Friday, January 18, 2019

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert

Earlier this week, I attended a chamber music recital, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, at Alice Tully Hall.  The program featured only one work, but what a work!  Schubert's  String Quintet in C major, D. 956 (1828) was one of the last pieces the composer completed before his untimely death at age 31; it is considered not only his finest chamber composition but one of the great masterpieces of the entire chamber repertoire.

The one feature that's most often remarked upon when discussing this work is its use of an additional cello. In this the composer broke new ground. While his models Mozart and Beethoven had both written string quintets in the key of C major, they had opted for an additional viola rather than a cello. Only Boccherini had made use of an additional cello in his own quintets but to much different effect. Still, there was a precedent of sorts in Schubert's own oeuvre in the Piano Quintet in A major in which the composer, rather than scoring the work for piano with string quartet, had dispensed with a second violin and instead added a double bass. Though this had not been done as a matter of choice - Schubert had been commissioned to write a work using the same instrumentation as had Hummel in his rearranged Septet - the obvious result in both the string quintet and the piano quintet was an increased sonority in the lower registers. Though a listener might think that this was done to achieve a more darkened mood - one immediately calls to mind the elegiac character of Arensky's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35 - this was certainly not the case in the piano quintet, the "Trout," which is overall as joyous a work as one could imagine. Rather the use of an additional cello enabled Schubert to express his vision with greater breadth than could be achieved with either a standard string quartet or a viola quintet. And indeed the string quintet possesses a truly symphonic character. In other words, the use of an additional cello fundamentally altered the character of the work from a straightforward chamber piece to a larger vehicle in which Schubert could express his ideas nearly as fully as in an orchestral work.

Having said all the above, however, there's no denying the pathos that pervades virtually ever bar of the Quintet. Working on it even as he lay on his deathbed, Schubert must have known that this was his valediction, his final opportunity to establish himself as a major composer and Beethoven's heir. He poured into it all the heartbroken genius of a virtuoso artist destined to perish before he had entirely fulfilled his promise. The work stands not so much as the capstone of a brilliant career as an intimation of what might have been achieved if Schubert had lived only a few years longer. As it was, the Quintet lay forgotten for a full quarter century after the composer's death and was only published in 1853.

The Quintet was masterfully performed by Harriet Langley and Amelia Dietrich, violins, Emily Liu, viola, and Matthew Chen, cello. Faculty member Natasha Brofsky, who coached the performance, played the second cello part.

The same musicians who performed on Wednesday afternoon can also be heard playing the Quintet's first movement on an archived recital originally broadcast live from the Greene Space on WQXR as part of the station's Midday Masterpieces series. The remainder of that program is also well worth hearing as it features Mozart's String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat major, K. 614 (with faculty member Joseph Lin taking the second viola part) and Haydn's String Quartet in G major, Op. 76, No. 1.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Met Opera: Anna Netrebko Sings Adriana Lecouvreur

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera for the second time this month, on this occasion to  see the new production of the rarely performed Adriana Lecouvreur, an early twentieth century work by Francesco Cilea.  This was actually the first time I'd seen the opera in all the years I've been going to the Met and I found myself looking forward to the performance with great curiosity, even if more for the cast and production than for the music itself.

Cilea was one of those Italian composers, like Leoncavallo and Mascagni, who appeared at the very end of opera's heyday and who was doomed to be remembered for one work only.  The world was changing rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century and opera was no longer the vital cultural force it had once been.  The outbreak of World War I little more than a decade later would further erode opera's influence and sharply decrease the public's appetite for new works.  After 1900, the only major opera composer still active was Puccini.  Others, such as Riccardo Zandonai, composer of Francesca da Rimini, who might have picked up Puccini's mantle found the times suddenly inappropriate and their careers cut short.  Cilea, who lived to the ripe old age of 84 before dying in 1950, gave up opera entirely after 1906 and devoted the remainder of his life to musical education, first as director of the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini and then the Conservatorio San Pietro.

