Thursday, May 28, 2015

Atget: The Pioneer

In December, I reviewed an exhibit at Pace MacGill of vintage prints by the French photographer Eugène Atget whose work has served as an inspiration for almost all the twentieth century documentary photographers who followed him.  Berenice Abbott, Brassaï and Walker Evans, among others, were deeply indebted to him in the development of their own styles.  But beyond their historical importance, Atget's prints are notable for the sheer beauty with which they depicted turn of the century Paris.  They are magnificent works of art in their own right.

What makes Atget a unique figure in the history of the medium is that, oddly enough, he never made any claim to be a photographer.  As far as can be determined, Atget only took up the camera after he had failed at both acting and painting and then for no other purpose than to pay his rent.  His advertisement read simply "Documents for Artists."  The implication here, of course, was that he was not an artist himself but only providing prints for reference to those who were themselves creative.

But this is really only a guess.  Atget's own thoughts on his work and even on photography in general must forever remain unknown since he never made any statement concerning them (even though he was quite voluble on other subjects).  He worked in obscurity throughout his entire career without ever seeking or receiving any recognition for his remarkable achievement.  It was only in the months before his death that his work first came to the attention of other photographers.  By then it was too late.  Atget died in complete ignorance of the influence his prints would exert on the history of photography and of the fame that would come to him posthumously.  Nevertheless, it seems impossible that he could have trudged with his view camera day after day along the streets of Paris and set up literally tens of thousands of shots without ever having formed any aesthetic or any ideas on the nature and practice of photography.  The very genius of his oeuvre argues against such a supposition.

It was the Surrealists who first discovered Atget.   Brassaï made his acquaintance in 1925 while visiting the art dealer Léopold Zborowski and was entranced by the large (24" x 30") prints he was shown.  Man Ray also lived close by and stopped by long enough to purchase a few carefully chosen prints and then saw to it that his neighbor's work was published in la Révolution surréaliste.  More importantly, Man Ray introduced Berenice Abbott, who was his assistant at the time, to Atget; it was she who was really responsible for preserving his photography and bringing it to the attention of the public.  After Atget's death, she bought almost the entire stock of his glass plate negatives and prints and then took them with her to New York when she returned to America from France.  She was thereafter tireless in proselytizing the late artist's work.  It was Abbott in fact who first showed Atget's prints to Walker Evans who thereupon experienced an epiphany in the creation of his own documentary photography.  The depth of Atget's influence can clearly be seen in Evans's American Photographs and other publications.

Atget: The Pioneer is, unfortunately, not the best work on its subject.  It is prefaced by three essays, none of which are particularly informative and are almost entirely lacking in biographical detail.  The presentation is also problematic.  In attempting to emphasize Atget's influence on later photographers, the book places his own photographs side by side with theirs.  This is distracting, and the juxtaposition is sometimes jarring.  The reproductions are of good quality but those of Atget's work represent only a small fraction of his output.  There is, however, one group of photos, accompanied by an essay by Sylvie Aubenas, of the trees at the Saint-Cloud Park with which I had not previously been familiar and are definitely worth viewing.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Juilliard String Quartet Seminar Recital: Haydn and Bartók

I went on Friday afternoon to Paul Hall to hear the first half of the annual Juilliard String Quartet Seminar Recital.  The event was described as follows on the school's website:
"Each year The Juilliard School hosts a weeklong seminar to foster the artistic growth of pre-formed, pre-professional string quartets. Through intensive coaching and mentoring with members of the Juilliard String Quartet, as well as interaction with other participating quartets, students are able to refine their artistry in a stimulating artistic environment. The results are displayed in these final seminar recitals."
The program opened with the String Quartet No. 61 in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (1797) by Franz Joseph Haydn. The piece is nicknamed "the Fifths" for the widely spaced intervals played by the first violin in the opening bars.  It was written while Haydn was still resident at Esterházy and was the last full set of quartets he completed.  While perhaps not as groundbreaking as the Op. 20 or the Op. 33, these six quartets still represented a milestone in the development of the genre and helped formalize its structure for future generations of composers.  Haydn was, of course, known as "the father of the string quartet" and I was lucky enough this season to have heard a number of performances of his works performed by the Orion Quartet, widely acknowledged as authorities on Haydn, including one of the No. 5 from this same set.  Those performances, as well as Friday's, have helped deepen my appreciation of Haydn's genius and his ability to innovate within a genre until he had perfected its form.  It's strange to think that without the groundwork laid by Haydn, Beethoven's late quartets might not exist, at least not in the form we now know them.  On Friday, the work was expertly performed by the Cordova Quartet consisting of Andy Liang and Roseminna Watson (violins), Blake Turner (viola) and Matthew Kufchak (cello).

