Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit

Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlichkeit was published by the Neue Galerie at the same time that it provided the late artist with his first one-man exhibit in the U.S. in 2003.

There's no doubt that Schad was in fact a major artist.  His involvement with both the Dada and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movements in the 1920's and 1930's put him in the vanguard of the German art world that flourished during the Weimar period.  If the artist is largely overlooked today, it has much to do with the rise of Nazism in his native country. The irony here, though, is that Schad's work was actually recognized and lauded by the Nazis.  While most of his modernist contemporaries - including Dix, Grosz and Beckmann - involved in the Neue Sachlichkeit school, were excoriated at the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, Schad was unaccountably given a place of honor at the officially sanctioned Great German Art Exhibition held at the same time.

In addition to the Neue Sachlichkeit paintings for which he is best known, Schad worked in a number of different media connected to various European art movements.  He began first with woodcuts that are clearly linked to the Expressionist school and are somewhat reminiscent of Kirchner's carvings from roughly the same period.  Like Kirchner, Schad also fled Germany at the outbreak of World War I on a false medical deferment and relocated to Switzerland.  Here he met the writer Walter Serner who in turn introduced him to leading figures of the Dadaist movement, most notably Tristan Tzara.  It was at this time that Schad began to produce his photograms and thus anticipated the later work of Man Ray.  Tzara later renamed Schad's photograms as "Schadographs" under which name, unknown to Schad, they were shown at a 1936 Dadaist group exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Once the war ended, Schad traveled to Italy where he was exposed to the influence of Futurism and where he married.  While in Italy, Schad threw off his remaining Dadaist and Cubist influences and in 1925 painted a portrait of Pope Pius XI that clearly prefigured his later realist work.  It was on his return to Germany that Schad then created the paintings for which he is best known.  These provide a fascinating look into the decadent lifestyle that existed in Germany in the postwar period, the fabled milieu that Isherwood later described so well in The Berlin Stories.

The volume published by the Neue Galerie is the only monograph of Schad's work currently in print.  In addition to excellent full page reproductions of the artist's most important work, the book contains a number of informative and well written essays.  There is a chronology of Schad's life as well as a section entitled Picture Captions, written in 1976 - 1977, in which the artist provides detailed background information for a number of his artworks.  These give the reader a fascinating glimpse into Schad's creative process.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Carnegie Hall: James Levine Conducts Mahler

Yesterday afternoon's concert by the Met Orchestra featured James Levine on the podium conducting an all-Mahler program.  This was a long matinee, running two hours and twenty minutes, but Mr. Levine was indefatigable and displayed more energy than most conductors half his age.

The program opened with one of Mahler's earliest works, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), composed between 1883 and 1885 and revised some ten years later.  This is a work that was intended from the beginning as an arrangement for singer and full orchestra and is an early indication of the composer's tendency, perhaps because he himself was so capable a conductor, to think primarily in terms of symphonic music.  Indeed, certain elements of this cycle were later incorporated into the First Symphony.  The lieder themselves were written by Mahler after an unhappy love affair with soprano Johanna Richter and are stylistically influenced by the German folk poems contained in Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  The baritone at yesterday's performance was Peter Mattei whom I had never before heard but who gave a masterful rendition that was fully satisfying.

After intermission, the orchestra performed the Seventh Symphony (1905).  Though this is not one of Mahler's more popular works, it is among his most dazzling, especially in the inner movements - the two Nachtmusik pieces and the Scherzo.  This is not a driving work, but rather has about it something of the bildungsroman as it proceeds tentatively from one experience to the next.  As the program notes put it:
"Feeling like a sort of nocturnal, off-kilter version of the familiar idea of symphony-as-journey, the Seventh meanders through a fascinating, shadowy musical landscape on its path from darkness into light, often changing direction for unexpected diversions and always taking time to revel in the sights and sounds encountered along the way, no matter how bizarre."
Mahler himself listed influences on his composition of this work that range from Rembrandt's The Night Watch to the overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

NY Historical Society: The Armory Show at 100

The NY Historical Society has done a wonderful job of recreating the 1913 Armory Show, arguably the most significant art exhibit ever held in this country.  It was here that America received its first full scale introduction to Cubism, Fauvism and other schools of modern art that had already transformed European cultural horizons.

