Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mannes Orchestra Performs Wagner, Hindemith and Stravinsky

On Monday evening I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the Mannes Orchestra, under the baton of its Music director David Hayes perform one of the most ambitious programs I've encountered this season.  Two of the works performed, the first and the last, can rightfully be said to have been turning points in the history of Western music.

The concert opened with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1857-1859).  After having just heard last week Act II of the opera performed in concert at Carnegie Hall, I now had an opportunity to hear the Prelude that opens Act I complete with its famous "Tristan chord" as well as the Act III Liebestod the concludes the opera.

The next work was the piece I had really come to hear, the Konzertmusik for Wind Orchestra, Op. 41 (1926) by Paul Hindemith.  When one thinks of German music in the 1920's the works that first come to mind are those of Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School. And in 1924, in fact, Schoenberg had completed his own Wind Quintet, Op. 26 that was among the first works to utilize the twelve-tone system.  The problem, however, at least as far as Hindemith was concerned, was that such works had nothing to do with popular German culture but were almost exclusively the province of musicologists.  Hindemith's great interest, in contrast, was in Gebrauchsmusik, that is, music that was accessible to the general public and could easily be performed by amateurs.  He saw his great opportunity to further the cause of such music in the 1926 Donaueschingen Festival on whose committee he served; he accordingly issued invitations to composers to submit works of this type for performance while at the same time writing for it his own Op. 41.  In the event, the Festival failed in its aims when none of the amateur wind musicians who had been invited decided to take part.  It was probably just as well since the pieces that had been written for them, including Hindemth's own, ironically proved too advanced for the skills of amateurs.  The various composers' efforts were not entirely in vain, however, for when they emigrated to the US in the 1930's while fleeing the Nazis, they found American wind orchestras that were much more receptive to their compositions than had been the amateur ensembles in Germany for which these pieces had originally been written.

After intermission the musicians returned onstage to perform Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (1913).   So fixed a place in the repertoire has this monumental work now attained that it's difficult to believe it could once have been as controversial as its history suggests.  Everyone knows the story of the infamous premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that ended in a riot, though there were those who claimed at the time that this was a response to Nijinsky's choreography rather than Stravinsky's music.  (Years ago I saw a recreation of the original production staged by the Joffrey Ballet and thought it magnificent.)  What can't be denied, however, is that this was one of the earliest triumphs of modernism no matter that it had its roots firmly in the Russian folk tradition.  Even now, despite its familiarity, there is something deeply unsettling in the savage rhythms that burst out of nowhere and challenge the sensibilities of the audience.  There are very few other works in the repertoire so gripping as this.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert and Beethoven

On Sunday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear the first half of a chamber music recital featuring works by Schubert and Beethoven.

The recital opened with Schubert's Fantasie in F minor for Piano Four Hands, D. 940 (1828) performed by Chenchun Ma and Max YiLong Ma.  I've always thought Schubert the greatest composer for the piano, even more so than Beethoven, and this fantasie, along with the late sonatas one of his last works for the instrument, contains some of his most inspired writing.  There is something incredibly poignant in Schubert's final year of life.  He was fully conscious of his gifts, enough to recognize in himself the true successor to Beethoven, and yet he could only look back on a life filled with poverty and disappointment made all the more bitter by the hideous disease that was slowly killing him.  One wonders then at his state of mind when he dedicated the fantasie to his pupil Karoline Esterházy with whom he no doubt intended one day to perform the piece.  (In the event, Schubert eventually premiered the work with fellow composer Franz Lachner.)  It's after all well known that Schubert was infatuated with the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Esterházy family.  According to one source, Karoline once asked him why he did not dedicate one of his compositions to her. "What would be the use?" he said. "All that I do is dedicated to you."  If F minor is truly the key of hopeless love, it was never more so than here.  Not only was Schubert too poor and of too common birth to ever aspire to the hand of an aristocrat, but his terrible disease, whose name even today one hesitates to speak in polite society, put out of reach even the lowest born woman and effectively condemned him to die alone.  Fantasies are wonderful things if there is some hope, however remote, to keep them afloat, but for Schubert there wasn't even that.  The dedication is not so much wistful as ironic, a bitter acknowledgment by the composer that all that remained for him now was death.

The second work was Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 (1801-1802) performed by Julia Glenn, violin, and Angie Zhang, piano.  This is one of those pivotal works - like the B-flat major String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 - in which the composer can be seen readying himself for the move from his early Classical style to the Romanticism of his middle period.  Written at roughly the same time as  the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, the sonata clearly reflects the torments of a soul who through the impending loss of his hearing stands to lose everything that held any meaning for him.  As such, the work is filled with drama and is at times almost giddy in its violent mood swings.  This can be heard immediately in the opening movement whose tightly coiled first theme expresses both defiance and despair that in the second movement, marked adagio cantabile, turns into a prayer.  The brisk third movement scherzo seems to belong to another work altogether as if Beethoven had been so distracted by his emotions that he momentarily lost sight of what he was about.  Then in the final movement he recollects himself and returns with a vengeance to the dramatic passion of the first movement.  Throughout the sonata the piano is given as full a part as the violin and propels the music forward with restless energy.  Beethoven is here not only moving in a new direction but developing a new vocabulary with which to give voice to the works that were to come.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Met Opera: Plácido Domingo Sings in Luisa Miller

On Saturday afternoon I wen tto the Met Opera to hear one of Verdi's early operas, Luisa Miller, the 1849 work based on an eighteenth century play Kabale und Liebe ("Intrigue and Love") by Friedrich Schiller.

This was the first time I'd ever seen this opera, but that's not to say it's infrequently performed.  In fact, it's considered one of the most significant of Verdi's early career and according to many musicologists marked the beginning of his middle period when he finally achieved the international fame he so well deserved.  Not that the opera's history was an easy one.  It only came to be written after the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples refused to release Verdi from a contract that had been signed without his consent by his publisher Ricordi.  There followed a series of byzantine intrigues, themselves worthy of an opera, in which the theater threatened to sue the librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, with breach of contract for failure to deliver a finished text.  When Verdi, too honorable to desert his associate, finally capitulated he then found his first choice of subject, L'assedio di Firenze ("The Siege of Florence"), was off limits because it was too politically sensitive for the censors' tastes.  It was only then that the choice fell on Schiller's play that in its turn also required substantive changes in order to avoid the wrath of the censors.  In the end this proved an advantage as it allowed composer and librettist to focus on the love story between  Luisa and Rodolfo to the exclusion of the political elements that had formed the crux of Schiller's play.

As one reads the history of Luisa Miller, one is impressed by the manner in which Verdi sought to accommodate Cammarano.  Certainly, at least as outlined in the Met's program notes, he was far from the imperious composer one usually associates with Italian opera.  The description furnished is worth quoting as it provides a great deal of insight into the working arrangements between composer and librettist:
"Cammarano envisioned an aria for Luisa, a solo quartet, and an aria for Rodolfo, while Verdi wanted a duet for Luisa and Wurm, another for Wurm and Walter, the quartet, an aria for Rodolfo, and 'then something else well suited for the end of an act.' ... After the usual complex negotiations were done, the two men together provided the second act with a chorus; a scena and aria ('Tu puniscimi, o Signore') for Luisa; a recitative, scena, and duet for Walter and Wurm ('L’alto retaggio non ho bramato'); a quartet for Luisa, Federica, Walter, and Wurm ('Presentarti alla Duchessa'); and a scena and aria for Rodolfo ('Quando le sere al placido')."
This season's revival of Luisa Miller - the first in more than ten years - was originally to have been conducted by James Levine.  Following his summary ouster as Music Director Emeritus in December, the thankless task of replacing him was given to Bertrand de Billy, currently chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.  It was in my opinion an unfortunate choice.