None of this could have been apparent to Cilea in 1902 when Adriana premiered at the Teatro Lirico in Milan.  With a libretto by Arturo Colautti that was based on an 1849 play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, Cilea must have congratulated himself on having found the perfect subject.  (In fact, three other operas, all of them based on the same play, had already been attempted.)  The real life Adrienne Lecouvreur was so a fascinating a figure that embellishment was largely unnecessary.  A spirited, free thinking French actress of the eighteenth century, she could well serve as a model for today's independent woman.  Her life largely paralleled that of her fictional counterpart even down to her death at the hands of a jealous rival.  Far less mannered in her acting style than her contemporaries, she starred in legendary works by Molière, Corneille and Racine and brought to them a new vitality.  Nevertheless, she still fit perfectly the part of the tragic operatic heroine who dies for love.

Cilea may not have been a truly great composer, but he certainly knew how to provide singers with wonderful material on which to exercise their voices.  Indeed, it is primarily these opportunites for vocal pyrotechnics as well as its highly dramatic plot that have allowed Adriana to keep its place in the repertoire.  With the excellent cast on hand Saturday afternoon, the sold out audience was treated to a wealth of riches.

Immediately upon appearing onstage, soprano Anna Netrebko seized the title role with a stunning rendition of Io son l'umile ancella that drew a huge round of applause.  That was only the beginning.  Throughout the performance she held the audience enraptured not only with her singing but also with her fine acting both in the dramatic recitation from Racine's Phèdre at the end of Act III and in the final death scene in Act IV.  She was well accompanied by tenor Piotr Beczała as Maurizio, the role originally performed by Enrico Caruso when the opera premiered at the Met in 1907.  Beczała handled masterfully the Act I aria La dolcissima effigie sorridente and then the duet between his character and Adriana that showed genuine chemistry between the two leads.  Another Met star, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, was thoroughly convincing as the villainous Princess of Bouillon, most notably in Act II when signs of the jealousy between the two women first appear.

Gianandrea Noseda is one of the better conductors on the Met's current roster.  In addition to hearing his work at the Met, I've also seen him conduct Verdi's Requiem at the Lincoln Center's Great Performers series and Mahler No. 5 with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  At this performance he did justice to the work's verismo style without ever getting in the way of the singers. 

Sir David McVicar appears to be the Met's preferred producer these days, and it's an excellent choice.  His productions are not only lavish but intelligently directed as well.  He did his customary fine job with Adriana whose period sets were designed by Charles Edwards.  The excellent production that premiered in 2010 at London's Royal Opera House before traveling to Vienna and from there to the Met had a great part in making this performance such a resounding success.  The only weak point was Andrew Georges's uninspired choreography that seemed to go on forever in Act III.  Other than that, Adriana Lecouvreur turned out to be for me one of the highlights of the season.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Met Opera: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Otello

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Otello, the first time I'd seen this masterpiece since 2015 when the current Bartlett Sher production premiered.  I've always considered this late work to have been Verdi's finest achievement and, along with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the greatest of all nineteenth century operas.  With a libretto written by Arrigo Boito, himself a major Italian composer, it has so much power and freshness that it seems more the work of a artist still in his twenties than that of a revered idol already in his seventies.

That Otello was composed at all was a huge accomplishment considering Verdi's state of mind.  After having completed Aida in 1871 and the Requiem in 1874, he had decided to retire from any further musical composition.  Much of this had to do with the state of Italian music in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Though it is difficult to believe now, considering how venerated a figure in opera history Verdi has become, he and his work were actually quite controversial in Italy in the late 1800's, a situation referenced by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz in her biography of Puccini.  At the time, Verdi was seen as the leader of the "old guard" who stood in the way of progress.  A group of progressive artists, known as the scapigliati, sought to modernize Italian music by incorporating into it current trends from France and Germany and while so doing railed against the traditionalism represented by Verdi.  Ironically, it was Verdi's future librettist Boito who took the lead in this movement.  As Phillips-Patz writes:
"In 1863, though, Boito ripped a large hole in the fabric of Italian culture by insulting Manzoni and Verdi, Italy's revered 'Old Men.'  He delivered his outrageous slap at them during a banquet organized to honor Faccio and his new opera, I Profughi Fiamminghi, for which Ghislanzoni was the librettist.  Near the end of the evening Boito read a long ode to the health of Italian art.  In it he railed against the older generation and added an offensive line that Verdi never forgot.  The old men were, Boito said, 'scrofulous' and 'idiotic,' and they had left 'the altar of Italian art soiled like a whorehouse wall.'  Not surprisingly, after this event Verdi cut Boito out of his life for about twenty years."
Verdi, for his part, resented what he saw as the newcomers' lack of patriotism.  It was at least partially his disgust with the incessant bickering that determined him to give up writing music.  In any event, he had already composed so many timeless classics that he had nothing left to prove.  His reputation as the greatest Italian composer was secure.

