Friday, May 31, 2013

Skarstedt Gallery: Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portraits

The current exhibit of self portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Skarstedt Gallery on 79th Street consists of ten prints, all except two of which are irregularly sized (i.e., not standard size enlarging paper, except for the two that are 16 x 20). 

In most of the photos, Mapplethorpe is posing in various guises, all of them deliberately provocative, and his choice of roles is revealing.  In one he poses in a leather jacket while smoking a cigarette - the very image of the gay underworld's "rough trade."  In another (a platinum print measuring approximately 20 x 20), in which he wears horns similar to those seen in representations of the god Pan, his almost hostile stare serves as a direct challenge to all forms of conformance.  In a third, he is heavily made up and in furs.  Although the gallery's press release claims this last photo is a "direct reference" to Man Ray's famous photos of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy, I am not convinced of the connection barring further documentation that would support this claim.  The resemblance is just not that clear cut.  It may be simply that Mapplethorpe wanted a photo of himself in makeup and drag and liked this particular outfit.  In any event, even if the attribution were correct, it would seem to me not so much a "homage to Duchamp" as to the photographer Man Ray.

The photo that Mapplethorpe took of himself when he knew he was dying of AIDS is by far the most devastating in the exhibit.  Shot against a black backdrop with the photographer / sitter wearing a black turtleneck, Mapplethorpe grips tightly a walking stick surmounted by a death's head.  The camera's focus is on the hand holding the cane.  Due to the shallow depth of field, Mapplethorpe's disembodied pale face hovers slightly out of focus in the background to make it seem he were already a ghost.  Through the use of selective focus, the sculpted death's head is made to appear more real and "alive" than the dying photographer himself.

The most interesting moment at the exhibit came as I was preparing to leave and stepped into an office to see a close up photo of the death's head cane.  I asked the gallery attendant if all the photos on display had been printed by Tom Baril.  To my surprise, the attendant replied that many of the photos had been printed by Mapplethorpe himself.  When I informed her that to the best of my knowledge, based on my reading of the biography by Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe had never done any darkroom work in the course of his career, she marveled: "Well, you learn something new every day."

The exhibit continues through June 15, 2013.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

NY Philharmonic: Mahler #1

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 26, 2012

As I wrote in my October 19th post, I was not impressed last week by the NY Philharmonic under the direction of Rafael de Burgos. Tonight, though, was different.

The first half was short and centered on a piece of Mozart's lighter music, the Serenata Notturna with Sheryl Staples, Marc Ginsberg, Rebecca Young and David Grossman forming the "Salzburg quartet." On the Horn Concerto in E flat, one couldn't have found a better soloist than Philip Myers.

In the second half, the orchestra gave a strong performance of its late music director Mahler's first symphony. The strangeness of the third movement was fully captured and the finale was rousing. It's hard to understand today why the symphony stirred so much opposition in its original performances. Could the 1893 revisions have been that extensive?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

ACJW Ensemble Performs Samuel Adams, Mozart and Tchaikovsky

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 23, 2012

This was the first in a series that ACJW will be performing this season at Weill Recital Hall, definitely the most intimate setting in NYC to hear chamber music. Sitting in its nineteenth century elegance is a trip back in time to the world of Wharton's Age of Innocence

The first half began with twenty four strings, a sextet by Brooklyn based Samuel Carl Adams. The composer himself appeared onstage to explain how he'd come to create the piece. He seemed down to earth and not at all what I'd expected of a "creator of acoustic and electro-acoustic music." The music itself appeared incredibly difficult to play.

The Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, is one of his masterpieces of chamber music. I have an original instruments cd that I play often. Interestingly, the program notes tonight strongly emphasized the music's links to Freemasonry through Mozart's association with the clarinetist Anton Stadler. In this performance, Liam Burke was masterful on clarinet.