In contrast to the conducting, the singing was uniformly excellent.  Soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the title role and tenor Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo displayed real chemistry together.  The latter's Act II aria Quando le sere al placido was one of the performance's high points while Yoncheva's Act III duet with her father La figlia, vedi, pentita was truly touching.  The real star of the afternoon, however was Plácido Domingo in the role of Luisa's father in yet another of his late career performances as a bartione (though he's still listed as a tenor in the program notes).  This true opera superstar had such a commanding presence that he effortlessly stole every scene in which he appeared.

The 2001 production by Elijah Moshinsky was a dingy monochromatic affair.  Why it was found necessary to move the setting from the grandeur of the Tyrolean Alps to the squalor of early Industrial Age England is beyond me.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Carengie Hall: Jonas Kaufmann Sings in Tristan und Isolde, Act II

I've always considered Tristan und Isolde to be Wagner's greatest opera, and on Thursday evening I had an opportunity to hear Act II performed in concert at Carnegie Hall by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Andris Nelsons.

Despite all his talk of "new music," Wagner had always been a Romantic at heart and I firmly believe his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck had far more to do with the creation of the opera's passionate love story than any reading of Schopenhauer.  Even if neither the composer nor the poet acknowledged the liaison openly - both were after all married to someone else at the time - there can't be any doubt that Wagner was infatuated with Mathilde while writing the opera.  Even the most obtuse listener can at once discern that the passages Wagner gives to Tristan are deeply personal and reflect his own emotions.  It is a commonplace that in attempting to give voice to his or her feelings and to impress his muse with the work he has devised in her honor an artist will somehow transcend the limitations of his talent and attain new heights of creativity.  While Schopenhauer's writings may have provided a philosophical grounding for the action of the opera, the intense passions the two lovers feel for one another go far beyond any theoretical expression of human will.

Act II describes the night that Tristan and Isolde spend together while King Marke is away hunting with Melot and his men.  The two lovers' duet becomes a musical expression of their sexual union and is one of the opera's climactic moments.  The treachery of Melot, who leads the king to the guilty pair, is designed to contrast the purity of Tristan's and Isolde's love with the baseness of an individual who allows his desire to corrupt the idealistic regard in which he once held Tristan.  In his treachery he shows none of the remorse Tristan suffers for his betrayal of the king's trust.  But it is really King Marke who is the tragic figure here as he grapples with the pain Tristan has caused him and tries to understand what led his loyal retainer to commit such a crime.

It was inevitable that the opera should be misunderstood by contemporary critics.  Wagner's experiments with dissonance, most famously in the "Tristan chord," opened the way for the music of Mahler and later the Second Viennese School and as such broke with traditional notions of harmony in Western music.  In so doing, the opera only emphasized the differences between Wagner's music and that of Brahms, the Classical Romanticist.  Not suprisingly then the most vociferous critics of the opera turned out to be the staunchest supporters of Brahms, including the critic Eduard Hanslick and the pianist Clara Schumann who described the opera as "the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life."  As with most critics, however, it was not only the music but the subject matter of illicit love that the strait-laced Clara found so objectionable.  She continued:
"To be forced to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not only the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted – that is the saddest thing I have ever experienced in my artistic life..."
Clara's moral indignation was echoed in an 1865 review in the influential Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that read in part:
"We cannot refrain from making a protest against the worship of animal passion which is so striking a feature in the late works of Wagner...  The passion [in Tristan] is unholy in itself and its representation is impure, and for those reasons we rejoice in believing that such works will not become popular... Wagner's music, in spite of all its wondrous skill and power, repels a greater number than it fascinates."
It would be easy to dismiss such comments as no more than mid-nineteenth century prudery, but even as recently as 2012 an article in The Telegraph contended:
"Perhaps that’s a clue [Hans Sach's unwillingness to become another Tristan] to why Tristan and Isolde is both so magnetic and repulsive. We all long for love that defies convention and common sense. Wagner's musical genuis [sic] allows us to indulge in this fantasy – but the lovers are too solipsistic to be sympathetic."
I had no trouble obtaining a ticket to Thursday evening's performance since it was actually part of my Great American Orchestras subscription series, and so I was unprepared for the crowd milling about 57th Street before the performance began while scalpers were everywhere doing a brisk business.  It was only when I saw the program that I realized tenor Jonas Kaufmann would be singing the role of Tristan with soprano Camilla Nylund as Isolde.  Kaufmann, whom I had previously seen several seasons ago in the title role in Massenet's Werther, gave a brilliant performance that revealed the depths of his character's dilemma in struggling to reconcile his love for Isolde with his betrayal of King Marke.  The tenor was in excellent voice even though he paused often between numbers to take long drinks of water.  The two leads were supported by an excellent cast that included Mihoko Fujimura as Brangäne, a woman torn by guilt for having provided Isolde the fateful potion, and Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke.  The latter was especially impressive in revealing his heartbreak and bewilderment at Tristan's betrayal.  Here was a man who suddenly realized that despite his royal power he was all alone in the world with no friend or wife in whom to place his trust.

The BSO has always been a fine orchestra, but under the leadership of Andris Nelsons it has risen in recent years to even greater heights.  On Thursday evening the musicians did an excellent job not only in supporting the singers but in fully realizing the beauty and passion of Wagner's music.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Beethoven and Brahms

Earlier this week I attended a performance of the Juilliard Lab Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, part of the school's Wednesdays at One series.  While these concerts normally last only an hour, this particular one, due to the length of the works performed, continued for some 80 minutes.

The program opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806).  This is a work that when first heard appears strangely out of place.  If Beethoven's middle period was characterized by his striving in the manner of the Romantic hero to overcome the handicap of his deafness, the turbulence of the No. 3, the Eroica, is much more in accordance with the image of the tortured composer than is the relaxed playfulness of the No. 4.  At least part of the answer may have to do with the work's origin.  Beethoven wrote it as well-paid commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff with whom the composer was staying after having violently quarreled with his patron Prince Lichnowsky.  The count maintained only a small personal orchestra and this necessarily limited the scope of what Beethoven could hope to achieve.  (The Op. 60 is scored for the smallest orchestra of any Beethoven symphony.)  It may be then that the composer, forced by necessity to write for a classical size ensemble, returned to the forms of his early period but in a not entirely serious manner.  The playfulness Beethoven evinces, most particularly in the final movement, is perhaps an indication that he can no longer approach the models he had learned from Haydn with the same degree of gravity he expressed in his first two symphonies.

