Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Met Museum: Carleton Watkins: Yosemite

Many of those who today view Ansel Adams's now ubiquitous photos of Yosemite fail to realize that, in taking these shots, Adams was literally following in the tracks of earlier and often more skilled photographers.  These nineteenth century pioneers had traveled and worked in Yosemite under far more arduous conditions than Adams himself ever experienced.  Foremost among these was Carleton Watkins.  In fact, it was Watkins's photos that were in large part responsible for passage of the 1864 Yosemite Grant, the first U.S. law to permit designated public lands to be set aside for preservation.

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Carleton Watkins: Yosemite does a great deal to set the record straight regarding Watkins's reputation and is an acknowledgement of his legacy.  It contains 36 of his monumental photographs taken during the course of two journeys to Yosemite.  The works themselves, created using the difficult wet-collodion method, are a tour de force of photographic technique and would be worth seeing no matter what their subject.

Watkins first visited Yosemite in 1861,  He had hitherto worked as an assistant to the daguerreotypist Robert Vance in San Francisco before opening his own studio and had in the field already taken stereoscopic views at the Almaden Quicksilver Mines.  The Yosemite project was far more ambitious.  In an era when the area was still virtually inaccessible, Watkins somehow managed to pack in hundreds of 18x22" glass plates, the largest then available, and while working coat them with a wet emulsion that was tricky enough to apply even in a studio setting.  The great advantage to the wet-collodion method, one that kept it in use even after the introduction of the dry plate process, was the former's ability to capture even the most minute detail.  Watkins's contact prints have therefore a sharpness that would be impossible to replicate through the use of conventional film even had it been available at the time. 

In 1864 Watkins again returned to Yosemite, on this occasion under the aegis of the California State Geographical Survey which had hired him as its expedition photographer.  Though Watkins continued to employ the wet-collodion process, his work from this second visit was distinguished by the use of wide angle lenses that created a more panoramic effect.

One of Watkins's most important accomplishments was to determine the vantage points in Yosemite from which photographs could best be taken.  Adams and other photographers literally stood in Watkins's footsteps when taking their own later shots.  But Watkins was there first and it was he who discovered the iconic scenes that would so often be recorded in the following years.  Among the best works shown at the exhibit were Tasayac, the Half Dome (1865-1866), Washington Column (1865-1866), Pompompasos, the Three Brothers (1865-1866), and Tutocanula, El Capitan (1861).

Watkins did receive some degree of recognition during his own lifetime.  According to his Smithsonian biography:
"In 1868, Watkins was awarded a medal for landscape photography at the Paris International Exposition. In 1873 he received the Medal of Progress award at the Vienna Exposition, and in 1876 he exhibited his pictures at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and at the Chilean Exposition. He associated with California's intellectual and artistic elite."
However, although Watkins was always known for his pleasant personality, his life did not end well.  He suffered bankruptcy in later years as well as ill health that left him almost blind.  Much of his work was lost when his studio burnt to the ground in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  He was so devastated by this setback that he was declared insane in 1910 and eventually died in 1916 at the Napa State Mental Hospital.where he was buried in an unmarked grave.

The exhibit continues through February 1, 2015.

Monday, December 29, 2014

NY Historical Society: Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage

First, I have to say that I consider Annie Leibovitz to be one of the best photographers now working in any genre.  I have admired her work ever since 1971 when I received my copy of Rolling Stone in the mail and saw on its cover the black & white headshot she had taken of a bearded John Lennon.  In my opinion, that's still one of the best celebrity portraits ever done.  For that very reason, though, I found the current exhibit, Pilgrimage, at the New York Historical Society a major disappointment.

