Friday, January 30, 2015

Juilliard Focus: Nippon Gendai Ongaku: Japanese Chamber Music

Due to snow cancellations on both Monday and Tuesday evenings, Wednesday's installment of the Focus Festival turned into a marathon as an attempt was made to fit in as many of the canceled performances as possible.  In the end, the evening lasted a full three hours without intermission.  The full program contained fourteen pieces by as many composers.  While it's not possible to describe so many works in detail, credit is due to all the musicians who worked to make the evening a success.  Each of them played brilliantly and is deserving of recognition.

No retrospective of contemporary Japanese music would be complete without at least one work by Toru Takemitsu.  Incredibly, considering how rarely his music is performed in this country, Wednesday evening was the second occasion this month that I had had an opportunity to hear And then I knew 'twas Wind (1992).  The ACJW Ensemble had performed it several weeks ago at Paul Hall and I had thought their rendition very good indeed.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this performance even more, perhaps because the references to Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (with which Takemitsu had intended it to be paired) seemed less obvious on second hearing, thus leaving me better able to appreciate the piece on its own merits.  Ji Weon Ryu (flute), Sophia Sun (viola) and Caroline Bembia (harp) gave the work an understated interpretation that emphasized its delicate imagery and texture.

Composer Karen Tanaka, who was present at this performance, is actually a resident of Los Angeles and the Program Notes remark that "her style has shifted from Euro-Modern to American Post-Modern."  There was little to be heard of these Western influences, though, in Enchanted Forest (2012), a very beautiful piece that sounded exactly as one would expect from its title.  Instead, the work seemed better to reflect the appreciation of nature that has always characterized Japanese art.  What struck me most forcefully was the composer's grasp of the evocative effects that can be achieved through the use of the French horn, an instrument not often featured in chamber works.  Here, played masterfully by Joseph Betts, it was placed front and center where its mellow tone recalled perfectly to the listener's ear the natural beauty of an ancient woodland.  On the other hand, the piano part, played by Dan K. Kurland, went beyond mere accompaniment and was made a full partner in realizing this serene vision.

Time Sisters (2013) by Takashi Tokunaga was written for the unusual combination of two harps.  I've noticed that the harp often figures prominently in contemporary Japanese music and have wondered if, to an extent, that country's composers employ it in place of traditional string instruments, such as the koto, as the sound produced here was more reminiscent of traditional Japanese music than that of the Western repertoire.  It was interesting to read that the piece's original performers, the Matsumura sisters, had highly different personalities (at least according to the Program Notes) and that the work was an attempt "to extract a musical essence from their relationship."  One can only speculate to what degree, if any, that may have influenced this performance's two accomplished harpists, Emily Levin and Marion Ravot, when approaching their respective parts.

Those in the audience who persevered to the very end of the recital were rewarded by hearing the evening's most original piece, Plastic Babys (2011) by Akiko Yamane.  The composer wrote of this unusual work:
"I was inspired by Trevor Brown's picture Chemical Doll.  I was writing this piece under the specter of the radiation disaster in Japan.  Many people were wearing masks.  I think Brown's picture's texture relates to the Japanese taste for what we call 'kawaii,' which means the cuteness, and also the admirable aspect of immaturity.  I try to create these childish textures with a sense of madness.  I am pursuing 'pop toxicity' as my core expression."
The music was playful, just as one would expect of a piece having to do with children.  At times it reminded me almost of a carnival tune.  But beneath the playfulness and "cuteness" could be heard darker undertones as well.  When I searched online for Trevor Brown's artwork, I found the images to be sometimes intentionally disturbing, an element that carried over into the music.  It was a reminder that a child's world is not always as bright and cheerful as adults would like to imagine but actually far more complicated.  In the same way, the music itself was also much more complex in its composition than Yamane's statement would seem to imply.  The recognition of deeper levels within the piece imbued it with a certain tension, or frisson, that made this performance exceptionally compelling.   The musicians - Johnna Wu (violin), Alexander Knecht (viola), and Martha Mingle (piano) - did an excellent job of conveying to the audience a sense of the work's depth and ambiguity.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Juilliard Focus: Nippon Gendai Ongaku: Japanese Music since 1945

Friday evening was the opening night of the 2015 Juilliard Focus Festival whose theme this year was Nippon Gendai Ongaku: Japanese Music since 1945.  Due to schedule conflicts, this was unfortunately the only concert in the series I was able to attend.  The irony is that I have always had a deep interest in Japanese culture and have long complained how rarely that country's serious music is heard here in the U.S.  In fact, several works on yesterday's program had never before been performed in this country.

In general, I found this musical presentation to be radically different from any I had previously heard.  What distinguishes an encounter with Japanese culture, whether it be in music or literature, is that one soon realizes he (or she) is up against a totally different way of thinking and of perceiving reality.  This is the real attraction of Japanese art - the opportunity to leave behind the Western traditions to which one has become accustomed in favor of a new and entirely unfamiliar vision.  At the same time, this makes any description of the music heard extremely difficult because one lacks a point of reference with which to compare it.

The program opened with the U.S. premiere of Misato Mochizuki's 1999 La chambre claire ("The Luminous Room").  According to the composer, this ethereal piece was based on the book of the same name, available in English translation as Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes.  To oversimplify, Barthes's work is an attempt to at once analyze photographs in both a cultural (studium) and personal (punctum) context; as is the case with most such writing, it says more about its author and his preoccupations than it does about photography itself.  Nor, to be honest, did I feel that the present musical work had much to do with photography either.  That being said, it was still a highly original and enjoyable piece.