It was only through the combined efforts of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, horrified at the thought of the money his firm that would lose if Verdi were to retire, and a repentant Boito, his arrogance curbed by the failure of Mefistofele, that the composer was convinced to set to work once again.  The enticement was the possibility of staging an opera based on a Shakespearean tragedy.  Verdi had always been a fervent admirer of the English playwright, though his earlier adaptation of Macbeth had not been a resounding success, and could not refuse the bait.  Not only did he compose Otello but afterwards returned once again to his Shakespearean sources when in 1893 he completed his final opera Falstaff.

As far as the cast was concerned, Stuart Skelton was a resounding success in the title role, though his performance still fell a bit short of those given by Plácido Domingo in the 1980's when the great tenor electrified audiences with his portrayal of the tragic Moor.

There were also two familiar faces from the 2015 performance I had previously attended - soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the role of Desdemona and baritone Željko Lučić as Iago.  When I posted on their 2015 performances I wrote as follows:
"Sonya Yoncheva was a big surprise as Desdemona.  I don't remember ever having heard her before, but she was magnificent here and I'll look forward to any future engagements in which she may appear.  Željko Lučić had the pivotal role of Iago.  The part requires not only great singing and acting but psychological insight as well.  The singer must be able to penetrate the depths of Iago's dark mind in order to make the character convincing to the audience.  Lučić managed to do this extraordinarily well.  He not only did full justice to the singing but also made Iago a totally believable presence rather than a merely two dimensional villain."
The real star of the afternoon, however, was conductor Gustavo Dudamel making his Met debut on the podium with these performances.  While attention is most commonly paid to singers, one cannot really appreciate how exciting an opera can be until one hears it interpreted by a truly great conductor.  Here Dudamel fully brought out the intense drama at the heart of Verdi's music.  The storm that opens Act I is a metaphor for that which rages in Otello's mind in the later acts, but the motif must be carefully developed throughout if it is to be brought home to the audience.  Dudamel accomplished this perfectly.  His success only empahasized more clearly the Met's greatest problem at present - the lack of skilled conductors at most productions.  

As I mentioned when I last saw this production, the sliding glass partitions reminded me of nothing so much as the chic facades that pop up one after the other on Columbus Avenue storefronts.  Also, I didn't find the images of waves shown on the projection screens to be particularly imaginative,  (At times, they reminded me more of drifting layers of cigarette smoke.)  Nevertheless, as long as nothing got in the way of the singers or the action there was no reason to complain, most especially as the current production was the first in Met history to abandon the odious use of "black face" in Otello's makeup.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Met Museum: Edo Paintings from the Fishbein-Bender Collection

The subtitle shown above from the current exhibit at the Met, The Poetry of Nature, is a bit misleading in that not all the works shown are from the Edo period and not all are paintings.  Nor, for that matter, are they all taken from the Fishbein-Bender Collection, magnificent as it is.  But this is only a small quibble.  The exhibit succeeds brilliantly in transporting the viewer to Japan at the time of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) whose sense of aesthetics was so vastly different from our own that it might as well have belonged to another world.

The large exhibit, which stretches through several galleries in the museum's Asian wing, contains too many items to properly discuss in so short a space; I'll limit myself to those that were of the greatest personal interest.

