Monday, September 30, 2013

Mannes: Late Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Last evening's recital of Beethoven's final three piano sonatas was part of Mannes' yearlong festival, Sounds of Change: Music in Transition.  Before the performance began, the festival's artistic director, Pavlina Dokovska, gave an informative introduction discussing the nature of change in Beethoven's work as well as in his own life.  Her remarks could be summarized as follows: The composer, born in 1770, was a true heir to the upheavals that swept through Europe in the wake of the French Revolution whose tenets he eagerly embraced, most especially its insistence on individual freedom.  In so doing, he created compositions that became a cornerstone of the Romantic movement.  At the same time he overcame the crippling disability of his deafness to achieve serenity and even joy in the last years of his life.  Nowhere are these experiences documented so well as in his final three piano sonatas.

As Ms. Dokovska pointed out, the three sonatas taken together form a single cohesive work.  Their importance lies in the revolutionary nature of their composition that redefined the very concept of the sonata form.  As Wikipedia notes:
"The pianistic means are reduced to leaner, chamber music-like voice leading, as in the first movement of Opus 110, or dissolved into recitative-like passages, as in the third movement of the same work. These procedures contrast with a heightened virtuosity, a broadening of the form and an increase in overall length, as for example in the Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106. In Op. 109, reminiscences of the straightforward style of the early, Haydn-influenced sonatas contrast with harmony that is sometimes harsh, anticipating the music of the 20th century. This gives special importance to the principles of polyphonic variation, as in the second movement of Op. 109, and consequently the use of baroque forms, especially fugue and fugato. Very wide intervals between the outer voices, a process of breaking the music into ever shorter note values (as in the sixth variation in Op. 109), use of trills to resolve the music into layers of sound (the same variation in Op. 109 and again in Op. 111), arpeggios, ostinati and tremolos gain increased significance."  
Yesterday evening, Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, was performed by Yekwon Sunwoo; Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110, was performed by Iryna Arbatska; and Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, was performed by Catalin Dima. Although all three students were giving their first performances of the sonatas, each played with a skill and confidence that suggested much longer acquaintance with these works.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Lara Lev

Most violin recitals feature sonatas requiring piano accompaniment that sometimes mellows the tone of the music.  It was very refreshing then to hear last evening's recital by Lara Lev of three rarely performed works for solo violin.  By itself, the instrument has a spare almost stark sound that the three composers featured fully exploited in these works.  At the same time, Ms. Lev approached the music in a straightforward, no nonsense manner free of any hint of frivolity.

The first piece was Ernest Bloch's Suite No. 1 for Solo Violin (1958), a roughly ten minute piece dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin who recorded it in 1974.  This was followed by the Sonata for Violin Solo in D Major, Op. 115 (1947) by Sergei Prokofiev.  A fascinating historical note is that this piece was not after all originally composed for solo violin but actually for a group of violins, perhaps twenty or so, playing in unison.

After a short pause Ms. Lev returned to the stage for a performance of Sonata for Violin Solo (1944) by Bela Bartok.  This piece also was dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin who commissioned it and then premiered it in a performance in New York.  Ms. Lev's playing here was exemplary on a work clearly designed to test a violinist's virtuosity.  As the Wikipedia article notes:
"The Solo Sonata presents violinists with many difficulties and uses the full gamut of violin techniques: several notes played simultaneously (multiple stops), artificial harmonics, left-hand pizzicato executed simultaneously with a melody played with the bow, and wide leaps between pitches."
Ms. Lev joined the faculty of the Juilliard School in 2008.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Charles Nègre at Hans P. Kraus Jr.

Charles Nègre is one of those early practitioners of photography whose name has been largely forgotten while associates such as Gustave Le Gray, from whom Nègre may have learned the waxed negative technique, have risen to prominence in histories of the medium. This is an unfortunate oversight.  Nègre, who began his career in 1844 only five years after photography's invention, was truly gifted and displayed an unrivaled technical mastery of the calotype and salt print.  According to the gallery's press release, the current exhibit at Hans P. Kraus Jr. is actually Nègre's first one man show of photographs in the U.S.

The highlight of the exhibit is the print Une rue à "Grasse"  (1852).  The work is notable on several counts. First, the tonal range is excellent.  Nègre succeeds very well in retaining detail in the shadow areas (the large lot of bushes that dominate the middle of the print) while at the same time managing not to lose any of the highlights (for example, the raised white single story structure in the upper right).  Although printed from a paper negative, the same print shows an amazing degree of sharpness and detail.  Finally, the photograph's overall composition is excellent, no doubt a result of Nègre's long training as a painter.  On this aspect, the press release quotes photo historian Jacob W. Lewis:
"This view of Grasse and its sun-soaked buildings and oil presses that line up on a steep zigzag road, interlocking like puzzle pieces, is no mere indulgence in the picturesque.  Rather, it represents a test for photography as a means to capture the infinite variety of rough-hewn Provence into a fully considered tableau of pleasing effects, where no element is without its formal significance."
One great advantage of the current show is that in ten instances the prints are paired with the negatives from which they were made.  To a photographer, this is invaluable.  Although it is axiomatic that a great print cannot be made from a poor negative, the care which Nègre took to produce balanced negatives is astonishing.  I noted that in at least one instance the photographer had signed the negative, thus indicating he considered it a work of art in itself.

