Berkeley Talks transcript: Cal Performances announces its 2019-20 season

Cy Musiker: I’m so thrilled to be here, thank you very much for inviting me to talk to Rob which is just the easiest job in the world. As you all have noticed, this brochure is just so, it’s like gold. It’s thin, small, but it’s very heavy. It’s just full of good stuff and it’s just a thrilling looking season and I have to say I’m gonna be coming down a few time to see things. Tell me, Rob, if you can, explain the overarching tone of this season that you’ve programmed for us.

Rob Bailis: Sure. As both Susan and Jeremy alluded to, this was a year where we were in transition. I think as you know, over the last five or six years we’ve grown increasingly more thematic in our programming and as sort of typified by this year where we have the whole track of women’s work and the whole track of citizenship. We actually took a totally different approach this year, we sort of said, “We are going to do one of the most important things that an organization does, we are going to bring in great new vision and new leadership.” That’s now embodied in Jeremy, who we are thrilled to have. In order to make that as much of a success and a platform for welcome that we could, we determined to bring together the three core constituencies that we work with the most, the first being all of the artists from around the world, who are regularly on our seasons and have been with us from anywhere from 10 years to 50 years. Our audiences, who include all of you, and our media community and also the campus of UC Berkeley, that it was deeply tied to the season.

We’d really put from all four corners and just create a hit parade so that every single major relationship we have has an opportunity to meet our new director and has an opportunity to really engage with new audience and to go deeply into all the things that we do really well, with a little bit less pressure to put that heavy territorial tone on the season. What I feel like we’ve succeeded in putting together, what I’m thrilled about, is that it’s kind of nonstop hits when you look through this brochure and it’s opportunities for us to really bring all of our communities together and to celebrate that we are about to launch into a chapter of completely new vision, which is tremendously exciting.

Cy Musiker: You talk about greatest hits, well you’ve booked a number of dance companies, that’s no surprise, you’ve had Marc Mars coming out here for decades, Joffrey, Alvin Ailey, I remember that I assigned Scott Shafer, one of the great editors and hosts at KQED, to do a story about Marc Mars back in 1998 because Mars always seemed to be hanging around Zellerbach even though he was an East Coast dance creator. What was the secret? What’s so special about seeing dance at Zellerbach Hall?

Rob Bailis: I think there are a lot of secrets to that and a lot of things that are special, there may be as many things that are special about it as there are people in this room. I think the short answer to that is it’s the stage is beautiful appointed for concert dance, I think all of us would agree that there’s not a bad seat in Zellerbach, the seats are very close to the stage and the stage is very, very wide, it has a beautifully wide proscenium. One of the things that Zellerbach has to offer that I think we’ve done very well, for any of you who’ve recently been to the women’s bathrooms, you know that many of the fixtures are still from 1968, but the actual stage itself has been maintained beautifully, which is a testament to our staff and to our crew and to our campus.

Artists work on that stage can be rendered at a level this is absolutely the best in the world and I think many dance companies come not only because they really get to see the dance breathe on that stage but because the work can be rendered at every aspect of its technical and design intelligence that very few venues can offer.

Cy Musiker: So there’s a room for every leap.

Rob Bailis: Absolutely.

Cy Musiker: I have to add that it’s also a great venue, a great proscenium for circus and we’ve always had the Les 7 Doigts de la Main from Montreal and I guess it’s Cirque Éloize coming this year. Well I hope the 7 Doigts will be back. There’s some well-known stars this year as well, you’ve got sopranos Renée Fleming and Susan Graham, who I saw together back in 2000 in Der Rosenkavalier, Graham was sensational in Les Troyens a couple years ago. With people like that we expect great performances, but what should we be looking for? What do you, as an expert on this, think we might miss if we’re not watching for it? What insight can you give us?

Rob Bailis: Well certainly with both of those singers, there’s not much that I can say that hasn’t been said because they are so extraordinary and exquisite and of course they’re both dear friends of our community and very deeply invested here with us. I think one of our attractions to those particular artists is the combination of artistry, intelligence and the desire to place, not just the material that they work with, but all the tangential and contextual thinking that goes into their design of program that actually makes that so rich for us when they’re here. Those particular focuses are great.