The Armory Show was not the first opportunity Americans had had to view avant garde European work.  Alfred Stieglitz had regularly been showing modern art, selected by Edward Steichen in Paris and then shipped to New York, at his 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue. Groundbreaking as these exhibits were, though, they never reached a large audience and failed to exert any great influence on American culture.  It was the notoriety, with all its attendant publicity, created by the Armory Show that finally succeeded in penetrating the American consciousness and making it aware of the movements that were revolutionizing the art world in the early twentieth century.  At the same time, America was losing the isolationist stance that had kept it apart from Europe and was preparing its entrance onto the world stage.  Only a year after the Armory Show, World War I broke out.  It was America's entry into the war in 1917 that not only decided its outcome but positioned this country as the world's leading power.

Although I had expected the current exhibit, The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution, to contain a number of works from the original show, I had not realized beforehand how many masterpieces would actually be on view.  Though most art lovers have long been familiar with these works, it was astonishing to see them placed side by side in recreations of the galleries from the original show.  Looking at them, I was able to understand the impact these works must have had on the New Yorkers who saw them in 1913.  The presentation was overpowering.  Here was the infamous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp placed across the room from Blue Nude by Henri Matisse.  In between them stood a case containing sculptures, among them Portrait of Mlle Pogany, by Constantin Brancusi.  Also displayed were Mountain in Saint-Rémy by Vincent Van Gogh as well as works by Munch, Gauguin, Delacroix, Kirchner, Whistler, Renoir, Daumier, Redon, Picabia and Braque.  The painting View of Domaine Saint-Joseph by Paul Cézanne was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum at the original show and so became the first of the artist's works to be included in the collection of an American museum.  Many of the pieces on display, however, were not paintings but graphic works, a less expensive alternative for those collectors who in 1913 wished to begin acquiring modern art.

Another striking feature of the exhibit, one which I had never before considered, was the number of works by American artists not usually associated with modernism.  These included paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Childe Hassam as well as works by members of the Ashcan School - Henri, Sloan and Bellows.

The exhibit continues through February 23, 2014.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven/Liszt

There was only one work on the program at Thursday evening's recital at Paul Hall - Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in D minor, Op. 125 as transcribed for two pianos by Franz Liszt in 1851.

The Ninth Symphony, known as the "Choral," is unquestionably one of the greatest works by Beethoven or any other composer.  It stands as a final affirmation of all that is beautiful and joyous by an artist who spent much of his life battling deafness and other afflictions.  I've always found the work inspirational and have gone to hear it performed whenever possible. This was the first time, though, I had had an opportunity to hear the transcription for two pianos.  I had not been sure beforehand that such an arrangement would be able to realize the full complexity of the piece, especially that of the final movement.  I need not have worried.  The two pianos were not only able to capture all the nuances of the music but were also fully capable of expressing the work's grandeur.

 Liszt took up the transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies for solo piano in 1838 when only 27 years old.  At that time he completed work on the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. It wasn't until 1863, some 23 years after the publication of these arrangements, that Liszt began work of the remaining symphonies at the request of the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. In the meantime, he had completed the transcription of the Ninth for two pianos.  The arrangement for solo piano gave him a great deal of difficulty.  According to the Wikipedia article, Liszt at one point claimed he had become "...convinced of the impossibility of making any pianoforte arrangement of [it]... that could in any way be... satisfactory."

This piece would present a challenge to any pair of pianists, no matter how experienced they might be.  Not only did it require constant coordination between the two players, but its extreme length (well over an hour) made it something of an endurance test as well.  DaHyun Chung and Hongsup Lee not only succeeded in their attempt but displayed such mastery that it's hard to believe they're still students.  Credit must also be given to the two great pianists who coached them, Jerome Lowenthal and Seymour Lipkin, who himself performed a late Beethoven piano work, the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 at his recital in October.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Juilliard at Holy Trinity: Leclair, Couperin, Dandrieu and Charpentier

Students from Juilliard yesterday put on their second lunchtime recital of Baroque music at Holy Trinity Church.  This performance featured the works of the French composers Jean-Marie Leclair (Overture in G, Op. 13, No. 1), François Couperin (La Sultane and Huitieme Concert), Jean-François Dandrieu (Sonata VI) and Marc-Antoine Charpentier (Sonata a 8, H. 548).

