Friday, April 28, 2017

Juilliard Lab Orchestra: Britten and Brahms

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the a performance, part of the Wednesdays at One series, given by the Juilliard Lab Orchestra.  The orchestra was led by four different conductors, each of whom took turns conducting one movement apiece on each of the program's two four-movement works.  The conductors, in order of appearance, were Gregor A. Mayrhofer, Jesse Brault, Benjamin Hochman and Jane H. Kim.

The first piece was Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945).  The opera was one of Britten's greatest successes.  Originally conceived while he and his partner Peter Pears were living in California as conscientious objectors to World War II, its story was taken from a narrative poem by George Crabbe that told of a villainous sea captain who murdered his apprentices.  Crabbe was a native of Aldeburgh, a town on England's Suffolk coast that was not coincidentally also the birthplace of Britten, and set his poem there.  Reading it made both Britten and Pears decide it was time to return England where they immediately set about drafting the opera to a libretto by Montagu Slater.  The character of Grimes underwent a transformation as the work progressed and metamorphosed into a much more complex individual, a loner who stands against a society that wishes to destroy him because it cannot understand him.  In that sense Grimes stood in for both Britten and Pears who felt ostracized not only as conscientious objectors but also as homosexuals.  The four interludes (selected from a total of six) had been written for no other reason than to fill the time needed to make backstage scene changes, but in themselves they surprisingly caught very well the entire spirit of the project.  Titled "Dawn," "Sunday morning," "Moonlight" and "Storm," they formed a suite that was almost symphonic in breadth exactly as if Britten had composed them as an independent tone poem.

The second and final work on the program was Brahms's Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883).  This was the shortest of Brahms's four symphonies and in some ways the most straightforward.  Built around the musical motto F-A-F (for frei aber froh, "free but happy"), it was composed in only four months.  Perhaps what was most striking about the work was its lack of drama.  By the time it was written, Brahms was no longer laboring, as he had in the Symphony No. 1, to produce a work that could stand beside Beethoven's.  Here there was none of the earlier symphony's turmoil and, significantly, all the movements ended quietly with no overwhelming crescendo of sound.  Although still only age 50 at the time he composed it, Brahms was already winding down in his aspirations.  Regarded as Europe's greatest living composer (his foremost rival Wagner had died only a few months before), he had little left to prove.  This work strikes the listener above all else simply as a well crafted piece of music.  It's tightly knit and cohesive and goes about its business without any pretentious airs, the work of a master fully confident in his abilities.

Like Juilliard's other musical groups, the Lab Orchestra, under the direction of Alan Gilbert, is a professional level ensemble that yesterday gave a fully satisfying performance of two complex pieces.  Without the aid of an experienced conductor and with a necessarily high rate of turnover among the orchestra's musicians, the quality of its performance was nonetheless impeccable and set a standard that should be the envy of many more established chamber orchestras.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Haydn, Telemann, Fasch and Beethoven

Yesterday, I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the last of the four annual recitals the Juilliard415 stages at that venue.  As theirs is a two-year graduate program, I imagine this was one of the final opportunities some members of the ensemble will have to perform together before graduation next month.  They made the most of the occasion with a 90 minute performance that featured a number of works from the entire length of the eighteenth century.

The program opened with Haydn's Divertimento a sei in C major, Hob. II/11 (1765) subtitled Der Geburtstag ("The Birthday") for flute, oboe, two violins, cello and Viennese bass.  For some reason, the otherwise excellent program notes failed to note the occasion for which this piece was given its sobriquet.  Haydn had already taken up his position as Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family by the date of its composition, so it can be assumed the piece was written to commemorate the birthday of a family member if not of Prince Paul Anton himself.  It's not an entirely original work - the theme of the finale is based on the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No.14 in A major, Hob. I:14 (1761-1763) - but it nonetheless affords the listener an opportunity to hear this great composer at a very early point in his career long before he had established himself as the father of both the symphony and the string quartet.

