Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Met Breuer: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso

The title of the Met's current exhibit, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso, is somewhat ambiguous.  It's not clear (to me at any rate) whether the term "obsession" refers to the artists whose work is displayed or to Scofield Thayer, editor of legendary literary magazine Dial, from whose collection the works are all taken.  Even by today's standards these paintings and drawings are quite shocking; how much more so must they have appeared when first created.  Nevertheless, the female nude has been an accepted genre throughout art history, and I don't see any basis for the term "obsession" simply because a small group of early twentieth century artists chose to depict the subject in a radically new manner.

The show is divided into three parts - Klimt's pieces blend harmoniously into those by Schiele while PIcasso's are placed by themselves in a rear gallery.  That Klimt's and Schiele's works should be juxtaposed is proper enough since the former was the young Expressionist's mentor throughout his abbreviated career (the two died only months apart in 1918) while Picasso's belong to another world altogether.

Although Gustav Klimt is often referred to as an Expressionist, I've never been able to see this in his work.  If I were going to apply a label to him, it would be late Symbolist.  Even that would be misleading, however, since his landscapes (none of which are shown here) have more in common with the pointillist style of such post-Impressionists as Seurat.  The drawings on display are lightly drawn - in fact, several drawings such as Two Reclining Nudes (colored pencil, 1905-1906) are so faint that they can barely be made out - and are primarily studies for paintings.  What most sets them apart from Schiele's, though, are the generally formal poses of the models.  Even in such an obviously erotic work as Reclining Nude with Drapery (graphite, 1912-1913) there is a sense of restraint that makes it seem as if the artist were deliberately seeking to maintain his distance from the model.

Certainly no such restraint exists in the work of Egon Schiele.  In pieces such as Observed in a Dream (watercolor and graphite, 1911) and Reclining Nude (crayon, 1918) the artist fairly revels in the sensuality of his models.  Only in certain later works such as Standing Nude in Black Stockings (watercolor and charcoal, 1917) is there a sense of objectivity.  In that piece form is given precedence over eroticism.  Though unfortunately not usually viewed as such, Schiele was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and fully the equal of Picasso and Matisse.  Only his untimely death and the later vilification by the Nazis have prevented him from receiving the recognition due him.

While the works of Klimt and Schiele were all quite familiar, the real surprises came in the section devoted to Picasso.  As Thayer had no use for Cubism, the works shown here were primarily from the period immediately before that phase commenced when the artist visited the Catalan town of Gósol with Fernande Olivier in 1906 and then, skipping forward, from the neoclassical period of the early 1920's.  It was at Gósol that Picasso moved away from the nineteenth century aesthetics that had informed his Rose period and turned definitively toward modernism.  This can be seen most clearly in his portrait of Josep Fondevila (oil on canvas, 1906) at whose establishment Picasso sojourned.  There is something new and startling in this painting that clearly shows the artist breaking with past styles.  As for the neoclassicism, the most startling work is the large Head of a Woman (chalk on paper, 1922), the only piece Thayer acquired directly from Picasso.  The museum documentation rightly notes the influence on it of Renaissance art.

Set apart from the other works is one by Picasso with which I had previously been unfamiliar, his Erotic Scene (La Douceur) (oil on canvas, 1903).  This is not a particularly great work - indeed, to the end of his life Picasso denied having painted it - but is notable for its shocking content in which a mature woman performs oral sex on a barely pubescent boy.  Whether or not this represents the young Picasso's sexual initiation at a Spanish brothel, as the museum's documentation suggests, it has no parallel in the remainder of his oeuvre.

Missing from the exhibit, and presumably from Thayer's collection, are any of Auguste Rodin's late erotic watercolors.  One feels they would have fit in perfectly at this show.

The exhibit continues through October 7, 2018.  Note the caveat on the museum's website: "Visitors are advised that some images in this exhibition contain explicit erotic content."

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Met Museum: Public Parks, Private Gardens

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence, consisting of dozens of paintings, graphic works and photographs, is a wonderful evocation of summer's luah beauty staged ironically in windowless galleries that afford no view of the world's most beautiful park situated immediately outside their walls.

The late nineteenth century works on display, entirely drawn from the museum's extensive collections, are all by French artusts (with the exception of the American expatriate Mary Cassatt and Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch artist who created his most important work while living in Provence), most of them prominent members of the Impressionist school.  In fact, the best represented artist is Claude Monet, a number of whose masterpieces are here on view - The Path through the Irises (oil on canvas, 1914-1917), Bridge over a Pond of Waterlilies (oil on canvas, 1899), and Garden at Sainte-Adresse (oil on canvas, 1867) - as well as several lesser known works, such as Jean Monet on his Hobby-Horse (oil on canvas, 1872).  Édouard Manet is represented by Madame Manet at Bellevue (oil on canvas, 1880), Peonies (oil on canvas, 1864-1865) and The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil (oil on canvas, 1874).  There are two excellent paintings by Camille Pissaro on view - The Garden of the Tuileries on a Winter Afternoon (oil on canvas, 1899) and The Public Garden at Pointoise (oil on canvas, 1874).  And certainly the exhibit would not have been complete without the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat's final 1884 study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, an oil on canvas of much smaller dimensions than the famous mural-size painting but using the same pointillist technique.

There are also a number of works by artists one would not normally associate with the theme of parks and gardens.  These include Odilon Redon's portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine (pastel on paper, 1901) and Bouquet of Flowers (pastel on paper, 1900-1905), Berthe Morisot's Young Woman Seated on a Sofa (oil on canvas, 1879) and A Woman Seated at a Bench on the Avenue du Bois (watercolor over graphite, 1885), Pierre Bonnard's From the Balcony (oil on canvas, 1909), Auguste Renoir's Bouquet of Chrysanthemums (oil on canvas, 1881) and Versailles (oil on canvas, 1900-1905), Henri Matisse's Pansies (oil on paper, 1903) and Lilacs (oil on canvas, 1914), Mary Cassatt's Lilacs in a Window (oil on canvas, 1880-1883) and Edgar Degas's A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (oil on canvas, 1865).  Those who've read Curtis Cate's biography of George Sand will enjoy seeing Eugène Delacroix's 1843 oil on canvas view of the novelist's garden at Nohant, a truly dark masterpiece.

One would not expect to see many works by the father of modernism, Paul Cézanne, at an exhibit such as this, but there are actually several seminal masterworks on display.  These include Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory (oil on canvas, 1891), The Pool at Jas de Bouffan (oil on canvas, 1885-1886) and Entrée de Jardin (watercolor over graphite, 1878-1880).

By far, the most spectacular work on view is Van Gogh's Sunflowers, an 1887 oil on canvas that once belonged to Paul Gauguin, given to him by the artist himself.  Done in Van Gogh's heavy impasto style there is something monstrous in this flower's beauty that makes the painting much more than a mere study done from nature.  Though the canvas is not particularly large (17" x 24"), it overwhelms the viewer with its power and takes on the majesty of a force of nature.  On view beside it is the artist's Irises, an 1890 oil on canvas whose black outlines owe much to Japanese ukiyo-e and whose stark grey background was once pink before having faded over time.  Fortuitously placed nearby is Monet's Bouquet of Sunflowers (oil on canvas, 1881) that highlights the differences between Van Gogh and the Impressionists when approaching the same subject.  Although Van Gogh and Monet painted their versions of sunflowers only a few years apart, the Dutch artist's work strikes one as more properly belonging to a far later era.