The second and final work was Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884).  This is not an easy work to appreciate on first listening.  Even when the composer premiered the work in a piano four-hand version for an audience of critics and prominent musicians it was met with a puzzlement so intense that even his staunchest ally Eduard Hanslick famously expostulated  "For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people!"  How much more frustrated then is the general listener.  At least part of the problem, it must be admitted, lies with the modern audience.  As Brahms scholar Walter Frisch has commented:
"...it [the No. 4] is not a work, like the Second, whose sensuous beauty beckons listeners inside. In his last symphony, Brahms seems to be writing precisely for the kind of cultivated, musically literate listener whose disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century he sorely regretted."
Not that there isn't much for the musician to admire in the No. 4.  It was after all on the basis of the "developing variations" in the first movement that Schoenberg came to see Brahms as a progressive rather than a conservative composer.  Nevertheless, for the non-musician the symphony remains a work whose greatest appeal is to the intellect rather than the emotions.  At this performance its meticulously calculated structure stood in stark contrast to the Beethoven symphony whose music seemed to stream forth effortlessly as it caught the listener in its flow.

There were four diffeent conductors at this concert - Elinor Rufeizen, Jesse Brault, Jane H. Kim and Benjamin Hochman - each of whom conducted a different movement in each of the two symphonies.  All four did an excellent job on the podium and the orchestra itself displayed an impressive level of musicianship throughout the performance.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mixed Ensembles

I went to Juilliard on Monday evening to hear a program of chamber music simply entitled "Mixed Ensembles" that had been coached by renowned flutist Carol Wincenc.  The program featured works by a number of 20th and 21st century composers, all of them for flute and various combinations of other instruments with a harp featured prominently among them.

The full program was as follows:


All the works were interesting, but the one I thought most deserving of mention was Sato Matsui's City of Lights that was actually given its world premiere at this recital, not an event one normally encounters at a Juilliard student recital.

There was no intermission at this performance; but while the musicians were setting up for Sextuor Mystique Ms. Wincenc, with composer Sato Matsui at her side, took a moment to address the audience.  After first having mentioned that the Villa-Lobos work was a "mascot piece" performed every year, Ms. Wincenc went on to explain that she had asked Ms. Matsui to compose an original work for the same unusual combination of instruments - celesta, harp, guitar, saxophone, oboe and flute.  Ms. Sato then described the inspiration she had found in big cities such as New York that were filled with sights and sounds and that she accordingly had sought to capture a similar "explosion" of light and sound in her own composition.

The roughly ten-minute work was highly enjoyable and, not suprisingly considering the instrumentation with which Ms. Sato had to work, had a truly unique sound with the saxophone at times imparting to it a definite jazz aura.  Even the celesta, hardly ever given a starring role outside Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," was featured prominently and actually given the cadenza to play.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Carnegie Hall: András Schiff - Recital #2

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the great pianist András Schiff in recital, the second the pianist gave in New York City in the space of a week.  The eclectic program was built around the works of Brahms but also included so many well known pieces by other composers that the recital became in effect a retrospective of piano works from the Baroque through the Romantic era.

The program opened with Schumann's Theme and Variations in E-flat major, WoO 24 (1854), more commonly known as the Geistervariationen, or "Ghost Variations."  Schumann was, of course, one of the greatest composer of solo piano works, most particularly in the early part of his career when he was courting Clara, herself a virtuoso pianist.  He returned to the genre in the early 1850's; but it is his penultimate attempt, that played here, that has always attracted the most attention since its composition was inextricably linked with the onset of Schumann's psychosis.  Hearing it performed in recital is always an eerie experience.  While the theme is farily generic - in his rapidly deteriorating mental state Schumann thought it had been dictated to him by angels, although it was actually one of his own invention that he had previously employed in his 1842 F major string quartet, Op. 41, No. 2, in his 1849 Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op.79, and finally in his D minor Violin Concerto completed only the year before in 1853 - the variations are notable precisely for their lack of variation.  The first three, in fact, make no modifications whatsoever to the theme.

A curious aside is that Brahms, who only came to know the Schumann's immediately before the onset of Robert's psychosis, years later came to use Robert's theme in his own Variations on a Theme of Schumann in E flat major, Op. 23.  The four-hand piano piece was dedicated to Schumann's daughter Julie, and one wonders what the young woman must have thought upon receiving so macabre a gift.

Appropriately enough, the next work was the first of Brahms's three final pieces for piano - Three Intermezzos, Op. 117 (1892), Klavierstücke, Op. 118 (1893), and Klavierstücke, Op. 119 (1893) - that were interspersed with the works of other composers throughout the length of the program.  All three collections date from the end of Brahms's career.

In the Op. 117 Brahms continued his late exploration of piano miniatures he had previously begun in his Op. 116.  By this time he had more or less retired from composing, or so at least he had insisted in an 1890 message to his publisher.  He found himself unable, however, to refrain entirely from creating new pieces while seated at his piano no matter how brief and ethereal they might be.  The urge to create must simply have been too strong for him to resist.  The Op. 117 consists of only three pieces that have been compared to lullabies, and the first in fact makes reference to the Scottish lullaby "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament."

The Op. 118, consisting of six miniatures, is another late work and one can hear in it a certain nostalgia and wistfulness; it's as if the composer were pausing to take a look back before attempting to distill within it all that he had learned of music. This is a quiet and reflective work with no virtuoso turns afforded the pianist, and that may be one reason it is not that often performed in recital. The brief pieces are organized according to their own internal logic. After the first intermezzo in A minor, the pieces follow a ternary (ABA) form as well as a set key sequence. The titles are somewhat arbitrary and seem to have been chosen more for their suggestive power than anything else. Brahms was above all a Romantic and this autumnal work is suffused with the spirit of a wanderer who has at last reached the end of his journey.  As such, the Op. 118 is a subdued masterpiece by a great composer at the height of his powers who wishes to offer his audience one last testament before fading into silence.

The Op. 119, made up of three intermezzi (a somewhat generic term when used by Brahms) followed by a rhapsody, was the composer's penultimate work for solo piano. Like those comprising the Op. 118, these short pieces are filled with the melancholy of a man approaching his life's end.  All three collections were published in 1893, only four years before his death at age 65.  But the composer did not here indulge in any nostalgic return to old forms but instead moved forward into an exploration of dissonance.  As he wrote to Clara:
"Every bar and every note must be played as if ritardando were indicated, and one wished to draw the melancholy out of each one of them, and voluptuous joy and comfort out of the discords."
Among the great composers, Mozart was represented at this recital by the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 (1787).  This short piece, only about ten minutes in length, was one of the finest Mozart ever composed for solo piano.  Like most of his works in a minor key, the rondo is a dark work; but whether it is meant to be tragic or merely pensive (as Vladimir Horowitz once suggested) is open to interpretation.  Certainly, if it is an expression of grief it is handled in a thoroughly restrained, almost stately, manner.

Mr. Schiff is justly famous for his mastery of Bach's keyboard pieces, and the recital would not have been complete without the inclusion of one of the composer's signature pieces - the Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.  The WTC, whose confusing title has to do with a particular method of tuning keyboards, was written in two parts, the first in 1722 and the second in 1742.  Both were used primarily for pedagogical purposes while at the same time serving as a vehicle intended to showcase the composer's mastery of counterpoint.  In a certain sense, both parts, known as Books I and II, overlapped one another as each presented exercises for all 24 major and minor keys.  In fact, some of the those that appeared in Book I were used again in Book II but transcribed for different keys than in the original.  Chopin later adapted Bach's idea in the composition of his Preludes, Op. 28 which were again written for all the major and minor keys.  While Bach intended the work for the use of his students, and indeed required them to write out all the preludes and fugues in their own hand, each is technically challenging and can only be attempted by an exceptionally skilled pianist.