The second work on the program was the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7 (1909) by Béla Bartók.  The piece was written shortly after the First Violin Concerto and, though the composer had recently gotten married to his first wife, he was apparently still suffering while composing the quartet from his unrequited love for the violinist Stefi Geyer.  When writing to her, he in fact described the quartet's first movement as a "funeral dirge."  More importantly, the work displays, especially in its final movement, Bartók's early use of the Hungarian folk themes that were to prove the key to the development of his modernist style.  It's much easier to see in youthful works such as this and the Piano Quintet (1903) the manner in which the composer first began adapting these motifs to his own form of expression.  The work was performed by the Calliope String Quartet consisting of Tianyang Gao and Julia Glenn (violins), Molly Goldman (viola) and Hélène Werner (cello).  All the musicians were extremely talented, but I was especially impressed by the virtuoso performance given by Tianyang Gao on first violin.

The recital lasted less than an hour and had no intermission.  The second half of the program was to be played that same the evening and and was to feature a performance of Bartók's Fourth Quartet.  I had already heard that piece performed earlier this month by the same musicians who were to be present Friday evening and who have now named themselves the 412 Quartet, and had thought their rendition truly excellent.  It's a shame both the Bartók quartets could not have been played at the same performance so that the audience could have better followed the evolution of the composer's style over the nineteen year period that elapsed between the creation of the two works.

This was the one of the last recitals I'll hear this season at Juilliard, and while at Paul Hall I was struck again by what an incredible resource the school represents to those with a love of great music.  All season I've heard top level musicians give exceptional performances of some of the most important works in the chamber repertoire.  I definitely feel privileged to have attended these recitals and am deeply grateful to Juilliard for having made them available to the general public.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Reicha, Mozart and Dvořák

On Monday afternoon at St. Stephen's Church, the Jupiter Players gave their last recital of the season.  The ensemble has been a mainstay on the Upper West Side for lovers of chamber music and this season alone gave twenty superlative performances that took the time to explore the work of lesser known composers as well as that of the masters.  It was not surprising then that this final performance featured works by artists - Reicha, Mozart and Dvořák - whose styles differed radically from one another.

The program opened with Anton Reicha's Variations for Bassoon and String Quartet (n.d.).  This was such an obscure work that I could find nothing online relating to it when I attempted to research its history before attending the recital.  Its date of composition is unknown and no opus number was ever assigned it.  Reicha himself, of course, was hardly a household name even in his own time and has been largely overlooked since the close of the nineteenth century.  This lack of recognition was due partly to the politically fraught political situation in Europe at the close of the eighteenth century.  Reicha was forced by the wars raging about him to relocate from Bonn to Hamburg to Paris to Vienna until finally he returned to Paris where he spent the rest of his career teaching composition at the Conservatoire.  Another factor that caused the composer to be forgotten was his own refusal to put himself forward.  As his Wikipedia biography pithily notes:
"None of the advanced ideas he advocated in the most radical of his music and writings (not used in the 25 great wind quintets), including polyrhythm, polytonality and microtonal music, were accepted or employed by nineteenth-century composers. Due to Reicha's unwillingness to have his music published (like Michael Haydn before him), he fell into obscurity soon after his death and his life and work have yet to be intensively studied."
The present work was certainly interesting,  In it one could hear the influence of both Mozart and Beethoven.  What struck me as I listened to it was how unfamiliar are present day audiences with works that so prominently feature woodwind instruments such as the bassoon.  Instead, we are much more used to hearing winds play as part of an ensemble at orchestral concerts.  I believe this lack of appreciation for wind instruments is yet another reason Reicha is so often overlooked in our era. 

The next work was Mozart's Serenade No. 11 in E flat major, K.375 (1781).  The piece was originally written for performance on St. Theresa's Day and was arranged for two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons.  Shortly after Mozart had completed the serenade in this form, however, a wind octet was established at the Viennese court that featured two oboes in addition to the aforementioned instruments.  Mozart was forced to hurriedly rework his manuscript to include these instruments and, as a result, the final composition displayed a number of unusual features, such as the horn solo that appeared out of nowhere in the first movement recapitulation.  The overall structure, though, remained traditional - a central slow movement with two minuets on each side which were in turn flanked by two fast outer movements.   The current performance was unusual in that made use of the original arrangement without oboes.   With or without those instruments, this is still a heartrendingly beautiful work that only Mozart could have written.

After intermission, the program ended with one of the best known works in the chamber repertoire, Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887).  The work began as an attempt to revise an earlier quintet, also in A major, the Op. 5.  Luckily for future generations of music lovers, the composer soon enough decided the task was hopeless and instead wrote an entirely new quintet to take its place.  If nothing else, this gave Dvořák the opportunity to continue his exploration of Czech folk sources as can be clearly heard in the second movement Dumka that forms the heart of the work.  In the past few seasons, I've heard excellent performances of this work by both the Chamber Music Society and the ACJW Ensemble, but I still found the Jupiter Players' rendition eminently satisfying.  The performers were Gilles Vonsattel (piano), Mark Kaplan and Lisa Shihoten (violin), Dmitri Murrath (viola) and David Requiro (cello).

