A strong current of folk music runs through these selections, demonstrating the unique flexibility of the genre.

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Now, More Than Ever, Issue 63

A strong current of folk music runs through today’s Now, More Than Ever selections. We’ll look at some lovely examples steeped in American and Nordic traditions, demonstrating the unique flexibility of folk music for both the living room and the concert hall, and we’ll sample an eccentric and uncategorizable performance by a 20th-century vocal phenomenon who hailed from (or did she?!) Peru. And then we’ll close by taking a moment to celebrate the arrival of a powerful and gifted new musical presence on the Bay Area music scene as our friends at San Francisco Opera welcome their new music director.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan: “Here and Heaven”

Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Stuart Duncan, banjo and fiddle
Edgar Meyer, bass
Chris Thile, mandolin
Aoife O’Donovan, vocals

(If this video doesn’t begin at 11:09, please reset it.)

If Cal Performances had attempted to script our eventual return to live performance following 18 months of Covid-19 shutdown, we couldn’t have come up with a better plan than this weekend’s Not Our First Goat Rodeo concert at UC Berkeley’s majestic Greek Theatre. That the concert will feature our dear and longtime friends Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Aoife O’Donovan is just icing on the cake! It’s going to be wonderful being together again, making and enjoying music under the stars. I hope to see you there!

Great composers often internalize a musical style to such an extent that their original compositions seem actual examples of the music they are referencing. Whether a work is an authentic folk melody or if a particular style of folk music has been so deeply internalized by the creator that it just feels that way, the end result is the same.

This effervescent Goat Rodeo performance from a decade ago—not a traditional folk tune but an original composition by four members of the band—comes alive with an intoxicating joy of music-making that brilliantly inhabits the space between improvised and composed music. The top-tier instrumentalists (one, Chris Thile, also doubling on voice) are joined by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, as they will be at the Greek on Saturday evening. I hope you will join us for this celebration of the start of the new season as we gather together once again—in Cal Performances’ first live in-person presentation since March 2020—to experience the power of the live performing arts.

Joni Mitchell: “A Case of You”

Aoife O’Donovan, vocals
Chris Thile, mandolin

The one and only James Taylor once jokingly referred to the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1960s, when the “singer-songwriter” came to prominence—artists like Taylor, Joan Baez, Laura Nyro, Jackson Brown, Janis Ian, and Joni Mitchell (to name only a very few!). Today, the wonderful Aoife O’Donovan has inherited the mantel of those legends, sharing it with a new generation of music-lovers. O’Donovan was a regular presence on Chris Thile’s now lamentably canceled Live from Here, and so alluring, so convincing is her musicianship that it can be difficult to imagine a classic Joni Mitchell song like this one in anyone else’s voice. Great, sensitive work here from Thile, and also from the rest of the band: Mike Elizondo on bass, Jon Cowherd on keyboard, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Armand Hirsch on guitar, and Abe Rounds on drums.

Swedish traditional (arr. Danish String Quartet): “Kristi, du kom”

Danish String Quartet

The renowned Danish String Quartet, which in just a few seasons has firmly established itself as a beloved addition to Cal Performances’ elite squad of visiting world-class chamber ensembles, has dedicated a central portion of its repertoire to Nordic folk music, with excellent albums like Wood Works and Last Leaf receiving high marks from critics and audiences alike. This exquisite and finely crafted music emerges from longstanding Scandinavian traditions, to which the musicians add their own distinctive and contemporary contributions. In their hands, simple melodies take on a Janus-like quality, able to convey joy and humor, melancholy and sadness, through performances that are suffused with deep beauty. The ensemble returns to Cal Performances on October 10 in a program that pairs Schubert’s profound, probing final quartet with the US premiere of Doppelgänger, a new work—and a Cal Performances co-commission—by Danish composer Bent Sørensen. With this visit, the ensemble will inaugurate a new four-part, three-season commissioning partnership with Cal Performances.

Moises Vivanco: “Chuncho” (“The Forest Creatures”)

Yma Sumac, vocalist

One could go a bit cross-eyed exploring the life and career of the amazing (and frequent crossword puzzle answer!) Yma Sumac, “who burst on the American scene in the 1950s in a tornado of exotic publicity with a voice that glided preternaturally across four octaves, leading her to top record charts, fill nightclubs and become a cult heroine” (New York Times). There seems to be no end to the stories and rumors about her background, a mystery the “Peruvian Songbird” certainly did nothing to discourage. But, as the Times continued, if questions endured,

What is indisputable, is that Ms. Sumac created a sensation as an otherworldly chanteuse…. Most critics and musicians heard four octaves in her voice—compared with two for the average singer—though she claimed she could cover five. But few doubted a vocal ability that many… thought belonged in opera.

After achieving fame in South America, Sumac moved to the United States in 1946, making her early appearances in a Greenwich Village deli. She scored her first major success with a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, after which she performed at Carnegie Hall (flanked onstage by two small erupting volcanoes!). Her growing fame even led her to Broadway in the musical Flahooley (1951), a show otherwise famous as the vehicle for Barbara Cook’s Broadway debut.

Quoting from the Times’ obituary:

The largest and most persistent fabrication about Ms. Sumac was that she was actually a housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus, her name spelled backward. The fact is that the government of Peru in 1946 formally supported her claim to be descended from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor.

(Sumac herself told Newsday in 1989 that “The creatures of the forest taught me how to sing,” and I myself have heard an interview in which she claimed to hail from a tiny town, population 200, high in the Peruvian Andes.)

While much attention is paid to her extraordinary vocal range, there’s no doubt that there is exceptional technique on display here, something seen clearly in a remarkable filmed duet with a flutist in which someone actually took the time to annotate the performance note-by-note. Sumac excelled in what we call “extended techniques,” especially her imitations of bird song and animal noises—it’s an impressive vocal achievement, by any standard.

Berlioz: “Rákóczi March” from La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24

Orchestre national de France
Eun Sun Kim, conductor

An unintended scheduling conflict this weekend is Saturday’s overlap of Cal Performances’ season-opening Not Our First Goat Rodeo concert with the Opening Night performance of Puccini’s Tosca at San Francisco Opera, when Eun Sun Kim will take up the baton to conduct her first production as the company’s new music director—and in doing so becomes the first female leader of a major American opera company as well as the first Asian to take on such a role. This is an artist of extraordinary musicianship, elegance, and dynamism—singers love working with her—and it’s a pleasure to welcome her to the Bay Area’s thriving artistic community. Welcome, Ms. Kim!

Here’s a rousing Bastille Day performance from a Covid-19 lock-downed Paris in 2020, featuring Kim conducting the National Orchestra of France in the “Rákóczi March,” which Hector Berlioz so brilliantly used to close Part 1 of his La Damnation de Faust.

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