In this issue: Paganini’s La campanella from Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7 performed by Ivry Gitlis and Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra; E. Marsalis’ “Twelve’s It” performed by Ellis Marsalis Quartet; Beethoven’s Third movement from String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 performed by Danish String Quartet; Gabriella Smith’s Maré performed by yMusic; Excerpt from Revelations performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and choreographed by Alvin Ailey; Monteverdi’s “Zefiro Torna” performed by L’Arpeggiata
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 50
We’ll begin this final Now, More Than Ever of 2020—by coincidence the 50th issue of this blog—by acknowledging the passing of two of the many remarkable talents who left us this year, Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis and jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis. Then, we’ll bid farewell to the Beethoven 250th anniversary, listen to a work by one of today’s most exciting young composers, and enjoy an excerpt from perhaps the single most beloved work of choreography to have appeared on the Zellerbach stage. Finally, we’ll close an unforgettable year with one of my favorite works by Monteverdi (a piece we’ve already encountered, in the very first issue of NMTE).
As you watch these extraordinary performances, and on behalf of the entire Cal Performances family, please accept my best wishes for a happy, successful, and above all healthy new year!
Important Note: Please be aware that Cal Performances at Home’s special New Year’s Eve Musical Celebration will be available for online streaming only from 2am (PST) on Thursday, December 31 (when the new year begins in Samoa and on Christmas Island), until 4am (PST) on Saturday, January 2 (when New Year’s Day 2021 concludes on Baker and Howland Islands in the Pacific. The program, hosted by our good friend, flutist and vocalist Nathalie Joachim, features an array of star performers—including Yo-Yo Ma, Julia Bullock, Bria Skonberg, Leif Ove Andsnes, and Matthew Whitaker—in selections not previously seen on Cal Performances at Home. I know you won’t want to miss it.
Paganini: La campanella (3rd movement of Violin Concerto in B minor)
Ivry Gitlis, violin Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
The great Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis, whose brilliant career lasted more than 90 years, passed away in Paris on Christmas Eve. Deeply iconoclastic—truly a “violinist’s violinist”—Gitlis commanded extraordinary technique and a fierce individuality that singled him out as a true original, even if this sometimes didn’t endear him to fellow musicians and conductors. Pianist Stephen Hough once wrote of Gitlis in London’s Daily Telegraph:
There cannot be a more dangerous, free-spirited, unpredictable musician in front of the public today…. We both agreed that there was no point in rehearsing. I knew that whatever Ivry did at 10am would be completely different by noon when we were onstage, so we just decided to wing it. All I was prepared for was the unprepared creativity of his artistry.
More than anything, Gitlis had that rare ability to make anything he played, even the merest trifle, sound like substantial, important music, like something more than simply a bravura display piece. You see that up close here, in the final movement from Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto (music perhaps better known in a transcription by Liszt). The way he dispatches these virtuosic passages of tenths and crazy octaves, of any type of firework that Paganini throws in his path… well, he makes it all sound at once effortless and meaningful.
E. Marsalis: “Twelve’s It”
Ellis Marsalis Quartet Ellis Marsalis Jr., piano Derek Douget, saxophone Jason Stewart, bass Darrian Douglas, drums
Pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis—the patriarch of the legendary New Orleans jazz family that includes Ellis’ sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason—also passed away in 2020, in April at the age of 85, of complications caused by Covid-19. As the New York Times wrote in his obituary, the jazzman was a “guiding force behind a late-20th-century resurgence in jazz,” and his influence extends to a wide range of musicians that includes Marsalis’ students Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., and Nicholas Payton. This performance from the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival features Ellis in one of his most identifiable compositions. His music and memory truly will live on.
Beethoven: Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo from String Quartet in F major, Op. 135
Danish String Quartet
I’m guessing it won’t be remembered as such, but 2020 was also the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth. Celebrations (including numerous concerts at Cal Performances) were scheduled throughout the world, but unfortunately, most ended up canceled due to the pandemic. That said, I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass without taking a moment to share this superb rendition of the slow movement from the master’s final quartet, played by the much-loved and respected Danish String Quartet. If any music can lay claim to giving voice to the eternal, this is surely it.
Gabriella Smith: Maré
Cal Performances regrets that this YouTube video has been removed by the owner.
We move from a major composer—perhaps the major composer!—of the past to a brilliant talent of the present, a musician just starting to hit her stride. This piece by the 29-year-old Berkeley-born Gabriella Smith is packed with extended techniques (sounds that are unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional), in which she manages to create music that’s both urgent and fascinating. The piece is essentially a study in perpetual motion that builds, builds more, and then “goes to 11” by the time the trumpet enters (at 6:48) with a new, more expansive, yet simple motive that propels the work to its ultimately—perhaps surprisingly—understated conclusion.
As is generally true with Beethoven and certainly the case here with Smith, it’s a pleasure to encounter composers experimenting with new techniques (either of their own invention or those created by others). In many ways, that’s what makes composers truly “new”—the ways in which they focus on particular ideas and transform them into something larger and more compelling.
Final Sections from Revelations The Day is Past and Gone • You May Run On • Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham
Alvin Ailey, choreography Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
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Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations enjoyed its 60th anniversary in 2020. The vast majority of the years since its premiere actually saw hugely popular performances of the work in Zellerbach Hall. Indeed, we’ve all probably become so used to our encounters with this milestone of contemporary dance that we’re sometimes guilty of taking it for granted. Missing live performances of Revelations this past year has made the old adage ring true: absence truly does make the heart grow fonder!
Monteverdi: “Zefiro Torna”
L’Arpeggiata Christina Pluhar, director and theorbo Nuria Rial and Philippe Jaroussky, vocals
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It may seem hard to believe, but this edition of Now, More Than Ever is the 50th entry in a project that began last March, in the earliest days of the pandemic. Since then, and in an effort to celebrate and honor the ongoing power of the performing arts, we’ve enjoyed upwards of 300 great performances together, works classic and contemporary, by artists past and present-day. Here’s one of my very favorites, a work by Monteverdi we first encountered in March, in Issue 1 of this blog. I think it’s a beautiful way to draw a difficult year to a close.
Return O Zephyr, and with gentle motion
Make pleasant the air and scatter the grasses in waves
And murmuring among the green branches
Make the flowers in the field dance to your sweet sound;
Crown with a garland the heads of Phylla and Chloris
With notes tempered by love and joy,
From mountains and valleys high and deep
And sonorous caves that echo in harmony.
The dawn rises eagerly into the heavens and the sun
Scatters rays of gold, and of the purest silver,
Like embroidery on the cerulean mantle of Thetis.
But I, in abandoned forests, am alone.
The ardor of two beautiful eyes is my torment;
As my Fate wills it, now I weep, now I sing.