Thursday, August 29, 2013

Carnegie Hall: Boston Symphony Performs Wagner

This article was originally published on April 6, 2013

Daniele Gatti conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra yesterday evening in a concert marking the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth on May 22, 1813.   The second half featured mezzo Michelle DeYoung.

The first portion of the program was relatively short and consisted of two excerpts from Götterdämmerung, Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music.  The music was powerful enough in itself, but I've heard so many Ring orchestral suites that the omission of the opera's finale from this particular selection made it feel somewhat incomplete. 

The second half featured the overture to Tannhäuser, Kundry's Narrative from Act II of Parsifal (featuring Ms. DeYoung), the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, and finally the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (again featuring Ms. DeYoung).  Beyond the sheer overwhelming beauty of the Prelude and Liebestod, the importance of Tristan lies in its musical innovation, that is, in the new approach it took to tonality.  As the Wikipedia article on Wagner states:
"Wagner's later musical style introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process (leitmotif) and operatic structure. Notably from Tristan und Isolde onwards, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system, which gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, which include the so-called Tristan chord."
Throughout the evening, I had the impression I was listening to an ensemble striving mightily to give Wagner's great music its due but falling a bit short of what could be accomplished by an orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic or the Met Orchestra.  This performance's greatest strength lay in Mr. Gatti's work on the podium.   Having conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth from 2008 through 2011, he was in a unique position to bring new insight to Wagner's complex musical achievement.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Juilliard Orchestra Performs Ravel, Tomasi and Stravinsky

This article was originally published on April 5, 2013

Yesterday evening's performance by the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, was an opportunity for the students to show their mastery of the orchestral format, and they did this exceptionally well. 

Ravel's well known Les Contes des Ma mère l'oye (the Mother Goose suite) is beautifully melodic, and it would take a much colder heart than mine to resist it.  The Trumpet Concerto by Henri Tomasi that followed was not nearly so well known a composition; this was actually the first time I'd heard it.  As I sat in the audience, what I found fascinating to watch was the almost continual switching among mutes that the piece required.  The work was a showcase for the soloist, Kevin Quill, who made the listener wish the repertoire for the solo trumpet wasn't so limited.

The second half of the program was devoted to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919 version).  The Firebird is today best known as the composer's first full collaboration with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.  Although it doesn't reach the levels of genius found in the later Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrushka, the music contains a number of elements whose modernism is still striking more than a century after having been composed.  There are several versions of orchestral suites which Stravinsky derived from his ballet, but the 1919 is to me the most satisfying.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Met Opera: La Traviata

This article was originally published on April 4, 2013

Certainly for me the high point of yesterday evening's performance of La Traviata was the appearance onstage of Placido Domingo as Giorgio Germont early in the second act.  At age 72, the legendary tenor still possesses a fine voice as well as a magnetic stage presence.  When he began to sing, the effect on the audience was electric.  In the crucial scene where Alfredo's father confronts Violetta, no one could have brought out better than Domingo the nuances in Verdi's critique of the hypocrisy underlying bourgeois morality.

Diane Damrau, whom I had never before heard, excelled as Violetta and I would go out of my way to hear her sing again, especially in bel canto roles.  In fact, all the cast were uniformly superb and worked diligently with the orchestra to bring this great opera to life in an admirable performance.  This despite the difficulties the music presents to the singers.  In an online interview, Ms. Damrau stated:
"People say you need three different voices for Traviata. You need to have the flexibility and brilliance for the first act. Then the centerpiece of the opera is the duet with Germont—that’s a big lyric soprano. And for the last act you want to have a dramatic soprano. Everything has to come together really, the colors, the emotions… In terms of difficulty, it’s a five-star role."
The production itself, which originally premiered in 2010, was a disappointment.  Though I have no wish to be negative, it seems whenever I have been at the Met this season I might just as well have been attending an exhibit of outsider art, so totally outlandish were many of the productions.  In this particular case, though I appreciate Willy Decker's point, in an essay in the Program Notes, that "there is no place for her [the dying Violetta] to hide from the inexorability of time passing," that does not excuse placing a giant replica of a Timex watch at center stage in the finale of the second act.  It's a bit much to think an audience as sophisticated as the Met's would need so heavy handed a metaphor to drive home so obvious a point.  In the end, affectations such as these prove only visually incongruous and distracting.

In any event, the great singing and wonderful music I witnessed last evening rescued La Traviata from whatever indignities a lackluster production may have imposed upon it.  But I would so much more have enjoyed hearing this same cast in a restaging of an earlier Zeffirelli production.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Linnaeus Tripe at Hans P. Kraus Jr.

