Monday, August 14, 2017

Met Museum: Orientalist Paintings

It was only with the publication in 1978 of Edward Said's book Orientalism that the term first took on a derogatory connotation.  As succinctly summarized in the Wikipedia article devoted to the book, Said's problem was that:
"The principal characteristic of Orientalism is a 'subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture', which derives from Western images of what is Oriental (cultural representations) that reduce the Orient to the fictional essences of 'Oriental peoples' and 'the places of the Orient'; such cultural representations dominate the communications (discourse) of Western peoples with and about non-Western peoples."
The resulting controversy has colored any discussion of the eponymous nineteenth century art movement that sought to portray exotic Mideastern locations and peoples in terms of European fantasies, and indeed the cover of the first edition of Said's book was illustrated with a painting entitled The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the leading proponent of that school of art.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of either Said or his book on the Met Museum's website even though the museum's current exhibit, Orientalist Paintings from the Collection of Kenneth Jay Lane, contains several works by Gérôme.  Then again, these paintings are less extreme examples of the artist's oeuvre.  Missing are such pieces as the above mentioned The Snake Charmer or the infamous Slavemarket.  Instead, the two versions of Bashi-Bazouk (a type of Ottoman mercenary), the Study of Palm Trees, and the Woman at a Balcony are picturesque works not likely to give offense to anyone however pertinent they may be to Said's argument.

At this exhibit, Said's contention is much better illustrated by the work of Gérôme's countryman Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant.  Paintings such as Odalisque, Afternoon in the Harem, and The Serbian Concubine give free rein to the most titillating European sexual fantasies concerning the Mideast even if their lurid content is portrayed in the most correct academic style.  In a similar manner, George Clairin, best known for his 1876 portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, reveals the prejudice inherent in European preconceptions of Mideastern life in The Opium Smokers

Orientalism can also be seen as an outgrowth the Romantic spirit that engulfed Western Europe in the early nineteenth century.  The lure of faraway places was central to the the movement's vision, the most notable example being Byron's fatal journey to Greece.  Thus that arch-Romantic Eugène Delacroix (unfortunately not represented at this show) included several Mideastern scenes - such as Collision of Moorish Horsemen and Fanatics of Tangier - among his paintings after having traveled to Spain and North Africa in 1832.  After 1853, this same preference for distant cultures would find expression in the Japonisme that inspired artists as disparate as Whistler and Van Gogh.

It is in this Romantic sense that Orientalist painting has always held an undeniable attraction for me and become something of a guilty pleasure. Many of the paintings shown at the Met's exhibit could very well be used as illustrations for an edition of The Arabian Nights.  What child dreaming of Aladdin or Sinbad wouldn't be delighted by Benjamin-Constant's The Sultan's Tiger, my personal favorite among the works shown?

The exhibit continues through September 24, 2017.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Met Museum: Early Photography in Italy

After having visited the Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Gallery last week, I noted that several of the works on view were of Egyptian scenes and thus represented some of the world's first travel photography.  At the current exhibit at the Met Museum, Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy, there were also photos from photography's first decades on view but this time the location was Italy, nexus of classical antiquity.  Another difference was that many of the works had been photographed by local artists, both amateurs and professionals, as well as by visitors from other countries, principally England, though these were hardly exiles in spite of the exhibit's fanciful title.

The show is relatively small by the Met's standards and consists of some forty-four prints, negatives, cartes de visite, and daguerreotypes as well as a truly unique album of photograms created by an Italian associate of Henry Fox Talbot immediately following the latter's invention of the medium, i.e., 1839-1840.  The album, easily the most noteworthy article shown at the exhibit, is described as follows on the museum's website:
"Album di Disegni Fotogenici contains thirty-six photogenic drawings by Talbot, twenty made from direct contact with objects, fifteen made from camera negatives, and one made with a solar microscope; three letters from Talbot and one from his uncle, William Fox-Strangways; three printed notices; and three photogenic drawings-the first to be made in Italy-by the Italian chemist Sebastiano Tassinari."
Perhaps no visitor to Italy is so renowned as John Ruskin whose The Stones of Venice was to become an indispensable guidebook for generations of English travelers.  Still, I had not known until recently that Ruskin had experimented with the daguerreotype process in the course of researching his books.  According to an article in The Telegraph, it was only in 2015 that a "box of photographs miscatalogued at a provincial auction in 2006 have finally been confirmed as having belonged to the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin."  It's not clear how deeply Ruskin was involved in the process.  Although the museum's website mentions only that he "purchased and commissioned daguerreotypes from photographers working in the city," other images have been attributed to Ruskin himself with the assistance of his valet.  The particular image on display here, Palazzo Vendramin, Venice, was most likely taken by Le Cavalier Iller, described by the Met as "an itinerant French practitioner."

There are also works are on display by other British photographers.  Of these, two are particularly well known.  The first is the Scotsman Robert Macpherson who began his career as a painter and who is represented here by albumen prints showing the Theater of Marcellus and the Cloaca Maxima.  The second is Calvert Richard Jones who learned the salt paper process directly from Talbot and who is represented here by a view of the Duomo in Milan.

The work of several French photographers is also on view.  Of these, the most illustrious is Gustave Le Gray who traveled with Alexandre Dumas to Palermo in order to record the "Expedition of the Thousand" led by Giuseppe Garibaldi in the fight for Italian unification.  Two excellent albumen prints from that 1860 campaign can be seen here, the Barricade of General Turr in Via Toledo and the other a formal portrait of Garibaldi himself.  These were among the world's first war photographs and brought instant fame, if not riches, to Le Gray.

In contrast to the British and French, Italian photographers, at least as shown at this exhibit, concentrated on what would now be known as "tourist pictures," though of the highest level.  The best of these were created by the Fratelli Alinari, a photographic firm still in existence.  Their view of the Baptistery in Florence is remarkably sharp for a salt print, most probably because it was made from a collodion glass negative rather than a calotype.

The exhibit continues through August 13, 2017

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Summer Selection at Hans P. Kraus, Jr.

The current exhibit. simply entitled A Summer Selection, at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. on Park Avenue is held together by only the loosest of themes - photographs depicting warm weather scenes - but for all that presents an excellent opportunity to view masterpieces from the earliest days of the medium, many of them by artists who have been unjustly forgotten over the course of time.  These individuals were not only pioneers in mastering the intricacies of salt and albumen printing as a means of expressing artistic vision, but a surprising number established themselves among the world's first travel photographers.  Somehow managing to transport their burdensome equipment to what were in the mid-nineteenth century distant and highly inaccessible locations, they returned with scenes that gave many Europeans their first glimpses of the Mideast.  For us in the twenty-first century, these same images present a view of the exotic worlds that existed before the advent of tourism robbed them of their true character.

One overlooked photographer was François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles, an artist so obscure that he doesn't even merit a Wikipedia entry.  Born in 1826 in northern France, he must already have attained a high level of proficiency in photography when in 1853 he joined a Grand Tour of the Mideast that included stops in Egypt, Palestine and Syria and from which he returned with 86 calotype negatives.  The images de Campigneulles printed from these upon his return to France were subsequently displayed at an 1859 salon sponsored by the Société Française de Photographie where they must have caused quite a sensation.  At the present exhibit, there's an excellent albumen print showing the ruins of Abu Simbel that's notable for the low perspective from which the photograph was taken.  This causes the image to tilt back dramatically on its axis, though there may already have been some natural curvature to the temple facade.  In addition, there are three three calotype negatives on display.  One is of the Kait Bey Mosque in Cairo, the other a general view of the ruins of Luxor, and the third of the Nubian temple of Sebouah that's remarkably similar to an earlier salt print by Ernest Benecke that's also on display.

Another photographer who exhibited at the 1859 SFP show was the Scotsman James Graham, and he is represented here by a marvelous 1857 salt print panorama depicting the pyramids at Giza that fully captures their grandeur and mystery.  Complementing the work of de Campigneulles and Graham is John Beasley Greene's Sphinx and Pyramids, Necropolis of Memphis, Giza (calotype negative) and Felix Teynard's details of the sculptures at Karnak (both salt print and calotype negative).

