Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion

In 1923, Edward Steichen was struggling with what would today be termed a "mid-life crisis." Living in near penury in France, the photographer had grown disillusioned in his career as an artist.  He was then in his mid-forties and had long ago left behind the exuberance with which he had first traveled to Europe.  In Paris, he had succeeded in meeting the twentieth century's foremost artists, many of whose works he had enthusiastically shipped back to Stieglitz to be shown in the latter's 291 Gallery in New York City.  In so doing, though, he had had to face the painful realization that his own paintings would never reach the heights of genius shown by those artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, among whom he had moved so easily.  His discontent had only been exacerbated by the horrors of World War I, which he witnessed first hand, as well as the failure of his marriage.  It was no surprise then that he had no qualms in giving up the life of an artist and returning to New York City where he eagerly accepted a position at Condé Nast and quickly became the world's most highly remunerated photographer.

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow is a through documentation of the photographic work that Steichen created over a fifteen year period for both Vogue and Vanity Fair.  While it might be assumed that the photographer left behind him the art photography he had practiced so assiduously in Europe upon joining Condé Nast, this is not the case.  Although Steichen's portraits had even in his days with the Photo Secession shown a tendency towards unadorned naturalism (witness his famous 1903 photo of J.P. Morgan), he maintained the use of pictorialist techniques in his fashion photography for quite some time.  Indeed, it was only when Mehemed Fehmy Agha was hired as art director of Vogue that Steichen fully embraced straight photography in depicting fashion. No matter what his style, however, Steichen's mastery of technique and lighting never wavered.  One has only to look at White (plate 221) from 1935 to begin to comprehend the extent of his ability.  The photo is a study of three models all dressed in white standing with a white horse against a white tiled wall.  To anyone who has ever attempted a photo in which each element is pure white without losing any detail and all the while preserving a full range of tonal values, this deceptively simple image is a tour de force.

Looking at the photos themselves, one has the sense of having stumbled across a lost world. Here are the most newsworthy actors, writers and society figures of the 1920's and 1930's, the celebrities whose extensive fame was the primary cause of their appearance in such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair in the first place.   And yet so thoroughly forgotten have the majority of these once renowned personages become that it has been necessary for the authors to add a "Who's Who" as an appendix to the book.  In a way this is fitting, for Steichen himself has suffered a somewhat similar fate.  Though at one time he was, along with Stieglitz, America's preeminent photographer, his reputation has been so eclipsed in recent decades that he is little remembered today.  This is a great injustice and one that this book will hopefully help correct.

The book itself is an extremely handsome and well designed volume.  The photographic reproductions are all uniformly excellent and are generally shown in full page format.  There are three essays by William A. Ewing, Carol Squiers and Tobia Bezzola respectively that are all intelligently written and not only provide a great deal of information and insight regarding Steichen's tenure at Condé Nast but also display a deep respect and sympathy for Steichen's work and the creative processes he brought to bear upon it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Met Museum: Balthus: Cats and Girls

The title of the current exhibit at the Met Museum, Balthus: Cats and Girls - Paintings and Provocations, is titillating.  The show itself is rather enigmatic, not least of all because it fails to address its real subject - the sexualization of young women.  In this display of reticence it is as one with the artist himself who steadfastly refused to provide either biographical details concerning his own life or background information regarding his paintings.  The Wikipedia entry on Balthus quotes a telegram he sent to the Tate in succinct response to one request for such data:
Balthus was exceptionally careful in the depictions displayed here of fourteen year old Thérèse Blanchard.  Although the poses taken by the model - or given her by the artist - are undeniably suggestive, there is nothing explicit or overtly sexual in them.  Nor is the artist's relationship to his model ever made clear though hints are provided in the works themselves.  In an oversized reproduction near the exhibit's exit, Thérèse is posed with leg drawn up; a giant cat has been placed at her feet as a proxy for Balthus himself.  Perhaps the source of such caution on Balthus' part can be found in the uproar that greeted the first showing of The Guitar Lesson (not included here) in Paris in 1934.  Balthus did years later paint Frédérique Tison in the nude at Chassy, but the model was at that time age seventeen and could be considered already an adult.

Also included in this show are the forty ink drawings from Mitsou, completed when the artist was a precocious eleven year old and published in 1921 by his mother's lover, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  By far the most interesting piece on display though, is Le chat de la Méditerranée (1949), Balthus' self portrait as a cat painted at the suggestion of the vicomtesse de Noailles and meant to be hung as an advertisement at the seafood restaurant La Méditerranée, a meeting place for Parisian artists and intelligentsia. This delightful work is as close to surrealism as Balthus ever came and it alone is worth a visit.

The exhibit continues through January 12, 2014.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Schnittke, Mozart, Brahms and Debussy

Yesterday evening's chamber recital was the last in this particular series at Mannes.  It contained a wide range of musical styles from the classical to late twentieth century that blended very well together.

The first piece was the Violin Sonata No. 3 (1994) by Alfred Schnittke.  It was written late in the composer's career after he had begun suffering from the serious medical problems that would end his life only four years later in 1998.  During this period he largely gave up the experimental polystylism in which he had tried to combine serious and light music and developed in its place a more serious technique that better reflected his bleak prognosis. This melancholy piece was music composed by a man awaiting his own death.  As I'd previously known Schnittke through such lighter works as Moz-Art a la Mozart, hearing it was a disturbing experience.

Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448 (1781) was written as a showpiece which would allow the composer to display his virtuosity at the keyboard in a joint performance with Josephine von Aurnhammer.  One of Mozart's few compositions for two pianos, it was a radiant, elegantly written piece that was clearly meant to dazzle the audience.  The work is best known nowadays for its use in a scientific experiment designed to test the positive effects listening to classical music has on the brain.