As a photographer, I was especially pleased to see so many classic prints on display.  These included two salt prints by Gustave Le Gray, Oak Tree and Rocks at the Forest of Fontainebleau and Chêne dans les rochers à Fontainebleau, both c. 1849-1852.  There were also several albumen prints by Eugène Atget, that great chronicler of fin de siècle Paris - Jardin du Luxembourg (1902), Versaille - Cour du Parc (1902) and the magnificent Le Château, fin Octobre, le soir, effet d'orage, vue prise du Parterre du Nord (1903).  There was also a wonderful flower study, Rose of Sharon (albumen print, 1854), by Adolphe Braun as well as Charles Nègre's portrait of Lord Brougham and his family at Cannes (albumen print, 1862).

The exhibit continues through July 29, 2018.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Met Museum: American Painters in Italy

Tucked away on the American Wing's mezzanine, the Met Museum's current exhibit, American Painters in Italy, is a delightful reminder of the era before World War I when American artists still found it de rigueur to make a pilgrimage to Europe in order to study and copy the works of the old masters, thereby acknowledging that however wealthy the United States may have been at the turn of the twentieth century it still lacked any real confidence in its own art and culture.

As one looks at the works by John Singer Sargent (who was actually born in Italy), George Henry SmillieGeorge Inness, and William Stanley Haseltine one is reminded irresistably of the novels of Henry James.  There is about these paintings the languor of Americans making the Grand Tour, staying at the finest hotels and mingling with the best society while forever painting and sketching their picturesque surroundings.  And it's this glimpse of a vanished world that gives to their works a strong sense of nostalgia.  Though Picasso and Matisse were already active in this period, other than in the works of Maurice Prendergast there is little sense here of the modernist revolution that was about to engulf twentieth century art.  Even the single work on display by James McNeill Whistler, Note in Pink and Brown (charcoal and pastel, c. 1880), is thoroughly picturesque.

As the museum's website notes, the show has been divided into three parts:
"American Painters in Italy begins with views of the landscape around Rome, the Campagna, and southern Italy. The second section features images of Venice, which was a particularly popular destination for artists in the late nineteenth century. The final section focuses on works in which the artists copied Italian art as an educational exercise or to signify their sophistication and worldliness."
By far the most imteresting works art are those by Sargent to whom the lion's share of the exhibit has rightfully been devoted.  His watercolors are not detailed but rather evocative, and it is their suggestiveness that captures the viewer's attention as the scenes depicted are vividly brought to life.  Among these are the Venetian street scenes which eschew studies of the major monuments in favor of  more intimate glimpses of backwater canals and alleyways not frequented by tourists.  The best of these is Venetian Canal (watercolor and graphite, 1913) that contains a distant view of the Church of San Barnaba.  In subject matter and style it stands in marked contrast to Prendergast's Rialto Bridge (watercolor and graphite, c. 1911-1912) whose bright colors fail to mask the trite choice of subject matter.

Perhaps the finest work at the exhibit is Sargent's Tiepelo Ceiling, Milan (watercolor and graphite, c. 1898-1900), a brilliantly colored phantasmagoria that is not so much a study of the palazzo's ceiling as a reimagining of it.

There are several other works - such as Jasper Francis Cropsey's Torre dei Schiavi, The Roman Campagna (white gouache and graphite, 1853) and William Stanley Haseltine's Baths of Trajan (watercolor, gouache and charcoal, c. 1882) - that are most interesting for the views they provide of nineteenth century Italy before it was forever ruined by modern day tourism.

The exhibit continues through June 17, 2018.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Naumburg Bandshell Concerts

This summer in Central Park there will once again be free outdoor classical music concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell.  It's a series that features top level orchestras as well as lesser known ensembles performing selections that range from the classical to the avant garde in a fairly intimate setting near Bethseda Fountain.  This summer's schedule is as follows:

  • Tuesday, June 12th - Ensemble LPR
  • Tuesday, June 26th - Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
  • Tuesday, July 10th - A Far Cry
  • Tuesday, July 17th - The Knights
  • Tuesday, July 31st - Orchestra of St. Luke's

As mentioned, all concerts are free and no tickets are required.  They begin at 7:30, weather permitting, and last approximately two hours.  Most, if not all, will doubtlessly be broadcast live on New York City's classical music station WQXR.

Detailed program information can be found on the Naumburg website.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 4

On Tuesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the final musical event of my 2017-2018 season as Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Met Orhestra in a program that included yet another Mahler symphony, by my count the seventh I've heard this season.

The program opened with Evocations (1934-1943) by Carl Ruggles, a composer with whom I'd previously been unfamiliar.  Tilson Thomas has always been a great champion of Charles Ives, so it only makes sense that he would also promote the music of another idiosyncratic American composer.  (Another link between Ruggles and Ives was John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who premiered Ives's Concord Sonata and to whom the second movement of Evocations was dedicated.)  And idiosyncratic Ruggles most certainly was, both in his personal life and his career as a composer.  He wrote relatively few pieces in spite of having enjoyed an extraordinarily long lifespan and spent an inordimante amount of time on the composition of each.  His works have been compared to those of Schoenberg, though Ruggles had no connection with the Second Viennese School or, for that matter, with any European composers.  The present work was originally written for solo piano and was only later arranged for orchestra.  It was an impressive piece, roughly twelve minutes long, and received a huge round of applause from the audience.

The next work was Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165 (1773) and featured soprano Pretty Yende as soloist.  The work, written when the composer was only 16 years old, is in the form of a motet, an ambiguous term defined by one of Mozart's contemporaries as follows:
"In Italy nowadays this term is applied to a Latin sacred solo cantata consisting of two arias and two recitatives, concluding with a Hallelujah, and sung during the Mass following the Credo, generally by one of the best singers."
The work was in fact composed in Italy where Mozart had traveled with his father for a performance of his opera Lucio Silla.  While working on the opera in Milan, Mozart and Leopold renewed their acquaintace with the multitalented castrato Venanzio Rauzzini whom they had previously met in Vienna and for whom Mozart composed the present work.  At least one source has noted the structural similarities it shares with the violin concerti Mozart was soon to write.  To me it had much more an operatic character than a liturgical.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900).  This was the last of the composer's "Wunderhorn symphonies" and was built around a single song Mahler had adapted from that collection; entitled Das himmlische Leben, the 1892 piece was a song of innocence told from the point of view of child.  Mahler had originally intended to use it in the finale of the Symphony No. 3 but then decided to drop the entire movement in which it was to appear and instead built the following symphony around it.  Thus, in a sense, the No. 4 becomes a continuation of the No. 3 and by extension of the two that preceded it so that all four become parts of a larger whole.  Everything in the first three movements of the No. 4 leads up to the soloist's part in the final movement.  As more than one commentator has noted, it is a progression from dark to light  If the No. 4 is the most popular of Mahler's symphonies this has as much do to the gentle childlike verses that end it as to the entire work's brevity (it is the shortest of all the symphonies and uses a smaller orchestra than the others while following Haydn's classical four movment structure).

Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the foremost American conductors (though these days that's not saying a great deal) and is to be praised for consistently bringing attention to lesser known works.  His conducting on Tuesday evening was by far the best of the Met Orchestra's current three-concert series.  At the helm of a truly excellent ensemble, he led one of the finest performances of Mahler's Fourth that I've heard.   Soloist  Pretty Yende, who has become something of fixture at the Met, was superb on both the Mozart and Mahler works.  This was as fine a way to end the season as I could have wished.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 5

Earlier this week I went to hear the second of the Met Orchestra's three subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall.  This has been a great season in New York City for those with a love of Mahler's music - I'd already attended five performances of his works before this - and on this occasion still another of his symphonies was featured together with one of Mozart's greatest works for violin.

