular performance—offers much comfort.

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 10
in E-flat major, Op. 74, Harp

Danish String Quartet

Beethoven’s Harp Quartet has always been a favorite of mine, and I hope you’ll find time (about 30 minutes) for the entirety of this fine performance; if not, please watch and listen to the first movement, which lasts about nine minutes. Seemingly one of the composer’s more conventional quartets—except for some noticeable detours—the piece gets its name from a section towards the end of the development, a pizzicato passage that sounds a bit like a harp. The reason this strikes me as an example of the ecstatic euphoria that both artists and listeners can sometimes share is a section more towards the end of the first moment, as the first violin, without warning, launches into a sort of cadenza, under which the movement’s main theme is revisited by the other instruments. This is liberating and life-affirming music, and it always brings me joy. As I said, a terrific performance here by the marvelous Danish String Quartet (a frequent and beloved guest on Cal Performances’ chamber music series), but definitely with some added reverb (which is sort of odd!).

Le Sacre du Printemps

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

(Please note that this video includes partial nudity.) This was my introduction to Pina Bausch’s powerful and influential work and at first I was stunned by the stark difference from the famous reconstruction of Nijinksky’s original 1913 choreography. The dancers, seen here in the “Evocation of the Ancestors/Ritual Action of the Ancestors” and “Sacrificial Dance” from Le Sacre du Printemps The Rite of Spring perform on a dirt surface—the earth itself—looking on without expression or sympathy as the Chosen One (in red) proceeds to dance herself to death to the violent, percussive strains of Stravinsky’s score. The choreography is abstract yet primal and feels very far removed from the standard language of ballet (or even modern dance), yet the piece is packed with the primal power of a terrifying religious rite.

Before the current shelter-in-place order, Germany’s legendary Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch was scheduled to perform Bausch’s 1989 masterpiece Palermo Palermo later this month in Zellerbach Hall. We are delighted that the Pina Bausch Foundation has allowed us to share with you a video of the entire production. The piece lasts approximately two hours and 30 minutes, and I hope you enjoy it.

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