Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Carnegie Hall/Medici.tv Webcast: Philip Glass Ensemble

On Friday evening, Carnegie Hall, in conjunction with Medici.tv, webcast an early Philip Glass masterpiece, Music with Changing Parts (1970) as performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble.  Joining them were Michael Riesman, conductor, the San Francisco Girls Chorus led by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, and students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

It's difficult to believe that Glass, once serious music's enfant terrible, is now 80 years old and a respected establishment figure.  This season he holds Carnegie Hall's Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair, and the Hall will be hosting performances of a number of his works in what amounts to a retrospective even if it is not labeled as such.  It's fascinating then to hear the artist return to such a seminal early work at this and be reminded of the excitement among music lovers when he first appeared on the scene decades ago.

Music with Changing Parts was one of music's earliest "minimalist" works even if Glass himself rejected the term.  At the heart of it is the steady pulse of the electric keyboard that provides a base over which the other performers provide accompaniment that at times is almost mystical and strongly reminiscent of liturgical music; in that sense it could be said to anticipate Arvo Pärt's tintinnabulation, itself still another miminalist style. It's the interplay between the electronic and the ethereal that makes Glass's piece so compelling over a length of time that would otherwise be inordinate.

Glass himself apparently had second thoughts concerning Music with Changing Parts.  According to the Wikipedia article, he never attempted a similar piece because he found it too "psychedelic."  But this is no more than to say that the work is, at least to an extent, a reflection of the times in which it was created.  One could argue that this aspect is actually an integral part of the work's identity and essential to its understanding.

Courtesy of Medici.tv, the archived webcast will be available for viewing for a limited time.

Monday, February 19, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Wagner

On Thursday evening I went to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of its new Music Director Jaap van Zweden, perform the opening act of one of Wagner's best known operas as well as the New York premiere of a work by John Luther Adams.

The program opened with Adams's Dark Waves (2007), originally a commission from Musica Nova (the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s Commissioning Club) for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.  Adams is something of a maverick as a composer, as much dedicated to environmental activism - he has served as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center - as to music.  He has nevertheless been recognized as one of America's leading composers and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his work Become Ocean.  In such pieces as this he has been inspired by his deep love of nature.  He writes of Dark Waves:
"This music should evoke a vast, rolling sea of sound. All entrances, exits and changes in individual parts occur 'beneath the surface of the waves,' with every sound emerging from and receding back into the overall texture."
To accomplish this, Adams makes use in this piece of recorded electronic music as well as live orchestral instruments to evoke in the listener's mind an aural image of ocean waves.
"Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5, and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all 12 chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra."
I had heard earlier this month the Chicago Symphony perform Chausson's Poème de l' amour et de la mer and Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, so I had an opportunity to compare the manner in which three very different composers rendered in music alternate images of the sea.

After only a brief pause (there was no intermission), the program concluded with Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre (1852-1856) featuring guest artists Heidi Melton, soprano, Simon O'Neill, tenor, and John Relyea, bass.  Although Die Walküre is traditionally presented as the second installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen, it's important to remember that Wagner did not see the larger work as a tetralogy.  Instead he looked back to the structure of classic Greek theater in which three tragedies are preceded by a prelude.  Thus Die Walküre would actually have been viewed by Wagner as the first opera of a trilogy.  In composing the individual operas, Wagner actually worked backwards beginning with Götterdämmerung and ending with Das Rheingold.

What's most striking to twenty-first century listeners in the plot of Die Walküre is Wagner's use of incest as a plot device.  But it is precisely the complicity between brother (Siegmund) and sister (Sieglinde) that provides a nexus of mythic dimension that leads to the appearance of Siegfried, the doomed hero of the larger epic.  That much is made explicit when Siegmund sings: "Wife and sister you will be to your brother. So let the Volsung blood flourish!"  Here then in the first act are already laid the seeds of tragedy that will work through the remaining two operas and culminate in the destruction of Valhalla at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung.