The recital concluded with with Beethoven's Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major,Op. 81a (1809-1810).  The work's French nickname Les Adieux was given it at the publisher's insistence; but the German Das Lebewohl is what Beethoven himself wrote over the score's first three chords and insisted came closer to the meaning of farewell he had had in mind when writing the piece.  It's not really surprising that the composer, at least at the time, wanted nothing to do with anything French as the piece was begun in May 1809 in anticipation of Napoleon's siege of Vienna.  In fact, the work was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph who was forced to flee with the rest of the Austrian nobility as the French forces approached the city.  It was only on Rudolph's return in January 1810 that the composer completed the final two movements, ending with the joyous Das Wiedersehen ("Reunion").  The sonata thus became one of the few instrumental works by Beethoven to have an extra-musical program attached to it.  Rarely did he display his emotions as openly as he did here.  Along with the earlier Op. 53 and Op. 57, this is considered one of the three major piano sonatas of Beethoven's middle period.

One interesting feature of this recital was that Mr. Schiff performed the entire first half with only the briefest of pauses between pieces. He blended them so seamlessly together that they sounded to the listener like a single magnificent work.  The effect on the audience was mesmerizing.  In the second half, Mr. Schiff again performed the first two works with no substantial pause between them and only stood up for a brief bow before immediately commencing the final work, the Beethoven sonata.

The two recitals taken together constituted a wonderful display of virtuosity.  At the end of the second I felt I had a much greater appreciation of all the works performed but most especially the Brahms miniatures.  Hearing all the late Brahms piano pieces played in sequence allowed me to better follow his creative process.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

WQXR/Carnegie Hall: András Schiff - Recital #1

On Tuesday evening, Sir András Schiff gave the first of two recitals in New York City.  I actually attended the second in person on Thursday evening and will soon be posting here my thoughts on that performance.  Thanks to a collaboration between Carnegie Hall and WQXR, this first recital was broadcast live, and between that and Thursday evening's performance I was able to form a better understanding of what the pianist sought to achieve.

At the heart of both recitals were the late piano works of Brahms.  In an interview aired during intermission, Mr. Schiff explained that he had originally planned to perform all these works in a single recital but had felt they were too dark when taken together and needed to be interspersed with pieces of a lighter nature.  Certainly the opening piece, Mendelssohn's Fantasie in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28 (1833), was just such a work.  It's hard to imagine today that Scotland once exerted a strong hold on the nineteenth century imagination, but the novels of Walter Scott and the poetry of Ossian (later determined to have been a hoax perpetrated by the eighteenth century poet James Macpherson) served as inspiration for any number of composers.  In the event, however, Mendelssohn was the only one of them to ever actually visit that country.  A number of works, such as the Scottish Symphony and The Hebrides Overture, resulted from that journey and the Fantasie, originally known as the Sonate écossaise or "Scottish Sonata,"is yet another, not that there's any trace of authentic Scottish folk music in it.  Instead, the work is most often compared to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the Op. 27, No. 2 in C sharp minor that is subtitled Quasi una fantasia.  Like the Beethoven piece, the Mendelssohn Fantasie represents an ingenious blending of fantasy and sonata elements while serving as a showcase for a pianist's skills.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78 (1809).  This short sonata is not one of the composer's better known piano pieces, but in the hands of a virtuoso such as Mr. Schiff it became a thrilling ten-minute ride for the listener.  It's probably for this reason, rather than any feeling Beethoven might have had for its dedicatee Countess Therese von Brunswick, that the composer always considerd it one of his two favorite piano sonatas.

Mr. Schiff concluded the first half of the recital with the first of the Brahms works, Klavierstücke, Op. 76 (1871-1878) consisting of four capriccios and four intermezzi, forms to which Brahms would return repeatedly in his late piano compositions.  They are pivotal pieces in the Brahms's oeuvre, the first for solo piano he had written since the Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39 in 1865, and represent a rethinking of the possibilities of his chosen instrument.  Here he can be seen moving away from the concert hall and closer to the drawing room, and the eight short pieces are no longer designed to overwhelm the listener but instead to appeal to the emotions in far more intimate manner.  Personally, I find these works that linger in the memory and convey a touch of melancholy far preferable to the composer's earlier piano pieces.

After intermission, Mr. Schiff returned to the stage to perform the second Brahms work, the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 (1892).  The work consists of four capriccios and three intermezzi of varying moods but generally of a somber autumnal character as befits the work of a composer nearing the end of both his career and his life.  At this point Brahms has left behind the grandiosity that often marked, and sometimes marred, his earlier piano works, particularly those performed with orchestra.  Nothing could be further from the massive two piano concertos than these simple miniatures that are all the more affecting for their brevity.  Here the Romanticism that had always inspired Brahms takes the form of a lingering backward glance filled with a profound sense of resignation.

The program concluded with Bach's English Suites No. 6 in D Minor (c. 1715-1720).  The English Suites, like the French Overture and Partitas, are collections of Baroque dance suites written expressly for keyboard instruments, most particularly the harpsichord, and are therefore of seminal importance to the piano repertoire.  Each of the six suites begins with a Prelude - in the case of the No. 6 it is in two contrasting parts that closely resemble in form a Prelude and Fugue - and ends with a Gigue while there is some flexibility in the intervening dance movements.  In discussing Bach's music, attention is most often paid to his mastery of counterpoint.  To his early biographer Johann Nicolaus Forkel, however, the most salient feature of the dance suites was their attention to rhythm.  He wrote:
"He [Bach] tried and made use of every kind of meter to diversify, as much as possible, the character of his pieces. He eventually acquired such a facility in this particular that he was able to give even to his fugues, with all the interweaving of their single parts, striking and characteristic rhythmic proportions in a manner as easy and uninterrupted from the beginning to the end as if they were minuets."
Over the course of the first two encores Mr. Schiff performed in its entirety Bach's Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto ("Concerto in the Italian taste"), BWV 971 (1735). The Italian Concerto, together with the French Overture, make up the composer's second book of keyboard exercises, Clavier-Übung II. Another feature these works share is that both the Concerto and the Overture were originally intended for the two-manual harpsichord, a rare occurrence in Bach's oeuvre and one that can cause problems in interpretation when played on a modern piano. In publishing the two pieces together Bach was attempting to contrast for his German audience two "foreign" styles of musical composition. Accordingly, while the movements of the French Overture correspond to dances popular in the Baroque era, such as the sarabande and gigue, the three movements of the Italian Concerto use the markings andante and presto that are more familiar to modern audiences. Bach had already spent a great deal of time transcribing for solo keyboard various works by Vivaldi, and this was his own attempt at a concerto grosso in the style of the Italian master but composed for one instrument alone. Bach held Vivaldi in very high esteem, and perhaps for this reason the Italian Concerto is a more successful endeavor than the French Overture.  In the Concerto one hears a playfulness and lightness of touch not often found in Bach's music.

The third and final encore was a Brahms work that according the announcer, had only "recently been discovered."  Although no title was mentioned, it was undoubtedly the Albumblatt, described in a 2012 Guardian article as follows:
"A two-minute piano piece by Brahms that had lain undiscovered since it was written in 1853 is to get its debut on Radio 3 this month. Entitled Albumblatt, meaning 'sheet from an album', the composition was discovered in the library at Princeton by the conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood."
Although an extremely youthful work, in strong contrast to the late pieces performed on the printed program, this was nevertheless a charming melody and provided a perfect end to the evening.