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Rohatyn Room Reception

As a subscriber to the Met Orchestra series, I was invited by Carnegie Hall to a post-concert reception held in the Rohatyn Room on the First Tier level immediately following the end of the Sunday afternoon's performance.

Light refreshments were offered along with complimentary glasses of wine.  What made the event special, though, was the appearance of the concert's soloist, Yefim Bronfman.  Mr. Bronfman has long been one of the pianists for whom I've held the highest regard, and I think it would be fair to say he's on anyone's short list of the ten most highly accomplished pianists now active.

Following an introduction by the Hall's artistic director, Mr. Bronfman took a few brief questions from the attendees.  As I own a copy of the pianist's recording, with the Juilliard Quartet, of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and also knew that Mr. Bronfman would be performing the Prokofiev sonatas in recital next season, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask if he felt he had a particular affinity for the Russian repertoire.  I knew that although Mr. Bronfman had been born in Uzbekistan at a time when it was still part of the U.S.S.R.,  he had emigrated to Israel when only age 15 and had later become an American citizen.  I was curious how this background had affected his feelings for the Russian music to which he must first have been exposed.

At such an event, it was of course impossible for the pianist to answer any questions in detail.  He did agree, though, that he indeed felt he possessed a strong affinity for Russian music and noted what great contributions Russian composers had made to the repertoire.  He also mentioned that he hadn't performed any Russian works this season other than the Tchaikovsky Third Concerto.

In answer to questions from other attendees, Mr. Bronfman talked of the difficulties he sometimes encountered in working with orchestras other than the Met as there occasionally exist difficulties in communication between soloist and conductor that render performances problematical.  He then went on to extol the virtues of the Met Orchestra and claimed that he had experienced no artistic differences of opinion whatsoever when working with James Levine in preparation for this performance.

There really weren't any surprises at the reception, but it was gratifying enough to have a chance to converse, however briefly, with such a consummate artist.  I'm grateful to Carnegie Hall for having staged the event and hope there will be more such functions next season.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Carnegie Hall: James Levine Conducts Brahms and Berlioz

Yesterday, I went to Carnegie Hall for the last scheduled concert of the regular season, and the afternoon certainly provided a fitting finale to the wonderful performances I've seen these past several months.  James Levine was at his best as he led the Met Orchestra in renditions of works by two of the nineteenth century's most important composers, Brahms and Berlioz.  A connecting thread between these artists, so dissimilar at first glance, was that both were heavily influenced by their feelings for two very different women while writing their respective pieces.

The program opened with Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858).  The composer was still only 21 years old when he began work on the first movement in 1854.  Only the year before he had been introduced, by means of a letter from violinist Joseph Joachim, to Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, and this proved to be a turning point in his life.  Robert's involuntary commitment to an asylum, also in 1854, could not but have weighed heavily on Brahms's mind as he composed this piece.  Robert in fact died in the asylum in 1856 before the work was finished.  In his place, it was Joachim who so carefully advised Brahms on the writing of the concerto that the young composer eventually discarded the second and third movements he had originally written and replaced them with an adagio and a rondo.  As late as 1858 Joachim was still revising and reorchestrating Brahms's work.

If Brahms, who was always meticulous in the composition of his works, seemed ambivalent about the structure of his concerto, it was not only because this was his first orchestral work but also because Brahms was extremely self conscious that he was working in the shadow of Beethoven, at least as far as public expectations were concerned.  The composer displayed in creating the concerto all the self-doubt and hesitation that would prevent him from completing a symphony for another twenty years.  The present work was in fact initially conceived as a sonata for two pianos and then as a full symphony before Brahms ultimately decided that it should be a concerto.  At this point, he sought the advice of his more experienced fellow music student Julius Grimm regarding the orchestration before then going on to ask Joachim for his advice.

Looming behind the creation of the concerto, though, was the figure of Clara Schumann for whom Brahms harbored feelings that were, to say the least, conflicted.  In 1856, while still in the midst of work on the piece, Brahms wrote to Clara:
"I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and do as many good things for you, as you would like. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can hardly express it. I should like to call you darling and lots of other names, without ever getting enough of adoring you."
It was Clara's approval Brahms had sought above all others, even that of Joachim, and one can imagine that the 1861 performance in Hamburg at which Brahms conducted and Clara was soloist was the goal he had had in mind all along.  It must to an extent have been for him the realization of a romantic fantasy even though that performance, like most of those that had preceded it, ended in humiliating failure.