First, there are a large number of representations of Shinto and Buddhist iconography on view, many of these pieces pre-dating the Edo period by centuries.  Among them are two likenesses of Kannon Bodhisattva - Willow Kannon (hanging scroll, c. 1810) by Sakai Hōitsu and an anonymous lacquered wood sculpture from the 17th or 18th century - that suggest the profound influence of Mahayana Buddhism on the Japanese people.  These formal representations stand in marked contrast to a deliberately informal depiction of the Buddhist monks Kanzan and Jittoku (hanging scroll, late 18th century) by Itō Jakuchū, Hotei Pointing at the Moon (hanging scroll, c. 1650) and a portrait of Daruma (hanging scroll, early 17th century), both by Fūgai Ekun.

As the exhibit's title would indicate, most of the works on display are given over to depicting scenes of nature.  Of these there are two that that are especially noteworthy.  The first is an extremely simple, even austere, image -  Winter Scene with Ducks and Pine Trees (hanging scroll, late 1790's) by Matsumura Goshun - but I know of few other works that evoke so well the bleak emptiness of the winter landscape.  The other is Lions at the Stone Bridge of Mount Tiantai (hanging scroll, 1779) by Soga Shōhaku.  The scene of a mother lion tossing her cubs from the top of the mountain into a deep chasm may have been intended as an analogy of the Buddhist master who similarly shocks his students into sudden enlightenment (satori), but whatever its inner meaning the image is filled with dramatic tension set against the mountain's natural majesty. 

The Edo period was renowned for its elegant portrayals of women.  Something of their graceful manner can even be detected in the Willow Kannon mentioned above, but it is far more apparent in the hanging scrolls of Sakai Hōitsu and Hishikawa Moronobu and in the ukiyo-e prints of Chōbunsai Eishi and Ichirakutei Eisui.  The languid poses of these courtesans are in startling contrast to the ferocious vigor of the lengendary goddess Jingū in two hanging scrolls from the mid-19th century, one by Kōsai Hokushin and the other from the studio of the legendary ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai.

The two most dramatic works at the exhibit are not from the Edo period, but the Meiji.  These are The Fury of Monk Raigō (hanging scroll, 1900) by Kobayashi Kiyochika that depicts the monk raging against the Emporer Shirakawa over a perceived slight, and Fudō Myōō Threatening a Novice (polychrome woodblock print, 1885) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, whom I've always considered the greatest of all ukiyo-e artists, that depicts the Buddhist deity, one of the Five Wisdom Kings, attempting to force a novice to swallow a sword as a means of attaining enlightenment.  Although these works portray mythical rather than historical scenes, I don't think it's accidental that they both contain extremely violent imagery.  Instead, it could be argued that they reflect the turmoil Japan underwent in the Meiji era when centuries old tradition was cast aside in favor of a disastrous process of Westernization.

There are two other works from later periods, the Shōwa and Heisei respectively, that demonstrate strikingly the continuation of Edo period traditions in the work of contemporary Japanese artists.  These are Kegon Waterfall (lithograph from a gelatin silver print in the form of a hanging scroll, 1976) by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Shrine of the Water God (six-panel folding screen, 2015) by Hiroshi Senju.  Not only are both these works masterful in technique but they also display the same love of nature that has characterized Japanese art throughout its history.

The exhibit continues through January 21, 2019.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Blue Hours

A few months back, I published my fourth novel as an ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  I'm very excited about it and honestly think this is my best work yet.

The book is intended as a tribute to Cornell Woolrich, who more or less invented the noir genre, and at the same time an attempt to explore the very meaning of the term.  After all, noir is, by definition, dark.  A number of authors, however, lighten their narratives in order to achieve better sales and attract more readers.  Their protagonists, no matter how tough they initially appear, usually prove to be decent law abiding citizens caught in circumstances beyond their control.  In contrast, I've chosen to tell my story from the point of view of a violent drug user with few, if any, redeeming features.  My intent was not to make the character sympathetic but compelling.  If a monster, he is not a cardboard villain but rather a living breathing human being tormented by his failings while unable to break free of them.