In contrast to these Mideastern photographs are several taken by better known photographers much closer to home.  These include Roger Fenton's Salmon Pool at the Sale Wheel River Ribble (albumen print, 1859), the Reverend Calvert Richard Jones's Vigneron, Hotel de Bourgogne (calotype negative, 1840's-1850's), and Alvin Langdon Coburn's The cloud, Bavaria (photogravure, early 1900's).

Perhaps the most intriguing image at this exhibit isn't a photograph at all but a c. 1821 camera lucida drawing by John Frederick William Herschel showing the Lake of Brienz from Iseltwald.  It was, of course, Herschel's facility at camera lucida drawing compared to his own poor drafting skills that eventually led a frustrated Henry Fox Talbot to invent photography.

The exhibit continues through August 18, 2017.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Beethoven and Dvořák

Yesterday evening the Jupiter Players gave the last of their three summertime recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  The program was appropriately lighthearted, in keeping with the season, and featured works by Beethoven and Dvořák which, while not among these two composers' best known pieces, were still highly significant chamber works in their own right and extremely enjoyable to hear.

The program opened with Beethoven's Six Ländler, WoO15 (1802).  As the date of composition would indicate, these short German dances were written at the very end of the composer's early period at about the same time he completed his Second Symphony.  And these dances do share several common features with the symphony,  most notably their use of D major (actually D minor for the fourth dance) as the home key.  Their lively festive character is, however, quite different from that of the symphony.  The occasion for which they were written was the annual winter dance at Vienna's Hofburg Palace.  This was a major social event in the capital's music season,  and in fact several hundred balls are still held annually in Vienna at this time of year.  This would, though, be the last time Beethoven would take part in the celebrations.  For one thing, he had successfully established himself as a composer to such an extent that he had no need to further embellish his reputation on such public occasions.  More importantly, such lightweight pieces no longer held any interest for Beethoven as, tortured by advancing deafness, he moved inexorably toward the great works of his middle period.  In spite of this, the dances are very accomplished examples of their genre and the Viennese revelers must have found them quite pleasing.  The very fact that the composer took the trouble to later transcribe them for piano shows that he held them in fairly high esteem even if he did not deem them worthy of being assigned an opus number.

The next work was an arrangement by Wenzel Matiegka of Beethoven's Serenade in D major, Op. 8 (1795-1797).  While the original work was scored for violin, viola and cello, it was here rearranged for the unusual combination of violin, viola and guitar.  By the time he wrote this work, Beethoven had already approached the string trio form in his Op. 3 in E-flat and would return to it immediately after in the three works that comprise his Op. 9.  Even more importantly, he had made the acquaintance of the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose ensembles would go on to premiere the great quartets of the late period; and the presence of so accomplished a musician may have been one factor that led Beethoven to experiment with the string trio form in the first place.  It's interesting to note that even at this early point Beethoven, who began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra, was comfortable expressing his musical ideas for strings alone.  That's not to say, though, that the Op. 8 is in any sense a profound work.  It's actually a relaxed divertimento of the type routinely performed at Vienna's myriad social events, although the particular occasion for which this serenade was composed is not known.  As guitartist Jordan Dobson noted before beginning the piece, Matiegka's transcription of this work involved much more than a simple transcription of the cello part.  At some points the guitar, which has inherently a much softer sound than that of its companions, would, simply in order to make itself better heard, take over parts originally intended for the violin and viola, leaving those instruments to sit silent.  The result was pleasing enough, especially for so carefree a piece of music as this, but in general I much prefer to hear works in the arrangements for which they were originally scored.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875), known as the "Double Bass" for its distinctive instrumentation in which a bass was added to the traditional string quartet in order to achieve a more pronounced sonority in the lower register.  Despite its deceptively high opus number (it was originally published as the Op. 18), the quintet is a relatively early work composed before Dvořák had come to the attention of Brahms and Hanslick in 1877 and then launched on an international career.  Originally written as a submission to a local competition, which it easily won, the piece went unperformed for a number of years until Dvořák, whose work was by then highly popular, finally sent it to his publisher Simrock.  As such, the quintet provides an excellent demonstration of the composer's early style as he moved away from the influence of Wagner's music and found his own voice.  Considering how early in Dvořák's career it was written, it's a remarkably cohesive work and one that deserves a more prominent place in the chamber repertoire.  The present performance was notable for its inclusion of the slow intemezzo movement that Dvořák had originally removed from fear the work would be too long and later adapted as his Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40.

As is always the case with this ensemble, the the level  of musicianship was superb throughout the recital.   The playing of guest violinist Danbi Um was particularly noteworthy.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Met Museum: Carvaggio's Last Two Paintings

After having seen the Irving Penn Centennial several weeks ago at the Met Museum, I climbed the stairs to the second floor for a glimpse of Carvaggio's Last Two Paintings.  They were well worth a trip to the museum all by themselves.

No matter how tumultuous and scnadalous Carvaggio's life my have been, or perhaps because of it, he was a visionary in his approach to painting, and the two large works - The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and The Denial of St. Peter - now on view are among his greatest achievements.  Looking at them, it's hard to believe they were created in the early seventeenth century, an era still dominated by the stiff and lifeless forms of the Mannerist school.  Although these paintings are credited with inspiring the greatest artists of the Baroque, most notably Rembrandt, they actually look far more modern than even those.  There is a theatricality in the lighting that is so advanced it reminds one more of twentieth century cinema than of centuries-old European art.  The characters who emerge only partially from the shadows come alive to the viewer as individuals and so transcend the Biblical figures they are meant to represent.  Even today the naturalism displayed in these paintings is almost shocking when compared to the academic style displayed in most other works of the period.  One can only wonder what Carvaggio's contemporaries made of them.  Certainly they were like nothing that had ever been seen before in European painting.  If one wishes to trace the development of modernism in Western art, this is where one must begin.

The exhibit continues through July 9, 2017.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs

It's difficult to believe now, so completely has she been forgotten,  that at the turn of the twentieth century Gertrude Käsebier was one of America's most successful and best known photographers.  So important did Stieglitz consider her work that he dedicated the first issue of Camera Work to displaying her photographs rather than those of his disciple Steichen.

Käsebier was lucky enough to have been born into a family of moderate wealth and then married, however unhappily, to a successful businessman.  As a result, she did not have to worry about earning enough money to pay the rent.  In fact, Käsebier was already age 36 and her children nearly grown when she first took up the study of photography.  While it's true that her social standing enabled her to secure many wealthy clients for her lucrative portrait business, Käsebier was a strong minded business woman who worked hard to make herself a success.  She also had enough foresight to ally herself with Stieglitz when he first began to seriously promote photography as an art form and she thus became a charter member of the Photo Secession.

If Käsebier is passed over today, it's most likely because so much of her oeuvre was given over to the celebration of motherhood and children.  Ironically, those photographs that first established her reputation, such as Blessed Art Thou and The Manger (both from 1899), are the same that now cause her to be rejected on the grounds that her work is too cloyingly sentimental to be worthy of serious consideration.  Actually, shortly after it was created, a print of The Manger sold for $100, at the time the highest price ever paid for a photographic work.  In contrast, the photograph for which Käsebier is best remembered today is her sensual portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, reproduced on this book's cover, whose cocaine addled husband gained notoriety when on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden he sensationally murdered the showgirl's former lover, the playboy architect Stanford White, who was also Käsebier's friend and patron.