The next work, another U.S. premiere, was Toshio Hosokawa's Voyage X – Nozarashi (2009) for shakuhachi and ensemble.  This was by far the most interesting piece on the program as it was the only one in which traditional Japanese instruments were combined with those used by Western orchestras.  The only similar experience I'd had was when I'd once heard the NHK Orchestra perform at Carnegie Hall Takemitsu's 1967 November Steps for shakuhachi, biwa and orchestra.  Here the sounds of the traditional Japanese instruments blended with those of the Western orchestra in an evocative and haunting manner.  Marco Lienhard, the soloist, was a true master of the shakuhachi and did much to contribute to the success of this performance.

This was followed by Somei Satoh's The Last Song (2005) for baritone and ensemble.  This work was the most Western in form of all those on the program and perhaps for that very reason of less interest to me than the rest.  I was reminded of those yōga works created by Japanese painters at the turn of the twentieth century that sought to use Western techniques in depicting native subject matter.  

After intermission came the performance of Michio Mamiya's Piano Concerto IV, “Scenes of an Unborn Opera” (1997).  This marked the first occasion on which the work had been heard outside Japan.  It had a bizarre dissonant beginning that gradually grew more genial as the work neared its end.  Pianist Robert Fleitz was outstanding throughout as the soloist on a very difficult piece during which he more often seemed to be playing against the orchestra rather than with it.

The program closed with Akira Nishimura's Orgone (2005).  Despite an explanatory note by the composer, I have to admit the relationship between this music and Wilhelm Reich's controversial theories completely escapes me.  Still, it did provide for a very original title.  What I did note was a very deft use of percussion to create unusual effects.

The entire series was curated by Joel Sachs who last season did such tremendous work in organizing an appraisal of Schnittke's music alongside that of his closest associates.  Judging by the performance of his students, Sachs is also an excellent coach.  Everyone involved did a fantastic job.  As I listened, I wondered if it were more difficult for the students to learn pieces that had such a different provenance than the Western works they ordinarily studied.

One great feature of the Focus series is the extensive program note booklet that accompanies each concert and provides an in depth introduction to the music performed.  This is useful at any musical event, of course, but is essential at the Focus series where the music is so unfamiliar to Western audiences.  The notes also include an interesting historical essay by Alex Shiozaki entitled "The Arrival of Western Music in Japan" that details the incorporation of Western elements into Japanese music prior to 1945.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams

Unlike many other art books, Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams was not published as a catalog intended to accompany an exhibit.  Perhaps for that reason it is much more comprehensive than most I've read.  Containing essays by a number of authors, the book traces Redon's development as an artist from his childhood drawing lessons through his later years when he grew in stature to become one of the most important artists of the Symbolist movement.

Redon's art passed through several distinct stages.  Something of a dilettante in his twenties, it was only after he had completed military service in the Franco-Prussian War that, at roughly age thirty, he adopted the distinctive style he is best known for today.  It was then that, in anticipation of both Freud and the Surrealists, he tapped into the imagery of the unconscious mind to produce some of his best known works - The Guardian of the Waters (1878), The Eye Balloon (1978) and The Smiling Spider (1881).  It is notable that all three of these are charcoal drawings.  It was the artist's preference for monochrome that gave the noirs from this period such powerful impact.  His adoption of pastels toward the end of the century led him to a style that, while colorful and appealing, lacked the intensity he had formerly demonstrated.  It is really on his output in the two decades between 1870 and 1890 that his reputation rests today.

More than most artists, Redon was deeply influenced by literature.  Not only was he a writer himself, but he also kept company with a number of influential authors.  The most important of these was Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the decadent novel À rebours in which Redon is praised by name.  It was the infamy achieved by Huysmans's books that solidified Redon's position as an artist of the macabre.  He himself abetted this distinction through the illustrations he completed based on stories by Poe.  The most famous of these, both from 1883, are the charcoal drawings inspired by "The Masque of Red Death" and "The Tell Tale Heart."

The best essays are those written by Douglas W. Druick together with Peter Kort Zegers that trace the artist's biography before 1900.  Other chapters of interest are "Redon and the Transformation of the Symbolist Aesthetic" by Maryanne Stevens and "Redon's Spiritualism and the Rise of Mysticism" by Fred Leeman.  On the other hand, while the two essays dealing with "Redon and the Marketplace" by Kevin Sharp might be of value to collectors, they are of little interest to general readers.  By far the most useful chapter to those who themselves practice the visual arts, and one I wish more art books contained, was that dealing with the materials actually used by Redon in his work.  Entitled "Beneath the Surface" and written by Harriet K. Stratis, it contains a fairly exhaustive study of the papers and art supplies available in the late nineteenth century as well as the manner in which they were employed by the artist.  Such an analysis is especially important in the case of Redon because he worked in such a wide range of genres, from drawings and pastels to etchings and lithographs.

The works of the Symbolist artists have largely fallen out of fashion today.  Even in their own time, their achievements were eclipsed first by the Impressionists and then by the Modernists.  Their attraction to decadence seems out of touch and even naive to a twenty-first century audience.  Nevertheless, not only are Redon's best works visually striking, they are also keenly penetrating on a psychological level and well worth studying for that reason alone.  Redon was not only an excellent draftsman but an important artist as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Krenek, Mendelssohn and Mozart

The Jupiter Symphony Players has always been an ensemble distinguished by the high caliber of the musicians who play at its recitals.  Never was this more true than at yesterday's sold out matinee at Good Shepherd Church.   There were two special guest artists on hand - the virtuoso pianist Seymour Lipkin and violinist Miriam Fried - for a program that featured works by Ernst Krenek, Mendelssohn and Mozart.

