Monday, October 15, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Performs Berlioz

Yesterday afternoon, WQXR broadcast a live concert from Carnegie Hall that featured the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by its Artistic Director Sir John Eliot Gardiner, performing the first of two all-Berlioz programs, the second of which takes place this evening.

Berlioz is remembered today primarily for his youthful Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830).  It's an extraordinary achievement, of course, but its very success has had the unfortunate consequence not only of overshadowing the major works that followed but also of handing down to posterity the garish image of Berlioz as a love-besotted opium addict pounding furiously on the drums at the work's premiere.  He himself was aware of the problem he had so thoughtlessly created and later in life tried to distance himself as much as possible from the Symphonie's lurid program, writing on the score in 1855, a quarter century after the fact:
"If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece... one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author [Berlioz] hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention."
If nothing else, the ORR's two-night stand at Carnegie Hall should hopefully give the audience a better appreciation of Berlioz's accomplishments, especially as the second concert will feature a performance not only of Symphonie but also of its far calmer "sequel" Lélio, Op. 14b (1831).  

Sunday afternoon's program opened with Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21 (1844). Though Berlioz's source of inspiration for this rousing piece has been attributed to both Byron's The Corsair and James Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover, both of which would have appealed to Berlioz's Romantic imagination, the music is certainly original enough that there's no need to strain to make it fit a literary program.  Since the overture was actually composed in a tower in Nice where Berlioz was recovering from an illness, its original title La tour de Nice is probably as appropriate as any.

In addition to his orchestral writing, Berlioz composed extensively for voice, though much of this music is not often heard.  At this concert, mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot first performed the ill-fated La mort de Cléopâtre (1829), the third of four cantatas submitted by Berlioz to the Paris Conservatoire over four successive years in hopes of winning the prestigious Prix de Rome.  (He finally achieved his goal with the fourth, the 1830 Sardanapale, which he subsequently destroyed.)  It's not difficult to understand why Cléopâtre failed to win an award.  The conservative judges must have been shocked to hear this morbid music so well suited to the death throes of a suicidal queen.  So subversive was the piece - one can actually hear the slowing of Cleopatra's heart after she's been bitten by the asp - that no award at all was given that year.  Berlioz himself was unrepentant, writing:
“It’s a bit difficult to write soothing music for an Egyptian queen bitten by a poisonous snake and dying a painful death in an agony of remorse.”
Following the cantata came an orchestral selection from Part II of Les Troyens (1856-1858), the only one of Berlioz's operas to have attained anything like a permanent place in the repertoire.  Chasse Royale et Orage, which makes rare use of "sax-horns" among the brass, also allowed Ms. Richardot's voice a needed rest before she began singing the aria Je vais mourir ... Adieu, fière cité, the death scene of Queen Dido also from Part II of Les Troyens.  I thought this an excellent choice as it allowed the audience to judge for themselves the different manner in which Berlioz treated the deaths of two legendary queens after an interval of so many years between the composition of the respective works.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834) that featured violist Antoine Tamestit as soloist.  Although subtitled a "Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato," the work is neither a traditional symphony nor a viola concerto but could more properly be termed a tone poem (very) loosely based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  In a sense, Niccolò Paganini, for whom the work was originally composed, was quite right to reject it as the piece is much more an inward journey in which Berlioz revisits his memories of Abruzzi than it is a virtuoso showpiece.  And yet the viola, Harold's voice, is at the same time an integral part of the music.  Berlioz himself provided a brilliant analysis of the instrument's role:
"As in the Symphonie fantastique, a principal theme (the viola’s opening melody) is reproduced throughout the work. The difference is that whereas in the Symphonie fantastique, the idée fixe keeps obtruding like an impassioned obsession on scenes that are alien to it and deflects their course, Harold’s melody is superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development."
Along with Liszt and Wagner, Berlioz was one of the three great proponents of the "new music" and extremely innovative in developing what then purported to be a revolutionary musical idiom.  The ORR deserves a great deal of praise for bringing his music to a wider audience in such exemplary fashion.  The conductor, orchestra members and soloists all contributed to an outstanding performance.