The other reason Käsebier is given so little attention today is that her photographic style was unabashedly "pictorialist."  This term has been given a pejorative connotation since at least the 1930's when Ansel Adams and other members of the f64 Group began to relentlessly promote "straight" photography at the expense of all other forms of photographic representation.  Their closed minded insistence on their sharp and straightforward style as the only viable approach to the medium did incalculable harm to mid-twentieth century photography.  Käsebier was, on the other hand, the pictorialist photographer par excellence.  She had no hesitation at all in painting in backgrounds or details on her prints or in using alternative printing methods such as platinum and gum bichromate.  Although some pictorialists no doubt did go too far in their image manipulations, by and large they created works of incredible beauty that were far more imaginative than the literal, matter-of-fact reproductions of reality favored by the f64 Group.

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs, is a highly sympathetic biography written by Barbara L. Michaels.  It is a short work, really not more than an extended essay, that would have benefited greatly from more detail regarding Käsebier's associations with some of the greatest artists of her time.  These included not only Stieglitz and Steichen, but also such seminal photographers as Alvin Langdon Coburn (who once worked as Käsebier's assistant), F. Holland Day, Clarence White and Baron de Meyer as well as leading painters and sculptors in both Europe and America, most notably Auguste Rodin whom Käsebier photographed extensively at his home near Paris.  The book, published by Abrams, is handsomely designed and filled with excellent reproductions of Käsebier's black & white photographs, including all her most famous works as well as many with which I had previously been unfamiliar.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Hoffmeister, Spohr and Beethoven

In addition to the twenty recitals the Jupiter Players perform during the regular season, the company also schedules three recitals during the summer months at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  Yesterday evening, I attended the second of these and heard a program that featured major works by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Louis Spohr and Beethoven, all of them composed within a few years of one another in early nineteenth century Vienna.

The recital opened with Hoffmeister's Notturno No. 4 in D major (1802) for flute, two horns, violin, viola and cello.  Hoffmeister was actually a prolific and well respected Viennese composer at the turn of the nineteenth century, but he is remembered today primarily for his activity as a music publisher.  In this capacity he oversaw the publication of important works by, among others, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  He was also personal friends with many of these illustrious composers and was in fact the dedicatee of Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K. 499.  In his own compositions, Hoffmeister wrote most often for the flute, including twenty-five concertos for that instrument.  And the flute did indeed feature prominently in the present piece.  The work turned out to be a gracious Classical divertimento that was thoroughly engaging and an excellent opening for the program.

The next work was Spohr's String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 1 (1814).  This piece, which like Mozart's quintets featured a string quartet with an additional viola, was actually the second of the two Op. 33 quintets to have been written and was put first only by a publisher's mistake. Like Hoffmeister, Spohr was a prolific composer who was highly regarded, at least in German speaking countries, during his lifetime but who has subsequently fallen out of fashion despite the fact that a number of critics consider him an important bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras.  He was also a virtuoso violinist and, as a student of Franz Eck, one of the last links to the legendary Mannheim School.  As a friend and associate of Beethoven, he worked with the master on the composition of the famous "Ghost" Trio.  In spite of these impressive credentials, Spohr's ability as a composer was limited and his work rarely if ever rose to the level of greatness.  The quintet peformed yesterday evening may have properly followed all the rules of Classical composition, but it was in the end a lifeless affair that  made no great impression on the audience.  It was only the second movement larghetto that provided a few moments of interest.

After intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (1808), the second of the "Razumovsky" quartets.  This was the piece I had really come to hear.  The set of three quartets that make up the Op. 59 were the first to be written during the composer's middle period.  As such, they marked an enormous advance over the six quartets of the Op. 18, Beethoven's only previous attempt in this genre, that had been carefully modeled on those of Haydn and Mozart and could in a sense be considered "student" works.  In contrast, the innovations Beethoven employed in all three Op. 59 quartets were revolutionary for their time and to an extent anticipate the daring departures of the late quartets.  At least part of this new found originality can be attributed to the fact that they were written to be performed by a top notch ensemble.  Only a few years before, the virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh had formed his own professional quartet ensemble, the first of its kind, whose intent was to give public recitals rather than private performances in the drawing rooms of wealthy patrons.  In addition, Count Razumovsky, the dedicatee of all three quartets, was himself an accomplished second violinist.

The No. 2 is the only one of the three quartets to be set in a minor key.  As one would expect from this, it is much more dramatic than its companions and at times contains an element of foreboding, most especially in the opening movement.  According to Carl Czerrny, Beethoven found his inspiration for the slow second movement in his contemplation of a starry nighttime sky.  Be that as it may, this adagio, based around an almost hymn-like melody, is one of the composer's finest and offers the listener a sense of relief after the ambiguity of the first movement.  It's spaciousness contrasts sharply with the two movements that follow.  It is in the third movment that Beethoven introduces the Russian theme he had promised his patron.  But Beethoven seems almost to be parodying the well known Russian song as he plays it off against textbook contrapuntalism.  The final movement is almost symphonic in breadth and ends in sprightly fashion on an upbeat note.

The performances yesterday evening, including that of guest artist violinist Stefan Milenkovich, were all equally impressive, most especially on the difficult Beethoven quartet.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Met Museum: Irving Penn Centennial

The problem facing any gallery or museum that attempts to mount a retrospective of Irving Penn's photographs is the sheer volume of material available for presentation.  Penn's career spanned some six decades from the mid-1940's well into the first decade of the twenty-first century.  During this period he worked continuously and in every decade produced some of the most iconic photographs of the post war era.  Beyond that, he was a gifted darkroom technician who almost single handedly revived the platinum printing process that provided far greater depth and tonal range than the use of silver bromide paper allowed.  In one instance, four prints of the same image (Girl Drinking) have been placed side by side at this exhibit to demonstrate the different effects that could be achieved by alternating between hand-made platinum and commercially manufactured silver gelatin papers.

The Met Museum's current Centennial exhibit solves the problem of what photographs to show from such a large body of work by showcasing the "landmark promised gift from The Irving Penn Foundation to The Met of more than 150 photographs by Penn, representing every period of the artist's dynamic career with the camera."  Fortunately, this gift contains an excellent cross section of the artist's oeuvre and contains some of the best examples of his work available in each genre.  In addition, on display are photographs that entered the Met's collection prior to this acquisition.

The exhibit begins with several examples of Penn's early street photography shot in 1941 when the artist would have been approximately 24 years old.  To be honest, these early attempts, many of them nothing more than straightforward representations of store signs, are not particularly remarkable in themselves but are still worth seeing in order to obtain a better appreciation of what would follow.

The next steps Penn would take were a series of what the museum refers to as "existential portraits."  Most of these were completed in 1947-1948 and featured such subjects as Alfred Hitchcock, Spencer Tracy, Peter Ustinov, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote and Marcel Duchamp.  The best is a portrait of Mrs. Armory Carhart - displayed here in an uncropped print that shows the studio equipment surrounding the background curtain - that gives an early indication of Penn's talent as a fashion photographer.  The fashion photographs themselves depict with wit and style the world of haute couture as it existed in New York City in the late 1940's and early 1950's.  Included among them are many photos featuring Lisa Fonssagrives, the elegant Swedish model whom Penn would eventually marry.

It's important to note at this point that Penn had a great deal of expert help in developing his talent.  Before even taking up photography, he had already studied art in Philadelphia under Alexey Brodovich, art director of Harper's Bazaar.  In New York, Penn's earliest portrait and fashion assignments, mentioned above, were given him when he joined the staff of Vogue and came under the direction of Alexander Liberman.  Liberman proved the perfect mentor for Penn, and he was always wise enough to give full rein to his protege's creativity.  In many respects, Liberman was the type of art director most editorial photographers can only dream of working for.

One of Penn's most important long running projects was photographing tradespeople in the outfits in which they worked.  These individuals included everyone from a waiter to a balloon saleman to a "rag and bone" man.  Although the documentation accompanying the exhibit made no mention of this that I could see, these photographs clearly show the influence of the German photographer August Sander who completed a similar project, entitled People of the 20th Century, during the Weimar period.  Penn extended this concept when he traveled to such exotic locations as Peru, New Guinea and Dahomey.  When photographing alien cultures, Penn was always careful to show total respect both to his sitters and to the societies to which they belonged no matter how far different from his own.  In addition to their importance as photographs, these images also have a distinct anthropological value.