This article was originally published on March 29, 2013

It is for such venues as Hans P. Kraus Jr. that this blog exists.  Located a few blocks from the Metropolitan, it's as far from the latter's bustling tourist crowds as one can get; and yet, to anyone with an interest in the early history of photography, the exhibits shown here are as exciting as any on view at the larger venue.  In a world inundated daily by floods of images, it's easy to lose sight of photography's beginnings.  A gallery such as Kraus performs an invaluable service by preserving the early masterpieces of photography and by putting them on view to the general public. In addition, the staff are knowledgeable and willingly share their expertise with an unknown visitor.

As for the works on display, Linnaeus Tripe's 1855 appointment as "artist in photography" to the British diplomatic mission to Burma effectively makes him, together with Francis Frith, one of the earliest professional travel photographers on record, a true forerunner of today's National Geographic photojournalists.  Considering the primitive technology he had at hand, the difficulties Tripe faced in completing his mission must have been enormous.  If the rainy weather of the English countryside had hindered Talbot a few years earlier, how much more so must have Southeast Asia's monsoon season worked against Tripe.  He later claimed that during his stay he had only been able to work a total of 36 days.

The photos shown at the exhibit are salt prints made from waxed calotype negatives.  Salt prints represent the earliest form of photography; the process was invented by Talbot who used it in printing his own work a decade before Tripe returned with it to India.  In the examples displayed from the Burma portfolios, Tripe shows himself to have mastered the medium in an extremely short period of time.  (He had only begun studying photography while on leave in England from 1850 through 1854, and his earliest surviving photo dates to 1853.)  Tripe also displayed excellent compositional skills.  There is one fascinating print at the Kraus exhibit that shows two individuals in the lower foreground slightly blurred by the length of the exposure.  One wonders if they were there by chance or if Tripe had instead deliberately placed them within the frame.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Saidenberg Faculty Recital: Joel Krosnick

This article was originally published on March 28, 2013

"Faculty recital" is a dry term that fails woefully to describe the excellence of the nearly three hour performance yesterday evening before a full house at the Juilliard School's Paul Hall.  It would be far more accurate to characterize it as a unique gathering of musicians' musicians.  Though none of those who appeared onstage may be household names, together they represent the most notable pool of musical talent available to classical music lovers in NYC.  It was an education in itself to hear cellist Joel Krosnick and his associates explore the entire range of the repertoire from baroque (Bach) to modernism (Elliott Carter) to impressionism (Debussy).  And that was only the first third.

Using the cello as a focal point, the program dealt with any number of musical styles.  Among the most notable pieces were two canons from J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge, performed by Joel Krosnick and Laurie Smukler, Ralph Shapey's Duo Variations for cello and violin, performed by Joel Krosnick and Ronald Copes, and Mozart's String Quartet in D, K. 575, performed by the full Juilliard Quartet.  There was even the world premiere of a new piece by Richard Wernick, entitled For Two, for two cellos that Mr. Krosnick performed with Gwen Krosnick.

One of the highlights of yesterday evening's recital was a rare appearance by the pianist Seymour Lipkin.  (A New York Times review from March 1981 stated:  "Seymour Lipkin gave his first piano recital in 20 years Saturday night... If another year goes by before his next one, it will be too long.")  His performance of the Beethoven Piano Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1 (the Ghost), together with Joel Krosnick and Laurie Smuckler, was an unusual opportunity to hear an incredible musician perform a composition Wikipedia terms one of the "best known works in the genre."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Naumburg Bandshell: The Chamber Music Society Performs Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorak

Despite the persistent drone of helicopters flying overhead, last evening's concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Naumburg Bandshell was nevertheless an exceptional event and one of the most pleasant ways imaginable to pass a summer evening in the city. This was one of those quintessential NYC experiences - the glittering lights of apartment buildings on Central Park West were visible through the trees as the respectful audience listened attentively to a performance that was only occasionally punctuated by ringing cellphones and bawling infants.

The performance by the Chamber Music Society was the final event in the 105th season of concerts sponsored by the Naumburg family, the oldest continuous series of free outdoor concerts  in the U.S. and itself a successor to a tradition inaugurated in 1859 when a free band concert was held in a temporary structure in the Park's Ramble.  A wooden and cast-iron Music Pavilion was erected in the Mall in 1862 but was then razed some sixty years later.  The current bandshell was built in 1923 and only narrowly escaped destruction in 1993 when a court order prevented its demolition by the Parks Department.  Last evening marked the first appearance of the Chamber Music Society under the auspices of the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts.