The program opened with a performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (1775) that featured as soloist James Ehnes,  a musician whom I had heard earlier this season for the first time when he played Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic.  The Mozart concerto is of course one of the most popular in the violin repertoire, a tour de force that is even more impressive when one considers that at the time of its composition Mozart was only nineteen years old.  It's filled with inventive touches.  For example, in the opening movement the fast allegro-aperto is abruptly interrupted upon the violin's first appearance; the instrument is introduced by a far slower adagio before the orchestra quickly returns to the original tempo.  And the stirring "Turkish" music that forms part of the final movement rondo is not only an original touch but also anticipates by seven years that used in the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Mozart was himself an expert violinist and it's curious that after having completed this work he ceased writing concerti for the instrument.  The reason perhaps is that the composer, once he had resettled in Vienna, wanted to establish his repuation as a piano virtuoso at a time when the fortepiano was still something of a novelty.  He may also have wanted to create an identity separate from that of his father Leopold, a formidable violinist who had authored one of the eighteenth century's most authoritative textbooks for that instrument.

After intermission, the concert ended with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902).  Marking the start of a new century as well as a new direction in the composer's music, the No. 5 moved away from the programmatic content of the first four symphonies, collectively known as the Wunderhorn symphonies, to the sphere of absolute music.  This shift certainly reflected a new self-confidence on Mahler's part.  He was sure enough of himself, and his music, that he felt he no longer needed sung texts or ambiguous program notes to make himself understood.  He had now not only reached the pinnacle of his conducting career as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, then regarded as the world's finest, but he had also become engaged to Alma, "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna."   (It's almost obligatory to mention at this point that the fourth movement adagietto, whose correct tempo is forever argued among composers, was intended as an engagement present to Alma.)  But the fact that Mahler went back some ten years later to revise the orchestration is an indication that he may have overestimated his abilites.  As Jens Malte Fischer notes:
"In a letter to conductor Georg Göhler, he [Mahler] admitted that even as a forty-year-old composer at the height of his powers, he could still commit the sort of mistakes that a novice might make: the experience acquired in his first four symphonies let him down - a new style needed a new technique.  But while working of the Fifth Symphony he was not yet aware of this shortcoming."
Nor is the No. 5 without flaws even in the revised version.  The ending of the final movement is not entirely satsifying and suggests that Mahler, after the bold innovations of the earlier movements, was at a loss how to top them and so instead settled for what was essentially a compromise.

Each of the orchestra's three performances this season features a different conductor, and on this occasion it was the turn of Gianandrea Noseda whom I've heard several times at the Met and as a guest conductor with the London Symphony in a performance of Verdi's Requiem.  He's an excellent conductor and did extremely well with the Mozart concerto.  The rendition of Mahler's symphony, however, while certainly competent, left something to be desired.  Though the Met Orchestra is a world class ensemble, one had the impression while listening that not all the music's nuances were thoroughly realized.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Summer Break

Today is Memorial Day, the unofficial start to summer here in the US, and I suppose it's as good a time as any to remind readers that this is a seasonal blog.  Aside from two more Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, I won't be attending any more classical music events until fall when the new season gets underway.  I will still occasionally be posting my thoughts on art and photo exhibits I see over the summer months, but other than that this blog will be largely dormant until at least late September.

My other blog, Central Park Blues, will remain active and I hope readers will take the time to visit it.  Readers will find there samples of my photography as well as one of my novels, The Dark Veil, in serialized form.

I hope everyone has an enjoyable summer.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Galerie St. Etienne: Expressionist Art

The full title of the current exhibit at the Galerie St. Etienne is Drawing the Line: Realism and Abstraction in German Art, and it's accompanied by a scholarly essay that makes excellent reading for anyone with an interest in Expressionist art.  I have to admit, though, perhaps because it was such a delightful spring day when I visited, that I was far less interested in observing the distinctions between the "intensive" and the "extensive" than in the simple aesthetic pleasure of viewing so many masterpieces gathered at a single venue.  Altogether, the works of some eighteen artists, a veritable Who's Who of twentieth century German art, are on display.

Max Beckmann is represented by several graphic works, the most interesting of which, I thought, was the pen and pencil drawing Reclining Woman (1945) that shows a fully clothed woman lying on a couch with her legs drawn up and her face covered by one hand.  Was she ashamed to be drawn in such a pose?  The other Beckman work to catch my attention, and for that matter one of the  highlights of the exhibit, was the 1924 oil on canvas Portrait of Irma Simon that shows a modestly dressed young woman seated on a wicker chair.  I had never before heard of Irma Simon but, after having done some online research, found reference to her (if indeed it is the same woman) in Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany by Marion A. Kaplan that describes a horrific struggle to survive as a Jew in Nazi German.

Otto Dix, the only major German artist to have served all four years of World War I on the front lines, has several graphic works in the show, including two lithographs from 1923,  The Madam and Mediterranean Sailor that are notable for the extreme naturalism with which these two disturbing characters have been delineated.  Also by Dix is a drawing entitled Madonna.  Completed in 1914, it gives the viewer a rare glimpse of Dix's pre-war style.  It's interesting to speculate how his art would have evolved if it had not been so traumatically interrupted by the war.

Aside from a gorgeous black crayon drawing, Female Nude, Back View, and his poster for the 49th Secession exhibition, both from 1918, there are also on view two early works by Egon Schiele.  These are Two Peasant Women (colored crayon, 1908) and Study for a Never Executed Painting (watercolor, 1912) that have no parallels in his later oeuvre

Among the other works that most struck my attention were, in no particular order: Nude in Garden (oil on canvas, 1908) by Richard Gerstl, who only recently had his first one-man American show at the Neue Galerie; Reclining Female Nude with Upraised Head (pencil drawing, 1927) by George Grosz; Fanny in Armchair (lithograph, 1916) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; two wonderful pen and ink drawings, St. Christopher (c. 1912-1915) and Witches' Sabbath (1918) by Alfred KubinNude Girl in Front of a Mirror (lithograph, 1924) by Otto Mueller; Christ and the Sinner (etching, 1911) and Prophet (woodcut, 1912) by Emil Nolde; and finally, if only because I'd heard the week before performances of Mahler's No. 9 and Das Lied von der ErdeOskar Kokoschka's 1913 red crayon drawing of Alma Mahler, Sleeping Woman in Deck Chair.

There are, of course, many other works at this show that are well worth viewing and it is only the lack of space that keeps me from mentioning them all.

The exhibit continues through July 6, 2018.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first of the three concerts given annually by the Met Orchestra following the end of the opera season.  On this occasion, the orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, currently music director of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, performed a fairly conservative program that featured the works of three prominent late-nineteenth century composers - Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

The concert opened with Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894).  So little does this short work resemble any known nineteenth century musical genre that Pierre Boulez deemed it the beginning of modern music.  It might possibly be considered a tone poem, but the music is not really programmatic despite its source in Mallarmé's poem which actually when read evokes a completely different mood.  The music is not so much modernist as impressionist (no matter how much Debussy detested the term) and I think it's best viewed as a recreation in musical form of a series of sensuous experiences.  The composer himself described it as "a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams..."  As such, it readily lent itself to adaptation into one of the Ballets Russes best known, and most scandalous, dance works.  Many years ago, I saw a performance by the Joffrey Ballet that attempted to recreate the original productions of both Le sacre du printemps and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, including both costumes and choreography. It was an excellent realization of the mood Debussy sought to create and brought to life the sense of unfulfilled longing that suffuses the music.

