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Cal Performances at Home: Beyond the Stage. Artist talks; interviews; lectures; Q&A sessions with artists, Cal Performances staff, and UC Berkeley faculty; and more!

Cal Performances at Home is much more than a series of great streamed performances. Fascinating behind-the-scenes artist interviews. Informative and entertaining public forums. The Cal Performances Reading Room, featuring books with interesting connections to our Fall 2020 programs. For all this and much more, keep checking this page for frequent updates and to journey far, far Beyond the Stage!

Major support for Beyond the Stage is provided by Bank of America.

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From Costume Design to Curriculum Design: Dr. Alison Billman Talks Intersections of Art and Science

From Costume Design to Curriculum Design: Dr. Alison Billman Talks Intersections of Art and Science

Dr. Billman highlights how both arts and sciences have added immense value to one another and ultimately deepened her understanding of the world.
December 8, 2022

Arts, Science, and the Opportunity to “Become”

By Krista Thomas, Cal Performances’ Associate Director of Communications

Though Cal Performances is foremost a performing arts organization, we are part of one of the prominent research universities in the world. The value of science and the arts are inextricably linked, and the places they intersect can be the impetus for immense discovery. Today, we spotlight Dr. Alison Billman, Early Elementary Curriculum Director & Senior Researcher at Lawrence Hall of Science, a musician, a trained fiber artist, and a beloved member of the Cal Performances community.

Dr. Alison Billman grew up in an “extremely musical family.” Throughout her childhood, her father played bass, trombone, and cello in local jazz bands and orchestras. After serving during WWII—when he played in an Army band while in the 82nd Airborne—he used the GI Bill to go back to school and become a music teacher. He steeped his children in music early on. As the oldest of seven, Alison was the first to learn an instrument and was introduced to the violin by age five!

“Eventually, since there were seven of us, we could make up our own string quartets. We had cello players, viola players, violin players… We were also all students where my father was a music teacher, so music was all around us” she said.

For college, Billman attended Syracuse University and, because she had both a love of musical and visual arts, opted for a degree in fashion design with an emphasis on costume design for theater. Billman was especially fascinated with the extensive historic costume collection the department had accumulated and took the initiative to catalog and organize the costumes for the school.

As an extremely curious person, Alison’s interest in how things work led her to tackle subjects that melded the worlds of arts and science. “Working as a costume designer involves more than sketching looks. There are environmental elements to consider, too,” she said. “For example, when a costume is under stage lights, there’s an interaction with the fabric and light that involves reflection and absorption. For one of my independent studies, I designed an experiment with different fabrics, gels, and lighting to determine, from a physics perspective, what fabric would make the best costumes in various conditions.”

Though Billman did work in fiber arts (designing with natural or synthetic fibers like fabric or yarn) post-college, after having children, she wanted to pivot to a career that felt more secure and so became an elementary school teacher. That’s when she began to really see how the arts and science complement one another in expanding one’s understanding of the world.

Dr. Billman at a music recital

“When I taught first grade, music was the way I started and ended every day because music builds community. Six-year-olds haven’t learned to be scared singing in front of people yet so they’d all join in,” she said. “I also used music to reinforce what we were learning. I’d coordinate little musicals for us and would usually write the lyrics to align with what we were learning, like ‘Every Day Is Earth Day’ and ‘Dragon Stew.’ It all contributed to a very arts-rich community in my classroom.”

In addition to music, Billman found writing to be a unique way to help young students on their journey of discovery. “I knew that the kids at that age were just trying to make sense of the world. The questions they’d ask me were wonderful, but the traditional teaching materials I used to answer those questions weren’t so great,” she said. “I decided that, if the kids were motivated to find out more, I could support that by simultaneously encouraging reading and writing. So, I began collecting their science questions and we’d work together on writing letters to university professors. We’d ask our pen pals things like ‘What makes an apple an apple?’ The professors would get such a kick out of the letters, and the kids were so motivated to get answers that their reading and writing thrived.”

Billman was so captivated by the way the arts and sciences overlapped to help children learn that she decided to, yet again, allow her curiosity to lead the way, and she enrolled in a doctorate program in education psychology at Michigan State University.

“In my first interview at Michigan State, they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to fly,” she laughed. “What I meant was I wanted to get out there, be part of the world, find out new things. And in that process, I knew then, as I know now, I have a responsibility, too. I’m very privileged to be working at the intersection of new knowledge. As my curiosities push me, it has always been my hope that maybe they’ll help other people, too.”