The next set of musicians to take the stage (there were 26 in all) performed two short works - the Trio Sonata in F major, Op. 9, No. 6 (1772) by Carl Friedrich Abel followed by yet another Trio Sonata in F major, this a much earlier work from 1718 by Georg Philipp Telemann.  Both pieces were arranged for violin, cello and theorbo.  The trio sonata, first developed by Corelli in the seventeenth century, was the defining genre of the Baroque era and in hearing these two pieces one was better able to understand how composers developed it in the eighteenth.  Its use by Telemann, friend of both J.S. Bach and Handel and one of the best known composers of his time, was particularly instructive in its departure from the four-movement Corellian model.  At the time he wrote it, Telemann was still living in Frankfurt and had recently married for the second time.  He was extremely productive during his period and seems in works such as this to be deliberately striving to create an oeuvre of the broadest popular appeal.

Afterwards, another group of musicians performed the Divertimento in G minor by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello here arranged for violin, bassoon and harpsichord.  Brescianello was Italian by birth but held a number of positions in Germany.  He is perhaps best remembered for his quarrel with Reinhard Keiser over the directorship of the Stuttgart Opera.  Brescianello was never particularly successful as a composer and the present Divertimento was probably the weakest piece at yesterday's recital.

The program then returned to Telemann's music for a performance of the Quartet No. 1 in D major  from Nouveaux quatuors (1738) for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.  This was one of what are now known as the Paris Quartets, written on the occasion of the composer's visit to that city at the invitation of several French musicians.  Telemann was by now one of the most famous composers in Europe and at least part of his fame may have been due to the galant style of his compositions.  Rather than the slow/fast/slow/fast four-movement style of Corelli, Telemann adopted a much looser structure marked by such directions as soave and tendrement and incorporating dance movements as well.  Although the present performance made use of a cello, Telemann also produced an alternative score that employed a viola da gamba in its place.  This is especially notable in that the cello at points was given an independent role rather than simply forming part of the continuo.

Next was the Sonata for Violin, Oboe, Bassoon and Continuo (i.e., bass, theorbo and harpsichord) by Johann Friedrich Fasch.  Though highly esteemed by Bach, Fasch has been all but forgotten today.  That is due largely to the fact that he never published any of his work during his lifetime while the greater part of it was subsequently lost.  Written in Corelli's slow/fast/slow/fast four-movement style mentioned above, the present piece is notable for the unusual combination of instruments used in its composition.  

The recital then ended with a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1799), certainly one of the last works to have been composed in the eighteenth century and not actually published until the nineteenth.  With this piece, the program moved from the Baroque well into the Classical period.  It provided a nice symmetry for the recital as a whole which opened with an early Divertimento by Haydn - who, until the composition of his Op. 20, also referred to his string quartets by the same term - to the first set of quartets composed by his most famous student.  Though the Op. 18 pieces seem fairly tame compared to what Beethoven would later produce, these quartets belong to another world altogether than that in which Haydn composed his Divertimento only 34 years before.  These works are also significant for giving, in the La malinconia section of the No. 6, the first indication of the direction the composer would take as he moved toward his middle period.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven

Yesterday's 1:00 p.m. chamber music recital at Morse Hall was fairly brief, only a about an hour in length, but featured two major works by Beethoven taken from different periods in his career.