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

WQXR Young Artists: Bachauer Competition Awards

I had actually had a ticket last month to hear the winners of this year's Gina Bachauer Piano Compeitionat in recital at Juilliard.  I had eagerly been anticipating this event which for me customarily marks the beginning of another season of classical music in New York City.  Unfortunately, the press of other matters made it impossible for me to be there.  Luckily, the recital was recorded for a broadcast marking the commencement of the forty-first season of WQXR's Young Artists Showcase, one of the longest running classical music series on radio.  This was entirely appropriate as the Bachauer Competition Recitals always reward their audiences with outstanding performances by  exceptionally talented pianists.  This year's winners, Huan Li and Zhu Wang, both of whom are studying for bachelor degrees at Juilliard, were no exception.

After a word of welcome from Damian Woetzel, Juilliard's new President, the program opened with Huan Li performing two selections from Maurice Ravel's five-movement Miroirs (1904-1905).  These were respectively the third and fourth movements - Une barque sur l’océan and Alborada del gracioso.  The period during which Miroirs was composed marked a turning point in Ravel's career.  Though he had failed in 1905 in his final attempt to win the Prix de Rome - he was scandalously ousted in the first round - the composer, perhaps as a result of this rejection by the Conservatoire establishment, at this time began to write some of the most innovative piano compositions of the early twentieth century, beginning in 1902 with Jeux d'eau and culminating in 1908 with Gaspard de la nuit.  According to a story told by his friend Ricardo Viñes, Ravel during this period met with Debussy and expressed to the latter his intention of writing piano music so free in form that it would sound like an improvisation, or something taken from a sketch book.  Although Ravel, like Debussy before him, strongly objected to being labeled an "Impressionist," his new piano music could hardly escape being categorized as such.  This is especially true of Une barque sur l’océan, the only movement of the five without metronome markings, whose arpeggios so brilliantly recreate the sound  of waves.  Ravel later orchestrated this movement but was dissatisfied with it because he found himself unable to duplicate the shimmering sound evoked by the solo piano.  The composer also later orchestrated Alborada del gracioso, another piece that could be considered Impressionist for its incorporation of Spanish musical themes.  Both movements are technically challenging and demand virtuosic skill on the part of the pianist.

Following Huan Li's performance came a brief ceremony in which an award for music education and community outreach was presented to violinists Jocelyn Zhu and Mariella Haubs for their selfless work in playing for refugee children throughout Europe.  Only Mariella was present, and she accepted the award on behalf of both musicians.

After the presentation, the second pianist, Zhu Wang, performed the final two movements from Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 (1844), the Largo and the Presto, non tanto.  While the sonata is longer than most of Chopin's works for solo piano, it is somewhat lacking in cohesion and each of the movements seems independent of the others.  This is especially true of the the third movement largo in B major around which the sonata is built and which is in reality a nocturne, one of the most beautiful and moving that Chopin composed.  The finale, in contrast, provides a pounding and intensely dramatic finish to the work with ample opportunites for virtuoso flourishes on the part of the pianist.

Finally, the two musicians returned together to the stage to perform selections from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892), here arranged for two pianos by the Cypriot composer Nicolas Economou.  These consisted of the opening Overture, the Danse Russe Trepak from the second section, and the closing Valse des fleurs, one of the composer's best known pieces of music.  I have to admit Tchaikovsky's ballet has never been among my favorite pieces of music, but the selections played here certainly ended the recital on an upbeat note.

The archived performance, hosted by radio personality Robert Sherman, is now available for listening on WQXR's website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Music among Friends" Performs Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went to St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear an all-Brahms program performed by a group of musicians who refer to their performances as "Music among Friends."  The talented ensemble consisted on this occasion of Ji Soo Choi, violin, Grace Takeda, viola, Issei Herr, cello, and James Rosen, piano.

The program opened with the Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-1865).  In contrast to the viola sonata that was performed next, the Op. 38 shows Brahms at the beginning of his career when he was still struggling to achieve recognition and success, not to mention the wherewithal to pay his living expenses.  It may have been the latter consideration that led him to indulge in a bit of deception when submitting the work to the publisher Simrock.  Certainly he could not himself have believed that "as far as both instruments are concerned, [the sonata] is certainly not difficult to play" when in fact it clearly requirea the skills of a virtuoso for successful performance.  One can see in this early piece that Brahms was still working to master his craft and carefully studying the works of earlier composers.  This can most clearly be seen in the third movement allegro that contains a number of fugal passages and is actually based on the Contrapunctus 13 from J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge.