The program opened with Krenek's Serenade, Op. 4 (1919).  Krenek was one of the many twentieth century composers whose work and name are now almost forgotten but whose biography provides a fascinating glimpse into the turbulent times in which he lived.  Originally a student of Franz Schreker in Berlin, Krenek began his career writing music that was clearly in the Romantic tradition.  Later, after having married and divorced Mahler's daughter Anna, the composer became famous for his 1926 jazz opera Jonny spielt auf ("Jonny Strikes Up"), now considered a classic of Weimar culture.  Unfortunately, this work brought Krenek to the attention of the Nazis who went so far as to use a racist caricature of the opera's protagonist on a poster for the party's 1938 Entartete Musik exhibit.  Like so many other victims of Nazi persecution, Krenek was forced to emigrate to America where he held several teaching positions and experimented with the composition of twelve tone, electronic, and even aleatoric music before passing away in Palm Springs in 1991 after a long and eventful life.  

The present serenade for clarinet, violin, viola and cello was an example of Krenek's early period while he was still very much under the influence of the Romantics.  It consisted of six movements and ran about 25 minutes in length.  Written when the composer was only age 19, it  was a graceful charming piece but one that gave little hint of the radical directions Krenek's music was later to take.

The Krenek was followed by Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827).  This work was actually the composer's first quartet (his Op. 12 was written in 1829) but he was already quite experienced, at only age 18, in the composition of chamber music; he had already completed two years previously his famous Octet.  Though the quartet is Romantic in character, Mendelssohn was in writing it heavily influenced by Beethoven's late quartets which were at the time generally misunderstood and unappreciated even by musicians.  Numerous quotes from the Beethoven works can be found throughout the Op. 13.  Mendelssohn also quoted his own song "Ist es wahr?" in all four movements.

After intermission came the best part of the program, Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 (1785).  It was with this work that Mozart more or less invented the piano quartet genre.  He wrote it as the first of a set at the request of his publisher who then, however, found the work too difficult and canceled Mozart's contract for the remaining pieces.  Notably, the quartet is in the key of G minor, the same that the composer used so powerfully three years later in his 40th Symphony, K. 550.  This key seemed to have a special meaning for Mozart and, though he was sparing in its use (of his entire oeuvre, only four of his works are in G minor), he employed it quite purposefully when he wished to achieve a highly emotional or dramatic effect.

Seymour Lipkin was the pianist in this performance of the quartet.  He is truly what one could term a "musician's musician."  I had the opportunity to hear him in recital last season at Paul Hall and thought myself very lucky to have been there.  Yesterday, he was joined by three extremely able partners - Miriam Fried, who had done a stellar job on first violin on the Mendelssohn quartet, violist Dmitri Murrath and cellist David Requiro.  The resulting performance was, without exaggeration, among the finest I've ever heard of Mozart's chamber music.  At its conclusion, everyone in the packed house rose from their seats to give the musicians a standing ovation.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Juilliard Chamberfest 4: Reich, Bartók and Brahms

Yesterday evening's performance was the last of the 2015 Chamberfest recitals.  It had been a memorable week for anyone with a love of chamber music and I was truly sorry to see the series end.  The final recital, this one at Sharp Theater, spanned over a century of musical composition as it featured works by Reich, Bartók and Brahms.

The program opened appropriately enough, considering the composer is an alumnus of Juilliard, with Reich's Quartet (2013) for two vibraphones and two pianos.  This was a recent work that only had its American premiere this past October at Zankel Hall.  It was an interesting concept to pair this piece with the Bartók sonata that followed, although I'm not sure how deeply Reich was influenced by the earlier work beyond the obvious similarities in instrumentation.  It might only have been my own impression, but it seemed as I listened that the piano and percussion parts were not always treated equally.  At times, the pianos seemed to recede into the background and used more as accompaniment to the vibraphones that relentlessly propelled the piece forward.

The next work was Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Sz. 110 (1937).  It's a testament to the skill of the Juilliard musicians that such a piece could even be attempted at a "student" recital.  This is not only one of the greatest works in the chamber repertoire but also one of the most complex; its performance requires an incredibly high level of virtuosity on the part of both pianists and percussionists to be successful.  At one early performance, in fact, six percussionists were needed to play it properly.  Here the four musicians - Hanna Kim and Joe Desotelle on percussion, and Randy Ryan and Chris Reynolds on piano - worked seamlessly together to give the work the brilliant performance it deserved.

Bartók was uniquely qualified to conceive such a work.  He was himself a great pianist and during his lifetime often more appreciated for his skill at the keyboard than for his abilities as a composer.  Few people understood the instrument and its capabilities as well as he did.  The present work derives from his realization that the piano is itself a form of percussion instrument, an association he had already exploited in his first two concertos.  The problem he faced in writing the sonata was to keep the piano part from being overwhelmed by the percussion.  In an article in The Basler National Zeitung shortly before the sonata's premiere, he wrote:
"For some time now, I have been planning to compose a work for piano and percussion. Slowly, however, I have become convinced that one piano does not sufficiently balance the frequently very sharp sounds of the percussion."
It was only through the ingenious use of two pianos that Bartók could achieve the balance he sought.  The result was mesmerizing.  I had already heard an excellent performance of this work last season given by two Juilliard faculty members, Yoheved Kaplinsky and Ernest Barretta, that helped open my eyes to the extent of Bartók's genius as one of the greatest of twentieth century composers.