The program opened with the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808).  Not nearly as famous as its companion piece, the "Ghost," the No. 2 is nevertheless a major work.  At the time he wrote it, Beethoven was at the height of his powers and so confident in his abilities that he no longer worried himself over comparisons to his predecessors.  He could instead afford to pay an appreciative tribute in this work to his old teacher Haydn.  The trio's opening, for example, in its use of a slow introduction followed by a lively allegro hearkens back to Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," also in the key of E-flat major, while the double variation in the second movement allegretto mimics the use of that same device in the symphony's second movement andante.  But Beethoven then proceeds to dazzle his audience with audacious innovations that demonstrate he owes nothing to anyone.  This can best be seen in the recapitulation of the opening movement's first theme, introduced in D-flat major by the cello only to be immediately taken up by the piano in E-flat major, a correction so swift and drastic it seems more a coup d'etat.  But it is when comparing the present piece to Haydn's own piano trios that the differences between the two composers can best be appreciated.  Although Haydn composed some forty-five trios, many of them of the highest quality, he invariably assigned the most importance to the piano part and used the strings primarily as accompaniment.  In so doing, he was following the tradition of the Baroque trio sonata, in which one or two instruments are given prominence as "soloists" while the others, generally harpsichord and cello, are used as continuo.  In contrast, Beethoven here gives all three instruments major roles in working out his musical ideas.  As a result, this work is necessarily more complex and better balanced than the trios of Haydn.  The interaction among the three instruments imbues the trio with greater depths of expression than would otherwise be possible.

The trio was performed by Chener Yuan, violin, Yifei Li, cello, and Jiaxin Min, piano, and was coached by Natasha Brofsky.

After a brief intermission, the program closed with the Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 30, No. 1 (1801-1802),  This is a generally unassuming piece of music - and is for that very reason the least often performed of the three Op. 30 sonatas - but is all the same noteworthy for its date of composition.  All three of the Op. 30 sonatas were completed in the summer of 1802 while Beethoven was residing in Heiligenstadt, then a sleepy village on the outskirts of Vienna.  It was here that he penned his famous Testament in which he rejected the notion of suicide and determined instead to continue on as a composer until he had exhausted his creativity.  This, of course, is the very essence of Romanticism as the tragic hero embraces his fate and at the same time seeks to overcome it.  It also marks the beginning of the composer's middle period in the course of which he would produce only three years later the revolutionary Symphony No. 3, the Eroica.  Little of this drama, however, is to be heard in the present violin sonata.  In fact, the middle movement adagio is one of the loveliest and most serene Beethoven ever composed.  Even more to the point, Beethoven removed the virtuosic rondo with which he had originally intended to conclude the work (he would later use it for the closing of the Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer") and inserted in its place a playful set of variations, a form of ending he did not often employ at this point in his career.  One has to wonder if he were not perhaps trying to distance himself from the tumult of his personal life by immersing himself in writing a work that was so deliberately low key as this.  

The musicians were Rannveig Sarc, violin, and Minjung Jung, piano; they were coached by Laurie Smukler and Jonathan Feldman.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Roger Norrington Conducts Mozart

On Thursday evening I walked down to Carnegie Hall to hear a performance of an all-Mozart program given by the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of guest conductor Roger Norrington.  Though the orchestra is based in New York City, this was the first time I'd heard one of its concerts in several seasons.  As for Mr. Norrington, I don't think I've seen him on the podium since the 1980's, and I'm not quite sure why that's the case.  I've always had a great respect of his abilities and own several of his recordings of which my favorite is Early Romantic Overtures with the London Classical Players.  He remains the acknowledged leader of the period instruments movement as well as a renowned authority on Mozart and several other eighteenth and nineteenth century composers.

The program opened with the Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319 (1779).  It's a generally lighthearted work that belies the composer's unhappiness at the time he wrote it.  Recently returned from a trip to Mannheim, Munich and Paris, in the course of which he had not only been unable to find work but had lost his mother, Mozart was desperately unhappy in Salzburg, a backward provincial town where he was kept firmly under the thumb of his tyrannical patron Archbishop Colloredo.  What's even more striking is that Mozart only added the dark and gloomy third movement when he was preparing to have the work published in 1785.  He was by then in Vienna, newly married and enjoying great popularity as an artist.  The only explanation I can think of is that he felt the symphony to be too lightweight in its original three movement format and decided to add the menuetto and trio to give it more substance.