Perhaps the problem is that these photographs were too deeply personal for their own good.  This project really was a pilgrimage in the most literal sense.  In the course of her journey the photographer traveled to sites that obviously held great meaning for her and had a tremendous emotional impact on her psyche.  Unfortunately, Leibovitz failed to communicate the importance these locations possessed for her in the photos she took of them .  Devotees visiting shrines have always taken snapshots as mementos to commemorate their journey and as reminders of what they experienced when viewing the places they considered holy.  But while such photos may be a source of inspiration for such an individual, they are most often incomprehensible to those who do not share the devotee's beliefs.  That is the case here.  These are purely private works that should never have been shown in public.  The Gallery Guide admits as much when it states: "... Leibovitz visited Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Massachusetts and made a few photographs, just for herself."  It goes on to acknowledge: "She [Leibovitz] chose the subjects simply because they meant something to her."

I've always strongly felt that a work of art has to stand on its own.  If one need explain what a given photograph or painting is about in order for the viewer to "get it," then the artist has failed.  It's as simple as that.  He or she might just as well toss the work in the garbage and try again.  And yet many of the photos on display are understandable only after one has first referred to the Gallery Guide conveniently provided at the entrance to the show.  For example, there is one shot where small waves of water fill the entire frame.  It's nothing but a meaningless pattern until one reads in the Guide that this is actually a photograph of the surface of the River Ouse where Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941.  Again, there is a photograph of what looks for all the world like a piece of scrap lumber.  The viewer is initially puzzled why so much effort should have been put into so meticulously recording its appearance.  It is not until one checks the Guide that one realizes that this is the top of Woolf's ink stained desk.  But knowing this does not make the work a better photo.  In the end, the only shot at the exhibit that worked for me as a photograph was that of Thoreau's bed.

Ironically, I do have empathy for a many of the personages to whom Leibovitz pays tribute.  This is especially true of the three personages from Concord - Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott.  Just hearing the names brings to my mind the movements of Ives's Concord Sonata.  I also have a great deal of respect for the work of Martha Graham, Julia Margaret Cameron and Georgia O'Keeffe.  I had to wonder though how many other visitors to the show were as familiar with the careers of these artists as I was.  It's not likely that most non-photographers would know of Cameron's importance to the early history of the medium or appreciate her significance as the first professional female photographer.  On the other hand, I could have cared less about some of the others thus honored - Eleanor Roosevelt, Elvis Presley, Annie Oakley and Ansel Adams, for example - and had no interest in seeing any photos devoted to them.

Another annoying feature of the exhibit is that no technical data whatsoever has been provided to those who might be interested in how the photographs were taken.  I assume Leibovitz used a high-end medium format digital camera, but this is only a guess.  The prints shown are technically excellent, but no information is provided regarding them.  One would like to know how much editing and post-production work was done on them and what papers were used.  I did ask these questions of an attendant, but was told there was no one there at the time who could help me.

The exhibit continues through February 22, 2015.

Friday, December 26, 2014

"Solarized" at Nailya Alexander

I put the word "Solarized" in quotation marks in the title of this post not because it is the title of the current exhibit at the Nailya Alexander Gallery but because it is technically not the correct term with which to describe the photos on display.  True solarization occurs when a negative has received such extreme overexposure while still in the camera that it turns to a positive.  This results in the famous "black sun" phenomenon that can be seen, for example, in a 1955 image by Minor White.  The works shown at the Alexander Gallery are actually examples of the "Sabatier Effect" in which image reversal is accomplished in the darkroom by briefly exposing a print or negative to bright light while it is still in the developer tray.  The extent to which reversal occurs is determined by how early in the development stage the print or negative is exposed.  The term "solarization" is used only loosely in describing this process.

This is all largely a matter of semantics.  No matter which term one chooses to use, there are some excellent examples of the process in the exhibit.  Taken together, they provide a demonstration of the ways in which different photographers - some famous and some less well known - have used the process to accomplish their own ends.  My own feeling is that it is the simplest and most straightforward images that profit most from solarization since the process often reduces the subjects depicted to sharply outlined figures in which some detail is inevitably lost.

Clearly, the star of the show was Erwin Blumenfeld's Manina (1936), a thoughtful portrait in profile from which all extraneous detail had been removed by the process, thus emphasizing the lineaments of the sitter's features to the exclusion of all else.  In a similar manner, the process rendered Rolf Horn's Calla Lily, Study 2, California (1999) as an almost an abstract line drawing.  This same reduction could also be seen in Ferenc Berko's two Solarized Nudes from the early 1950's, each of a mirror of the other in terms of tonal reversal.