After intermission, the program closed with Brahms's Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115 (1891).  Of all Brahms's chamber works it's this late piece, often described as "autumnal," that's my favorite.  It's well known that Brahms had already retired from composing by the time he first heard clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld play and was inspired to write it.  The composer took as his model Mozart's own clarinet quintet, the K. 581, which I had coincidentally heard in performance earlier in the week.  Brahms followed the Mozart's opus closely enough that the final movement contains a theme and five variations just as does his predecessor's.  This enhances the mood of both pieces as the variations, in a sense, "recall" the music that has come immediately before it just as an individual might review the events of his life when approaching death.  One senses both Mozart and Brahms were aware that their lives were nearing their ends when composing their respective pieces and this endows both their music with the reflective quality of a backward glance.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Juilliard Chamberfest 3: Sondheim, Schnittke and Schoenberg

Yesterday's Chamberfest recital at Paul Hall was as an eclectic a mix as any audience could hope for - works by Schnittke and Schoenberg, and in between an improvisation on popular twentieth century American songs.

After having attended the Chamberfest recitals for several seasons, I've found that the real draw, for me at least, is not the performance of the acknowledged masterpieces but rather that of the more recent and lesser known works that offer their audience a genuinely new experience.  Such was definitely the case in the first half of yesterday evening's program.

The first work performed was entitled Improvisation and Reflection on American Themes and involved a reworking of famous pieces from the American songbook.  Violinist Johnna Wu described the presentation as follows:
"Once again, the theme is improvisation in the context of chamber music, but this time we are re-creating songs by American composers Carter, Ives, Gershwin, and Sondheim. Our composition is inspired by Sondheim's character George Seurat in his musical 'Sunday in the Park with George' and seeks to emulate a day in his life."
I had attended a similar improvisation at last season's Chamberfest, that one based on the music of Piazzolla, and thought this new effort equally good if not better.  While I have the highest regard for all the featured composers' works, my favorite passage here turned out to be the toe tapping interpretation of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm."  Yi Hsuan Chiu on bass and Brandon Ilaw on vibraphone, together with Chi Wei Lo on piano, were very effective in creating an authentic jazz atmosphere.  For Carter's "Dust of Snow" and Ives's "Shall We Gather at the River" the ensemble emphasized the dissonance inherent in these pieces.  Johnna Wu shone here on violin.  When it came to the Sondheim, the singing of Jay Dref was a big plus.  He was so convincing that one would have thought he was singing from a Broadway stage rather than the much smaller platform available to him at Paul Hall.

On one level, of course, this was all incredibly entertaining.  Still, while listening, I could not help thinking how difficult it must be for four instruments to improvise among themselves let alone with voice added to the combination.  And yet it was impressive how deceptively easy these talented students made it seem.  No doubt the coaching of Noam Sivan helped a great deal.

The next work on the program was Schnittke's String Trio (1985).  What a contrast from the preceding piece!  Never had the Soviet composer's work appeared so relentlessly dark as it did now.  

I had already been an admirer of Schnittke for quite some time when I attended last January a Juilliard Focus series curated by Joel Sachs that explored his oeuvre in greater depth.  That provided me with my first chance to hear two of his rarely performed symphonies (the Fourth and Eighth), and I've since sought out every opportunity to become more familiar with his music.  Most recently, I attended last month a recital at Mannes where Vladimir Feltsman took part in a brilliant performance of the Piano Quintet.

By the time Schnittke composed this trio he had already begun to move away from the polystylistic technique he had advocated in his 1971 essay and in its place to develop a more classic style.  Indeed, this new approach could already be detected in the earlier Piano Quintet (1972-1976) and its implementation may be one cause of that work's long gestation.  Whatever the source of this new direction - whether Schnittke had acquired greater access to Western music as Soviet censorship eased, or whether his vision had simply matured over time - there is a sense that the composer was now attempting to work within an accepted tradition rather than as an outsider to it.  That's not to say this dense music is not filled with its own brand of dissonance.  Significantly, Schnittke dedicated the trio to Berg, one of the most influential members of the Second Viennese School.

The three string players - Ravenna Lipchik, violin; Jacob Shack, viola; and Keiran Campbell, cello - kept the demanding piece tightly under control throughout.  They were coached by Joel Sachs.

In attempting to research the trio online, I came across what I thought was an excellent article by Kenneth Woods complete with audio excerpts.  I found his comment on Schnittke's  musical influences particularly interesting:
"He shared with Berg a sense of fascination with decay: 'I set down a beautiful chord on paper—and suddenly it rusts,' he said of his own music.  The String Trio shows the searing influence of late Shostakovich, but also Schnittke’s deep absorption with the Viennese masters, particularly Mahler and late Schubert, an affinity shared with Berg, who according to Adorno 'assumes a position in extreme antithesis to that which the musical tradition calls healthy, to the will to live…'"
After intermission, there was a sense of anticlimax as the program concluded with a performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899) for string sextet (two violins, two violas and two cellos).  This is the composer's most accessible and therefore best known work, a favorite of those non-musicians who find his later twelve tone technique too difficult to appreciate.  And this short tone poem, based on verses by Richard Dehmel, is in fact a haunting and evocative piece that is quite affecting to hear.  It is difficult today to comprehend how controversial it must have seemed at its premiere in 1902, both for Dehmel's then explicit references to sexuality and for Schoenberg's own infamous use of the "nonexistent" inverted ninth chord.  My own problem with the sextet is that it has become overly familiar.  Last season alone I attended four performances of this work.  Nonetheless, the students who played it yesterday evening deserve every credit for having rendered the piece so expertly.  They handled the delicate ending flawlessly.  Their coaches were Ida Kavafian and Fred Sherry.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Juilliard Chamberfest 2: Ligeti and Penderecki

The second Chamberfest performance I attended this season was an hour long recital that was also part of the Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series.  Due to the short length, the works of only two composers -Ligeti and Penderecki - were featured, but both were stalwarts of twentieth century music and I considered myself lucky to have heard these masterworks.