The archived performance is currently available for listening on WQXR's website.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Juilliard415 Performs 18th Century English Chamber Music

On Tuesday afternoon, I walked down Central Park West to hear the Juilliard415 perform the last of its four annual noonday recitals at Holy Trinity Church.  The program was entitled 18th Century English Chamber Music, but this was somewhat misleading as several of the freatured composers were not English at all but rather visitors from other parts of Europe who either made England their home or else had some strong association with the British Isles.

The program opened with the Quintet in D major, Op. 33, No 1 (published posthumously in 1785) for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord by Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of J.S. Bach.  In many ways, Bach is the most interesting of the composers whose works were featured at this recital.  He lived an adventursome life, first traveling to Italy where much to the consternation of his family he converted to Catholicism and composed a good bit of sacred music before moving on to London, the city that had attracted so many of his fellow German composers.  It was in London that Bach made the acquaintance of the 8 year old Mozart who in adulthood became a great admirer of Bach's music and often praised it.   During his time in London, Bach wrote several Italian operas as well as orchestral and chamber music.  Such compositions were distinguished by Bach's mastery of the galant style whose sparer textures marked a turning point from the complexities of the Baroque era to the emergence of the classical period.  Bach was also ahead of his time in being the first important composer to recognize the potential advantages of the piano over other keyboard instruments then available.  Sadly, in spite of such achievements, Bach died penniless and deeply in debt.

Next were two selections, the Nos. 7 and 11, from Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins (1747) by William Boyce that in addition to the two violins mentioned in the title also employed a cello and harpsichord as basso continuo.  Although known primarily for his sacred music, Boyce was an extremely prolific composer as well as a virtuoso organist and an esteemed educator.  His sonatas, however, sounded somewhat derivative to this listener; it may have been that he was deliberately playing on the popularity of Corelli's style to make his own works a success.

The Boyce sonatas were followed by Tommaso Giordani's String Quartet in A major, Op. 8, No. 4 (1775).  I had always considered the string quartet genre to have begun with Haydn's Op. 20 in 1772, and I was surprised to learn that there was another composer working with the quartet form at exactly the same time.  Whether Giordani was aware of Haydn's quartets is an intriguing question, but the present piece at least does not seem to have been influenced by the Viennese master.  As the program notes point out, it is much more in the form of the galant style that however advanced it may have appeared at the time now sounds positively archaic when compared with Haydn's revolutionary accomplishments.  Still, Giordani must be seen as an intermediary between the Baroque trio sonata and the classical string quartet to the extent that he assigned separate voices to all four instruments rather than using the viola and cello merely as continuo.  In this sense, these works were a clear advance over the Boyce sonatas written some thirty years earlier.

The next work was James Oswald's Sonata of Scots Tunes (1740) arranged for flute, two violins, viola da gamba, harpsichord, theorbo and guitar.  I have to admit that I had never before heard of Oswald, but I was nonetheless delighted by this faithful adapation of five Scottish folk tunes.- "O Mother What Shall I Do," "Ettrick Banks," "She Rose and Let Me In," "Cromlit's Lilt" and "Polwart on the Green."  One senses throughout the sonata that Oswald had the same deep respect for his folk sources that Bartók was many years later to display for his own country's music.

The recital ended with two movements from Haydn's Symphony No. 104 in D major, Hob. I/104 (1795) in a reduction for chamber ensemble - consisting of flute, two violins, viola, cello, bassoon, bass and harpsichord - by Johann Peter Salomon, the wily impresario who had lured Haydn to London for a spectacularly successful tour and who never missed an opportunity to turn a profit on the music he promoted.  All the same, Salomon was an able violinist - Haydn composed his Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major at the request of Salomon who then went on to play the solo violin part - and much more knowledgeable when it came to music than most of his English contemporaries.  The "London Symphony," actually only one of twelve that Haydn composed while in England, was a great success and wildly popular with British audiences.  The two movements performed at this recital were the second, a melodious andante, and the finale, a truly exuberant piece of music that shows just how much Haydn was enjoying his time in England.

The same program was performed the next day live on WQXR's Midday Live from the Greene Space; the archived performance should soon be available for viewing on the station's website.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Art Book: Shadowplay Eterniday

Published in 2003 to celebrate the centennial of Josph Cornell's birth, Shadowplay Eterniday is one of the most beautifully designed books I've come across.  It's apparent on every page that the editors and contributors not only possessed great respect for Cornell as an artist but also had a deep personal affecton for him as a man.  It's a loving tribute to the most enigmatic of the Surrealists, an outsider who lived his entire adult life in a middle class home in Queens, New York, probably the most unlikely location on the planet to find an artist of his stature.

Cornell's entire career was something of an anomaly.  There was nothing in his upper middle-class background or in his education that had anything to do with art.  On the one hand he could be viewed as a recluse who had no deep personal relationships other than with his mother and his brother Robert, an invalid who suffered from cerebral palsy, both of whom lived with him in Queens.  And yet paradoxically, while never promoting himself or traveling outside New York, he became a major figure in the art world and during his lifetime had major retrospectives at both the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Though he was much too shy and sexually inexeperienced to have any romantic relationships, he did manage to form friendships with several of the actresses and ballerinas he so admired.

While he also made a number of avant garde films, Cornell is most widely known for his boxes.  These glass fronted displays normally contain a number of disparate elements, most of them taken from the artist's extensive collections of bric a brac that he accumulated compulsively in his wanderings through New York City.  When placed together, however, the assembled boxes become self-contained universes and represent far more than the sum of their parts.  If often playful, they have at the same time far deeper meanings that require a great deal of time and patience to fathom.  Along the way, the use of found objects in the creation of the boxes made Cornell a pioneer of appropriation art and an unlikely confederate of Marcel Duchamp who in his "readymades" also sought to transform everyday objects into works of art.  In fact, Duchamp's idea for the Boîte-en-valise owed much to Cornell who even assisted in the design of the valise itself.

If the contradictory elements of Cornell's life make it difficult to get a grasp on the man himself, there's a quote on page 37 of the present volume that's extremely helpful.  
"'You don't know how terrible it is to be locked into boxes all your life,' he [Cornell] told dealer David Mann, 'you have no idea what a terrible thing it is.'"
This is really key to understanding not only Cornell's art but his life as well.  He apparently saw himself as a prisoner trapped in a strictured environment from which there was no escape much as the actresses and other figures to whom he paid tribute were sealed within the containers he created to hold them.  The boxes thus became a metaphor for his own existence.

Shadowplay Eterniday contains three relatively brief essays as well as a biographical sketch and a bibliography.  The first essay, by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, is a general introduction to the artist's working methods and provides some idea of the scope of his accomplishments.  The second and by far the most interesting, by Richard Vine, traces the influence of Cornell's strongly held Christian Science beliefs on his oeuvre.  The third, by Robert Lehrman, is a collector's musings on several seminal works with which he has long been acquainted.  The real heart of the book, of course, is the catalog of the artworks themselves.  The reproductions are of the finest quality and are sometimes accompanied by details of the pieces shown.  Though Cornell's three dimensional works invariably lose something of their essence when reduced to a two dimensional format, the excellence of the illustrations does go a long way in helping the reader appreciate the complexity and mystery of the originals.

In an unusual touch, the book contains a DVD that "delivers an encyclopediac compedium of the artist's work and source materials, the insights of numerous scholars and critics, access to Cornell's experimental films and interactive opportunities..."