Other standouts at the show included Annemarie Heinrich's Joven solarizado (1961), Josef Breitenbach's Solarized Nude, Paris (1933), Pierre Boucher's Solarized Arm and Hand (1933) and two by Jeanne Mandello, Dancer #2, Montevideo (1946) and Portrait of Dancer Violeta Lopez Lomba (c. 1952).  On the other hand, I did not feel any of the three works shown by Irina Ionesco, very much in her familiar style, benefited at all from the process.  Likewise, the five prints by Alexey Titarenko showing scenes from St. Petersburg in the 1990's were already too busy for my taste - solarization only lent to them a more confused appearance and made them more difficult to view.

I should mention here that I have worked with the Sabatier Effect in my own photography and so have some knowledge of the difficulties faced by photographers attempting this style.  Examples of my own work can be seen on my webpage.  In the images shown there, I chose to solarize the negative in order to obtain greater consistency from one print to the next.

The exhibit continues through February 28, 2015.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Eugène Atget at Pace MacGill

One of the best photography exhibits of the season is currently on view at the Pace MacGill Gallery on East 57th Street.  It features a fine selection of vintage prints by the iconic French photographer Eugène Atget.

In a certain sense, Atget's story resembles that of Vivian Maier about whom I wrote in my last post.  Both toiled in obscurity for the greater part of their lives and both died without having received the recognition justly due them.  It was only after they had passed that their work was rescued from oblivion by dedicated individuals who recognized its worth and set about preserving it.  John Maloof's recent efforts on Maier's behalf find their parallel in those made by Berenice Abbott when, with the assistance of gallery owner Julien Levy, she rescued a huge portion of Atget's work from almost certain destruction following the photographer's death in 1927.  Although Atget himself had managed to sell over 2,000 of his negatives to the French government in 1920, it is unlikely he would be remembered today had it not been for Abbott's intervention.

Despite these superficial similarities, the differences that exist between Atget and Maier are much more striking.  While his Wikipedia biography may refer to him somewhat romantically as a flâneur, Atget was not a hobbyist haphazardly strolling the streets of Paris with camera in hand.  He was a professional.  It was through photography that he earned his living however meager that may have been.  He was actually commissioned by the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris in 1906 to document the city's old buildings before they were destroyed by modernization.  In this, he followed in the footsteps of Charles Marville who decades before had been employed by Napoleon III to complete a similar task during Haussmann's renovation of the city in the 1860's.  Atget differed significantly from Marville, however, to the extent that he brought to his photography a much more personal sensibility than could be found in the latter's documentary efforts no matter how technically accomplished these may have been.

Perhaps the most concise summary of Atget's achievement can be found in the short biographical article on MOMA's website:
"Atget’s best work is a poetic transformation of the ordinary by a subtle and knowing eye well served by photography’s reportorial fidelity. His transcendent, haunting works transposed photography’s function from the arena of 19th-century commercial documentation into the realm of art. This legacy, posthumously heralded as paralleling the rejection by ‘art’ photographers of Pictorialism and the return to the straight, unmanipulated approach, passed into the tradition of modern photographic history..."
The photographs shown at the Pace MacGill exhibit are, according to the press release, from a single collection assembled over a twenty year period.  They are a mixture of albumen silver prints and gelatin silver chloride prints.  There are a "number of early exhibition prints on the original mount used by Julien Levy and Berenice Abbott in the early exhibitions..." Among the prints shown are some of Atget's finest and best known works.  These include Joueur d'orgue (1898-1899), Avenue des Gobelins (1925), Rue Asselin, La Villette (1924-1925), Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle (1926) and Foire des Invalides (1913) as well as studies of Versailles and Parc St. Cloud.  These and the other prints on display reveal the photographer at the height of his powers and deserve to be seen by anyone with a serious interest in the history of photography.

