Friday, December 15, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Lully, Couperin, Marais and Leclair

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West where the Juilliard415, the school's Baroque ensemble, was performing another lunchtime recital.  As on the last occasion, the group showcased the music of France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in a program entitled Les Plaisirs de Versailles et Paris: French Chamber Music from the Ancien Regime.

The recital began with Jean Baptiste Lully's Ballet du Palace d'Alcine from Les Plaisirs de l'île enchantée (1664) arranged for two violins, viola, two cellos and guitar.  Several seasons ago, I heard the English Concert perform a work on the same subject, Handel's 1728 opera Alcina, and thought it one of the most enjoyable examples of opera seria I'd come across.  Lully's music was of an entirely different character.  Written for the festivities staged at Versailles by Louis XIV in honor of his long suffering wife, Maria Theresa, and his mother, Anne of Austria, the music was as thoroughly stately and correct as the occasion required.  At the time he composed it, Lully was at the pinnacle of his career.  As superintendent of royal music, he was director of the two court violin orchestras and had primary responsibility for the many ballets and recitals ordered by the king.  He had also begun his collaboration with the playwright Molière that was to culminate six years later in the incidental music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

The next work was François Couperin's La Françoise from Les Nations (1726) arranged for flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord.  The composer's contributions to French music were among the most important of the Baroque era.  An ardent admirer of Arcangelo Corelli, it was Couperin who first introduced the trio sonata to France.  In October, I heard the Juilliard415 perform another selection from Les NationsDances from L'Espagnole.  In such works as Les goûts réunis Couperin was attempting to reconcile the widely divergent musical forms then in vogue among various European countries in order to create a truly international style.  

There were two works on the program by Marin Marais, both taken from Pièces en trio (1692).  The first was the Suite No. 3 in D major arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord while the second, the Suite No. 1 in C major, was arranged for two violins, bassoon and theorbo.  Marais had been a student of Lully, and like his mentor he found favor at the French court where he was given the high sounding title ordinaire de la chambre du roy pour la viole.  His most important works were the five books he contributed to Pièces de viole (1686-1725) that were distinguished by the highly detailed instructions to musicians regarding the fingerings to be used in performance.

In between the two pieces by Marais, the ensemble performed Jean-Marie Leclair's Deuxième Récréation de musique d'une exécution facile, Op. 8 (1737) arranged for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.  I had previously heard selections from this same work at the ensemble's October recital but arranged for different instrumentation.  The piece, which isn't nearly as easy as its title would lead one to beleive, was something of a departure for the composer, most of whose works consisted of extremely challenging violin sonatas.  This is not surprising since LeClair was a virtuoso violinist who, despite a five year absence in the Netherlands, exerted great influence on the development of French violin music.

The program concluded with Louis-Antoine Dornel's Suite No. 3 in D minor from Livre de simphonies (1709) arranged for two violins, cello and harpsichord.  Though held in high esteem during his lifetime, Dornel was largely forgotten after his death, perhaps because so little of his music survived him.  For seventeen years he was music master of the Académie Française, but none of the sacred music he composed in fulfillment of his duties is still extant.  The present suite was competent and pleasant enough to hear but not particularly memorable.

The recital lasted a full hour and forty minutes with no intermission, but no one in the audience was complaining.  It was our good luck to have heard such accomplished musicians perform once popular works that have fallen into obscurity over the course of centuries but are no less wonderful for that. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Eccles, Britten and Dvořák

On Sunday afternoon I walked down to Juilliard to hear another of the chamber music recitals given each week at Morse Hall.  One of the best things about the series is the wide range of composers whose works are featured.  On this occasion the program went from the Baroque to the twentieth century and then back to the Classical Romanticism of the nineteenth century.

The program opened with Henry Eccles's Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo (c. 1720), performed here in a 1929 arrangement by Serge Koussevitzky for double bass and piano.  It wasn't until I read Eccles's biography in Wikipedia that I learned how freely he had committed plagiarism in compiling his Twelve Solos for the Violin, of which the present sonata in G minor is designated as No. 11.  One doesn't expect such outright mendacity from classical composers and it's only fitting that his lack of scruples should be all that he's now remembered for.  As for Koussevitzky's arrangement, it's an odd one, though the great conductor can hardly be blamed for attempting to enlarge the repertoire for his chosen instrument.  Both piano and double bass are low register instruments, and that can't help but darken the character of the music.  It would have been much more interesting to have heard the piece performed as originally intended with a violin or flute playing the treble lines with piano or some other form of continuo providing accompaniment.