The program opened with Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953-1954).  According to Wikipedia, this early piece, written before Ligeti emigrated from Hungary, was inspired by Bartók's third and fourth string quartets even though the composer had never actually heard these works but had only seen their scores.  Though the quartet is in one movement, it consists of seventeen separate sections.

I first became interested in Ligeti's music several seasons ago when I attended an ACJW Ensemble performance conducted by Simon Rattle at which the composer's Violin Concerto and Mysteries of the Macabre, an excerpt from the 1977 opera Le grand macabre, were performed.  This was long before I knew anything of Ligeti's history or of his impact on twentieth century music and  culture.  I was not aware, for example, of Kubrick's use of Ligeti's work in 2001: A Space Odyssey though I had, of course, seen the film many times.

Listening to the quartet, though I could indeed discern the influence of Bartók throughout, I was most struck at the distinctive style Ligeti had already developed at such a young age.  The atonal music was completely assured and masterfully written.  This was all the more remarkable when one considers that the composer was still living in Hungary at the time and was thus deprived - as were Schnittke and other Soviet composers - of access to the latest developments in Western music.  It would be another two years before the composer arrived in the West and began keeping company with its musical avant-garde.  In an article on the WQXR website, Harris Brown remarks of this work:
"...the music is marked by jarring folk rhythms, a neurotic adherence to counterpoint and episodes of solitude and violence. But Ligeti's own voice is omnipresent, as are the seeds of what would later become known as his "micropolyphony"—dense flurries of activity that result in highly complex and kinetic frenzied clusters."
The next and final piece on the program was Penderecki's two-movement Sextet (2000) for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn.  This too was a powerful work though quite different from the Ligeti.  It was in two distinct movements beginning with an allegreto moderato that seemed in some ways only a prelude to the longer larghetto that followed.  It was at the start of the second movement that the horn player rose and left the stage with score in hand.  He then spent most of the movement playing from offstage and only returned to the company of the other instruments toward the end.  This had a disquieting effect - as if one were observing a conversation from which a single member had abruptly departed though his voice could still be heard in the distance.  In spite of this, the work was not at all difficult to listen to.  The finale had a gentle meditative quality that drew in the audience as if inviting it to ponder some eternal question.

The musicians on both pieces played extremely well on obviously complex and difficult music.  In addition, hornist Trevor Nuckols gave a short speech before the Penderecki began in which he expressed the pleasure - what he described as a "rollercoaster" of fun - he had had in rehearsing with his fellow students.  Though not very informative about the music itself, it was truly affecting for its sincerity and the more valuable for that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Juilliard Chamberfest 1: Andriessen, Smetana and Mozart

Juilliard's Chamberfest is a weeklong series of recitals given every January by students who had sacrificed a week of their winter vacation to rehearse these pieces.  There are eight performances in all, and I try each year to attend as many as I can.  The first I saw this season was Tuesday evening's recital of works by Louis Andriessen, Smetana and Mozart.

The program began with Andriessen's Hout (1991) for the unusual combination of tenor saxophone, marimba, guitar and piano.  Before the piece began, it was described by saxophonist Julian Lee as "a canon displaced by a sixteenth note."  For all that, the music blurred the line between classical and jazz.  It was exciting and upbeat, and the ensemble performed perfectly together.  Sae Hashimoto was a standout for her work on the marimba.

The next work on the program was Smetana's Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15 (1855), one of the most moving works in the entire chamber repertoire and a highlight of the Romantic movement.  As its date of composition would indicate, Smetana wrote his only piano trio long before Brahms and Dvořák began their experimentation with the genre, and his work fares very well beside their later attempts.  The cause of its greatness can be found in its tragic inspiration.  It was composed in memory of Smetana's eldest daughter who had died that same year of scarlet fever.  (Smetana's second daughter had died the year before, and the following year his fourth daughter also died and his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis.)  Evidence of the composer's heartbreak and despair can be heard throughout the work.  But there are lighter touches as well.  In the first movement, the dark principal theme alternates with a more graceful second theme based on what Smetana described as his late daughter's favorite melody.  The final movement opens with a "gallop" that has been interpreted as a reference to an 1815 lied by Schubert, itself based on an earlier poem by Goethe entitled Der Erlkönig in which a child is killed by a supernatural force.
"The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead."
The harsh critical reception the piece received following its Prague premiere may have been one reason Smetana decided to relocate to Sweden in 1856.  At the time, only Liszt perceived its worth.

