Curating the Performing Arts

Classic Arts Features   Curating the Performing Arts
 
What shapes the breadth and scope of Cal Performances' programming?

Cal Performances' mission is to produce and present performances of the highest artistic quality, enhanced by programs that explore compelling intersections of education and the performing arts. Unique in the performing arts world, the breadth and scope of Cal Performances' programming is shaped both by its location at the heart of the nation's finest public university and by the Bay Area's diverse community of cultural and creative thinkers. Our intellectually curious audiences and collaborators, on campus and off, contribute to an atmosphere in which complex, deeply provocative works of live art can be realized and presented in their optimal light.

With our mission and unique situation in mind, "Putting together a Cal Performances season is about more than getting the artists onto the stage. It's about creating a context for every event," says Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Mat‹as Tarnopolsky, "a context that encompasses ideas, themes, festivals, featured artists or ensembles, as well as cycles of works that grow out of our community and environment.

"In the artistic planning process, we've been talking a great deal about curating, an idea borrowed from the world of museums," Mr. Tarnopolsky says. "Our curatorial vision is a kind of ideological identity for the organization. Cal Performances is both a museum and a laboratory: a museum where treasured masterworks of historical art are presented and explained beautifully, and a laboratory where the great artists of our day are given the space for new ideas to grow.

"As we curate a season, we connect and distill thoughts and gradually give shape to a seemingly disparate set of priorities. We generate and gather ideas from artists and ensembles, composers and choreographers, writers, teachers, and students. And the process of refinement: of going out there listening to artists, having conversations with theater directors, commissioning new works from com- posers or choreographers: really is curatorial. Through this process we bring themes into focus. And it allows us to think about each performance, about the frame around it: to borrow another term from the museum world," he says. "So you'll have a wonderful performance on the stage, but what is happening to make it profoundly relevant to our sense of space here at UC Berkeley? And where can we create that additional magic that comes from these great artists performing in front of incredible audiences like we have here? How do we make them connect with the wonderful students and faculty of UC Berkeley? Or with the 20,000 or so kids who come through our Education and Community programs every year? And this brings us back to the idea of the museum. A museum in today's world is more than just a place where one can see relics, as in some ways it used to be. It is a place where you see the great works of art and new works of art in a beautiful context, wonderfully explained for every audience. And that's exactly what we do here at Cal Performances.

"The overriding programming principle is to present great artistic work. Artistic excellence is always the main focus. We want everyone in our audience to have a beautiful experience here," says Mr. Tarnopolsky. More than that, however, "in bringing all of this music, dance, and theater together in the wonderful thing that we call a season, we are leading our audiences on a journey: a journey that takes us through many different worlds of the performing arts. That bringing together comes when you commission new work, when you work together with ensembles like Kronos or the Vienna Philharmonic, as we have done in our momentous World War I commemorations, which began last spring and continues this season with concerts by Cantus [December 4] and Ian Bostridge [April 12].

"We take care to craft every program that comes to our stages, whether it's working with the Barbican Centre to bring to life Benjamin Britten's Curlew River, which has profound contemporary resonance, or last month's restaging in Zellerbach Hall of Mark Morris's Spring, Spring, Spring [set to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring], which received its world premire on the more modest stage of Hertz Hall [in June 2013]. In dance we think about this a lot. We take care: as Mark Morris does: that it's not only great dance, but great music." This crafting is also evident with "frequent visitors like the Takšcs Quartet, who last season performed the complete cycle of the Bart‹k string quartets, and who this season we welcome twice in the unexpected setting of a quintet: once with piano and once with viola. Showing the familiar in new light and bringing work to the stage that is profoundly contem- porary," Mr. Tarnopolsky concludes, "make us think about our world in new ways."

Curlew River

A major event on our season, Benjamin Britten's Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance (1964), comes to the Zellerbach Hall stage in a stunning new realization co-produced by Cal Performances (November 14 & 15). This vision- ary production, directed by Netia Jones, one of the most exciting directorial voices to emerge from the United Kingdom in recent years, stars tenor Ian Bostridge and received universal crit- ical acclaim in its world premire at London's Barbican last fall.

Ms. Jones spoke with Cal Performances about the work and challenges of directing it. "Curlew River is an extraordinary and unique thing," she says. "Benjamin Britten had recently returned from a tour of the Far East, and, being a ludicrously creative and inquisitive person, he came back with an idea of somehow reimagining noh theater, which had particularly struck him." In Curlew River, Britten "meshed together English medieval mystery plays with the aesthetic of Japanese noh theater and created something completely new. These things have no particular, obvious reason for going together, but when they do come together it makes a great deal of sense."

Curlew River, which was first staged at Cal Performances in 1968, tells the story of a woman's heartrending pilgrimage in search of her missing son and her ultimate spiritual redemption. "The story comes from noh theater," says Ms. Jones, "and it's the most beautiful, slender, utterly moving story. It's about a woman whose son has been abducted. And the woman's role, in an echo of the traditions of noh theater, is played by a man. Ian Bostridge embodies the character of the woman in this very extreme situation. So although it's not a literal interpre- tation, it is nevertheless extremely moving."

Mr. Bostridge is eminently suited to perform the role. "Ian is steeped in Benjamin Britten. He has sung almost every work for tenor by Benjamin Britten, and Britten is very much at the heart of what he does," says Ms. Jones. "And for me, too. I don't know whether it's just because of my own particular musical background or that the first opera I ever saw was by Benjamin Britten.

