Friday, June 15, 2018

Met Museum: American Painters in Italy

Tucked away on the American Wing's mezzanine, the Met Museum's current exhibit, American Painters in Italy, is a delightful reminder of the era before World War I when American artists still found it de rigueur to make a pilgrimage to Europe in order to study and copy the works of the old masters, thereby acknowledging that however wealthy the United States may have been at the turn of the twentieth century it still lacked any real confidence in its own art and culture.

As one looks at the works by John Singer Sargent (who was actually born in Italy), George Henry SmillieGeorge Inness, and William Stanley Haseltine one is reminded irresistably of the novels of Henry James.  There is about these paintings the languor of Americans making the Grand Tour, staying at the finest hotels and mingling with the best society while forever painting and sketching their picturesque surroundings.  And it's this glimpse of a vanished world that gives to their works a strong sense of nostalgia.  Though Picasso and Matisse were already active in this period, other than in the works of Maurice Prendergast there is little sense here of the modernist revolution that was about to engulf twentieth century art.  Even the single work on display by James McNeill Whistler, Note in Pink and Brown (charcoal and pastel, c. 1880), is thoroughly picturesque.

As the museum's website notes, the show has been divided into three parts:
"American Painters in Italy begins with views of the landscape around Rome, the Campagna, and southern Italy. The second section features images of Venice, which was a particularly popular destination for artists in the late nineteenth century. The final section focuses on works in which the artists copied Italian art as an educational exercise or to signify their sophistication and worldliness."
By far the most imteresting works art are those by Sargent to whom the lion's share of the exhibit has rightfully been devoted.  His watercolors are not detailed but rather evocative, and it is their suggestiveness that captures the viewer's attention as the scenes depicted are vividly brought to life.  Among these are the Venetian street scenes which eschew studies of the major monuments in favor of  more intimate glimpses of backwater canals and alleyways not frequented by tourists.  The best of these is Venetian Canal (watercolor and graphite, 1913) that contains a distant view of the Church of San Barnaba.  In subject matter and style it stands in marked contrast to Prendergast's Rialto Bridge (watercolor and graphite, c. 1911-1912) whose bright colors fail to mask the trite choice of subject matter.

Perhaps the finest work at the exhibit is Sargent's Tiepelo Ceiling, Milan (watercolor and graphite, c. 1898-1900), a brilliantly colored phantasmagoria that is not so much a study of the palazzo's ceiling as a reimagining of it.

There are several other works - such as Jasper Francis Cropsey's Torre dei Schiavi, The Roman Campagna (white gouache and graphite, 1853) and William Stanley Haseltine's Baths of Trajan (watercolor, gouache and charcoal, c. 1882) - that are most interesting for the views they provide of nineteenth century Italy before it was forever ruined by modern day tourism.

The exhibit continues through June 17, 2018.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Naumburg Bandshell Concerts

This summer in Central Park there will once again be free outdoor classical music concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell.  It's a series that features top level orchestras as well as lesser known ensembles performing selections that range from the classical to the avant garde in a fairly intimate setting near Bethseda Fountain.  This summer's schedule is as follows:

  • Tuesday, June 12th - Ensemble LPR
  • Tuesday, June 26th - Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
  • Tuesday, July 10th - A Far Cry
  • Tuesday, July 17th - The Knights
  • Tuesday, July 31st - Orchestra of St. Luke's

As mentioned, all concerts are free and no tickets are required.  They begin at 7:30, weather permitting, and last approximately two hours.  Most, if not all, will doubtlessly be broadcast live on New York City's classical music station WQXR.

Detailed program information can be found on the Naumburg website.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 4

On Tuesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the final musical event of my 2017-2018 season as Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Met Orhestra in a program that included yet another Mahler symphony, by my count the seventh I've heard this season.