The next work was the Viola Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894).  The two Op. 120 sonatas, originally scored for clarinet and piano, are Brahms's last chamber works and for that reason alone will always hold a prominent place in the repertoire.  But in addition to any sentimental value the sonatas, both in the original arrangement for clarinet and in the transcription for viola completed by the composer in 1895, have become cornerstones of the repertoires for their respective instruments.  In their original form, in fact, the Op. 120 sonatas more or less established a new genre for the clarinet.  Brahms certainly was aware of the extent of his accomplishment.  The fact that he took such care with the extensive alterations he made when preparing the viola transcription - in contrast to the Op. 114 transcription in which very few changes were made to the viola part - is indicative of the importance he placed upon them.  The two sonatas have vastly different characters.  The F minor, that played at this recital, is filled with a passion that demonstrates Brahms had lost none of his Romantic temperament.  The heart of the piece is the lyrical second movement, marked andante un poco adagio, whose autumnal mood well reflects the spirit of the elderly composer as he neared the end of his career.

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

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

This was an excellent recital by highly talented musicians.  I particularly enjoyed the performance of the Op. 8 that was much more lively and exhilarating than many others I've heard.

Monday, October 8, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Andriessen, Stravinsky and Debussy

On Friday afternoon I went to David Geffen Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic perform for the first time this season.  Jaap van Zweden has now taken over as Music Director, and I was pleased to see that, perhaps as a result, the programming was much more imaginative than in prior years.  Rather than the usual array of overfamiliar crowdpleasers, this concert actually featured at least some lesser known works by an intriguing array of composers - Louis Andriessen, Stravinsky and Debussy.

The concert's opening piece turned out to be the most interesting on the program.  This was Andriessen's Agamemnon, a work that had had its world premiere only the evening before at this same venue. The only work I had prevously encountered by Andriessen was a 1991 piece titled Hout that I had heard several years ago at a Juilliard Chamberfest performance.  A canon displaced by a sixteenth note, it was a fusion between jazz and progressive classical music and, as such, fit in very well with the description of Andriessen's late style as set forth in his Wikipedia biography:
"Since the early 1970s he [Andriessen] has refused to write for conventional symphony orchestras and has instead opted to write for his own idiosyncratic instrumental combinations...  His harmonic writing eschews the consonant modality of much minimalism, preferring post war European dissonance, often crystallised into large blocks of sound...  Andriessen's music is thus anti-Germanic and anti-Romantic..."
What then to make of Agamemnon?  Not only is this a full scale orchestral work, but in its programmatic setting it is nothing if not a tone poem squarely in the Romantic tradition.  As Andriessen himself states:
"It's not a literal drama depicting specific scenes in the narrative... You might hear Achilles running around the battlefield one moment and then perhaps Iphigenia in a few quieter bars in B minor.  And Kalachas is there arguing in declamatory music about the will of the gods."
Not surprisingly, considering its subject, much of the music has a thoroughly martial air, with heavy use of percussion, that in spirit (but not sound) is somewhat reminiscent of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.  At the end, a female speaker who had been seated in the orchestra rises with microphone in hand to recite Cassandra's speech from Aeschylus's Agamemnon.  As one would imagine, the piece is highly enjoyable and accessible in a manner few contemporary works can claim.  Following the twenty minute performance the composer appeared onstage to accept a well deserved ovation.

The next work was Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D major (1931).  After having complained in my last post how infrequently I had heard this work performed, I now heard it for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, on this occasion with soloist Leila Josefowicz.  Attending two performances back to back gave me an opportunity to compare the different approaches of the respective orchestras and soloists.  In general, I found the Philharmonic's and Ms. Josefowicz's interpretation much more energetic.  The fact that there were no pauses between movements - in contrast to the SFS performance where there had been distinct pauses between each of the four movements - made the work appear much faster paced when performed by the Philharmonic.  And though the work does not encourage virtuosic flourishes, Ms. Josefowicz added to the drama by playing her part with much more vivacity than had Leonidas Kavakos on Thursday evening.