The musicians were Szu Ting Chen, double bass, and Nuoya Zhang, piano; their coach was Eugene Levinson.

The next work was the String Quartet No. 2 (1945) by Benjamin Britten.  There have been only two truly great composers in British musical history - Britten and Henry Purcell - so it's fitting that the former should have composed a piece commemorating the 200th anninversary of the latter's death in 1745.  The intent is made explicit in the third and final movement, marked chacony, that is longer than the first two combined.  Purcell was a master of the Baroque chaconne and Britten here supplies a dizzying number of variations - three groups of six interspersed with cadenzas for solo instruments and a final set of three variations at the movement's end.  It's a virtuoso turn and a stylish tribute to Purcell, but I actually found the much shorter second movement far more interesting.  It's unsettling music, played entirely with muted strings, that gives the work an entirely different character.  It's as though the listener were given a brief glimpse of a dark subtext running beneath the surface of the music.

The work was performed by Choi Tung Yeung and Yutsuki Beppu, violins, Christine Wu, viola, and Ayoun Alexandra Kim, cello; they were coached by Natasha Brofsky and Joel Smirnoff.

After a short intermission, the program concluded with Antonin Dvořák's much loved Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887).  There are relatively few major piano quintets in the nineteenth century chamber repertoire.  The form more or less came into being with Schumann's Op. 44.  Later in the century, both Dvořák and Brahms tried their hands at it.  The present work was initially conceived as a revision of a youthful work, the Op. 5, for the same instrumentation and in the same key.  I have a superlative recording of both quintets performed by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet that shows quite clearly when played side by side the distance traveled by Dvořák as his talent matured. The most moving part of the later work is the second movement dumka in which the composer displayed his mastery of folk sources.

What's interesting in listening to such an arrangement is the manner in which a particular composer integrates the piano with the string quartet format. In Dvořák's work, the piano is made the backbone of the piece and engages throughout in a full dialog with the strings. Dvořák's lyrical study of Czech folk music here results in one of his most successful and enjoyable compositions.

On this piece the musicians were Jackie Tso and Peter Lin, violins, Candy Yang, viola, Jan Fuller, cello, and Chaeyoung Park, piano; their coach was Darret Adkins.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Staley Wise Gallery: Sheila Metzner

On Thursday I took advantage of the sunny weather to take a long walk through the Village and Soho.  On the way I stopped at the Strand on Broadway to look through the stacks of used books; then, having purchased a copy of Blake Crouch's novel Dark Matter, I made my way to Crosby Street where I saw the current retrospective of Sheila Metzner's photographs at the Staley Wise Gallery.

Metzner, a native New Yorker born in Brooklyn, has had a distinguished career as a photographer significantly aided by her background as an advertising agency art director.  And it's in her advertising and editorial work, along with her portraiture, that she shines the brightest.  The best works here by far were The Kiss for Fendi (1986) in two versions, one with sculpture and one with male model; Rosemary with Ungaro Hat for Vogue (1985); Uma for Patou (1986); the monochromatic Striped Glove (1988); and Ennis Brown House for Vogue (1992).  These, along with portraits of Warren Beatty (1991) and Brooke Shields (1985), are masterpieces of classical style and refined taste.  Interestingly, considering how long Metzner had been a photographer, all the above works were created in a relatively short seven year period.

What distinguishes Metzner's prints is the use of the Fresson process, an alternative printing technique from the late nineteenth century succinctly defined by Merriam Webster as follows:
"a printing process in photography which is similar to the carbon process but with no transferring and in which development of the image occurs when pigment is removed from the unexposed portions of the image by washing the print surface with finely divided wet sawdust."
The process gives prints an extraordinary richness that has to be seen in the original to be truly appreciated.  Its unique qualities cannot be conveyed by reproductions.

Having said this, however, I have to admit the print I most admired at the exhibit, Rebecca for Marlo's Flowers (1984), is a traditional C-print, perhaps because its large size made it unsuitable for the Fresson process. 

There are other works on view at the exhibit, but to my mind they did not rise to the same level as the works mentioned above.  Photographs of children and husband Jeffrey, with the exception of Stella.Fever (1978), were really no more than family snapshots no matter how well printed.  The cityscapes depicting the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building showed the same hackneyed views every tourist to the city takes while visiting here.  As for Elaine, the 1988 tribute to Man Ray that appears to have been solarized (i.e., Sabatier Effect), any photographer who attempts to emulate the work of a true master does so at her own risk.  Unless one is a genius on the same level as Man Ray, which is highly unlikely, the comparison is bound to be unfavorable.  No matter how well intentioned the tribute, it's not going to come off anywhere near as well as the original.

