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BERKELEY—I’ve been fascinated by the California pianist Jeffrey Kahane ever since the 1981 Van Cliburn Competition. He didn’t win it (gold went to André-Michel Schub). But media reports established that, in the opinion of various finalists, though Kahane was unlikely to get the gold medal, he was considered the best keyboard performer of the lot. A rare accolade among high-echelon pianists!

Happily, Kahane bounced back two years later, winning the Rubinstein International Competition.

Although a successful symphony conductor over the past three decades, Kahane, 60, still finds time for piano recitals, such as his March 12 one at Hertz Hall. Now his strong suit at the keyboard is not his lyricism of old, but rather his on-going interest in contemporary repertoire. Between sonatas of Schubert and Chopin, he spotlighted pieces of thirtysomething composers Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane written in this decade, both under 10 minutes in length.

Gabriel K.’s fluency in mainline pianistic style and harmonies was evident in “Works on Paper,” starting with the whimsical “Death to Advertising” and closing out with an imagined folk song. In the central “Veda” section, after a Joan Crawford movie, the piano has the supreme challenge of portraying regret—the judgment is still out on that one! In a less conventional mode, the score calls for the pianist (here, Gabriel’s father) repeatedly to pluck individual strings in reach-over pizzicato with the left hand, giving the effect of an accompanying instrument.

Andres’ “Heavy Sleep” is a wispy work positioned somewhere between Satie and Debussy. Isolated slow chords are struck at the bottom and top of the keyboard, forcing the performer’s considerable stretching. Gradually gaps in the structure are filled in by the player, but the effect is enigmatic, with a Gallic touch rarely exploited here.

In the standard repertory, Jeffrey K. played with steady-as-she-goes refinement, devoid of flash. His Schubert (G Major Sonata, D. 894) was assertive, stentorian, disciplined, as if building unshakable columns to line his concert. His correct but formal interpretation with a percussive bent was more a battle to be won that a foray to smell the roses.

His Chopin (Sonata No. 3) was more compelling, with its dynamic contrasts and expansive nature, and virtuosic velocity executed in a blur in both the second and fourth movements. I particularly liked the barcarolle effect in the Largo.

Trending these days among recitalists is the banning of sheet music. Where a score is used at all, Kahane like others brings out an electronic-score pad, rendering page-turners obsolete. Batteries included, but the pianist still has to bring his own energy.

ARTS NOTES—Since 1988, Kahane has been more prominent as a conductor, as leader of the Colorado and (for 10 years) Santa Rosa Symphonies as well as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra….Two Californians have made it big in contrasting performing-arts specialties. Am I the only one noting the strong resemblance between the stand-up comic Josh Kornbluth and musician Kahane? (I expect to get two emails shortly: “He doesn’t look at all like me!”)

Jeffrey Kahane, in piano recital March 12 at Hertz Hall, Berkeley, presented by Cal Performances. Info on the latter: (510) 642-9988, or go online.



Is this the complete baroque opera mezzo we’ve been awaiting, carrying forward the long line of Horne, Hunt, Bartoli?

BERKELEY— Joyce DiDonato has it all, the consummate artist, the seamless Kansan singer who is radically revising the recital medium in her latest concept “In War & Peace: Harmony through Music.”

Her new concept, already booked into a 20-city international tour, involves a semi-staged performance of scenelets, equipped with mobile projections, elaborate lights, costumes, even a dancer. As well as a period-instruments ensemble, doubling as a foil for her theatrical migrations about stage. Despite some self-conscious misfires, it’s a promising start toward new directions in recitals.

She comes on stage, bruised and battered, with makeup like a victim of wartime bombing, yet dressed like an 18th-century Italian princess. Her theatrical bent is stunning, from the raging scenas by Handel and Leonardo Leo (a la Callas!) to the composure of operatic heroines Cleopatra, Orazia and Almirena. She puts to shame the opera world’s tubby tenors and immobile sopranos as she runs about the stage barefoot, even singing on the ground.

And what a voice!! Letter-perfect fast-flying coloratura, unerring pitch, no strain, no wobbles in her Dec. 4 matinee at Zellerbach Hall, with patrons paying close to $200 a ticket—a bargain. This is the super-artist that will have devotees hopping flights to whatever city just to hear her next gig, a singer-actress with a voice to put in the Ft. Knox vaults till the next outing.

The visuals about her still need some polishing up: Manuel Palazzo’s choreography and dancing were lackadaisical, and Stage Director Ralf Pleger needs to rework DiDonato’s encounters with the musicians, which seemed more awkward than playful.

She has recorded the whole program in a sonic tasting tour—all the audio, which however shows only a part of her ken, nothing close to a full picture of her art.

Above it all, DiDonato is a fervent activist for world peace, soliciting statements from all of her audience on distributed cards. She appended a talk on the subject, encouraging support. In the end she added an improbable encore of amazing fluidity, despite the stylistic gulf involved: Richard Strauss’ lied “Morgen” (Morning), in German. Having lived two years in Germany and Austria, I have never heard better lieder interpretation, even by natives.

She was beautifully accompanied by the Italian ensemble Pomo d’Oro under Director Maxim Emelyanychev, with a couple of the players drawn into her dramatics.

Her coming to Berkeley was a quasi-pilgrimage as she recalled Berkeley’s past activism, intermittent pacifism and informed-baroque-performance involvement. She also lavished high praise on Baroque Conductor and Cal Music Professor Alan Curtis (1934-2015), who had encouraged her to take on roles like Cleopatra. “We miss him terribly,” she confessed. Curtis, best known here for giving one of the first fully staged West Coast productions of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” nearly 50 years ago, had spent the latter part of his career conducting baroque opera in Italy and other European countries.

After this, will any one still dare to give recitals standing still on stage, with only a barren piano nearby?

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo, in semi-staged Baroque production, with ensemble, a presentation of Cal Performances. Info on CP: (510) 642-9988, or go online.