A couple of years ago Cal Performances launched RADICAL, a programming initiative aimed at developing new audiences and capitalizing on the University of California at Berkeley's legacy of being at the forefront of change and innovation. I'm not sure the series is truly living up to everything implied in its name yet, but there's no doubt Cal Performances is pushing against the boundaries of traditional arts programming and developing creative ways of repackaging its core mission for a new era.
Perhaps more importantly, in its second season, Cal Performances is using the RADICAL banner to promote "inclusion, innovation, and immersion," and while that sounds like a list of hot buzzwords captured from focus groups, the result is that many of the most promising events on their season schedule fall under the banner. If that introduces people lured by the moniker to see performances they might not have otherwise, then it's all to the good, especially when this year's RADICAL artists include Esa-Pekka Salonen, Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Black Arm Band, and a complete cycle of Beethoven's string quartets performed by the Takács Quartet.
New this season from the organization is Page & Stage, "a unique take on the traditional book club that offers a focused look at literary works associated with selected artists and performances during the 2016/17 season."
From Cal's usual bounty of diverse music, dance, and theater options, here are my top ten picks of the season (which this year leans disproportionately in favor of music performances) listed in chronological order, but starting off with the season's one essential pick:
1. What: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra
Why: It's a specious idea, but if one was looking for someone worthy of the title "world's greatest living musician," Salonen would be hard to argue against. He's a dynamic conductor, generous educator, superb advocate, and masterful composer. On top of that, his hipness quotient is off the charts. The last time he brought this orchestra to Berkeley (in 2012) they delivered a shattering performance of Mahler's Ninth and an incredibly rich, accessible performance of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, both of which were high among that year's lists of best performances in the Bay Area. This season Salonen leads three separate programs featuring works by Sibelius and Beethoven (October 7) and Stravinsky (October 8 & 9). The only problem is the FOMO angst created by having choose which one(s) to attend. Try to attend all of them -- these performances will likely be the orchestral performance highlight of the entire Bay Area arts season -- if you can't, the order I would choose is Sunday, Friday, Saturday , but you might be equally well off by drawing straws or asking the Magic 8 Ball.
When: October 7 - 9
2. What: Letter to a Man
Why: I didn't care for The Old Woman, 2014's collaboration by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson, but many did and there's no denying the creativity and thought put into the production, which was enough for me that it's worth seeing what they're up to in their new Letter to a Man, a stage production based on the diaries of ballet icon Vaslav Nijinsky. Baryshnikov remains one of the most compelling people alive to watch on a stage. Of this piece he says ""This is not about Nijinsky, per se... It is about a troubled man and his relationship with his art, with God, with family, with moral issues." Who better to physically manifest such ideas in front of an audience?
When: November 10 - 13
3. What: Joyce DiDonato
Why: In general I'm not a fan of Baroque music and period instruments, both of which feature prominently on this program, but there are two things about Joyce DiDonato which would cause me to make an exception in this case: first, she's among the very best of today's mezzo-sopranos; second, she elevates everything she's in to a level others performers can't. Here she'll be singing "a program of Baroque arias exploring the tensions of discord and harmony in times of war, accompanied by the dynamic young period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro."
When: December 4
4. What: Emanuel Ax
Why: Ax, a pianist with exceptional taste and a sense of nuance, performs a piano recital featuring Impromptus by Schubert, Chopin, and the Bay Area's own Samuel Adams, the young composer who's already stepped out from the long shadow cast by his famous father. Adams composed his Impromptus in response to Schubert's.
When: January 22
5. What: Ensemble Signal
Why: There are many performances noting the 80th birthday of composer Steve Reich, but this one features the U.S. premiere of Runner, composed in 2015, alongside the contemporary classics Clapping Music, Double Sextet, and other recent compositions.
When: January 29
6. What: Available Light
Why: If you weren't around in 1983 to see the premiere of this collaboration between composer John Adams, choreographer Lucinda Childs, and stage designer Frank Gehry, now's your chance with this revival produced in honor of Adams' 70th birthday. It's too much to compare this to the revival of Einstein on the Beach, but fans of that epic revival should find much to appreciate in this one.
When: February 3 & 4
7. What: Lucas Debargue
Why: Just how good is the largely self-taught pianist who killed it at last summer's Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow? There's only one to find out. His program features music by Scarletti, Beethoven, Chopin, and Ravel.
When: February 12
8. What: Black Arm Band: Dirtsong
Why: Because when are you going to get another chance to hear "Australia's foremost Aboriginal musicians, representing diverse musical and cultural backgrounds, gather together as Black Arm Band. Dirtsong, "a soulful, vivid telling of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Australia" (Singapore Today), is performed in 13 different Aboriginal languages and combines traditional music with new songs inspired by famed indigenous author Alexis Wright"?
When: February 12
9. What: Nicola Benedetti, Venice Baroque Orchestra
Why: I've waited a long time for a Bay Area appearance by violinist Benedetti, who'll be the soloist with the Venice Baroque in Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and I'm envious of anyone whose first live encounter with the piece will be this one.
When: February 24
10. What: Bang on a Can All-Stars, Capella SF: Anthracite Fields
Why: Even before it won a Pulitzer, Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields made a lot of noise in contemporary music circles, with its disorienting mixture of tense, brooding music and haunting vocal music (that even veers off toward pop with at points) in an oratorio about early 20th Century Pennsylvanian coal miners and their families. The esteemed Bang on a Can ensemble (of which Wolfe is a founding member), join forces with Capella SF, a side project of San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin for the first Bay Area performance.
When: February 26
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Top: photo of Esa-Pekka Salonen, uncredited.