I should mention that the staff at Staley Wise were among the friendliest and most helpful I've encountered at any New York City gallery.

The exhibit continues through January 20, 2018.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Françaix, Ravel and Piazzolla

On Sunday afternoon I went to Morse Hall to hear a midafternoon performance of chamber music, one of four scheduled for that afternoon.  These Sunday chamber marathons that run roughly from noon to 9 p.m. are feasts for those with a love of the chamber repertoire, not only for the high level of musicianship but also for the highly diverse programs on offer.  The 2:30 performance I attended featured works by three twentieth century composers - Jean Françaix, Maurice Ravel and Astor Piazzolla.

The recital began with a performance of Françaix's Musique de Cour (1937) for violin, flute and piano, a reduction of the full work composed that same year for violin, flute and orchestra.  Despite the large number of works written by Françaix - forty for flute alone - he is not a particularly well known composer and relatively little has been written about him.  An interesting dissertation by one Abby Bridgett Grace Fraser suggests that this neglect may simply have been the result of his having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., France in the years following World Wars I and II.  In a time of intense doubt and soul searching as exemplified by the rise of Existentialism, Françaix was a neo-classical composer who believed in "musique pour faire plaisir" and made no apology for the highly accessible style of his work  Certainly the present piece was lighthearted and highly enjoyable to hear.  As both Debussy and Ravel had done before him, Françaix here sought to conjure the past glories of French music.

The musicians were Ji Soo Choi, violin, Jihyuk Park, flute, and Wei Lin Chang, piano; their coaches were Sylvia Rosenberg and Vivian Weilerstein.

The next work was Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927).  As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata.  The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed.  The No. 2 was an entirely different matter.  This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel was masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano.  This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another.  But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting.  Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. 

The sonata was performed by Wei Lu, violin, and Zhu Wang, piano; they were coached by Nicholas Mann and Jerome Lowenthal.

After a brief intermission, the program concluded with Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango (1986) for violin and marimba, an arrangement of the original work for flute and guitar.  Piazzolla was, of course, one of the most important figures in the development of tango music, so much so that he is now universally identified with it.  In this piece, perhaps his most famous work, he attempted to chronicle the evolution of the tango as it moved from the brothel, where it had its first incarnation as lively dance music, to the cafe, the nightclub, and finally the concert hall.  Piazzolla's own program notes for each section can be found in the Wikipedia article devoted to the piece.  They provide a better summary than I could ever hope to give here.

The two musicians were Ann Cho, violin, and Leo Simon, marimba; their coaches were Joseph Lin and Greg Zuber.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Verdi's Requiem

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear a rare rendition of the Verdi Requiem.   Like all performances of this work in rencent memory, it was led by Music Director Emeritus James Levine.  Fittingly, following the untimely death last month of beloved baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Met annonunced that all four performances this season would be dedicatd to his memory.

I've always considered Verdi the greatest of all Italian opera composers; in my estimation I place ahead of his Otello only Mozart's Da Ponte operas.  And just as the two composers created the greatest operas of all time, so they each also penned Requiems that are masterpieces of the genre. 

The Requiem has a convoluted history that demonstrates how difficult it was for an opera composer, even one of such stature as Verdi, to work freely in nineteenth century Italy.  The piece began as part of a joint effort by a dozen composers in 1868 to create a requiem in honor of the legendary Rossini who had only just passed away.  In the end, nothing came of the project and it was abandoned.  Whether this was entirely the fault of the proposed conductor Angelo Mariani, as Verdi claimed, or whether there were differences among the composers themselves, this is one of those all too common episodes in Italian musical history that reveal the disruptive personality conflicts that existed in that country's musical establishment.

Verdi never abandoned the Libera me that had been his contribution to the aborted Mariani project and five years later, in 1873, he saw his chance to finally put it to use upon the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni whose work he had greatly respected, not least because it had so strongly promoted Italian independence.  This time Verdi, wary of any further collaborations, decided to write the entire Requiem himself.  And not only did he compose it on his own, but he even conducted the premiere in Milan in 1874.  Even then, though, Verdi was not free of problems.  He had vehemently insisted the premiere be given at the Church of San Marco, but the Catholic Church in Italy did not then allow women to sing at church services.  The only way around this prohibition was to perform the work, not as a traditional mass, but only as one stripped of the sacrament of Communion.  And even then Milan's Archbishop insisted that the female singers should not be allowed to appear in plain sight.