The program contained some of the most popular and accessible pieces in the chamber music repertoire.  The first half consisted of Mozart's Flute Quartet in D, K. 285, and Beethoven's Serenade in D, Op. 25; the concert concluded with Dvorak's famous Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81.  As for the musicians, particularly outstanding were pianist Wu Han, the Society's co-artistic director who performed on the Dvorak Quintet, and flutist Tara Helen O'Connor who performed on the Mozart and Beethoven.  The other performers, all of them notable, were David Finckel (cello), Kristin Lee (violin), Sean Lee (violin) and Daniel Phillips (viola).

For those who weren't lucky enough to be there, the concert was recorded by WQXR and is scheduled to be broadcast on September 2, 2013.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings

This article was originally published on March 25, 2013

Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings is a lavish large format book originally published by the National Gallery of Art in 1983.  It contains a selection of prints from the "key set" donated to the Gallery by Georgia O'Keefe.  The seventy-three reproductions are in tritone offset for greater fidelity and are printed on archival paper.  My own favorites are the portraits of Duchamp and Picabia and the nude study of Georgia Engelhard.  Curiously, there is no reproduction of Stieglitz' most famous image, The City of Ambition.

There is also an essay by Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the Gallery's department of photographs, on "the idea photography" in which she traces the photographer's search for "objective truth."  Greenough recognizes the influence of the modern art he championed in Stieglitz' decision to reject pictorialism and the Photo-Secession and instead embrace "straight" photography.  It was Stieglitz' search for abstraction in photography that eventually led him to create his Equivalents cl0ud series. 

There aren't going to be any surprises in a book such as this, but there is an interesting insight into Stieglitz' character in a quote from a letter he wrote to Ansel Adams dated December 7, 1933.
"... You ask what my attitude is.  Man can't you figure it out for yourself.  I am trying to sustain life at its highest - to sustain a living standard.  To let every moment actually live without any ism or any fashion or cult attached to it... I chose my road years ago - & my road has become a jealous guardian of me.  That's all there is to it..."
For those interested in a comprehensive biography of Stieglitz, I can recommend Richard Whelan's Alfred Stieglitz for the honesty with which it approaches its subject.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Neue Gallerie: German Expressionism 1900 - 1930

This article was originally published on March 22, 2013

I was thoroughly confused at the Neue Gallerie's current (through April 22nd) exhibit of German Expressionism from 1900 to 1930.  Although all the museum's signage and informational handouts indicate that both its floors have been given over to the exhibit, the actual display of Expressionist paintings, those of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) and Die Brücke (The Bridge), is limited to one small room on the third floor and consists of roughly twenty works.  Among these are the paintings shown in the slideshow on the museum's website; they represent the work of such important German artists as Nolde, Kirchner, Pechstein and the Russian born Kadinsky.

Unfortunately, a casual visitor to the museum who possessed no prior knowledge of German art might very well come away with a misapprehension of the scope of the Expressionist movement.  Most of the artists currently on view, though they may very well have been contemporaries of the Expressionists, had little to do with that particular school itself.  Chief among these are Gustav Klimt, the symbolist painter at the heart of the Vienna Secession, and Christian Schad and Otto Dix who are primarily associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit ("New Objectivity") movement.

It is also extremely disappointing that the Neue Gallerie limits its current exploration of Expressionism to paintings and drawings.  Expressionism was also a vital movement within the German film industry.  And yet there are no stills shown from either F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu or Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  In any serious discussion of a given art movement, no analysis can be attempted without having first taken into account that movement's influence on all forms of artistic expression.

None of this should be taken as an advisory to avoid the Neue Gallerie.  Many of the works on display, whether Expressionist or not, are among the masterpieces of early twentieth century art.  The exhibit also provides a fascinating glimpse into the directions German art might have pursued had it not been interrrupted, first by World War I and then by the Nazis.  The Nazis also did not care for fine distinctions between schools of painting.  They did not hestitate to lump Expressionism together with the Neue Sachlichkeit under the label entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art").

The exhibit continues through April 22, 2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot

This article was originally published on March 18, 2013

The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot by Larry J. Schaaf is a lavishly produced large format art book that reproduces 100 of Talbot's best negatives and prints taken over the course of this pioneer's photographic career. 

At the end of October, I had the privilege of viewing many of these works at an excellent exhibit at Hans P. Kraus here in NYC, and I can verify that the book's reproductions are faithful to the originals in every respect.  To see them in this volume in chronological order is to be able to trace Talbot's advances from first attempts, such as Plate 1 (Oriel Window at Lacock Abbey), that are so murky it is difficult to decipher the subject to later works, such as Plate 82 (The Open Door),  that display a mastery of the salt print, still practiced today as an alternative photographic process.  And Talbot's progress is not merely technical.  The reader can see the evolution of Talbot's artistic vision over the course of time as his aspirations went from mere efforts at mechanical reproduction to the creation of important works of art.