After intermission, the evening concluded with a performance of Mozart's late Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 (1789).  This was one of Mozart's most sublime achievements and without doubt the finest work ever composed for clarinet.  1789 had been a very difficult year for Mozart and one wonders if it were the tribulations the composer experienced that inspired him to his best efforts.  As H.C. Robbins Landon wrote in Mozart: The Golden Years:
"If there is any one work that sums up this unhappy year, this [K. 581] must be it – parts of it seem to reflect a state of aching despair, but the whole is clothed not in some violent minor key, but in radiant A major. The music smiles through the tears…"
The quintet was written for the virtuoso Anton Stadler who performed it at its Vienna premiere on an extended range basset clarinet.  As the Wikipedia article points out, the instrument used by Stadler differed significantly from the standard Viennese basset horn.  It was only in 1992, when illustrated programs from recitals given by Stadler in Riga in 1784 were found, that the appearance of this clarinet could be determined.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Paul Hall: ACJW Ensemble Performs Takemitsu, Ravel and Messiaen

Thursday evening at Paul Hall, the ACJW Ensemble gave a recital of twentieth century works by Toru Takemitsu, Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen.  In spite of the bitter cold in New York City, the house was filled to capacity for this fabulous program.

The evening began with Takemitsu's And then I knew 'twas wind (1992).  Though Takemitsu is Japan's best known composer, his music, a mixture of Western and Japanese traditions, cannot easily be categorized.  One must look to the composer's personal background in order to understand his conflicted feelings towards his own country's traditions.  Certainly, it would have been traumatic for any sensitive young man to have been drafted by the militaristic authorities at only age 14, most especially in 1944 when it must have been clear to everyone that Japan would eventually lose the war.  Takemitsu himself described the experience as "extremely bitter."  In reaction, the composer for many years wanted nothing to do with Japanese music.  Instead, he co-founded the avant-garde group Jikken Kōbō that explored multimedia presentations as he himself experimented as early as 1948 with electronic music.  He was also deeply influenced by the work of Western iconoclasts such as John Cage.  It was only after he had already become famous with his 1957 Requiem for Strings that Takemitsu was first exposed to Japanese music and began to incorporate elements of that tradition into his own oeuvre.

The present piece was accordingly influenced by both Western and Eastern traditions, but particularly by the work of Debussy.  It contained the same instrumentation as the French composer's late chamber piece, the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915) and not only made reference throughout to that earlier work but was actually written to be played alongside it.  The title itself was taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson.  The one-movement work was generally meditative and had a gentle air.  Although the program notes pointed out elements of the Japanese tradition within the piece, such as free rhythm and the use of unpitched sounds, these could not so easily be discerned.

The next work was more familiar - Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920-1922).  Like Takemitsu, Ravel was something of an outsider to the musical establishment.  In the the French composer's case, this was the result of having unfairly been denied the Paris Conservatoire's Prix de Rome five times in a row.  After that snub, Ravel turned his back on the Conservatoire and joined the Apaches, an informal group of artists that also included Stravinsky and Falla.

The first movement of the present sonata was written in response to a request made by La Revue musicale, a publication only recently founded by Henri Prunières.  The paper had asked several select composers to write works in tribute to the recently deceased Debussy for a special supplement it intended to publish.  Ravel's sonata has not much to do with Debussy's work, however, as that of Kodály, most particularly that composer's Duo for Violin and Cello written in 1914, only six years before.  Throughout Ravel's four-movement piece, constant references to Hungarian folk and dance music are plainly audible.  The work quickly evolves into an intense, at times almost minimalist, dialog between the two stringed instruments that is utterly gripping to hear.

After intermission, the program concluded with Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940-1941) for piano, clarinet, violin and cello.  Without doubt, few pieces of music have so dramatic an origin as this can boast.  Briefly, Messiaen was captured while serving France during World War II and sent to a POW camp in Poland where he became acquainted with three other prisoners who were also musicians.  The composer then wrote a piece in eight movements that the four could perform together.  Messiaen was obviously limited in his choice of available instruments, but Hindemith had previously composed in 1938 a work for the same combination.  The quartet was actually premiered at the camp - outdoors and in the rain - with both prisoners and guards in attendance, all of whom gave it an enthusiastic reception.  There was, unfortunately, a disappointing sequel to this feel-good story.  The guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, who had contrived to give the musicians rehearsal time and later forged documents for their release, traveled to Paris and attempted to meet with Messiaen after the war had ended but was rebuffed and sent away without having even seen the man for whom he had done so much.  Why Messiaen displayed such ingratitude has never been satisfactorily explained.

No matter how indecipherable Messiaen's subsequent behavior may have been, the quartet he created while imprisoned proved a masterpiece and was definitely the highlight of this recital.  Unlike most chamber works, the instruments did not always play in unison but often broke off into solos or pairs.  The music itself was ethereal and conveyed a sense of spirituality.  The ACJW musicians who performed it did so in an accomplished style.  I was especially impressed by the playing of pianist Michael James Smith who displayed enormous skill in performing even the softest passages.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Juon, Wieniawski, Catoire and Glazunov

At yesterday's matinee at Good Shepherd Church, the Jupiter Symphony Players began the second half of the season by performing works from a quartet of composers - Paul Juon, Henryk Wieniawski, Georgy L'vovich Catoire and Alexander Glazunov - who were all at one time or another employed as music instructors at prestigious conservatories.

The program opened with Juon's Arabesken, Op. 73 (1940).  Juon has been all but forgotten today, but in the mid-twentieth century he was a highly respected professor and musician.  He was himself a student of Arensky at the Moscow Conservatory and later, after having relocated to Germany, was employed by Joachim as a professor at the Berlin School of Music.  The present piece turned out to be a short four-movement trio for winds - flute, clarinet and bassoon - that was quite pleasant to hear.