The focus of yesterday's concert was on the early eighteenth century when Italian musical forms, most notably those formulated by Corelli, made their way to other parts of Europe and were adapted by local composers for their own uses.  In this case, the composers were all Frenchmen who sought to impart their own character to the Italian imports that had so influenced their style.  While doing so, they had to contend with their countrymen's newly developed sense of nationalism.  Couperin, as quoted in the program, was explicit on this point:
"The Italian and French styles have for a long time shared the Republic of Music in France.  For myself, I have always highly regarded the things which merited esteem, without considering either composer or nation..."
Some composers had even studied in Italy.  This was the case with Charpentier who spent several years in Rome where he studied under Giacomo Carissimi before finally returning to France.  Leclair also traveled to Italy when in his twenties and studied both music and dance in Turin.  He eventually moved back to Paris where years later he was stabbed to death, possibly by a family member.

One of the most interesting features of yesterday's recital was the use of period instruments including some, such as the viola da gamba and the theorbo, that are no longer in use.  In this regard, I could not help but be struck by the resources Juilliard has at its disposal.  All these instruments were expertly crafted.  In fact, the program noted that one student, during the performance of the Charpentier sonata, was furnished with a loaned "Baroque Violin from the workshop of Antonius & Hieronymus Amati, Cremona 1625."  I was sitting directly in front of the student playing the Amati and noted that its neck was a much lighter colored wood than the body of the violin.  It also seemed to have a sweeter and more mellow tone, but that might just have been my imagination at work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Walker Evans

The large format volume Walker Evans is probably the best book on the photographer's work now available.  The copy I have is the hardcover edition originally published as a catalog to accompany an exhibit held at the Metropolitan Museum in 2000.  What distinguishes this work from the many other studies of Evans' photos - I posted several months ago a review of The Hungry Eye - is not only the high quality of the reproductions but also the insights provided in the well written essays that accompany the plates.

2013 marked the 75th anniversary of Evans' iconic American Photos, and the Museum of Modern Art celebrated by recreating the original 1938 exhibit in its entirety.  It was while attending that show this past summer that I began to renew my interest in Evans and to reexamine the influence his work had had on my own photography.  His subway portraits taken with a hidden camera in 1938, as published in Many are Called, had a profound impact on the hidden camera photos I took in Times Square in the early 1990's.

In any retrospective of Evans' work, such as this book represents, one dismaying fact immediately becomes clear.  All the photographer's major work was completed in the first half of his life.  The images for American Photos as well as those in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men were shot between 1936 - 1938.  It was during this same brief period that Evans finished his work for the FSA and, with the assistance of Helen Levitt, created his subway portraits.  At this time, Evans was only 35 years old.  The remaining 37 years, until his death in 1975, were little more than a poignant postscript to his career.  Most of the second half of his life was spent working for Time and Fortune magazines, whose middle-American and capitalist viewpoints - as promulgated by their publisher Henry Luce - had previously been anathema to Evans.  I think it likely that this betrayal of his principles inhibited him greatly from creating authentic work on the level of that he had produced during the 1930's.

Evans is a difficult photographer to appreciate.  A failed writer who turned to photography only after he was unable to produce fiction, he was an intellectual who was often quite snobbish.  There is an irony to the fact that the man who produced so many great portraits of the poor, as in his work with writer James Agee, held himself so aloof from those about him.  His very choice of a camera allowed him to maintain a distance from those he photographed.  The view camera, his instrument of choice, effectively placed a wall between him and his subject.  Not only does the image appear reversed and upside down when viewed on the ground glass, it is blocked entirely when a film holder is placed in the camera.  Even when photographing the subway portraits with a handheld Contax camera, Evans shot "blind" by not framing his subject in the viewfinder before releasing the shutter.  There is always a sense, when viewing Evans' photos, that one is looking at them from a remove. There is no intimacy in them, only a cold hard precision.

The plates in this book are all full page reproductions and are of excellent quality.  Of the detailed essays, that entitled "The Cruel Radiance of What Is": Walker Evans and the South by Jeff L. Rosenheim, provides one of the best analyses of any photographer's work that I have come across.  It gives the reader a new and deeper understanding of Evans' accomplishments.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Dresden and Berlin Years

Whenever early twentieth century European art is mentioned, everyone immediately thinks of Paris and the legendary artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, who flourished there. Relatively little attention is paid to Germany and the expressionist school that existed during this same period.  This is partly the fault of history.  As much as France celebrated its rich cultural history, so Nazi Germany sought to repress the work of its preeminent artists by labeling them degenerate and by seizing and destroying their artworks.  This reached a climax in 1937 when Hitler, who in his youth had himself been an indifferent watercolorist, ordered the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit to be staged in Munich.  The show, now ironically considered one of the best exhibits of modern art ever shown, hung 650 artworks confiscated from German museums.  Prominently displayed at that exhibit was the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

I was first attracted to Kirchner's work by his paintings of Berlin streetwalkers.  The angular distorted representations had about them an air of seedy eroticism that fascinated me. When I read Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Dresden and Berlin Years, I learned that these formed only a portion of the artist's output.  Aside from paintings of other subjects, Kirchner worked extensively with the graphic arts, including woodcuts and lithographs.  Over the course of his career, he also made a number of primitive sculptures carved roughly from wood and then painted.

