In this issue: Pianist Ivo Pogorelich performs J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor; violinist Roberts Balanas covers Sir Elton John; New York City Ballet dancers perform Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth; Ruthie Foster covers Johnny Cash; the London Symphony Orchestra performs an excerpt from John Adams’ Harmonielehre

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 37

Early September would normally be the time I’d comment on the beginning of a new academic year and the return of students to the Berkeley campus. Sadly, fall 2020 offers a different story; while teaching continues (in most cases on digital platforms), in-person events have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the face of this challenge, we are expanding Cal Performances’ activities beyond the live events we traditionally present and will soon offer programs in a new format, available to stream directly on demand to viewers’ home screens. I’m happy to report that on September 8, Cal Performances at Home went on sale through our website. This ambitious digital streaming series will feature 16 newly produced, full-length performances available beginning October 1 (and continuing through the week of January 14). Recorded on stages all over the world, the series includes a wide selection of programs previously scheduled as part of our live-event fall season

Current Cal Performances subscribers and Donors of $225 or more will receive all Cal Performances at Home programming completely free of charge. For more information on the series, please visit the website. We hope you’ll join us for this exciting new venture!

J.S. Bach: English Suite No. 2 in A minor

Ivo Pogorelich, piano 

Born in Belgrade in 1958, Ivo Pogorelich began his music education when he was seven, making his solo concert debut three years later. And since then, he’s always been something of—as the saying goes—a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Very early on, at the 1980 Chopin International Piano Competition, Pogorelich was eliminated in the third round, a decision that so outraged jury member Martha Argerich that she resigned from the panel in protest. The “scandal” established Ivo as an overnight international celebrity and he went on to enjoy an incredibly brilliant first stage of his career, recording often with Herbert von Karajan. But as the years passed, Pogorelich also showed a disquieting tendency—accompanied by repeated career stops and restarts—to drift into self-indulgent mannerisms and extremes of expression difficult for even his most devoted fans to understand.

Taste is subjective, of course, and what appears forced to one person may seem elegant to another, but to me, and when he’s at his best, Pogorelich has few peers. In 1996, he made a studio recording of Bach’s second and third English Suites, a disc that ultimately I had to replace; I played it so often that I ended up “breaking” the CD! It’s still the recording of these works that I love most—filled with life, fast but not rushed, wonderful at creating dialogue between the inner voices. But all this matters less than the overall pleasure of experiencing an unforgettable musical journey in the company of a brilliant artist. 

Bach’s English Suites differ from the French Suites in that they include an opening prelude movement, and here, Pogorelich’s playing is marvelously urgent, with a sense of intrigue lurking around every corner. While this video performance (the origin of which I don’t know) perhaps ironically lacks some of the spontaneity of his studio recording, it’s still pretty wonderful, especially in the depth of the Sarabande and the humor of the two Bourrées.

Sir Elton John: “I’m Still Standing”

Roberts Balanas, violin

Latvian violinist Roberts Balanas describes his goal as “tearing down the boundaries between different genes of music,” and he has created quite a name for himself making recordings like this one. A member of the Advanced Diploma program at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Balanas was scheduled to perform his own cover of Sir Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” at a school benefit concert last May. (The rock superstar, who began his music education at the academy at age 11, currently sponsors eight students each year through his Elton John Scholarship and was scheduled to attend.)

When the pandemic halted plans for the concert, Balanas decided to make his own recording and send it on. “I thought it was so fantastic,” Sir Elton wrote in a post to his fans. And then, addressing the young violinist, he continued: “I hope to one day get the opportunity to meet you and see you perform in person.”

I grew up listening to this classic rock and roll song (it was one of the first music videos I remember watching on MTV!) and think it’s delightful how faithfully Balanas reinterprets it. He’s an amazing arranger and a formidable violinist. And as I’ve said before in these columns, I love how cover versions can offer us new ways of approaching familiar material from a different direction.

This Bitter Earth

Christopher Wheeldon, choreographer
Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring, dancers

This video of choreography from Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth was produced as a promotional piece by the New York City Ballet in the early days of the pandemic. (You can also check out the entire work as performed on stage, this time by dancers Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle. Just as with a cover of a familiar and beloved song, I love the way the promo recording provides a new window through which to view this beautiful, lyrical dance.) The evocative music is “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter (who appeared in Zellerbach Hall in 2018 and whose music seems to be everywhere these days) and Clyde Otis, mashed up with Dinah Washington’s performance of “This Bitter Earth.”

I’m particularly touched by this commentary, provided by the New York City Ballet:

As we worked with the footage [for the promotional video] in the days following the shoot, and as the pandemic began to unfold in NYC, it struck a chord with many of us, including NYCB Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan—the originator of Sara’s role who was on set during the filming. Reflecting on the footage she said, “Words cannot fully capture the beauty or essence of this moving pas de deux, but for me it speaks to our times. It honors where we have come from and the challenges we face moving forward into the unknown. The choreography inspires reflection from both its performers and audience, and I hope, for you, conveys a peaceful sense of hope for the future.”

June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore: “Ring of Fire” 

Ruthie Foster, vocals and guitar

Singer-songwriter and author Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of country music star Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, curates a series of American roots music in New York City, and when I first learned that Ruthie Foster was high on her list to appear, I didn’t immediately understand why. But then, introducing the concert, Rosanne told a story of hearing Foster sing “Ring of Fire”—the song immortalized by Cash (plus mariachi band!) in 1963—describing it as the second (!) most memorable rendition that she’s ever heard. An impressive singer/songwriter in her own right, Foster has an incredible voice, and if you’re familiar with the source material here (including an earlier 1962 recording by June Carter’s sister, Anita), you might well find this a different song altogether. To me, it’s quietly communicative, self-aware, even patient—a memorable performance by a classy artist with a truly first-class voice.

John Adams: “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie” from Harmonielehre

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

“One of the most significant and sophisticated commentaries on and embodiments of symphonic thinking of the late 20th century” (according to Tom Service, writing in the UK’s Guardian), John Adams’ glorious Harmonielehre (1985) hails from the heady days in the 1980s when the Berkeley-based composer was first bursting onto the international scene—a period that also saw the creation of important works such as Harmonium (1980), Grand Pianola Music (1982), and Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China (1987). The composer takes his title (which translates as Theory of Harmony) from Schoenberg’s classic book, one of the most influential music-theory treatises ever written.

This final movement of Harmonielehre was inspired by one of Adams’ dreams at the time, of his daughter Emily (nicknamed  “Quackie”) riding through the cosmos on the shoulders of Meister Eckhardt—the famous medieval German theologian, philosopher, and mystic—whispering the secrets of the universe into his ears. (You’ll be pleased to hear that little Emily has returned to earth, grown up, and now teaches at Stanford University!)

I can’t think of musical texture and language—an immersive feeling of weightlessness and anti-gravity—that has grabbed hold of me as immediately as the opening of this movement. And then, over only 10 minutes, Adams creates a complete transformation from serene idealism to visceral drive (something that truly explodes into high gear in the work’s final moments, some of the most thrilling music ever written). If this movement starts by making us feel like we’re levitating above our seats, it ends in a full-scale rocket launch from Cape Canaveral!

This is a masterful performance led by the estimable Sir Simon Rattle, who also made a fine recording of the work with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Along with the San Francisco Symphony’s Edo de Waart, Rattle was among the earliest important conductors to introduce Adams to international audiences. Here, he’s in complete command of both music and musicians.

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