Tchaikovsky's passionate string sextet Souvenir de Florence closed the second half. While the entire ensemble displayed great musicianship, Clara Lyon and Grace Park stood out on violin.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

NY Philharmonic: Symphonie Fantastique

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 19, 2012

Lalo's Symphonie espagnole was the first piece performed by the NY Philharmonic, led by Rafael de Burgos, in yesterday evening's performance. The symphony is a light, pleasant piece with an Iberian accent, and the playing was competent if not distinguished. Augustin Hadelich, as the violin soloist, was more than adequate and performed seamlessly with the orchestra.

The performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique in the second half was more problematic. Every listener familiar with the piece and its history is aware of something wild eyed and out of control, almost psychedelic, lurking below the surface of Berlioz' revolutionary score. Last evening, that element remained hidden. This was fundamentally a civilized performance of a piece that is itself not entirely civilized. Its nightmare evocation of black magic in the final movement went unrealized. Instead, the weirdness of the Witches' Sabbath was subsumed under a deftly led interpretaton entirely lacking in drama. While the program notes correctly state: "Berlioz' sense of the programmatic goes well beyond the merely descriptive; it enters the realm of the psychological, imaging a state of mind that is far from stable and that spills into hallucination," the playing and conducting last evening no more explored an artist's tortured unconscious than does an evening of Puccini's La Boheme. That was a great disappointment. There's much more to Berlioz' music than the perfunctory, if melodic, reading it received here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Met Opera Orchestra Performs Wagner and Strauss

It's always dramatic when there's a cancellation and replacement as there was this afternoon at Carnegie Hall. But all went well, and mezzo Michelle DeYoung gave a strong performance of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder after having taken the place of ailing Eva Maria Westbroek. This piece followed the powerful Tannhauser Overture. It was the second time within a week that I had seen Semyon Bychkov conduct the orchestra, and he showed terrific command of the huge number of instruments (125 - 150) required for the Strauss in the second half.

As for Eine Alpensinfonie itself, it's the ultimate self indulgence for any composer to create a piece so extravagantly decadent. It was written between 1911 and 1915, according to the program notes, which would have been immediately before and after the outbreak of World War I. Did Strauss sense the cataclysm about to engulf Germany? After this piece, Stauss never again attempted a heroic tone poem. This may have partly been due to a change in focus from orchestral music to opera, but I suspect he must also have realized there was no longer a place in Europe for such narcissistic music as he had previously composed.

In other news related to the orchestra, The New York Times reported last week on its front page that James Levine would return for the May 19 concert at Carnegie Hall. Levine is an incredible conductor, and I've been lucky to have seen him conduct at the Met many times over the past decades. He's 69 now, but hopefully has many productive years ahead.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Japan Society: Edo Pop

The current exhibit at the Japan Society, Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints, is one of those that must seem a great idea on paper but that inevitably end up a fail in the actual presentation.  As the brochure accompanying the exhibit notes:
"Since the late twentieth century, a global shift from industrial to consumer culture has made the pop sensibility of ukiyo-e relevant to the modern era.  Like Edo-period artists, today's artists continue to explore the world and create works that colorfully reflect their lives in the present moment."
That's all well and good.  The problem, though, is that the continuity in intent described in the above quote is not reflected in a continuity of style.  The ukiyo-e prints by such masters as Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige display a degree of artistry and sensitivity that is nowhere approached by the twentieth century works hung indiscriminately beside them.  The result is a level of visual incongruity that is distracting to the viewer.

It is the contemporary artists who fare worse in this exhibit.  The works of such artists as Paul Binnie and Masami Teraoka definitely have merit in their own right.  Hung beside the prints of the above mentioned masters, though, they can only appear crude and garish.  These contemporary artists would have been much better served by an exhibit limited to a display of late twentieth century Japanese art.  They simply cannot compete with the masterpieces of eighteenth and nineteenth century art shown here.  Instead, they inevitably suggest a decline in the quality of Japanese popular culture itself.  In that sense, Teraoka's McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan succeeds far better than the artist could ever have envisioned in depicting the deleterious effects of Westernization in Japan following the end of the Edo Period.  It is readily apparent to the viewer how much has actually been lost.