After intermission, the concert resumed with another Stravinsky piece, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1945-1947).  This was much more the type of Stravinsky work I wish the SFS had performed the previous evening, one that displays some of the composer's earliest thoughts on modernism.  For better or worse, following the end of World War I in 1918, the Europe for which Stravinsky had composed his Ballets Russes spectacles no longer existed.  The war's cataclysmic upheavals, epitomized for the composer by the Russian Revolution, had a profound influence on his life and career and forced upon him the realization that a new form of music was needed for a new social order.  Hence the move to modernism, nowhere so well exemplified as in the present piece.  Not only did the work employ a minimalist approach in which discrete motifs, described by Stravinsky as "tonal masses," were placed side by side but also called for a new choice of instruments.  In a January post in which I discussed Stravinsky's 1923 Octet, I quoted the composer's thoughts on wind instruments:
"Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments... which are less cold and more vague... My Octuor is not an 'emotive' work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves."
It was this same striving for objectivity that had earlier infused Symphonies and had determined the choice of wind instruments for this work as well.  That Stravinsky was consciously attempting to rid the piece of all emotional elements can be inferred from his dissatisfaction with the disastrous 1921 premiere conducted by Serge Koussevitsky that was met with hisses and gales of laughter from an unappreciative British audience.  Stravinsky wrote:
"The audience did not hiss enough.  They should have been much angrier...  The radical misunderstanding was that an attempt was made to impose an external pathos on the music."
The program concluded with one of Debussy's best known works, La Mer (1903-1905, rev. 1910). Although when listening to this piece one always imagines sunlight glinting off Mediterranean waters, Debussy actually composed it while staying in East Sussex in England. It was the composer's skill at creating impressions of calm vistas and gentle breezes that imbued the work with its magical character. So popular has this piece become over the years that it's difficult to believe now that when the work premiered it was not well received, perhaps because it did not fit the standard symphonic form to which audiences had by then grown accustomed. It's also of interest that Debussy finally decided to title the first movement "From dawn to noon on the sea" when in a 1903 letter to his publisher he had originally referred to it as "Beautiful sea by the bloodthirsty islands."

This was the second time I had heard Jaap van Zweden conduct the Philharmonic (see my February 19th post), and I was just as impressed this time as last.  Mr. van Zweden managed to elicit from his ensemle a far better performance than I had thought it capable of producing.  This was as auspicious a beginning to his tenure as one could have wished, and one can only hope it will continue in the same manner.  And it comes just in time.  In the last few years the Philharmonic had descended almost to the level of a "pops orchestra," a sad fate indeed for the venerable ensemble once led by Mahler and Bernstein.  Evidence of change can be seen not only in the level of performance but also, as I mentioned earlier, in the approach to programming.  That performed on Friday afternoon was coherent and well thought out and was not afraid to include less accessible works in its search for quality.  Judging by the enthusiastic response of the nearly sold out audience, the effort was well appreciated.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Carnegie Hall: San Francisco Symphony Performs Stravinsky

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear my first musical event of the new season as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Stravinsky program.  Only the evening before, the same ensemble and conductor had performed at the hall's Opening Night Gala, a more star studded event than this perhaps but with a more lightweight program.

The concert began with one of the composer's early successes, the ballet Pétrouchka (1910-1911, rev. 1947).  Of all he works Stravinsky composed for the Diaghiliev and the Ballets Russes I've always thought this the most successful.  The music, most especially the famous Pétrouchka Chord that introduces the title character, is among the most original Stravinsky ever composed.  And yet so perfectly does it fit the ballet storyline that one can easily imagine a fully staged puppet theater as one listens to the music.  According to Carnegie Hall's program notes, the work was initially conceived as a "quasi-concerto" for orchestra and piano - which explains the inclusion of this instrument whose presence throughout seems strangely out of place - before Stravinsky devised for it a definite program, one which Diaghilev immediately associated with the popular puppet character Petrushka.  The score, at this performance the revised 1947 version, is filled with a pathos one does not normally associate with Stravinsky, the arch-modernist.

The next work was the Violin Concerto in D major (1931) featuring Leonidas Kavakos as guest artist.  Compared to the other works on the program, the Concerto is performed much less frequently than it deserves.  The last time I can remember having heard it, in fact, was at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist.  The piece was written, at the suggestion of Stravinsky's German publisher Willie Strecker, for the violinist Samuel Dushkin.  Stravinsky, who lacked familiarity with the violin, entered into the collaboration with the understanding that Dushkin would assist him in the technical aspects of the composition.  If Stravinsky lacked confidence in his ability to write for the violin, however, it's nowhere apparent in any of the four movments, and the work is among the most innovative achievements of his neoclassical period.  In this respect it was typical of him to have conceived an opening chord that Dushkin originally considered unplayable.  The final movement, in particular, is as thrilling a piece of music as any Stravinsky composed.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of what is undoubtedly Stravinsky's best known work, the infamous Le sacre du printemps (1913), which I had last heard performed at Carnegie Hall on its 2016 Opening Night when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.