If the Brahms concerto was not particularly well received at its premiere or at several subsequent performances, it has since become a staple of the repertoire and an opportunity for pianists to display their skill.  Yesterday, it was given the finest performance imaginable with Yefim Bronfman as soloist.  Though the pianist is best known for his interpretations of the Russian repertoire, he displayed complete mastery of the Brahms.  His performance of the concerto was a tour de force that brought the sold out audience to its feet.

After intermission, the afternoon ended with a performance of that work of unbridled passion, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830).  I've always considered this a perfect example of what an artist can accomplish when driven by unrequited love, not to mention the hallucinatory effects of opium.  In this sense, its subtitle épisode de la vie d'un artiste is perfectly appropriate.  Though Berlioz's relationship with Harriet Smithson may ultimately have ended badly for them both, it will remain forever memorialized in this unique opus that has since found a permanent niche in the symphonic repertoire.  That certainly that should be enough to justify any heartbreak and emotional suffering the composer had to endure along the way.

The work offered a fascinating contrast to the Brahms concerto that had preceded it.  Although both composers are customarily referred to as Romantics, their approach to music could not have been more dissimilar.  Brahms, no matter how deep his feeling for Clara Schumann - and he was obviously in love with her on some level - was the ultimate craftsman and was often criticized for being too academic in his approach to music (a reservation I myself have often shared when listening to his work).  As mentioned, he was always morbidly conscious of what Beethoven had achieved before him and in his own works, notably the First Symphony, often included references to the master's symphonies.  Berlioz, on the other hand, was held so tightly in the grip of passion and drug addiction that he threw tradition out the window and instead came up with a work so innovative it owed little to the classical symphonies that had preceded it.  It is hard to believe when listening to it that its 1830 premiere came only six years after that of Beethoven's Ninth.  In a sense, Berlioz was looking forward while Brahms kept his gaze steadily fixed on the past.

This was the last concert given by the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for a full year.  Their season certainly ended on a high note.  At the conclusion of the second half, the entire audience remained at the places to give James Levine a long standing ovation as he returned to the stage in his wheelchair to take one bow after another and to point out to the audience those members of the orchestra he felt most deserved their accolades.

Although the orchestra will once again be scheduling its annual subscription series next season, all the concerts will be in a single week in May after the opera season has ended.  It should be worth the wait.  I consider this the best orchestra, and Levine the best conductor, in the world and am greatly looking forward to those 2016 concerts which will feature such soloists as Renée Fleming and Evgeny Kissin.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Japan Society: Life of Cats

One of the more lighthearted exhibits to be seen this season is that currently installed at the Gallery at the Japan Society.  Entitled Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, it focuses on the representation of these ubiquitous felines in ukiyo-e works of the Edo Period.

It was through studying reproductions of ukiyo-e while still in high school that I acquired my first introduction to Japanese art.  The attraction these works held for me was their accessibility - they could be readily understood even by one who at the time possessed no real knowledge of Asian art.  Though the colored woodblock prints were not valued highly during the era in which they were created in Japan, where they were seen primarily as inexpensive graphic works to be kept in household albums, they had an enormous impact on nineteenth century European art history.  They were at the center of the movement known as Japonisme that influenced artists as diverse as Whistler and Manet.  In his painting La courtisane, Van Gogh went so far as to copy the work of the ukiyo-e artist Keisai Eisen.   Beyond such straightforward imitation, Van Gogh also began to heavily outline the figures in his paintings, a technique he was inspired to adopt from his study of the ukiyo-e works available to him.

The show at the Japan Society has been somewhat arbitrarily divided into five sections - Cats as People, Cats Transformed, Cats Versus People, Cats and People and Cats and Play.  Taken together, they offer a great deal of insight into Japanese society during the Edo Period.  Nowhere is this so evident as in the irreverent The Enlightenment of Daruma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  The artist, best known for his "Bloody Prints" such as The Lonely House on Adachi Moor (1885), was capable of traditional renderings of religious figures as can be seen in his 1887 portrait of Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen school of Buddhism.  But here he subverts the image of that same figure by showing him lounging lazily on the floor beside a cat and a sake-drinking Kwannon.  In fact, many of the works at this exhibit are parodies of famous stories with cats taking the place of the original human characters.  A good example would be Parody of Umegae Striking the Bell of Limitless [Hell] by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.  In many instances, the use of cats in place of humans in ukiyo-e works was an attempt to circumvent the stringent restrictions placed upon artists by the Tokugawa Shogunate's Tenpō Reforms issued between 1841 and 1843 that severely limited the types of subjects considered fit for depiction.