Together with several other artists, Kirchner formed the expressionist school named Die Brücke in Dresden in 1905.  After moving to Berlin, the group argued over its focus and finally dissolved.  When World War I broke out, Kirchner at first enlisted but then claimed to have had a breakdown, though this episode may actually have been caused by his morphine addiction.   Throughout his life, the artist suffered from severe emotional problems that greatly curtailed his career and eventually led him to commit suicide in middle age.  He died in Switzerland without ever having truly fulfilled the promise of his youth.

The book itself is valuable for being one of the few studies available of this enigmatic artist. The oversized illustrations are excellent and provide a comprehensive overview of the most important phase of Kirchner's career.  The accompanying essays vary in quality but do provide a great deal of insight into the artist's creative processes as well as the milieu in which he worked.  The essay by Wolfgang Henze on Kirchner's sculpture is especially enlightening.  On the other hand, a discussion by Andrew Robison of Kirchner's reception in the US and UK can be of little interest to the general reader.  Also included are a chronology of the artist's life as well as two critical essays ghostwritten by Kirchner attempting an explanation of his own work.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Falstaff

Though Verdi was to live another eight years following its premiere, Falstaff (1893) was his last opera.  It was also the third work the composer had based on a Shakespearean play. Falstaff's immediate predecessor, Otello, had enjoyed a huge success and it may have been that that finally decided the composer, with the assistance of librettist Arrigo Boito, to envisage a comedy based on the The Merry Wives of Windsor.  This was only the second comedy Verdi had attempted (his earlier Un Giorno di Regno had been a dismal failure) and so was something of a risk for the elderly composer who had made his reputation as a tragedian.  But the gamble paid off.  Since its opening night at La Scala, Falstaff has been regularly performed and recorded and has become one the most popular of all operatic comedies.  As the Met's program states:
"'Falstaff is the best,' Levine says.  'Bear in mind that the best is also inherently most complicated.  But if you put all the great human comedies together, Falstaff is the crème de la crème - it's the one that rises to the very top.'  Verdi's final opera, Falstaff is also his only major comedy and perhaps the single greatest ensemble work in the repertoire."
This season, the Met has staged the first new production of Falstaff since 1964.  Unlike many of the Met's recent productions, this new staging by Robert Carsen is opulent and a pleasure to watch.  It provides an extravagant setting in which to follow the scheming antics of the old knight and his companions.

In terms of musical performance, this production was another triumph in what has already become one of most outstanding seasons at the Met in decades.  James Levine seems determined, after his long absence, to demonstrate than he has lost none of the skills that made him one of the world's greatest operatic conductors.  As in Così fan tutte earlier this season, he was in full control of the orchestra.  He moved the action along with perfect timing and made sure each note was precisely articulated.  The cast members, headed by Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, all worked extremely well together as an ensemble, an absolute necessity for this particular opera.  Serban Vasile, making his Met debut as Ford in place of the ailing Franco Vassalo, blended seamlessly into the cast.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Ibert, Paganini, Webern, de Falla, and Mendelssohn

Sunday evening's chamber recital at Mannes' Goldmark Hall began with two pieces for guitar and violin, Jacques Ibert's Entr'acte, taken from incidental music he had written in 1935 for Pedro Calderón's El médico de su honra, followed by Niccolò Paganini's Sonata No. 6 in A minor, Op. 2.  Though the latter was only published in 1820, it had actually been composed a number of years earlier while Paganini was conducting a clandestine affair with a Florentine noblewoman known only as "Signora Dida," herself an amateur guitarist.  This setting no doubt accounts for the sonata's intimate character that shies away from the flamboyant displays of virtuosity found in the Caprices.