Other genres Penn pursued were still lifes, fine art nudes and close-up studies of cigarette butts, the last blown up so large that they are monumental in appearance.  Although these are all stunning technical achievements, none of them in my opinion rises to the level of greatness achieved in Penn's portrait and fashion photography.

A few of the tools used by Penn in his work are also on display.  These include a battered theater curtain that he invariably used as a backdrop for his portraits as well as a Rolleiflex 3.5 E3 twin lens reflex camera with 75 mm Carl Zeiss Planar lens.  The focal length of the lens is notable.  It is a "normal" lens rather than the short telephoto (approximately 150 mm) normally used for portrait work.

Irving Penn was born on June 16, 1917. Today would have been his 100th birthday.

The exhibit continues through July 30, 2017.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer Break

Now that the 2016-2017 season has concluded, it's time to remind my readers that this is a seasonal blog.  While I may be posting a handful of articles over the summer months - most of them to do with art exhibits I've seen - this blog will be largely inactive until late September.

I intend to devote the summer months to finishing my fourth novel, The Blue Hours, the first draft of which I completed last year.  Summer seems the best time, principally because there are so few distractions, to lose myself in a fictional world deeply enough to make the experience believable to both myself and those who read my work.  This particular book is a noir thriller, a tribute to Cornell Woolrich who invented the genre.

During the summer months, I also intend to post one street photograph each day on my other blog, City of Strangers.  While I'm not a musician and have at best a limited knowledge of the repertoire, I am - if I do say so myself - a highly competent photographer.  I hope some of you will take the time to check out my work.

Wishing everyone a great summer!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler

On Wednesday evening, I walked down to Carnegie Hall to hear the last musical event on my calendar for the 2016-2017 season as the Met Orchestra gave the first of three scheduled concerts.  I subscribe to this series and had originally planned to all attend all three concerts but then changed my mind when James Levine dropped out as conductor.  I kept the ticket to first concert because it featured an all-Mahler program as well as mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Michael Polenzani as guest artists.  In place of Mr. Levine, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the orchestra.

The program opened with Mahler's 1905 cycle of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn - "Der Schildwache Nachtlied," "Verlor'ne Müh," "Trost im Unglück," "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht," "Das irdische Leben," "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt," "Rheinlegendchen," "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm," "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen," and "Lob des hohen Verstandes."  I've taken the time to list the titles of all ten songs simply because Mahler's adaptations from the early nineteenth century collection of folk poems extended over a number of years and included works for both voice and piano as well as voice and orchestra.  Even the 1905 edition of the latter, that performed here, differed from the 1899 edition that included two additional songs - "Urlicht" and "Es sungen drei Engel."  The reader is referred to the Wikipedia article for a fuller history.

If the history of Mahler's compositions based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn is convoluted, it's because the source material had such a huge impact upon him and ran like a thread through his music.  This was not simply a case of a composer happening upon a well known poem and setting it to music as Schubert and Brahms had done in their lieder.  The Wunderhorn anthology provided not only material for roughly half the songs Mahler composed during his career but also for his symphonies.  One has to wonder why this archaic collection of songs that hover uneasily between folk tradition and German Romanticism held such vital appeal for a composer who was himself by birth not German but Bohemian.  These strange songs must have held a personal significance for Mahler that perhaps he himself did not fully comprehend.  Some of his settings have a martial air while others are seemingly no more than idyllic love songs.  The most harrowing is Das irdische Leben ("The Earthly Life") told from the point of view of a starving child. The death of a child was one to which Mahler would return several years later in his 1904 Kindertotenlieder that presaged the death of his own daughter and was based on a series of poems by Friedrich Rückert who had also lost two of his own children to scarlet fever.  Eight of Mahler's siblings had died while still in childhood and he must necessarily have been deeply traumatized by this introduction at so young an age to the finality of death.  

Susan Graham and Michael Polenzani each took a place on one side of the conductor and alternated in their performances of the song.  (There was one humorous moment, though, where Ms. Graham waved Mr. Polenzani back to his seat and proceeded to sing two songs in a row.)  Both were in fine voice and helped the audience to experience the beauty of both the words and music.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-1888), originally entitled "The Titan."  As is the case with any composer writing his first symphony, Mahler struggled mightily with the No. 1 in the fifteen year period between the first tentative sketches completed in 1884 and its publication in 1899.  He was constantly reworking it, creating and then deleting programmatic explanations, first giving it a title and then just as quickly removing it.  Listening to the music, it seems that Mahler was trying to put into it everything he had experienced in his life up to that point - snatches of Songs of a Wayfarer, a funeral march, bird songs, and even a children's nursery rhyme.  No wonder early listeners, including the composer's future wife Alma, were confused and even repelled by what they heard.  But underlying the ceaseless experimentation and accumulation of sources is the sense that this is a work of genius, difficult to comprehend perhaps, but undeniably a masterpiece.  There is a grandeur in this symphony that makes its original title highly appropriate.  It is indeed titanic and a turning point in the history of modern music.  In it lie the seeds of the great symphonies that were to come.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is a talented conductor, but the intricacies of Mahler's music, especially that of the Symphony No. 1, appeared beyond his grasp on Wednesday evening.  This was to me not an entirely satisfying performance (though the audience applauded quite enthusiastically at its conclusion), but I was still able to appreciate the magnificence of Mahler's achievement.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Galerie St. Etienne: "The Woman Question"

Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street has been for decades the premiere venue in New York City at which to view masterworks of German Expressionism.  The current exhibit, entitled "The Woman Question," represents a fascinating opportunity to better understand how three of the twentieth century's greatest artists - Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka - approached their female subjects.  Consisting of some seventy-two works, the large majority of them drawings on paper, this comprehensive overview highlights the similarities and differences that existed among the three artists, not only in their respective styles but also in the ways in which they regarded the sexuality of the women who sat for them.

In Gustav Klimt's case, the well written essay that accompanies the exhibit points out quite rightly the dichotomy between his sexless society portraits and his highly erotic drawings, several of which are shown at this exhibit.   With the commissioned portraits, Klimt was using his talent to do what he was paid to do, that is, to create an idealized vision of the sitter, one that was not necessarily his own but one that would appeal to his patron's vanity.  In these highly stylized portraits (one immediately thinks of The Woman in Gold at the Neue Galerie), the artist views his subject from a distance that can never be bridged.  In his drawings, on the other hand, Klimt was working with models on his own social level and was free to pursue his personal vision.  Consequently, there is a much greater sense of intimacy between artist and model.  The fact that these drawings were never meant to be publicly displayed allowed the model to pose with an abandon that stands in stark contrast to the staid manners of proper Viennese society and provides new insight into the period's hidden sexuality.  One has only to compare the 1903 drawings of Adele Bloch-Bauer with such works as Nude Lying on Stomach (1910) and Reclining Nude with Raised Knees (1912-1913) to appreciate the chasm that lay between the social elite and the artistic rebels of the Secession.  Perhaps the most interesting image at the show is the 1898 oil on canvas Moving Water whose fluid forms appear to issue directly from the Freudian unconscious.

Egon Schiele's early death makes any understanding of his own views on sexuality problematic.  It's difficult to determine whether the artist's newfound respectability, acquired through his marriage to Edith Harms and reluctant break with Wally Neuzil (with whom he had hoped to continue a relationship), was the result of a sincere desire for bourgeois respectability or simply a passing reaction to the chaos that enveloped Austria following the outbreak of World War I.  A letter written to Arthur Roessler in which Schiele stated: "I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally." inclines one to believe that the artist acted from ulterior motives.  Moreover, the death of Schiele's father from syphilis when the artist was still an adolescent must have had a profound impact on his sexuality.  Certainly sex figures prominently in Schiele's early work.  How prominently can be seen at the present exhibit in the 1911 watercolor The Red Host, a self-portrait dominated by an oversize penis lovingly fondled by a model significantly placed beneath the artist.  Stylistically, Schiele's loosely rendered drawings from this period have much in common with Klimt's own pencil drawings.  This has been emphasized at the exhibit by the placement of Schiele's Reclining Nude with Raised Legs (1914) directly beside Klimt's above mentioned Nude Lying on Stomach (1910).