This book does not provide a full biography of Talbot, whose later litigation over the licensing of his patents controversially hindered the course of photography in the UK, nor does it delve into his collaboration with John Herschel, the preeminent British scientist of the nineteenth century, in the invention of photography itself.  The latter subject, though, is extremely well covered in Schaaf's Out of the Shadows

Schaaf has an engaging writing style, despite the too frequent use of exclamation points, and is the leading authority on his subject.  His enthusiasm for Talbot's work draws the reader in and enables him/her to appreciate the full scope of Talbot's achievement.  My main criticism concerns the lack of any information on the equipment Talbot used in his experiments.  For example, Plate 32 (Constance Talbot) is a portrait that looks as though it had been taken with a short telephoto lens while Plate 34 (Inside the South Gallery) is an interior that appears to have been shot on a wide angle lens.  Further documentation on this subject would have been welcome to enthusiasts who are themselves photographers.

Friday, August 16, 2013

NY Historical Society: WWII & NYC

This article was originally published on March 16, 2013

The NY Historical Society had a great idea in creating its current show, WWII & NYC, but unfortunately failed in its execution.  The exhibit, which the viewer sees while winding his/her way through narrow corridors, is filled with artifacts that may be interesting in themselves but are never organized into a cohesive whole that would provide a sense of what it was actually like to live in the city during that period any more than would a random assortment of newspaper or magazine clippings. 

The first items in the exhibit trace the beginnings of the nuclear age.  What looks like a rusted boiler turns out to be the device first used in enriching uranium-235.  Placed before it is Albert Einstein's fateful letter to Franklin Roosevelt in which the former urged the administration to push forward with the development of atomic weapons.  It's a simple, carefully typed letter typical of academic correspondence.  One wonders how carefully Einstein must have pondered its contents before affixing his signature.  Would this proponent of peace ever have involved himself if he had knows that horrors that would be unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years later?  As the Wikipedia entry notes:
"On the eve of World War II, he helped alert President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany might be developing an atomic weapon, and recommended that the U.S. begin similar research; this eventually led to what would become the Manhattan Project. Einstein was in support of defending the Allied forces, but largely denounced using the new discovery of nuclear fission as a weapon. Later, with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which highlighted the danger of nuclear weapons."
The artwork included in the exhibit is generally on the heroic scale and is represented primarily by Thomas Hart Benton, the Midwesterner whose Regionalist style fits poorly with any depiction of NYC.  A much more engaging work is Irving Boyer's Prospect Park that shows servicemen relaxing at a Brooklyn subway station. 

The exhibit continues through May 27, 2013.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

ACJW Ensemble Performs Bach, Mozart and Brahms

This article was originally published on March 12, 2013

Before beginning Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #6, the piece that opened yesterday evening's concert at Paul Hall, the violist, Jack Stulz, and the harpsichordist, Tyler Wottrich, engaged the audience in a discussion.  They explained and demonstrated two different approaches to a certain passage of the concerto, one vigorous and the other much softer.  I had never seen this done before and thought it an excellent device to draw the audience more closely into the music, if only to hear which approach prevailed. 

Besides the Bach concerto, the program featured Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, and Brahms' String Quintet in G, Op. 111.  Though all three pieces were excellent, it was the Brahms that had the greatest impact.  Although it was intended by the composer to be his last work, the music is certainly not that of an old man.  It is instead a passionate piece, brimming with vitality, in which Brahms makes clear that he is planning to take his departure at the height of his powers.

I enjoyed the performance so much that it would be difficult to given an unbiased review even if I were better qualified.  I only wish I had space to praise all the musicians for their great talent.  At intermission, I met the pianist Alexandra Le, an attractive and charming woman, who had shown extraordinary ability in her performance in the Mozart Quartet.  Grace Park stood out on violin in both the Mozart and the Brahms.  And Jack Stulz and Tyler Wottrich, mentioned above, were both so skilled on their respective instruments that one feels either of their differing approaches to the Bach would be equally worth hearing.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Walker Evans The Hungry Eye

I posted here late last month my impressions of the MOMA exhibit recreating the 1938 American Photographs show.  Seeing Evans' photos on display renewed my interest in the photographer and motivated me to finally read Walker Evans The Hungry Eye by Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, a copy of which had lain unopened on my bookshelves for years.