Although Nègre specialized in landscapes and architectural studies, he was also very gifted at photographing people.  One work, Portrait of a Bearded Man, is remarkable for its sharpness considering the long exposures required by the calotype process.  Le tailleur de pierre, though obviously posed, is very natural in its depiction of a stone cutter at work.  In this it recalls Organ Grinder at 21, quai Bourbon, an image in the Getty Collection not included in this exhibit.  Unfortunately also not included in this exhibit is Nègre's most famous work, The Vampire, showing Henri Le Secq and the gargoyle named "Le Styrge" at Notre Dame in 1853.

The exhibit continues through November 1, 2013.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Così fan tutte

I've always considered James Levine one of the world's greatest conductors and had been saddened that a spinal injury had kept him from the podium in recent years.  It was a very emotional moment for everyone at the Met Opera yesterday evening when he appeared in front of the orchestra.  The entire audience stood as one and cheered and clapped for several moments to show their appreciation that he was once again there.

Mr. Levine soon demonstrated that he had lost none of his brilliance.  For roughly three and a half hours he led the orchestra in a masterful performance that was thrilling to hear and as definitive an interpretation of Mozart's music as one could hope for.

The opera Mr. Levine chose for his return, Così fan tutte, is the third of the Da Ponte operas. Though it has never enjoyed the popularity of either Le Nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni, perhaps because modern audiences find its plot is so artificial and implausible, it never- theless contains some of the composer's greatest and most beautiful music.  And that's saying quite a lot.  As Anthony Holden notes in his erudite biography of Da Ponte, The Man Who Wrote Mozart:
"The English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham described the score as 'a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea'; and by the 1970s the musicologist Richard Rickett spoke for many, perhaps a majority, when he wrote: 'From a purely musical point of view, Così fan tutte is arguably Mozart's finest opera.'"
Mr. Levine had a great deal of assistance yesterday evening not only from the orchestra but from a very able cast as well.  Susanna Phillips (Fiordiligi), Isabel Leonard (Dorabella), Matthew Polenzani (Ferrando) and Rodion Pogossov (Gugliemo) were all extremely accomplished in their roles and together formed a seamless ensemble that drew applause from the audience time and again.  Maurizio Muraro was especially effective as Don Alfonso. In addition, Lesley Koenig's idyllic production displayed for the music the full respect it deserved.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Mannes Students at the Verdi Square Festival

Forty years ago, when I first moved to the Upper West Side and the neighborhood was one of the most crime ridden in the city, Verdi Square was a trash strewn enclave where junkies congregated to shoot up and deal heroin.  Along with neighboring Sherman Square, it was in fact the setting for the downbeat 1971 film The Panic in Needle Park.  It's surreal to see how thoroughly it's now gentrified and to read the following in the program notes:
"The Verdi Square Festival of the Arts was created by a group of Upper West Side music lovers.  Now in its eighth year, the Festival presents leading young artists in a series of free outdoor concerts at one of New York's most historic mini-parks.  Legendary figures such as Caruso, Chaliapin, Stravinsky, Toscanini, the Gershwin brothers, Ziegfield, and Dreiser used to stroll here."
At any rate, yesterday afternoon marked the last event in this season's Festival.  Three voice students from Mannes - Liana Guberman, soprano; Christopher Colmenero, tenor; and Suchan Kim, baritone - appeared onstage to sing amplified Verdi arias in honor of the bicentennial of the composer's birth.  These pieces included BrindisiE strano...Ah, fors'e lui and Sempre libera from La TraviataE sogno? O realta from Falstaff; Gia nella notte densa and Nium mi tema from Otello; and Dio, che nell' alma infondere from Don Carlo.  As the subway rumbled underfoot and the sirens wailed on Broadway, the Verdi sculpture looked down benignly on the performance taking place below.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Matti Raekallio

Though last evening's piano recital, played without intermission, lasted less than an hour, it was one of the best I've seen at any venue.  Matti Raekallio is a terrific musician, and the standing room only crowd at Paul Hall was fully appreciative of his talents.