The program opened with Evocations (1934-1943) by Carl Ruggles, a composer with whom I'd previously been unfamiliar.  Tilson Thomas has always been a great champion of Charles Ives, so it only makes sense that he would also promote the music of another idiosyncratic American composer.  (Another link between Ruggles and Ives was John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who premiered Ives's Concord Sonata and to whom the second movement of Evocations was dedicated.)  And idiosyncratic Ruggles most certainly was, both in his personal life and his career as a composer.  He wrote relatively few pieces in spite of having enjoyed an extraordinarily long lifespan and spent an inordimante amount of time on the composition of each.  His works have been compared to those of Schoenberg, though Ruggles had no connection with the Second Viennese School or, for that matter, with any European composers.  The present work was originally written for solo piano and was only later arranged for orchestra.  It was an impressive piece, roughly twelve minutes long, and received a huge round of applause from the audience.

The next work was Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165 (1773) and featured soprano Pretty Yende as soloist.  The work, written when the composer was only 16 years old, is in the form of a motet, an ambiguous term defined by one of Mozart's contemporaries as follows:
"In Italy nowadays this term is applied to a Latin sacred solo cantata consisting of two arias and two recitatives, concluding with a Hallelujah, and sung during the Mass following the Credo, generally by one of the best singers."
The work was in fact composed in Italy where Mozart had traveled with his father for a performance of his opera Lucio Silla.  While working on the opera in Milan, Mozart and Leopold renewed their acquaintace with the multitalented castrato Venanzio Rauzzini whom they had previously met in Vienna and for whom Mozart composed the present work.  At least one source has noted the structural similarities it shares with the violin concerti Mozart was soon to write.  To me it had much more an operatic character than a liturgical.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900).  This was the last of the composer's "Wunderhorn symphonies" and was built around a single song Mahler had adapted from that collection; entitled Das himmlische Leben, the 1892 piece was a song of innocence told from the point of view of child.  Mahler had originally intended to use it in the finale of the Symphony No. 3 but then decided to drop the entire movement in which it was to appear and instead built the following symphony around it.  Thus, in a sense, the No. 4 becomes a continuation of the No. 3 and by extension of the two that preceded it so that all four become parts of a larger whole.  Everything in the first three movements of the No. 4 leads up to the soloist's part in the final movement.  As more than one commentator has noted, it is a progression from dark to light  If the No. 4 is the most popular of Mahler's symphonies this has as much do to the gentle childlike verses that end it as to the entire work's brevity (it is the shortest of all the symphonies and uses a smaller orchestra than the others while following Haydn's classical four movment structure).

Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the foremost American conductors (though these days that's not saying a great deal) and is to be praised for consistently bringing attention to lesser known works.  His conducting on Tuesday evening was by far the best of the Met Orchestra's current three-concert series.  At the helm of a truly excellent ensemble, he led one of the finest performances of Mahler's Fourth that I've heard.   Soloist  Pretty Yende, who has become something of fixture at the Met, was superb on both the Mozart and Mahler works.  This was as fine a way to end the season as I could have wished.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 5

Earlier this week I went to hear the second of the Met Orchestra's three subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall.  This has been a great season in New York City for those with a love of Mahler's music - I'd already attended five performances of his works before this - and on this occasion still another of his symphonies was featured together with one of Mozart's greatest works for violin.

The program opened with a performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (1775) that featured as soloist James Ehnes,  a musician whom I had heard earlier this season for the first time when he played Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic.  The Mozart concerto is of course one of the most popular in the violin repertoire, a tour de force that is even more impressive when one considers that at the time of its composition Mozart was only nineteen years old.  It's filled with inventive touches.  For example, in the opening movement the fast allegro-aperto is abruptly interrupted upon the violin's first appearance; the instrument is introduced by a far slower adagio before the orchestra quickly returns to the original tempo.  And the stirring "Turkish" music that forms part of the final movement rondo is not only an original touch but also anticipates by seven years that used in the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Mozart was himself an expert violinist and it's curious that after having completed this work he ceased writing concerti for the instrument.  The reason perhaps is that the composer, once he had resettled in Vienna, wanted to establish his repuation as a piano virtuoso at a time when the fortepiano was still something of a novelty.  He may also have wanted to create an identity separate from that of his father Leopold, a formidable violinist who had authored one of the eighteenth century's most authoritative textbooks for that instrument.