The big problem with any book that attempts a comprehensive overview of Evans' work is that the photographer's career extended over such a great length of time (almost a half century from 1927 to 1975) and contained so many important works that it would be difficult for any author to cover adequately the entire breadth of his oeuvre in a single volume.  And that is the problem here.  The study proceeds chronologically - first in groupings by years and then in sub-groupings that discuss the individual projects completed within those time frames.  Such an approach results in major accomplishments, such as the FSA work or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, unfortunately receiving less attention than they deserve and minor assignments, such as the 1941 Florida Mangrove Coast photos, receiving only perfunctory mention in passing.  Most importantly, there is no attempt at a synthesis that would provide the reader with an understanding of the end to which Evans was working.  The artist's intentions remain an enigma.  In the Foreword, author John T. Hill speaks of  Evans' "purposes" but makes no attempt to define them.
"For Evans, photography was an infinitely malleable medium, one meant to be hammered to fit his own purposes.  For him, there were no canons or sacrosanct methods.  The camera was simply a convenient mechanism for collecting ideas, icons, and anecdotes.   Like a master carpenter selecting the right tool, Evans moved easily from one photographic format to another, choosing whichever seemed to suit the job at hand."
Evans, of course, is one of the key figures of 20th century photography not only for his own work, which was brilliant and innovative, but also for the influence he had on the generation of photographers who followed him.  His proteges included such notable figures as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.  Evans stubbornly adhered to his own path in determining the direction his work was to take.  While Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were promoting straight photography purely as an aesthetic experience in the service of fine arts, Evans saw the importance of creating photos that captured the spirit of the country and its people, no matter how depressed or cynical their outlook might be.  This particularly incensed Adams who wrote of American Photographs: "A poor excuse, and imitation of the real beauty and power of the land and the real people inhabiting it."  And yet, through Evans' insistence on anonymity rather than on empahsizing the subject, his images were in themselves timeless and transcended any purely documentary function they might otherwise have had.

The reproductions of Evans' work contained in The Hungry Eye are excellent but often of such small dimensions, especially in Abrams' 2004 reduced format edition, that they lack the impact they would otherwise have had.  Also, there is very little technical information provided for any of the photos shown and this makes it difficult to fully appreciate the scope of Evans' achievement.  The text is limited to introductory remarks to each group of photos shown and is lacking any cohesive commentary.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Met Opera: Francesca da Rimini

This article was originally published on March 5, 2013

When the Met announced in its Program Notes that last evening's performance of Francesca da Rimini was the "first time this season," it was something of an understatement.  This was actually the first time this production had been seen since 1986, more than a quarter century earlier.  And before that revival, created for the Met's 1983 - 84 centennial season, the opera had been out of the repertory since 1918, a gap of 66 years.

I have to confess that I only attended the current production because it had been part of my subscription series for the season.  But I was glad I went.  The opera is more than a historical curiosity.  Although I had never previously heard any music by Riccardo Zandonai, he turned out to be a truly masterful composer.  Writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Renato Chiesa called the opera "one of the most original and polished Italian melodramas of the 20th century, [which] combines a powerful gift for Italian melody ... with an exceptional command of orchestration."  Surely, the end of Act I, where Paolo and Francesca first meet wordlessly to the accompaniment of a solo cello, is one of the most haunting passages in all opera.

The plot, of course, originates in The Inferno and contains one of Dante's more memorable lines.  While describing Paolo's and Francesca's discovery of their shared passion while reading of Lancelot and Guinevere, the poet wrote suggestively: "That day they read no more."  Dante's story was taken to a whole new level, however, by the notorious playwright Gabriele D'Annunzio in a drama he wrote for his lover, Eleanora Duse.  It was this somewhat lurid source that Tito Ricordi used as the basis for his libretto.

If the music itself has any fault, it may lie in the multiplicity of its influences.  The impressionism of Act III is abruptly followed by the pure verismo of Act IV, leading the Program Notes to comment on "the duality of sophistication and brutality that is at the core of the drama."  The Notes go on to remark "how intensely Zadonai was trying to distance this work from the conventions of Italian opera."  And it is this deliberate wish to be different, I believe, that accounts for the opera's lack of popularity.  If only Zadonai had compromised with his principles and inserted a few arias (and I'm quite sure he was capable of composing arias as charismatic as any written by Puccini), the opera would certainly be performed more often than it is today and would perhaps enjoy a place in the standard repertoire.