Brahms' Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1865) was actually entitled Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello in order to emphasize the importance Brahms placed on the piano part.  The first two movements were composed three years before the last, a fugue that pays homage to Bach.  In addition, the composer deleted the adagio before the work's publication so that sonata lacks the traditional slow movement, giving the piece a somewhat unwieldy structure.  It was exceptionally well played here by Zexun Shen on cello and Kyle Walker on piano.

The program ended with Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.  This was the third time I've heard this piece performed this season alone, a strange circumstance considering the unusual combination of instruments for which it was written.  On the first occasion, it was played at Juilliard by an impressive ensemble consisting of Carol Wincenc, Nancy Allen and Cynthia Phelps.  I thought the Mannes students held their own very well last evening against such august company.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Shirley Givens

I've been lucky enough to have attended a faculty recital at Paul Hall every Saturday evening this season since mid-September.  I'm very grateful that Juilliard made these events available to the public.  The recitals, about which I've posted here regularly, have provided an invaluable opportunity for me to hear, at no cost, innovative programs performed by world class musicians.  Yesterday evening, Shirley Givens brought the series to a dramatic close.  Rather than perform with an accompanist, she brought onstage a full chamber orchestra made up of her former students and conducted by her husband Harry Wimmer.

The piece performed was The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) by the Venetian composer, priest and violinist Antonio Vivaldi, certainly one of the most popular works in the Baroque repertoire and one of historical importance as well.  Comprised of the first four concerti from a set of twelve that form Vivaldi's Op. 8 (1723), its early use of three movements (fast, slow, fast) performed by solo instrument and ensemble helped standardize the structure of the concerto itself.

Vivaldi's tone poem was meant to accompany a set of sonatas believed written by the composer himself vividly describing each season in turn.  These poems, translated into English, were used as narration last evening and helped heighten the effect of the music.  This was one of the best renditions of this famous work I've heard, and the level of ability displayed by all was superb.  Four soloists, each of whom performed for the length of one season, alternated during the length of the piece.  During the final movement, Ms. Givens herself moved briefly to center stage to share the solo with Joseph Lin, first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet.

Further details as well as a fuller listing of the musicians who performed at the recital can be found in an article in The Juilliard Journal.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mannes: The Mystics

The final recital by the Mannes Piano Department this season was aptly entitled The Mystics and featured the works of a number of twentieth century composers in a 90 minute program performed yesterday evening without intermission.

For me, the highlight came at the very beginning with performances of two pieces by Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer with whose work I had not previously been familiar.  The first of these, Fratres, was actually not a piano work at all.  Instead, it had over the years been composed in a number of different versions and revisions, including string quintet (Fratres I, 1977), string orchestra and percussion, solo violin (Fratres II, 1980) and cello ensemble (Fratres III, 1980).  The version played at this performance was an arrangement by Jeffrey Ziegler for eighteen cellos.  The work was very difficult to describe, but it might best be termed a minimalist composition that made use of the tintinnabuli style developed by Pärt; it was an exciting piece that nevertheless instilled in this listener a curious sense of quietude. The second work by Pärt was Für Alina (1976), a slow-moving meditative piece for solo piano that here was performed brilliantly by Gvantsa Zangaladze.

The next piece was Bacchanale for prepared piano (1940) by the innovative genius John Cage.  The use of a prepared piano gave certain notes a strange "tinny" sound when they were struck.  This was followed by The Messenger (1996), an ethereal piece by Valentin Silvestrov played with the top panel of the piano placed down.  After this came Regard de l'Esprit de joie which was No. 10 from Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus (1944).  Purely through coincidence, I had just heard the No. 10 played several days ago at Matthew Odell's recital at Juilliard.  Next was another unfamiliar work, Svani Tower (1969) by the Georgian composer Otar Taktakishvili.  Finally the program ended with music by Alexander Scriabin beginning with three etudes (Nos. 4, 11 and 12) from his Op. 8 (1894).  These were from the early part of his career and still showed the influence of Chopin's music upon the composer. The Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp, Op. 30 (1903) which followed was from Scriabin's later period when he had more fully developed his idiosyncratic "ecstatic" style.

In addition to Ms. Zangaladze, several other Mannes students participated in the program over the course of the evening.  These were Teng Fu, Baron Fenwick and David Mamedov.  The level of proficiency displayed by all these pianists was remarkable, so much so that it was difficult to remember at times that they really were still only students.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Carnegie Hall: Iván Fischer Conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke's

I attended yesterday evening's concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Stern Auditorium primarily to hear Iván Fischer conduct Bartók.  Over the years, I've become more interested in that composer's work as I've grown more aware of its importance to twentieth century music.  Originally, I was attracted to the string quartets and that led inevitably to a greater appreciation of Bartók's orchestral pieces.   And there is no doubt that Fischer is one of the foremost interpreters of Bartók's music.  Recently, I listened to an archived broadcast on WQXR in which he led the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he cofounded, in a superlative performance of the concert version of The Miraculous Mandarin from the 2013 Lucerne Festival.

But Bartók was not the only Hungarian composer on the program.  The evening began with a performance of the Serenade, Op. 3 (1906) by Leo Weiner.  Difficult though it now may be to imagine, in the early twentieth century Weiner was held in as high esteem among both audiences and critics as his compatriots Bartók and Kodály.  Listening to the Serenade, it is easier to understand why this may have been.  The work was pleasant enough, but it was steeped in the traditions of the nineteenth century.  There was no depth to it and nothing to jar an audience out of its complacency.  It was this lack of innovation that eventually doomed Weiner to obscurity while Bartók and Kodály surged ahead in their search for a new idiom for a new century.

The second work was the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1845) by Robert Schumann. Though Schumann is widely known for his piano compositions, this was the only concerto he ever wrote.  Its first movement was actually composed as a Fantasia for piano and orchestra and was only expanded into a full length concerto at the urging of Schumann's wife Clara who performed the piece at its premiere.  Especially in its opening movement, the work is fiery and passionate and so completely embodies the Romantic ethos that it has become one of the best known of all piano concertos.  The soloist yesterday evening was Jonathan Biss.

