Question: What has 88 keys, a similar-sized row of felted hammers under the hood and will be heard again and again at the Mondavi Center during the 2014-15 season?
Answer: the piano, of course. And you’ll find pianists throughout the Mondavi season, which was announced Friday.
The keyboard performers range from Chinese-born classical artists like Lang Lang and Yuja Wang to the American-born classical artist Jeremy Denk and jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr., as well as the one-of-a-kind Louisiana legend Doctor John (making his first Mondavi appearance).
From the other side of the world, there is German orchestra conductor and piano soloist Christian Zacharias, plus a return engagement by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (whose fans include Margrit Mondavi) and the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky.
And pianist Lara Downes, a Mondavi resident artist, will work with cellist Zuill Bailey, performing American works by the likes of Copland and Bernstein.
Of course, it won’t be an all-piano year — and the non-keyboard artists likewise hail from around the globe. The season will open in September with Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso, who did much to launch the Tropicália style of Brazilian music in the 1960s.
Star violinist Itzhak Perlman, who’s been performing since the 1950s, is returning for another recital. Veteran folksinger/storyteller Arlo Guthrie will mark the 50th anniversary of the incident that inspired his famous, rambling 18-minute folk opus “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Veteran South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela will appear with vocalist Vusi Mahasela, who sang at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, with a concert titled “20 Years of Freedom.” Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq — born in Nunavut, a chilly territory where Canada meets the Arctic Seas — will perform original music to accompany a screening of the classic 1922 silent documentary film “Nanook of the North.”
British actor Julian Sands will perform a one-man celebration of the late playwright Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005. And the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, which charmed local audiences in 2013 with its irreverent approach, is coming back … a sort of crazy amalgam of Hawaiian instruments, English lunacy and iconic tunes.
A quick overview of the various series:
Conductor/pianist Christian Zacharias will lead the San Francisco Symphony in two works from the late 1700s, the Piano Concerto No. 20 by Mozart, and the Symphony No. 93 by Haydn, and two 20th century American works, Aaron Copland’s ballet score “Appalachian Spring” and “Madam Press Died Last Week at Ninety” written in 1970 by composer Morton Feldman.
The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra will visit Mondavi with a solidly Eastern European program, Janácek’s 1918 rhapsody “Taras Bulba”; the very popular Ninth Symphony (“From The New World”) by Dvorák, and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Lizst, with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The London Symphony Orchestra will visit Mondavi for the first time, with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Yuja Wang performing the “Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings” by Shostakovich, as well as the evergreen Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius.
The Orchestre de la Suisse Romand also will visit for the first time, with conductor Charles Dutoit conducting Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,” with pianist Nikolai Lugansky, and works by Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel.
And the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, under conductor Myung Whun Chung, will perform a suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and the Symphony No. 4 of Brahms.
The Curtis Chamber Orchestra, led by notable American conductor Robert Spano — who’s visited Mondavi in the past as a pianist — will give an “add-on” non-subscription concert with works by Prokofiev and Mozart, a viola concerto by American composer Jennifer Higdon, and works composed by Spano himself.
The Academy of Ancient Music — an English-period instrument ensemble — will perform the full set of surviving orchestral suites by J.S. Bach.
Another English group, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Orchestra, will present the famous Mendelssohn Octet (1825), the Septet by Richard Strauss (a score discovered in 199o, dating from the closing months of WWII), and Schoenberg’s late Romantic piece “Transfigured Night” (1899).
Three other recitals will feature, respectively, pianist Lang Lang, who packed Jackson Hall on his last visit, drawing hundreds of Chinese and Chinese American patrons; pianist Jeremy Denk, who returns on his own after accompanying Joshua Bell several years ago; and the perennially popular violinist Itzhak Perlman.
The Akram Khan Company returns with a large and ambitious new work titled “iTMOi” — In The Mind of Igor — a tip of the hat to composer Igor Stravinsky and his famous score “The Rite of Spring.” The Mondavi performance will be the work’s American premiere, and its only West Coast appearance this season.
It will be the biggest dance production that Mondavi has hosted since “Blanche Neige” (“Snow White”) by Ballet Preljocaj in 2012. Curiously, both “iTMOi” and “Blanche Neige” involve stories in which an unfortunate woman dances herself to death.
Also on the dance series will be performer Wendy Whelan, long associated with the New York City Ballet, in an evening titled “Restless Creature.”
And Ballet BC — hailing from British Columbia — will present an evening featuring two works.
The Canadian connection carries over into the set of performances titled “Visions,” which is not a subscription series but will be sold as add-on events. One such performance will feature Schubert songs sung by Philippe Sly, a French-Canadian bass-baritone and former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow featured at Mondavi’s “Rising Stars of Opera” concert in 2013.
The Visions performances also include a return engagement by the So Percussion ensemble, which will be appearing as part of a festival titled “Music and Words.”