Friday, March 30, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Bayerisches Staatsorchester Performs Brahms and Tchaikovsky

On Wednesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Bayerisches Staatsorchester (in English, the Bavarian State Orchestra), one of Europe's premiere ensembles, led by its Music Director Kirill Petrenko.  Although the program contained only two works, it was a long concert that lasted more than two hours.

The concert opened with Brahms's Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102 (1887).  Although written a good ten years before his death in 1897, the concerto was the composer's penultimate orchestral work.  As such, one would expect it to be performed much more often than is the case.  Part of the problem is no doubt the practical difficulty in scheduling two virtuoso soloists to perform together with orchestra.  A much more fundamental problem, however, lies in the work's inception.  It was written not as the result of musical inspiration but rather as a very deliberate attempt on Brahms's part to win back the friendship of  violinist Joseph Joachim who had broken with the composer after the latter had taken the part of Joachim's wife, singer Amalie Schneeweiss, in her contentious divorce proceedings.  As Amalie was a friend of both Brahms and Clara Schumann, the composer may have felt he had had no other option than to defend her honor after she had been accused of adultery by a jealous Joachim. In any event, the loss of Joachim's friendship was a harsh blow to Brahms who owed to it even his introduction to the Schumanns as far back as 1854.  In writing the concerto, which Brahms thought might be a more acceptable offering to Joachim than a piece for violin alone, the composer employed every device that came to mind, including the insertion of a theme from a Viotti violin concerto that Joachim particularly enjoyed performing and a variation on the FAE motif that was Joachim's musical signature.  As a result, the concerto was too calculated a piece to ever come alive in its own right.  The critic Eduard Hanslick recognized this when he condemned the piece, no matter how gently, as "a product of a great constructive mind rather than an irresistible inspiration of creative imagination and invention."  Even Clara, normally Brahms's strongest supporter, criticized the work: "I do not believe the concerto has any future. Nowhere has it the warmth and freshness which are so often to be found in his works."  In light of such a negative reaction, Brahms abandoned plans for a second concerto with the same instrumentation and, as already observed, never composed any further orchestral works.

After having heard the concerto (and I also own a recording featuring Isaac Stern and Yo Yo Ma) I'd have to agree that this is not one of Brahms's most successful works.  Even though both soloists - Julia Fischer, violin, and Daniel Müller-Schott, cello - did a fine job, the music failed to affect me even if I could appreciate the complexity of its design.  It seemed heavy handed and too self conscious in its search for effects that would please its listeners.

After the piece had concluded, the soloists performed Halvorsen's Passacaglia as an encore.  Based on Handel's Passacaille No.6 from the Suite in G minor, HWV 432, Halvorsen had transcribed the work for violin and viola while here of course it was arranged for violin and cello.  It was a lively work, a bit long for an encore, but a definite crowd pleaser.

After intermission, the program concluded with the second and final work, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58 (1885).  Although written only two years before the Brahms concerto, the Tchaikovsky symphony is a far different work even if both composers were, each in his own way, committed Romantics. While Byron's 1817 poem Manfred has largely been forgotten, it was an enormously popular work in the nineteenth century due in large part to its gothic and supernatural elements and had already inspired an 1852 adapatation by Schumann and even in 1872 a piano "meditation" by Nietzsche.  It was the poem's supernatural character that had most impressed Balakirev, a charter member of the "Five," and led him to suggest it as a subject to Tchaikovsky who was not initially enthusiastic.   As much tone poem as symphony, the work's most obvious musical antecedent is Berlioz's impassioned Symphonie fantastiqueManfred is certainly unique in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, his only attempt at a programmatic symphony, and has always elicited mixed reactions from audiences and critics alike.  Even the composer was of two minds concerning it, first considering it among his best works and later expressing a desire to destroy the score.  My own opinion, after having heard Wednesday evening's performance, was initially quite positive even if in form it seemed much closer to Tchaikovsky's ballet scores than to his symphonies.  As such, it gave free rein to the composer's fervent Russian Romanticism, a good match for Byron's own unbridled emotionalism.

My greatest interest in attending this concert, aside from the music itself, was to hear Kirill Petrenko's work on the podium.  He will be succeeding Simon Rattle next year as artistic director and chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to judge how well he worked with another venerable German orchestra.  In the event, he did a masterful job in leading a fine ensemble.  I thought him particularly effective on the Tchaikovsky symphony that calls for unusually large orchestral forces.  I only wish conductor and orchestra had chosen a less idiosyncratic program for their Carnegie Hall debut.

The concert was broadcast live on WQXR and the archived performance is now available for listening on the station's website.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Hans P. Kraus Jr.: Facing the Camera - Selected Portraits

Those with an interest in early photography and what are now referred to "alternative processes" cannot do better than to view the selection of portraits currently on view at the Hans P. Kraus Jr. Gallery at Park Avenue and 82nd Street.  One has here an opportunity to study the manner in which the earliest photographers apporached the venerable tradition of portraiture and employed the new medium not only to build on that tradition but also to create innovative effects quite distinct from those acheieved by painters.

First there are prints by the famous names from the very dawn of photography.  Henry Fox Talbot is represented by Bust of Patroclus (1842), a salt print from a calotype negative.  In choosing an immobile sculpture as his subject, Talbot found a means of dealing with the inordinately long exposures required by the early processes. Thus Talbot was able to achieve a degree of sharpness that is highly unusual in a salt print and is testament to his emerging skill with a camera.  That he photographed the sculpture from different angles (this one is more full face than the better known profile in the collection of the Met Museum) demonstrates that he was making a conscious effort to master the intricacies of portraiture.

Perhaps the finest photography to have been created in the medium's first decade was that of the Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.  Though their photographs of Edinburgh citizens going about their business appear quite spontaneous, the poses were carefully orchestrated and then frozen for the length of the exposure. Hill's knowledge of painting was indispensable in allowing the pair to imbue everyday scenes with a sense of authenticity. At this exhibit they are represented by two works, one of women fishsellers hawking fresh herring and the other of young women gathered by a bird cage (the latter is a modern carbon print made from an original calotype negative).

Though long unrecognized, Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the greatest portraitists of the Victorian era.  This can clearly be seen in her study of her niece Julia Duckworth, mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and a favorite model of the pre-Raphaelite painters.  The photo has an otherworldly quality as the sitter's eyes seem to stare heavenward at some vision only visible to her.

Lewis Carroll (the pen name of Charles Dodgson), best known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, was also an accomplished photographer whose finest works, not surprisingly, were depictions of children.  This can easily be seen in his 1873 Xie Kitchin as a "Dane," an albumen print from a collodion negative.  In contrast to this portrait of a young girl in costume a nearby profile of a seated man, also by Carroll, seems lifeless even if technically correct.

The most fashionable portraitist in nineteenth century Paris was inarguably Nadar (pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) who in the course of his long career photographed virtually every important French writer, painter, and composer.  The reason for his success can easily be seen in his portrait of Alexandre Dumas, père.  Although the novelist stands motionless, the sitter's volcanic personality blazes forth in this 1865 photograph and brings him vividly to life.