The current (that is, the 1984) production at the Met is all one could wish for.  Piero Faggoni's design is much lovelier and more romantic than the Met's more recent misguided attempts at relevance.  Eva-Maria Westbroek is excellent as Francesca; and Marco Armiliato handles the complex score, with all its shifts in mood and style, extremely well.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lola Álvarez Bravo

This article was originally published on March 1, 2013

The NY Times Lens blog recently published a short article on Lola Álvarez Bravo (1907 - 1993), once married to Mexican photography icon Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902 - 2002). The article also contains a slide show that serves as an excellent introduction to her work.

An archive of Lola Bravo's vintage prints was only discovered in 2007 when James Oles, a lecturer at Wellesley College who had met the photographer in the early 1990s, received a call from a museum in Mexico City. It transpired that "relatives of one of Lola’s friends, who had bought her old apartment, had been safe guarding several boxes that had been left behind. One of them had taken the time to preserve and order the prints." It is those photos, now known as the Gonzalez-Rendon archive, that are shown in the article's slide show and that form the basis for an exhibit that will be on view at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson from March 30 through June 23, 2013.

It is obvious from looking at these photos that Lola Bravo had not only a strong sense of what was visually compelling but also a social conscience that she employed repeatedly in her street photos of the poor in Mexico's Oaxaca region in the 1920's. There are also excellent portraits of such artists as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and several fascinating photo montages.

It would be interesting to know the interraction, if any, between Tina Modotti and Lola Bravo. Lola's husband Manuel, according to Wikipedia, met Modotti in 1927, the same period from which the instant Gonzalez-Rendon archive dates. The meeting had a profound impact on Manuel's career, and he eventually took over Modotti’s job as photographer for the magazine Mexican Folkways after her deportation. Although the interraction between Manuel Bravo and Modotti is fairly well documented, there is almost no mention of Lola Bravo to be found.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Juilliard Quartet Performs Beethoven, Rhodes and Mozart

This article was originally published on February 27, 2013

It was raining yesterday evening in Manhattan, but the weather alone cannot be entirely to blame for the poor attendance at the Juilliard Quartet's faculty recital. This was one of the premier performances of chamber music this season, featuring both late Beethoven and late Mozart played by a legendary ensemble, and yet there were any number of empty seats at Alice Tully. One wonders how chamber music can retain its audience if such a concert as this cannot fill a small hall even when tickets are free.

The first piece on the program was Beethoven's String Quartet in F, Op. 135, the last complete quartet finished by the composer before his death. It is much shorter than the other late quartets and lacks the drama of the Op. 131 and 132, but it still contains some of the composer's most beautiful music, particularly in the third movement, the lento assai. The piece is also famous, as the program points out, for Beethoven's inscription "Muss es sein?" on the score itself.

The Beethoven was followed by Samuel Rhodes' String Quintet. Rhodes has been the quartet's violist since 1969 and will be retiring at the end of the current season. Apparently, the string quintet is his only major composition. It was not, however, written as a valediction for the occasion. Instead, it was composed in 1968 as a thesis for Rhodes' M.F.A. from Princeton. The piece is so well constructed that one wonders why Rhodes did not continue as a composer.

After intermission and a brief bit of drama when someone in the audience became ill, the program concluded with Mozart's String Quintet in D, K. 593. The program quotes the Novellos' 1829 diary which recounts Mozart's friendship with Hadyn and the fact that the two composers had actually played together on this piece. That must have been quite an evening to have witnessed.

The additional violist for both quintets was Roger Tapping who will join the Quartet, replacing Samuel Rhodes, next season.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Christie's: the deLighted eye

The article immediately below was originally published on January 29, 2013

An article from Reuters last week announced that a private collection of rare photographs will be going up for auction at Christie's (Rockefeller Center location) in April.  According to the article, "The 70 prints, which were made mainly in the 1920s, were amassed by a private collector and focused on photographers influenced by the artistic revolution in Western Europe at the turn of the century."  The photos were assembled by a South American collector, with the help of advisor Jill Rose, from 1979 through the late 1990's and are referred to collectively as "the deLighted eye."