Although Mr. Raekallio made his American debut in 1981 and has recorded some twenty cd's, this is the first time I've heard him perform.  He is a faculty member at both the Juilliard School and the Bard College Conservatory.  One interesting point I noted on his resume was that:
"Mr. Raekallio's Doctorate (Dr.Mus) at the Sibelius Academy focused on the history of piano fingering.  Subsequently, Prof. Raekallio became a member of an international research team, investigating pianists' choice of fingering from the viewpoint of cognitive psychology."
The program began with Beethoven's Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109.  Composed in 1820, this was the first of the Beethoven's final three sonatas and one of his greatest works for piano. Far different from the Hammerklavier that immediately preceded it, this is a lyrical intimate work that attempts to draw the listener in rather than overwhelm him.  There is a delicacy to it that requires a fine touch on the keyboard.

The second piece was a sonata by the pianist's countryman Einojuhani Rautavaara.  In contrast to the Beethoven, the Sonata 2, aptly named The Fire Sermon, requires the keyboard literally to be pounded.  (The final movement was marked in the program as Allegro brutale!)  At times, in fact, Mr. Raekallio appeared to crash his entire forearm on the keyboard.  At the end of the first movement, he put his hands on top of the piano as he waited for the ringing of the keys to die away.  This was, to say the least, very exciting music and made me eager to hear more of the composer's work.

The program ended with a virtuoso performance of Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Tannhauser Overture that brought the entire audience to its feet in a standing ovation. There followed three short encores by Prokofiev, Sibelius and finally Stravinsky's Souvenir of a German March (composed in 1915 as a contribution to Edith Wharton's gift book for the relief of Belgian war orphans).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Stravinsky, Webern, Hadyn and Schumann

The Orion Quartet is a phenomenal chamber ensemble and once again proved their virtuosity last evening in performance at Mannes where they serve as Quartet in Residence. The program was diverse and represented a wide range of musical styles.

The first piece on the program was Stravinsky's Concertino, a short piece not often performed that was written by the composer in France in 1920 at the request of Alfred Pochon, first violinist of the Flonzaley Quartet.  In his autobiography, Stravinsky described the music as "a free sonata allegro with a definitely concertante part for the first violin."

The Stravinsky was followed by Anton Webern's String Quartet, Op. 28, another brief work and one that I found highly enjoyable.  This was the last piece of chamber music that Webern wrote and the last work to be published in his lifetime.  The composition was atonal and made use of the twelve-tone technique.  A music teacher seated beside me compared Webern's spare compositions to abstract paintings with notes placed "here and there."  I found the description very apt.

The first half of the program concluded with Haydn's String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3, written in 1772 when the composer was already middle aged.  This is one of those seminal compositions that define the very core of the classical music repertoire and one that helped earn the composer the title "Father of the String Quartet."  As the Wikipedia article notes:
"'This cannot be overstated,' writes Ron Drummond. 'The six string quartets of Opus 20 are as important in the history of music, and had as radically a transforming effect on the very field of musical possibility itself, as Beethoven's Third Symphony would 33 years later.' And Sir Donald Tovey writes of the quartets, 'Every page of the six quartets of op. 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance... there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much.'"
The second half of the program was given over to a performance of Schumann's String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op. 41, No. 2.  Although the chamber music Schumann wrote for string instruments has never received the recognition given his piano compositions or symphonies, this was a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable piece that last evening was played to perfection by the ensemble and elicited a great round of applause from the audience at its conclusion.

Friday, September 20, 2013

2013 - 2014 NYC Classical Music and Opera

It's always exciting for me when a new season is about to begin.  I feel so privileged to live within walking distance of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and to have such easy access to the great performances held at these venues.  This season I intend to take full advantage of my opportunities and to attend many more concerts and recitals than in past years.

At the Met Opera, the most exciting news is that James Levine will be returning to conduct Così fan tutte as well as Wozzeck and the new production of Falstaff.  Another highlight will be Renée Fleming's appearance in the lead role in Rusalka.  In addition, I'll be seeing new productions of Eugene Onegin (conducted by Gergiev) and Werther as well as such favorites from the repertoire as Norma, Andrea Chenier and La Cerentola.

At Carnegie Hall, the Marinsky Orchestra will perform Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and the St. Petersburg Orchestra his Second Symphony.  The Met Orchestra, once again conducted by James Levine, will feature performances of the Seventh Symphonies of three different composers - Beethoven, Mahler and Dvorak.  Other orchestral performances will include Mahler's Ninth (San Francisco Symphony), Mozart's 41st (St. Luke's Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer), Beethoven's Third (Philadelphia Orchestra), Mahler's Fourth (Vienna Philharmonic) and Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (Bavarian Radio Symphony).   The English Concert will perform Handel's Theodora in recital, Orpheus will give two concerts featuring Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Joachim's little heard Violin Concerto, and Mitsuko Uchida will perform in a piano recital that will include Schubert's Sonata in G.  The ACJW Ensemble will give four performances of chamber music at Weill Recital Hall that will include Dvorak's String Quintet, Schoenberg's Verklate Nacht, Copland's Appalachian Spring and Schubert's Piano Quintet, the Trout.