The orchestra played much better on Thursday evening than I can remember having heard in a long while, certainly better than on last month's Prokofiev program.  This was a powerful performance with exceptional singing by all three vocalists that brought vividly to life the world of Wagner's Ring.  Perhaps Jaap van Zweden is the music director who's needed to turn about the ensemble's fortunes.  The Philharmonic was a great orchestra once and could be so again under the right leadership.  As heralded in an article on WQXR's blog, the ensemble's new season is quite innovative and contains a significant amount of new music, including works by Louis Andriessen.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Twentieth Century Composers

Earlier this week I attended a piano recital at Alice Tully Hall, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, that featured short works by six prominent twentieth century composers - Alban Berg, Olivier Messiaen, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin and Enrique Granados.

The recital began with Siyumeng Wang peforming Berg's Sonata, Op. 1 (1907-1909?).  The work was actually a graduation exercise of sorts that marked the end of Berg's compositional studies with his mentor Schoenberg.  The home key is nominally B minor; but even though the twelve-tone system had not yet been formulated by Schoenberg, the piece reflects his burgeoning interest in atonality and chromaticism as well as his concept of the "developing variation" in which everything within a piece derives from its initial concept.  Berg had originally intended the work to be a traditional three-movement piano sonata, but when he was unable to formulate any ideas for the second and third movements Schoenberg suggested Berg "had said all there was to say" and should allow the single movement to stand on its own.

The next work was Messiaen's L'allouette Calandrelle from Catalogue d'oiseaux (1956-1958) played by Nathan Ben-Yehuda.  The Catalogue d'oiseaux is an intricately devised work of which L'allouette forms the eighth and shortest movement; together with the ninth movement, La Bouscarle, it comprises the larger work's Book No. 5.  It only gets more complicated from there.  One critic paraphrased the composer as follows:
"Catalogue d’oiseaux ... illustrates not only the songs of birds but their flight, the landscapes which they inhabit, even the times of day and the seasons of the year at which he [Messiaen] chose to portray them."
The mammoth work, which in its entirety takes approximately 2.5 hours to perform, is thus a study in contrasts.  It requires virtuoso technique, not to mention stamina, on the part of the pianist to successfully explore the sharply different moods that Messiaen evokes within it.  Obviously, the composer had high regard for the abilities of his wife, Yvonne Loriod, who premiered the entire work in Paris in 1959 and to whom it was dedicated.

Next came Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp minor, Op. 87, No. 12 (1950-1951) as performed by Ryan Soeyadi.  Only last month I had heard two selections - the No. 7 in A major and the No. 15 in D-flat major - from the Op. 87 performed at another Juilliard recital and had posted my thoughts regarding the influence of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and of pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva to whom Shostakovich dedicated the work

Pianist Elliot Wuu took the stange next to perform three Preludes by Rachmaninoff - the D major, Op. 23, No. 4 (1901-1903); the G major, Op. 32, No. 5; and the A minor, Op. 32, No. 8 (1910).  It was extremely interesting to compare Rachmaninoff's Preludes, also inspired by Bach, to Shostakovich's.  Rachmaninoff's were in general much more accessible and exhibited greater emotionalism than that by Shostakovich.  That's not surprising as Rachmaninoff was the last standard bearer of nineteenth century Russian Romanticism while Shostakovich's music looked relentlessly forward.

The next work was Scriabin's Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 19 (1893-1898); it was performed by Yun Chih Hsu.  This two-movement sonata was one of Scriabin's earlier works, written at a time when he was still heavily under the influence of Chopin, and was accordingly given a thoroughly Romantic program described by Scriabin as follows:
"The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitation of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming up after the first darkness of night. The second movement represents the vast expanse of ocean in stormy agitation."
And yet some elements of Scriabin's later mystical preoccupations are already present here, namely his synesthetic attempt to find in musical tones the equivalence of colors.  The key of E mentioned above by Scriabin was that which he equated with a white color similar to that of the moon. 

The program closed with Rixiang Huang performing Granados's Los Requiebros, the opening movement of the composer's Goyescas, Op. 11 (1911).  Subtitled Los majos enamorados, Goyescas was Granados's attempt to evoke the Spanish spirit as it existed in the time of its greatest artist by creating musical equivalents of Goya's artworks.  But these are not meant to be literal repesentations.  Rather they are intended to bring to mind in as Romantic a manner as possible the bygone world of courtly manners that existed in Spain at the end of the eighteenth century. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Chicago Symphony Performs Stravinsky, Higdon, Chausson and Britten

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by its Music Director Ricardo Muti, perform and eclectic program of modern music that featured works by Stravinsky, Jennifer Higdon, Chausson and Britten.