After finishing her doctorate, Billman began working at UC Berkeley, where she has been the last 15 years. In her current position as Early Elementary Curriculum Director & Senior Researcher for the Learning Design Group at Lawrence Hall of Science, Billman focuses on marrying science and the humanities by “developing an integrated science and literacy curriculum for primary grade students and designing the informational texts that support reading to learn in primary grades.” Her curriculum, which is largely multidisciplinary, even includes a physical science unit in the context of puppet-theater engineers!

While working at Berkeley, Billman has also kept the arts close by performing in a local singing group and even organizing and directing a fun, inclusive singing program to build community among Lawrence Hall of Sciences staff—or, as they’re known on stage, “The Hallitones.” Billman is also a frequent attendee and donor of Cal Performances, where she draws on her holistic experience to enjoy what’s presented on stage.

“Certainly, my professional background influences the way I watch performances. I’ve always been fascinated with the physics part of sound: the vibrations created when an artist pulls their bow across strings, what it is to play something ‘in tune.’ And I do enjoy evaluating the costumes and looking at how each element interacts—the fabrics, the lighting, the sound—seeing where that balance lies,” she said.

One of the most significant benefits of watching the arts for Billman is related to her lifelong journey of gaining and facilitating new understanding. “Engaging with music builds a capacity and a need to listen in a new way. And that’s because it is such a profound method of communication,” she said. “As a lover of the arts, there are times when I challenge myself to think how I would represent a concept visually, or in a musical composition. Sometimes there are articles and books we write that are full of important concepts, but they don’t trigger the understanding we want because people’s ability to get that information is limited to their brain’s interaction with the words on the page. When I’m watching performances like those of the Mark Morris Dance Group, and feel the incredible power of all they’re communicating, there are times I think words just don’t do it.”

Whether your interest is in science, music, writing, or even puppet engineering, Billman sees a common thread in the opportunity for learning and growth, if only we trust ourselves to explore.

“If you look at each day, the number of interactions you have with anyone and anything, it’s all an opportunity to learn. There’s always something to learn, something that can push us forward to ‘become,’” she said. “Living offers us the opportunity to ‘become’ everyday. Letting my curiosity drive me as I have, it has caused immense growth… It’s also been exceptionally fun!”

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The Role of Cal Performances’ Major Gifts Associate

Major Gifts Associate Jocelyn Aptowitz

The Role of Cal Performances’ Major Gifts Associate

Jocelyn Aptowitz explains what it’s like to work with the philanthropic donors who make Cal Performances’ work possible.
November 16, 2022

A Role Supporting the Arts You Love

Video filming and editing by Tiffany Valvo, Cal Performances’ Social Media and Digital Content Specialist

Cal Performances Major Gifts Associate Jocelyn Aptowitz has always loved theater, and now loves the added element of getting to directly make what we all see on stage possible through her work with Development (fundraising). Jocelyn breaks down some of the daily tasks, from calling donors and arranging their tickets and parking, to the underlying, big picture work of helping those with a passion for philanthropy to find initiatives and performances they really connect with so that they can have the greatest impact. “At Cal Performances, a lot of what we do is connect people who are kind enough to give us money… with the things they are most passionate about,” Jocelyn said.

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The “Musical Mandate” of Groundbreaking Cellist Zlatomir Fung

Zlatomir Fung photographed in outdoors

The “Musical Mandate” of Groundbreaking Cellist Zlatomir Fung

In this exclusive interview, award-winning cellist Zlatomir Fung talks balancing competitions and recitals.
November 15, 2022

At 23 years old, cellist Zlatomir Fung has won international recognition for his profound musicianship.

By Krista Thomas, Cal Performances’ Associate Director of Communications

Over the past few years, he has made history as the youngest (age 20) musician, and first American in four decades, to win First Prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition (Cello Division); he has received the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship and an Avery Fisher Career Grant; and he has toured in the United States, Europe, and Asia with renowned orchestras and as a recitalist. This Sunday (November 20), Fung offers the Bay Area an exciting opportunity to experience his virtuosity firsthand as he makes his Cal Performances debut.

Equally noteworthy to his 2019 victory at the Tchaikovksy competition are the nearly two decades of extreme dedication and attentiveness to his craft that preceded and enabled this particular accomplishment. Fung began playing the cello at age three and, showing early promise as a thoughtful and natural musician, participated in his first competition at only 11 years old.