I will once again be attending the New York Philharmonic's Saturday matinee series.  Each concert begins with a chamber music piece performed by members of the Philharmonic followed by a full orchestral piece in the second half.  The chamber music this season will emphasize the works of the French impressionists and modernists - Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Faure.

Finally, there will be a great number of free recitals and chamber music performances at both Juilliard and Mannes.  Though the students and faculty at these institutions might not be as well known as the stars at Carnegie Hall, their musicianship is nevertheless impeccable and always worth hearing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Simon Rattle Conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra

This article was originally published on May 18, 2013

The crowd pleaser at yesterday evening's concert at Carnegie Hall was inarguably Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, an excerpt from the composer's 1977 opera Le grand macabre.  The short (nine minute) piece has a curious history - it was originally arranged by Elgar Howarth for trumpet and piano and later rearranged as an ensemble for fourteen soloists.  The performance last evening for full orchestra, though, returned to the Ligeti's orginal scoring.  I had seen this piece performed in 2010 by the ACJW Ensemble and once again found the onstage histrionics between soprano and conductor enjoyable even if the novelty had somewhat worn off.  If nothing else, the aria is one of the few twentieth century compositions capable of bringing an audience to its feet in wild applause.  Both conductor Rattle and soprano Barbara Hannigan were exellent in their respective roles.

For me, the highlight of the concert was Berg's suite taken from his opera Wozzeck, his masterpiece of naturalism that ends with the despairing cry Wir arme Leut! ("We poor people!").  Too little credit has been given to Berg for his brilliance in composing operas, Wozzeck and Lulu both, that while atonal in structure were also among the most accessible of those written in the last century.  The emphasis Berg placed on composing operas with wide popular appeal may have resulted from the trauma he had experienced when his Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg received such a harsh reception, actually causing a riot, at the famous 1912 Skandalkonzert conducted by Schoenberg.

The concert began with Webern's Passacaglia, Op. 1, a piece described by his teacher Schoenberg as the composer's "journeyman's work."  The final piece in the program was Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, the Pastoral.  Performances of both compositions were respectable if not inspiring.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

ACJW Ensemble Performs Carter and Schubert

This article was originally published on May 11, 2013

The ACJW Ensemble yesterday evening gave the final performance of this season's series at Weill Recital Hall.   They ended on a high note with bravura performances of two demanding works by very dissimilar composers, Elliott Carter and Franz Schubert.

The opening work was Carter's 1982 Triple Duo, a sometimes cacophanous piece which consisted of three pairings - flute/clarinet, piano/percussion and violin/cello - engaged in "conversations" with one another.  One of the artists noted before beginning that this complex work is usually led by a conductor, but last evening the musicians conducted themselves.  It was fascinating to watch the members use hand movements to signal one another as they moved from one pairing to the next.

An interesting insight into Carter's work, which I had never before considered, was provided in the Program Notes:
"He [Carter] once said he preferred a different form of motion in which players are not locked into downbeats, that such steady pulses reminded him of soldiers marching or horses trotting - sounds not heard in the 20th century.  The sounds of the day that he was most interested in capturing were more modern experiences, such as accelerating and decelerating sounds of automobiles and airplanes."
The second half of the program was given over to Schubert's Octet in F, D. 803, a piece which closely follows in form Beethoven's Septet, Op. 20, which had been written some twenty years earlier.  This is an extremely lyrical work in which Schubert deliberately references his vocal works - the Program Notes remark on the influences of both Der Wanderer and Die Freunde von Salamanka - in order to distinguish his composition from Beethoven's earlier piece.  One wonders if Schubert was at all intimidated to be following so closely in the footsteps of the still living Beethoven. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Carnegie Hall: "Vienna: Window to Modernity" with Renée Fleming

This article was originally published on May 5, 2013

Last evening's recital, entitled Vienna: Window to Modernity, was an interesting look back at the work of number of composers based in Vienna in the late nineteenth century.  Aside from Ms. Fleming, the program also featured as accompanists both Jeremy Denk on piano and the Emerson String Quartet.