The concert opened with Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 (1908).  As the low opus number would indicate, this was one of Stravinsky's earliest works and only his second for orchestra.  Composed as Stravinsky's studies under Rimsky-Korsakov were coming to a close (the latter died in 1908 without ever having heard his protege's work performed), the fairly short piece demonstrated the distance Stravinsky had already traveled from his  mentor's influence.  Despite the fact that it was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck's La Vie des Abeilles and was later adapted as a ballet (against the composer's wishes), the Scherzo was not so much a programmatic work as an exercise in creating orchestral effects.  Even so, I could at times make out passages whose sound did in fact remind me of the buzzing of a swarm of bees.  That aside, the work's greatest significance was the impact it had on Sergei Diaghilev who heard it when it was premiered at a St. Petersburg concert in 1909 alongside Feu d'artifice.  The two works impressed Diaghilev deeply enough that he commissioned Stravinsky to compose the score for The Firebird a year later.

The next work was the one everyone had come to hear, or at least those who'd read the favorable press the piece had received at its Chicago premiere earlier this month.  This was all the more remarkable as Higdon's Low Brass Concerto (2017) was not only written for more than one solo instrument but for brass instruments at that.  Like the Stravinsky piece, the Concerto was in one movement that alternated slow and fast passages.  The four brass intruments - two trombones, played by Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy; bass trombone, played by Charles Vernon; and tuba, played by Gene Pokorny - did not really have solo turns as such but instead generally played in combinations of two or three instruments as they interracted as much with one another as with the orchestra.  I found the work enjoyable, if not profound, and thought the composer did an excellent job in orchestrating the work for so large a number of instruments as were present onstage.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to the stage to perform two strikngly different works that both took the sea as their theme.  The first of these was Chausson's Poème de l' amour et de la mer, Op. 19 (1882-1892).  The prevailing mood here was not so much one of Romanticism, although the Wagnerian influences could clearly be heard, as of fin de siècle decadence.  This was in part derived from the text, a series of poems by Maurice Bouchor written in 1875 that dealt far more with anguished love than with the sea.  They were divided into two parts, La fleur des eaux and La mort de l'amour, sung here exceptionally well by mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, with an orchestral interlude placed between.  Because he died so young (at age 44 in a bicycle accident), Chausson never had an opportunity to fulfill his early promise and develop a voice of his own.  What works he left behind show a debt to other composers, particularly in this case to Debussy.  Nonetheless, Chausson's works are innovative in their own right and well worth hearing.  I attended several months ago a performance of his Concerto in D major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21, written while he was still at work on the present piece, and thought it extremely accomplished.

The program closed with Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945).  The opera was one of Britten's greatest successes.  Originally conceived while he and his partner Peter Pears were living in California as conscientious objectors to World War II, its story was taken from a narrative poem by George Crabbe that told of a villainous sea captain who murdered his apprentices.  Crabbe's poem was set in his native of Aldeburgh, a town on England's Suffolk coast that was not coincidentally also the birthplace of Britten.  Reading the poem and finding inspiration in it caused both Britten and Pears to return England where they immediately set about drafting the opera to a libretto by Montagu Slater.  The character of Grimes underwent a transformation as the work progressed; he metamorphosed into a much more complex individual, a loner who stands against a society that wishes to destroy him because it cannot understand him.  In that sense Grimes stood in for both Britten and Pears who felt ostracized not only as conscientious objectors but also as homosexuals.  The four interludes (selected from a total of six) had been written for no other reason than to fill the time needed to make backstage scene changes, but in themselves they surprisingly caught very well the entire spirit of the project.  Titled "Dawn," "Sunday morning," "Moonlight" and "Storm," they formed a suite that was almost symphonic in breadth exactly as if Britten had composed them as an independent tone poem.