The exhibit continues through January 3, 2015.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Vivian Maier at Howard Greenberg

Few photographers have enjoyed such posthumous success as has Vivian Maier.  During her lifetime, she was totally unknown, a nanny who spent her spare time with Rolleiflex in hand pursuing black & white photography on the streets of Chicago and New York.  It was only in 2007, when the contents of a storage locker on which she had ceased to make payments were auctioned off, that she began to receive critical recognition.  By then it was too late - she died two years later at age 83 without ever having learned of the interest that had already begun to build.

Much of the credit for Maier's current renown is due to the efforts of John Maloof, a "Chicago historian and collector," who purchased the greatest part of the contents of the storage locker at auction.  It was he who first recognized Maier's talent and then promoted her work by scanning her negatives and placing them on the web where they quickly went "viral."  Maloof later co-directed and co-produced a film entitled Finding Vivian Maier that brought an even greater degree of attention to both the late photographer and her oeuvre.  If that were not enough, a lawsuit was this year entered in federal court challenging Maloof's right to ownership of the works' copyrights even though he had gone to the trouble of tracking down Maier's surviving family members in France and paying for the rights to the photos.  The suit has since received international attention for its bearing on intellectual property law.

It was against this background that I recently visited the current exhibit of Maier's photos at the Howard Greenberg gallery on East 57th Street.  It was a fairly small show held in a separate space off to one side and consisted of roughly thirty-odd black and white prints, most of them in 8x10 format, as well as a handful of badly faded small chromogenic prints, the latter dating from the period c. 1960-1976.  Not all the prints had been made by Maier herself.  The original prints, those from the storage locker, were noted on the price list as having been "made within Vivian Maier's lifetime."  When I asked, I was told that these works had either been made by Maier or by "printers she worked with."  Other prints from the photographer's negatives were only completed in 2014.  I was informed that these had been printed by Steve Rifkin, a photographer located in New York City.

Of the works on display, I found the most intriguing to be those in which a small detail gave away the character of the subject.  One example would be a 1956 color photo of a woman's hands held clenched behind her back in an awkward gesture.  Another was a black & white shot of a neatly attired middle-aged matron turning to look over her shoulder at a flashily dressed woman attempting to draw patrons into a dance hall.  The most notable was a 1965 black & white image, taken from a vantage point across the street, of a young woman being ogled by a group of suited men in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It was clear to me, though, after having looked over the display that Maier was no master of the street photography genre on the level of a Robert Frank or Henri-Cartier Bresson.  Though Maier had talent, she was too timid in her approach to take that many incisive photos.  Most of her shots were taken from behind or from a safe distance, or else were of inanimate objects such as a parked car.  The photos in which she confronted her subjects head on were pretty much limited to studies of children who were powerless to take offense at her intrusion into their lives.  It was obvious that Maier went out of her way to avoid any situation that might result in a confrontation with her subjects.  That is probably one reason so many of her photos are self-portraits.

The main attraction in Maier's work, in my opinion at least, is the fact that she lived so long in total obscurity.  She apparently never approached any galleries during her lifetime (or was rebuffed by them if she did) or took any other initiative that would have brought her work to the attention of the public.  Photography was most likely for her only a hobby that brought its own sense of fulfillment.  Whether she wished it could have been more than that will now never be known.  Much of the adulation given her today derives, I think, from the posthumous nature of her success.  She has become an avatar for every photographer, artist or writer who has experienced a sense of frustration after having been passed over in his or her own career.  Through Maier's example, these individuals have been given new hope - though they may die totally unrecognized, perhaps some day in the future some discerning critic will stumble over their work and at last bring them the fame that they feel, rightly or wrongly, they truly deserve.  For most, this is unfortunately a rather forlorn hope.

The exhibit continues through December 31, 2014.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Juilliard415 Performs Telemann and Handel

The Juilliard415's lunchtime recital at Holy Trinity Church ran longer than usual yesterday in a program that featured not only works by Telemann and Handel but those of lesser known composers as well.  There was an even an improvisation in the Baroque style by two talented Juilliard graduate students.