The next work was the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (1785) and featured British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist.  At the time Mozart composed the K. 466 he was at the height of his popularity in Vienna.  The concerto is actually the first of a several written for a highly remunerative series of subscription concerts.  In 1785, he would write two more, the K. 467 in C major (actually composed the same month as the K. 466) and the K. 482 in E-flat major, while in the following year he would pen the K. 488 in A major, the K. 491 in C minor, and the K. 503 in C major.  Taken together, all of them masterpieces of the genre, these constitute one of Mozart's greatest achievements as a composer.  Of them all, however, the K. 466 was the only one whose popularity was to endure into the nineteenth century's Romantic era.  It's easy to see why this would be the case.  Despite Mozart's new found prosperity, it's a stormy work whose dark musings could not fail to appeal to the Romantic temperament.  This is especially true of the finale, a tempestuous episode that moves from the home key of D minor to G minor before at last finding resolution in the key of D major, a change so abrupt it reminds one of the sun suddenly appearing as the storm clouds that have obscured it finally break.

This was the first time I'd seen Mr. Grosvenor perform - he's only age 24 - and the concerto certainly served as a great introduction to his considerable talents.  I was also intrigued by the way the stage was set up for his performance.  His Steinway, minus its cover, was put at right angles to the edge of the stage so that he had his back to the audience.  Mr. Norrington then seated himself directly behind the piano so that he faced both the pianist and audience.  The orchestra meanwhile was placed in a semicircle about the piano.  I'm not sure why this was done or what advantage it presented.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform the final work on the program, the Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425 (1783), nicknamed the "Linz" for the city in which was written.  Not that Mozart had planned beforehand to have one of his symphonies performed there.  Finding himself unexpectedly a guest of a local nobleman, one Count Thun, while returning to Vienna from Salzburg, Mozart was caught unawares when the the Count expressed a wish to give a concert of his music and was thus forced by necessity to compose an entire symphony in only four days.  There's nothing in the work, though, to indicate the haste with which it was written.  Along with the No. 38, written two years later, it lays the groundwork for the final three great symphonies.  Especially notable is the use of trumpets and percussion in the slow movement.

Before the concert began, Mr. Norrington addressed the audience for several minutes regarding historically informed performances.  His argument was that the music should be played in a  manner the composer would have expected and preferably on instruments that were familiar to him.  I don't necessarily agree with this.  I believe the music should conform to the standards of the era in which is played.  In this way the music is open to new interpretations that are just as valid as those that prevailed at the time it was composed.  Moreover, I feel that if Mozart were alive to today he would eagerly make use of the modern era's large scale orchestras.  He only wrote for smaller orchestras because that was all he had available to him.  And I'm sure Mozart would have jumped at the chance to play piano on a modern Steinway in place of the rickety fortepiano he actually owned.  What musician wouldn't?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Carter, Dorman and Mussorgsky

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to a recital at Paul Hall sponsored by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum.  There were only three pianists on hand and the performance of works by Beethoven, Elliott Carter, Avner Dorman, and Mussorgsky lasted little more than an hour.

The first musician to take the stage was Qi Kong who proceeded to play Beethoven's next to last piano sonata, the A-flat major, Op. 110 (1821-1822).  This piece is not played nearly so often as the final sonata, the Op. 111, but it is nevertheless one of the composer's greatest masterpieces and one of the finest compositions ever written for solo piano.  At the heart of it is the third movement, marked adagio, ma non troppo, in which Beethoven, seriously ill at the time, confronts his own mortality in a gloomy meditative passage filled with despair; its dark character hovers over the final movement that follows without pause.  The ending builds slowly to an affirmative climax in which the composer strives to overcome the insurmountable difficulties facing him and resolves to move forward whatever the cost.  Though filled with hope, this resolution is, however, not quite convincing.  The knowledge of death, no matter how bravely faced, lingers on.