I would strongly recommend seeing this exhibit, but I would also suggest that the viewer go through it twice - once to see the Edo Period prints, and once to see the contemporary artwork.  Among the Edo ukiyo-e, three selections from Hokusai's One Hundred Tales stand out, not only for their artistry but also because they evidence so well the fascination with the grotesque that even today permeates Japanese popular culture.

The exhibit continues through June 9, 2013.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Kishin Shinoyama

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 13, 2012

It seems strange that in the era of the internet there should still be major photographers outside the U.S. who do not receive the recognition they deserve. Certainly Kishin Shinoyama has to be considered a major photographer by any standard, and yet there is comparatively little information about him available online or anywhere else. In spite of the fact that he has published a number of critically acclaimed books, none are now in print and available to Americans readers. Even the 2009 police search of his home and office on suspicion of public indecency went largely unreported in the U.S.

It was only through a short article in Japan Times, whose Arts section is incidentally an excellent resource for those wishing to learn more about photography in Asia, that I first encountered Kishin's work earlier this week. The photos available online are very few in light of Kishin's long career and only give a hint of the breadth of his oeuvre. I had had no idea that Kishin was the photographer who had shot the iconic cover photo for John Lennon/Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy album. Yoko Ono herself announced the exhibit of this work in 2010 at the Audi Forum in Harajuku. I was also intrigued that Kishin had in 1993 photographed the enigmatic artist Balthus at the artist's home in Switzerland. But probably Kishin's most interesting photo, at least for me, is his shocking portrayal of the controversial Japanese novelist Mishima as St. Sebastian. Even to someone unfamiliar with Mishima's writings, this is an incredible and totally original portrait. I can't believe I'd never seen it before.

According to Japan Times, a rare major retrospective of Kishin's work will be held in Shinjuku at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery until December 24, 2012. I would consider this a "cannot miss" exhibit for anyone even slightly interested in photography who happens to be in Tokyo before the end of the year.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Otello at Met Opera

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 10, 2012

I went to the Met Opera for the first time this season to see Verdi's Otello. I consider this one of the three greatest operas. The combined power of its music and drama is overwhelming. Toscanini played cello in the orchestra when Otello premiered in 1887 at La Scala. and he later recalled how the audience who had come to give polite applause to an old man could not stop cheering. Afterwards, they pulled Verdi's carriage home in a gesture of homage.

The performance this evening was excellent. I had not previously heard the conductor Semyon Bychov, but he showed full control over both the Met Orchestra and Verdi's music. The singing by all cast members was solid. There was the night's bit of drama as the stage manager announced Botha had allergies but would go on singing. But what raised this performance to greatness was Renee Fleming's Desdemona as she sang to a sold out house. She's simply one of the best sopranos of all time.

Elijah Mushinsky's 1994 production is darkly lit; there is an attempt, not particularly successful, to liven things up with special effects. The program advises: "This production uses fire, lightning, and strobe effects." The overall effect is similar to that in last season's equally dark production of Don Giovanni.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Carnegie Hall Opening Night

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 4, 2012

What a great performance it was earlier this evening.

The Chicago Symphony proved itself once again to be the great world orchestra I'd once heard Solti lead. And Ricardo Muti proved himself to be one of the few great conductors still remaining and actively performing. 

Carmina Burana itself can only be described as "different." Despite the Latin lyrics, there's nothing in the least medieval about it. Nor was I able to detect the popularization of Stravinsky's music, even in its most "superficial aspects," that the program claimed to be present. Though this piece by Carl Orff is extremely popular, at the same time it's unlike anything else in the repertoire, and there's no true category for it in 20th Century music.

The overall impression tonight was one of a tightly disciplined performance. It cannot be easy to integrate a large orchestra with chorus in an hour-long piece, but here both worked together flawlessly. The precision with which the chorus responded to its musical cues was astonishing.