After intermission, the concert ended with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902).  Marking the start of a new century as well as a new direction in the composer's music, the No. 5 moved away from the programmatic content of the first four symphonies, collectively known as the Wunderhorn symphonies, to the sphere of absolute music.  This shift certainly reflected a new self-confidence on Mahler's part.  He was sure enough of himself, and his music, that he felt he no longer needed sung texts or ambiguous program notes to make himself understood.  He had now not only reached the pinnacle of his conducting career as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, then regarded as the world's finest, but he had also become engaged to Alma, "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna."   (It's almost obligatory to mention at this point that the fourth movement adagietto, whose correct tempo is forever argued among composers, was intended as an engagement present to Alma.)  But the fact that Mahler went back some ten years later to revise the orchestration is an indication that he may have overestimated his abilites.  As Jens Malte Fischer notes:
"In a letter to conductor Georg Göhler, he [Mahler] admitted that even as a forty-year-old composer at the height of his powers, he could still commit the sort of mistakes that a novice might make: the experience acquired in his first four symphonies let him down - a new style needed a new technique.  But while working of the Fifth Symphony he was not yet aware of this shortcoming."
Nor is the No. 5 without flaws even in the revised version.  The ending of the final movement is not entirely satsifying and suggests that Mahler, after the bold innovations of the earlier movements, was at a loss how to top them and so instead settled for what was essentially a compromise.

Each of the orchestra's three performances this season features a different conductor, and on this occasion it was the turn of Gianandrea Noseda whom I've heard several times at the Met and as a guest conductor with the London Symphony in a performance of Verdi's Requiem.  He's an excellent conductor and did extremely well with the Mozart concerto.  The rendition of Mahler's symphony, however, while certainly competent, left something to be desired.  Though the Met Orchestra is a world class ensemble, one had the impression while listening that not all the msuic's nuances were thoroughly realized.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Summer Break

Today is Memorial Day, the unofficial start to summer here in the US, and I suppose it's as good a time as any to remind readers that this is a seasonal blog.  Aside from two more Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, I won't be attending any more classical music events until fall when the new season gets underway.  I will still occasionally be posting my thoughts on art and photo exhibits I see over the summer months, but other than that this blog will be largely dormant until at least late September.

My other blog, Central Park Blues, will remain active and I hope readers will take the time to visit it.  Readers will find there samples of my photography as well as one of my novels, The Dark Veil, in serialized form.

I hope everyone has an enjoyable summer.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Galerie St. Etienne: Expressionist Art

The full title of the current exhibit at the Galerie St. Etienne is Drawing the Line: Realism and Abstraction in German Art, and it's accompanied by a scholarly essay that makes excellent reading for anyone with an interest in Expressionist art.  I have to admit, though, perhaps because it was such a delightful spring day when I visited, that I was far less interested in observing the distinctions between the "intensive" and the "extensive" than in the simple aesthetic pleasure of viewing so many masterpieces gathered at a single venue.  Altogether, the works of some eighteen artists, a veritable Who's Who of twentieth century German art, are on display.

Max Beckmann is represented by several graphic works, the most interesting of which, I thought, was the pen and pencil drawing Reclining Woman (1945) that shows a fully clothed woman lying on a couch with her legs drawn up and her face covered by one hand.  Was she ashamed to be drawn in such a pose?  The other Beckman work to catch my attention, and for that matter one of the  highlights of the exhibit, was the 1924 oil on canvas Portrait of Irma Simon that shows a modestly dressed young woman seated on a wicker chair.  I had never before heard of Irma Simon but, after having done some online research, found reference to her (if indeed it is the same woman) in Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany by Marion A. Kaplan that describes a horrific struggle to survive as a Jew in Nazi German.

Otto Dix, the only major German artist to have served all four years of World War I on the front lines, has several graphic works in the show, including two lithographs from 1923,  The Madam and Mediterranean Sailor that are notable for the extreme naturalism with which these two disturbing characters have been delineated.  Also by Dix is a drawing entitled Madonna.  Completed in 1914, it gives the viewer a rare glimpse of Dix's pre-war style.  It's interesting to speculate how his art would have evolved if it had not been so traumatically interrupted by the war.