The next performances were of two sets of vocal works.  First were Three Songs for soprano, E flat clarinet and guitar, Op. 18 (1925) by Anton Webern.  These were written shortly after Webern fully adopted Schoenberg's twelve tone system and are exceptionally complex.  The students (soprano Danielle Dean, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and guitarist Matthew Wiseman) who performed these songs on Sunday evening should be given credit for taking on works that involve such extreme shifts in range.  The other set of songs were three selections - Asturiana, Cancion and Nana - from the Siete canciones populares españolas (1914) by Manuel de Falla.  These were authentic folk melodies, portraying a wide spectrum of emotions, taken from both the northern and southern regions of Spain and were written after the composer's return to that country following the outbreak of World War I.

The final piece on the program was the Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49, No. 1 (1839) by Felix Mendelssohn.  Next to the Octet, this is the best known of Mendelssohn's chamber works, possibly because of its deeply romantic bias, one that is not at all characteristic of the composer's work.  I think the prominent part given the piano also has a great deal to do with its popularity.  It's a very moving work when played properly and was given an excellent performance at this recital.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Weegee's New York

A quote by Walter Benjamin is used as an epigraph to open the monograph Weegee's New York: Photographs 1935 - 1960.  In part, it reads:
" not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime?  every passerby a perpetrator?  Does not the photographer - descendant of augurers and haruspices - uncover guilt in his pictures?"
The quote is noteworthy for questioning the role played by news photographers such as Weegee.  After all, as becomes apparent when looking at these photos, he is not a mere bystander passively recording a violent moment he has accidentally stumbled upon; instead, by placing himself on the scene, he has willingly made himself a participant in the tableaux captured on film.  In the self portrait at the very end of the book (Plate 335), Weegee looks perfectly in place as he crouches behind his camera and stares almost defensively at the viewer from the back of a paddy wagon.  It is as though he were acknowledging that he belongs there just as much as the felons the vehicle is otherwise used to transport.

There is very little text in this monograph, only a four page introductory essay by John Coplans and little more than a page of biographical detail.  To a certain extent, that should be sufficient. A good photograph should always be able to stand on its own and require no explanation. Weegee's photos, though, were meant to accompany news stories that would provide a tabloid's reader with further information, no matter how sensational a form that reportage might take.  The absence of any details regarding the circumstances in which these photos were shot does undeniably make them more compelling, but at the same time the viewer is only getting half the story.  This omission can make the study of these images an unnecessarily frustrating experience.

The black & white photos themselves are well reproduced and each is placed by itself on a full oversized page.  They are not, however, grouped chronologically but rather by subject, for example "Coney Island Beach."  This makes it difficult to trace the development of Weegee's style over a period of time.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, although each photo is provided with a title (presumably supplied by Weegee himself), very few are dated.

In all, though, the book is highly recommended for providing a candid glimpse into the dark side of a big city in the mid-twentieth century.  No matter how horrifying the contents of his photos, Weegee never blinked when taking them.  He captured the ugliness of violent death and presented it in a straightforward manner with no trace of false sentimentality.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Carnegie Hall: Orpheus Performs Handel, Mozart and Fine

After having been on Friday evening to a recital of Baroque music given by students at Mannes, it was interesting to hear Orpheus open yesterday evening's concert at Carnegie Hall with music by Handel.  The Concerto Grosso in F, Op. 6, No. 2 is one of twelve that Handel composed in London in 1739.  In these pieces, the composer deliberately set out to move his work in a new and more financially viable direction following a series of reversals he had experienced during the 1737 season.  It was at this time that Handel for the most part gave up writing Italian opera and instead concentrated on the production of oratorios to be performed in English.  The Op. 6 concerti were intended to be played during intermissions at the same concerts as the oratorios.  It was a reflection of popular taste among the English that Handel used as models for these works the older concerti formats of Corelli rather than those of Vivaldi.

Following the Handel, Orpheus performed the Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622 (1791), the first of the two Mozart pieces on the program.  It was primarily to hear this piece that I attended the concert.  Even among Mozart's late works, the concerto stands out as one of the composer's greatest compositions, especially when performed on the basset clarinet designed by Anton Stadler for which it was originally written.  My own favorite recording is that of David Shifrin (with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Mozart Festival Orchestra) using this extended range instrument.  The soloist yesterday evening was Martin Fröst whom I had never before heard perform.  According to his website, Mr. Fröst has just released his second recording of this concerto.  He is an extremely talented musician and gave an impassioned performance that earned a huge round of applause from the audience.  He then returned to the stage and gave an encore, Klezmer Dances arranged by Goran Fröst.