The program consisted primarily of lieder, of course, but also featured instrumental music: Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Brahms' Intermezzos in A and A minor, Op. 118.  The inclusion of Brahms was something of an anachronism.  Although the composer was in fact still alive and working in Vienna in the late 1800's (he died in 1897), his work could hardly be considered fin de siècle by any standard.  The Ophelia-Lieder were actually composed in 1873, though not published until 1935.  The later Intermezzos, though composed in 1892 - 1893, were thoroughly classical compositions and had little to do with the upheavals, both social and musical,  that were occurring throughout Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century.  The appearance of Brahms was made all the more striking by the complete absence of any works by Mahler.  This even though the program itself defined the work of Strauss and Mahler as the  "two aesthetic strains that co-existed in Vienna and together formed a bridge into a troubled 20th century."

Some of the composers whose works were featured were well known to the audience.  These included Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern and Wagner.  But other composers were more obscure.  Karl Weigl, Egon Wellesz and Eric Zeisl all were extremely talented but were destined to relative obscurity by the chaotic historical forces that would culminate in the two World Wars and transform the Vienna of the late 1800's into a milieu that would have been totally unrecognizable to the composers of that period.

The performance by Ms. Fleming was highly enjoyable, and it was fascinating to hear certain lieder accompanied by string quartet rather than piano.  The highlight of the recital came at the beginning of the second half in the performance of two of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, Im Treibhaus and Träume, the latter of which would serve as the basis for the revolutionary music Wagner composed for Tristan und Isolde.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Met Opera: Rigoletto

This article was originally published on May 2, 2013

The final opera I'll be seeing this season was yesterday evening's performance of the Met's new production of Rigoletto, undeniably one of Verdi's greatest achievements and one of the most powerful operas in the repertoire - the unsentimental retelling, based on a Victor Hugo novel, of the historical account of a dissolute ruler who does not hesitate to abuse his power in abducting and raping a young girl.  The realistic depiction of the Duke, at times almost repulsive in its naturalism, is in strong contrast to the beauty of the music.  The work contains some of the composer's most beautiful arias and most innovative scoring, as in the use of the chorus to evoke  to evoke the sound of the wind during the storm in Act III.  Finally, the powerful literary motif in which the plot finds its resolution through the fulfillment  of a curse has rightfully led to comparisons with Shakespeare's tragedies.

It could be argued that the Met's new production by Michael Mayer is the perfect setting for this opera.  Though there is no sound basis in the libretto itself for transplanting the action to 1960's Las Vegas, the milieu - which at times appears an attempt to remake the film Showgirls - is thoroughly lurid and tacky and serves as an excellent metaphor for the character of the Duke, whose historical counterpart actually had as the family motto "Forse che sì, forse che no" ("Maybe yes, maybe no").  Though I cringed while watching the Duke pole dancing during his aria La donna è mobile, there's no doubt the staging reflects very well the emptiness of his character.  And the production does have some sense of humor - the casino's kitsch chandeliers in Act II are a witty parody of the Met's own lighting fixtures.

Last evening was the first opportunity I'd had to hear soprano Lisette Oropesa, and I thought she did very well in an intriguing portrayal of Gilda.  Vittorio Grigolo was adequate but little more in the role of the Duke.  In the role of Rigoletto himself, George Gagnidze's singing was at times weak, but he did manage to evoke the full pathos of the character, most notably in his duets with Gilda in Act II and in his final realization of what he had accomplished in the finale of Act III.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Stieglitz and His Artists

This article was originally published on April 30, 2013

Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe is an excellent example of what an exhibit catalog should be.   Published as an accompaniment to the Met Museum exhibit held from October 2011 to January 2012, the catalog edited by Lisa Mintz Messinger painstakingly details the works included in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection that was bequeathed to the Met Museum by Georgia O'Keeffe over a period of years following the photographer's death in 1946.

Stieglitz is remembered today primarily as perhaps the greatest photographer ever to have lived.  His photographs, as seen in the "key set" at the National Gallery of Art, display a mastery of the medium that has never been equaled.  But there is another side to his character that is arguably of even greater importance.  In his quest to have photography fully recognized as an art form, Stieglitz managed a succession of galleries, beginning with 291, that displayed not only photography but also the most important modern art of the period.  Long before the 1913 Armory Show, Stieglitz had already introduced to America some of most influential European and American artists.  These included the first showing of Rodin's late pencil and watercolor figure drawings (1908), the first exhibition of Matisse's work ever held in the United States (1908), the first U.S. one-person exhibition of Cézanne (1911) and first U.S. one-person exhibition of Picasso (1911).   Though the primary mover behind these exhibits was Steichen, who was located in Europe at the time, Stieglitz deserves every credit for recognizing the importance of these artists and purchasing their work for his own collection. 