I enjoyed reading in the program that: "The title page of Orff's Carmina Burana promises 'secular songs to be sung by singers and choruses to the accompaniment of instruments and also of magic pictures.'" The program didn't provide any examples, though, or describe what these "magic pictures" may have looked like. It's really too bad none were used at this performance, but the level of playing and singing more than made up for the lack.

Monday, May 20, 2013

NY Philharmonic Performs Scheherazade

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on September 29, 2012

This was the beginning of the season for me and was the first concert on my subscription series to NY Philharmonic Saturday matinees. What I like most about this series is that member of the Philharmonic perform chamber music in the first half. This gives concert goers the opportunity to see the individual performers away from the orchestra.

This season all the chamber pieces will be by Brahms. The first was the Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, composed in 1891. It was interesting to hear that mellow tone that the clarinet added to the traditional string quartet. 

The second half featured the full orchestra, conducted by Alan Gilbert, performing Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, Op. 35. Though it was composed in 1888, only three years before the Brahms, the ballet music of Scheherazade is a world away from Brahms' restrained formalism. While Brahms was still firmly in the classical style, Rimsky-Korsakov's music was full of a lush decadence that was only empahasized by the piece's "Oriental" flourishes. 

Gilbert's conducting, though energetic, was unconvincing. The last movement was strident where it should have been forceful. The real joy was listening to the great violinist Glenn Dicterow as soloist.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pinchas Zukerman Conducts the NY Philharmonic

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on June 8, 2012

Celebrating his 100th performance with the New York Philharmonic, Pinchas Zukerman yesterday evening led the orchestra in an offering that centered on Mozart's music from vastly different periods in his career as a composer. 

In the first half, Zukerman showcased himself very well as both conductor and soloist, though he apparently wasn't wearing the standard conductor's tails. One of the greatest living violinists, his playing on both Bach's brief Violin Concerto in A minor (BWV 1041) and Mozart's famous "Turkish" Violin Concerto in A (K 219) was a tour de force. In the second half, his choice of Stravinsky's Concerto in D (which Jerome Robbins had choreographed as The Cage) and Mozart's 39th Symphony in E Flat (K 543) not surprisingly emphasized the Philharmonic's talented string sections. In fact, the most striking element of the concert was the richly textured sound that Zukerman was able to elicit at every moment from the orchestra.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

German Music at Carnegie Hall

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on March 4, 2012

On consecutive Saturday evenings, the two greatest German orchestras recently performed at Carnegie Hall. It presented a rare opportunity to contrast the styles of these two cultural bastions, all the more so as they both presented programs of all-German music.

On February 25th, the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle began with two lieder by Hugo Wolf for chorus and orchestra and a third that added a soprano, Camilla Tilling. I found all three pieces fascinating, and would have even if for no other reason than that they allowed me to hear the talented Westminster Choir perform a type of music with which I had never before associated them.

In the second half, the orchestra gave its own interpretation of Mahler's Second, the Resurrection, a symphony which has always sounded a deep personal resonance within me. The very first time I heard any of Mahler's music was when, at the New York Philharmonic in the mid 1980's, Leonard Bernstein filled in on short notice for an ailing conductor, tossed the original program, and instead launched the orchestra into the Second's opening movement. Overall, I thought the Berlin Philharmonic's performance with Rattle conducting, if it did not quite live up to Bernstein's interpretation, was much more nuanced than many I've heard over the years and yet still powerfully expressive. 