The next work was Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death (1877), here presented in the 1962 orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich and sung by mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili.  This is a work I can never remember having heard before, even though it's one of the composer's masterpieces as well as arguably the most important song cycle in the Russian musical tradition.  It consists of four songs - Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak (a type of Cossack dance) and The Field Marshal - each of which portrays Death as a wily figure who most often takes his victims by subterfuge.  The entire cycle was completed only four years before Mussorgsky's own premature death at age 42, but there is no hint of self-pity in these pieces.  Instead, they are curiously detached and more than a little macabre.  They certainly had a great impact on Shostakovich who went on to add to the cycle in his own Fourteenth Symphony.  

Mussorgsky's music turned out to be the highlight of the concert.  Ms. Rachvelishvili turned in an impressive performance on a truly demanding piece.  I'm hopeful I'll hear her sing again sometime in the near future.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-1878).  In listening to this work, it's almost impossible to get around its nickname of "Fate" that was first given it by the composer himself when describing to Nadezhda von Meck, who had only recently become his patroness and to whom he dedicated the work, the fanfare that opens the first movement. 
"The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea: This is Fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul. It is an invincible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, hopelessly."
Tchaikovsky's negative view of fate must at least in part have resulted from the extremely brief and extremely unhappy marriage he had just suffered through.  His nine weeks with the hapless Antonina Milyukova, whom he may only have married in the first place to mask his homosexuality, no doubt left him despairing he could ever attain any really happiness in life.  Such a reading is borne out by the fourth and final movement.  Here the mood is generally upbeat until the Fate theme returns and darkens the music.  It's as if Tchaikovsky were saying that just as one begins to feel he or she has moved on from tragedy and is once again capable of enjoying life, destiny inevitably comes knocking and reveals happiness to be no more than an elusive chimera.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Edwynn Houk Gallery: Erwin Blumenfeld

Despite his many accomplishments - he holds the record for most Vogue covers - and the tremendous influence he exerted on younger fashion photographers, Erwin Blumenfeld has never received the wide public recognition that is his due.  Even his Wikipedia biography is little more than a stub.  Partly this was an accident of history - like many other German artists of his generation, Blumenfeld was forced to flee the Nazis and to live the life of an expatriate.  A more recent complication was the division of his archive, amounting to some 30,000 negatives and 8,000 prints according to the British Journal of Photography, distributed among family members following his death in 1969.

In addition to his talent with a camera, Blumenfeld was also a superb darkroom technician who was not afraid to experiment with innovative techniques such as the Sabatier Effect.  These, combined with his proclivity for using mirrors, veils and painted backgrounds in his photoshoots, allowed him to create a truly unique body of work.  Already while in Amsterdam in the 1920's, he had begun to explore Dadaism and his photographs were shown there in a group show beside the work of George Grosz (a lifelong friend), Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy.  It was upon moving to Paris in 1936 that he began his career as a fashion photographer.  By the time he emigrated to New York in 1941 he already had an international reputation and was immediately put under contract at Harper's Bazaar by Carmel Snow.

The current exhibit at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, while hardly qualifying as a major retrospective, does contain a number of Blumenfeld's most important works, enough to make this one of the most important photo exhibits of the year.  It opens with one of the photographer's most iconic images, a superb 1939 shot of a model in a billowing white dress perched precariously on the Eiffel Tower high above the streets of Paris.

Most of the photos shown at the current exhibit are untitled prints that feature female models photographed in the most imaginative ways possible.  Just looking at them should be sufficient to provide photographers with a lifetime of inspiration.  Perhaps the best is a photograph of a model, nude but for a cloth twisted about her waist, lying prone on her back.  It's a fine an example of the Sabatier Effect as I've seen.

There are two self-portraits in the show, one from 1937 where the photographer in his Paris studio shot himself in a mirror surrounded by his prints.  In the foreground is a sculpture of a torso with a photo of a model's face where the head would be.  It captures Bluemenfeld's entire world in a single image.  The second is a much more conventional portrait (except for the solarized printing) from 1950 in which the photographer wears a bow tie and looks more a Midwestern dentist than an artist.

There's also a portrait of Cecil Beaton from the 1940's that shows only one side of the famous photographer's face while the other is left in silhouette.  The eerily lit backdrop gives the print a definite Surrealist aura.

It wouldn't serve any real purpose to describe any more of the photos on display.  They really have to be seen in order for their originality to be appreciated.  For those unable to attend the show, there's a monograph by William Ewing, a copy of which I have in my library, that contains excellent reproduction's of Blumenfeld's work.

The exhibit continues through June 2, 2018.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dvořák, Mozart and Messiaen

Yesterday I walked down to Juilliard to hear the last of this season's Sunday Morse Hall chamber recitals in a noontime performance that featured works by Dvořák, Mozart and Messiaen.

The program opened with Dvořák's Terzetto in C, Op. 74 (1887).  It was performed by Mo Lei Luo and Yimiao Chen, violins, and Ao Peng, viola; they were coached by Lewis Kaplan.  Dvořák is such a popular composer that it comes as something of a shock to realize a great many of his chamber works are only rarely performed.  The Terzetto is one such piece, although in this case it may have something to do with the unusual combination of instruments for which it is scored.  Originally written for a neighbor who was also an amateur violinist, the piece has an informal air that is at least partly due to its structure - the first movement is in ternary form rather than sonata - as well as the folk music influences that remain discreetly in the background.  It may not be a major piece of music, but it's an enjoyable diversion from a truly great composer.

The next work was Mozart's String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 458 (1784) nicknamed "the Hunt" for the evocation of a hunting call in the first bars of the opening movement.  The musicians were Guangnan Yue and Sara Bauman, violins, Ao Peng, viola, and Shangwen Liao, cello; they too were coached by Lewis Kaplan.  This is the fourth of the six "Haydn Quartets," so called for their dedication to the composer who more or less invented the string quartet form as we know it today.  It was most likely the publication of Haydn's Op. 33 in 1781 that provided Mozart the inspiration to make his own attempt at the genre.  He was then just in the process of relocating to Vienna where he first met the older composer, then already internationally famous, and began performing with him the Opp. 20 and 33 quartets that had revolutionized European music.  The debt Mozart owed Haydn can most readily be understood by comparing his new quartets to the "Viennese Quartets," K. 168 through 173, that had been written almost a decade earlier and that really were no more than divertimenti.  If Mozart's latest efforts did not surpass Haydn's accomplishments, they were certainly on a par with them.  It was after having heard them that Haydn complimented the younger man's "most profound knowledge of composition" to his father Leopold.  The No. 17 is a particularly enjoyable and upbeat work even in the slow third movement adagio in E-flat major.