"As a director, there is so much for me to work with, even with what seems to be incredi- bly simple and incredibly minimal," she contin- ues. "And this has been a challenge, because it is fun to do things that impress people. It's fun to do sleight of hand, particularly technically. But in Curlew River: and I'm glad that I followed my instinct: I pulled back. And so the projected and visual worlds serve only to focus even more clearly on the story evolving in front of us, on the characters themselves. Since this is particu- larly a character-led piece, a singer-led piece, my hope is that everything on the stage is corralling our attention."Staged in a church for its London premire last fall, this new production of Curlew River is being reimagined to take advantage of the size and qualities of Zellerbach Hall. "It's exciting, of course, to come to Cal Performances. It's a place I've longed to work for a very long time," says Ms. Jones. "My absolute ambition is to create a piece that can only work here, that's really made for Zellerbach Hall and responds to the space and its great strengths. And I think that here, in Zellerbach Hall, there is darkness. There is literally an empty space: in the Peter Brook idea of an empty space awaiting action. And that is a very exciting place to start from."

To bring this important new production to the West Coast, Cal Performances has joined with several of our distinguished international artistic partners: the Barbican Centre, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and Carolina Performing Arts. Mr. Bostridge, who made his West Coast dê©but at Cal Performances, returns on April 12, to explore the music and poetry of World War I in a Hertz Hall recital with pianist Wenwen Du.

Project TenFourteen

New music is a principal focus of 2014_ã_2015. For decades, the Bay Area has been a locus of con- temporary music, with its many gifted composers, several prominent ensembles, and enthusiastic and educated audience. This season, Cal Performances reaffirms its unparalleled commitment to contem- porary music with the premires of more than 20 compositions of varying styles, instrumentation, and subject matter. A major initiative is Project TenFourteen, our four-concert collaboration (November 16, January 25, February 22, and March 29) with the San Francisco Contempo- rary Music Players and their galvanizing Artistic Director, Steven Schick.

"Project TenFourteen, this project that we're so excited about, has a really simple name," says Mr. Schick. "It comes from exactly what we're try- ing to do, which is to premire ten new pieces in the season that starts in 2014. The ten composers we commissioned were asked to contemplate what it means to be human, to reflect in music upon the human condition." The first concert in the series, on November 16, features four world premires: two by George Crumb, Yesteryear(2012) and The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (2013), alongside Gabriela Ort‹z's Corp‹rea (2014) and Elena Ruehr's it's about time (2014). Rounding out the program are Crumb's Five Pieces for Piano (1962) and two excerpts from Georges Aperghis's ground- breaking vocal work Rê©citations(1978), with the soprano Tony Arnold as soloist.

"George Crumb is an extraordinary person, for lots and lots of reasons. So when he was commissioned for Project TenFourteen : you can imagine how exciting it was to think that George Crumb would write a new piece for us," Mr. Schick recalls. "When I spoke to George on the phone, he said, _ãÄOh, you know,' in his very, very relaxed way, _ãÄI think I'm going to write two pieces.' And that was wonderful, an embarrassment of riches! But then, in a later conversation, he said, _ãÄI have an older piece that never was really finished, and I think it would make a nice set. So there will be three.' And at that point I thought, _ãÄWow! It's raining music.'"

World premires of new music by Chou Wen-chung, Du Yun, Lei Liang, Laurie San Martin, Koji Nakano, Agata Zubel, UC Berke- ley's own Ken Ueno, and Crumb take place over the subsequent three concerts. Masterpieces of Italian modernism by Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono and Edgard Varse's pioneering work for percussion ensemble, Ionisation, also feature on the programs, along with Harrison Birtwistle's The Axe Manual and Gigue Machine, featuring pianist Nicolas Hodges. (Gigue Machine, co-commissioned by Cal Performances and written for Mr. Hodges, received its West Coast premire in Hertz Hall in January 2013.)

"If music is important, new music is important, because it means that the fount of music will be refreshed," says Mr. Schick. "And underlining the _ãÄnew' in new music reminds us that everything that we love: every piece of music that we hold as a pillar of our understand- ing of the world: was new at one time. The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players is a ven- erable ensemble," he continues. "In fact, it's the second-oldest contemporary music ensemble in the country, after Musica Viva in Boston. We're 43 years old. The new music that was played on our first concerts is now old music.

"Mat‹as and I first met in discussions about the 2012 Ojai North festival [at which Mr. Schick directed John Luther Adams's Inuksuit], and we began - as so many friendships begin - with an interesting conversation. We talked about what makes sense in terms of programming new music in the Bay Area, and found that we thought alike about what kind of impact we can have, here in the early 21st century. And over time, Mat‹as and I developed a set of ideas that resulted in the home for Project TenFourteen becoming Cal Performances."

Says Mr. Tarnopolsky, "Steven Schick is not only the brilliant music director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players but one of the world's greatest percussionists. He is also the music director of the 2015 Ojai Music Festival and of our own version of the festival, Ojai at Berkeley, in June, which will explore the history of percussion in Western music and celebrate the music of Pierre Boulez, who turns 90 next spring."

For Cal Performances, "programming is curating," says Mr. Tarnopolsky. "We hope that by pro- viding a context for audiences and artists alike, the journey through each season becomes ever more captivating: audiences can engage deeply with the transformative performances on our stages, and that this approach is ultimately more enriching for everyone."

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