So fixed a place in the repertoire has Le Sacre du printemps 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 1913 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 works so gripping as this. Ironically, the work's very intensity has transformed it from one of the most controversial pieces in the repertoire to a crowdpleaser that is dutifully trotted out at least once or twice a season while other important works by the composer languish in relative obscurity.

Under its long term music director, the SFS has long since become a top-tier ensemble, definitely one of the best American orchestras. If Thursday evening's performance was not a transcendent experience, it was nevertheless an excellent opportunity to hear a fine group of musicians perform works by one of the twentieth century's most important composers. I only wish the program had focused less on Stravinsky's works for the Ballets Russes, no matter how popular and accessible, and more on those later pieces that better defined his place as one of the three great modernists.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Drawings

There are currently two major exhibits at the Met Museum featuring the work of the nineteenth century French artist Eugène Delacroix.  The most recent to have opened, entitled simply Delacroix, features the paintings and has drawn all the attention; but it was the other, a display of the artist's drawings entitled Devotion to Drawing, that I decided to visit first.  Not only did many of the drawings serve as studies for the paintings, but the genre itself provides much better insight into the development of any artist's style as it's stripped it down to its essentials.

The exhibit is contained in three galleries, the first of which is labeled "Formation Through Drawing."  The work here is generally from the earliest part of Delacroix's career when he was still learning technique.  Like any student of the École des Beaux-Arts, he began his studies by copying famous works and by drawing the live model.  In Delacroix's case, however, this basic approach did not end when he ceased to be a student.  All through his career he always made time to copy works he found of interest, perhaps because in so doing he gained insight into the vision of the artists who provided him inspiration.  It's worth noting that in his choice of sources Delacroix did not use models from classical antiquity as was the custom in the nineteenth century but instead favored those of Renaissance artists, even less famous painters such as Paolo Veronese from whose Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian Delacroix copied several figures in an 1820's pen and brown ink drawing, though not that of Saint Sebastian himself.  Another example would be a pen and brown ink drawing from the same period in which Delacroix faithfully copied Raphael's Combat of Nude Men.  But it was not only artists from the past who interested Delacroix.  He also copied figures intended as studies for The Raft of Medusa, itself derived from a work by Rubens, by his good friend and mentor Théodore Gericault.  So great was Gericault's influence on the younger artist that the authorship of one of the drawings on display at this exhibit cannot be definitively determined.

As for the "live" models that Delacroix sketched, the most interesting were actually cadavers.  While viewing these drawings, one is reminded irresistably of similar anatomical studies in Leonardo's notebooks.  The same precise delineation of musculature can also be seen in studies of living models in such pieces as The Backs of Two Seated Figures, a red and black chalk drawing that shows perfectly the play of muscles involved in the simple act of sitting.

The second gallery is labeled "The Application of Drawing" and demonstrates the manner in which Delacroix's original drawings were used as preparation for their appeanance in other media.  The most noteworthy examples are products of the artist's visit to Morocco in 1832 as part of the French diplomatic delegation.  It was the perfect destination for an artist whose work was so imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, and Delacroix's emostionally charged depictions of this exotic locale did much to promote the fashion of Orientalism in European art.  Still, Delacroix was meticulous in recording Near Eastern dress and manners in his quest for authenticity.  In spite of this, the artist did not hesitate to adapt his vision when it came time to prepare his work for reproduction in other media.  This can clearly be seen in a series of drawings depicting the Sultan Abd er-Rahman on horseback.  In the first, a rough brush and brown ink completed in situ in 1832, the sultan is seen surrounded by his advisors while meeting with the French envoy Charles-Edgar de Mornay.  There is almost no detail here, only the barest outlines of the figures.  In a much more studied 1845 graphite drawing Delacroix removed the figure of the French envoy, the failure of whose mission had led directly the Franco-Morrocan War twelve years later.  This drawing, a preparatory study for a large painting, is far more detailed than the 1832 version even if devoid of the original's political significance.  Finally, an 1856 graphite drawing of the same scene done in preparation for yet another painting again makes major changes, here replacing the sultan's advisors with a group of servants tending to his comfort.  The process of historical revision, here laid out so clearly before the viewer, is fascinating in itself.