The first piece following intermission was Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra by Irving Fine, a composer best known today for his association with Leonard Bernstein.  Together with several other composers, they made up the Boston School whose neo-classical style of music was heavily influenced by that of Stravinsky.  This particular piece seemed to me more an academic exercise than anything else.  Though polished and technically adept, it never really came alive even in the hands of an ensemble as talented as Orpheus.

The final item on the program was Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201 (1774).  Unlike the Clarinet Concerto, this was a very early piece, written when the composer was only 18 years old.  Though a pleasant enough work, it lacks the sophistication of Mozart's more mature compositions and would have been better placed on the program as an introduction to the concerto.  As it was, the performance was somewhat anticlimactic and provided a weak ending to the concert.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mannes Baroque Chamber Players

In recital yesterday evening, the Mannes Baroque Chamber Players commingled works by well known seventeenth and eighteenth century composers (Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell and Arcangelo Corelli) with those of their less famous contemporaries (Dario Castello and Francesco Geminani).  Though the performers did not play on original instruments, the strings did use the Baroque bows rather than their modern counterparts.

The first piece to be performed was Castello's Sonata No. 7 from Sonate concertante in Stil Moderno, libro secondo.  Not very much is known of the Venetian composer Castello, not even his dates of birth and death.  The program indicates that he flourished circa 1620, and the Wikipedia article speculates that he may have perished in the plague in 1630.  This particular sonata was scored for an interesting combination of instruments - harpsichord, violin and bassoon.

Next on the program were three Fantasias by Henry Purcell - the No. 7 in C minor, Z. 738; the No. 12 in D minor, Z. 743; and the No. 8 in D minor, Z. 739.  Purcell is best known today, along with Benjamin Britten, for being one of the very few talented composers to have been born in Britain.  This historical accident has provided him much greater posthumous renown than he would otherwise have enjoyed.  The fantasia itself was a form popular primarily in the Renaissance and had already fallen out of favor during Baroque period. Purcell's were among the last written in the genre.  The instrumentation was for string quartet, but with two violas rather than two violins.

The final piece to be performed in the first half of the program was Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11 (1711), one of the twelve concerti contained in L'estro Armonico. This collection, one of the earliest works published by Vivaldi, had an enormous influence in the development of the Baroque repertoire.  Six of these concerti were later transcribed for keyboard by Bach.  In an online article, the conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood writes:
"Of the whole set, it was the Eleventh Concerto which excited most comment and imitation. The drama of its opening could never be repeated, but the following fugue subject tempted many to the sincerest form of flattery. It was even remarked on that Vivaldi, 'being of a volatile disposition (having too much mercury in his constitution)', should have shown such contrapuntal skill."
The first work performed after intermission was Geminani's Variations on La Folia after Corelli's Violin Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12.  Geminani, in his youth in Italy, studied the violin under Corelli's tutelage.  After having left Italy and settled in London, he enjoyed success by transcribing Corelli's sonatas into arrangements for string orchestras. The performance of this piece served as a good introduction to Corelli's own Sonata in D, Op. 5, No. 1, which was played immediately afterwards.

The final work on the program was Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531. This was the only concerto composed by Vivaldi for two cellos and was probably written specifically for two of the composer's students at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice.  Despite the unusual choice of solo instruments, this is an exceedingly popular piece and has been recorded often, most notably in recent years by Yo Yo Ma on Vivaldi's Cello.  The largo, in which the soloists are accompanied only by harpsichord and a third cello, is particularly beautiful in its languid phrasing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Mozart, Shostakovich and Schubert

There were no programs available at yesterday evening's recital at Mannes.  Instead the assistant director came to the front of the room and announced each work, listed its movements and named the students performing it before the piece was played.  This, however, was only a slight inconvenience.  More important to the audience was that the recital featured major works by Mozart, Shostakovich and Schubert that are standards of the chamber music repertoire.

The first piece was Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478 (1785).  The passage of time has given the work a familiarity that masks how revolutionary and difficult it must have sounded to audiences when first performed.  It was the first of three (or six) quartets originally commissioned by Franz Anton Hoffmeister.  The publisher, however, was deeply unhappy with the complexity of the music and wrote to Mozart: "Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours!"  The contract between them was eventually canceled over this issue.