The Blue Hours is set in New York City in 1970, long before gentrification, when the town was still gritty and crime ridden.  It tells of a violent junkie, just released from jail, who wakes one morning in an East Village tenement to find himself holding a smoking gun and sitting beside a corpse.  With the police relentlessly pursuing him, he desperately tries to find the one witness who can tell him what really happened.

In addition to writing the text, I shot the cover photo on infrared film and then printed the negative in a wet darkroom.  I also designed the book's cover in Photoshop.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Met Opera: Diana Damrau Sings in La traviata

Last Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to see Verdi's La traviata for the first time since 2013.  The new production by Michael Mayer had received a great deal of attention in the media and I was hopeful it would prove for me one of the highlights of the season, especially as it would give me my first opportunity to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium after having officially taken on his new position as the company's Music Director.

The opera, now one of the mainstays of the operatic repertoire, originally caused Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave no small amount of trouble when staging its 1853 premiere in Venice.  Based, of course, on the play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (who also penned the eponymous novel on which the play was based) that Verdi had recently seen performed in Paris, the opera was originally intended as a contemporary love story or, in Verdi's words, "A subject for our own age."  But Verdi had not reckoned with the intransigent Venetian censors of whom he had run afoul when staging Rigoletto two years earlier.  They were adamant that the production should be backdated to the eighteenth century.  Apparently, Violetta's occupation as a courtesan so offended their morality that the plot must needs be relegated to the distant past.  Verdi was furious but there was nothing he could do, all the more so as the production was plagued with other serious problems including a Violetta whose age and weight were totally inappropriate to the part.  (Before condemning the Venetian censors too harshly, it should be remembered that the opera also encountered problems of the same sort when it premiered in England where it was considered so morally questionable that Queen Victoria refused to attend any public performances.)  At any rate, the Venetian premiere was a disaster that caused Verdi to write: "La traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers'? Time will tell."  It was not until the following year that the opera (cast with a new Violetta) achieved success, but even so it was not until decades later that stagings of La traviata could be set in nineteenth century Paris as Verdi had first envisioned.

The star of this particular performance, and one of my principal reasons for attending, was soprano Diana Damrau who excelled as Violetta. I had seen her play the part at the Met in 2013 and was just as impressed on this occasion as on the last.  In an online interview published on the Met's website during that previous run and since deleted, Ms. Damrau had stated:
"People say you need three different voices for Traviata. You need to have the flexibility and brilliance for the first act. Then the centerpiece of the opera is the duet with Germont—that’s a big lyric soprano. And for the last act you want to have a dramatic soprano. Everything has to come together really, the colors, the emotions… In terms of difficulty, it’s a five-star role."
This was a homecoming of sorts for tenor Juan Diego Flórez in the role of Alfredo, his first Met appearance since 2015 even though he has costarred at the house with Ms. Damrau in almost thirty appearances since 2006.  Baritone Quinn Kelsey had previously appeared at the Met as Amonasro in Aida; but here, in the crucial role of Alfredo's father, he was a disappointment to anyone who remembered Plácido Domingo's standout turn several seasons ago.  (Mr. Domingo is scheduled to reprise his role in the second half of the season.)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's conducting was excellent overall.  I've seen him several times over the past few years and have always found him quite capable if occasionally lacking in inspiration.

I did not find Michael Mayer’s production, described on the Met's website as a "dazzling 19th-century setting that changes with the seasons," particularly impressive.  Instead of changing with the seasons, it would have done far better to have changed with the radically different settings of the first two acts.  Has the Met's budget crisis grown so acute that a single set (the work of Tony Award winner Christine Jones) must suffice for all three acts?

Showing Violetta on her deathbed during the overture was a departure from traditional stagings   As Mr. Mayer himself explained it:
"We frame the opera as a kind of fever dream in which Violetta re-lives the events that brought her to her final moments on earth.  When the curtain rises, we are at her deathbed in that last flickering moment of consciousness."
That's all well and good, but I thought it a stetch and in the end entirely unnecessary.