Reuters describes a selection of the  photos as follows:

"One of the highlights..., with a pre-sale estimate of $600,000, will be 'Nude,' a 1925 photo by Weston of his lover Miriam Lerner, a Los Angeles socialite... 
"Several works ... are by Surrealist artist Man Ray. 'Untitled Rayograph,' a 1923 abstract photo is expected to sell for up to $350,000 and 'Francis Picabia, Grande Vitesse,' which shows the artist driving a fast car and was published in 1925, has a pre-sale estimate of up to $150,000. 
"Stieglitz's 'From the Back Window -291- N.Y. Summer 1914,' one of a series of photos from his 291 gallery showing a view of New York, is expected to be another top seller with a pre-sale estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. 
"Another cityscape from the collection is Edward Steichen's 'Bricks,' which was taken from his apartment on West 86th Street in New York and could fetch up to $300,000. 
"A 1917 Vortograph, which is composed of repetitions of forms in a triangular arrangement, by Alvin Langdon Coburn titled 'The Eagle,' and once part of the collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y."
I searched online after having read the Reuters article and discovered that there is also a book entitled Modernist Masterworks to 1925 : From "the deLIGHTed eye", a Private Collection, published by ICP which I assume is of the same collection although it cannot be inclusive since the publication date given is 1985.

The article below was originally published on February 22, 2013 under the title The Best Photo Exhibit of 2013

Last month, I posted about "The deLighted eye," a collection of rare photos that is to be auctioned at Christie's Rockefeller Center.  Yesterday, I was lucky enough to spend a half hour alone (with a gallery attendant and two security guards) as I viewed the exhibit on Christie's 20th floor.  Take it from a photographer -- this is a knockout show, perhaps the best I've seen in the city in the last five years.

The credit for this wonderful show goes to the Chilean architect Carlos Alberto Cruz who, with the assistance of Jill Rose, assembled the collection in the first place.  I know nothing about the man other than what's online, but he has shown uncanny discernment in putting these photographs together and discovering relationships among them that give this display of 1920's photography a unifying force.

Many of photography's greatest names are represented at the exhibit, but usually by lesser known masterpieces.  Man Ray is here with Grand Vitesse (1924) with its handwritten inscription to Francis Picabia and its distorted racing car image reminiscent of Lartigue's famous 1912 photo of the French Grand Prix.  Tina Modotti's Texture and Shadow (1929), a photo of what looks like a rumpled bedsheet, is a wonderful abstract of texture, light and shadow printed in palladium.  Edward Steichen's Bricks (1922), shot from his apartment on West 86th Street, is another study of light and texture created this time from the bare brick walls of a neighboring building.  László Maholy-Nagy's Fotogramm (1925) is a tour de force of modernist abstraction.  And finally, Adolf de Meyer's gorgeous 1907 bromoil print Chrysanthemums, from an earlier period, is a perfect example of the pictorialist aesthetic.

Other masterpieces include a "rayograph" (1923) by Man Ray as well as his famous portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1921) taken for the Monte Carlo banknote scheme.  František Drtikol is represented by Nude Abstraction (1924) that clearly shows his signature use of light and heavy shadow among off-kilter planes.  And there are works by lesser known photographers such as Francis Bruguière who created the striking montage Experiment (1925) while working on the film The Way.

Although today is the last day of the current exhibit on the 20th floor, the standard pre-auction viewing will be available at Christie's from March 29th through April 3rd while the actual auction is to be held on April 4, 2013.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

ACJW Ensemble Performs Mazzoli, Poulenc and Brahms

This article was originally published on February 19, 2013

Before last evening's performance by the ACJW Ensemble at Weill Recital Hall, I had never heard Francis Poulenc's Sextet for Piano and Winds. Listening to the opening bars, I was startled by how "modern" the music sounded. In fact, the first movement vaguely recalled the sound of NYC traffic and evoked, to my mind at least, the music of George Gerswhin. When I returned home, I searched the names of the two composers online and discovered that they each actually had been aware of the other's music and had expressed admiration for it. An excerpt from George Gershwin: His Life and Work by Howard Pollack states the following:
"Meanwhile, An American in Paris more explicitly appropriated Poulenc's Mouvements perpetuels, a copy of which the French composer inscribed to Gershwin in 1928... Perhaps Gershwin absorbed something as well from Poulenc's Promenades, also found among his possessions. Poulenc, in turn, cited An American in Paris as one of his favorite works of the century."
The concert opened with a short but enjoyable piece, Set That On Fire, by Missy Mazzoli that served as a perfect introduction to the Poulenc. In the second half, the Ensemble performed Brahms' Trio in E-flat Major for Violin, Horn and Piano, Op. 40. In the latter piece, Laura Weiner's performance on horn was outstanding. The program notes indicated that Brahms had specifically composed the trio for the even then archaic waldhorn .

The ACJW Ensemble is fast becoming one of NYC's greatest cultural assets, not only for their uniformly excellent performances, but also for what they give back to the city in their role as teachers. According to the program notes, Ms. Weiner, for example, teaches at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens.