There followed Shostakovich's String Quartet in C minor, No. 8, Op. 110 (1960).  Written in East Germany while Shostakovich was composing the score for a Soviet film memorializing the horrific destruction of Dresden by the Allies in 1945, this is an extremely dark work that has become the most popular and frequently performed of all the composer's quartets.  It was not the the gloomy reminiscence of World War II alone, though, that gave this work its black texture.  Shostakovich was at the time undergoing serious personal problems that led him so far as to consider suicide.  The causes of his depression were multiple.  For one thing, he felt he had betrayed his principles by bowing to pressure from Khrushchev to join the Communist party.  For another, the muscular disorder (poliomyelitis) from which he long suffered was progressing to the extent that he found it difficult to continue playing the piano. These afflictions prompted Shostakovich to regard the quartet as his valediction and even epitaph.  As he wrote to his friend Isaak Davidovich Glikman regarding the piece:
I reflected that if I die someday then it's hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: 'Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet'.
Closing the program was Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, D. 898 (1827).  Although written close to the end of the composer's life, there is little in it to suggest the melancholy that pervades many of his other works from this period.  Though a comparatively long piece, the music flows smoothly from beginning to end in a beguiling stream.  Even the andante, however subdued, has an air about it of calm acceptance.  In all, the trio has an uplifting quality to it that here provided an appropriate end to the evening.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Shostakovich, Haydn, Barber and Debussy

Yesterday evening, the student recital at Goldmark Hall included two string quartets, one by Joseph Haydn and the other by Claude Debussy, as well as chamber pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber that featured a lighter style of music than is usually associated with either of these two composers.

The program opened with Shostakovich's Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano.  The five movements - Prelude, Gavotte, Elegy, Waltz and Polka - are taken from film scores, ballets and even a cartoon (The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda) that Shostakovich composed over a twenty year period from 1935 to 1955.  The Gavotte and the Elegy, for example, are both taken from the Third Ballet Suite (1952).  It should be noted that the arrangement of these selections was not completed by Shostakovich himself but more likely by his associate Lev Atovmian.

The other piece of "light" music on the program was Barber's Souvenirs, Op. 28 (1951).  The work exists in several arrangements.  That performed yesterday evening was the version for four hands, but here played instead on two pianos.  As the titles of the six movements - Waltz, Schottische, Pas de deux, Two-Step, Hesitation-Tango and Galop - would suggest, the work is intended as a fond remembrance.  Barber himself wrote:
"Imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York, the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos; 'Souvenirs' —remembered with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness."
The first of the quartets to be played was Haydn's String Quartet in D, Op. 64, No. 5 (1790), nicknamed The Lark after the soaring melody played by the first violin in the opening movement.  Haydn is known as the "Father of the String Quartet" and no piece demonstrates as well as this how fully deserving he was of the title.  This work is probably his most popular in the genre and the first movement the most exhilarating he wrote for any quartet.

The second quartet, and the final piece on the program, was Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893).  Debussy himself intensely disliked having the term "impressionism" applied to his music, and yet there are few other phrases that so aptly describe the shimmering quality of this work.  Debussy here adapted the cyclic structure devised by César Franck to the extent that he had the opening theme reappear in each movement.  But rather than content himself with repeating the theme unchanged, the composer instead subtly transformed it at each appearance so that the sensations evoked through its reiteration constantly evolved throughout the length of the quartet.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mannes Chamber Music: Milhaud, Beethoven, Franck and Shostakovich

Yesterday evening's recital at Mannes began with a piece by Darius Milhaud entitled Scaramouche pour deux pianos, Op. 165b (1937).  Originally adapted from his incidental music to Le medécin volant by Moliérè, this was one of Milhaud's most popular works during his lifetime.  He programmed it to be played at concerts held in Paris during the German occupation and created arrangements for a number of instruments, including one for clarinet and saxophone.  I was intrigued listening to this jazzy piece after having just heard on Saturday two chamber works by Francis Poulenc, a fellow member of Les Six.

The second piece was Beethoven's Violin Sonata in A, Op. 30, No. 1 (1801).  Written in the period immediately following his confessional Heiligenstadt Testament in which he disclosed to his brothers his thoughts of suicide, the composer in these works began to progress beyond the classical traditions of Haydn and Mozart and as he entered his middle ("Heroic") period.  Interestingly, Beethoven titled the Op. 30 sonatas “for piano and violin,” an indication of the importance he placed on the keyboard parts as a full partner and not mere accompaniment.

The second half of the program began with the Sonata in A for Violin and Piano (1886) by César Franck.  The piece was written as a wedding present for the famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and is a standard of the violin repertoire.  It was a great favorite of Marcel Proust, and it has been speculated the author used it as the source of his imaginary Vinteuil sonata when writing À la recherche du temps perdu.