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

Nevertheless, no matter what its history, the Quatuor is an incredible achievement, especially when one takes into account the conditions in which it was conceived.  In it, Messiaen paid his fellow captives the huge compliment of writing for each of them solo parts that would test the skills of any musician.  The entire work revolves around the three movements that feature these solos (with piano accompaniment) - the Abîme des oiseaux for clarinet, the Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus for cello, and the final moving Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus for violin that is really the soul of the work.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Jens Malte Fischer's Biography of Mahler

I've always considered Gustav Mahler to have been, quite simply, the greatest composer since Beethoven.  A tireless innovator who reinvented the entire concept of symphonic music, he was a giant who towered over the twentieth century.  It was he, and not Wagner, who was the true herald of "new music."  As such, he was the inspiration behind the Second Viennese School and even now exerts a huge influence on contemporary composers.  He well deserves then the sympathetic and comprehensive biography that has been given him by Jens Malte Fischer in an excellent English translation by Stewart Spencer.

While today he is known primarily as a composer, during his own lifetime Mahler was lauded as the world's greatest conductor.  Over the course of seven hundred pages of erudite and well written text, Fischer describes the progress of Mahler's career from his earliest positions in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg until finally he was appointed Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera, then universally acknowledged as the world's foremost opera company.  It was there that he took up the challenge of Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk and with the assistance of stage and costume designer Alfred Roller introduced a series of revolutionary reforms, many of whose visual elements were taken from the Viennese Secession, in the staging of operatic works.  Few audiences realize how many elements seen in current productions were first put onstage by Mahler and Roller. Fischer then follows this up by paying particular attention to the composer's years in New York City.

Interspersed with the chapters that follow Mahler's conducting career and the intrigues he was forced to deal with at each stop along the way are shorter episodes that chronicle the composition of the symphonies during the summer interludes when he was freed from conducting and administrative duties.  These sections provide thorough analyses that are most helpful to the non-musician seeking to better understand the scope of Mahler's accomplishments.  One factor that is continually brought home is the enormous impact Nature had on Mahler's consciousness and the manner in which he incoporated its aural manifestations into his work.  In a sense, natural phenomena served as much an inspiration for Mahler as folk music (which is notably absent in Mahler's compositions) did for Bartók.

In addition, there is a long chapter entitled "Mahler's Illnesses: A Pathological Sketch" that investigates the extensive health problems that plagued the composer throughout his lifetime and finally led to his tragic death from endocarditis at only age 51.  It would be difficult to fully understand Mahler's life without an examination of these illnesses that were so pervasive that they formed part of his character.

Another chapter, "Jewishness and Identity," is essential to understanding Mahler's own problematical view of his Jewish heritage.  The virulent anti-Semitism that Mahler encountered throughout his career and that finally forced him to leave Vienna at the height of his powers is almost unimaginable today.  That he accepted this heavy burden without rancor says much for his character, but at the same time this revolting anti-Semitism was an inescapable trial for any Jew living in Europe, particularly Austria, at the turn of the twentieth century.  Reading of the horrors Jews were forced to endure in so "civilized" a city fundamentally changed my view of Secession-era Vienna.

As for Alma, I think Fischer's treatment is fair.  True, she was fatuous and at times dishonest, but it must be remembered that she was a product of her times.  Women in 1900 Vienna were forced to lead such stifling existences that it would be strange indeed if these conditions did not to some extent warp their personalities.  To his credit, Fischer does not attempt to absolve Mahler himself of all blame for the failure of his marriage.  It was his failing libido and almost total absorption in his work that led inexorably to Alma's affair with Gropius.  Before faulting Mahler, however, for marrying someone so many years younger, one has to sympathize with his desire to join his life with that of a woman who was not only from the most elite social circles but also "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna."  Mahler was, after all, only human and as susceptible to a mid-life crisis as any other man.

Finally, Mahler, whose works generally went unappreciated during his lifetime, serves as an inspiration for all creative artists who have gone unrecognized.  In the twenty-first century his claim that his music would best be understood by future generations has now been validated beyond his wildest expectations.  Every struggling artist should then take consolation from his famous remark when asked why he did not do more to promote his works: "Do you have to be there in person when you become immortal?  Sooner or later, they themselves [the musical works] will do whatever is necessary."

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Simon Rattle Conducts Das Lied von der Erde

After having heard a performance of Mahler's Ninth on Friday evening, I went again to David Geffen Hall on Sunday afternoon to hear Simon Rattle lead the London Symphony Orchestra in another concert devoted to the composer's music, part of a series entitled Mahler Transcending.  Once again there was only one work on the program; that featured on this occasion was Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909).

Termed a "symphony of songs," this late work brings together in a single piece Mahler's two main preoccupations as a composer - the lied and the symphony.  He had, of course, created choral symphonies prior to this but it was only here that for the first time he orchestrated in symphonic form an entire song cycle, a tour de force that led Leonard Bernstein to describe Das Lied von der Erde as Mahler's "greatest symphony."

Previously, Mahler had taken the texts for his songs and choral symphonies from two sources.  The first was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and so critical was this text to the development of Mahler's early style that the first four symphonies are commonly referred to as the "Wunderhorn symphonies."  This miscellany of folk poems and songs exerted a huge influence not only on Mahler but on the entire course of nineteenth century German Romanticism; it's not surprising that it fired the composer's youthful ardor.  The second influence was the poetry of Friedrich Rückert for which the more mature Mahler, by then a successful conductor, provided a number of musical settings, most famously in the 1904 song cycle Kindertotenlieder but even earlier in the Rückert-Lieder.  (Both works premiered together in 1905 in Vienna.)  Like Wunderhorn, Rückert's poetry was also a major influence on nineteenth century German culture and his verses were set to music by a number of major composers besides Mahler.

It's apparent then that throughout his career the texts Mahler chose to set were not incidental to the music but reflected, each in its turn, the composer's state of mind in various stages of his life.  Beyond that, each was a touchstone of German culture.  But something radically different was needed as Mahler entered an entirely new stage following the annus terribilis of 1907.  If not broken, he was disillusioned and uncertain of his future   As he wrote to Bruno Walter, "With one stroke I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn."  That Mahler should have turned to Hans Bethge's translation of Tang dynasty poetry, Die chinesische Flöte, is not entirely surprising.  At once exotic and suffused with Romanticism, the Chinese verses also offered an alternative to the mainstream German heritage that had treated Mahler so shabbily.

If the break from the past were to be complete, however, Mahler would need not only a new source of inspiration but a new musical form in which to set it.  This he discovered in Das Lied von der Erde.  Jens Malte Fischer, in his brilliant biography of the composer, writes:
"The secret of the work's unusual impact lies in the sense of a coincidentia oppositorum, a union of opposites, song and symphony no longer being forced beneath the same yoke, as is otherwise the case with Mahler, but allowed to flow freely into one another as if at the end of a lengthy tradition.  The boldness of the concept is subsumed by the purity of its realization."
Here then Mahler was attempting to move in an entirely new direction in his music, one that left behind the last vestiges of the Classical symphony as first formulated by Haydn.  In this sense Das Lied von der Erde cannot but be seen as a truly revolutionary masterpiece.

If the performance on Sunday afternoon was not as breathtaking as Friday evening's performance of the Ninth, this was due solely to the nature of the music itself.  Das Lied von der Erde is a deliberately understated work and perhaps for that very reason a more difficult piece to perform and conduct.  Simon Rattle was once again brilliant and once again well supported by a truly excellent orchestra.  The performance could not have been a success, however, without the contributions of heldentenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Christian Gerhaher.  Both were superb in their alternating parts.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Simon Rattle Conducts Mahler No. 9

On Friday evening I went to the David Geffen Hall to hear a concert I'd eagerly been awaiting all season as Simon Rattle, making his first New York appearance as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 (1908-1909). 