The Cats Versus People section focuses on the legend of the nekomata, the domesticated house cat that in old age grows two tails and becomes a form of evil spirit, or yōkai.  There are countless stories in Japanese folklore of these cat-spirits who terrorize the humans, including their former owners, with whom they come in contact.  One artwork at the exhibit, Utagawa Kuniyoshi's From the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road: Scene at Okazaki (1835), depicts a scene from a ghost story in which the vengeful spirit of a murdered woman emerges from a cat-shaped stone in order to frighten travelers along the Tōkaidō Road.  The series was probably intended to exploit the success enjoyed by Utagawa Hiroshige in his unrelated The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō that had been published shortly before.

The Cats Transformed section is fascinating for the different ways in which that much wilder cat, the tiger, was shown in Japanese art.  Tigers were not native to Japan (neither, for that matter, were domesticated cats which had originally been imported from China by monks wishing to preserve sacred texts from the depredations of mice) and presented a challenge to those artists who wished to depict them faithfully.  I had already noted this last year when visiting The Flowering of Edo Period Painting at the Met Museum.  In my review of that exhibit, I wrote:
"The Japanese interest in the inhabitants other lands is also evident in a far more playful work, Tiger (c. 1630-1640) by Tawaraya Sōtatsu.  It only takes one look at the painting to realize the artist has never in his life seen a real tiger.  The creature depicted here, as cute and harmless as a kitten, is an unwitting caricature of the terrifying predator."
Most of examples shown at the current exhibit, including a representation of a leopard as a female tiger, were way off the mark.  But there were some notable exceptions, most particularly the utterly realistic silk scroll painting Majestic Seated Tiger (1895) by Kishi Chikudō.  

Of all the works shown at the Cats exhibit, the most beautiful was the oldest, a lightly colored eighteenth century print attributed to Isoda Koryūsai and entitled The Third Princess and Her Cat (c. 1770).  It was done in a long narrow format known as hashria-e ("pillar print") as it was meant to be displayed hanging from a pillar.  It depicts a famous episode from the Genji monogatari in which a playful cat lifts the curtain to reveal the Third Princess to a passing nobleman and thus unwittingly brings disaster upon the entire household.

The exhibit continues through June 7, 2015.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Brassaï: The Monograph

Last spring, I reviewed here Brassaï: The Eye of Paris and was quite dissatisfied by its treatment of the famous Hungarian photographer.  I felt it failed to do an adequate job of representing the chronicler of nighttime Paris and provided only an incomplete and distorted portrait.  In contrast, Brassaï: The Monograph by Alain Sayag and Annick Lionel-Marie is superior in almost every respect.  This is a work that places Brassaï in the context of his times and gives the reader a better understanding of the photographer's motivations in undertaking his documentary projects.  

Although Brassaï was born in Transylvania and died on the French Riviera, the city with which he will always be associated is Paris. Living and working there had been his dream ever since he had first lived there as a child while his father taught at the Sorbonne.  I think it was that early sojourn that originally fired Brassaï's imagination and filled his mind with the romantic images he was later to capture on film.  But it took him a long while to return.  Even though he left Hungary for good in 1920, as a former enemy combatant he was unwelcome in France following the end of World War I and was instead forced to first live in Berlin where he remained for four years.  There he became acquainted with several other Hungarian exiles and built a base among them that would prove invaluable when he and they eventually relocated to France.  In fact, it was Brassaï's Hungarian contacts who later paved the way for his acceptance by the Parisian social and intellectual elite.  It was the painter Lajos Tihanyi, for example, who introduced Brassaï to Henry Miller who in turn gave the photographer his nickname "the eye of Paris" and became his lifelong friend.

Brassaï did not at first take up photography on his arrival in Paris.  He instead used the friendships with his countrymen to procure journalism assignments on a variety of subjects.  During this period, in 1926, he accompanied his fellow Hungarian, the photographer André Kertész, on several assignments.  It was Kertész who first recommended to Brassaï that he take up photography.  Years later, a bitter feud would develop between the two men over the extent to which Kertész provided guidance and inspiration to the younger man.  If the present monograph has any flaw, it is in not discussing or even mentioning this falling out between two of the century's greatest photographers. 

Once Brassaï had mastered the mechanics of the camera, it was only natural that he should begin photographing Paris.  He had already formed the habit of wandering the city's streets late at night as he sought to recapture the enthusiasm he had felt for it as a child.  He was also influenced by a meeting with Eugène Atget who had already spent years documenting the various Parisian neighborhoods in his own singular style.  Brassaï turned out to have a genius for nighttime and low light photography and quickly produced the classic book that made his reputation, Paris de Nuit.

Fascinating a character as Brassaï himself was, he is also remembered for his wide circle of friends. The most noteworthy of these were Henri Michaux and Pablo Picasso.  To its credit, the monograph goes into a great deal of detail regarding both these relationships.