Unlike other examples of the genre, the Requiem is most often viewed as a concert piece rather than a mass, and there definitely is some truth to the accusation often leveled against it that it is an opera masquerading as liturgical music.  In this case, the dedication of the Requiem to Mr. Hvorostovsky enhanced its spiritual power and raised it to a higher level than it would have enjoyed if it had only been performed for its own sake.  And no one could have deserved the tribute more than the great baritone.  I last saw him perform two years ago in one of his three appearances as Count Di Luna in Il Trovatore and always had the highest regard for his ability as an artist.

This was one of the finest performances of the Requiem that one could have hoped to hear.  Maestro Levine was as impressive as ever on the podium, and he was ably assisted here not only by four superlative singers - Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano, Ekaterina Semenchuk, mezzo-soprano, Aleksandrs Antonenko, tenor, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass - but also by what I consider the world's greatest chorus, the Met's own.

*** It was only after I'd attended the performance and drafted much of the above post that I saw the Sunday newspapers and became aware of the controversy surrounding Mr. Levine's activities.  I had heard no mention of it at the Met on Saturday afternoon.  It comes as a great shock to all of us who have regularly attended the Met Opera over the years. ***

Friday, December 1, 2017

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Wagner, Debussy and Schumann

Earlier this week, the Juilliard Lab Orchestra made its first appearance this season at the school's popular Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall in a program that featured well known orchestral works by Wagner, Debussy and Schumann.

The program opened with Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862) conducted by Elinor Rufeizen. The opera itself is an anomaly among Wagner's works in that it is a comic light-hearted work that takes as its theme music making itself.  Not suprisingly, Wagner here sympathizes with the forces of musical change as essential to creative growth.  I've never had the stamina to sit through the entire opera (at roughly four and one half hours one of Wagner's longest) and doubt I ever will, so I appreciated the opportunity to hear at least some of its themes in condensed form in the Prelude.  It's interesting to note that while most composers write the overture after having completed the opera itself when they can select those themes they feel best represent the entire score, Wagner did it the other way around and first began work on the Prelude before moving on to the full opera.   

The next work was Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) conducted by Jesse Brault.  It's hard to believe while listening to this short work that it was written in the nineteenth century even if for no other reason than that it does not fit into any known musical genre.  The closest might be the tone poem, but the music is not really programmatic despite its source in Mallarmé's poem which actually, at least in translation, evokes a completely different mood.  No less an authority than Pierre Boulez has found in Debussy's piece the beginning of modern music, but I don't believe that that's really accurate either.  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, and I still consider this the best realization of the mood Debussy sought to create.  It brought to life the sense of unfulfilled longing that suffuses the piece.

The concert ended with a performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38 (1841), nicknamed the "Spring."  This is one of the composer's most enjoyable and accessible works, a true masterpiece of the Romantic movement.  Although Schumann had made abortive attempts at orchestral writing as early as 1832, this was his first full length symphony and all the more remarkable for having been drafted in only four days.  If it drew its immediate inspiration from the poetry of Adolf Böttger, its true impetus was Schumann's recent marriage to Clara.  Nothing could so evoke the joys of spring for a young man even in the depths of the German winter (the work was composed in January) as being at last married to his one true love.  With the full support of Clara - who herself wrote: "My highest wish is that he [Robert] should compose for orchestra—that is his field! May I succeed in bringing him to it!" - Schumann must have felt himself at this point at the very beginning of a brilliant career in which anything was possible.  He may also have drawn inspiration from Schubert's Ninth Symphony which he had himself discovered while visiting Vienna only two years before.  Certainly, any composer who aspired to symphonic writing could not but have been moved by the greatness of Schubert's achievement and would have longed to emulate it to whatever extent he was capable.  Ironically, the very brightness of Schumann's music compels the listener to contrast it to the composer's own sad end.  He would attempt suicide in 1854, only fourteen years after the symphony's composition, and then die two years later while institutionalized.  In hearing the Op. 38, one cannot help listening for some premonition of the tragedy that was to come.  The conductors on this work were Benjamin Hochman on the first two movements and Jane Kim on the final two movements.

The temperature on Wednesday rose to 63F in Central Park.  Stepping out of the auditorium after just having heard Schumann's symphony, I couldn't help but feel a sense of spring myself.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I walked to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear the Omega Ensemble perform a full length program that included works by Beethoven and Brahms.