Although this was not really the composer's last work - he in fact lived long enough to complete a substantial portion of the Symphony No. 10 - it certainly was his final word on the inevitability of death, a subject that had preoccupied him in one form or another all his life and only became more urgent after his heart condition had been diagnosed.  This is one point on which all the commentators are in agreement.  As Alban Berg wrote in 1912:
"This whole [first] movement is dominated by the presentiment of death, which makes itself known again and again over the movement's course. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense eruptions following the most gentle passages, and of course this intensity is strongest in the horrible moment where death becomes a certainty, where, in the middle of the deepest, most poignant longing for life, death makes itself known 'with the greatest violence.' Against that, there is no resistance."
And Leonard Bernstein, certainly the twentieth century's foremost champion of Mahler's music, is equally emphatic:
"The Ninth is the ultimate farewell … the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up."
Not that the entire symphony is one long funeral march.   The second movement Ländler is a relaxed if idiosyncratic take on the Austrian folk dance and a reflection of the composer's intense love of nature.   In the final movement, Mahler looks beyond his own mortality to new horizons in music itself.  The symphony has no home key - the movements progress from D to C to A minor and finally end in D-flat.   This abandonment of traditional tonality was to have a huge effect on Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School in the coming years.

I don't think there's any question that Simon Rattle is the finest conductor now active, whether in his old post with the Berliner Philharmoniker or presently with the London Symphony.  He is consistently able to draw from even the most familiar works new shades of meaning.  I had seen him last season brilliantly conduct both Mahler's No. 6 and No. 7 at Carnegie Hall with two different orchestras, and he was equally impressive at Friday evening's performance.  I believe if Mahler were still alive he would very much approve of Rattle's interpretations of his music.  At Friday evening's concert, the performance of the final movement adagio was particularly noteworthy.  Marked Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend ("very slowly and restrained"), the composer here followed the stormy third movement Rondo Burleske with a passage that in its serene acceptance of the inexorable approach of death transcended mere resignation to become a stately affirmation of life itself.  To drive the point home, Mahler quoted in this movement music from Kindertotenlieder.  Taken from the fourth of the five songs, Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen ("I often think: they have only just gone out"), the musical quote makes clear that it is not only the occasion of one's own death that one must learn to accept but also that of one's loved ones.
"Sie sind uns nur voraus gegangen,/ und werden nicht wieder nach Hause verlangen. /Wir holen sie ein auf jenen Höh'n (They have just gone out ahead of us, /and will not be thinking of coming home. /We go to meet them on yonder heights)"
Then at the end comes the sustained "dying away" that only a superb conductor such as Mr. Rattle can manage to sustain successfully for the six or seven minutes it lasts before slowly fading into silence.

I very much enjoyed the fact that there was only one work on the program.  This allowed me to better focus on the work at hand.   Too often in a situation where a mammoth work is to be performed orchestras begin with a much shorter piece that no one in the audience has much interest in hearing followed by a lengthy intermission.  The No. 9 is such a huge complex work that it is much better served when the audience is able to give it the benefit of its full attention.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Beethoven No. 9

On Sunday afternoon, I went to David Geffen Hall to hear the acclaimed conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of works by Bernstein and Beethoven.  The concert was part of the Great Performers at Lincoln Center orchestral series to which I subscribe, and this season has been one of the best in recent memory with performances by several of the world's greatest conductors and symphony orchestras.

The program opened with Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965), a work I can't remember ever having heard before.  This was one of those relatively short pieces orchestras customarily program before performing a much longer work where no late seatins is allowed; but it was still a very appropriate choice considering we are approaching the centennial of the composer's birth.  It was definitely one of Bernstein's more interesting works, a serious piece that's also highly accessible and one that draws an emotional response from the audience, even among those who are not particularly religious.  There were several ironies in its composition.  First, though the psalms are obviously Hebrew texts, the work itself was commissioned for a Christian festival in England.  Secondly, the prelate who commissioned it, Rev. Walter Hussey, was not looking for a work that had a purely ecclesiastical character.  He wrote to Bernstein: "Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music." Finally, the work was not after all premiered at Chichester, the venue for which it was written, but at the New York Philharmonic two weeks earlier.  The orchestration is unusual in that no woodwinds are used while two harps are instead featured prominently throughout the work.  Morevover, Bernstein specified that the countertenor part should never be sung by a woman.  At this performance, John Holiday was excellent in the that part.

After intermission, the concert concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824).  Beethoven's Ninth is more than just a musical work, of course - it is one of the touchstones of Western culture and one of the greatest expressions of universal brotherhood ever devised.  Jan Swafford, in his monumental biography of the composer, has linked the sentiments contained within it to Beethoven's youthful exposure to the Enlightenment principles then prevalent in Bonn.  Certainly, it is the culmination of all the composer had learned over the years regarding both life and art.  There's a magnificent irony in the fact that this obstreperous morose man who was often so difficult in his private life should choose to celebrate the common thread that binds all men together and to give voice to Schiller's An die Freude when his own life had predominantly been one of loneliness and suffering.

The Ninth has always offered a message of hope and has been criticized by some for its naivete in sounding so simplistic a call to brotherhood.  Nevertheless, at a time when the news is daily filled with accounts of political turmoil and the most basic values of Americans have been called into question, the symphony has more than ever something to offer those of us who are at times brought close to despair by current events.  If nothing else, we are given hope simply by the fact that such a transcendental masterpiece should exist in the first place.  It demonstrates the heights that can be reached by one man, cursed with deafness and nearing death, acting on behalf of us all.  We have to feel that if Beethoven could overcome the obstacles fate had placed in his path then so too can we triumph in the face of horrible adversity.

This was an excellent performance of the Ninth, one that received at its conclusion a standing ovation from the audience.  Mr. Dudamel's conducting was above reproach, but I still prefer the performances I've heard in recent years by the Berliner Philharmoniker with Simon Rattle conducting, and by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer conducting.  I also found the Concert Chorale of New York somewhat lacking as an ensemble even though it was admirably directed by James Bagwell.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Met Opera: Joyce DiDonato Sings in Cendrillon

On Saturday afternoon I walked down to Lincoln Center to see the final opera I'll be attending this season - Massenet's Cendrillon, a work that has only begun to receive in recent years the attention it deserves.  It's difficult to believe that its performance on Saturday was only the fifth in the Met's history.

This was actually the second Massenet opera I've seen this season - in November I attended an excellent production of Thaïs - and was again impressed by this composer's ability.  Perhaps the fact that Cendrillon is making its Met premiere this season,  more than a century after it first opened in Paris, is an indication that Massenet's work in finally undergoing a well deserved critical reevaluation.

Cendrillon was a relatively late work - Massenet was already in his fifties and at the peak of his popularity when he began work on it with librettist Henri Cain - but it has the freshness one would expect from a much younger composer.  The subject was an interesting choice as Massenet and Cain had only just completed work on La Navarraise, the pair's attempt at verismo. at the time they decided upon this lyric piece.  Massenet had always been very sensitive to the tastes of Parisian opera goers, and it may have been that he felt verismo was only a fad, one that would not continue to find favor with the public.  Certainly, Cendrillon was about as far any composer could go in the opposite direction.  Based on the seventeenth century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the story had already been adopted much earlier in the century first by Nicolas Isouard in 1810 and then more famously by Rossini in his 1817 La Cenerentola (There was also another version by singer Pauline Viardot that, though it may have been composed earlier, did not premiere until 1904.)  Once decided on his subject, Massenet proceeded to put into it everything he felt might contribute to its success.  As the Wikipedia article notes:
"Massenet’s perfectly proportioned score moves from a scene worthy of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide ... through Rossinian vocalises and archaic orchestrations to ballet movements on a par with Tchaikovsky." 
It may have been Massenet's willingness to pander to popular taste that lay behind the neglect his music suffered after his death.  But no composer can really be blamed for wanting to make his music a success.  While Massenet's operas are not profound in the same sense as Wagner's tragedies, they are instead sly and sophisticated and offer the modern listener a rewarding glimpse into the Parisian fin de siècle.  They also contain some of the finest French music written during that period.  In the final scene of Act III, Cendrillon rises above mere entertainment with the haunting fairy music that climaxes in the duet a deux genoux with the fairy godmother singing behind the young lovers in a truly romantic moment.

