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.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Ravel, Busoni, Herzogenberg, Grieg and Schubert

After having heard the first half of the 1:00 p.m. recital, I returned to Morse Hall later Sunday afternoon to hear the 5:00 p.m. recital, one of the longest I've attended this season.  The program lasted almost three hours and featured works by Ravel, Ferruccio Busoni, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Edvard Grieg and Schubert that are not so often performed, at least not that I've heard recently here in New York City.

The program opened with a pair of works for two pianos that were both composed at roughly the same time, Ravel's La Valse (1919-1920) and Busoni's Duettino concertante nach Mozart, BV B 88 (1919) that's based on the final movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No.19 in F major, K.459.  Of the two works, it was the Ravel piece that was by far the more captivating.  Ravel excelled at orchestration - what he accomplished with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is breathtaking -  but the reduction of La Valse is, if anything, even more jarring and exciting than the orchestral version.  Although the composer vehemently denied that the piece was in any way a reflection of Europe's postwar malaise, it's impossible to accept Ravel's earlier claim that it was intended as a tribute to Johann Strauss II, the Waltz King himself.  That may have been the original intention when Ravel first conceived the idea in 1906, but his service driving a munitions truck at the front as well as the death of his beloved mother, plunged him into so profound a despair that one wonders if he may not actually have been suffering from a form of PTSD,  Certainly, there is little here of the graceful Viennese waltzes one hears on New Years Day.  Instead, the piece always makes me think of the off-kilter sounds one might expect a broken music box to produce.

The two pianists were Chaeyoung Park and Salome Jordania; their coach was Matti Raekallio.

The next work was the Trio for Oboe, Horn and Piano, Op. 61 (1889) by Heinrich von Herzogenberg, a composer with whose work I'd previously been unfamiliar.  A professor of composition at the Berlin Hochschule, Herzogenberg is best remembered today for his friendship with Brahms.  He was in fact a great admirer of the Viennese master, but unfortunately the latter never held Herzogenberg in equally high esteem.  Judging from the present work, that may have been a mistake.  The four movement trio is definitely a very competent work that displays throughout traces of Brahmsian classicism handled in an adept manner.  The unusual combination of instruments also adds to the work's considerable charm.

The trio was performed by Russell Hoffman, oboe, Harry Chin-Pong Chiu, horn, Chang Wang, piano, and was coached by Julian Martin and Erik Ralske.

The trio was followed by Grieg's String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 27 (1877-1878).  This was the only quartet completed by Grieg - a second was left unfinished at his death - and it's really a masterpiece that sounds much more modern than its date of composition would indicate.  Grieg had previously put to music a poem by Ibsen entitled Spillemaende ("Fiddlers"), and he used this song as the "core motive" in the quartet.  It continually strives for a soaring orchestral sound that caused many early critics to find fault with it to the extent that Grieg's usual publisher, Peters, at first refused it.  After that, Grieg considered reworking it into another chamber form, but was convinced not to do so by Robert Heckmann whose ensemble had premiered the piece.  The quartet did have its admirers, however, including both Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and is today one of the few Nordic pieces to have a permanent place in the repertoire.

The musicians on this piece were Annika Jenkins and Mira Yamamoto, violins, Jordan Bak, viola, and Jan Fuller, cello; they were coached by Ronald Copes.

After a brief ten-minute intermission - the recital had already lasted 90 minutes by this point - the program concluded with Schubert's Octet in F major, D. 803 (1824).  The work was commissioned by Ferdinand Troyer, chief steward to Archduke Rudolph, one of Beethoven's most important patrons.  It was inspired by Beethoven's Septet, by then almost a quarter century old but still, to the master's chagrin, by far his most popular work.  Schubert for the most part adhered to his model's six movement structure and instrumentation but added a second violin to provide an even richer texture.  As Troyer was an expert clarinetist, Schubert made sure to give that instrument a prominent part in the composition.  Like its predecessor, the Octet is an enjoyable melodic piece that incorporates themes from the composer's lieder.  It's in the tradition of the Classical divertimento but of a far more serious nature.  Running a full hour in length, it demonstrates great complexity in the interrelationships among the eight instruments and in that sense can be seen as a preparatory study for the Symphony No. 9 composed the following year.