As Schiele matured, sex became less openly the focus of his work but nonetheless remained implicit within it.  Perhaps the finest example of his art at the current show is Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917).  Here it is the model's strong facial expression that is emphasized.  Her eyes stare forth challengingly from the paper's surface and boldly hold the viewer's gaze.  Whether or not the woman was a prostitute, she is entirely cognizant of her sexual allure and acknowledges it openly.  Nothing could be further from the demure expressions depicted in Klimt's society portraits.

Oskar Kokoschka's attitude toward Viennese sexuality is best evidenced by his stormy affair with Alma Mahler.  The exhibit's introductory essay recounts his obsession with this powerful woman, widow of Vienna's most celebrated composer, who flouted tradition in a series of passionate affairs.  The essay goes so far as to refer to Kokoschka's behavior as having "the crazed tenacity of a stalker."  The artist even had a life-size doll made to order to remind him of Alma and to take her place when he could not be with her.  No wonder then that the doctors who examined him after he had been severely wounded in World War I felt that he was of unstable mind (though this impairment didn't keep him from living to the ripe old age of 93).

Stylistically, Kokoschka's work stands apart from that of his two contemporaries.  No matter how tumultuous his personal life, or perhaps precisely because of it, Kokoschka showed far greater restraint in his depictions of his female subjects.  Even in nude studies such as Semi-Nude Reclining Woman (1910) and Standing Nude Girl (1919) there is little overt sensuality, let alone eroticism.  In these studies, and in portraits such as Portrait of Woman with Hand at Chin (c. 1920-1922) and Seated Woman with Raised Right Hand (1931), the figures' awkwardness is emphasized by the rough strokes with which they are drawn.  In Galatea, a late oil on canvas from 1953, the subject's features are fairly frozen in a grimace.  Regarding this work, the introductory essay remarks: "It's hard to imagine falling in love with Kokoschka's Galatea..."  The essay further notes the artist's lack of classical training and his inability to use his lovers as nude models as reasons why the nude has less prominence in his work than in either Klimt's or Schiele's, but I think it also has a great deal to do with the way Kokoschka actually saw the women with whom he came in contact.  There was nothing in them that was to him natural; they were as artificial as the doll he eventually destroyed.

The exhibit, an abridged version of the 2015-2016 show the gallery's co-director Jane Kallir curated for Vienna's Belvedere Museum, continues through June 30, 2017.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Japan Society: A Third Gender

In light of the many controversies now erupting in the US over gender identification - witness the furor over the infamous North Carolina "bathroom bill" - the Japan Society's current exhibit, A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, is particularly timely.  Through the display of a large number of artworks, the majority of them ukiyo-e woodblock prints dating from the eighteenth century, the exhibit attempts to trace the manner in which gender was viewed in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate during what is now known as the Edo period.

At the center of the exhibit is the concept of the wakashū, a historical term used to describe adolescent boys.  These youths were distinguished by a specific hairstyle in which the crown of the head was shaven and long forelocks on either side left in place.  No longer children and not yet men, they enjoyed a somewhat amorphous role in Japanese society.  As the Wikipedia article indicates:
"The concept of wakashū contained several partially overlapping elements: an age category between childhood and adulthood; the social role of a pre-adult or adolescent boy, usually conceived of as a subordinate (student, apprentice or protégé); and the idea of the 'beautiful youth', a suitable target for homosexual desire and the subject of wakashūdo, 'the way of youths'."
While the current exhibit explores all these meanings, emphasis is placed more on the term's erotic connotations.  In this regard, it should be noted that wakashū were sexually involved with both men and women.

The show is a large one and takes up several galleries.  (Two of these are devoted to shunga, a form of ukiyo-e that is explicitly sexual, and even pornographic, in content.  These galleries are marked off with a warning that all children must be accompanied by adults.)  The exhibit itself is divided into four distinct parts.  The first deals with the historical context in which the artworks were created and provides means of identifying the wakashū shown within them; the second with the manner in which wakashū were presented as objects of desire; the third with the depiction of wakashū in mitate-e, a subgenre of ukiyo-e in which historical events and classical artworks were parodied; and the fourth with those institutions, such as prostitution and kabuki theater, in which gender roles did not follow traditionally accepted patterns.  

Beyond the sociological implications of the artwork shown, the prints on display are masterpieces of Japanese art and well worth viewing for themselves.  Many of the greatest ukiyo-e artists are represented here.  These include Kuniyoshi and Kobayashi, who later became famous for his prints illustrating the modernization of Japan under the Meiji, but but above all Utamaro, widely admired for his sensitive portrayals of female subjects.

What is most striking in the exhibit is the lack of moral censure against those participating in suggestive and erotic behavior.  The Japanese were never corrupted by the moral hypocrisy that in America forms the legacy of its Puritan forefathers.  Though the Tokugawa shogunate was a thoroughly authoritarian regime, to a large extent it tolerated moral ambiguity in the personal lives of its subjects.  The show provides a glimpse into an alternative reality where gender roles were once a good deal more fluid than they are today, at least here in the US.

The exhibit, organized by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, continues through June 11, 2017.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ensemble Connect Performs Mozart and Beethoven

On Tuesday evening I went to Juilliard for the last time this season to hear Ensemble Connect, the fellowship program jointly sponsored by Juilliard and Carnegie Hall in association with the NYC Department of Education, perform an evening of chamber music.  There were only two works on the program, but they were by the greeatest composers of the Classical era, Mozart and Beethoven.

The program opened with Mozart's String Quintet No. 3 in C major, K. 515 (1787).  Though Mozart in his Haydn Quartets showed himself a master of the genre, I've always considered his string quintets (with an additional viola as the fifth instrument) to be an even greater accomplishment.  It's not clear why Mozart initially approached this form, which was extremely uncommon in the eighteenth century when thinner textures were strongly preferred, but it may have been simply that the increased instrumenation allowed him to work out more fully his musical ideas than was possible with the quartet form.  This would seem to be confirmed by the sheer length of the K. 515's opening movement, It must also be remembered that the composer was himself an expert violist who chose that instrument when playing quartets with Haydn.  He was thus better able to judge the possibilities offered by the viola and to use its low register to stunning effect.  Mozart's appreciation of the different qualities offered by violin and viola had previously formed the basis of his Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364 and he explored them again in the interplay between the two instruments in the quintet's slow andante movement.

The K. 515 was completed only a month before the K. 516 in G minor and the two are a study in contrasts.  While the K. 516 is a truly tragic piece, as the use of the minor key would indicate, the K. 515 is a much brighter and more optimistic work.  This is especially true of the final movement allegro when compared to the adagio that closes the K. 516.  In that regard it may or may not be significant that Mozart wrote both quintets during the same period as Don Giovanni, an opera giocoso that by definition included both humor and tragedy placed one against the other.

The quintet was performed by Mari Lee and Rebecca Anderson, violins, Andrew Gonzalez and Maren Rothfritz, violas, and Madeline Fayette, cello.

After a brief intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1797) for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass.  At the time he composed it, Beethoven was still in his early period and solidifying his repuatation in Vienna as an up-and-coming composer.  The Septet must have seemed to him a perfect vehicle to accomplish this end.  Based on one of Mozart's greatest chamber works, the String Trio, K. 563, composed only nine years before and also in the key of E-flat major, the Septet was never designed to be anything more than a pleasing divertimento of the type the Viennese so much enjoyed.  (Mozart's own trio, though also so designated, was much too profound to merit the term.)  And as such the Septet was entirely successful.  Too much so as far as Beethoven was concerned.  Later in his career, he came to abhor the work because he felt it distracted attention from the far more serious masterpieces that followed it.  Not that the Septet was in any way simplistic.  That Beethoven did not blindly follow the form of the K. 563 can seen in the introductions he wrote to the first and last movements and the substitution of a scherzo for the second minuet.  The result was extremely accomplished while still remaining wholly likeable and pleasant to hear.  As such, it provided a  genial ending to this recital, one that left the audience smiling as they left the hall.