“From the beginning, the most important aspect of the competition was my relationship with my progress and motivation,” said Fung. “As a very goal-oriented individual, competitions gave me a strong sense of purpose and focus for my improvement as a musician.”

As reported by Musical America, Fung’s attachment to the cello flourished substantially around this time. When he moved with his family to Boston at age 12, he was newly inspired by the local musical scene and began for the first time to seriously consider a career as a musician. With the change of scenery came fresh opportunities for deepened engagement, including enrollment in a New England Conservatory prep school program. As he fantasized about a future performing on grand concert stages, his fascination with great artists such as Edgar Moreau motivated him to build and refine his craft.

Fung continued competing into high school, earning prestigious awards that included top prizes at the 2016 George Enescu International Cello Competition, 2015 Johansen International Competition for Young String Players, 2014 Stulberg International String Competition, and 2014 Irving Klein International Competition. He was also recognized as a 2016 US Presidential Scholar for the Arts and earned the 2016 Landgrave von Hesse Prize at the Kronberg Academy Cello Masterclasses.

In 2017, he went on to study cello performance at the Juilliard School under the mentorship of Richard Aaron and Timothy Eddy. It was at the end of his second year at Juilliard that Fung competed in the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the most important international classical music competitions, which is held every four years to reward and reveal new talent among musicians ages 16 to 32 (cello division).

Though he was already something of a musical sensation at the time, Fung’s record-breaking win was a game-changer for his career, “open[ing] several doors… regarding personal connections, publicity, and international exposure,” he shared.

Following this win, requests for recital engagements from performing arts presenters rapidly increased, and Fung was faced with the challenge of balancing schoolwork with both music competitions and performances. Though a transition from competitions to recitals often happens more gradually and later in a performer’s career, for Fung, the overlapping engagements have proven a natural complement to one another.

“In many competitions I competed in, recital rounds were an essential part of the experience. They also happened to be my favorite part: I had more control over the repertoire and the possibility of crafting a varied experience for the audience and the jury,” Fung said. “My mentality during competitions and my mentality in other performances and recitals are mostly the same [in that] I strive to create the most immersive and transporting musical experience possible for the audience.”

This “immersive experience,” which serves as a hallmark of Fung’s performances, is well-documented, and speaks to his technical mastery as well as his acute interpretations and artful programming. The young artist has been described as having a “rare… Midas touch: he quickly envelops every score he plays in an almost palpable golden aura” (Bachtrack). Fung has also been lauded for his “impeccable intonation and thoughtful phrasing” (Baltimore Sun), which create a richness of performance likened to “his own musical mosaic” (Benicia Herald).

Ahead of his Cal Performances debut, Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen shared his own excitement about the opportunity to host Fung. “Introducing the next generation of artists Cal Performances’ audiences didn’t yet know they couldn’t live without has been a hallmark of our series for decades,” said Geffen. “Though we’re always excited to support artists on their ascent, I am particularly thrilled to present Zlatomir Fung, an artist in whom virtuosity, intelligence, preternatural emotional maturity, interpretive insight, and the ‘x factor’ all find their nexus!”

Fung is admittedly “particularly passionate about programming” and, though a true lover of classical repertoire, creates layers of meaning by pairing canonic pieces with newer works. For his Cal Performances recital, Fung has crafted an eclectic and engaging program that matches cello showpieces by Beethoven and Dvořák with an arrangement of Ives songs and two contemporary works: Judith Weir’s Unlocked, which was inspired by American folk songs, many of which were contributed by Black prisoners in Southern jails, and a cello sonata with distinct blues sonorities by George Walker, the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Of his meticulously crafted programs, Fung said, “I enjoy bringing lesser-known works together with staples from the repertoire. The ability to shape the arc of an entire concert experience—a whole afternoon or evening with an audience—lends recitals a more authorial feel and gives [me] space to create an entire world for the audience to fall into.”

Though Fung greatly appreciates the “tremendous honor” of his past competition awards, he is ultimately focused on the “larger musical mandate,” and the opportunities afforded—particularly through recitals—to shape our relationship to important works.

“The awards are only the beginning,” Fung said. “The actual work and meaning lie in the art itself. As a young musician starting out, I want to bring an energetic, exuberant, and original voice to my work. One day, I hope to have done enough meaningful musical work to make my awards only a footnote in my biography.”