The catalog is exhaustive in detailing not only the careers of the artists who were collected by Stieglitz but also their dealings with the mercurial photographer.  In so doing, it gives insight into Stieglitz' temperament if only by showing which works he wished to acquire for himself.  The catalog and exhibit also offer a rare opportunity to see the work of a number of artists, once considered important, who have now fallen into relative obscurity.  Of course, it also presents seminal works by America's most important artists.  These include O'Keeffe's Black Iris, Arthur Dove's Shore Road and Charles Demuth's Figure 5 in Gold.  Most welcome are the technical notes detailing the materials used by the artists as well as their work methods.

Also refreshing in a catalog of this type is the candor with which Messinger describes Stieglitz' rocky relationship with the Met Museum itself.   He once wrote of it as follows:
"I know that I need bigger, truer, things than are housed there, in an atmosphere which repels me.  An atmosphere breathing of a cemetery dedicated to the dead rich."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mannes Faculty Recital: Peter Prosser

This article was originally published on April 29, 2013

Peter Prosser's faculty recital yesterday evening at Mannes began with Bach's Sonata No. 2 in D for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BMW 1028.  Although there is some doubt regarding the exact date of composition, many scholars place it around 1740 and suggest it was written for Carl Friedrich Abel, a virtuoso gamba player in Leipzig while Bach was resident there.  Even at the time the music was written, however, the gamba was considered no longer fashionable and the piece has historically most often been performed on cello with piano accompaniment.  Notably, Bach intended the obligato keyboard to be an essential partner rather than just "filler."  The title page to BMW 1027, the only one of the series whose autograph has survived, is entitled Sonata à Cembalo è Viola da Gamba and shows Bach's intent that the keyboard be given the same weight as the strings.

Although many of Shostakovich's symphonies are too long and ponderous for my taste, I've always found his chamber music to be fully engaging.  The Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, is no exception.  Written during a period of personal turmoil while Shostakovich was in the process of a painful divorce, this is an early piece notable for the different directions the composer explores from one movement to the next.  The mood swings wildly from the dark largo to the playful closing allegro.

In the second half of the program, following a brief Capriccio, described as a "ballet for cello and piano," by Lukas Foss, the musicians proceeded to the Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in F, Op. 99. For me, the heart of this famous piece is the third movement, the allegro passionato, and last evening it was performed with a heartfelt sincerity that was fully satisfying.

Although not included in the program title, pianist Mary Jo Pagano was an equal partner in this recital rather than just an accompanist.  Her playing was sharp and colorful and complemented Mr. Prosser's style very well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Orion String Quartet Performs Britten, Mozart and Schumann

This article was originally published on April 26, 2013

At yesterday evening's recital at Mannes, the Orion Quartet demonstrated once again that they are one of the finest chamber ensembles currently performing.

The program began with Three Divertimenti by Benjamin Britten.  These were early works first composed when Britten was only 20 (and then revised three years later in 1936) and served as an excellent introduction to the program.  In many ways, they could be seen as exercises in which the youthful composer worked to bring his own viewpoint to various genres.  There was no great depth of feeling in evidence in these pieces, but they give an indication of the talent the composer would bring to his more mature works.  Of the three, the most delightful was the last, the Burlesque Presto.  Perhaps because Britten was here giving his own take on twentieth century music, it has an immediacy the others lack.

The Mozart Quartet No. 23 in F, K. 590 that followed was one of the composer's "Prussian Quartets" written for Friedrich Wilhelm II, himself an amateur cellist.  Last month, I heard the Juillard Quartet perform another in this series, the Quartet in D, K. 575, at the Saidenberg Faculty Recital, and it was interesting to compare the difference in approach between the two sets of performers.  In general, I found the Orion's reading to be more literal and less sonorous than that of the Juilliard.

The final piece of the program was Schumann's Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1, a very dramatic and unrestrained piece in which Schumann attempted to work through a number of musical ideas in an extremely forceful manner.  This was the centerpiece of the program, and the Orion Quartet gave an impassioned rendition that captured very well the composer's wild enthusiasm in exploring all the possibilities that were open to him, especially in the final Presto section.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Met Museum: Photography and the American Civil War

This article was originally published on April 23, 2013

When previously I'd thought of Civil War photography, the images that had come to mind were ambrotype portraits of soldiers in uniform and battlefield scenes shot by Mathew B. Brady.  (Actually, Brady only saw action early on at the First Battle of Bull Run.  After that, he employed assistants to photograph close to the action, though this may have been due to his own failing eyesight.)

A great part of the current exhibit at the Met, Photography and the American Civil War, is in fact given over to the work of Brady's assistants, many of whom were exceptional photographers in their own right.  Prominent among these were Timothy O'Sullivan, George N. Barnard and Alexander Gardner.  The presence at the exhibit of Brady's own cumbersome view camera provides some idea of the difficulties these photographers faced working in the field.  The use of collodion wet plate glass negatives necessitated the use of traveling darkrooms and resulted in very slow exposures.