The next musician was Qi Xu who performed works by two twenty-first century composers, Elliot Carter and Avner Dorman.  First was Carter's Caténaires (2006).  It's hard to believe that Carter was already 98 years old when he wrote this piece.  It's certainly not the work of an old man.  Carter himself wrote of it:
"When Pierre – Laurent Aimard, who performs so eloquently, asked me to write a piece for him, I became obsessed with the idea of a fast one line piece with no chords. It became a continuous chain of notes using different spacings, accents, and colorings, to produce a wide variety of expression."
The second piece was Dorman's Sonata No. 5.  I had not previously been familiar with any of Dorman's oeuvre though the composer, who holds a doctorate from Juilliard, is obviously quite highly regarded both here and in his native Israel.  His works have been performed by any number of major orchestras.  The present sonata must be a fairly recent piece as the Wikipedia listing of Dorman's works goes only so far as the Sonata No. 4 to which it assigns a composition date of 2011.  As it is, it proves a powerful modernist composition that bears little resemblance to the (somewhat) traditional Beethoven sonata performed earlier but that works very well when paired with the Carter piece.  These two works were for me the most interesting of the recital and I thought Qi Xu gave an excellent performance of both.

The final, and longest, performance was given by Hechengzi Li who played Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb orchestration, but Mussorgsky originally composed it as the virtuoso piano piece performed here.  It was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and other members of "the Five," Hartmann had been an strong advocate of promoting nationalist themes in Russian art. and this had formed the basis of the pair's close friendship.  Upon Hartmann's death, an exhibit of his artwork was staged in Saint Petersburg as a memorial to him.  It was while viewing the exhibit that Mussorgsky hit upon the concept of the work as a musical representation of a viewer passing through the show and pausing to look at one Hartmann picture after another.  Ironically, most of the original artwork has since been lost and it is only through Mussorgsky's music that these paintings now exist.  The music itself is much more powerful in the original piano version; it has a rawness and a hard edge that has been subsumed in Ravel's elegant transcription.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Met Opera: Aida

I went on Saturday to the Met Opera to hear the matinee performance of Aida, the opera Verdi had originally been commissioned to write for the opening of Cairo's Khedivial Opera House in 1869.  In the event, the opera was not actually performed there until 1871.  The delay was caused by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War; the hostilities made it impossible to safely ship Aida's costumes and sets to Egypt in time for the opening night festivities and Rigoletto was substituted in its place.  Although Aida had not been commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, as is often thought, the opera house itself had been built to commemorate the occasion.

Ever since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, that country had loomed large in the imagination of Europe and initiated what Said was in the twentieth century to term "Orientalism."  Idealized Mideastern settings became commonplace in French art as could be seen in the works of such prominent artists as Delacroix, Ingres and Gérôme. Verdi himself, however, was largely immune to this sentiment.  While he appreciated the commercial value of setting an opera in an exotic locale, he made no attempt to incorporate elements of Mideastern music in his score, as Mozart had done in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and never strayed far from the traditions of Italian opera when composing Aida.

Verdi had been paid handsomely to provide an overpowering spectacle in the tradition of grand opera.  He had already had great success in this genre as early as 1855 with Les vêpres siciliennes and more recently with Don Carlos in 1867, but one senses that Verdi was never entirely comfortable with such extravaganzas.  His forte had always been the composition of music that relentlessly drove the drama forward without the distractions, such as the mandatory second act ballet, that were an inevitable component of grand opera.  As a result, Aida is something of a hybrid.  While it does loosely follow the strictures of grand opera, particularly in the final scene of Act II that is almost entirely given  over to the triumphal march at the gates of Thebes, the storyline itself is on a much more personal level.  The libretto, written by Antonio Ghislanzoni who had previously worked with Verdi on the second version of La forza del destino, limited itself to only a handful of characters and concerned itself with their individual fates far more than with that of ancient Egypt.  (In that regard, it's notable that the libretto described the setting only as "ancient Egypt," an indication that the opera was not to be interpreted as a historical drama.)  At bottom was the standard love triangle involving Aida, Amneris, and Radamès carefully worked out over the course of four acts.  In other words, it was an intimate love story placed in a monumental setting.