The eight musicians were Kenneth Liao and Lyly Li, violins, Stephen Goist, viola, Mariko Wyrick, cello, Sheng Yao Wu, bass, Alec Manasse, clarinet, Thomas English, bassoon, and Nathaniel Silberschlag, horn; their two coaches were Fred Sherry and William Short.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Bartók and Franck

I only stayed for the first half of this Sunday's 1:00 p.m. chamber music recital at Morse Hall but still had the opportunity to hear two excellent works, one by Bartók and the other by Ravel.

The program opened with Bartók's Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano (1938).  Though one normally pictures Bartók as an ethnologist trudging through the Hungarian countryside with primitive recording equipment, he was at the same time a well-traveled, internationally acclaimed composer as well as a virtuoso pianist.  It really shouldn't come as any surprise then that the present work was the result of a commission from Benny Goodman, one of the world's most celebrated clarinetists.  Though best known for the swing music that had made him famous, Goodman became interested in the classical repertoire in the late 1930's after having recorded the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with the Budapest Quartet, and he subsequently commissioned a number of works from renowned composers, including Francis Poulenc, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.  In this instance, he made use of the offices of  violinist Joseph Szigeti (for whom Bartók had already written in 1929 his Rhapsody No. 1) in order to approach the composer.  As first written, the piece consisted of only two movements, Verbunkos ("Recruiting Dance") and Sebes ("Fast Dance") . After that version, entitled Rhapsody, had had its 1939 premiere at Carnegie Hall - at which Goodman and Szigeti performed with pianist Endre Petri - Bartók added the middle movement, Pihenő ("Relaxation").  The complete work was then performed in 1940, again at Carnegie Hall, by Goodman and Szigeti with Bartók himself this time taking the keyboard part.  The music is lively and exciting.  It's derived, like much of Bartók's output, from elements of Hungarian and Romanian folk music but at the same time it incorporates elements of jazz in Bartók's own distinctive style

At this recital, the work was performed by Ziyao Sun, violin, Noemi Sallai, clarinet, and Shuaizhi Wang, piano; they were coached by Charles Neidich.

The second work was César Franck's famous Violin Sonata in A major (1886), here arranged for cello by Jules Delsart.  It's worth noting that this was the only transcription approved by Franck and that in some editions both Franck and Delsart are given credit on the title page.  The commission for the new work was not issued by Franck's publisher Hamelle, as was usually the case with transcriptions, but was instead granted by the composer himself in response to a personal request from Delsart.  The fact that Delsart was not only a highly respected cellist but also taught with Franck at the Paris Conservatoire no doubt inclined Franck to give his permission.  The piano part was kept the same as in the original work and for the most part Delsart simply transposed the violin part to the cello's lower register.

I had just heard the sonata in its original version for violin last month and had posted my thoughts on it at that time.  Having had a chance to hear both versions performed so closely together, I was able to compare them and decided that, if anything, I preferred the cello transcription over the original.  Though the work is a masterpiece in either case, I felt the cello's lower register created a more pleasing sonority.  That's only my opinion, of course, and I doubt many violinists would agree.

The musicians at this performance were Benjamin Fryxell, cello, and Ariana Körting, piano; their coach was Earl Carlyss.

Scheduled for the second half of the recital was Schumann's Piano Quintet.  It's an undeniably great work, but since I'd already heard it several times this season and am likely to hear it again next week I decided to skip it on this occasion and instead return to Morse Hall later in the afternoon to hear the full program at the 5:00 p.m. recital.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Haydn, Ravel and Schoenfeld

Friday was a miserable day in New York; torrential rains flooded the entire city.  By late afternoon, though, the heavy rain had given way to a light drizzle and I was able to walk down to Juilliard to hear a performance sponsored by the Honors Chamber Music program.  The artists on hand at Pual Hall were the Altezza Trio consisting of Momo Wong, violin; Khari Joyner, cello; and Qilin Sun, piano.  The had been coached for this performance by Joseph Lin, director of the program, Natasha Brofsky and Joseph Kalichstein.  It was a full length recital that featured works by Haydn, Ravel and Paul Schoenfield.  Before beginning, violinist Momo Wong briefly introduced the first two works and used the opportunity to express the musicians' gratitude to their coaches.

