Celebrating the life of legendary jazz keyboardist Chick Corea, with Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba” performed by Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea; Biber’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in E minor performed by Rachell Ellen Wong and Robert Warner; Beethoven’s Maestoso – Allegro from String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major performed by Quatuor Ébène; Arvo Pärt’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen
Now, More Than Ever
Celebrating great performances, past and present.
As a light begins to shine on the horizon and we move toward recovery from the current pandemic, Cal Performances joins our entire audience in looking forward to a return to live presentations in our UC Berkeley concert halls. Surely, that day can’t arrive soon enough!
Since March 2020, and through the pandemic’s darkest days, Now, More Than Ever has continued to celebrate the performing arts’ unsurpassed ability to express the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Through these blog posts, we have enjoyed upwards of 300 memorable performances by the world’s most accomplished and inspiring artists.
Cal Performances hopes you’ll continue to enjoy these YouTube-led virtual journeys—presentations designed specifically for our adventurous and eclectic audiences—until, that is, we can share such experiences together again, live, and under the same roof.
Most importantly, we continue to encourage one and all to find time—each and every day—for the performing arts!
Curated by Jeremy Geffen, Executive and Artistic Director, Cal Performances
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 55
Today, Cal Performances bids a fond farewell to legendary jazz keyboardist Chick Corea, who passed away last week at his home in Tampa, FL; he was 79 years old.
As John Fordham wrote in the Guardian:
Chick Corea… was a playfully prodigious jazz piano improviser, a versatile composer and a pioneer of 1970s jazz-rock fusion. Admired for his work across many genres from rock and Latin to classical, he was also loved for his palpable delight in live performance, a quality that allowed him to tour relentlessly for five decades without losing his grin of startled gratitude as he ambled onto the stage.
We’ll watch Corea talking about the art of improvisation while providing demonstrations from the keyboard, all a prelude to a truly virtuosic rendition of his famous “Armando’s Rhumba” with the one and only Bobby McFerrin. Then we’ll move on to a fine take on a Baroque masterpiece featuring last year’s winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant (the first Baroque violinist in the program’s history), a display of remarkably impressive Beethoven string quartet playing, and an example of some truly hypnotic a cappella vocal music by Arvo Pärt that seamlessly connects old with new.
Chick Corea on Improvisation
He’ll tell you that it starts with decisions—the establishment of agreed-upon freedoms and rules—but that this is only the beginning. He’s talking about improvisation, that most mysterious of musical arts and a topic I expect jazz musicians are asked to explain more often than anything else. After all, as audience members, each of us is a witness to how creativity manifests itself on stage, but few of us understand the process. So it’s both a pleasure and a welcome education to watch Chick Corea sharing his formidable knowledge and expertise.
It might seem strange, at first, listening to a master like Corea talk about musical improvisation, but rest assured—when he puts his fingers to the keyboard, there’s always something special in store.
Corea: “Armando’s Rhumba”
Bobby McFerrin, vocals
Chick Corea, piano and vocals
(If this video is not immediately available, please click on this Watch on Youtube link.)
Always a favorite of Cal Performances’ audiences, Chick Corea was an undisputed titan in his field. Besides being a performer and composer of uncommon invention, virtuosity, and versatility, he was also one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Chick was as comfortable improvising at the Blue Note as he was performing a Mozart concerto, and he approached every project with an infectious, childlike sense of wonder. There will never be another quite like him.
Whenever I think about Chick in the future, I hope it will be in this setting, performing a special rendition of his great hit “Armando’s Rhumba” (“Armando,” by the way, was Chick’s given name, as well as his father’s) with his friend and regular collaborator Bobby McFerrin. I don’t expect they had to discuss this performance beforehand, to come to any agreement about “rules” and “freedoms.” At this level, it all comes naturally—right up to that thrilling Verdian recitative at the end. That’s what you get when two such extraordinary talents meet in their native element.
Biber: Violin Sonata No. 5 in E minor
Rachell Ellen Wong, Baroque violin
Robert Warner, harpsichord
Rachell Ellen Wong possesses the most incredibly inquisitive mind concerning sound and all the various shades that can emerge from the Baroque violin, an instrument that—given gut strings and Baroque bow—can seem limited to those more familiar with its modern counterpart. She finds so much nuance and freedom. And I’m heartened by what this says about the future for historically informed performance—playing that is unbound by technical restraints, open to the kind of spontaneity that makes the music appear as if it is being made up in the moment.
This dazzling sonata by Biber (c. 1644–1704, a composer of much church music but now remembered more for his compositions for violin) provides the perfect opportunity for Wong to show off her considerable skills. There was a lot of artistic experimentation going on during the composer’s lifetime, and his music often leaves decisions concerning ornamentation up to performers (who—and just like Chick Corea, centuries later—would have been expected to improvise on the spot).
Beethoven: Maestoso – Allegro from String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127
(The first movement from Beethoven’s Op.127 ends at 7:10 on this video, but if you have the time, do yourself a favor and watch the entire piece. Both the music and the performance are pretty near as good as it gets.)
One of my great pleasures in recent months has been watching, listening to, and thinking about Quatuor Ébène’s revelatory recordings of the Beethoven string quartets, released late in 2020 and available on CD from Warner Classics, from audio streaming sites, and as video-recorded performances produced through Arte, the free French/German public service internet channel that promotes cultural programming. (Some of these concerts seem to have dropped off the Arte website, but two of them remain as of the time of this writing.) These are sensitive and fresh performances, the Ébène clearly having rethought this familiar repertoire and approached it as if for the first time. One can disagree here and there about choices of tempo or articulation, but it’s all incredibly convincing. I can’t recommend these recordings highly enough!
This particular piece has always felt like spring to me—opening with a series of chords that seems to set the world vibrating and then bursting forth in a naïve, wonderfully simple melody.
A confession: If you held me to it, I would have to admit that I’ve probably used the phrase “my favorite Beethoven string quartet” several times already in Now, More Than Ever—and each time referencing a different work(!). Sorry. I just can’t help it, and I’ll say the same thing about Op. 127. I won’t be forced to choose!
Arvo Pärt: The Woman with the Alabaster Box
Ars Nova Copenhagen
Ars Nova Copenhagen—one of several refined vocal ensembles (the Theatre of Voices being the most famous) led by Paul Hillier—dazzles in this breathtaking work by Arvo Pärt, a piece that creates a sonic bridge between what sounds like medieval music and more contemporary writing. (This approach has been something of a calling card for the composer since he catapulted to fame in the 1980s.) It’s music that feels both ancient and unquestionably new, as Pärt plays with modern harmonies, weaving them into the overall texture in original, unexpected ways.
Of this piece, the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, Estonia provides this short description:
The Woman with the Alabaster Box for a cappella mixed choir was composed with another a cappella choir piece, Tribute to Caesar for the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Episcopacy in Sweden and premiered by the Eric Westberg Vocal Ensemble.
A narrative prose text from the Gospel of Matthew is figuratively shaped as music, expressing the content of the biblical scene. Female voices dominate the story of the woman who poured precious ointment on Jesus’ head. The displeasure of the disciples is conveyed through a duet of male voices; Jesus’ direct speech is communicated through the bass voices, and his prediction by the full sound of the choir.
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