The program opened with Sonata Decimasesta and Sonata Decimaterza from Sonate Concertante in Stil Moderno, Libro II (1629) by Dario Castello.  Both works were arranged for two violins, two cellos, double bass and harpsichord.  There was an ongoing interaction between the violins that was quite engaging while the other instruments served mostly to provide the continuo.

This was followed by Sonata Decima from Prothimia suavissima (1672) by Antonio Bertali.  Born in Verona, Bertali spent most of his life in Vienna where he was appointed court kapellmeister.  His greatest musical contribution lay not in his chamber works, however, but in opera.  It was he who established the tradition of opera seria in Vienna where it was to flourish until the era of Mozart and Da Ponte.

The next work was an improvisation by Juilliard415 members Melanie Williams on flute and James Kennerly playing harpsichord.  This was an interesting experiment that provided to the audience some idea how Baroque musicians might have improvised centuries ago during their own performances.  Before beginning, the harpsichordist gave an explanation how he and the flautist meant to proceed and what the "ground rules" were.  The improvisation was in three parts listed in the program as Prelude, Ground Bass and Gigue.  The result was enjoyable and the students deserve credit for having pulled it off so well.

Next came Telemann's Trio Sonata in G minor, TWV 42:g5, from Essercizii Musici (c. 1739).  Telemann was, of course, during his lifetime one of the most famous composers in Europe.  He knew Handel personally and was a friend of Bach and godfather of C.P.E. Bach.  Nevertheless, his personal life was tumultuous and it was only through the intervention of friends that the composer was saved from bankruptcy after his second wife accrued huge gambling debts while at the same time conducting an illicit affair with a Swedish military officer.  The Essercizii Musici is considered Telemann's finest collection of chamber music and clearly shows his ability as a composer of trio sonatas.

The Telemann was followed by two works, Sonata seconda in E minor and Sonata prima in G minor, from VI sonate à Trè, Op. 5 (1736) by Pietro Antonio Locatelli.  After having trained as a violinist in Rome, where he possibly studied under Corelli, Locatelli became a wandering musician traveling through Italy and Germany.  He was also something of a dandy - biographer Albert Dunning writes of a performance Locatelli gave in Berlin before Frederick William I where it was his diamond-studded attire that drew the most attention.  In 1729 Locatelli arrived in Amsterdam where he spent the remainder of his life giving violin lessons and private performances.  It was there that the present work was published.  What was most notable in this work was the unusual arrangement of instruments - two flutes, bassoon and harpsichord.

Then came an early secular cantata by Handel, Mi palpita il cor, HWV 132b written while the composer was resident in Rome during the period c. 1706-1710.  The work is generally agreed to be a revision of HWV 132c; in the present version, the oboe replaces the flute as the solo instrument.  The program notes describe this piece as a type of salon work to be performed at informal social gatherings.  But it may later have had other uses as well.  In Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, Ellen T. Harris has suggested this work may be one of the ten "pedagogical" cantatas that Handel employed more than a decade later when teaching keyboard to Princess Anne in London.  

The program closed with the Trio Sonata for Oboe, Violin and Continuo in D minor by Josep Pla.  According to the program notes, Pla traveled with his older brother, oboist Joan Baptista, throughout Europe.  The two performed together at a number of prestigious venues and may have shared joint authorship of many of their compositions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Schubert, Kancheli, Pärt and Kahn

For a change, yesterday afternoon's matinee performance by the Jupiter Symphony Players at Good Shepherd Church featured a pair of works by two living composers, Giya Kancheli and Arvo Pärt, in addition to compositions by Schubert and the now almost forgotten Robert Kahn.   

The piece that opened the program, Schubert's String Trio in B-flat major, D. 581 (1817), was written when the composer was only 20 years old and still employed as a schoolteacher.  It followed another attempt at a trio, the D. 471 also in B-flat major, written two years before.  As one would expect of such an early work, the D. 581 is primarily of historical interest.  There is little here of the genius Schubert would later display in his more mature style though there are scattered throughout occasional hints of what was to follow.  Still, the sound is unmistakably Schubert's no matter in how rudimentary a form and is worth hearing for that reason alone.  What's most curious is that the composer never again worked in the string trio genre after completing these two youthful works.  Perhaps he decided that the form did not offer as many possibilities for the expression of his ideas as did the string quartet.  