Cy Musiker: They’re doing some Jake Heggie I noticed too, of course a great big area composer.

Rob Bailis: One of many who is on the season this year.

Cy Musiker: There’s some exciting debuts, so we have the big stars, we have these dance companies we expect to see, but there’s some great brand new performances, what debuts are you looking forward to?

Rob Bailis: For me, the two that I’m the most excited about are Lahav Shani coming with Rotterdam.

Cy Musiker: That’s Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Rob Bailis: Thank you, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason as well. Extraordinary artists, both young artists. Lahav Shani is 30, I believe, and is just a powerhouse of a conductor. I also particularly love his relationship with this orchestra and there’s something very special about how they play, there’s a sparkle and intensity to what they’re doing. In particular, I feel like sometimes that particular orchestra sometimes the age of the players skews a little younger, and there’s just an excitement of playing these masterworks at this incredibly high level in early and mid-career that takes on a particular shimmer and with a conductor like Lahav Shani, it’s all the more lustrous, it’s really quite remarkable.

Sheku famously played at the royal wedding, we can’t wait to have him. The playing there is so exquisitely lyrical, it’s almost as if he’s a singer, there’s no instrument involved he just goes straight to it. Just a totally brilliant musician who goes straight to the lyricism of the music that he plays and I remember hearing, I was just researching him at one point online a while ago, and there’s just a classic chestnut of him playing a song, The Swan, and it was just he most lyrical thing I’ve ever heard, it was so singing and so incredible. I think we’re excited to have him and there’s a reason why he’s the rising star that he is.

Cy Musiker: My feelings about music and performance changed dramatically in the late 60s, my dad used to take me to the Newport Jazz and Folk Festival and for me, my heart still is always … This is one of my dad’s handkerchiefs by the way, blue and gold for tonight for Cal Performances … Anyway, jazz gets me excited, I’m glad to see Myra Melford, who’s here in Berkeley, is curating some amazing performances. What’s special about those?

Rob Bailis: Myra and I had a conversation over a year ago where we were looking at what Cal Performances does with jazz and one of the things we were noticing as a pattern for us is that we do get into a venue conversation which is that we’re in Zellerbach Hall, it’s 2,000 seats, there’s not a lot of jazz artists on a single bill that are necessarily going to enjoy that environment. So we were seeing a lot of the same people of course and they’re wonderful and extraordinary but there was a whole chapter of this music that we just weren’t getting. We decided to flip the model and we’re actually going to turn Zellerbach around and put the performances literally on the stage with the audience on the stage, so we’ll turn the stage of Zellerbach Hall. Yeah, it’s not a bad idea. Turn the stage of Zellerbach Hall into a bit of a jazz club and have these really wonderful performances.

What Myra brings is a tremendous interest in where the line is between between improvisation and composition and also where that sort of line is between what we might think of is as more various concert music forms and what we think of as popular jazz. They all share wall, they’re all kind of right in there and the series that she’s put together is really quite brilliant in terms of the way that it deals with that question, the question of improvisation, the question of composition, and these really unique artists. So the evening onstage at Zellerbach is actually two sets of saxophone and piano duos in sort of a dueling duos moment that will just be a really exceptional night of effectively new music, which is really exciting to us.

Cy Musiker: That’s great, so new music and jazz. You’ve got some great deep dives into the music of a single composer, Jonathan Biss is gonna be doing all the Beethoven sonatas, the Takács Quartet, I hope I’m saying it right, is doing Bartók, all the Bartók string quartets, and Louis Lortie is not playing “Louie Louie,” he’s playing Liszt, which apparently I always read and hear, I hear Liszt and I think, “I can’t hear what the fingers are doing, but those are really knuckle crackers.” What does an audience get to do when the musicians are doing such deep dives? Does that change what the audience experiences?