The Chicago Symphony once again proved on Friday evening that it is a world class ensemble and its Music Director Riccardo Muti one of the greatest conductors now active.  I had wondered before the concert how well the program would work with such diverse pieces played side by side, but everything came together extraordinarily well.  I was somewhat surprised that the piece I enjoyed most was Chausson's Poème de l' amour et de la mer, a work I had never before encountered.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Jupiter Players Perform Ligeti, Dvořák, Kodály and Dohnányi

On Monday afternoon I attended the first Jupiter Players performance I've heard this year.  I was drawn not only by the excellent program that featured works by such renowned Central European composers as Ligeti, Dvořák, Kodály and Dohnányi but also by the outstanding musicianship of both the ensemble players and the guest performers - pianist Drew Petersen and violinist Danbi Um.

The first half of the program consisted of shorter works and opened with the Andante and Rondo Op. 25 (1874) for flute, violin and piano by Franz Doppler.  The work was originally scored for two flutes and piano; Doppler had composed it as a showpiece that he and his brother Karl, both virtuoso flutists, would play while on tour.  Not surprisingly, considering its background, it proved a crowdpleaser that was really more salon music than classical.  The rondo was notable for the gypsy flavoring that Doppler included to emphasize his Hungarian roots.

The next work was Ligeti's Régi magyar társas táncok ("Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances") for flute, clarinet and strings.(1953).  In Ligeti's early days in Hungary, the repressive Soviet regime rigorously banned anything written in a modernist or experimental style.  As a result, the young composer was forced to fall back on more conventional subjects such as this piece which is in reality an arrangement of works by three late eighteenth century composers - János Lavotta, János Bihari, and Antal Csermák - presented in an unobjectionable and highly accessible manner.  Ironically, it's precisely these qualities that have made the Dances one of Ligeti's most popular works.

The Ligeti was followed by Dvořák's Sonatina in G major, Op. 100 (1893) originally scored for violin and piano.  This is one of the composer's "American" works written as a gift for two of his children while vacationing in Iowa.  In listening to the music Dvořák composed while in America, one senses an exuberance and freshness of expression; it's as if the distance from Europe had liberated him from the strictures of Classical Romanticism and had freed him to experiment with a new idiom at least partially based on Native American and Afro-American melodies he had been taught in New York by Harry Burleigh.  It was performed on Monday afternoon in a transcription by Jack Brymer for clarinet quintet.  

The first half of the program then ended with a performance of Kodály's Intermezzo (c. 1905) for string trio.  Along with Bartók, Kodály spent the early years of twentieth century wandering the Hungarian countryside where the two friends, using primitive audio equipment, recorded native folk tunes before they were lost forever to modernization.  Both Bartók and Kodály then went on to incorporate elements of this folk music in their own compositions.  What distinguishes such works, of which the present piece is an excellent example, is the absolute respect both composers displayed toward their sources.  There was no trace of condescension in their respective adaptations, and that fidelity can be heard quite clearly here.

After intermission cellist Zlatomir Fung performed two brief Etudes (Op. 73, Nos. 1 and 22) by David Popper.  I thought the second by far the more interesting of the two.

The final work on the program was Dohnányi's Piano Quartet in F-sharp minor (1891).  The piece was written when the composer was only fourteen years old and had up unitl then received only a limited musical education from his father and the local church organist.  It's intriguing then that he should have chosen the piano quartet for one of his earliest compositions.  The genre had more or less been invented by Mozart in the late eighteenth century but had never become a popular form among composers.  The most notable examples in the nineteenth century had been written by Schumann and Brahms.  Dohnányi's later style of composition was heavily influenced by Brahms, who in fact arranged for the first public performance of Dohnányi's Piano Quintet in C minor in 1895, and it's interesting to speculate that the young composer may already have learned an appreciation of Brahms's music even before commencing his formal musical training.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Galerie St. Etienne: Käthe Kollwitz

In her biography of Edward Hopper, author Gail Levin mentions in passing that the artist and his wife in 1956 attended an exhibit of Käthe Kollwitz's work at the Galerie St. Etienne.  It was a bit strange then to visit more than sixty years later the same gallery, albeit at a different location, to view the artist's work, one half of two-woman show entitled All Good Art Is Political.  I couldn't help but wonder if the some of the works on display might not have been the same that Hopper saw so long ago.

Kollwitz was one of those individuals whose lives are given over to social concerns.  In this she was only one of many twentieth century artists whose talent was put in service of larger issues and who sought to draw attention to the plight of those who were the victims of government indifference or of totalitarian repression.  The big difference was that Kollwitz was a woman.  As such, she had to struggle not only against the far right movements she opposed but also against the chauvinism of male artists who should have been her allies.