Omega recitals traditionally began with a short performance by a young musician referred to as a "next generation artist."  In this case the artist  was 12 year old pianist Sabrina Lu who proceeded to play two short works - Chopin's Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 (1844) followed by Alberto Ginastera's Danza del gaucho matrero, Op. 2, No. 3 from Danzas Argentinas (1937).  I was very surprised to hear so young a performer choose the Ginastera.  It's a virtuoso piece that combines very successfully elements of South American folk music with the dissonance of the twelve-tone school.  I much preferred Ms. Lu's rendition of this work to that of the Chopin Berceuse, although she played both pieces exceptionally well.

Following this introductory performance the recital proper commenced with Gabriel Cabezas, cello, and Liza Stepanova, piano, performing Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796).  The two Op. 5 cello sonatas were both written in Berlin while Beethoven was on a concert tour.  Never one to miss a chance for patronage, Beethoven dedicated the sonatas to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, who obligingly rewarded the young composer with a gold snuff box filled with gold coins.  Though these are youthful works from the composer's early period, they do provide indications of the greatness that was to come.  Most importantly, Beethoven was for once working without the benefit of models composed by either Haydn or Mozart.  In that sense, he can be seen as creating here a new Classical genre.  For the first time, the parts for the piano were fully written out, a sharp break from the Baroque practice of leaving them unwritten and using the keyboard only as part of the basso continuo.

The first half of the program concluded with violinist Itamar Zorman joining Ms. Stepanova on three popular short works arranged for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz - Rachmaninoff's song How Fair This Spot, Op. 21, No. 7 (1900-1902), Debussy's famous Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), and Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926).

The most interesting of these three works, perhaps because I had previously been familiar with only the original score for solo piano, was the Three Preludes.  The work reflects Gershwin's ambition to be taken seriously as a classical composer.  Though he had gained international recognition with Rhapsody in Blue, written two years earlier, he was still viewed primarily as a composer of Broadway show tunes.   Accordingly, he came up with the idea of a complete set of 24 preludes in the grand manner of Chopin, but the number was gradually reduced, first to seven, then to five, and finally to three.  It is the second movement in C-sharp minor, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, that is the longest and most successful.  Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby.

After a short intermisson the recital concluded with a performance of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (1854, rev. 1889).  The trio was originally composed in 1854 when Brahms was 21 years old and only a year after he had first become acquainted with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, without question the most significant encounter of his musical career.   Brahms wrote the greater portion of the trio in Hanover, where he had been visiting the famed violinist Joseph Joachim in the company of the Schumanns, and then completed it shortly after the couple had returned to Düsseldorf.  Unfortunately, almost immediately upon his return home, Robert, who had suffered from severe depression for most of his life, attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Rhine.  Brahms rushed to Clara's side and helped her place Robert in an asylum in Bonn where he remained until his death at age 46 only two years later.  Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to know if either Joachim or the Schumanns had any direct influence on the composition of the work.  Certainly, there were some evident connections.  For example, Brahms had inscribed at the top of the score the words "Kreisler junior."  This was a reference to a fictional character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a widely read critic and author of fantastic stories.  Schumann had found inspiration from this same character in his 1838 piano cycle Kreisleriana, Op. 16.

On the recommendation of Clara to Breitkopf und Härtel, the trio was the first of Brahms's chamber works to be published.  (For that matter, it was his first piece to be played in the U.S. when in November 1855 it was given its American premiere in New York by the pianist William Mason.)  When Simrock took over the publication of Brahms's works in 1889 the firm gave the composer the opportunity to revise any he so chose.  Brahms took advantage of the offer to extensively revise the Op. 8 trio in spite of his famous remark that his intention had been "not to stick a wig on it but merely to comb its hair a little."  The thrust of the revisions was to tone down Brahms's youthful Romanticism in favor of the more restrained style of his mature works.  What's most remarkable about the revision, however, is that Brahms did not withdraw the earlier version from publication but instead left both available.  Considering what a perfectionist Brahms was (he is reported to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published and then only after having made extensive revisions following a private performance), it is astonishing that he would allow continued publication of an earlier version of whose deficiencies he felt so strongly that he took the time after the lapse of so many years to correct them.  One can only assume that the older Brahms felt a strong degree of nostalgia for the passionate Romantic he had once been.  Perhaps too the fact that the work's initial composition had been so intimately connected with Brahms's first meeting with his beloved Clara had created an emotional attachment in his mind that he was unwilling to let go.