Next was Catoire's Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 14 (1914).  It was Tchaikovsky who originally discovered Catoire's talent and referred him to Rimsky-Korsakov for training.  The  latter, though, only gave Catoire one lesson before sending him to Lyadov for further instruction.  Though nothing much came of this, Catoire eventually became a professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory and was signed to a contract by Koussevitsky's publishing house Editions Russes de Musique.  A biography by Natalia Bolshakova refers to Catoire as "one of the most neglected composers of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."  The trio performed yesterday was much longer and more complex than I had anticipated.  It was in four movements, and the titles given each movement, such as Allegretto fantastico, were rather interesting in themselves.

After intermission, the program proceeded with the works of better known composers.  First came Wieniawski's Rêverie in F minor (1885).  Wieniawski was a child prodigy and a protege of Anton Rubinstein with whom he toured the U.S. from 1872 to 1874.  He relocated to St. Petersburg at Rubinstein's urging and taught violin there for over a decade; in 1875 he moved to Belgium and was appointed a professor at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles.  Wieniawski was a talented composer and might have created a greater legacy if his life had not been so short; he died of a heart attack at only age 45.  Still, he left behind several notable works for violin, including two concertos, which are often performed.  The Rêverie, though, was actually a fantasy for piano and viola.  It was a brief but hauntingly beautiful work that was here performed exquisitely by Cynthia Phelps on viola and Elizaveta Kopelman on piano.

The program concluded with Glazunov's String Quintet in A major, Op. 39 (1891-1892).  Though Glazunov is today the best known of the four featured composers, this is at least partly due to his notoriety as the conductor who premiered Rachmaninoff's First Symphony in 1897.  This was one of the most infamous fiascoes in musical history and led directly to Rachmaninoff's subsequent psychological collapse and crisis of confidence.  Rachmaninoff's wife later accused Glazunov of having been drunk while on the podium.

Although Glazunov was indeed an incurable alcoholic, there is much more to his story than this unfortunate incident would suggest.  He was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and, like his teacher, a strong proponent of nationalism in Russian music.  He was in fact the first of the nationalist composers to have been sponsored by Mitrofan Belyayev and became a prominent member of that publisher's circle, a group that also included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Lyadov.  Among Glazunov's own students, the most successful was Shostakovich who later recalled his teacher with a great deal of fondness.

Whatever Glazunov's personal failings, he was certainly capable as a composer of chamber music.  The present string quintet (for quartet plus additional cello) was written immediately following what Glazunov's Wikipedia biography referred to as a "creative crisis" that lasted from 1890 to 1891.  The work betrayed no sense, however, of any inner turmoil but was instead very mature and assured as it progressed from one movement to the next.  The pizzicato that opened the second movement scherzo was especially striking.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Pictorialist Models


I started 2015 by publishing a portfolio of my favorite black & white film photographs.  It is now available as in a Kindle edition on Amazon.  

Pictorialist Models is a short photo essay containing scans of thirty black & white prints made in a wet darkroom using traditional methods.  It took its inspiration from Pictorialism, a fine arts movement in nineteenth century photography that culminated in the establishment of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo Secession.  In the present work, I  wanted to create a tribute to those earlier photographers while at the same time preserving my own distinct style.  In order to do so, I spent several years in the studio taking photographs of female art models on infrared film.


EDIT: Pictorialist Models is now also available as an ebook on the Barnes & Noble website.

Friday, January 2, 2015

PhotoHistorica: Landmarks in Photography

The large format PhotoHistorica: Landmarks in Photography consists of a selection of photographs taken from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society from its inception in 1853 through the late twentieth century.  The overview is not chronological but instead is broken down into several broad and predictable sections - Portrait, Social Documentary, Domestic, Nature & Science, Art, Nudes & Fashion, Landscape & Architecture, and Travel.  These are accompanied by a somewhat gushing text by Pam Roberts as well as a Preface by Paul McCartney whose late wife Linda had exhibited at the Society prior to her death.

The book is not intended as a scholarly work in any sense.  It is rather one of those volumes often referred to as "coffee table" books that go on sale every year during the holiday period.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting review of the Society's holdings if only because it provides some indication of what were considered suitable subjects for photographic study over the years and which prints were considered worth collecting.  To a large extent, the selection reflects the tastes of John Dudley Johnston who was Honorary Curator from 1924 to 1955 and who was responsible for moving the focus of the collection from works that represented technical advances in the medium to those that were included for their pictorial worth.  As the collection already consisted of over a quarter million photographs by the turn of the millennium, only a relative handful are included here.  Many more can be seen on the RPS website.

There are no real surprises in the book.  All the most famous British photographers are represented here as well as those foreigners, such as Alfred Stieglitz, who were once associated with the Society.  Still, many of the photos displayed are lesser known works, and readers are thus frequently provided an opportunity to familiarize themselves with images they may never before have encountered.  In the "Nudes & Fashion" section, for example, there are several obscure Pictorialist studies.  On one page, there is an undated nude entitled "Rebecca" by H.A. von Behr that employs shallow depth of field and an unusual overhead lighting source while on the following page there is a photo of the dancer Rose Cohen taken from behind by Paul Haviland circa 1909-1910 that focuses on the complex brocade pattern of her dress.