At this performance, Joyce DiDonato in the title role (I had also heard her several seasons ago sing the same character in La Cenerentola) stood out in an all-star cast that included mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière.  Soprano Kathleen Kim was exceptional as the Fairy Godmother.

Bertrand de Billy conducted and fared better with Massenet's music than he had two weeks ago with Verdi's Luisa Miller, though that's hardly high praise.

This was a new production (the first in the Met's history for this opera) by Laurent Pelly that, at least as far as I was concerned, failed in its attempt to bring to life the world of Perrault's fairy tale.  When the Met's publicity referred to the staging as a "storybook production," I did not take it to mean that actual enlarged texts of Perrault's story would be used as sets.  But that's really all there was to this production aside from a variety of nondescript props haphazardly moved across the stage. The carriage that takes Cinderella to the ball was so tacky it would have been an embarrassment at a middle school theatrical.  Matters were not helped by Laura Scozzi's lifeless choreography in the long Act II ballet. The costumes, on the other hand, also designed by Mr. Pelly, were bright and colorful and added  a good deal of life to the proceedings.  

Friday, April 27, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Daniil Trifonov and Kremerata Baltica Perform Chopin

As part of the Concertos Plus series I subscribe to every season at Carnegie Hall, pianist Daniil Trifonov joined with the Kremerata Baltica on Wednesday evening to perform an all-Chopin program in arrangements by several different composers.

The program opened with the Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Op. 2 (1824) as arranged for piano and chamber orchestra by Andrei Pushkarev.  The work is best known for having elicited from Schumann the famous remark "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!", but it was his future wife Clara, a virtuoso pianist, who made the most interesting comment on the piece:
"Chopin's Variations Op. 2, which I learned in eight days, is the hardest piece I have ever seen or played till now. This original, brilliant composition is still so little known that almost every pianist and teacher considers it incomprehensible and impossible to play."
Though this was Chopin's first orchestral work, he later preferred to perform the piece without accompaniment.  He showed good sense in so doing.  The orchestra's role is perfunctory and often seems more an encumbrance than anything else.  The best passages are those where the piano plays unaccompanied.

The next work was the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (1828-1829) in whose performance the pianist was joined by violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė.  This early work is something of an anomaly in the composer's oeuvre that seems far removed from the Romantic miniatures for solo piano that would characterize his later work and win him fame.  At the time the trio was completed Chopin was still a student in Warsaw, a pupil of the composer Józef Elsner, and the work was at least partly in the nature of an assignment.  Its structure and tone are Classical rather than Romantic and hearken back to Beethoven (as well as Hummel).  Some critics have even heard in the adagio sostenuto the influence of Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in C minor.  Nevertheless, the tone of the work, particularly in the slow movement, is unabashedly Romantic, an indication that even at this early point in his career Chopin was fully able to imbue his music with the force of his personality.  The great problem with the piece is Chopin's lack of experience in composing for strings.  Even though he had assistance in writing those parts, there is never any of the interplay among the strings and piano that one finds in the work of more experienced chamber music composers.   Nevertheless, the work was well received at its premiere.  In his usual hyperbolic style, Schumann wrote of it: "Is it not as noble as one could possibly imagine? Dreamier than any poet has ever sung?"

After intermisson, the musicians returned to perform the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4 (1832-1833) as arranged for chamber orchestra by Victor Kissine.  In contrast to the waltzes or nocturnes, the mazurkas, like the composer himself, were native to Poland and emblematic of its culture.  That the four such pieces comprising the Op. 17 were composed shortly after Chopin arrived in Paris is indicative of the homesickness he felt for his homeland.  Certainly this particular mazurka was filled with a sense of nostalgia and a pervasive mood of melancholy.  It seemed a shame to hear it performed in an orchestral version, however, when so competent a pianist as Mr. Trifonov was available to perform the piece in its original form.

The program concluded with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) as arranged for chamber orchestra by Yevgeny Sharlat.  With the two piano concerti (the E minor was actually the second composed but the first to be published) one comes to the major problem in Chopin's career as a composer.  While a brilliant pianist and unsurpassed in writing miniatures for solo piano, Chopin was unable to effectively compose for orchestra or for any instrument, including voice, other than his own.  His genius lay rather in creating moods within very brief piano pieces, too brief in fact to allow for any development of musical ideas.  Unlike such great pianists as Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin never attempted a symphony or for that matter any orchestral works other than his two concerti.  As one listens to the Op. 11 it what immediately becomes evident is the awkwardness of the orchestration.  One has the strong sense throughout the work that Chopin would have been glad to have dispensed with the orchestra altogether and to have the piano play alone.  Chopin was here complying with a tradition that held it was de rigueur for pianist composers to write their own concerti - earlier this season I heard Trifonov perform his own 2014 concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra - but he acceded to custom without success.  As for the arrangement by Yevgeny Sharlat, I didn't think it added anything noteworthy to the original score and am not really sure why it was even attempted.

Daniil Trifonov certainly has an impressive technique - and Chopin was the perfect composer with which to showcase his talents - but I do not yet consider him a great pianist.  Still, this was a highly entertaining performance that drew a blissful response from the audience.  And the musicianship was undeniably on a very high level; Mr. Trifonov was ably supported by Mr. Kremer and the excellent Kremerata Baltica throughout the evening.  I do think a bit more diversity in the program, however, would have been most helpful.  Chopin's early works, no matter how much promise they may show, are hardly masterpieces deserving the attention they received here.  And, with the exception of the piano trio, these aren't even Chopin's original works but rather arrangements by other composers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven, Arensky, Mozart and Smetana

On Sunday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear one of the four recitals given that day.  I hadn't known the program in advance and was happily surprised to find so many interesting works were to be performed.

The recital began with Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No.2 (1801-1802).   The violinist was Christine Wu and the pianist Rixiang Huang; their coaches were Julian Martin and Joel Smirnoff.  I had only just heard this same sonata performed a week before at another Juilliard recital and have already posted my thoughts on the music.  As I listened a second time I was once again impressed with the restless energy of the piano part.  It seemed at times in the opening movement that Beethoven could barely hold himself in check as the piano drove relentlessly forward.

The next work was Anton Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 (1894).  It was performed by Wei Zhu, violin, Jonathan Lien, cello, and Yilun Xu, piano; they were coached by Lara Lev and Jerome Lowenthal.  The Arensky chamber work that's most often performed is the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35, made famous by the Tchaikovsky variations in the second movement; but the present trio reveals Arensky as a talented composer whose other chamber pieces also deserve a hearing.  Like the quartet, the trio is steeped in Russian Romanticism, an influence made all the more apparent by the elegiac character of both pieces.  While the quartet was a memorial to Tchaikovsky, the trio was dedicated to the memory of Karl Davydov, a friend of both Arensky and Tchaikovsky and a noted cello virtuoso, a fact that may account for the prominence given the cello part throughout the work.  Despite its  elegiac character, however, this is not by any means a dark work.  It contains several beautiful melodies - one haunting theme given the piano in the third movement seems almost a nursery tune - and the scherzo returns to its original meaning of a lighthearted joke with playful outbursts that contrast strongly with the slow movement that follows.