Rob Bailis: Well I think when the artist is truly, has given themselves over to this kind of a project, which often times is not for a year or for a season, it’s for many, many years. You get a different level of acuity and interest but also the audience really gets the benefit of all the of those years of getting to really be with that piece. Louis has been with what translates to the Year of Pilgrimage because I won’t slaughter it in French for 30 years. It’s an extraordinary journey that he’s been with this piece, to perform that work, it’s almost a 3 hour experience, it was composed over much of his life, it really does give the entire picture of what Liszt was as a composer and how he grew and evolved in his interests from what we know to be, as you called the knuckle cracker, which was this incredible virtuosity for which he’s famous, but also in the later years, this really deep, romantic harmonic exploration that really made him the stalwart that he’s remained.

That kind of an exploration can’t come from year of practicing a piece, it comes from a lifetime and the same thing with the Takács, another Hungarian composer with the Bartók, you’re looking at a level of investigation and a depth of understanding that very, very few ensembles or individuals could manifest in a way that these people will.

Cy Musiker: It’s in their blood, you said that to me once.

Rob Bailis: Well certainly, with Jonathan too this was maybe four years ago, he was with us at a home concert and played the Waldstein sonata and I will never forget that moment, we were sitting in an incredible home, this gorgeous piano, and out he came with the Waldstein and it was in that moment that I first thought about what would happen if we did something like this with him. The depth of his emergence as a Beethoven interpreter was instantly clear and I think some of you may have been to that event. It was unforgettable and I think that it’s led us to this moment with him, which is again, many years in the making.

Cy Musiker: The most exciting, perhaps the most ambitious collaboration this year is the one you’re planning with Stanford Live to revive the Treemonisha, which is Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera, rarely performed, and I’ve been watching videos online the last few days to prepare for this, featuring Neema Bickersteth who was here last year with Jordi Savall, is that right? She’s just an extraordinary singer, she’s working with this theater company called Volcano, tell me about his collaboration, this very ambitious project and why it’s an important moment to revive Scott Joplin’s opera.

Rob Bailis: The piece I think was just revived once I think in the 70s and it’s been a while since we’ve seen it since then. It was, I think, not performed actually in Joplin’s lifetime.

Cy Musiker: They threw out the orchestrations, they were lost.

Rob Bailis: There’s a whole lot of rebuilding to get this thing to happen. What I can say about it, in terms of your first, the question about why now, it’s an extraordinary composition that deserves close attention and particularly because Scott Joplin really is powerfully situated particularly with that work as an African-American classical composer working in a variety of forms and it’s important to see him in that light and to hold him up in that light and all the things that maybe have been erased around that. I think it’s an incredibly important gesture. The story is actually a folktale basically, interestingly even in its time, the protagonist is a woman who becomes a powerful figure through literacy so part of the story here is that we are in reconstruction south and that this freed slave has been taught to read and becomes a powerful figure through literacy. You can imagine how much that story to today’s audience needs a retouch, but the essence of what that meant at that moment and where there was a story of empowerment and a story that really does have its moment right now, particularly around those issues.

I think it’s timely so we’re excited to see it. This is a beautiful project with Stanford that we’re sharing, it’s really their project that they’ve been developing for quite some time and we’re enjoying the benefit of that relationship.

Cy Musiker: There’ll be a few performances here and then some I believe at Bing Hall, is that right? I wanted to ask about this, this has always puzzled me, I live closer to the Mondavi Center than to Cal Performances and they’re kind of on the same circuit, the Green Music Center, some places in Southern California of course, and around the country, how do you work with these other major presenters? Competitive, collaborative? In this case of Stanford Live, of course it’s collaborative, but you must sometimes be fighting for the same artists, right?

Rob Bailis: It’s all of the above. The good news is, all of us are collaborative, we’re friendly with each other, we’re collegial with each other, except when we’re very upset about someone getting something we wanted and we didn’t. Basically, the short answer is, there are artists who can play the Bay Area and Northern California every day of every week and always really just knock it out of the park no matter how many times they’re here and there are some where you really need to focus exclusively on how to situate them in community because they are perfect for your community, they are specific to your need to serve, that is unique to your constituency. Where we have people who really do just go on a tour, frankly we have to have critical mass, otherwise, that artist is just not gonna come to the region. Where we have the desire to work deeply and in residency with someone that is specific to our own, as Stanford really is with Treemonisha frankly, then it’s a different story and I think we need to think differently about that. For us really, it’s our dance season that is sitting in that particular jewel box.