Edgar Degas was not a professional photographer and worked with the medium for only a relatively short period late in his career.  As described in Edgar Degas, Photographer, a Met Museum catalog that accompanied its 1998 exhibit of the artist's photographs, Degas's methods were totally unorthodox and yet the knowledge he had gleaned from his years as a painter allowed him to achieve some stunning effects with only minimal lighting.  At this exhibit he is represented by a portrait of one of the Halévy family.  Degas was close to the Halévys during the time he worked at photography, and much of the information we have concerning his technique is derived from the correspondence of Daniel Halévy.  The Halévys, however, were Jewish and Degas a virulent anti-Dreyfusard so that a rift between them was inevitable.

The surprise at this exhibit was something of an anachronism - a 1929 portrait of an old man in Taos by Ansel Adams.  Taken long before Adams cofounded the f64 School, the portrait, printed on warm tone matte paper, is almost soft focus - or at least shot with the lens aperture wide open - and all the more engaging for that.  I've never cared for Adams's supersharp Yosemite landscapes printed on glossy paper that in my opinion aren't anything more than well crafted calendar art, but this atypical portrait is engaging and conveys very well the sitter's personality as well as giving a strong sense of wisdom acquired through age.  It's a shame Adams didn't create more work in this vein; he would have been a much more interesting photographer.

The exhibit continues through April 11, 2018.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Japanese Art Dealers Assciation at the Ukrainian Center

On both Sunday and Monday afternoons I walked across the Park to view the 2018 Japanese Art Dealers Assciation exhibit at the Ukrainian Center on 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, an annual three-day event, now unfortunately ended, at which one had a rare opportunity to see classic Japanese artworks outside the confines of a museum. Although the show was relatively small compared to the Edo Painting exhibit currently on view at the Met, it more than mde up in quality what it lacked in quantity.

The largest works at the exhibit were the six-panel folding screens that extended the entire length of a gallery.  Most impressive of these was Hawk and Geese by Soga Chokuan from the Momoyama Period.  The painter was known for his realistic renderings of hawks; but it struck a Western viewer, accustomed to more naturalistic effects in art, as strange that the geese should have shown no alarm at the predator's close proximity.  The other three screens - Birds and Flowers by Maruyama Oryū, Cranes by a Meandering Stream from the Kano School, and Flowers of the Four Seasons from the Rinpa School - were all from the Edo Period and so well displayed the Japanese love of nature that one felt one was outdoors when looking at them.

There were also a sizeable number of ukiyo-e prints on display at the exhibit.  These vividly colored woodblock prints have always been the most accessible form of Japanese art for Westerners, and it was their sudden appearance in Europe in the nineteenth century that gave rise to japonisme and an early appreciation of Asian art in general.  Two of the best known ukiyo-e artists were each represented by several prints.  Not only was a particularly fine example of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katushika Hokusai on display but so too were two of his lesser known works, Mishima Pass in Kai Province and Suspension Bridge between Hida and Etchū.  Among the works by the equally illustrious Utagawa Hiroshige were White Rain, Shōno (from The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō) and Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo), the latter of which inspired van Gogh's 1887 Bridge in the rain.  In both of these images by Hiroshige the falling rain was described by slanting straight lines that ran through the entire image.  Also by Hiroshige were A Fine Evening on the Coast, Tsushima Province with its wonderful depiction of a gigantic rainbow and Naruto Whirlpools, Awa Province that showed the artist could stylize the movement of waves equally as well as his rival Hokusai.

Most of the paintings on display were in the form of hanging scrolls from the Edo Period.  One of the largest examples was Waterfall by Yokoyama Seiki in which the raging water at the base of the falls is portrayed simply by an expanse of empty space.  The great majority of the scrolls, however, were figurative works, many of them depicting courtesans, by artists who were equally well known for their ukiyo-e prints.  These included Beauty Writing a Poem by Tsukioka Sessai, Beauty Holding a Poetry Card while Gazing at the Moon by Utagawa Toyokuni, the monochromatic ink wash Courtesan Parading by Chōbunsai Eishi, whose work I had also seen last week at the Met Muesum's Edo Painting exhibit, and Courtesan with a Fan by Nakamura Eiryū.  But the star of the show as far as I was concerned, and for that matter the primary reason I visited the exhibit a second time, was Seated Beauty Inscribing a Poem on a Tanzaku by Kitagawa Utamaro.   Suffice it to say that no other Japanese artist captured the essence of feminine beauty in his work so well as Utamaro.  So prized are his paintings and prints that it's highly unusual to see examples outside museum walls.

Quite different from the Edo Period paintings was a modern abstract work by Dōmoto Inshō.  The representative of Kyoto's Shibunkaku Gallery with whom I spoke explained that the artist had originally painted in a more traditional style prior to a visit to Europe in the 1950's after which he began experimenting with abstraction but while still using traditional Japanese art materials.  This particular painting made abundant use of gold leaf and was brightly colored in swirling patterns.  

In addition to the paintings and prints, there were also ceramics and lacquerware on display.  Of the former, a round pot with a flared rim was definitely the oldest work at the exhibit as it dated from the Yayoi Period (c. 300 BCE - 250 CE).  The lacquer pieces I found most intriguing were two writing boxes (suzuribako), one from the Edo Period inscribed with scenes from Genji monogatari and the other from the Taisho era showing a boat in a stormy sea.  The workmanship on each was exquisite.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Met Opera: Christine Goerke Sings Elektra

On Saturday afteroon I went to the Met to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct a performance of Strauss's one-act opera Elektra, the first opportunity I've had to hear the new Music Director this season.  To be honest, however, it was not the conducting of Nézet-Séguin that drew me there but the singing of the great soprano Christine Goerke in the title role.

Elektra, which premiered at the Dresden State Opera, in 1909 was the first collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, author of the 1903 play from which the libretto was adapted.  As one would expect of a work written in Freud's fin de siècle Vienna, the libretto emphasized the dark psychological elements that underlay the drama.  As Elektra descends into madness and as the story approaches its bloodsoaked climax, both play and opera grow ever more disturbing.  No doubt it was precisely this lurid aspect that attracted Strauss in the first place.  He wanted to shock listeners just as he had done in his recent Salome, the notorious work that had earned him his greatest renown.   He may have succeeded better than he intended.  As one critic wrote:
"The whole thing impresses one as a sexual aberration.  The blood mania appears as a terrible deformation of sexual perversity. This applies all the more because not only Elektra, but all the women are sexually tainted."
Others have suggested that Strauss abruptly ceased work on Elektra's composition in 1907 not because, as is usually claimed, he was worried that the plot too closely resembled that of Salome but because it raised in the composer's mind unpleasant associations from his childhood when he had been in constant conflict with his father.  Whether this is true or not, the opera probed far more deeply into the protagonist's psyche than audiences were at that time accustomed to hearing.  In so doing, it anticipated many of the trends, particularly those pioneered by Antonin Artaud, that were later to dominate twentieth century theater.

In Elektra Strauss built upon the modernist techniques he had previously employed in Salome.  Just as he went beyond the conventions of nineteenth century opera in his psychological approach to dramatic characterization, so he also moved beyond convention in his use of dissonance and in his individualization of characters through the assignment to each of a distinctive chord, most notably in the case of the protagonist the Elektra chord.   This is as far as Strauss would go.  Following the premiere of this work, he would once again return to the harmonic traditions to which he had previously adhered.  In much the same way, Wagner took a step back after having finished Tristan and Mahler after having completed his Seventh Symphony.