Possibly the season’s most unconventional evening will be “EarFilms,” during which the audience will be blindfolded and then surrounded by the 3-D sounds of a cinematic score. The vision-limited audience is invited to conjure mental images inspired by the sound extravaganza coming in through their ears.
Pianist and jazz dynasty patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr. and his son, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, will perform material from their soon-to-be-released album, “The Last Southern Gentleman,” which draws on blues and ballads from the American South. Delfeayo performed at Mondavi in 2008 and 2010. Ellis Marsalis will turn 80 in November.
The Southern theme carries over into another concert featuring trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Other events in the series feature a trio led by pianist Brad Mehldau, who spent his childhood in Florida, and a concert by jazz singer and recent Grammy winner (2014′s Best Jazz Vocal album) Gregory Porter, who grew up in Bakersfield. Porter has developed a habit of going on stage wearing a modified flat cap, which Porter refers to as his “jazz hat.”
Studio Jazz series
Presented in the Vanderhoef Studio Theater in a cabaret configuration, this series brings artists for a four-night stay. The coming season will feature groups led by vocalist Cyrille Aimée, pianist Billy Childs and saxophonist Donny McCaslin, respectively.
American Heritage series
The season’s Southern undercurrent is manifested here with the appearance by New Orleans artist Dr. John; also a concert by violinist Regina Carter. Often classified as a jazz violinist, Carter will play a program titled “Southern Comfort” that will include folk songs and spiritual that were popular during the lifetime of her grandfather, who was a coal miner in Alabama.
Folk singer Arlo Guthrie’s concert is also on this series.
There is also a related stand-alone concert featuring a group called the Hot Sardines, who draw on New Orleans-style brass and Fats Waller-style piano.
With a Twist series
Three returning artists known for a certain degree of irreverence are featured: the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain; the urbane 1920s-style German crooner Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester; and public radio’s Ira Glass (of the popular program “This American Life”), who will visit with a show aptly titled “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host” in which Glass will employ his trademark style of storytelling and do a bit of hoofing.
This series — focusing on acrobatics, illusions and modern cirque-style shows — will include the first Mondavi appearance of the long-established Swiss ensemble Mummenschanz, the debut visit by the French Canadian cirque group Les 7 Doigts de la Main (“The 7 Fingers of the Hand”), and the inaugural appearance of the American ensemble Quixotic, which mixes electronic music, dance, masks and costumes, and stage effects.
Children’s Stage series
An appearance by prototype “mad inventor” Dr. Professor Tomás Kubinek; a storytelling show based on the book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”; and a family-oriented concert with storytelling based on Lemony Snicket’s book “The Composer Is Dead.”
* Two concerts recalling historic wars: the men’s choral group Cantus with a December performance of its concert/theater piece “All Is Calm,” marking the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Christmas Truce of 1914; and “1865,” a program of American songs timed for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, performed by the female vocal quartet Anonymous 4.
* Another public radio personality: sardonic humorist and storyteller David Sedaris, who sold out the house in his two previous Mondavi appearances.
* A Christmas concert by Mariachi Sol de Mexico, and the annual December visit by the American Bach Soloists, performing the Handel oratorio “Messiah.”
* A three-program series by the Alexander String Quartet, which has been featured in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre each season since 2002. This year the focus will be on late chamber works by Mozart — pieces that were not included in a Mozart series the group presented eight or nine years ago.
* The Distinguished Speaker series, featuring former CIA analyst and targeting officer Nada Bakos; LGBT rights activist Dan Savage; and Temple Grandin, who is a professor of animal science, and is also autistic adult. (Grandin’s book, “Thinking in Pictures,” is the year’s Campus Community Book Project at UC Davis.)
* A return visit by the Celtic band Danú, which marks its 20th anniversary this season.
As always, the season includes several “distinguished elders,” including Perlman (nearing his 70th birthday), Caetano Veloso (71) and Ellis Marsalis (79). The classical programming features several orchestras that have not been here before, with music reflecting something of a “Vienna-through-Prague-and-into-Russia” tilt, in addition to multiple piano soloists.
The traditions of the Deep South come in for particular attention among the nonclassical offerings. The season also continues the recent trend of events featuring public radio personalities, who seem to draw very well here.
After presenting larger-than-usual 100-or-so event seasons during 2012-13 (the Mondavi Center’s 10th anniversary) carrying over into 2013-14, the 2014-15 season returns to the somewhat smaller dimensions of the seasons in 2009-11 — about 60 ensembles in all, with a total of 88 performances over the season.
The details of the 2014-15 season will be posted Saturday on the Mondavi Center website — www.mondaviarts.org — with the season brochure available there in download form. Subscriptions go on sale Saturday through the website and the box office (in person, or by calling 530-754-2787).
There will be an open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 3, at the Mondavi Center for one-on-one assistance in ordering subscriptions. Single tickets will go on sale on Aug. 15.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.