The program opened with Haydn's Piano Trio No. 44 in E major, Hob. XV:28 (1797).  This work, Haydn's next to last piano trio, is one of his most inventive chamber works and was composed at the height of his career in Vienna.  He had returned two years before from his second sojourn in London where he had made the acquaintance of Therese Jansen Bartolozzi to whom this work is dedicated.  Mrs. Bartolozzi was an extremely talented pianist whose skills were admired by Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who arranged both Haydn's English tours.  Haydn must certainly had shared Salomon's admiration as he obviously devoted a great deal of effort to this work and its challenging piano part.  This can immediately be heard in the strings' pizzicato that opens the piece while the piano introduces a lovely melody of its own.  The heart of the work, however, is the dramatic second movement allegretto.  Haydn had passed through his sturm und drang period a quarter century before, but here he recalls something of its dark mood that is at times almost gothic.  The final movement is by contrast quite playful as it meanders about and seems in no hurry at all to end.

The second work was Schoenfield's Café Music (1987), a commission from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  I had actually heard this same ensemble perform this work late last year at a Wednesdays at One recital.  When blogging about that earlier performance, I had quoted the composer's own description:
"The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio that plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music – music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th-century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement."
The work is definitely one of the repertoire's more adventurous chamber pieces.  It's obvious from his description of the work's genesis that Mr. Schoenfield believes that serious music can also be highly entertaining.  He didn't hesitate here to incorporate jazz and ragtime rhythms that imparted an upbeat feeling to the music that wouldn't have been at all out of place in a dance hall.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor (1914).  I've heard this work several times in the past and will probably do best to quote my thoughts from a previous post:
"Although the work was written on the eve of World War I and immediately before Ravel enlisted in the French medical corps, there is no sense of  impending doom in the trio.  Instead, it concerns itself more with Basque folk music as the composer, who was himself of Basque descent on his mother's side, began work on it while also composing a piano concerto, later abandoned, also based on Basque themes.  In the second movement, Ravel referenced a Malaysian form of poetry in which the second and fourth lines of a quatrain are repeated in the first and third lines of the following verse.  In the third movement passacaglia, Ravel looked back to the musical forms of the Baroque period.  For all its eclecticism, however, the work, written in the traditional four movement format, is thoroughly stamped with the composer's distinctive style."
Like the other ensembles in the Honors Chamber Music program, the Altezza Trio is a highly accomplished group of musicians whose performances are equal to or better than those of many more experienced ensembles.  I feel very fortunate to have been able to attend their recitals. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Yefim Bronfman Carnegie Hall Recital Canceled

I had a ticket for Yefim Bronfman's recital scheduled for this past Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall and had hoped today to post my thoughts on his performance.  Unfortunately, the recital was canceled at the very last moment due to illness and will not be rescheduled.  That's such a shame for lovers of great piano music.  Mr. Bronfman is in my opinion one of the finest pianists now active and had been scheduled to perform an especially enjoyable program that included Bartók's Suite, Op. 14, Schumann's Humoreske in B-flat major, Op. 20, Debussy's Suite bergamasque, and Stravinsky's Trois mouvements de Petrouchka.  I had particularly been looking forward to hearing the Stravinsky, the virtuoso showpiece the composer had orginally written for Arthur Rubinstein.

Along with a hundred or so other people. I met Mr. Bronfman at a reception at Carnegie Hall's Rohatyn Room a couple of seasons ago.  He struck me as a very serious professional, and I doubt very much he would have canceled unless he were seriously ill.  I sincerely hope he recovers soon from whatever ails him.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Martinů, Ibert and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went again to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear this week's 1:00 p.m. chamber recital.  The first half of the program was devoted to twentieth century works by Bohuslav Martinů and Jacques Ibert while the second half featured a classic piano trio by Brahms.

The program opened with Martinů's Promenades for Flute, Violin and Harpshichord (1939).  One doesn't usually associate Martinů with the harpsichord.  Influenced by the music of Debussy, he had left his native Czechoslovakia in the 1920's with the intention of studying modern music in Paris.  Accordingly, all through that decade and the next he experimented with the most progressive musical forms then available.  What is one then to make of this work with its clear allusions to the Baroque era?  For one thing, Martinů had in Paris made the acquaintance of the renowned flutist Marcel Moyse and it was for his trio that Martinů composed this and several other works, though this was the only one to make use of a harpsichord rather than a piano.  It's an obviously modern work but still retains a definite French flavor that calls to mind the works of Lully and other seventeenth century composers.