The book contains a wide selection of Brassaï's photographs and artwork, all of which are well reproduced.  Of these, the most intriguing by far are the nighttime shots of Paris taken in the 1930's. Later representations of the city, shot in daylight in 1949, are not nearly so interesting.  The photographs of Parisian graffiti are fascinating in themselves as ethnological studies.  In addition, there are several well written essays, including a reprint of one written by Henry Miller in 1933, as well as an interview with the photographer's widow and excerpts from Brassaï's own writings.  The chronology at the end of the book is a useful outline of the photographer's life; the bibliography serves as a comprehensive guide to further reading.

This monograph serves as an excellent introduction to those not already familiar with Brassaï's work and a good resource for those who already admire the photographer.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Juilliard Recital: Johnna Wu, violin

On Friday evening, violinist Johnna Wu performed a recital at Morse Hall "in partial fulfillment for the requirements of the Master of Music Degree."  It was not at all the dry academic affair one might have expected of an event so described, however, but instead offered a thoughtful program that was both innovative and well balanced.  Featuring the music of J.S. Bach, Messiaen, Bartók as well as an improvisation based on a theme by the violinist herself, it ended up being a good deal more enjoyable than many recitals I've heard at larger venues.

Before beginning the first half of the program, Johnna briefly described the nexus that exists between the work of Bach and that of Messiaen.  Her point was that both, while composing their respective works, had searched for an underlying unity or spiritual element.  While Bach had sought simplicity within the intricate complexity of his compositions, Messiaen had opted for a more minimalist approach in order to arrive at the same goal.

The program then opened with Bach's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin in A minor, BWV 1003 (1720), a choice which allowed the violinist an opportunity to display her considerable prowess on her chosen instrument.  Bach's sonatas and partitas, BWV 1001-1006, differed from standard eighteenth-century musical tradition in that they were clearly marked "senza Basso."  In contrast, most sonatas of the Baroque period, including Bach's own, were intended to be played with Basso continuo, most often harpsichord and cello.  As the Wikipedia article makes clear, the composer's deliberate omission of continuo instruments in these solo works was intended to transform them into a test of the violinist's virtuosity insofar as:
"... they challenge the player to realise various layers wherein some notes and patterns are the accompaniment of other parts, so that a polyphonic discourse is written into the music. Arpeggios over several strings, multiple stopping and opposing tonal ranges and particularly very deft bowing are exploited to the full to make all the voices speak from one bow and four strings, or five, or from a single flute."
The Bach was followed by the final eighth movement of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940).  This section represents, of course, the moving violin passage with only piano accompaniment that ends this historic work.  I heard the quartet played in its entirety last Sunday and have already described that performance in my previous post.  The pianist on Friday was once again Martha Mingle.

Fine as the first half of the program was, it was really the second part that I found most interesting.  It began with a full performance of Bartók's String Quartet No. 4 (1928).  I've always considered Bartók, along with Mahler and Stravinsky, to be one of the twentieth century's three most influential composers.  Among his chamber works, the Fourth Quartet is especially significant.  As the scholar Halsey Stevens has written, “The fourth quartet comes close to being, if it does not actually represent, Bartók’s greatest and most profound achievement.” In it, the composer managed to transform his Hungarian folk sources into a veritable avatar of modernism that opened new musical pathways for subsequent composers.  Its writing is dense and multilayered and filled with a dissonance.  At the heart of the work is its carefully designed structure in which two movements are linked to two others while the central third movement remains independent of the other four.  As Bartók himself described it:
"The work is in five movements; their character corresponds to Classical sonata form. The slow movement is the kernel of the work; the other movements are, as it were, arranged in layers around it. Movement IV is a free variation of II, and I and V have the same thematic material; that is, around the kernel (Movement III), metaphorically speaking, I and V are the outer, II and IV the inner layers."
Bartók did not play a stringed instrument himself, but that did not stop him from employing advanced techniques whose effects could only be successfully realized by the most accomplished musicians - glissando, ponticello, con sordino, pizzicato and col legno are all present at one point or another in this work.  Here, the gifted performers, aside from Johnna herself, were Hannah Cho (violin), Caeli Smith (viola) and Jennie Brent (cello).

Before commencing the last work on the program, Johnna dedicated its performance to her teacher Joseph Lin, a member of the Juilliard Quartet and without question one of the finest violinists now active.  

