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Quarantine Culture: Essential Classical Music (and Dance) for Desperate Times

April 22, 2020
by Editorial Staff
people sitting across from each other on a couch wearing masks Photo courtesy of iStock, Pixabay // Illustration by Leah Worthington

If “classical” just means “Beethoven,” to you why not use this time to bring your knowledge up to date? Jeremy Geffen, Executive and Artistic Director of Cal Performances, has presented us with a selection of old and new classical music to listen to and genre-bending dance to watch.

Continue your at-home education with our ongoing series, “Quarantine Culture,” featuring recommendations from the Cal community for what to watch, read, listen to, and cook during shelter in place.

Here’s what Geffen had to say:

1. The Times Are Racing (New York City Ballet: Justin Peck, choreographer and dancer)

The final work performed on the Zellerbach stage—by Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet—before the current shutdown, Justin Peck’s intoxicating The Times Are Racing serves as a potent reminder of dance’s power to uplift the spirit. Seen here in a segment featuring the dancers for which it was created—the New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Amar Ramasar, and Peck himself—the choreographer’s “sneaker ballet” was a big hit when it premiered in 2017, as well as here in Berkeley. I love everything about this video: its brilliant setting in Manhattan’s new Hudson Yards subway station; the fluid videography; the dazzling synchronization between the immensely appealing performers. The Joffrey and NYCB are ballet companies that are expanding the definition of what ballet is and can be. I watched two of the Zellerbach performances and each night had trouble falling to sleep afterwards, with the images and energy from this disarming piece swirling through my head. 

Besides, as the New York Times suggested, who can resist a dancer dancing in sneakers?!

2.“Love Me or Leave Me” (Nina Simone, pianist and singer)

I know several of Nina Simone’s versions of this song, and in each one, she plays a slightly different “cadenza” (if that’s the right word in this context). This is, by far, my favorite. One of the great tragedies of Simone’s life was that, because of her color, this supremely gifted pianist was denied entrance for study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Considering that Simone’s fans know her primarily as a singer, many may be surprised to learn that her first love was the piano; she only began singing in public in order to pay the bills when she was working in a nightclub. Some of Simone’s piano solos in “Love Me or Leave Me” are jazzier, but here, her love of Bach shines out (through some exact quotations as well as when refracted through her own personal lens). It’s a beautiful love letter from one master to another.

3. “Zefiro Torna” (Monteverdi: L’Arpeggiata—Christina Pluhar, director and theorbo; Núria Rial and Philippe Jaroussky, vocalists)

There is so much joy to be found in this wonderous Monteverdi madrigal (from the Ninth Book); it always puts a smile on my face, but nowhere more so than in this breathtaking version from Europe’s L’Arpeggiata ensemble under the direction of Christina Pluhar (on theorbo) and featuring vocalists Núria Rial and Philippe Jaroussky. Together the artists exhort the gentle breeze to “Make the flowers in the field dance to your sweet sound.” Whatever they’ve plugged into here, if you could bottle it, you could sell it on the street corner!

4. Music in Circles (yMusic: Andrew Norman, composer)

The almost frighteningly talented young members of yMusic started out as a backup band for groups like Antony and the Johnsons, Bon Iver, and The Tallest Man on Earth, before deciding that there might just be a headline act in their unlikely combination of musical instruments (string trio, flute, clarinet, and trumpet/French horn). Comprised of gifted performers and arrangers like Nadia Sirota, the host and co-creator of the Peabody Award-winning Meet the Composer podcast, the group soon commissioned this virtuosic piece from Andrew Norman, at that time a friend of theirs and a composer of great promise; he is now one of the most respected and critically acclaimed composers of his generation. Music in Circles makes ingenious use of “extended techniques” (nontraditional ways of making sound on instruments), and, at first, you wonder where all of this is going and how it can possibly come together. But it does, and in the most unexpected, motoric, and unstoppable, way. 

And just when you think that composer and ensemble can’t go any further, they take it all the way up to “11.” 

5. Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 (Mozart: Mitsuko Uchida, piano and director)

This is a longer video, so set aside a half-hour or so on a late afternoon or early evening, and turn yourself over to this timeless, soul-stirring music.

Strangely enough, there are not a lot of performance videos of the peerless Mitsuko Uchida (she has never been comfortable with the format). Here’s one from early in her time as a player/director. Uchida may not be a conductor in the usual sense, but here she communicates everything that this music is about. 

This was one of the concertos that Mozart wrote to perform himself; it is, therefore, one of his most virtuosic. What emerges under Uchida’s control is a complete and unified musical statement, rather than a game of “tag” between soloist and orchestra. Watch for the unexpected way in which Mozart sets up the dialogue, as the piano enters with something more akin to a pause or a recitative than a big, showy statement (I love how Uchida puts her finger to her lips to quiet the orchestra before she begins to play!). Her entrance conveys a moment of rhetorical power and presence that recalls the famous dictum, “If you want people to hear what you’re saying, whisper.”

If you enjoyed this, check out Geffen’s other playlists on the Cal Performances website.

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