Cy Musiker: You’re unique in producing all these dance series’. Besides Melford you’re gonna have some other Bay Area artists, Sam Green and Sam Adams, Mason Bates, Rebecca Solnit, she and I are graduates of the same college. I guess this is proof that the grass can be greener in our own backyard, often performers don’t get any glory at home and they have to go somewhere else. Tell me about what you were thinking as you gathered these Bay Area artists together on the program.

Rob Bailis: Let’s not forget Pamela Z as well, she’s on the program with Blackbird. The more we think about it, the more we’ll find, I’m sure. It’s like an Easter egg hunt. I think the most important thing that you’re suggesting here is one of the three things I started with, that we really wanted to pull together three core communities, our artists, our audience, and our immediate Berkeley-ness, or Berkeley-tude. It was really important to us to call that out, to name it and to bring it forward that the artists who live and work in your community are the reason our international work comes here in the first place, without an incredibly rich landscape of people who are creating constantly, the cultural drive and the interests and the exciting in each of us, even in perhaps less glamorous ways when at home. We would have no context, no place in which to land these remarkable guests from around the world.

It really is critical to honor these people who are right here in our backyard and who are exceptional, Mason’s work is performed everywhere, Pamela’s work is performed everywhere, and yes it’s a little trickier here. It’s really been a very intentional thing about creating a sense of home with the season and creating a sense of people coming together for this very specific purpose.

Cy Musiker: I think we need to leave some time here now for questions from the audience and I wonder how we’re gonna do that, should people just stand up and ask a question? You want to have these people do that? Do we have some questions? Over here on the right. Oh there’s a microphone, thank you.

Audience 1: Hi, I was curious if you would help us navigate through the World Stage, I see some new names Rob thinks that we’re not familiar with and I was hoping that you could help us get to decide some of the things that we can’t miss this year. Thank you.

Rob Bailis: Yes, absolutely. I’m gonna get there myself.

Cy Musiker: I noticed this is Bollywood evening, that looked like a lot of fun.

Rob Bailis: There’s a number of things here that have fallen into this mix, there’s a couple things that you may not recognize, there’s a couple things that you might so not to pick a favorite among all of my children in this case but this is a very special moment for the company Sankai Juku who many of you may know, they’ve certainly been a presence in the Bay Area, both with Cal Performances and with San Francisco performances in Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts for many years, so they’re certainly one of the world’s leading butoh companies. This is their great director, Amagatsu’s, last piece. “Meguri” will be his last piece. This is the time to see them, this cannot be missed because it will never come again.

There is also, Halau O Kekuhi who arguably one of the best traditional Halau’s from Hawaii that if any of you follow the Halau’s they perform regularly here, in the Bay Area, like Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, this is the company they look up to. This is the company that sets the standard of the care and forwarding of this cultural practice, they’re exquisite. It will be an interestingly spare and absolutely gorgeous show to see. They are new to us. I also would point out to you in this mix, Mnozil Brass, we were talking about Mnozil Brass earlier today and I said, “It’s a little like the Canadian Brass got together with Victor Borge and went to the circus.” It’s extraordinarily funny, it’s great and there’s incredibly high level musicianship there but it really is, again, that’s a new group to see and quite wonderful.

There’s some folks that you’ll recognize from years past, of course the Peking Acrobats are back. Those are the three that I would point out as not to miss who you might not know.

Cy Musiker: And I should just say, the Chieftan’s were just amazing when I saw them years ago, my wife dragged me to that and I thought, “Oh I’m not so sure I’m gonna like this.” They’re just phenomenal musicians, they surprise you at every turn, it’s not just jigs, there’s a question back there. Please, can you stand up? Thank you?

Audience 2: Hi, Rob. I see that family performances are back in the spotlight, with the whole separate section, I’m curious. You can’t hear me, can you hear me now? That’s great that there’s a section, I’ve got a 15-year-old, seems like a lot of reverb, could you pull out a couple of additional performances maybe that’s what I’d like to know, that might be good for those of us who are trying to bring our kids into the arts. Besides the standards, is there anything else in the program this season that you’d think a tween or an adolescent could relate to that we might not think of?