Bartók's Hungarian Sketches (1931) opened the second half of the program.  These are orchestrations of five piano pieces Bartók had composed between 1908 and 1911.  Though brief and, by the composer's own admission, written for money, these are not minor works. All are carefully thought out and, if not as imaginative as some other of the composer's work, are well worth hearing.  I especially enjoyed the lyricism of the first sketch, An Evening at the Village.

The final piece on the program was Mozart's final Symphony No. 41  in C, K. 551, the "Jupiter," (1788).  Though there is no record that it was ever performed during the composer's lifetime, so often is it played nowadays that it has grown almost too familiar.  It is difficult for a twenty-first century audience to grasp how astonishing the piece must sounded when new, most especially the final movement with its five-voice fugato.  But it is still impossible for any listener to become completely inured to the greatness of this symphony.  Quite simply, it is one of the greatest works of genius ever produced by any artist.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Juilliard Chamber Music: Strauss and Beethoven

Wednesdays at One are a series of free lunchtime recitals, each lasting an hour, given by Juilliard students at Alice Tully Hall.  Yesterday afternoon's program consisted of two well known works by Strauss and Beethoven.

The first piece was Strauss' Metamorphosen in an arrangement for string septet by Rudolf Leopold.  This work, composed in 1945, is one of the greatest and certainly most beautiful of Strauss' late period.  Inscribed "In Memoriam" on the score and citing near its end the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica, it is also one of the most controversial.  There has always been a question of what exactly Strauss was mourning in this work, with a consensus holding that it was the destruction of Germany by Allied bombing at the end of World War II for which he felt such sorrow.  I believe the answer can better be found in Strauss' own life. He was born in 1864 in a country that was then the center of Europe's cultural life, most especially as far as music was concerned.  Strauss himself participated in this rich heritage from the very beginning as his own father was principal horn at the Court Opera in Munich. At the same time as Germany's importance as a musical center grew even further under the influence of Wagner's operas, Strauss became that country's foremost composer and conductor.  His entire universe came crashing down, of course, in 1914 when Strauss was exactly fifty years old.  He never wrote another tone poem after that nor any other works in the style of his younger years.  Instead, he spent the remainder of his life staring horrified at the abyss into which Germany had fallen and composing meditative works which had little to do with heroic themes.  Strauss witnessed first hand the disappearance of an entire way of life to the savagery of war, and I think it was this loss of the civilization he had known and of which he had been a part that he truly mourned most in his work.

When I saw the piece listed on the program, I worried that the reduction from 23 strings to a septet would ruin a work whose hallmark was its dense texture.  But that was not the case. All the deep feeling and pathos found in the original survived intact.  I later learned that Strauss' original sketches for the piece, only discovered in 1990, were also for a septet, so there definitely was a legitimate basis for this arrangement.

The second work was Beethoven's Piano Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1, nicknamed the "Ghost" for the eerie music found in the slow second movement.  Next to the "Archduke" Trio, this is the most famous piece Beethoven composed in this genre.  Yesterday's performance was coached by pianist Joseph Kalichstein along with Sylvia Rosenberg.  Coincidentally, I had attended a student recital last season of Schubert's Trio in E flat that had also been coached by Kalichstein and had been very impressed by it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dada & Surrealist Objects at Blain/Di Donna

One of the season's best exhibits, Dada & Surrealist Objects, is currently tucked away on the mezzanine of the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue.  This show at Blain/Di Donna is a "must see" for anyone with the slightest interest in the development of twentieth century art.  It contains works by almost all the major figures of the surrealist movement as well as a few lesser known artists.

The most important artist on display is Marcel Duchamp.  Though it was the presence of Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 at the 1913 Armory Show that first brought him to fame, it is his readymades and not his paintings that are his most significant legacy.  It was these "found" objects that opened the door not only to appropriation art but to the entire range of conceptual and pop art as well.  The most important of the readymades was Fountain (1917).  So successful was this work in challenging the then prevailing notions of what was and was not art that it was quietly destroyed by board members of the of the Society of Independent Artists to whose show it had been submitted.  Works by Duchamp on display at this show include A bruit secret. With hidden noise, Chess Score, Parmi nos articles de quincaillerie, La Bagarre d'Austerlitz as well as the artist's facsimile notes to the Bride Stripped Bare.  Also shown are several readymades created by Duchamp's close friend, the photographer Man Ray, including Indestructible Object, Object of my Affection and Les Grandes Vacances, the last a tribute to Duchamp's own bottlerack.

Joseph CornellMéret OppenheimAlexander CalderSalvador DaliRené Magritte, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Jean (Hans) Arp, Kurt Schwitters and Yves Tanguy are among the other important surrealists represented at the show.  There are also two works by André Breton. Breton, though, was primarily a literary figure and his forays into the visual arts are derivative and not particularly successful.  The real surprise are the works of George Hugnet, including two assemblages in boxes from 1936-1937 that are very reminiscent of the boxed collages Cornell had begun making only a few years earlier.

Photography was represented at this show by an excellent rayograph by Man Ray, Champs delicieux (1922), as well as a vintage print of the photographer's Table Top Still Life (1935). Hans Bellmer's La Poupée dans la forêt (1935) and Claude Cahun's Je donnerais ma vie (1936) were also included.  There were also photographs of surrealist exhibitions and installations taken in 1938 by Raoul Ubac which provide important documentation of the movement's history.  Notable by their absence, though, are any works by the important surrealist photographer Pierre Molinier.

