Thursday, May 24, 2018

Galerie St. Etienne: Expressionist Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibit continues through July 6, 2018.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Debussy, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Edwynn Houk Gallery: Erwin Blumenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibit continues through June 2, 2018.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dvořák, Mozart and Messiaen

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

Jens Malte Fischer's Biography of Mahler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Simon Rattle Conducts Das Lied von der Erde

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

Simon Rattle Conducts Mahler No. 9

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Beethoven No. 9

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Met Opera: Joyce DiDonato Sings in Cendrillon

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

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

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

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

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

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