In this issue: Soprano Julia Bullock performs an excerpt from Purcell’s The Indian Queen; vocalist and flutist Nathalie Joachim performs alongside Spektral Quartet; pianist Aaron Diehl performs Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose;” Julius Eastman’s “Stay on It;” Lawrence Brownlee performs Donizetti’s “Ah, mes amis;” Alvin Ailey’s For ‘Bird’ – With Love
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 18
Over the past month, and especially during the days surrounding this week’s moving funeral for George Floyd in Houston, I’ve been thinking about the role the performing arts—and organizations like Cal Performances—can and should play in acknowledging, absorbing, and acting on all that we’re seeing unfold in our society. For some, these events have forced a confrontation with the ugly reality of what it can mean to live in the United States in 2020; others have finally seen at least the beginnings of an overdue public acknowledgement of truths they have long seen as obvious.
Three months ago, when addressing another seismic public challenge—the early days of the coronavirus pandemic—I wrote the following to the Cal Performances family:
The arts have always played—and will continue to play—a vital role in helping people face adversity. They have offered consolation, affirmation, and hope, and they have even challenged us, on occasion, to live up to our fullest promise and potential as human beings. I am confident that, when we emerge from this current health crisis, the arts will lead a way forward as we consider both what has happened and what lies ahead.
Today, I’m only more convinced of the truth of those words—and especially so now, as more and more people come to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement as the historic, profound, and entirely necessary social justice initiative its earlier supporters have always known it to be. And I’ve heard this same hope and conviction expressed repeatedly by the artists that Cal Performances presents, the audiences we serve, our active and dedicated board of trustees, and our staff, who have been powerful and eloquent in their advocacy of this cause.
I believe in the performing arts’ immense potential to act as an agent for the kind of progress to which we aspire. And for inspiration, we need look no further than the men and women who so regularly populate our stages. I hope that, in some small way, this Now, More Than Ever series can advocate for those changes, by honoring and celebrating the work of gifted performers and creators who, through their public statements and the success of their careers, have advanced the cause of freedom and social justice.
Purcell: Excerpt from The Indian Queen
Julia Bullock, soprano Teodor Currentzis, conductor musicAeterna
One of the great joys of recent years has been witnessing the emergence of Julia Bullock as a major creative force, not simply as a performer, but as an artist committed to using her considerable talent to advance the cause of justice in important ways. (Cal Performances audiences will recognize Bullock from her star turns at the 2016 Ojai at Berkeley festival as both Josephine Baker and French philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil, as well as from her memorable 2018 Hertz Hall recital with pianist John Arida.)“This is who we’ve been waiting for,” the director Peter Sellars has told the New York Times. “You see someone who’s not just a vehicle, but an agent of change. She’s actually moving the whole art form into a new relevance, both by completely rehabilitating existing repertoire and by commissioning a set of things that need to exist. We’re hearing the voice of a new generation.”
I remember Bullock as a Juilliard student, when she was selected to participate in a Carnegie Hall master class with soprano Jessye Norman. Very unusually, Norman requested that all her students sing to each other the day before the class, and Bullock chose to perform the final movement, “Résurrection,” from Messaien’s song cycle Chants de Terre et de Ciel. It was one of those unforgettable moments—informed by a rare combination of deep and profound musicianship, forceful interpretation, and radiant presence—when you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Even Norman, afterwards, was at a loss for words.
In this video, we see Bullock in one of her first major professional successes—an early collaboration with Sellars of a controversial, anti-colonial production of Purcell’s The Indian Queen with Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre (Perm, Russia), Teatro Real (Madrid), and the English National Opera (London), a role she repeated in Moscow at the Bolshoi Theatre. It’s worth noting that even at this point in career, Bullock was drawn to provocative subject matter, here a story about a New World queen courted by Spanish conquistadors, told with a level of historical accuracy and brutality that proved difficult for many audience members. (Sellars was quoted as saying that some in the audiences at that time didn’t understand “that a work like this is about trying to complete a journey together through difficult issues and history.”)
Nathalie Joachim: Prelid from Suite pou Dantan
Nathalie Joachim, vocals and flute Spektral Quartet
You may recognize Haitian-American Nathalie Joachim from her UC Berkeley performance last December, her final concert as a member of the brilliant new-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. Ever since her student days at Juilliard, Joachim has had broader interests than simply the flute, continuing to develop her skills at composition and singing; all of this came together recently in her enchanting debut solo album, Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti), which includes this piece and finds Joachim exploring her Haitian heritage and celebrating the songs and stories of some of Haiti’s most iconic yet under-recognized female artists. Fanm d’Ayiti began in 2015, shortly after the passing of Joachim’s maternal grandmother. The artist explains: “She and I spent many a cherished moment underneath the mango and coconut trees in her yard in Haiti… singing songs with one another. It was our way of telling each other stories, and her way of passing on a centuries-long cultural practice of oral history.”
Throughout this album/project, Joachim’s luminous personality shines through in work that’s obviously (and wonderfully!) personal. And I find it inspiring to see young artists incorporating social justice work into their career planning and thinking. As Joachim has said, “I feel lucky to be joining my voice with theirs and bringing listeners a sonic portfolio of my originals and arrangements of historic Haitian songs, woven together in a musical celebration of activism and hope.”