The exhibit continues through December 13, 2013.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

WQXR Live from Carnegie Hall: Arcangelo

WQXR broadcast another live concert from Carnegie Hall yesterday evening, this time from Zankel auditorium.  The performance was given by Arcangelo, a Baroque ensemble from the UK making its North American debut, and included works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christoph Bach and Handel.

The first work on the program was J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041.  The exact dates of composition for this piece are disputed and range from 1717 when the composer arrived in Cothen to his work with the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in 1730.  The concerto was heavily influenced by the Italian tradition, particularly the music of Vivaldi, in its use of ritornello and its placement of the soloist within the structure of the ensemble itself.  In an attempt to achieve authenticity, Arcangelo used catgut fiber strings on its instruments as had been common practice in the eighteenth century. This resulted in a much deeper and richer sound on the violin part.

The next piece was J. Christoph Bach's Mein Freund ist mein from the Cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schon (circa 1679).  The Bach family produced a number of highly esteemed composers in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  J.C. Bach was the first cousin once removed of J.S. who knew the former well and held him in great respect.  But J.C., though a church organist and successful composer, ended his life in debt and dishonor.  The cantata is written for tenor, soprano, alto and bass and is based on the biblical Song of Songs.  The text accordingly includes very explicit expressions of desire to be sung by the soprano.

There were two works on the program by Handel, his Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 6, No. 10, followed after intermission by his cantata Apollo e Dafne.  The Op. 6 concerti, written in the style of Corelli, are among the best known works of the Baroque era while the cantata, begun in Venice in 1709 and completed in Hanover in 1710, closely followed the huge success of Handel's opera seria Agrippina in 1709.

Arcangelo is a new ensemble that was only formed in 2010 but has already gained a great deal of renown.  The group has released several recordings of which one, Arias for Guadagni, won a 2012 Grammy.  The players are extremely talented and convey a great deal of enthusiasm for their work.  Their sound is crisp and well rehearsed.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Dvorak and Schoenberg

Last evening's chamber recital at Mannes consisted of two famous pieces, a quartet by Dvorak arranged for winds and a sextet by Schoenberg, played without intermission.

The program opened with Dvorak's String Quartet in F, No. 12, Op. 96, the “American Quartet” (1893) in a transcription for wind quintet by David Walter.  The quartet was composed, along with the Ninth Symphony and the String Quintet No. 3, during the period (1892-1895) when Dvorak sojourned in this country as director of the National Conservatory of Music.  Just as the composer had been influenced by Czech folk music in his earlier work, so during his American period he sought inspiration in Native American and Afro-American music.  In this, he was assisted by his pupil Harry Burleigh who first introduced him to American spirituals.  Though musicologists have long sought to identify the exact "folk tunes" that inspired Dvorak, such academic exercises miss the real point - that Dvorak was the first composer to recognize the importance of the Afro-American contribution to the development of American music.  He wrote at the time:
"I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them."
As far as the transcription is concerned, although the students at yesterday evening's recital all played marvelously, I have to admit that I much prefer the original quartet for strings to the use of wind instruments.  To me, the winds are simply not able to convey the same effect.

The evening ended with Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 (1899) in the original version for string sextet.  Ironically, it is for this piece, written long before Schoenberg involved himself with the twelve tone technique, that the composer is best remembered and that still today remains his most popular work.  It is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel in which a man learns that his lover is pregnant by another man who is now no longer part of her life.  The verse is extremely moving, especially at the end when the strength of the man's love overcomes all barriers and enables him to fully embrace his companion's condition and accept the child as their own.  In their performance of the sextet's finale, the Mannes students succeeded perfectly in capturing this transcendental moment.  It was wonderfully played by the entire ensemble.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Matthew Odell

Last Saturday I heard Matthew Odell in a joint recital for four hands with Adelaide Roberts. Yesterday evening I heard him on his own as he performed works by Olivier Messiaen, Ned Rorem, Philip Lasser, Michel Merlet, Toru Takemitsu, Elliott Carter and a world premiere by Edward Niedermaier.  Mr. Odell is not only an excellent pianist but he is also a thoughtful commentator.  I greatly appreciated the short introduction he gave each piece before performing it.

It was the world premiere by Edward Niedermaier, appropriately enough entitled Fanfare Fantasy, that opened the program.  The work had actually been only been commissioned by Mr. Odell from his friend this past summer.

Following that came Michel Merlet's Passacaille et fugue, Op. 36 (1986).  Mr. Odell explained that the work had been written as a tribute to Mr. Merlet's teacher whose name had been Tony Aubin.  In order to construct a theme to be used throughout the work, the composer had assigned a musical note to each letter of Mr. Aubin's name.

Mr. Odell was joined by guest violinist Ariana Kim for the third piece, Vocalise for violin and piano (1999) by Philip Lasser.  It turned out Mr. Lasser had once been a faculty member at Juilliard.

Caténaires (2006) was an experimental piano work that Elliott Carter wrote when he was already 96 years old.  The work is unique in that it contains no chords.  I found the meaning of the term caténaire to be somewhat elusive.  Interestingly, la lignes caténaires translates as "contact wires" or "power cables."

In celebration of Ned Rorem's 90th birthday, Mr. Odell and guest soprano Katherine Whyte selected three of the composer's songs whose lyrics they considered most appropriate.  The three were The Silver Swan, Little Elegy and Alleluia.

For a finale, Mr. Odell performed together Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II - In Memoriam Oliver Messiaen (1992) and Messiaen's Regard de l'Esprit de joie from Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus.  The first was a tender remembrance and the latter a powerful statement of pure joy.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mannes Faculty Recital: Chin Kim and David Oei

Violinist Chin Kim and pianist David Oei presented one of the season's more intriguing programs at yesterday evening's faculty recital at Mannes.  Both performers were extremely accomplished musicians and Mr. Kim especially impressed by playing the full program, including the premiere of a new work, entirely from memory.