On a more positive note, the production is certainly a great improvement over the unfortunate 2010 Willy Decker production whose random stabs at contemporary relevance were completely at odds with Verdi's intentions and at times almost unbearably inappropriate.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dvořák, Schumann and Mendelssohn

The second chamber music recital I attended last Sunday at Morse Hall was the 2:30 p.m. I might not have stayed if the program had not been so intriguing. It not only included another major work by Schumann but also masterpieces by Dvořák and Mendelssohn.

The recital commenced with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87 (1889). The piece was written fourteen years after the Quartet in D major and might never have been completed at all if the composer had not been constantly goaded by his publisher Simrock. Surprisingly, it's not one of Dvořák's more popular chamber works even though it's a wonderful statement of the Romantic ethos he had acquired from Brahms. The second movement lento has a sweet haunting character while the third movement contains elements of the East European folk tunes Dvořák would soon develop more fully in his much better known "Dumky" Trio. In contrast, the final movement, almost symphonic in its sound, is so powerful it fairly sweeps the listener along to the work's conclusion. 

The musicians were Yue Qian, violin, Ao Peng, viola, Songhee Lee, cello, and Yijia Wang, piano; their coach was Timothy Eddy.

The next work was Schumann's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 105 (1851). After having heard Schumann's two violin sonatas performed many years ago at Carnegie Hall by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, I gained a new appreciation of these pieces and have since come to consider them among the most underrated of the composer's chamber works. One reason they may not be held in greater esteem is that they were written in a period of turmoil in Schumann's life as he began to experience the first symptoms of the mental breakdown that would lead him to attempt suicide in 1854. At the time the sonata was written, Schumann was music director of the Düsseldorf Orchestra. This proved to be one of the more frustrating episodes of his career. No matter how skilled a composer he may have been, he was utterly lacking in ability as a conductor. As a result, he retreated as much as possible from his orchestral duties and concentrated instead on forming chamber ensembles with the best of the orchestra's musicians. He himself did not care very much for the A-minor sonata and later claimed: "I did not like the first Sonata for Violin and Piano; so I wrote a second one [the Op. 121], which I hope has turned out better." Musicologists took him at his word and paid little attention to the piece, seeing in it only evidence of Schumann's impending mental collapse. But the Op. 105 is actually an extremely absorbing and innovative work that deserves to be heard more often.

The sonata was performed by violinist Kyung Ji Min and pianist Kate Liu; they were coached by Earl Carlyss and Jonathan Feldman.

After a short intermission, the program closed with a performance of Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847). I had just heard this work a few weeks ago at a Wednesdays at One recital at Alice Tully and had posted the following thoughts on the music: 
To me, this [the quartet] is the most fascinating of Mendelssohn's works in any genre. For the most part, his compositions are the refined and accomplished pieces, filled with light and engaging touches, one would expect of so cultured and cerebral a composer. While undoubtedly works of genius, they are so utterly proper and carefully thought out that one sometimes feels the composer is wearing a mask behind which he hides his real feelings and emotions. Not so, however, in the present work. Titled "A Requiem for Fanny," the quartet was written immediately aftet the death of Mendelssohn's beloved sister, a tragedy that left the composer devastated. It is nothing less than the final testament - Mendelssohn himself would be dead within two months after having completed it - of a highly cultivated man who has suddenly seen his carefully constructed world come crashing down around him. Not only is it written in the dark F minor key, but its accentuations and tempos (some of which were later adapted by Shostakovich in his own F minor quartet, the No. 11) are filled with a sense of anxiety and dread that makes the work sound curiously modern. One can hear the furious racing of the composer's heart as he confronts his own mortality. Properly performed, the Op. 80 is a truly harrowing piece, a glimpse of a soul robbed of all its certainties and staring death in the face. 
The performers were Mitsuru Yonezaki and Sophia Steger, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, and Emily Mantone, cello; their coach was Carol Rodland.