Though one does not normally think of Delacroix as an illustrator, there were several literary works that had a profound influence on his Romantic nature.  A lithograph from the period 1836-1842  entitled The Wounded Goetz Taken in by the Gypsies is one of seven that illustrate scenes from Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen.  In style it constrasts sharply with a blue and brown wash over graphite from 1836 that depicts the same subject.  Another great literary influence was Shakespeare, and there are several drawings here illustrating various scenes from Hamlet.  For pure action, though, nothing can compare with The Giaour on Horseback, an 1824-1826 drawing that depicts a violent encounter taken from Byron's 1813 poem The Giaour whose Middle Eastern setting may have furnished the principal attraction for Delacroix.

The third and final gallery, labeled "Medium and Invention," contains some of the artist's finest drawings. While Delacroix usually worked with simple graphite, the drawings in this section demonstrate his mastery of other media including watercolor, not then in common use among French artists.  A splendid example, one that shows Delacroix's fine eye for color, is Three Arab Horsemen at an Encampment (1832-1837) in which watercolor has been applied over graphite to stunning effect.  Even more impressive are two nearly monochromatic washes from 1829-1831, A Tomb and Studies of Windows in the Church of Valmont Abbey and Interior of the Church of Valmont Abbey.  The command Delacroix here exhibits over the difficult wash process is extraordinary, and these are to me the finest works in the show.

The exhibit continues through November 12, 2018.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Art Book Review: Picasso and Dora

Despite its title, Picasso and Dora is not a dual biography of the two artists, nor even a chronicle of their relationship, but rather author James Lord's memoir of his expatriate youth in France during which time he became acquainted with both Picasso and Maar.  Picasso himself makes only a few cameo appearances, but his presence hangs over the narrative and has a profound effect upon Maar's and Lord's somewhat confused relationship.  

It is Lord's portrayal of Maar that is most problematical.  Lord himself was never more than a minor figure on the fringes of the European art scene in the 1950's, and it is doubtful he would ever have been invited to all the lunches and dinners he so lovingly describes - he is constantly dropping names, the more famous the better - if he had not been Maar's companion.  Despite his best efforts to present himself as a highly likable if somewhat naïve connoisseur of the arts, he is a devious and ultimately untrustworthy narrator.  For example, though he is forever reminding the reader how highly he idealizes Maar, he never misses an opportunity to portray her in a bad light as a miserly, grasping middle-aged woman, eccentric to the point of neurosis.  While Maar was one of the most important and highly respected photographers of the Surrealist period, Lord glosses over her involvement with the medium in a paragraph or two as if it were some minor phase through which she passed before finally finding fulfillment as the lover of Picasso.  Lord also downplays the art Maar created after her split from Picasso and strongly suggests it was never more than mediocre.  (Perhaps it was at that, but there is no way of knowing from what little analysis is presented here.)

The book contains some interesting anecdotes regarding the artists and collectors Lord met during his time abroad, but it should be read with caution.  It is a highly biased account and sometimes seems little more than an excuse for literary revenge on all those, particularly Maar, the author felt had slighted him.

Monday, September 17, 2018

NYC's 2018 - 2019 Classical Music Season

When I first began this blog several years ago I was very intent on giving myself an education in classical music appreciation.  I had never had an opportunity to study the subject when in college but hoped that by attending as many performances as I could manage that I would learn at least a little about this wonderful art form.  It certainly helped that I live within walking distance of both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall where the world's greatest musicians regularly appear.  This allowed me not only to hear some spectacular performances but also to substantially enlarge my knowledge of the repertoire.

I feel now that my self appointed task has largely ended, at least for the time being.  Though painfully aware of the limits of my knowledge, I feel I the need to concentrate my attention on other areas of interest, particularly my photography and my fiction writing.  Accordingly, while the classical music season will soon begin again in earnest here in New York City, I will be attending far less performances than last season and will therefore be posting here less often.  Nonetheless, I will still be hearing many fine performances over the coming months.

