Celebrating six examples of exceptional virtuosity, of supremely talented performers stretching the boundaries, breaking through barriers, and pushing our conceptions of excellence past pre-existing limits

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Now, More Than Ever, Issue 64

We’ve all experienced it—that rare and transporting moment when an artist appears to have suddenly jumped to the next level, to have stepped onto another plane of existence and be performing beyond the limits of the possible. And when that happens during a live performance—before our very eyes!—it often forms memories we will recall for the rest of our lives.

It’s also worth acknowledging that virtually every piece of music, almost every work of choreography, contains elements that could easily have, at one point or another, been considered impossible to execute. Technical ability has evolved with each generation. (Remember that the opening bassoon solo of  The Rite of Spring, written so high that it falls in the register of the English horn, was considered unplayable at the time Stravinsky wrote the piece. Today it is accepted that any good bassoonist will be able to play it easily.)

This week’s Now, More Than Ever celebrates six examples of exceptional virtuosity, of supremely talented performers stretching the boundaries, breaking through barriers, and pushing our conceptions of excellence past pre-existing limits. In life, you’ll never be able to predict when these moments will occur, but as Cal Performances returns to live, on-campus concerts—with our upcoming subscription season-opening recital by violinist Tessa Lark and pianist Amy Yang (Oct 3, Zellerbach Hall)—examples like these serve as a thrilling reminder of the promise—and rich rewards—of live performance.

Tchaikovsky: Finale: Allegro vivacissimo from Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, arranged for solo accordion

Alexandr Hrustevich, accordion

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

Musical chestnuts like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto—so ubiquitous on orchestral concert programs, so overly familiar and exposed—run the risk of not being taken seriously. The thinking goes, how could anything this popular be that good? But sometimes, all that’s necessary to encourage reevaluation is to look at such a familiar piece of music through different lenses.

I predict you’ll find that to be the case here, in a jaw-dropping performance by Alexandr Hrustevich, a Ukranian accordion virtuoso who commands the remarkable ability to play—all on his own—astoundingly challenging music based on compositions written for entire orchestras. Yes, here he handles all of Tchaikovsky’s well-known melodies beautifully, but what’s truly amazing is how little of the orchestral accompaniment he leaves out!

A performance like this surely never would have been contemplated by the composer or the original violin soloists of Tchaikovsky’s day. And as Laurie Niles reminds us in Strings magazine,\

Leopold Auer might have hit on some truth when he declared that the violin concerto…was “unplayable,” canceling its premiere performance in frustration over the work. Of course, two years later, in 1881, violinist Adolph Brodsky proved him wrong by performing the concerto, and not long after that Auer himself performed it, with some minor revisions. In fact, Auer championed the work for the rest of his life, teaching it to his students as well. It has since become one of the best-loved concertos in the violin repertoire.

Hrustevich proves there’s always more to hear and discover in even the most familiar music. And if his playing doesn’t quicken your pulse, you might want to visit a cardiologist!

Tchaikovsky: Finale: Allegro vivacissimo from Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

David Oistrakh, violin
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor
Orchestra not identified

Just for comparison, take a moment to watch and listen to the same music in the hands of one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, the peerless David Oistrakh. Oistrakh was an artist of unparalleled skill, sensitivity, and depth. He left us a wealth of recorded performances, each of which offers a new way of experiencing even the most over-played repertoire. For another Vne example of his artistry, I encourage you to revisit an earlier Oistrakh appearance in this blog—this time partnered by the great Mstislav Rostropovich—in a deeply felt Moscow performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102. For my money, there is no one better.

And yes, that’s Dmitri Shostakovich applauding in the audience at 10:02, a potent and moving reminder that Oistrakh’s playing manages to be both warm and liberating in spite of the political climate in the Soviet Union at the time.

The Klezmer’s Freilach

Giora Feidman, clarinet

The renowned “King of Klezmer,” Giora Feidman, turned 85 in March and shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, he took advantage of the COVID-19 lockdown to record a new CD and author a book, Klang der Hoffnung. Wie unsere Seele Frieden Tndet (Sound of Hope. How Our Soul Finds Peace).

Perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning music for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Feidman’s playing is endlessly accomplished (not to mention perfectly delightful!), capable of capturing the entire spectrum of emotions. (Listen here to the joyful “laughing” quality he conveys with his clarinet.) “Freilach,” by the way, is a Yiddish expression that means “happy” or “cheerful.”

Stravinsky: “No Word from Tom” from The Rake’s Progress

Barbara Hannigan, soprano and conductor
Orchestra Ludwig

Conducting Stravinsky carries more than its share of challenges, even for the Vnest orchestral leaders, and singing his music is no easy task, either. But imagine the challenges of doing both at the same time!

Barbara Hannigan is a phenomenally gifted performer and musical leader—I sometimes think there’s virtually nothing she cannot do—as is abundantly clear in this wonderful excerpt from the composer’s The Rake’s Progress, performed under Hannigan’s direction by the excellent Dutch music collective Orchestra Ludwig. Remember, Hannigan has no choice other than to turn her back to the orchestra in order to project the lyrics and
vocal music directly to the audience. How she marshals these forces—and holds them under exquisite control and in perfect balance—is both a miracle and a mystery.

(I always get a kick out of the fact that this role was written for—and premiered by—Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the legendary German-Austrian soprano whose demeanor and vocal quality seem the antithesis of how this role is performed today.)

Please see the end of this blog for the lyrics of this famous—and yet not quite famous enough!—aria.

The Swan

Music by Camille Saint-Saëns
Lil Buck, choreographer and dancer

I usually try not to rely too heavily on a particular work of music or choreography in this blog. That said, and aware that we’ve already seen several versions of the old ballet and classical music staple The Dying Swan in these columns, I can’t resist sharing this performance by the singular, totally original Lil Buck, exponent extraordinaire of jookin’. Jookin’ is a dance form that evolved from styles like Gangsta Walking, Buckin, Ticking, and Bovan Dance; it originated in Memphis and has been part of that city’s culture for more than 30 years. I’m thrilled that Lil Buck will bring his full-length Memphis Jookin’: The Show to Zellerbach Hall in late February and know that—especially after watching this video—you won’t want to miss it!

esperanza spalding: “I Adore You”

esperanza spalding, vocals and contrabass

One of this season’s standout highlights promises to be Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding’s Iphigenia: A New Opera, in which Shorter, a living jazz legend, will collaborate with spalding, one of the brightest lights of the younger generation. This highly anticipated West Coast premiere, a Cal Performances co-commission, promises to reexamine a famous story we have inherited from the past, as well as consider choices our society is making today.

Shorter, an 11-time Grammy-winning composer and saxophonist, has written the music, and spalding, a fourtime Grammy-winning bassist, composer, and vocalist, is the librettist and plays the title role in this radical new take on Euripides’ ancient Greek play Iphigenia in Aulis. Classical and jazz forms collide in an expansive score that features Shorter’s groundbreaking method of symphonic improvisation, lifting up spalding’s artfully poetic and fractured libretto. (Note: Shorter does not himself perform in Iphigenia.)

If you already know esperanza spalding’s extraordinary work, you’ll have no trouble understanding why Iphigenia already has people responding with great anticipation about the February 2022 Zellerbach Hall performance. If you’re not familiar with spalding, this video clip is sure to grab your attention. She is nothing short of a wonder on stage.

(Note: This song ends at 11:14, but if you’re enjoying the music, I hope you’ll watch the entire concert.)

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