The musicians who performed the Septet were Bixby Kennedy, clarinet, Rémy Taghavi, bassoon, Nicolee Kuester, horn, Adelya Nartadjieva, violin, Maren Rothfritz, viola, Julia Yang, cello, and Lizzie Burns, bass.

In the past, I went very frequently to hear Ensemble Connect (then known as Ensemble ACJW), not only to their performances at Paul Hall but to those given at Weill Recital Hall as well.  Tuesday evening, however, was the first time this season I'd an opportuntiy to attend one of their recitals.  At least part of the reason for this has to do with the ensemble's turnover.   The fellowship program only lasts two years, so the full roster of musicians rotates biannually.  Just as the audience becomes accustomed to hearing one group, it's replaced in its entirety.  This can be disconcerting to audiences who are used to following classical ensembles over long periods, sometimes decades.  It also makes it difficult for the group to develop a distinctive style of its own.  On the other hand, the Ensemble Connect's quality of musicianship is always superb and, of course, it's always refreshing to come across new talents.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Juilliard String Quartet Seminar: Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók

On Friday, I went to Paul Hall to hear another end-of-term recital, this one the highly prestigious Juilliard String Quartet Seminar.  Coached by the entire Juilliard String Quartet (Joseph Lin, Ronald Copes, Roger Tapping and Astrid Schwinn), four ensembles took the stage over the course of two hours, all of them giving peerless performances of quartets written by masters of the genre - Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók.

The first ensemble to come onstage was the Verona String Quartet, consisting of Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violins, Abigail Rojansky, viola, and Warren Hagerty, cello.  They proceeded to perform Beethoven's String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4 (1799-1800).  This was actually the last of the six to have been written and the only one to have been cast in a minor key.  Some musicologists believe it incorporates material Beethoven had composed while still in Bonn.  The only evidence I could find for this, though, was that no preliminary sketches for the work were ever located among the composer's papers.  While Beethoven was not above recycling his youthful compositions - two passages from the opening movement of the 1785 Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, No. 3, for example, reappear in the first movement of the C major Sonata, Op.2, No. 3 - I do not believe that to have been the case here.  At the time Beethoven composed the Op. 18 quartets he was still standing very much in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart and was here attempting to take his place beside them in a genre at which they had excelled.  Beethoven was accordingly exceedingly careful in writing the quartets and worked to the very best of his ability.  They are at once excellent examples of the Classical string quartet and at the same time, in the La Malinconia section of the No. 6, anticipate the Romanticism of the composer's middle period.

The next work was Brahms's String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67 (1875) as performed by the Callisto String Quartet.  The musicians were Paul Aguilar and Rachel Stenzel, violins, Eva Kennedy, viola, and Hannah Moses, cello.  This was Brahms's third and final quartet.  Unlike the two minor-key pieces that comprise the Op. 51 published two years before, this is a fairly lighthearted cheerful work.  That may have had something to do with the ease with which Brahms composed it in only three months after having agonized over the Op. 51 quartets for roughly twenty years.  The quartet is also notable for the emphasis placed on the viola, particularly in the third movement, this even though the work was dedicated to an amateur cellist.

After a brief intermission, the Belka String Quartet - Beatrice Hsieh and Charles Gleason, violins, John Grigsby, viola, and Daniel Blumhard, cello - performed Bartók's String Quartet No. 3 (1927).  Next to Beethoven's late quartets, I've always considered Bartók's set of six the greatest in the repertoire.  So much attention has been paid to Bartók's pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist that his place as one of music's foremost modernists is sometimes overlooked.  The Quartet No. 3 was the first written after the conclusion of World War I when Bartók's field research had in any event been curtailed by the collapse of the Hungarian empire.  By then Bartók's personal life and career had both taken new directions.  He had divorced his first wife in 1923 and then had quickly married one of his piano students only a few days after having proposed to her.  Around the same time, he concluded his controversial ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, as well as his two violin sonatas.  It was against this background that he composed the No. 3, the shortest of his string quartets and in many ways the most inventive.  For one, it consisted of only one movement divided into four parts.  The one movement structure necessarily cut back on the amount of thematic material and this in turn allowed for more effective concentration so that the music seems to explode in a single burst. At the same time, Bartók employed a number of instrumental techniques - including pizzicato, col legno and glissando - to compensate for the lack of thematic variety.

The program closed with one of the Razumovsky Quartets, Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1808)  It was performed by the Vera String Quartet consisting of Pedro Rodríguez Rodríguez and Patricia Quintero García, violins, Inés Picardo Molares, viola, and Justin Goldsmith, cello.  Although the Razumovsky Quartets were composed only five years after those of the Op. 18, they are completely different in character and outlook.  While the earlier works are those of a protégé attempting to find his own voice, the later works display the self-confidence of a master who knows what he is about and is not unduly troubled if his listeners have difficulty following him.  Count Razumovsky was an accomplished amateur violinist and maintained a permanent string quartet that featured Ignaz Schuppanzigh as first violinist, but even so one has to wonder if he felt he had gotten more than he had bargained for when he first heard the works he had so generously commissioned.  First, there is the dissonance with which the first movement opens before finally "finding" the home key.  That must have been as disconcerting to early audiences as the fugal writing in the final movement.  It's worth mentioning that the third movement is a minuet, a form that was already archaic in the early nineteenth century.  It's as though Beethoven were here giving a final nod here to his Classical roots before moving on once and for all.  In any event, the quartet provided the perfect ending to a brilliant recital.

The most polished performance of the afternoon was to my mind that of the Verona Quartet who are this month ending their stint as Juilliard's Graduate Resident String Quartet.  In that position, as Lisa Arnhold Fellows, they assisted the Juilliard String Quartet in providing chamber music education to students.  I had an opportunity to briefly chat with cellist Warren Haggerty at intermission regarding Beethoven's quartets and found him an extremely knowledgeable and engaging person.  I sincerely appreciate the time he took to share with me his thoughts on the music.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Juilliard Senior Piano Showcase

I have to confess that I had not originally planned to attend Thursday afternoon's piano recital at Paul Hall.  As temperatures climbed to record breaking levels, however, I decided nothing would be better than listening to great music at an air conditioned venue. 

The pianists at Thursday's recital were all member of Juilliard's class of 2017.  I've seen pretty much all of them in performance at one time or another over the past few seasons and greatly admire their talent.  At this recital it seemed each had deliberately chosen for a farewell performance the most challenging works he or she could find.  The recital lasted almost two hours, so there was sufficient oppurtunity to appreicate the fine playing of each musician.

The full program was as follows:

  • Schumann - Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, I. Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen, performed by Sarina Zhang
  • Brahms - Klavierstucke, Op. 117, Intermezzo in A minor and Intermezzo in A major, performed by Yandi Chen
  • Beethoven - Sonata in D major, Op. 10, No. 3, I. Presto, performed by Mathew Maimone
  • Chopin - Three Mazurkas, Op. 59, performed by Randy Ryan
  • Schubert - Sonata in C minor, D. 958, II. Adagio, performed by Jae Young Kim
  • Adès - Darknesse Visible (inspired by John Dowland's 1610 song In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell), performed by Gabrielle Chou
  • Chopin - Barcarolle, Op. 60, performed by Akari Mizumoto
  • Ligeti - Étude No. 13, L'escalier du diable ("The Devil's Staircase"), performed by Joey Chang
  • Kapustin - Piano Variations, Op. 41, performed by Tristan Teo
  • Liszt - Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173, performed by Mackenzie Melemed
  • Moszkowski - Valse Brillante, Op. 88 arranged for eight hands, performed by Joey Chang, Akari Mizumoto, Gabrielle Chou and Sarina Zhang 

The two works I most enjoyed hearing were Ligeti's Étude and Moszkowski's Valse.  The former was one of eighteen composed by Ligeti in his final years (he had intended to write even more but was unable to finish the series due to declining health) and are now considered to be among his greatest achievements.  I'd first come to appreciate the composer after having heard his famous opera Le grand macabre and began searching out performances of his other works.  Originally inspired by his fellow Hungarian Bartók with whom he shared a deep interest in his Balkan folk music, Ligeti grew increasingly eclectic after having fled his homeland following the 1956 Revolution and once arrived in Cologne began to experiment with advanced techniques taken from a variety of sources.  For example, in discussing his first book of Études, Ligeti gave as his inspiration both piano music from the Romantic era as well as ethnic sub-Saharan music characterized by pounding rhythms.  Certainly, the Étude No. 13 played at this recital contained strong percussive elements.  It was also a virtuoso showpiece that was here given a bravura performance by Joey Chang.