While the quality of the reproductions is generally excellent, too much attention has been paid to the layout of the book at the expense of the photos themselves.  Very often, photos one would have liked to have studied more closely have been placed at the top of a page where they won't be in the way of the text and have accordingly been so reduced in size that it is difficult to make out any detail within them.  One point that is not addressed is whether any the photos shown have been cropped to fit their allotted space.  Also, when one sees so many black & white photos with such distinctive tints, one cannot help but wonder how accurately the originals' colors have been replicated.

The biggest drawback to the book is any detailed analysis of the photographic processes used to create the photos.  Many of these have fallen out of use and are now referred to as "alternative" processes.  Though a primer in the use of these methods would admittedly have been beyond the scope of this book, they could have been described in greater detail and a bibliography offered to those who wished to explore them in their own work.

In the end, this is an enjoyable book to browse and it does help give the reader a sense of photography's accomplishments over the years; but it is simply not substantive enough to be truly valuable to students of the medium's history.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Met Museum: Cubism: The Lauder Collection

I hadn't realized before having seen it, but the current exhibit at the Met Museum, Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, has to be the most important staged in New York City in 2014.  It's rare that I'd describe a show as overwhelming, but this certainly was.  This is a huge exhibit by any standard, one that contains the very best work by both Picasso and Braque as well as masterpieces by Juan Gris and Fernand Léger.  The connecting thread here is that all four artists were originally represented in the early twentieth century by the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.  Leonard Lauder's entire collection, consisting of 81 artworks in total, is a promised gift to the museum; this exhibit marks the first time it has been shown as a whole to the public.

The exhibit has been broken down into seven separate galleries.  In the first four, one encounters the earliest Cubist works by Picasso and Braque beginning with the latter's 1908 Trees at l'Estaque.  With these paintings strategically hung side by side, the presentation gives the viewer an excellent idea of the interplay that existed between the two artists as they formulated the basis of the Cubist aesthetic and inspired one another to ever greater leaps of imagination.  There was a constant back and forth between them.  One can sense the excitement they must have felt as each stood in the other's studio and viewed his counterpart's newest work.  Recalling that period from 1909 to 1911, Picasso later stated:
"... almost every evening, either I went to Braque's studio or he came to mine. Each of us HAD to see what the other had done during the day. We criticized each other's work. A canvas wasn't finished until both of us felt it was."
Each new innovation developed by this pair is carefully documented at the exhibit.  Gallery 3 is labeled as "Braque's Musical Instruments" and contains works by both Braque and Picasso that feature at least one musical instrument in each.  Gallery 4, labeled "Word and Image," traces the artists' adaptation of print material, such as newspaper sheets, to create collages.  It was Braque who first came up with the idea; he began pasting strips of wood-grain wallpaper onto his canvases and then painting over them.  Picasso in turn soon began pasting strips of newspaper onto his own canvases.  When one looks closely, one realizes that Picasso chose news articles whose titles can often be interpreted as ironic references to the content of the paintings themselves.  In these galleries one can also see Picasso's Nude in an Armchair, his masterpiece from the summer he spent in Horta de Ebro in 1909, as well as two astonishing 1907 studies - Nude with Raised Arm and Drapery and Head of a Woman - that he completed in preparation for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, finished that same year.

Gallery 5 concerns itself with the work of Juan Gris.  It is only after having viewed the works of Picasso and Braque in the preceding galleries that one can appreciate what Gris accomplished in his own oeuvre.  He managed, if not to reinvent Cubism, at least to take it in an entirely new direction.  This can be seen most forcefully in the painting Head of a Woman (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) from 1912.  Though the influence of Picasso is very much in evidence, this is nevertheless an entirely original work.  Looking at it, one can well understand Gertrude Stein's famous remark that "Juan Gris was the only person whom Picasso wished away."  Other paintings, such as The Fruit Bowl (1915-1916) and The Bottle (1914), display an almost mathematical precision in their composition.  Also shown in this gallery are examples of Gris's playful Fantomas series in which content is hidden in the form of optical illusions.

Gallery 6 is labeled "Cubist Color" and focuses on later examples of Cubism at a time when Picasso and Braque were moving away from the near monochromaticism that had characterized their earlier output and had begun to experiment with a more colorful palette.  Showcased here is Picasso's Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair (1913-1914), the magnificent painting that marked the artist's transition from analytic to synthetic cubism.

Finally, in Gallery 7, the viewer encounters the work of Fernand Léger.  While Léger was a Cubist to the extent that he employed geometric shapes in his artwork, his were cylindrical rather than angular.  This led to his style being dubbed "Tubism" by at least one critic.  The change in emphasis gives a different feel to Léger's work, one that is much more dynamic than either Picasso's or Braque's.  This can be seen clearly in the delightful 1918 The Tugboat.  As the museum's website notes:
"While Braque and Picasso depicted any given object from multiple points of view, Léger animated his subjects so that they actually appear to be in motion, churning in and out of depth."
A fascinating adjunct to the Cubism exhibit is another, much smaller, that is simply entitled Madame Cézanne.  This consists of 24 portraits (from a total of 29) that Paul Cézanne painted and drew of his wife Hortense over a 20+ year period.  Although Cézanne died in 1906, just before Picasso and Braque began their experimentation with Cubism, he is generally considered by critics to have been a forerunner of the movement in his reduction of form to more basic geometrical patterns.  Picasso once referred to Cézanne as his "only master."  It is interesting to compare Juan Gris's Portrait of Mme Cézanne after Cézanne (1916) in the Cubism exhibit with the works shown here.

The Cubism exhibit continues through February 16, 2015; the Cézanne exhibit continues through March 15, 2015.