There are other photographs on display that are unexpected, such as A.J. Riddle's photo of Andersonville Prison and J.W. Jones's shot of an emaciated soldier liberated from that same prison.  These focus attention on horrors of war that are less commonly considered.  And there are photographs of Afro-Americans, newly liberated from their Southern slavemasters but not quite yet emancipated.  In the early days of the war, Afro-Americans were not allowed to enlist as soldiers and in some photos they are shown as the servants of their white liberators.

The exhibit, which runs through September 2, 2013, is an engrossing experience that reveals a handful of photographers striving to use a new medium to document death and destruction on a hitherto unimaginable scale with greater immediacy than ever before.

Friday, September 6, 2013

ACJW Ensemble Performs Harbison, Ravel and Dvorak

This article was originally published on April 18, 2013

The best concerts are those which introduce the listener to an unfamiliar piece or, equally important, present a familiar w0rk in a new light that provides greater understanding of the composer's intentions.  The ACJW Ensemble's recital at Weill Recital Hall yesterday evening succeeded on both counts.

In the first half, the Ensemble began with John Harbison's Wind Quintet, a piece that explored what seemed every possible combination of the wind instruments available and had a lot of fun doing so.  All through the rendition, the listener sensed the composer's enthusiasm for combining the properties of each of the winds with one another to create new sounds and textures.  For this work, the Ensemble were joined by guest musician Martha Cargo, an exceptionally talented flautist.

The Harbison was followed by Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello performed by Michelle Ross and Alice Yoo.  This is an extremely spare piece whose references to earlier French classical music paradoxically causes it to sound much more "modern" than many of the composer's better known orchestral works.  Conceived as a tribute to Debussy, with whom he had shared an ambivalent friendship, this was Ravel's first major composition after having served in World War I.  As he himself noted:
"The music is stripped down to the bone.  The allure of harmony is rejected and increasingly there is a return to emphasis on melody."
In the second half, the Ensemble performed Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81.  As pianist Alexandria Le noted in her opening remarks, the string quintet was a fairly new innovation in nineteenth century music.  The earliest grouping was by Schumann in 1842 in his quintet in E flat, after which the form became something of a staple in the Romantic repertoire.  What's interesting in listening to such an arrangement is the manner in which a particular composer integrates the piano with the string quartet format.  In Dvorak's work, the piano is made the backbone of the piece and engages throughout in a full dialog with the strings.  Dvorak's lyrical study of Czech folk music here results in one of his most successful and enjoyable compositions.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Met Museum: Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity

This article was originally published on April 12, 2013

Critics such as Andrew Sarris always argued that the French made the best period films and left Hollywood far behind when recreating the look and fashions of the nineteenth century.  It's not surprising then, as one wanders through the exhibit Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, now on display at the Met Museum, that one should be reminded of the lush scenario of a Max Ophuls film such as The Earrings of Madame de... 

Here at the Met, the period's changing fashions are meant to serve as a reflection of the vast social changes then affecting French society in the wake of the Franco–Prussian War.  As viewed through the eyes of the most famous Impressionist painters, close attention to costume became the means by which to depict the changed role of women in French society as well as the rise of the middle class.  As the museum's online Exhibition Notes state:
"At a time of great urban change, stale conventions had little appeal for a generation of artists and writers who sought to give expression to the pulse of contemporary life in all its nuanced richness. With the rise of the department store, the advent of ready-made clothing, and the proliferation of fashion magazines, those at the forefront of the avant-garde—from Manet, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir to Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Émile Zola—turned a fresh eye to contemporary dress, embracing la mode as the harbinger of la modernité."
Whatever social commentary was intended by the Impressionists has, however, long ago been reduced to the picturesque.  Impressionist technique has become so widely accepted by the very bourgeois society it once criticized that it is now difficult for the viewer to see beyond the charm of paintings such as Renoir's Lady at the Piano in order to understand the artists' original intentions.  And so the exhibit becomes little more than a costume drama in its own right.

Two paintings that stand apart by virtue of their naturalism are both painted by Édouard Manet and, coincidentally, both feature a female model seated on a couch and holding a fan.  The first of these is a portrait of Baudelaire's long time mistress now sadly reduced by drugs and syphilis.  One can almost sense the madness lurking in the black depths of her eyes.  The other is Lady with Fans (Portrait of Nina de Callias) which is so strikingly modern one can imagine it as a portrait of a club goer in contemporary NYC. 

If the exhibit is not entirely successful in linking Impressionism and fashion to modernity, it still a rare opportunity to see so huge a number of nineteenth century masterpieces placed side by side.  Not only are all the Impressionist masters accounted for, but there are also works by lesser known artists such as the portraitist James Tissot who is represented by several paintings from his Women of Paris series. 

