In this issue: Mozart’s Allegro vivace from String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K.  428/421b performed by Tetzlaff Quartet;  “So Is the Day” performed by Bria Skonberg; Fanm d’Ayiti performed by Nathalie Joachim; Beethoven Sonata Parody performed by Dudley Moore; Allegría from Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco performed by Sara Baras

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 41

Three artists featured on our current Cal Performances at Home streaming series—which continues into January 2021—highlight this edition of Now, More Than Ever. Last week, we were treated to a superb performance of late Beethoven by the renowned Tetzlaff Quartet, and next we’ll have the opportunity to see vocalist and flutist Nathalie Joachim in her sublime Fanm d’Ayiti, a moving tribute to the strong women artists who—though perhaps not well-known outside their country’s borders—helped build modern Haiti. And in January, we’ll be treated to a sizzling concert by jazz phenom Bria Skonberg, recorded live in the backyard of the historic Louis Armstrong House in Queens, NY. Along with those Cal Performances at Home artists, today we’ll also take a look at a classic flamenco performance and a hilarious Beethoven-related comedy sketch from the 1960s.

Mozart: Allegro vivace from String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K.  428/421b

Tetzlaff Quartet

If you caught last week’s premiere of the Tetzlaff Quartet’s Cal Performances at Home concert, a riveting account of two late Beethoven string quartets, you’ll be acutely aware of this group’s consummate skill. (And if you didn’t see the streamed concert on premiere night, have no fear—it will remain online for viewing through January 6, 2021.)

One of the qualities that distinguishes the Tetzlaff is its uncanny ability to get straight to the heart of the matter. In this disarming performance of the final movement from one of Mozart’s less-often-played quartets—recorded before a live audience at the concert hall of the Philharmonie de Paris—there’s absolutely no artifice, just playing that is full of energy, imagination, and a happy balance between absolute freedom and complete dedication to the letter of the composer’s score.

If the Beethoven Cal Performances at Home concert demonstrates the Tetzlaff’s strengths in weighty repertoire—perhaps the weightiest in the entire literature—this video reveals a different side of their artistry, in music illuminated by pure and all-encompassing joy. Both the light and the dark have their place, of course, but if you have only five minutes to spare, this is a great way to spend them.

Bria Skonberg: “So Is the Day”

Bria Skonberg, trumpet and vocals
Mathis Picard, piano
Devin Starks, bass
Darrian Douglas, drums

Jazz trumpeter, vocalist, and bandleader Bria Skonberg follows in the tradition and footsteps of the great Louis Armstrong and the lesser-known (to us, at least) Valaida Snow, a famous trumpeter/vocalist from the first half of the 20th century. (Snow, a respected performer on the vaudeville circuit and among her fellow jazz musicians, was known as “Little Louis” and “Queen of the Trumpet”—a nickname given to her by the legendary W.C. Handy.)

Skonberg’s 2019 album, Nothing Never Happens, is enriched by remarkably broad points of reference that range from the Beatles and Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan and Queen. All of which reveal her omnivorous approach to music-making and emphasize how broad an umbrella those four letters—J–A–Z–Z—can be.

As is clear from this official video version of her original song “So Is the Day,” Skonberg is also a formidable composer. In an interview last week, she told me that her vocal range is roughly in the same register as the trumpet, so for her, it’s always a question of whichever color is most appropriate for the moment.

Virtuosity can be a two-edged sword. It can be a way of showing off, or it can be a quality more akin to fluency in a foreign language, the knowledge and ability necessary—once you have all the tools at your disposal—to communicate exactly what you want to express. That second form is what you’ll find here, with Skonberg as flexible in her own singing as on the trumpet. For me, the results feel absolutely liberating.

Bria Skonberg’s Cal Performance at Home concert will premiere on January 7, 2021 (remaining online through April 7).

Nathalie Joachim: Fanm d’Ayiti (excerpts and commentary)

Nathalie Joachim, vocals, flute, and electronics
Members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Having become well acquainted with Nathalie Joachim’s brilliant Fanm d’Ayiti album, I think it’s fascinating to return to the source, the early days of development, followed by the work’s 2018 world premiere in Minnesota. Fanm d’Ayiti was created under the auspices of Liquid Music, a groundbreaking initiative the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra created in 2012 to develop innovative projects with iconoclastic artists, and presented in unique formats. (Liquid Music went independent earlier this year and is now owned and operated by producer and artistic director Kate Nordstrum.)

Joachim is a Brooklyn-born Haitian-American artist familiar to Cal Performances audiences from her appearances with the popular Eighth Blackbird new-music ensemble. At the point she wrote Fanm d’Ayiti, she couldn’t have know if the piece would be a success. But today, it’s something of a triumph, with its Grammy-nominated recording, active touring with the Spektral Quartet, and plenty of enthusiastic recognition. I’ve enjoyed watching Joachim grow and relax into her performance of this captivating music, an evening-long multimedia experience that documents an important part of the musical story of her family homeland. It’s something you can experience for yourself on October 14, when Fanm d’Ayiti—captured beautifully on video in live performance at the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago in September—premieres on Cal Performances at Home (remaining online through January 12, 2021).

Beethoven Sonata Parody

Dudley Moore, piano

Here’s something for anyone who’s still wondering when to clap at the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (See the final joke in this very funny video!)

Let’s start by admitting that, first and foremost, Dudley Moore achieved his fame as a comedian. But he was also an extraordinary musician, with both the ability to play this piece and the imagination to create it. There were many levels to this man’s incredible talent.

Taking his inspiration from the famous whistling theme made popular in the 1957 British-American multi-Oscar winner The Bridge on the River Kwai, Moore has come up with an especially good musical joke here. Even more impressive, it’s a work based on Beethoven that actually sounds like Beethoven!

Allegría from Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco

Sara Baras, flamenco dancer

Film director Carlos Saura has spent decades as “cinema’s chief archivist of Iberian performing arts” (The New York Times), something on full display in his vibrant Flamenco, Flamenco (2010).

Here we see the brilliant Sara Baras—a vision in red—in top form, conjuring, perhaps, a steamy summer evening in her hometown of San Fernando, in the stunning setting of the Bay of Cádiz. No wonder the UK’s Guardian was inspired to describe her this way:

She is a powerful authority of complete assurance, and we have the slightly intimidating pleasure of watching someone who is utterly in charge. It’s in the way her shoulders swell magnanimously, the almighty crack of a heel splitting the air, and her regal dramatic restraint.

What Baras is in charge of more than anything is her feet. She’s famed for farruca, a dance of extremely rapid-fire footwork, traditionally performed by men. Her precision beats are astonishing in their speed and definition, she’s a machine, albeit one able to subtly color that percussive torrent.

As for Baras’ exquisite shawl, I will never again look at the throw blanket on my couch in quite the same way!

Watch in wonder.

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