In this issue: A relatively short musical journey between Germany and the Balkans and features some truly marvelous performances, including work from Benjamin Millipied, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Lucia Popp, Goran Bregović and His Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, and the Czech Philharmonic.

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 17

Today’s Now, More Than Ever takes us on a relatively short musical journey between Germany and the Balkans and features some truly marvelous performances. Many thanks to Cal Performances Sustaining Trustee Diana Cohen for the Oscar Peterson pick, and to Didier de Fontaine, Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering at UC Berkeley, for suggesting Janáček’s Sinfonietta as well as Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon.”

Benjamin Millipied: Chaconne

LA Dance Project

Two of today’s video picks demonstrate why Beethoven’s famous pun concerning J.S. Bach—“Not ‘brook’ but ‘ocean’ should be his name.”—was so appropriate. (“Bach” is the German word for “brook.”) There seems to be no limit to the depth and breadth of this composer’s timeless creations, both as written and as reinterpreted by subsequent generations of artists. Earlier in this series, we looked at a video of Isaac Stern performing the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor (please see that entry for my thoughts on the piece), but today, let’s consider how two remarkable contemporary artists have been influenced by Bach’s music.

As a dancer, Benjamin Millipied joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 1995, becoming a soloist in 1998 and a principal four years later, before retiring from the company in 2011. He then created and led the LA Dance Project until 2014, when he became Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet (2014–16). Known also for his choreography and performance in the movie Black Swan (2010), Millipied has created works for NYCB and other major companies.

This choreographic adaptation of Bach’s Chaconne is not so much a performance as a dance video. I can be dubious about this sort of thing but find Millipied’s work here to be very effective—the nuances of the monochromatic filming, the insightful interplay of individuals and groups, everything working together to actually enhance the performance by the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux. I like that there’s no audience (you don’t even see the shadow of the person operating the camera), and that the music is presented from so many perspectives; the camera effortlessly moves from its spot in front of the dancers, circles around and behind, and even enters and seemingly participates with the flow of motion. Something like this is a good reminder: there’s the work itself, and there’s the presentation. They are separate things, and each contributes something different to the whole.

Oscar Peterson Trio

“A Salute to Bach”

The music here isn’t Bach but the performance—the dazzling display of virtuosity, improvisation, and heart—is certainly inspired by the German master. And it’s wonderful to see Peterson and his trio (featuring Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on double bass and Martin Drew on drums) serve up this musical “tribute” before an audience at the Philharmonie in Berlin. To use the word “entertaining” can come off as a subtle dig, but this performance is simply a joy to behold. Peterson played his “Salute to Bach” on numerous occasions, but here, he and his crew are certainly in top form, and it’s clear why they would be inspired to honor the composer. (Displays of respect like this are not uncommon in the jazz world. For another example, take a look back to our first issue of Now, More Than Ever, for Nina Simone’s breathtaking Bach-informed “cadenza” in an early performance of “Love Me or Leave Me.” Just as in that case, this is a beautiful love letter from one master to another.)

Dvořák: “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka

Lucia Popp, soprano

We head now for the Slavic countries to the south and east of Germany. A stop in Bohemia gives me the opportunity to include a memorable performance of the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka by the soprano Lucia Popp (who also appeared in Issue 8 of Now, More Than Ever). This native of Slovakia was truly a class act, famed for the depth of her expression, her sincerity, and the rich body of sound she produced during a legendary career—so many colors, such delicate inflection. Popp only sang this aria—she never performed the role of Rusalka—but one thing that distinguished her from the crowd was that she spoke fluent Czech (as well as many other languages) at a time when operatic and concert music was almost always sung in Italian, German, French, and (occasionally) Russian. Though Dvořák’s opera has always had a place in the repertoire of Czech opera companies and has seen a smattering of productions in Central Europe (as well as in the UK), this particular aria has been popular as a stand-alone selection since the work’s premiere in 1901. Thanks to sopranos like Popp, it remains a favorite of both singers and audiences to this day; indeed, it is the beauty of the “Song to the Moon” that has persuaded many American opera companies to mount full productions of the work since its US stage premiere in San Diego in 1975. Productions of Rusalka started to take off in the last decades of the 20th century, in large part because of performances like this.

(And for a second look at the piece, check out this enchanting performance by Renée Fleming, who performed the title role in Rusalka for more than 20 years.)

Goran Bregović: “Chupchik”

Goran Bregović and His Wedding and Funeral Orchestra

If you’ve seen him live, you need no reminder of the awesome spectacle of a performance by the incredibly charismatic Goran Bregović and His Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, an internationally acclaimed ensemble that ranges in size from 10 to over 40 performers. “Super Slavic” may be the best term to describe the experience, which is delivered by a host of artists representing various traditions and countries. I love this particular performance, and the way Bregović uses brass instruments in a manner both noble and sort of galumphing. His concerts quickly turn into raucous affairs, and it’s likely that, even if you think you have no interest in this kind of music, you will leave an enthusiast.

Janáček: Sinfonietta

Czech Philharmonic
Jakub Hrůša, conductor

Cal Performances regrets that this YouTube video has been removed by the owner.

Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta, for large orchestra (including—count ‘em!—25 brass players), was dedicated “To the Czechoslovak Army.” The composer wrote that it was intended to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage, and determination to fight for victory.” 

Unlike anything else in the classical repertoire (the opening brass fanfares, in their odd, shifting meters, create an absolutely unique musical atmosphere), the piece is written in a language entirely Janáček’s own, distinct from any tradition or the musical language of his peers. Perhaps that’s because of something the composer famously said—that, when writing concert music, he always was listening to the language of the Czech people inside his head, their spoken and sung words. What lies in the pages of this score are fantastic fairy tales, the details of which we are left to us to imagine.

The Czech Philharmonic may not be a perfect orchestra, but it has a quality entirely its own, and this work sounds distinctly different—in the best possible way—in their hands, perhaps because of the musicians’ deep connection with both the piece and the Czech language. This performance, from the December 2019 New Year’s Eve concert, places a spotlight on the military origins of the piece (you’ll see plenty of uniforms among the participants). With its unusual orchestration and relative unfamiliarity to many orchestras, you won’t hear it performed often, so I view any occasion to listen to the work as a treat.

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