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Cal Performances’ 2019-2020 Promises Stars and Big Premieres

April 19, 2019

You expect a heavyweight arts presenter like Cal Performances to land a few knockouts with its season, but the one announced on Thursday is going to have the Bay Area seeing stars for a while.

Having scooped Jeremy Geffen from Carnegie Hall to be its incoming executive director, the organization looked to associate director Rob Bailis to design the 2019-20 season. And he and the Cal Performances staff have delivered.

The dance schedule kicks off with the Mark Morris Dance Group (Sept. 20–22), but ballet fans must wait for Oct. 30–Nov. 3 for the arrival of the Mariinsky Ballet, with La Bayadère in tow. Then the Joffrey Ballet shows up (March 6–8, 2020) with a Cal Performances co-commission from Nicolas Blanc, Beyond the Shore, which was developed on the UC Berkeley campus two years ago and features music by UC Berkeley Music Department alum Mason Bates (The B Sides, in a recording by the San Francisco Symphony). The company is also bringing local premieres by Liam Scarlett and Stephanie Martinez. Dorrance Dance follows them (March 13–15) in the Zellerbach Playhouse, with SOUNDspace, and then Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (April 24–26) with Palermo, Palermo (1989), the company’s first appearance at Cal Performances in nine years. And, of course, Alvin Ailey Dance Company returns for its annual visit, March 31–April 5.

In partnership with Stanford Live, and with a Hewlett 50 Arts Commission Grant, Cal Performances brings Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha to Berkeley (May 2–3) with a new libretto by Leah-Simone Bowen in a staging by Toronto’s Volcano Theater Company (in association with Moveable Beast Collective), directed by Weyni Mengesha.

Star performers arrive by the trainload and Beethoven lovers will get their fill of Jonathan Biss who performs all 32 of the composer’s piano sonatas in seven recitals, the first on Sept. 21 and the last on March 8, 2020. Pianist Louis Lortie shows up on March 1 with Franz Liszt’s complete Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). And in another feat of the complete, the great Takács Quartet plays all six of Béla Bartók’s string quartets, Dec. 7–8. Soprano superstar Renée Fleming appears on Oct. 5, and Susan Graham returns for a recital on Feb. 9. And 21-year-old cello virtuoso and royal wedding participant Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his pianist sister Isata come to town with a recital on Dec. 4.

UC Berkeley professor and pianist/composer Myra Melford curates a couple of jazz programs that sound fascinating: Spider Web, a collaboration between flutist Nicole Mitchell and spoken word artist Josh Kun on the same program with a trio led by rising star pianist David Virelles (Oct. 27); and an evening of two piano-saxophone duos (Feb. 9). Then, trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar explores the connections between Iraqi maqam and jazz improvisation in his Rivers of Sound, which brings together 17 musicians from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Western jazz traditions (Apr. 14).

In other new music, famed contemporary classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird arrives on Dec. 14 with a full slate of works, including a Bay Area premiere by Pamela Z. And Kronos Quartet brings A Thousand Thoughts, with a solo piano performance by Terry Riley, on Feb. 13.

A few other random bits that warrant mentioning:

- Multigenre composer/pianist Damien Sneed leads a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., combining excerpts of King’s speeches, with music from gospel to jazz to classical (Feb. 20).

- The comedy and brass band music of Mnozil Brass (no, really — March 21)

- Early music superstars Fretwork, with countertenor Iestyn Davies (Nov. 3); Jordi Savall and La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI (Feb. 1); Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Feb. 23); and the Tallis Scholars (May 1).

- Rotterdam Philharmonic with Nelson Freire, piano, and Lahav Shani, conductor (March 22)

- The Chieftains — The Irish Goodbye, after 57 years of performing (Feb. 28)

- Sidi Touré, master of Malian desert blues (Nov. 8)

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.