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 msuic's nuances were thoroughly realized.