The recital began with Violin Sonata, Op. 27, No. 4 by famed Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Not only was each of the six sonatas in his Op. 27 dedicated to a different well known violinist but was also written in the style of that musician.  The No. 4 was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler and is reminiscent of the recordings I have heard by that master.  Ysaÿe himself was one of the most esteemed violinists of his era as witnessed by the fact that both Franck's Violin Sonata in A and Chausson's Poème were composed for him.  In addition, he was the founder of the Ysaÿe Quartet which premiered Debussy's String Quartet in 1893.

The next piece was the Violin Sonata in F minor, Op. 80 by Sergei Prokofiev, one of the most darkly fascinating to be found in the entire repertoire for violin.  The music has an almost sinister quality to it.  The details provided in the Wikipedia article are striking:
"Prokofiev had described the slithering violin scales at the end of the 1st and 4th movements as 'wind passing through a graveyard'. 
The work was premiered by David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin, under the personal coaching of the composer. During rehearsals, Oborin played a certain passage, marked forte, too gently for Prokofiev's liking, who insisted it should be more aggressive. Oborin replied that he was afraid of drowning out the violin, but Prokofiev said "It should sound in such a way that people should jump in their seat, and people will say 'Is he out of his mind?'"
No wonder this was the piece played at the composer's own funeral.

Following intermission came the world premiere of a new work, Life Strings for violin solo by Noam Sivan. The composer himself appeared onstage to explain that each of the poetically titled first four movements of this five-movement piece would be played entirely on one string descending from the highest to lowest with the final movement played on the full range of strings.  It was an interesting experiment and I enjoyed listening to it.

The recital closed with performances of Chausson's Poème, mentioned above, and a transcription by Jascha Heifetz of Debussy's Beau Soir.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Carnegie Hall: San Francisco Symphony: Mahler #9

The program at yesterday evening's concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall consisted of only one scheduled work.  But that one work, Mahler's enormous Ninth Symphony is certainly one of the greatest in the repertoire and a personal favorite.

The work consists of four movments, Andante comodo (D major), Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (C major), Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (A minor) and Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (D-flat major).  As others have pointed out, the work reverses the usual order found in symphonic movements by having the slow music come before and after the faster tempos just as Tchaikovsky had done in his own Sixth Symphony.  As a result, in the finale the music dies away rather than ending in a crescendo.

Mahler died before ever having heard his Ninth performed.  By the time he finished it in 1909, he had known for two years that his heart condition was terminal and that this work might very well be his valediction.  Already he had suffered the loss of his daughter and had been forced to resign as Music Director of the Vienna Opera.  In many ways, this work was an attempt to come to grips with these catastrophes.  The program notes quote biographer Michael Kennedy on this point as it relates to the symphony's muted ending:
"Might this not be his [Mahler's] requiem for his daughter, dead only two years when he began to compose it, and for his long-dead brothers and sisters?"
The Ninth is a specialty of Michael Tilson Thomas; it was the first piece he conducted when he made his debut with the SFS in 1974.  Together he and the orchestra have recorded the entire Mahler cycle in a 17-CD set which won seven Grammy awards.

One online article quotes Thomas as saying:
"Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is, for me, perhaps the most important and emotionally satisfying farewell symphony.  I would not see the world or experience things as I do without that piece. Were I never to hear it again, it would not be a hardship, because it’s inside me, completely. To perform Mahler's Ninth is about being fully engaged with both those who are playing it and those who are listening to it."
Yesterday evening's performance, which lasted approximately 90 minutes, was filled with excitement throughout and in the end came very close to reaching the sublime heights to which Mahler aspired in composing it.  I had already, on Tuesday evening, heard the WQXR broadcast of this same orchestra and conductor performing an entirely different program and had been greatly impressed by the excellence of both.  Yesterdays evening's triumph only reinforced that impression.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

WQXR Live from Carnegie Hall: San Francisco Symphony

Yesterday evening's performance of the San Francisco Symphony, broadcast live on WQXR, featured Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the orchestra in a mix of classical Viennese music by Beethoven and Mozart and twentieth century American music by Steven Mackey and Aaron Copland.

The program began with Beethoven's twelve minute Lenore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a from Fidelio.  Opera, of course, was the one form of musical expression that gave Beethoven the most difficulty.  In the end, he only composed one operatic work and that with great difficulty.  Despite several revisions, Fidelio never succeeded in becoming a mainstay of the repertoire, and it is its overtures that are most often performed today.  Of these, the Lenore No. 3 is by far the most popular.  Its great length, however, makes its performance within the opera itself problematic .  Still, this is a rousing piece with which to open any orchestral concert.

There followed Steven Mackey's Eating Greens (1994).  Despite the humorous titles given its seven movements and idiosyncratic instrumentation (including party horns, glass bottles and harmonicas) using no less than forty percussive instruments, this is a major symphonic work and cannot help but have a powerful effect on the listener. Though the work ends with a homage to Thelonius Monk, it also seems to me to be greatly influenced by the psychedelic rock music of the 1960's.  There is a very "spacy" feel to it that makes it totally unique in my experience.

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, the last of the twelve he wrote in Vienna between 1884 and 1886, is usually considered his greatest work in this genre and is most notable for its extensive use of wind instruments.  The soloist at yesterday evening's performance was Jeremy Denk who has recently attracted as much notice for his writing abilities as his musicianship and was two months ago named a MacArthur Fellow.  Not only was his playing incredibly formidable, but his description of the work - in an interview with WQXR broadcast during intermission - was among the most insightful pieces of musical criticism I've encountered.  Both in his talk and in his performance, Denk brought out levels of meaning in the concerto I'd never suspected were there.