The Schubert was followed by Kancheli's euphoniously entitled Ninna Nanna Per Anna ("Lullaby for Anna") written in 2008 as the result of an East/West cultural exchange involving at this end the National Flute Association. which commissioned the present work, and the Seattle Chamber Players.  The co-founder of the latter group, flautist Peter Taub, had traveled extensively through Eastern Europe twenty years ago in search of "something in the repertoire that nobody else was playing."  During his journey, Taub was introduced to a number of Soviet composers whose music was then practically unknown to Western audiences.  It was among these artists that he first met Kancheli, a native of Georgia.  Taub later described the composer as "intense and brooding and serious."  He also unexpectedly noted of the man "He [Kancheli] hated one aspect of being in the United States, which was smoking restrictions... It seemed to be a really major problem for him."   As for the music itself, Taub aptly described Kancheli's work for flute and string quartet as "a lullaby that I think has some nightmarish moments."  For the most part, the work proceeds softly as if in accompaniment to a pleasant dream.  This gentle narrative is, however, at times abruptly interrupted by loud dissonant passages that appear to suggest the dreamer's sleep may have been a troubled one and not nearly as idyllic as it first seemed.

The next work was by Arvo Pärt, a long time associate of Kanchali and, according to The Bachtrack Stats, 2013's most often performed contemporary composer.  Listening to this 1978 piece originally written for piano and violin (for which a viola was substituted at this performance), one can easily understand why this should be the case.  This minimalist work serves perfectly as a showcase for Pärt's tintinnabular style whose slow meditative pace, derived from the composer's fascination with liturgical chants, here exerts an almost hypnotic power over the listener.  The title Spiegel im Spiegel ("Mirrors in a Mirror") refers to the infinity of reflections that can be seen when two mirrors are placed on a parallel plane.  

The final work on the program was by Robert Kahn, another of those unfortunate victims of Nazi persecution.   In 1934 he was forced to resign as a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts because of his Jewish ancestry.  His music was subsequently banned in Germany, and in 1938 he was forced to flee to England where he lived relatively unknown until his death in 1951.  There are other causes, though, for Kahn's present obscurity beyond the harassment he received late in his life.  Although a contemporary of Richard Strauss, Kahn deliberately turned his back on modernism in all its forms while still a young man and, in  joining the circle gathered around Brahms, instead enthusiastically embraced the romantic tradition.  There is, in fact, a famous story detailing Brahms's offer to give the young Kahn lessons in composition; the young student was simply too overawed by the master's reputation to accept.  It's not surprising then that Kahn's greatest success came at the end of the nineteenth century before the innovations that were to change the course of twentieth century music had been fully accepted.  It is from this early period that the 1899 Piano Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 30 dates, and the influence of Brahms can clearly be heard throughout its four movements.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Yuja Wang Performs Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin and Balakirev

Yesterday evening, Yuja Wang performed a program that included Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert lieder, a sonata by Schubert himself, various pieces by Scriabin, and a famous work by the Russian composer Mily Balakirev.  This was actually a revised program.  The pianist had originally been scheduled to perform works by Mompou, Granados, Albéniz, a different set of pieces by Scriabin and a different sonata by Schubert.  In early November, I received a letter from Carnegie Hall setting forth the new program.  The only holdover from the first repertoire was Scriabin's "Black Mass" sonata.  No reason was given for the change.