The final piece was not shown on the program.  The same Mannes students who had earlier performed Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940) at a downtown recital gave another performance of the work yesterday evening.  I've always considered this to be the Shostakovich's most successful work.  While I've found his symphonies sometimes too cold and formal (which might at least in part be due to the Stalinist strictures under which the composer was forced to work), the quintet is a much more personal and accessible piece though still imbued with Shostakovich's distinctive style.  I recently heard another excellent performance of this work by the Chamber Music Society in a program presented on WQXR. The rendition by the students may have been a bit less polished than that played by the CMS but still showed great musicianship and ably conveyed the full power of the music.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Orientalism in America, 1870 - 1930

Not surprisingly, the most pervasive influence in Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870 - 1930 is that of Edward Said whose 1978 study Orientalism led to a major reevaluation of the manner in which the Moslem peoples of North Africa and the Near East had traditionally been viewed by the inhabitants of Europe and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.  On the most basic level, Said posited a political agenda that willfully introduced cultural misconceptions and stereotypes of the Near East as a means of fostering a sense of otherness that in turn allowed Westerners to see themselves as superior to and more moral than Eastern cultures and populations.  Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures, written to accompany an art exhibit of the same name, takes as its subject the manifestations of Orientalism in the U.S. from roughly the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Depression.  Through a study of these artifacts, it attempts to document the transformation in the American imagination of the very concept of the Orient during this same period.

While the implications that Orientalism holds for political scientists and sociologists are at once obvious, it should be noted that Said's thesis has had a profound impact on feminists as well, for nowhere have the depicted differences between East and West been so pronounced as in the differing roles of women in their respective societies.  This has been made most manifest in Western portrayals of the odalisque, the slave woman of the harem, as shown in the paintings of Ingres and Gérôme.  It is a subject where exoticism has led inevitably to eroticism.

If the above summary sounds a bit dry, the book itself certainly is not.  Instead, the text challenges American preconceptions of the East in several well written and provocative essays.  The authors accomplish this primarily by tracing the development of Orientalism from high art, as exemplified in the 1870's in the paintings of such artists as Frederic Edwin Church, through the representations of the Near East presented at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago to the uses to which Oriental imagery was put in the early twentieth century in mass entertainment, such as the 1921 silent film The Sheik, and advertising.  There are lively discussions of subjects as diverse as belly dancing and cigarette packaging.  The essays are well illustrated and the catalog of the exhibition includes a fascinating array of excellent reproductions.  In the end, the reader is left with a better understanding of the ways in which Americans have projected their fantasies of the Near East into a distorted viewpoint that even today complicates international relations and cultural interaction.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

NY Philharmonic Performs Poulenc and Mozart

Yesterday, the NY Philharmonic gave the second concert in its Saturday matinee series.  As usual, members of the orchestra performed chamber music in the first half of the program; in the second half, the full orchestra played Mozart's final symphony.

This season, the selection of chamber works has been taken entirely from the early twentieth century French repertoire.  The two pieces played at yesterday's concert were both by Francis Poulenc - his Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano; and the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano.  Poulenc will always be associated with the Paris of the 1920's.  During that period, he joined with such luminaries as Milhaud and Honegger to form Les Six, a group of talented composers who reacted against both German romanticism and French impressionism and adopted in their place a neo-classical style influenced by Stravinsky and Satie.  The sextet was written somewhat after this period in 1932, when Poulenc's musical aspirations were already changing, and was revised in 1939.  I have always enjoyed its opening movement that to my ear echoes Gershwin's music and evokes the sounds of big city traffic.  The trio, written in 1926 and dedicated to Manuel de Falla, is slightly shorter but equally memorable.

I heard a performance of Mozart's Symphony #41 in C, K. 551 (1788) just last week when Iván Fischer led the Orchestra of St. Luke's in a concert at Carnegie Hall.  With the same piece scheduled to close yesterday's program, I was interested to hear how Fischer's style compared with that of the Philharmonic's Music Director Alan Gilbert.  In the end, my own preference was for Fischer's interpretation.  I felt that St. Luke's under Fischer gave a tighter and better articulated performance than did the Philharmonic under Gilbert.  Both sets of musicians were superb, but in the Philharmonic's version I heard little that was new or inspired.  This impression was only strengthened when I listened yesterday evening to a live WQXR broadcast of the Philharmonic in a performance all three of Mozart's final symphonies, again with Gilbert at the podium.