The final piece scheduled on the program was Copland's Symphonic Ode (1929), a youthful work for huge orchestra the composer wrote while still very much under the influence of Mahler and Stravinsky.  Although Copland himself called it his favorite work, it was never popular and is rarely (or, according to Michael Tilson Thomas, never) played today.  That may be due at least in part to the difficulty of the piece.  Originally commissioned by Sergey Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony, the renowned conductor found the music so complex that he asked Copland to take over the rehearsals before its first performance. Copland eventually revised the work to make it simpler to play and it was finally premiered in 1932, a year later than had originally been planned.

The encore was the Hoe-down from Copland's Rodeo the 1942 ballet choreographed by Agnes de Mille for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  This movement is not original but was taken in its entirety by Copland from Ruth Crawford Seeger's transcription of W. H. Stepp's version of Bonypart (Bonaparte's Retreat).  Whatever its origin, it provided an exciting ending to the concert.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Juilliard: ACJW Ensemble Performs Bach, Donatoni, Carter, Kurtag and Haydn

Yesterday evening's performance by the ACJW Ensemble at Paul Hall was a satisfying mix of traditional and contemporary music.  It is their eclecticism in combining the old and new that regularly places these talented musicians' recitals among the most exciting offerings of the season.

The program began with the selection Sonata sopra il Soggetto Reale from the well known Musical Offering, BWV 1079 (1747) by J.S. Bach.  After having paid a visit to the Prussian court where his son was employed, Bach wrote the work in response to a challenge given him by Frederick the Great.  The king presented Bach with a theme and first asked him to improvise upon it a three-voice fugue.  When Bach had done so, Frederick then challenged him to compose a six-voice fugue on the same theme.  Upon his return to Leipzig, Bach responded to the king's request by publishing A Musical Offering, a collection of fugues and canons all of which were based on the theme provided by the king.  Contained within that collection was the selection on yesterday evening's program.  The musicians performing the piece were Catherine Gregory (flute), Clara Lyon (violin), Hannah Collins (cello) and Tyler Wottrich (harpsichord).  The instruments on which they played were the original versions used during the Baroque period, a choice that enabled the audience to appreciate how the music must have sounded when played during Bach's lifetime.

There followed two contemporary pieces for wind quintet, Blow by Franco Donatoni and Woodwind Quintet by Elliott Carter.  Before performing the Donatoni, the clarinetist described the work as "high intensity," and it certainly was that.  The musicians on both these pieces were Catherine Gregory (flute), Stuart Breczinski (oboe), Romie de Guise-Langlois (clarinet), Nanci Belmont (bassoon) and Laura Weiner (horn).

The second half of the program was devoted to music for two pianists.  The first piece was a medley of four works, two composed by György Kurtág  from his Játékok (Games) and two by Bach as transcribed by Kurtág.  The music was described as that played by an old couple and began with a humorous "argument" between the two sets of hands.  The description was apt as Kurtág and his wife Márta regularly appear together in recital to perform selections from Játékok whose genesis is described by the composer as follows:
"The idea of composing Játékok was suggested by children playing spontane- ously, children for whom the piano still means a toy. They experiment with it, caress it, attack it and run their fingers over it. They pile up seemingly discon- nected sounds, and if this happens to arouse their musical instinct they look consciously for some of the harmonies found by chance and keep repeating them."
The second piece was the two-piano version of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b (1873).  Although it is the orchestral version of this work that is most famous, the two-piano version was actually written first.  The composition consists of a theme in B-flat, eight variations, and a finale. The two featured pianists on both the Kurtág and the Brahms were Alexandria Le and Tyler Wottrich.

Besides being thoroughly enjoyable, the recital was successful in broadening my musical horizons.  Although I had been familiar with the orchestral version of the Brahms, I had not known of the two-piano version.  Nor before yesterday evening had I heard of either Donatoni or Kurtág.  The Kurtág/Bach especially, with its delicate interweaving of sounds from two different periods, was a revelation to me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers

Having read the full length biography of Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, about which I have already posted, I recently began reading Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers by Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov.  Published by Hugh Lauter Levin, this is a lavish, large format volume I purchased several years ago at the Metropolitan Museum.  So much care was put into the production of this book that it was clearly intended as a work of art in its own right.  In fact, the dedication was to the memory of Philip Grushkin, the famous book designer whose last project this represented.

The text of the book is intelligent and insightful, though necessarily less detailed than Naifeh and Smith's exhaustive study.  In general, I found no discrepancies between the two accounts of the artist's life.  In most cases, Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov can be said to have taken a less judgmental view of the tumultuous incidents that made up Van Gogh's career.  The dysfunctional painter's inability to lead a normal life, his failure at almost every career he attempted and the flaws in his incorrigible personality that brought an abrupt end to every professional, social and familial relationship (other than with his brother Theo) are largely glossed over.  There are no sensational claims and very little that can be considered controversial.

The book's greatest value lies in its excellent reproductions of almost all Van Gogh's major paintings and drawings.  It was during the three years the artist spent in Provence and later Auvers that he created the body of work that we now associate with him.  Though it seems inconceivable that anyone could accomplish so much in so short a time, it was during this brief period that Van Gogh, working literally around the clock, finally found his style and devoted all his resources to perfecting it.  Prior to that, he had labored for several years in the Netherlands, Belgium and finally Paris but had succeeded in producing only one work that could truly be called a masterpiece.  That was the bleak but powerful group portrait entitled The Potato Eaters (1885) that is reproduced in this volume's introduction.

This book should perhaps be best thought of as an illustrated companion volume to Naifeh and Smith's biography.  Taken together, the two books provide as full a study of Van Gogh and his oeuvre as we are ever likely to encounter.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Brahms

Yesterday evening's chamber recital at Mannes featured the music of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Brahms.

I have previously posted of having heard Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances for Two Pianos, Op. 45 (1940) performed at Mannes last month as part of its Piano Department's series of recitals.  Yesterday was a reprise of that performance with the same two talented students at the keyboards as before.  I enjoyed the piece even more on second hearing.  The piano version reduces the orchestral work to its underlying themes and allows the listener to better understand the composer's intentions; but I cannot help but prefer the richness of the orchestral version with its lush tones, including that provided by the saxophone in the first movement, all the more so after having heard it recently performed at Carnegie Hall by the Mariinsky Orchestra.

Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, op. 69 (1808) is headed on the manuscript Inter Lacrimas et Luctum ("Amid Tears and Sorrow") in a reference that possibly has more to do with the unhappiness in the composer's personal life than it does with the music.  It was written at exactly the same time as the Fifth and Sixth symphonies at the height of his middle period.  This is the second time in the space of a week that Mannes students have performed a Beethoven cello sonata.  They had previously played his Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815).  It was interesting to compare that later work with the one written seven years earlier and to note the differences in the composer's style as he moved forward toward his final works.

Brahms' Piano Trio in B Major, op. 8 no. 1, although written in 1854, was revised extensively in 1889.  It is the later version that was played yesterday evening.  The very fact, though, that Brahms did not withdraw the original version from publication indicates he may have had some reservations about the changes he made as well as some fondness for the original. In its first incarnation, the work displayed the deep impact the romantic movement had had on Brahms.  He even wrote on the the manuscript "Kreisler junior" in reference to an E.T.A. Hoffmann character.  Brahms composed the original piece several months after having met Robert and Clara Schumman in September 1853, and it was only weeks after he had finished it that Robert attempted to drown himself and had to be institutionalized for the remainder of his life. But in spite of this tragedy, Clara still found time to offer encouragement to the young composer and to recommend the trio to her publisher.  Though in its revised form the work may be much more tightly organized, it still fully conveys the romantic ethos that originally inspired it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Adelaide Roberts and Matthew Odell

It's always fascinating to watch a piano recital for four hands and see two musicians at the keyboard playing as a single unit.  Yesterday evening's program at Paul Hall was a joint recital by two Juilliard Faculty members, Adelaide Roberts and Matthew Odell and featured one work by Schubert and two by Debussy.

Schubert's Sonata for Four Hands in B-flat Major, D. 617 (1818), published under the name "First Grand Sonata," was written while the composer was employed as court musician to Count Johann Esterhazy as well as music tutor to his daughters.  This a youthful piece written the year before the Piano Quintet in A and predating the later Four Hand Sonata in C, D. 812 by about six years.  Though it lacks the scope and maturity of the later "Grand Duo" Sonata, it's still an innovative work and absorbing to hear.

Debussy's Six Epigraphes Antiques (1914), with such evocative titles as Pour un tombeau sans nom, are based on Pierre Louÿs' sensual Chansons de Bilitis and exist in several forms.  The movements originally were written as incidental music to accompany a recitation of Louÿs’ poems, then were arranged by the composer for the four hand piano version heard yesterday evening and still later for a reduced solo piano version.  In addition, there were arrangements done after Debussy's death for chamber orchestra as well as the ballet Antique Epigraphs choreographed by Jerome Robbins for the New York City Ballet.

Debussy's Symphonie in B Minor was written when he was only 18 years old while still a composition student at the Paris Conservatoire.  This is as close as he ever came to writing a formal symphony.  At the time he was music tutor to the daughters of Nadezhda von Meck, patroness of Tchaikovsky.    According to one source:

"Debussy spent his holidays in the years 1880 – 1882 in Madame von Meck entourage. He would play for her on the piano, and together they performed piano duets of music she specially liked, especially pieces she had received from Tchaikovsky. At her request, he also made piano arrangements of dances from swan lake."
Bearing in mind Debussy was in love with von Meck's daughter and wanted to marry her, it's intriguing to imagine the pair seated beside one another on the piano bench.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Schubert and Weber

Yesterday evening's chamber music recital at Mannes consisted of three pieces, two by Schubert and one by his contemporary Weber.

Schubert's Introduction and Seven Variations on Trockne Blumen (1824), the only piece he ever wrote for flute and piano, opened the program.  It is based on the eighteenth song (translated as Withered Flowers) of the  cycle Die schöne Mullerin.  Though not often performed, this is a major work that displays the full range of Schubert's genius.  The flute part in particular is extremely complex.  As the work predates Boehm's development of the modern concert flute, the part must have put even greater demands on Ferdinand Bogner, the virtuoso flautist for whom the work was originally composed, than it does on today's musicians.  This may also help explain why the work did not enter the standard repertoire until several decades after Schubert's death.

Carl Maria von Weber's Trio for Flute, Piano and Cello in G minor (1819) followed.  This is a refined and polished piece that displays little of the stormy Romanticism that so impressed Wagner and Berlioz in Weber's operas Der Freischütz and Oberon.  Instead, the work is pleasant and accessible, and its elegant style gives the musicians numerous opportunities to display their talents.

In contrast to the two little known pieces that made up the first half of the program, Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, Die Forelle (1819) is one of the best known works in the chamber repertoire.  As with Trockne Blumen, the work consists of a set of variations on one of Schubert's lieder, here Die Forelle (The Trout).  Perhaps because it was written when the composer was only 22, long before the onset of the medical problems that led to his tragic early death, the tone of the work is almost entirely joyous and carefree.  If it lacks the deeply introspective character of Schubert's later works, it makes up for it with a youthful exuberance that cannot help but raise the listener's spirits.  At least it always does mine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Vintage Photographs of New York City at Keith De Lellis

Vintage Photographs of New York City, the current exhibit at the Keith De Lellis Gallery, is recommended primarily for its nostalgic view of a vanished Manhattan.  Taken together, the photographs, most of which date from the 1940's and 1950's, provide a loving black & white portrait of New York City at mid-century.  It's a milieu instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever watched the film The Naked City on late night television.  Unfortunately, though, most of these works lack the drama and intensity of the Weegee images that inspired the movie.  The photographers who took them, with a few notable exceptions, are lesser talents and some of the work is not even that well printed.