Moszkowski's Valse Brillante was a scintillating work.  The arrangement for eight hands performed at this recital allowed the proceedings to end on an upbeat note and also provided a musical image of the strong feeling of comradeship shared among the graduating pianists.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music Performed by Pre-College Ensembles

Almost all the many chamber music recitals I've attended at Juilliard have been performed by musicians at the undergraduate or graduate level, but those in the pre-college division are also extremely talented, prodigies in fact, and their performances are well worth taking the time to hear.  Earlier this week, at Alice Tully Hall, several ensembles from this division gave a lunchtime recital, the last in this season's Wednesdays at One series, that featured works by a number of composers.  In order to fit in everyone at this hour-long recital, most performances were limited to single movements of much longer pieces.

The full program was as follows:

  • Schumann - Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105, I. Mit Leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck, performed by Yun Shan Tai, violin, and Chanel Wang, piano
  • Fauré - Après un rêve (here arranged for piano trio), performed by Qing Yu Chen, violin, Max Bobby, cello, and Youlan Ji, piano
  • Shostakovich - Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67, IV. Allegreto - Adagio, again performed by Qing Yu Chen, violin, Max Bobby, cello, and Youlan Ji, piano
  • Mozart - String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387, IV. Molto allegro, performed by Kevin Zhu and Nathan Meltzer, violins, Joshua Kail, viola, and Sebastian Stoger, cello
  • Piazzola - Invierno Porteño ("Winter in Buenos Aires), performed by Megan Yao, violin, Sara Scanlon, cello, and Huan Zhang, piano
  • Brahms - Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, IV. Allegro, performed by Amy Oh, violin, Esther Yu, cello, and Youlan Ji, piano

The two works that were to me most notable, if only because less familiar, were the Fauré and the Piazzola.  The former was one of Trois mélodies, Op, 7, a trio of pieces written by Fauré between 1870 and 1877 for solo voice and piano and published as a single work in 1878.  This particular selection used as its text a poem by Romain Bussine that was itself derived from Niccolò Tommaseo’s 1841 Canti popolari, the appropriate section of which begins, "Levati sol che la luna è levata." Though Bussine's poem itself is quite passionate, Fauré's short piece is much more ethereal and the dreamer's ardor greatly subdued.  As for Piazzola's tango, this was a transcription of the last of his Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, originally composed for violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón. It didn't have the lively drama one would normally expect of a tango but instead captured the loneliness of the season it portrayed.

It was very intriguing to hear the young musicians at Wednesday's recital.  For most of them, this was probably the first occasion on which they'd performed before such a large audience and yet all of them were entirely self-possessed and fully in control as they played the extremely challenging pieces listed above.  It never ceases to amaze me what a wealth of talent Juilliard has to offer on all levels to those who attend its musical events.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Donizetti, Kotzwara, Wolf and Schumann

On Monday, the Jupiter Players performed their final recital of the season at Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street.  The theme of the recital was Divine Madness and the ensemble accordingly performed a number of works by  composers whose lives had been tinged by mental illness - Gaetano Donizetti, Frantisek Kotzwara, Hugo Wolf, and Schumann.  Personally, I don't believe that it was at all appropriate to build a musical program around the anguish these individuals suffered, and I most likely would not have attended had I realized beforehand the implications of the stated title.  As it was, the selections themselves were for the most part highly accomplished and enjoyable to hear; they are the legacy of genius these poor men left behind.

The program opened with Donizetti's Larghetto in C major for flute, bassoon and piano (c. 1819).  It was for his bel canto operas, of course, that Donizetti gained immortality.  After the retirement of Rossini and the premature death of Bellini, Donizetti became, at least until the advent of Verdi, the premiere opera composer in Europe.  In spite of this success, he came to a terrible end.  His health broke down and he was afflicted by severe mental illness as a result of having contracted syphilis; he spent his last years in a sanitarium before dying in 1848 at age fifty.  The works he left behind included not only the magnificent comic operas L'Elisir d'Amor and Don Pasquale but also great historical works such as the three "Tudor" operas staged last season at the Met.  Donizetti composed a number of instrumental works as well, but these are not nearly so well known nor are they often performed.  The present trio, apparently composed when Donizetti was first beginning his career in Bergamo, is such an obscure piece that I could not find any reference to it even on the IMSLP site, the first time I can remember that having happened.  For all that, this was a pleasing work filled with operatic overtones.  Several of the passages could easily have been transformed into arias.

The Larghetto was followed by Six Minuets, WoO 9 (c. 1795) by Beethoven, arranged here for two violins and cello.  The lack of opus number would indicate that the composer himself did not hold these dance pieces in the highest regard.  Thoroughly correct but strangely lifeless studies of the Classical minuet, they were not particularly impressive examples of Beethoven's apprenticeship to Haydn.

The next work was Wolf's Intermezzo in E-flat major for string quartet (1887).  Hugo Wolf was another musical misfit.  Temperamentally unable to hold a job for very long, he was often despondent and so ill humored in the reviews he wrote that he was nicknamed the "Wild Wolf."  Like Donizetti, he died prematuresly from syphilis after first having suffered a mental collapse.  A disciple of Wagner, his music often, as in the present piece, sounds surprisingly in advance of its time.  Unlike the far more popular Italian Serenade, the Intermezzo moves uneasily from the melodic to sudden harsh outbursts.  A review in The Strad describes it well: "Sometimes grim but often powerful music from a troubled late Romantic."

The first half of the recital then ended with a performance of Kotzwara's The Battle of Prague, Op. 23 for piano with violin, cello, and drum (1778).  Kotzwara is one of those shadowy musical figures most often described as "colorful."  A Czech by birth, he somehow ended up in London where he eked out a living by composing simple chamber works for amateurs.  He also apparently supplemented his income by passing off his own compositions as works by Haydn.  Wolf is remembered today for only two things.  The first is The Battle of Prague itself, a lively piece commemorating the 1757 battle between Prussia and Austria-Hungary; it contains a number of sound effects as well as quotes from Rule Brittania and Turkish marches and was an extremely popular piece of music in its day, an unlikely favorite of Jane Austen.  The second thing for which Kotzwara is remembered is, rather unfortunately, his unusual manner of death.  In the course of a tryst with a Westminster prostitute, Kotzwara had the dubious distinction of becoming the first recorded case of death by auto-asphyxiation.

After intermission, the musicians returned to close the program with Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major Op. 44 (1842).  In an earlier post, I compared it to the Piano Quartet, Op. 47 and wrote as follows:
"In general, and to oversimplify, the Quintet has a bigger sound that is at times almost symphonic while the Quartet is a more intimate work. The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, is designed to impress the listener while the funeral march that follows is the very essence of Romanticism. And at the end is the vibrant finale that is among the finest chamber movements Schumann composed during his short career. In addition, this is the first major piece to pair the piano with string quartet, and Schumann deserves credit for having established with it a new musical genre. It was Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann, who premiered the work at a private gathering and his suggestions led Schumann to make a number of revisions before the public premiere (at which Clara did play), but the honors are all due to Schumann himself."
Schumann himself succumbed to madness in 1854 after first having attempted to drown himself in the Rhine.  He died two years later while still institutionalized.