I would also like to express personal thanks to John Stulz, a violist in the Ensemble who did not perform at last evening's concert. I had a short conversation with him before the program began; and when I had explained to him the difficulty I had obtaining tickets to the Ensemble's concerts at the extremely small Paul Hall at Juilliard, he was kind enough to offer me his own comp ticket.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Met Opera: Carmen

This article was originally published on February 14, 2013

Ironically, the best singing at last evening's performance of Bizet's Carmen at the Met was that of Hei-Kyung Hong who filled in for the ailing Ekaterina Scherbachenko in the role of Micaela. I thought the rest of the cast, including Ann Rachvelishvili as Carmen and Nikolai Scukoff as Don José, along with Michele Mariotti's conducting, were adequate if not inspired. To be fair, I'm judging against a performance I once saw at the Met in the 1980's when Carreras played Don José and Ramey was perfect as Escamillo. 

The truth, though, is that the opera's music is so vibrant and fun that it doesn't take an A-list cast to bring it to life. It's hard to believe now that it received such scathing criticism when it first opened at the Opéra-Comique in 1875. Even fellow composers were hostile:
"The opera's first performance extended to four-and-a-half hours; the final act did not begin until after midnight. Afterwards, Massenet and Saint-Saëns were congratulatory, Gounod less so. According to one account he accused Bizet of plagiarism: 'Georges has robbed me! Take the Spanish airs and mine out of the score and there remains nothing to Bizet's credit but the sauce that masks the fish.'"
One of the tragedies of opera is that Bizet died at only 36 without ever having known what an international success his opera would eventually prove. Shortly before his death, he wrote of Carmen, "I foresee a definite and hopeless flop."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Met Museum: The Civil War and American Art

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, The Civil War and American Art, is primarily of historical rather than aesthetic interest.  Put on display to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the works exhibited consist primarily of landscape paintings by second generation artists of the Hudson River School, figurative paintings by such artists as Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson and several albumen photographic prints.  Of all these, only the work of Winslow Homer is worth seeing for its artistic value.

Most prominently displayed are the works of Frederic Edwin Church who, probably not coincidentally, was instrumental in the founding of the museum itself.  His highly sentimental Our Banner in the Sky (1861) in fact serves as the exhibit's avatar on the museum's website.  Certain of his works shown, such as Meteor of 1860, are of doubtful relevance, even as metaphor, to any history of the Civil War.

Of greater documentary value are the paintings of Conrad Wise Chapman and Sanford Robinson Gifford who played similar roles as visual historians though on opposing sides of the conflict.  Chapman was a Confederate and concentrated primarily on views of Fort Sumter and Charleston harbor.  He was commissioned by the Chief of Staff of General Beauregard to create 31 paintings of Charleston's defenses.  His most interesting work on display is Submarine Torpedo Boat, H.L. Hunley (1863) as a depiction of the military technology advanced by the war.  Gifford, on the other hand, was a Hudson River School painter who became attached as a corporal to New York's Seventh Regiment (he was with the 7th when they were sent to NYC to quell the 1863 Draft Riots) and most of his paintings here show the regiment on the march or bivouacked.

The best work contained in the exhibit are the figurative paintings of Winslow Homer.  Their quality sets them apart.  Sharpshooter (1863) is a study of a Union soldier taking aim from high in a tree.  Great care has been taken to show how carefully the subject has balanced himself in his precarious perch as he raises the rifle to eye level.  The Bright Side (1865) is a study of three Afro-American Union Soldiers at ease outside their tent.  Homer's respect for these men's individuality raises the work from a mere propaganda piece to a penetrating character study.  Likewise, Visit from the Old Mistress (1876) is psychologically powerful in its depiction of three former female slaves confronting their former owner.

In distinct contrast to Homer's work, the paintings of Eastman Johnson, a cofounder of the Met Museum (his name is inscribed above its door), rarely rise above the level of stereotype as in Negro Life at the South (1859).  Only his Old Mt. Vernon (1857) catches the viewer's interest for its unorthodox back view of George Washington's estate and of the slaves who worked there.

Of the photographs shown, the most interesting is John Reekie's albumen print Burial Party, Cold Harbor (1865), notable for its depiction of the dead already reduced to skeletons and skulls and for the fact that the burial party consists entirely of Afro-Americans.

There is an "extension" of the exhibit on another floor that features still more landscapes by the ubiquitous Frederic Edwin Church.  These works - enormous canvases entitled The Icebergs (1861), Cotopaxi (1862), Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) and Aurora Borealis (1866) - have nothing whatsoever to do with the Civil War or the current exhibit.  One feels the museum hung them only as an excuse to take them out of storage.

The exhibit continues through September 2, 2013.