This final work was an improvisation entitled Slowness.  While it might technically be termed a piano quartet, it was far different from most works normally associated with that genre both in form and in the array of instruments for which it was arranged - violin, cello (Panyaphat Wongwechwiwat), double bass (Yi-Hsuan Chiu) and piano/synthesizer (Chi Wei Lo).  In response to a query, Johnna described the piece as follows:
"I essentially wrote fragments of the piece and intended for the performances to use them as starting points for further improvisation. The final piece was intended to combine all of the other pieces I had played on the same recital, drawing significant influences from Bach, Messiaen, and Bartok. I think the most obvious parallel was to Messiaen, as the end of the piece corresponded to the end of the Messiaen."
Johnna had already mentioned at the recital that everyone involved had contributed to the piece.  And in fact, during the course of the improvisation, all four musicians proved themselves to be as inventive as they were skilled on their instruments. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Recital: Brahms and Messiaen

Sunday afternoon's chamber recital at Juilliard's Morse Hall featured two radically different pieces - an early piano quartet by Brahms followed by a quartet by Olivier Messiaen that is inarguably one of the most important chamber works of the twentieth century.

Brahms was only 23 years old when he began the Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, No. 1 (1856-1861) and it's amazing that so youthful a composer would even attempt such large scale works as this and its companion piece, the Op. 26.  That he was able to do so successfully, and even triumphantly, was early proof of his genius to any who might have doubted Schumann's appraisal of his ability.  Years later, in 1937, even so determinedly a modernist composer as Schoenberg was sufficiently impressed by the quality of the piece that he arranged it for full orchestra.

There were obviously many "firsts" for the composer in so early a work but perhaps none so notable as his use of authentic Hungarian folk sources in the finale, sometimes referred to for that reason as the "Gypsy Rondo."  In this movement, which incidentally was highly praised by the great violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms anticipated Bartók's use of these same folk sources by more than a half century.  They formed a source of inspiration Brahms would continue to explore for the remainder of his career.

The quartet is a difficult work, and the finale in particular requires a high level of virtuosity from any who attempt it.  At this recital, the entire piece was performed remarkably well by Strauss Shi (violin), Sophia Sun (viola), Maria Shim (cello) and Joey Chang (piano).  The coach was violinist Lara Lev whom I had heard at a faculty recital in 2013 and whom I had thought extremely capable in her handling of the Russian repertoire.

Important as Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940) is to the development of modern music, it's the work's extramusical associations that have made it legendary.  Even those with no interest in serious music relish this ultimate "feel good" story that depicts Messiaen as a French P.O.W. in a German stalag bravely composing his masterpiece, rehearsing it with fellow musician/prisoners and then performing it to overwhelming acclaim by both prisoners and German officers/guards alike.  The tale is certainly heartwarming as far as it goes, but it fails to take into account Messiaen's shabby conduct after the war when he refused to meet with Brüll, the guard who had risked his life to make it possible for Messiaen to write the work in the first place and who had later even forged documents to facilitate the composer's escape.  That, for me, has always tainted my appreciation of the piece.

Nevertheless, no matter what its history, the Quatuor is an incredible achievement, especially when one takes into account the conditions in which it was conceived.  Messiaen was necessarily limited in his choice of instruments and was forced to compose for the unusual arrangement of clarinet, violin, cello and piano.  Even so, he paid his fellow captives the huge compliment of writing for each of them solo parts that would test the skills of any musician.  To me, the entire work has always seemed to revolve around the three movements that feature these solos (with piano accompaniment) - the Abîme des oiseaux for clarinet, the Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus for cello, and the final moving Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus that is really the soul of the work for violin.

I had heard the Quatuor performed expertly by the ACJW Ensemble in January at Paul Hall and thought Sunday's rendition equally as good.  That's saying quite a lot considering how challenging a piece this is.  The exceptionally talented musicians who played it on this occasion were Zachary Manzi (clarinet), Johnna Wu (violin), Charles Colwell (cello) and Martha Mingle (piano).  Their coaches were Rohan De Silva and Charles Neidich.

There was one incident toward the end of the recital I think worth mentioning.  Just before the beginning of the final movement of the Messiaen, several audience members chose exactly that moment to stand up and exit the hall.  While this might not seem so big a deal, it was not only distracting to the musicians and remaining audience but also showed a lack of respect to both the music and its performers.  Any rendition of so complex a piece as the Quatuor obviously requires a great deal of preparation and rehearsal, and it's only good manners for those in attendance to at least take the time to hear the work out.  As the final movement runs only about five minutes in length anyway, there's really no excuse for creating a disturbance by leaving early.  For all the talk of the "dumbing down" of the American public, it's still shocking to witness such poor behavior.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

CMS Webcast: Gilbert Kalish Performs the Concord Sonata

Over the past few months I've blogged about the many great piano recitals I've been lucky enough to have attended this season, but I really thought the best was that given by Gilbert Kalish at Lincoln Center's Rose Studio on Thursday evening under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society.  (Ironically, I was not able to be there in person but did watch the webcast shown on the CMS website.)  The first part of the program was excellent enough.  It opened with a performance of works by three living composers - George Crumb, Perry Goldstein and Sheila Silver - all of whom had written their pieces specifically for the pianist.  That portion of the recital then ended with an evocative rendition of the poetic In the Mists (1912) by Leoš Janáček.  But it was the second half of the program, in which Mr. Kalish performed only one work, the monumental Concord Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60) by Charles Ives, that was truly most memorable.