Ellington: “Single Petal of a Rose”
Aaron Diehl, piano
You may remember pianist Aaron Diehl from his incredible solo in Cécile McLorin Salvant’s performance of “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” (Now, More Than Ever, Issue 10), but this breathtaking performance shows him in a decidedly more reflective frame of mind, in an incredibly beautiful piece by Duke Ellington. I only grow more impressed with Diehl’s talent each time I encounter him—his command of timbre and his sense of timing are capable of weaving an undeniable spell.
Julius Eastman: “Stay on It”
Consider the life of Julius Eastman. Among the first minimalist musicians/composers to incorporate elements of pop into his music, he lived as something of a provocateur, frequently giving his compositions titles—such as Gay Guerrilla—that indicated political intent. As the UK’s Guardian wrote recently:
When Eastman died of heart failure, alone, in Millard Fillmore hospital in Buffalo, New York, on 28 May 1990, aged just 49, his work disappeared with him. A former child soprano and ballet dancer from Ithaca, New York, who studied piano and composition at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, Eastman first came to prominence with the University of Buffalo’s early ’70s avant-garde SEM Ensemble, performing with Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Pauline Oliveros. Through bravura piano and vocal recitals at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, his reputation grew, culminating with a Grammy-nominated performance as George III on the 1973 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King.
Yet, as an out gay black man working in a predominantly straight white environment, Eastman grew progressively more uncomfortable. In a pivotal SEM performance of John Cage’s Song Books in June 1975, with Cage present, Eastman staged a lecture on “a new system of love” in which he undressed a male volunteer (possibly his boyfriend), while making sexual overtures in acrobatic baritone. Cage was furious.
In 2018, Hilton Als wrote in the New Yorker:
Julius Eastman is the kind of American genius not enough people know about… [He] composed what he called “organic music”: each phrase of a piece contained a bit from the previous phrase—but then he might erase some phrases. His controlled-chance compositions are as bold as his titles, and, as one of the few blacks to gain recognition in the downtown avant-garde music scene (he moved to Manhattan in 1976), Eastman talked about race in his work at a time when many other composers were dealing with pure sound and repetition…. Eastman, it seems, was a man filled with longing, and with dashed hopes that he helped dash. He wanted an academic position in order to keep going, but it didn’t come through; he didn’t go along to get along, which is part of his genius, and his tragedy. When he died, in 1990, he was homeless. Many of his compositions had been thrown out when he failed to pay the rent for his East Village apartment.
As with many of Eastman’s pieces, “Stay on It” was written for an indeterminant number of instruments, leaving many choices up to the performers. This wonderful, spirited video was produced by a collective of independent arts organizations: Castle of our Skins, Challenge the Stats, Contemporaneous, Kyle Marshall Choreography, Lincoln Center, and The Dream Unfinished, and I love its joyful sense of energy and playfulness; that it was made during our current time of physical distancing makes it all the more effective. While there’s plenty of tragedy in Eastman’s story, including the fact that his current recognition comes so long after his death, I find it heartening that today’s performers continue to care about both him and his music—to seek, in Als’ words “to change what Eastman could not, certainly not single-handedly: a largely white male avant-garde that’s learning to make room for other stories, and other visions.”
Donizetti: “Ah, mes amis” from La fille du regiment
Lawrence Brownlee, tenor
One of the most generous and kind people in the world of professional music, tenor Lawrence Brownlee is at the top of his game these days. The current “King of the High C’s,”he commands an ease in the upper register that very few tenors come close to, and that has made him a star, especially in the bel canto repertoire. Here’s that most famous aria from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, “the one with the nine high C’s”—and you can count them!—each as even and brilliant as the last. (I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize either the conductor or the orchestra; if you do, please let me know!). Brownlee is currently spending at least part of his isolation time producing a fascinating set of live Facebookconversations titled “The Sitdown with LB” (click on the “Videos” tab), which focuses on the unique realities and experiences of opera singers of African American or African descent. New episodes are broadcast live every Sunday at 4pm and the videos are archived there for later viewing. I encourage you to check it out (especially the talk with George Shirley).
For ‘Bird’ – With Love
Alvin Ailey, choreographer Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Few of the artist partners with which Cal Performances has forged lasting and profound relationships—in this case for more than 50 years—rival the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in terms of social relevance, artistic ambition, and just out-and-out sensational dancing. Designated by Congress as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world,” the company celebrates the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage. The company is now in its seventh decade and its amazing artists continue to assert the prominence of the arts in our culture, all the while remaining committed to promoting the significance of the Ailey legacy—using dance as a medium for honoring the past, celebrating the present, and fearlessly reaching into the future.
For ‘Bird’ – With Love is dedicated to the great jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker—“From all of us forever touched by his magic.” I love how the piece is able to transport us back to the relaxed atmosphere of an after-hours jam session at a local jazz club, the dancers emulating Parker’s swing-based style and knack for improvisation while dressed to the nines in Randy Barcelo’s bejeweled costumes. The incandescent musical score revels in the sounds of Parker himself, as well as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Jerome Kern.