For a singer, the role of Elektra is one of the most demanding in the repertoire.  The soprano is onstage for over 90 minutes, almost the entire length of the one-act opera.  For much of that time her voice has to compete with the sound of a huge orchestra in order to be plainly heard. On Saturday afternoon Christine Goerke gave a solid performance that showed sympathy for Elektra and her plight while doing nothing to diminish the madness and vengeful bloodlust that welled up within her.  She had steady backing at this performance from Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra and Mikhail Petrenko as Orest.

This season was the first that Christine Goerke sang the role of Elektra at the Met (she also performed it this season at the San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Opera), but I had previously seen her in the role in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 2015 that featured the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons.  It was inevitable that I should draw a comparison between the two performances, and I decided I much preferred that given by the BSO.  Nevertheless, Nézet-Séguin's work on the podium on Saturday afternoon was excellent, and he showed consummate skill in handling so large an orchestra.

The monochromatic Patrice Chéreau production that debuted in 2015 was austere and unattractive, but it at least left the singers plenty of open space in which to move about. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Met Museum: Joseph Cornell's Homage to Juan Gris

The current exhibit at the Met, Birds of a Feather, is one of those small idiosyncratic shows, usually limited to a single gallery, that the museum stages from time to time.  A visitor wanders in from a larger exhibit only to find himself or herself immersed in a self-contained and offbeat universe that offers unexpected delights.  In spite of the exhibit's subtitle, this is not so much a homage to Gris as it is an obsession on the part of Cornell, an artist who never managed to show restraint in his enthusiasms.

The backstory to the exhibit, as noted on the museum's website, is as follows:
"...on one of his frequent trips to the gallery district in midtown Manhattan, Cornell visited the Sidney Janis Gallery on East 57th Street. Among a presentation of approximately 30 works by modern artists, one alone captivated Cornell—Juan Gris's celebrated collage The Man at the Café (1914)...  This shadowy profile of a fedora-topped man immediately inspired Cornell to begin a new series: some 18 boxes, two collages, and one sand tray created in homage to Juan Gris, whom he called a 'warm fraternal spirit.'"
That pretty well sums up the essence of the show.  On one wall hangs The Man at the Café itself, and it's immediately apparent why any viewer would feel a strong attraction to it.  This is one of the masterpieces of synthetic cubism and a key component of Leonard Lauder's seminal collection.  Although I had known of the work's link to the fictional arch-criminal Fantômas, a recurrent character in Gris's pasted paper collages including the 1915 Pipe and Newspaper, I had been unaware of the hidden reference in the present painting to the work of Alphonse Bertillon.  No matter that Bertillon, who died just about the time the painting was completed, had invented the photographic mugshot and the modern technique of fingerprinting, his spurious testimony at the two Dreyfus trials in the late nineteenth century had long made him a figure of scorn and ridicule among French intellecturals.  The idea of Fantômas outwitting Bertillon would have delighted Gris.

Then we come to Cornell's series of boxes dedicated to the artist.  They are neatly arranged side by side on several tables placed at right angles to the Gris painting.  Prominently displayed in each is a representation of a white cockatoo.  The birds are backed by black silhouettes intended as their shadows (although in at least one of the boxes the silhouette has been laid on the bottom of the box) and pieces of newsprint.  While the presence of the newsprint is a clear reference to the copy of Le Matin displayed so prominently in the painting, I failed to understand what the cockatoo had to do with Gris, let alone Fantômas and Bertillon.  Rather surprisingly, the connection is nowhere explained in the documentation accompanying the exhibit, unless in the 1.5 hour video on the museum's website that I admit I hadn't had the patience to watch.

As it turns out, it's unlikely that Cornell was aware of the references contained in Gris's paintings.  According to Deborah Solomon's excellent biography, Utopia Parkway:
"From the evidence of notes he [Cornell] made in his diary, we know that he associated the Gris boxes with the nineteenth-century diva Maria Malibran.  This link has confounded art historians intent on decoding Cornell's symbolism.  Yet if we accept that the white cockatoos - like so many of Cornell's birds - are literally stand-ins for Malibran, a 'bird of song,' the intended meaning of the Gris boxes becomes clear.  They are mute arias all, bringing the sublime pleasures of music into Gris's studio.  Malibran and Gris were both Spaniards who died young; Cornell sought to unite them."
This at least provides an explanation, even if it does not appear entirely rational on Cornell's part, for the cockatoo's presence in the boxes.

The exhibit continues through April 15, 2018.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Met Opera: Rossini's Semiramide

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Rossini's rarely performed Semiramide, the final work he composed in Italy.  He was then at the peak of his career and idolized throughout Europe.  After a successful sojourn in London where he received the equivalent of over half a million dollars for five months residence, Rossini accepted a lucrative offer to become Musical Director of the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, and it was there that he composed the final operas of his abbreviated career.

Like Tancredi, one of Rossini's earliest successes, Semiramide was based on a tragedy by Voltaire, the eighteenth century Enlightenment author who displayed a positive flair for melodrama in such works as Semiramis and Candide.  Also like TancrediSemiramide had a libretto written by the highly prolific Gaetano Rossi.  None of this made the convoluted plot, one that can only be termed "historical" in the loosest sense, any less incomprehensible.  By the middle of the first act, I'd given up trying to follow the action onstage.  Better to sit back and simply enjoy the wonderful singing.   

Whatever the merits of the story, Semiramide contains some of Rossini's finest music.  When writing the arias for Semiramide, the composer returned to an earlier style than that which he had employed in the majority of his Neapolitan operas.  As the Met's program notes point out:
"Aside from the expansive first scene and the two finales - which are of truly massive proportions - Semiramide is built around six arias and four duets. The arias are all of the older style, beginning with a slow cantabile section and ending with a fast cabaletta, specifically designed to show off the singer’s voice and technique."
The change in Rossini's style was influenced by his mistress, soprano Isabella Colbran, who sang the title role in the original production.  It was also Ms. Colbran who had urged Rossini to move away from the comic operas that had made him famous and to take up more serious subjects better suited to her acting style.  In retrospect, opera lovers owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Colbran for the pressure she exerted on the composer.  She must have been an magnificent singer in her own right.  No better testament exists to the quality of her voice than the incredibly difficult Act I aria Bel raggio lusinghier.

Saturday afternoon's performance featured an excellent cast, one of the best to appear in any Met production this season, all of them fully up to the demands placed on them by Rossini's music.  Angela Meade, in the title role, showed absolute mastery of her material as well as a great deal of endurance over the course of two very long acts.  She was ably supported on Saturday afternoon by Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace, Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur, and Ryan Speedo Green as Oroe.  Javier Camarena was so good as Idreno that one wished the character had been given a larger role.  Maurizio Benini conducted.

The 1990 production by John Copley was excellent in every respect, handsome without being ostentatious, and fluid enough that no long pauses were required between scenes.  Gratitude is certainly due any producer who shows restraint in designing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

There's a shocking backstory to the production in Copley's Wikipedia biography:
"During choir rehearsals for a revival of Copley's 1990 production of Rossini's Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Copley coached the singers to show reactions to the appearance of Nino's ghost at the end of act 1. He suggested that he would 'imagine the character naked' which prompted a complaint from a chorister. The Met's manager Peter Gelb then fired Copley, citing a different account of the complaint. Gelb's action has been described as a 'witch hunt' and been widely criticised by other cast members, opera singers and managers."
It should be noted that such scandal, even if as egregious as claimed by Mr. Gelb, did not stop the UK from appointing Copley Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2014.