Aida is one of the "bread and butter" works in the Met repertory, an opera that always plays to a packed house whose audience has all too often come not so much for the music as to be dazzled by the sumptuous 1988 Sonja Frisell production.  Sadly, the foreknowledge of a sellout often leads to a lack of attention in casting.  This is not always fatal.  Sometimes a little known conductor and cast can work together to create a memorable performance. Unfortunately, that did not occur on Saturday afternoon.  The talent was little more than adequate.  Conductor Daniele Rustioni, who made his Met debut with this production, was too lacking in experience to handle a work of this scope.  Krassimira Stoyanova as Aida, Violeta Urmana as Amneris, and Riccardo Massi as Radamès all tried their best but did not really catch fire until the final act; their closing trio was quite moving.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Steinway Hall: Paul Lewis

As a subscriber to Carnegie Hall, I was invited to a highly unusual event on Wednesday evening at Steinway Hall.  Since I'd never before been to the piano maker's new venue on Sixth Avenue and was moreover extremely interested in hearing the featured performance by virtuoso pianist Paul Lewis, I eagerly accepted.the invitation.

The evening began with complimentary wine and champagne immediately followed by Mr. Lewis's performance.  In the event, he only played for roughly a half hour but even so had time enough to give brilliant renditions of both Chopin's Waltz in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2, and Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825.  Before beginning, Mr. Lewis gave the titles of the works (there was no printed program) and mentioned that he felt it worked well to follow a piece in A minor with one in B-flat major, only a semitone distant.

It was a very intimate setting - the "hall" is not much larger than a private screening room and has unquestionably the best acoustics I've encountered in any size venue - that enabled the audience to follow the pianist closely and, in particular, the movement of his hands.  There was nothing at all flashy in Mr. Lewis's style, just a minute attention to detail that allowed him to phrase each passage perfectly so that each note was fully audible.  His interpretation of the Bach partita was especially rewarding.  One was able to appreciate the complexity of Bach's music and the manner in which he was able to structure the Baroque dance forms into a coherent whole.

Fascinating as Mr. Lewis's performance was, the most interesting part of the evening followed immediately after as Steinway used the occasion to introduce its newest product, evocatively named "Spirio."  Believe it or not, this was nothing more or less than the venerable player piano reimagined for the digital age.  But unlike the old uprights threading a perforated paper roll, there was nothing about this version that was at all mechanical.  To begin the demonstration, Paul Lewis took a seat in the audience as the piano on which he had performed repeated on its own the gigue that had closed the Bach partita.  The effect was amazing - I literally could not tell the difference between the live performance and the recorded.  It sounded exactly the same, note for note.  And that, of course, was the whole point.  One can now have a piano in one's living room that recreates a given pianist's performance precisely as he or she played it right down to that individual's distinctive touch on the keys.  Instead of hearing a recording, one listens to a live acoustic performance.

To drive the point home, a projector screen was lowered and an antique newsreel was then shown of George Gershwin performing "I've Got Rhythm" on solo piano.  The newsreel's scratchy mono soundtrack was turned off while the piano played the tune in perfect sync with the video.  It was the closest one could ever hope to come to actually hearing Gershwin play live.

I'm not sure how successful Spirio will prove for Steinway - how many can after all afford the price of a Steinway piano even without the additional cost of the playback technology? - but it's certainly a wonderful innovation for anyone wishing to liven up their next party with a live piano recital.  I was informed by a Steinway rep that there is now a repertoire of some two thousand prerecorded pieces available to the purchaser.  But I was also told that the piano is unable to record music played upon it.  If a pianist wishes to have a recording of his own musicianship for playback, it's necessary to go to a special studio to have that done.

Perhaps acknowledging that Spirio is not for everyone, Steinway was considerate enough to give departing guests a gift bag that included a CD of Paul Lewis performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann's Fantasie in C major.  Listening to it might not be quite as gratifying as hearing Mr. Lewis - or his piano - play live, but it's definitely the next best thing.