My Saturday matinee subscription to the Met shrank this season from eight operas to only seven, though I didn't notice any reduction in the cost of the subscription itself.  Of the seven, the performance that should prove most interesting is Verdi's Otello.  Not only is it the composer's greatest opera, at least as far as I'm concerned, but on this occasion it will be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel who will here be making his Met debut. I will also be attending three new productions - Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila, starring Elina Garanča and Roberto Alagna; Verdi's La Traviata, starring Diana Damrau; and Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, starring Anna Netrebko.  In addition, Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena will star in La fille du régiment while Sondra Radvanovsky will sing the title role in Tosca.

I subscribed to the same four series at Carnegie Hall this season as last, but once again the number of performances has lessened, this time from fourteen to twelve.  Still, there are several performances that should be well worth hearing.  Of the orchestral concerts, the one I'm most eagerly anticipating is an all-Bartók program, including The Miraculous Mandarin suite, given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra.  Bartók was one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, and I don't know any other ensemble that performs his music as well as the BFO under the baton of its Music Director Iván Fischer.  They are in a class by themselves.  Another conductor I very much admire is Andris Nelsons, and in November I will hear him lead the Boston Symphony in a performance of Mahler No. 5.

The instrument whose music I've always most enjoyed is the piano, and this coming season I will be lucky enough to hear two of the greatest pianists now active.  First will be the wonderful Mitsuko Uchida who will actually be appearing twice, first in an all-Schubert solo recital that will include his final sonata in B-flat major, arguably the greatest work ever written for solo piano, and secondly with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a performance of two late Mozart concerti.  Next, András Schiff will perform an eclectic program at his solo recital that will include the Bartók well as Janáček's In the Mists.  As for the younger generation of pianists, Yuja Wang will perform the Prokofiev Concerto No. 5 with the New World Symphony and Daniil Trifonov will take on the Schumann Concerto with the Met Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev in a program that will also include Schubert's No. 9.

In addition to these concerts and recitals, I will be attending roughly a dozen of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One lunchtime performances at Alice Tully Hall that include works for orchestra, solo piano, voice, and chamber ensembles.

All in all, it should be an excellent season even if a bit less crowded than in prior years.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Oliver Hilmes's Biography of Franz Liszt

After having read the glowing editorial reviews Oliver Hilmes's biography of Franz Liszt received, I was extremely disappointed after I had finished reading it.  Though the book is well written, extremely readable and contains some genuine insights into Liszt's personality, there's too much that's missing.  For one thing, I've always felt a good biography should bring to life not only the subject but the times in which he or she lived.  In other words, there should be some form of context.  That's entirely absent here.  While Liszt lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, those events are never fully discussed.  The Revolution of 1848 is barely mentioned and then only for the inconvenience it caused Wagner, who was forced to flee from Dresden to Switzerland.  Likewise, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is passed over in a single paragraph.  The composer did not live in a vacuum, and it's really impossible to evaluate his life without some understanding of the momentous events occurring about him.

The book's most glaring deficiency is in its treatment of nineteenth century music.  On page 113 Brahms's name is included in a long list of composers who visited Liszt at Weimar.  That's the only mention of Brahms in the entire book.  One does not have to be a musicologist to know that the controversy that dominated classical music in the mid-nineteenth century was that between the progressive elements represented by Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz and the conservative Classical Romanticism of Brahms.  One need only read an article in The Independent by Jan Swafford, Brahms's biographer:
"Liszt was another matter. Early in his career, Brahms and a friend wrote a manifesto condemning the Music of the Future. Directed at Liszt, the manifesto was leaked before it was ready and served mainly to embarrass the authors and touch off the war."
It's incomprehensible that there should be no reference to any of this when in reality the conflict that ensued constituted one of the most salient features of Liszt's career.  Beyond that, there's no in depth analysis of his own music nor of his development as a composer.

What author Hilmes does discuss in depth are the more salacious aspects of Liszt's career.  The excesses of Lisztomania and the composer's numerous love affairs are described in detail.  Fifteen pages are devoted to one Olga Janina, a dysfunctional stalker who once threatened Liszt with a revolver and poison but otherwise played no significant role in his life.

In the end the reader is left with the uncomfortable impression that Hilmes has sacrificed scholarship for sensationalism.

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.