The next work was Ibert's Deux Interludes for Flute, Violin and Harpshichord (1946).  Ibert is an extremely difficult composer to categorize.  During his long career he experimented with a number of styles and combinations of instruments.  He composed this short piece in his native Paris several years after having returned from Switzerland where he had fled to escape the Nazi occupation.  It didn't seem that Ibert was in any way attempting to evoke the Baroque era in this piece but rather that he was including the harpsichord in the instrumentation for its unique sound.

Both the above pieces were performed by the same musicians - Mi-Li Chang, flute, Sara Bauman, violin, and Katarzyna Kluczykowska, piano.  Their coaches were Curtis Macomber and Robert Mealy.  I was a bit surprised that these works would be coached by Mr. Mealy, who as program director of the Juilliard415 normally concerns himself only with music of the Baroque era, but I assume he was needed here for his expertise on the harpsichord.

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

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

The performers on this last piece were Tal First, violin, Ayoun Alexandra Kim, cello, and Natalie Nedvetsky, piano.  Their coach was Joseph Lin, first violinist with the Juilliard Quartet and director of the Honors Chamber Music program.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Met Opera: Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conducts Der fliegende Holländer

On Saturday afternoon, I went to the Met Opera for the last time this season to see a performance of Wagner's early opera, Der fliegende Holländer.  This marked the first occasion I'd had to hear the new Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the Met podium since having attended a performance of Verdi's Otello in 2015.

Like many of Wagner's opera, Holländer had a convoluted history.  The composer came up with the idea while living in dire poverty in Paris after having fled his numerous creditors in Latvia where he had been employed as conductor of the Riga Court Theater.  Part of his flight had been by ship to London during unusually bad weather and the horrific crossing no doubt provided some of the inspiration for this story of a ship's captain doomed to endlessly sail the seas until saved by the love of a woman.  A more immediate source was a satirical novel by the German poet Heinrich Heine that provided most of the incidents Wagner incorporated into his libretto.  The major difference between the two works was in tone.  While Heine's story was written largely tongue in cheek, Wagner's treatment was deadly serious.

Wagner's 1839 flight to Paris was hardly a success.  Even though he was at the time relatively unknown, he had hoped to convince the management of the Paris Opéra  to stage his historical drama Rienzi, written in the grand opera style of Meyerbeer.  But this plan came to nothing.  To make matters worse, the composer was unable to find employment as a conductor.  He did manage to sell to the Opéra the outline of Holländer's plot, but this was of little practical use and he was soon thrown into debtors' prison.  It was not until he returned to Germany three years later that he was able to stage both operas in Dresden, Rienzi in 1842 and Holländer in 1843.

Despite the problems Wagner faced in composing Holländer, it proved to be a turning point in his career and until 2013 was the earliest of his operas to be shown at Bayreuth.  Its success is not really so surprising.  It is a compact drama, especially in the original one-act version shown this season at the Met, and in its Romantic emphasis on salvation through love anticipates the later Wagnerian operas, most notably Tristan.  The music, if still a bit uneven at times, is already recognizably in Wagner's distinctive style and at times foreshadows that of the Ring.  One can hear this immediately in the horn calls that open the overture and even more so in the conclusion where the stormy theme gives way to one much gentler and more life affirming.  (In this regard, it's worth remembering, however, that Wagner did not add harps to the orchestration of Holländer's final scene until 1860, so the resemblance may have been deliberately retrospective.)  The main problem with Holländer is that it is so static.  There is very little action in this work.  Instead, a good part of it is given over to conversations between the principals.  This is especially true of the long central section in which Senta is first introduced while spinning with the other women at Daland's house.

As for the performance itself, I thought it was solid but not particularly overwhelming.  Nézet-Séguin's conducting was excellent, but it would have helped if he had had better singers behind him.  Michael Volle as the Dutchman and Amber Wagner as Senta were both adequate but little more.

The 1989 production by August Everding is still serviceable but too dark and gloomy for my taste.  The sudden appearance of the Dutchman's ghostly crew in Act III should have been much more terrifying than shown here.