Aside from a gorgeous black crayon drawing, Female Nude, Back View, and his poster for the 49th Secession exhibition, both from 1918, there are also on view two early works by Egon Schiele.  These are Two Peasant Women (colored crayon, 1908) and Study for a Never Executed Painting (watercolor, 1912) that have no parallels in his later oeuvre

Among the other works that most struck my attention were, in no particular order: Nude in Garden (oil on canvas, 1908) by Richard Gerstl, who only recently had his first one-man American show at the Neue Galerie; Reclining Female Nude with Upraised Head (pencil drawing, 1927) by George Grosz; Fanny in Armchair (lithograph, 1916) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; two wonderful pen and ink drawings, St. Christopher (c. 1912-1915) and Witches' Sabbath (1918) by Alfred KubinNude Girl in Front of a Mirror (lithograph, 1924) by Otto Mueller; Christ and the Sinner (etching, 1911) and Prophet (woodcut, 1912) by Emil Nolde; and finally, if only because I'd heard the week before performances of Mahler's No. 9 and Das Lied von der ErdeOskar Kokoschka's 1913 red crayon drawing of Alma Mahler, Sleeping Woman in Deck Chair.

There are, of course, many other works at this show that are well worth viewing and it is only the lack of space that keeps me from mentioning them all.

The exhibit continues through July 6, 2018.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first of the three concerts given annually by the Met Orchestra following the end of the opera season.  On this occasion, the orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, currently music director of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, performed a fairly conservative program that featured the works of three prominent late-nineteenth century composers - Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

The concert opened with Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894).  So little does this short work resemble any known nineteenth century musical genre that Pierre Boulez deemed it the beginning of modern music.  It might possibly be considered a tone poem, but the music is not really programmatic despite its source in Mallarmé's poem which actually when read evokes a completely different mood.  The music is not so much modernist as impressionist (no matter how much Debussy detested the term) and I think it's best viewed as a recreation in musical form of a series of sensuous experiences.  The composer himself described it as "a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams..."  As such, it readily lent itself to adaptation into one of the Ballets Russes best known, and most scandalous, dance works.  Many years ago, I saw a performance by the Joffrey Ballet that attempted to recreate the original productions of both Le sacre du printemps and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, including both costumes and choreography. It was an excellent realization of the mood Debussy sought to create and brought to life the sense of unfulfilled longing that suffuses the music.

The next work was Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death (1877), here presented in the 1962 orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich and sung by mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili.  This is a work I can never remember having heard before, even though it's one of the composer's masterpieces as well as arguably the most important song cycle in the Russian musical tradition.  It consists of four songs - Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak (a type of Cossack dance) and The Field Marshal - each of which portrays Death as a wily figure who most often takes his victims by subterfuge.  The entire cycle was completed only four years before Mussorgsky's own premature death at age 42, but there is no hint of self-pity in these pieces.  Instead, they are curiously detached and more than a little macabre.  They certainly had a great impact on Shostakovich who went on to add to the cycle in his own Fourteenth Symphony.  

Mussorgsky's music turned out to be the highlight of the concert.  Ms. Rachvelishvili turned in an impressive performance on a truly demanding piece.  I'm hopeful I'll hear her sing again sometime in the near future.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878).  In listening to this work, it's almost impossible to get around its nickname of "Fate" that was first given it by the composer himself when describing to Nadezhda von Meck, who had only recently become his patroness and to whom he dedicated the work, the fanfare that opens the first movement. 
"The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea: This is Fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul. It is an invincible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, hopelessly."
Tchaikovsky's negative view of fate must at least in part have resulted from the extremely brief and extremely unhappy marriage he had just suffered through.  His nine weeks with the hapless Antonina Milyukova, whom he may only have married in the first place to mask his homosexuality, no doubt left him despairing he could ever attain any really happiness in life.  Such a reading is borne out by the fourth and final movement.  Here the mood is generally upbeat until the Fate theme returns and darkens the music.  It's as if Tchaikovsky were saying that just as one begins to feel he or she has moved on from tragedy and is once again capable of enjoying life, destiny inevitably comes knocking and reveals happiness to be no more than an elusive chimera.