It's not surprising that Kollwitz early on developed a social conscience.  Her father was a radical politician while her maternal grandfather was a Lutheran minister ousted from his pastoral post for his espousal of reform.  Kollwitz's husband, whom she married at age 24, was a Berlin medical doctor whose patients consisted of oppressed workers and their needy families.  As a result, the social commentary implicit in Kollwitz's art was derived more from first hand experience than from intellectual leanings or affiliation with any particular political party.  Whatever else she may have been, Kollwitz was first and foremost the artist of the exploited and downtrodden.

Kollwitz's share of the current exhibit consists of thirty four graphic works - most of them etchings, lithographs and woodcuts - that extend over the course of her career from the late nineteenth century to the Nazi era.  Some of them, such as the lithographs Free Our Prisoners! (1919) and Help Russia (1921), are poster art.  The most moving of them, however, portray touching domestic scenes.  These include Unemployment (etching, 1909) and Killed in Action (lithograph, 1919).  There are also several works from different periods depicting prisoners - e.g., The Prisoners (etching, 1908) and Prisoners Listening to Music (lithograph, 1925) - which one wishes had been supplied with sufficient documentation to enable the viewer to understand the reasons for their confinement and the identity of their captors.

Wtthout doubt, the single most harrowing image at the exhibit is Raped (etching, 1907-1908).  It's one of seven prints that comprise Peasants' War, a series that took as its source the brutality of the sixteenth century German nobility toward the peasant population.  Here a disheveled woman lies on her back in a garden, her misery only made more pronounced by the beauty of the flowers surrounding her.  The work is immediately reminiscent of Goya's The Disasters of War, but in its iconography it is also an eerie precursor of the lustmord paintings by such artists as Otto Dix and George Grosz that were to gain prominence during the Weimar period.

The pain Kollwitz endured during her long life, including the loss of both a son and grandson in the two world wars, raises her work above the level of mere artistry and endows it with an immediacy that could not otherwise have been attained.  It's ironic that even now the humanity evidenced in her prints should be overshadowed by the same petty concerns - gender and perceived leftist leanings - that hampered her career during her own lifetime.  What is happening today in our own country is proof that the struggle in which she took part is far from over and far from won.  Kollwitz in death is just as much a champion of the oppressed and disenfranchised as she was in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century.

The other woman whose work was on display at the show was the contemporary British graphic artist Sue Coe who, like Kollwitz, has devoted her life and art to protest; but her works, while excellent, did not affect me as greatly as did those of the German artist.

The exhibit continues through March 10, 2018.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Serialized Noir Fiction


I've recently posted the first three chapters of my noir novel, The Dark Veil, on my other blog Central Park Blues and will continue to post a chapter each Wednesday until I've made the entire book available in serialized form.

I'd first thought of attaching a pdf to each week's post, but finally decided it would be more convenient to post each chapter within the body of the post itself.  There's no need then to download any files.

Those who who would rather download the entire book can click here for the Amazon Kindle edition or here for the Barnes & Noble Nook Book edition.

I hope at least some of my readers will find the story entertaining.  For those who are interested, here's a summary of the plot:

A down & out photographer is found shot to death in an alley in New York City's Chinatown. There weren't any witnesses, and so far the police haven't managed to come up with a single lead. Was it really nothing more than a random killing, or was the victim in possession of some terrible secret that cost him his life? 

That's the situation Quinn faces when he arrives back in Manhattan determined to find the killer. Thwarted by the police and barely surviving an attempt on his own life, Quinn struggles to find his way in a gentrified city that no longer has any place for him. Violent and unpredictable, he wanders the streets looking for answers.

Soon Quinn has come up with his own list of suspects, one that includes a knife wielding ex-con, a perverted Japanese filmmaker and a villainous Wall Street financier who just happens to be an expert marksman. Along the way, he falls in love with the gorgeous mystery woman who once modeled for the murdered photographer. But is Quinn too deeply involved to see where his quest is leading him? 

Set against a tumultuous background where rich and poor struggle for the soul of a city, the story moves relentlessly forward through death and mayhem until at last it reaches its bloody climax.