I had only heard the Concord Sonata performed once before (at a Mannes student recital in 2013) but that had been more than enough to convince me that this was one of the greatest piano works of the twentieth century.  It is so utterly daring in its early use of atonality and polytonality that it cannot help but shock the listener.  What's fascinating is that Ives had no models to follow when composing it.  Indeed, when the composer first began work on it, circa 1911 (although Ives had begun developing the ideas contained within it much earlier; he had already completed a sketch for an "Alcotts overture" in 1904), there was very little "modern" music available that was so radical in concept.  It wasn't until ten years later, in 1921, that Schoenberg first formulated the twelve-tone technique.  But  in the event, it wouldn't have made a great difference had such innovative experiments taken place and had the composer been aware of them.  Ives was a true American original and fiercely independent.  He wanted nothing to do with musical schools or traditions.  It might just as well have been Ives and his music that Thoreau (portrayed in the sonata's final movement) had had in mind when he wrote:
"A man's life should be a stately march to a sweet but unheard music, and when to his fellows it shall seem irregular and inharmonious, he will only be stepping to a livelier measure, or his nicer ear hurry him into a thousand symphonies and concordant variations."
It is Ives's interest in Transcendentalism that forms the spiritual core of the work.  Three of the four personages portrayed - Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau - were ardent Transcendentalists, most especially in their belief in the innate goodness of man.  (The inclusion of Hawthorne was something of an anomaly as the writer considered man to be a basically sinful creature and, late in life, wrote essays highly critical the movement).  The great appeal of Transcendentalism for Ives was no doubt the emphasis it placed on individualism, as expressed most famously in Emerson's essay "Self Reliance."

There is a wonderful study of the Concord Sonata contained on pp. 256-266 of Jan Swafford's Charles Ives: A Life in Music that explores in detail the composition of the work as well as the endless revisions that followed.  (It is also the source of the above quotation from Thoreau.)  The analysis provides as thorough an understanding as anyone is likely to offer, especially regarding so eccentric a composer, as to what was occupying Ives's thoughts as he transformed his Transcendentalist inspiration into musical motifs.  Along the way, it adds an informative aside:
"At the end of that vacation at Pell Jones's they [Ives and his wife] had watched the last mist over the lake, and afterward Harmony had written a poem called "Mists," about loss and renewal."
So apt was this remark to the performance of Janáček's In the Mist at the end of the first half of Thursday's recital that I could not help but wonder if the pianist had had it in mind when assembling the program.

Over the past two seasons, I have seen Gilbert Kalish perform at Mannes with Timothy Eddy in programs of cello sonatas and have been deeply impressed by the high level of musicianship shown by both.  It was a pleasure to see the pianist's solo recital in which he proved himself to be a complete master of his instrument.  Nevertheless, in spite of the incredible level of virtuosity he displayed in his approach to all the works on the program, his presence onstage was quiet and unassuming.  He appeared genuinely excited to be there and very eager to share with the audience his extensive knowledge of the music.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Published My Novel Lucid


I'm happy to announce that I've just published my new novel Lucid. It's currently available as an ebook at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble and can be ordered by clicking on either of the links below.

It's been almost exactly three years now since I put everything else aside in order to devote myself to becoming a full-time novelist.  I'm very excited by the direction my life has taken while on this journey and am grateful to all the wonderful people I've met along the way.  Writing fiction is something I've wanted to do ever since my college days as an English lit major and I've found great satisfaction in finally realizing my decades-old dream.  Even so, I realize that I still have a great deal of work to do in improving my writing skills.

Here's a brief description of the novel's plot.

An amazing account of one man's journey into the depths of his unconscious mind. Connor, an unemployed ex-con, eagerly agrees to take part in a university experiment that employs advanced technology to investigate the phenomenon of "lucid dreaming" - the ability to control one's dreams and give them direction. At first, all proceeds as planned in a carefully monitored academic environment. Soon, however, strange events occur that suggest the project may have crossed beyond the bounds of the purely scientific into that of the paranormal. The first hint that all is not as it seems comes when Connor finds himself reading in his dream a play that in the physical world has long been considered a lost work. Then a mysterious young woman appears and inexplicably offers to become Connor's guide in mapping the shadowy terrain of his dream life. As he gains ever greater mastery of his new found talents, Connor discovers that he possesses psychic powers that enable him to revisit past lives. Together with his beautiful guide Deirdre, he travels through time to scenes as diverse as New York's East Village rock scene in 1970 and a serene temple in ancient Japan in the year 1004. Meanwhile, in real time, a bitter enemy plots to put Connor back in prison. Who'll be able to stop him?