The exhibit would have benefited by the inclusion of media other than painting to make its point.  One feels a photographer such as Nadar would have had something to contribute to the argument.  In addition, influences such as Japonisme are referred to only in passing and do not receive their due for the influence they exerted on the French art and fashion of the period.

The exhibit continues through May 27, 2013.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert Piano Trio #2 in E flat

This article was originally published on April 11, 2013

The impressive performance of Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat, D. 929, Op. 100, I heard at Alice Tully yesterday afternoon went far beyond a mere "student recital."  It was so accomplished, in fact, that I would never have guessed the players were still students if I had heard a recording.  This is some of the most beautiful chamber music ever written, especially the second movement, the Andante con moto whose theme has been used on any number of movie soundtracks.  The piano in the opening of that section has always reminded me of raindrops falling softly on a windowpane somewhere behind the music.  It's an effect echoed by the violin's pizzicato in the final movement.

The players were Jun Hong Loh on violin, Simon Hoffman on cello and Joon Yoon on piano, and they deserve every credit for a thoughtful rendition of this wonderful piece.  Of course, they were lucky to have had as coaches Joseph Kalichstein and Ida Kafavian, themselves both among the best known chamber musicians in NYC. 

The concert opened with three pieces arranged for three guitars: The Miller's Dance by Manuel de Falla, Canción y Danza No. 4 by Frederic Mompou and Introduction and Fandango by Luigi Boccherini.  The guitar is an instrument not often heard in chamber music recitals, and it was a pleasure to hear it so well played in these pieces by composers whose work is too seldom performed.  The three guitarists were Bokyung Byun, Pierre Ferreya-Mansilla and Tengyue Zhang.  They had been ably coached by the legendary guitarist Sharon Isbin.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Juilliard Chamber Music: Faure, Chausson, Franck and Tchaikovsky

This article was originally published on April 8, 2013

There isn't a much better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than walking down to Juilliard to hear an hour long chamber music recital at Morse Hall.  The brief concert featured movements from Faure's Sonata in A, Op. 13, Chausson's Trio in G minor, Op. 3, Franck's Sonata in A and Tchaikovsky's Trio in A minor, Op. 50.  The last piece, showcasing the composer's vigorous Russian music, seemed slightly out of place among the French Impressionist pieces that preceded it.

To my mind, the works that stood out were the Allegro moderato and Allegro from the Franck sonata that featured Erika Matsui on violin and Jingxuan Zhang on piano.  It was the Sonata in A that is said to have originally inspired Proust in his invention of the Vinteuil Sonata in À la recherche du temps perdu.  In Marcel Proust: A Life, William C. Carter writes:
"On Saturday evening Marcel wrote Antoine about the concert he had just attended at the Salle Villiers: 'Great emotion this evening.  More dead than alive I nonetheless went to a recital hall ... to hear the Franck sonata which I love so much.' ... Years later... Proust provided a fairly detailed account of the music that inspired Vinteuil's compositions.  He mentioned, as one source of inspiration, Franck's sonata, as played by Enesco, where 'the piano and violin moan like two birds calling each other.'"

Monday, September 2, 2013

Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures

The lavish volume Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures is best pored through on a rainy afternoon when one has the time to review the photographs at an unhurried pace and to enter into the timeless worlds they create and be seduced by their beauty.

When one looks at a Turbeville photo one feels he is rummaging through a long unopened trunk at an abandoned warehouse when suddenly he comes upon discarded photographs from another era.  The photos are rarely sharp and often appear distressed.  They seem snapshots from a forgotten world.  The scenes they depict are instantly intriguing and draw the viewer in as he attempts to determine what is happening in each even though he is conscious that what he sees is only a fragment and that he will never know the whole story.

The photos are mostly black & white; and even the color photographs' hues are muted as though faded by time.  The settings invariably appear Old World - Paris drawing rooms, Venetian palazzos and Saint Petersburg palaces - ornate and upper class.  One is reminded of Proust's descriptions of the Fauborg Saint-Germain.  Even the photos shot in New York City have a European flavor to them.  They are the perfect setting for the depictions of the haute couture contained within them.

As Franca Sozzani says of Turbeville in the book's Foreword:
"Every single photo could be a frame of a movie.  She is a storyteller, and even though the photo is a scene frozen in time, Deborah allows your imagination to fly into the past - in what could have happened before or may happen in the future, in what could happen after that specific moment.  She is a poet of photography."
Turbeville herself writes fascinating descriptions of the settings of her photos, locations such as Soviet occupied Krakow and the Ostankino Estate in Moscow.  Her greatest asset is her unbridled romanticism.