After a brief intermission, the recital resumed with a performance of Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major, K. 452 (1784).  The musicians were Lucian Avalon, oboe, Ning Zhang, clarinet, Soo Yeon Lee, bassoon, Lee Cyphers, horn, and Jun Hwi Cho, piano; the coaches were William Short and Matti Raekallio.  The work is famous on two counts - first for having been the inspiration for Beethoven's Op. 16 that used the same key and instrumentation and secondly for having been, in the composer's own words to his father, "the best thing I have so far written in my life."  One has to take this description with a grain of salt.  After all, no matter how highly he regarded the work, Mozart never again wrote for this combination of instruments.  While the quintet is certainly pleasant to hear and very competently written, it is really a divertimento, even if of the highest quality.  If anything, it is even a bit off balance in the heavy weight given the piano part.  This is understandable, however, as Mozart himself played the piano part at a public concert only two days after the piece had been completed.

The program closed with Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E minor (1876) titled "From My Life."  The work was performed by In Ae Lee and Yutsuki Beppu, violins, Erin Pitts, viola, and Ayoun Alexandra Kim, cello; the four were coached by Natasha Brofsky and Joseph Lin.  This was actually the most intriguing piece performed on Sunday afternoon.  Smetana's works, with the exception of the Die Moldau section from Má vlast, are rarely performed today even though his operas were held in high regard by such conductors as his fellow Bohemian Mahler.  (Like Mahler, Smetana had had a troubled career as a conductor during which he was persecuted unmercifully.)  Certainly Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, written after the death of his eldest daughter Bedriska, is one of the most moving works in the chamber repertoire.  The present quartet, composed some twenty years later, is no less personal.  By the time he came to write it Smetana was suffering from the approach of total deafness, the worst affliction that can befall a composer, but in spite of this he managed to somehow continue composing.  The quartet reflects these tribulations in a thoroughly Romantic manner that is deliberately autobiographical to the extent that Smetana described the work as a "tone picture of my life."  The most moving section is the finale.  Smetana wrote: "The long, insistent note in the the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness."

Monday, April 23, 2018

Japan Society: Hasegawa Tōhaku

I went on Friday for the second time to the Japan Society on East 47th Street to see the current exhibit of works, most of them magnificent pairs of folding screens, by Hasegawa Tōhaku, an artist of the Momoyama period.  The exhibit of Japanese art, entitled A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tōhaku, was only one of several I've viewed in past weeks but was certainly among the most rewarding.

One of the most fascninating aspects of Hasegawa's life was the mystery surrounding his true identity.  Although he was the period's most significant painter following the death of his chief rival Kanō Eitoku, very little was known of his early life.  It was only in 1964 that art historian Tsugiyoshi Doi, then director of the Kyoto National Museum, speculated that Hasegawa might in fact be the same individual as Hasegawa Nobuharu, a much less renowned painter of the same era who specialized in Buddhist iconography.  There were many objections to this hypothesis, however, as there were strong stylistic differences between the two artists.  Most telling was the fact that while Tōhaku was a master at painting on gilded surfaces, an extremely difficult process, there were no known examples by Nobuharu that involved a similar use of this technique.  The "missing link," at least according to documentation provided at the exhibit, is the screen Flowers and Birds of Spring and Summer (ca. 1580) that was only definitively attributed to Nobuharu in 2009.  This dazzling work is the centerpiece of the current exhibit and the basis for its title.

The Momoyama period was one of the most tumultuous in Japanese history as various warlords vied for control of the country; it only ended in 1600 with the decisive Battle of Sekigahara that saw the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Edo period.  None of this turmoil, however, is evident in the works of Hasegawa.  His works instead are almost entirely devoted to scenes of nature.  Indeed, his forte may be his highly stylized treatment of trees.  This is readily apparent in the first work one encounters upon entering the exhibit, Pine Grove (c. 1595).  Like the majority of works on view, Pine Grove consists of a pair of six-panel folding screens that when placed end to end extend over twenty feet in length.  The large monochromatic screens take up the entire length of a gallery and are absolutely mesmerizing.  The subject itself couldn't be simpler - a stand of pine trees partially enshrouded in fog.  So artfully has the screen been painted that as one sits and contemplates the ghostly scene it seems to the viewer that trees previously hidden by the mist gradually make themselves apparent.  It's an astonishing illusion.  One of the Society's guides explained to me that the work had been completed shortly after the death of the artist's son.  One can sense the intense emotion behind this tranquil scene as one's eyes strain to penetrate the fog and see the hidden world beyond it.

Another monochromatic work depicts Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers.  The work clearly shows Chinese influences, most especially in the stylization of the mountains at the extreme left of the screen.  As in other works, large portions of the scene have not been painted in but rather left blank to suggest to the viewer a mist covered landscape.  This technique that can be traced back at least as far as Ma Yuan's "one-corner school" of painting in the Southern Song dyansty and is a distinguishing characteristic of Asian painting; it presents a contrast to Western styles in which every inch of the canvas is meticulously painted over in detail.

Herons on Willow, Crows on Pine is yet another example of Hasegawa's monochromatic technique.  At the far left of one set of screens a pair of white herons perch gracefully on willow branches while on the far right of the accompanying set of screens a pair of black crows are shown on the branches of the pine.  The contrast between the birds' coloring and character creates an exceptionally balanced composition.

Also in monochrome are the set of folding screens comprising Cranes and Bamboo.  As soon as I saw this work I recognized the crane on the left hand panel.  It's an almost exact duplicate of the left hand panel of the Kuan Yin triptych by the Chinese artist Mu'chi (Mokkei), one of the finest painters of the Southern Song dynasty.  The documentation accompanying the exhibit suggests that Hasegawa had access to Mu'chi's painting; that certainly seems likely considering the similarity in iconography.  I've always had the highest regard for the Kuan Yin triptych ever since having seen a reproduction many years ago in D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture and it was deeply moving to see that it had also served as a source of inspiration for so great an artist as Hasegawa.

In another gallery were the screens comprising Willows in Four Seasons, a subtly colored study of the trees viewed from summer on the right to winter on the left.  This is an extremley understated work and yet I could not help but feel I was seeing a panorama of the seasons spread out before me.

The pieces I most enjoyed viewing at the exhibit were the brightly colored screens of Willow Bridge wherein a golden bridge surrounded by willows and with a water wheel at one end extends over the Uji River in Kyoto.  This was a favorite subject of Momoyama artists.  Here the twisting trunks of the willows, almost black against the bright gold background, become design elements that snake through the composition and offset the regularly curved diagonal formed by the bridge itself.  The bridge was a famous scenic spot in Kyoto as early as the eighth century when it was first described in the poetry of the Man'yōshū ("Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves"), and its depiction here irresistably brings to mind the world of Genji monogatari during the Heian period.

The exhibit is being shown in two rotations.  The first ended on April 8th while the second continues through May 6, 2018.  Some of the works described above were shown in the first rotation and have since been returned to Japan where they are considered National Treasures.