For lovers of Baroque music and Cheese Board pizza, here’s a unique concert you won’t want to miss.
In Berkeley composer Tracy Randolph’s new mini-opera, “Vivaldi in Berkeley,” Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi is flung through space and time and lands in current-day North Berkeley, specifically, the line to the ever-popular Cheese Board Collective. He falls in love with the unique sourdough pizza and bursts into song as he makes his way down Shattuck and then toward South Berkeley.
The mini-opera “Vivaldi in Berkeley” will be held 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at LIFE Adventist Church of Berkeley, 2236 Parker St. The event is free, but donations are welcome.
Part comedic and contemplative, Randolph’s previously unperformed mini-opera, composed in 2019 before the pandemic, is a nod to the city’s homeless crisis, and a fitting one given that the real-life Vivaldi, who suffered from health problems, is said to have died in poverty.
In one recitative, he offers a busking saxophonist some pizza. In another, Vivaldi wanders through the Here/There encampment in South Berkeley (which was shut down in February), where he meets an unhoused mother and child and realizes that he, too, is unhoused.
Randolph, who intended the opera as her “love letter” to unhoused residents, said the September expiration of the city’s pandemic eviction moratorium makes it especially timely. (Berkeley’s eviction numbers have been slowly rising since.) However, she added, “In a way, this piece is timeless because I think we will unfortunately always have this problem. Vivaldi himself died unhoused — you just never know when your circumstances will shift, and you run into problems with paying bills and paying your rent, and you wind up without a home.”
The South Berkeley Chamber Ensemble and tenor Sidney Ragland, playing Vivaldi, will give the world premiere of Randolph’s mini-opera on Nov. 4 at a benefit concert for the Suitcase Clinic. The humanitarian student organization operates three drop-in centers in Berkeley, one for women and another for youth and the LGBTQ+ community. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. The concert will be followed by a community Cheese Board pizza party.
Advocacy has been a part of the SBCE’s mission since its inception in 2018, when lifelong activist and Friends of Adeline founder Margy Wilkinson and her husband, Tony Wilkinson, invited a group of politically-minded classical musicians living on Ellis Street, including Randolph, to play in a fundraiser for the East Bay Community Law Center. The ensemble was based out of the South Berkeley Community Church until 2022, when it relocated to LIFE Church, which also houses the Suitcase Clinic’s drop-in center for women.
“The flame beneath our fire was and remains Margy and Tony Wilkinson: South Berkeley Chamber Ensemble would not exist if [they] hadn’t knocked on our front doors and struck up conversations with all of us about banding together for the 2018 EBCLC concert,” Randolph wrote in an email. “Their examples of what it means to organize and advocate for unhoused people inspire me to keep building up South Berkeley Chamber Ensemble as a musical and political platform.”
Other works on the program include saxophonist Greg Brown’s performance of his own jazz arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Winter” (from Four Seasons) and San Francisco composer Jaco Wong’s Olēka, a work that grapples with our uneven perception of time: days feel long, yet years slip by quickly.
Olēka was commissioned during the COVID-19 pandemic and first performed by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. Wong, who also serves as the Oakland Symphony’s assistant conductor, will conduct his piece as well as Randolph’s mini-opera.
“It was the pandemic, and I was watching a lot of different things, reading a lot of different things,” Wong said when asked to share his thought process behind the work. Chief among them were psychology studies that drew links between a person’s mental state and their perception of time. It’s reflected in the work, which gradually “morphs from one sonic environment to the next.” In other words, it’s meant to make you think: A minute ago, it sounded so different — how did I end up here?
Wong’s other musical influences include the discographies of Icelandic pop-electronic artist Olafur Arnalds, Canto-pop star Leslie Cheung and Bruno Mars, as well as the 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich — though the snippets he draws from are so discreet that even someone with a keen ear would have trouble identifying them.
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