Among the better known photographers on display is Ansel Adams.  Regrettably, his New York (1938) is not a particularly original work.  Although the influence of Stieglitz can be seen in the implementation of areas of deep shadow among the skyscrapers, the photo ends up little more than a standard cityscape.  Much more engaging is Margaret Bourke-White's New Jersey Entrance to Holland Tunnel (1930) taken from a skewed overhead angle.  Berenice Abbott is represented by Facade, Alwyn Court (1938), a vintage print from her series of photos of New York in the 1930's.

Of the lesser known photographs, the most striking is the sepia toned Empire State Building with Dirigible, Anonymous (c. 1931).  Flat Iron Building (c. 1955) by David Attie uses some type of device, perhaps a lens filter, to create a pleasing distortion in its depiction of the familiar landmark.  Smog Covered Skyline (1966) by Neal Boenzi quite literally achieves an atmospheric effect, but the print itself appears not to have been properly dry mounted and is wrinkled and bent at one corner.

The exhibit continues through November 16, 2013.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Van Gogh: The Life

In many ways, Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith parallels the authors' earlier biography of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.  Both are huge books, especially when one considers how brief were the lives of their subjects.  The authors' insistence in documenting in these biographies every formative incident  finally so over- whelms the reader with a wealth of detail that each artist is brought vividly to life and becomes a breathing presence beside one.  Not only does one come to understand the histories of these artists but he/she is also provided insight into the creative process from which each derived his own distinctive body of work.  This is probably the books' greatest achievement, for nothing can ever be so mysterious as the forces that compel an artist to forgo the normal pleasures of life and endure pain and suffering in order to give expression to a unique vision.  And the authors are painstaking in describing all the sources and influences, no matter how inconsequential in themselves, that formed this vision.  They also include a sufficient number of reproductions to enable the reader to trace the course of the artist's career.

Like Pollock, Van Gogh was a deeply dysfunctional person, so much so that it seems miraculous that he was not only able to survive for so long on his own but in the end could triumph over his afflictions to the extent that he left behind an oeuvre that is among the greatest works of genius of the nineteenth century.  Although the authors wisely refrain from any armchair psychoanalysis, it's obvious that Van Gogh suffered from a form of schizo- phrenia so debilitating that towards the end of his life he needed to be forcibly confined to asylums where he blacked out for weeks at a time.  He had no adult interaction with family, aside from his brother Theo, nor any real friends.  Instead, he was the ultimate outsider who was both unable and unwilling to assume a role within polite society.  Having failed at virtually everything he set out to do, he came to art only in his thirties and achieved no great success there either until the very end.

Perhaps the greatest praise that can be given a biography such as this is that it makes the reader want to see the subject's work first hand.  While reading the book, I walked to the Met Museum to see the few Van Goghs on display.  At the next opportunity, I'll visit MOMA to see what they have as well. I visited years ago the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and wish I were able to travel there again to view their holdings with a new found appreciation.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Ligeti, Beethoven and Haydn

Mannes offered the first in its series of chamber music recitals yesterday evening.  Together with those given by Juilliard, these provide an excellent evening's entertainment at no cost to the audience.

The Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1953) by György Ligeti are derived from a larger group of twelve that were originally composed for piano.  All six pieces are short and most are rather spirited.  The exception is the second, the romantic rubato lamentoso.  These were early works written while Ligeti was still living in Hungary which was then part of the USSR. The Soviets imposed a great deal of censorship on musicians during this period, and in fact performance of the final bagatelle was banned by them as being "too dangerous."  After Ligeti fled to Vienna in 1956, two months after the failed Hungarian Revolution, the style of his music changed radically as he came under the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig and developed an interest in electronic music.

Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815) is most famous, along with its twin the Sonata No. 4 in C, for marking the beginning of the composer's "late" period during which he wrote his final and greatest works.  Although the No. 5 is more conventional than the No. 4 (subtitled the Free Sonata) in that it contains the traditional three movements rather than only two, the second movement marked Adagio con molto sentimento d’afetto is one of the most passionate slow movements that Beethoven ever wrote and anticipates the emotional impact of the late string quartets.

Haydn's String Quartet No. 61 in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (1796) is a relatively late work by the composer and forms part of his final set of six quartets.  It was written after his return to Vienna from London and is known as the Quinten for the falling fifths that open the work.  Its most distinguishing feature is its third movement marked Allegro ma non troppo that has been nicknamed the Hexenmenuett (Witches' Minuet) for the strange sounding melody that is played in duet by the two violins.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Caroline Stinson

Yesterday evening's recital at Paul Hall featured faculty member Caroline Stinson, cello, accompanied by pianist Molly Morkoski, Associate Professor at Lehman College.  The one hour program consisted of one Baroque chamber piece followed by the works of three contemporary composers.

The recital opened with Sonata No. 1 for Viola da Gamba in G, BWV 1027 by J.S. Bach.  In place of the viola da gamba Ms. Stinson played a modern cello and Ms. Morkoski provided accompaniment on the piano rather than the harpsichord, a substitution that gave the work a  much more modern sound. When writing the piece, Bach had given the harpsichord a more prominent role than is commonly displayed in Baroque compositions and the change in instruments served to make that emphasis even clearer to the listener.  I had posted earlier this week on a Baroque chamber recital at Holy Trinity Church in which both violas da gamba and harpsichords were used by Juilliard students.  While listening to yesterday evening's performance, it was interesting to imagine how the music might have sounded if played on the original instruments instead of on their modern counterparts.

The Bach was followed by Joan Tower's reflective Très Lent for Cello and Piano (1994) and Andrew Waggoner's Livre for Cello and Piano (2001), written for Caroline Stinson.  The program closed with Astor Piazzolla's Le Grand Tango for Cello and Piano.