Rob Bailis: Can you pitch me a genre or can I pick anything I want?

Audience 2: Dance, for me, but dance or theater and then, well early music. Dance and theater.

Rob Bailis: Is a 15-year-old interested in early music? Yes.

Audience 2: Well, that might be her mom.

Rob Bailis: I think I would direct you towards Milos, towards his guitar recital which I think is, it’s actually “and Friends” so there’s more to it than that but there’s a fantastic mix of popular and classical music on that, there’s a level of virtuosity there and there’s just a smartness to the programming that is very accessible and very, very, very high caliber. I might throw you in that direction, let me just also think about if there’s anything else that I haven’t already- Oh, Dorrance Dance, the tap. Incredible show, also it’s in the playhouse to it’s a little bit less daunting. The show also, it’s beautifully lit and beautifully constructed even though it’s sort of a smaller production. There’s a whole section of that show that’s just from the knees down, that’s all you get. There’s a wonderful sense of musicianship and sort of the collaboration between thinking as a rhythmic improvisor and thinking as musical improvisor in a really beautifully staged setting that’s totally available to anyone. I think it’s another great opportunity.

Cy Musiker: Back there in the corner, right there. I’m sorry you’re pointing to someone? Thank you, yes go ahead.

Audience 3: Hello, Rob I notice there’s a new section called Vocal Celebration and I don’t know much about the most of the groups that you’ve programmed in this section, maybe you can give us a little overview and tell us your thinking behind this grouping and is this gonna be a grouping in the future as well?

Rob Bailis: It could be, we’ve actually done a couple of these and called them different things, we did one a couple years ago that was called The Human Voice and I think we were just not specific enough when we say the human voice exactly what we were talking about, so the Vocal Celebration, this was somewhat a response to the presence of Scott Joplin and Treemonisha on the season that we kind of wanted to build a fair amount of context among African-American vocal traditions that are also sort of part of this season so the two that are new in this context are the wonderful Damien Sneed, which is the Martin Luther King celebration. Damien Sneed is one of these people who’s been kind of out of the spotlight but making everything happen for musicians for years, he’s worked with everybody I think from Wynton Marsalis to Diana Ross, he’s just one of those ubiquitously, immensely talented musicians. He’s put together a celebration of the music that, and the musical practices that supported Dr. King, also includes a lot of footage and materials that make it sort of a theatrical event. It’s just an amazing, amazing show.

We do not have this confirmed but I’m very hopeful that the Oakland Interfaith Gospel choir will accept our invitation to perform with them. That is extended but not accepted so that’s in the cone of silence but that’s the feeling of that show. Similarly, Trey McLaughlin and The Sounds of Zamar, it’s a wonderful gospel choir that does a lot of contemporary music inside of their gospel practice. They started off as a YouTube sensation so they have over a million hits on YouTube and have come to the world that way so their live performances take on sort of a different audience. There was a lot of thought here and of course, Afropop Spectacular is back so here we were really trying to build context and that was the thinking about putting it together, but these are really all quite wonderful and quite unique.

Cy Musiker: Anyone else? Over here?

Audience 4: In this programming, what’s the longest time it took you to secure one of these groups? In other words, did you start talking last year, two years, three years?

Rob Bailis: There are so many. I’m glad you asked this question, I think that the answer to that is probably Pina Bausch, Tanztheater Wuppertal coming with Palermo Palermo, because the company simply won’t come just because you ask, they’re only going to come under exactly the right conditions and also because they went through the very tragic loss of Pina and have needed time to figure out how they were going to honor her legacy and how they were going to commit to bringing the works back to the world on tour I should say. That was probably two to three years in the making, I actually spoke with the company when I first started six years ago and it was right on the beginning of their transition. It’s been many years getting that to happen, I’m thrilled that they’re coming if you don’t remember Palermo Palermo or haven’t seen it, it’s her ode to Sicily and it is, it’s pure Pina it’s just one of her masterworks, an extraordinary piece and we will be the one place you can see that, really outside of, well they’re stopping at the music center to, but there’s just three stops on that tour of which we are very honored to be one.

Cy Musiker: We’ve covered it all, Rob, thank you very much. I think we’re done, thank you very much for listening.