In spite of the morbid theme, the performances at this recital were excellent. The musicianship, including that of the two guest artists - Alexander Kobrin piano, and Josef Spacek violin - was of the highest level.  The Jupiter Players' programming is often too obscure for my taste, however, and for that reason I attended far fewer performances this season than last.  I believe programs should be well balanced in the sense that they contain pieces familiar to the audience (and not in the transcriptions for other instruments that are routinely presented here) combined with those that are not so often performed.  On the other hand, the ensemble has a very loyal following who are quite enthusiastic no matter how little known the works played may be, so perhaps the fault lies with me rather than with the company. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Bruch and Tchaikovsky

Yesterday marked the end of this season's Sunday afternoon chamber music series at Morse Hall.  As usual, programs were not posted in advance, so I took my chances and went to the 1:00 p.m. recital hoping for the best.  It was a lucky choice.  I ended up hearing excellent performances of two great works, one by Max Bruch with which I'd previously been unfamiliar and the other a long time favorite by Tchaikovsky

The program opened with Bruch's Eight Pieces, Op. 83 (1910).  By the time he died in 1920 at age 82 Bruch was the last of the German Romantics and widely celebrated as such.  Unfortunately for his musical legacy, however, one of his best known works, Kol Nidrei, consisted of variations on Jewish themes.  This was enough to have his music banned by the Nazis even though Bruch himself was not of Jewish origin.  His repuation never recovered from the damage done to it during this period and he is now remembered almost solely for his Violin Concerto No. 1, still a staple of the orchestral repertoire.  Exactly how unfair this was to such a talented composer becomes evident when listening to the Eight Pieces.  Originally written for clarinet, viola and piano, the work was later transcribed for other instruments by Bruch himself and at this performance a violin was substituted for the clarinet part.  Bruch was seventy when he wrote the Eight Pieces - he considered them discrete entities rather than movements comprising a single composition - and in their mellow tones and nostalgic sensitivity they are clearly autumnal works very much in the spirit of Brahms's own late clarinet pieces written for Richard Mühlfeld.  And Bruch too had a particular clarinetist in mind when composing them, in this case his son Max Felix whose talent was compard favorably with that of Mühlfeld.  My own favorite among the eight is the fifth, marked "Rumanische Melody," that was included at the suggestion of the Princess zu Wied to whom the entire work was dedicated.  This is an andante in F minor, the only one of the eight to include a traditional folk tune, in which the violin first soars before joining the piano and viola in a melancholy conclusion.

The musicians were Manjie Yang, violin, Chien Tai Wang, viola, and Jiaqi Long, piano; the coach was Jonathan Feldman.

After a brief five-minute intermission, the program closed with a rendition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 (1881-1882), the only piece that the Russian master composed in this genre.  It was his patron Nadezhda von Meck who convinced him to attempt it.  After first complaining that he could not "endure the combination of piano with violin or cello," Tchaikovsky finally brought the work to a successful conclusion.  But then, rather than dedicating the work to von Meck who had inspired it, Tchaikovsky instead dedicated it to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein who had died several months before.  This was all the more surprising in that Rubinstein had famously rejected Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 before reconsidering and eventually conducting the work.  Still, Rubinstein had been an early champion of Tchaikovsky's music and had hired him when he was still an unknown to teach at the Moscow Conservatory.

The structure of the trio itself is highly unusual.  It consists of two long movements.  The first, pezzo elegiaco, opens with a cello solo and contains a beautifully lyrical theme and funeral march that could well be considered the epitome of Russian Romanticism.  The second movement is a set of twelve variations and coda that at the end repeats the mournful theme from the first movement.  

The trio was revised extensively after Tchaikovsky returned from Rome where he had written the piece, and it was finally given its public premiere at the Russian Musical Society with Sergei Taneyev playing the piano part. 

The work was performed yesterday by Yujie He, violin, Ana Kim, cello, and Yandi Chen, piano; they were coached by Sylvia Rosenberg and Julian Martin.

The level of musicianship at any Juilliard performance is always extremely high, but even by those standards the playing at yesterday's recital was exceptional.  Both trios were performed with a professionalism that more established ensembles would do well to match.  It was gratifying that these Morse Hall recitals should end on such a high note.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Met Museum: Three Exhibits Closing Soon

I went recently to the Met Museum to see three small exhibits that will be closing in the next few weeks.  Although only one of the artists, Georges Seurat, is well known to the public, the works on view by Hercules Segers and William Chappel were also well worth seeing.

The introductory material on the museum's website goes to a great deal of trouble to impart an air of mystery to Seurat's large canvas, Parade de cirque ("Circus Sideshow"), the centerpiece of the current exhibit.  It reads, in part:.
"Ever since its debut in Paris in 1888, Circus Sideshow has intrigued, confounded, and mesmerized its viewers. Seurat's closest associates were largely dumbstruck. The laconic artist was as silent as his brooding masterpiece."
Looking at the painting, though, it seemed to me fairly straightforward work when one takes into account the pointillism that characterized the artist's style.  The painting merely shows a group of musicians lined up on stage facing the audience with the circus master and a clown off to one side.  True, the low key lighting does partially obscure the scene, but it is after all set at night under gaslight.  Still, the painting is such a masterpiece that one cannot complain of the museum's decision to devote an entire exhibit to it.  And just as fascinating as the painting itself are the preparatory drawings displayed beside it.  These include Une Parade, Trombonist, Pierrot and Colombine, Forte Chanteuse, and At the Divan Japonais, all executed with conté crayon on extremely rough textured paper.  There are also posters and circus paintings by Seurat's contemporaries, but with the exception Grimaces and Misery - The Saltimbanques by Fernand Pelez these are of only slight interest.

The exhibit continues through May 29, 2017.

Before having seen the Met's current exhibit, The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Seger, I had never heard of  the artist and was completely ignorant of his work.  That should not have been the case.  Seger was a more than competent artist and stylistically well in advance of the early sixteenth century period in which he lived.  As the museum's website notes:
"Rejecting the idea that prints from a single plate should all look the same in black and white, he produced impressions in varied color schemes—painting them, then adding lines or cutting down the plate."
Several examples of the same image are often juxtaposed in order to provide the viewer a better idea of the manner in which Segers manipulated the etching process.  As one passes among them one realizes that the most striking of the graphic works are those employing the "lift-ground" process.  The paintings show an equal mastery of technique.  Completely out of place, though, is an oil on canvas entitled Skull on a Ledge that is attributed to Segers for no apparent reason.  The naturalistic style of this painting is jarring when set against the more traditional style of the other works on view.

The exhibit continues through May 21, 2017.

Pity poor William Chappel, the nineteenth century New York artist whose name doesn't even merit a Wikipedia entry and whose work, as shown in the current exhibit City of Memory, has been consigned to a small gallery in the American Wing mezzanine that's almost impossible to find even with map in hand.  Not much is known of Chappel, who was a tinsmith by trade, and the dates he created his paintings and his reasons for doing so are entirely a matter of conjecture.  Personally, I think he was simply nostalgic for the New York City of his childhood that had already largely disappeared by the time he reached late adulthood.  The small format paintings he left behind, all of them oil on slate paper, are so simple that they might well be characterized as naive art.  These idealized depictions - the streets are clean and devoid of traffic, and there's no crime or poverty to be seen - show New Yorkers going about the most commonplace activities.  There are chimney sweeps, night watchmen, garbage haulers, and even a fire brigade, all set against backgrounds, such as the Bull's Head Tavern, that no longer existed by the time Chappel came to paint them.  City residents today, seeing the constant development and construction going on everywhere about them, can easily sympathize with Chappel's desire to return to simpler times.  

The exhibit continues through June 25, 2017.