Yesterday evening, I heard the Vienna Philharmonic with Loren Maazel conducting, beginning with Mozart's next to last symphony, the #40 in G minor, followed by a nearly 80 minute suite, assembled by Maazel, of orchestral music from Wagner's Ring. Although nothing can match the power of the fully staged, four-evening Ring Cycle, this particular condensation was as effective as any. And hearing the great Vienna Philharmonic play Siegfried's Funeral March and the finale to Gotterdammerung had an overwhelming effect on me.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Alfred Stieglitz Exhibit at Seaport Museum

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on October 16, 2010

I went to the Seaport Museum for the first time last week. The museum is showing an interesting exhibit of Stieglitz' photos of NYC spanning a number of years of his residency here. They range from his pictorial work from the late nineteenth century to his views from the Shelton of the construction of the RCA building. One thing that should be noted, though, is that most of these photos are not original prints but extremely high quality photogravure reproductions (taken, I assume, from issues of Camera Work). There is also a smaller exhibit of photos of NYC taken by other photographers associated with the Photo Secession as well as a number of out of print photo books of NYC shown under glass.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Marcel Duchamp and the Meaning of Art

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on January 27, 2010

No book in a long while has made me think as deeply about art as has Calvin Tomkins' excellent biography of Marcel Duchamp. Long before the end, it becomes apparent that it was Duchamp, not Picasso, who was the great artistic influence of the 20th century. Duchamp's constant refusal to see art as "retinal" and his insistence that any object made by anyone could be a work of art, made him a leading figure of movements as diverse as Surrealism and Pop. He had personal acquaintance with every important artist of the century and was a subversive influence on them all. 

Calvin Tomkins is simply a great writer. I had not realized until I had finished Duchamp that it was Tomkins who had written Living Well Is the Best Revenge, a wonderful short biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy. One of Tomkins's greatest strengths is to bring to life not only the subjects of his biographies but also those, famous or not, with whom they interacted. In Duchamp, Tomkins has found a biographer's greatest challenge -- a subject of such wide ranging intellect that the biographer must himself possess great intelligence and imagination in order to grasp the implications of the ideas which he's outlining.

A biographer also has to have an above average sense of humor to bring out the humanity in Duchamp. My favorite part is when the elder Duchamp attends a lecture about himself that accuses him of incestuous feelings toward his sister. The lecture is given by Arturo Schwarz, a scholar obsessed with reading occult meanings into Duchamp's work. Afterwards, Duchamp meets Schwarz and simply says, "I couldn't hear a word, but I enjoyed it very much."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Beethoven at Carnegie Hall

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on January 25, 2010

In the past two weeks, I've seen two excellent performances of Beethoven symphonies in two extremely different styles.

On January 15th, I saw Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven's 6th, the Pastoral. Although Barenboim has never been either my favorite conductor or pianist, I have to give him a lot of credit here. His was the classic approach, nuanced and unrushed, and it worked perfectly. At intermission, I heard favorable comparisons to Otto Klemperer, known for his slow tempos. It was flawless performance by the Vienna Philharmonic. And they showed again, after intermission, what an awe inspiring orchestra they were with Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan

On January 24th, I saw James Levine conduct the Met Opera Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's 5th. It was actually the last piece in a very long concert -- 2 1/2 hours including intermission -- that started strongly with Schubert's 8th, the Unfinished, and continued with lieder and an arias by R. Strauss. The soprano, Diana Damrau, was excellent and called back for an encore, a second aria from Ariadne auf Naxos. Levine's conducting of the 5th was crisp and totally controlled.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Muti conducts the NY Philharmonic

This article was originally published on my Typepad blog on January 20, 2008

I wouldn’t normally write about my interest in classical music, but Scriabin is such an overlooked composer and performances of his music so rare that I can’t help mentioning Muti’s great conducting at the NY Philharmonic Saturday evening. He may be controversial in his dealings with some orchestras, as at La Scala, but he does have flare and brilliance. The Poem of Ecstasy is one of Muti’s specialties and orchestra’s execution was flawless. The piece itself could be described as symphonic psychedelia. There was a great quote in the program notes from1960 when Henry Miller wrote in Nexus:
"Scriabin’s music sounds like I think – sometimes. Has that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. The first time I heard it I played it over and over. Couldn’t shut it off. It was like a bath of ice, cocaine, and rainbows. For weeks I went about in a trance. Something had happened to me."