The program opened with Liszt's transcriptions of several well known lieder by Schubert -"Liebesbotschaft" and "Aufenthalt" from Schwanengesang, D. 957 / S. 560 and "Der Müller und der Bach" from Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795 / S. 565.  While it's unlikely the two ever met (even though the famous pianist was in Vienna in the early 1820's as a student of Carl Czerny), Liszt had incredible respect for Schubert's genius, even going so far as to refer to the latter as the “beloved hero of the heaven of my youth.” What is most noteworthy about Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert's songs - and he completed 56 in all - is the fidelity with which he treated these lieder; he rarely took with them the liberties he so often resorted to in his paraphrases of operatic works.  Among Liszt's earliest attempts were those taken from Schwanengesang ("Swan Song") completed in 1838 when the pianist returned to Vienna to give a series of ten charity concerts to benefit flood victims.  In fact, more than half of Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert date from this period.  Interestingly, it was at this same time that Liszt performed the original lieder themselves as accompanist to Benedict Randhartinger, a tenor who had once been a friend of Schubert and who had given many performances of these works in the years following the composer's death.  The piano parts which Schubert wrote to accompany his songs were much more complex than was usually the case and displayed frequent interaction with the vocal part.  The unusual depth shown in the piano part would have made the process of transcription much easier for Liszt than would otherwise have been the case.  The transcriptions taken from Die schöne Müllerin ("The Miller's Blonde Daughter") were later works completed in 1848.

The Liszt transcriptions were followed by Schubert's Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959 (1828).  It is one of music's tragic ironies that so many of the composer's finest works should have been completed in the few months before his death.  One senses that Schubert knew his end was at hand and desperately sought to finish the legacy he would leave behind.  In doing so, he showed conclusively how much more he might have accomplished had he lived longer.  Certainly the three piano sonatas he completed during this time were among the greatest of his masterpieces and staples of the piano repertoire.  There are so many correspondences among these three four-movement pieces that they can be viewed in a sense as variations on a single work.  It is only by listening to all three that one can fully appreciate the extent of Schubert's genius in composing them.  The A major is also notable for its use in the finale of the same structure Beethoven had previously employed in the finale of his own Sonata in G major.  It was this "borrowing" that for many years led critics to hold Schubert's sonatas in low esteem as poor imitations of Beethoven's accomplishments in the same genre.

After intermission, the program took on a Russian flavor as Yang performed several works by Scriabin - Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 1, Prelude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11, No. 8, Fantasy in B Minor, Op. 28, Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 37, No. 1, Two Poems, Op. 63, and Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 68, "Black Mass."  Scriabin is one of the most fascinating composers to have emerged in Russia near the beginning of the twentieth century.  Much like the music he wrote, he was completely idiosyncratic and sometimes displayed a mystical bent  This inclination is especially apparent in his later "Third Period" works such as the Two Poems and the Sonata No. 9 that are nearly atonal in their structure.

The program concluded with Balakirev's Islamey (1869).  Balakirev is today best remembered for his membership in "The Five," a group of composers whose goal was to introduce a spirit of nationalism into Russian music.  As successor to Glinka, he was at the very center of musical life in Russia and later became a close friend of Tchaikovsky.  Not many of Balakirev's works are performed today.  The persistence of Islamey in the repertoire is paradoxically due to its very difficulty.  It has become a recital showpiece for virtusosi to show off their skills.  Unlike most of Balakirev's music, it was composed quickly in only one month after Balakirev had made a journey to the Caucasus in search of folk music he thought could appropriately be employed in his promotion of Russian nationalism.  As such, the work has a thoroughly exotic "oriental" character unlike anything that can be found in West European music.

As for Yuja Wang's performance, it was definitely thoughtful and accomplished.  Once she finally took the stage, she displayed throughout the recital a deep understanding of the works she was playing.  At the same time, however, and through no fault of her own, she did not quite live up to all the hype surrounding her appearance.  She was simply a very competent pianist performing great works of music.  That should really be good enough for anyone.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Daniil Trifonov Performs Bach, Beethoven and Liszt

On Tuesday evening, pianist Daniil Trifonov gave a splendid recital at Carnegie Hall in which he performed works by Bach, Beethoven and Liszt.  It was the first time I'd had an opportunity to hear this young musician and I was deeply impressed.

The program opened with Bach's Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in G Minor, BWV 542 (trans. for piano by Franz Liszt, S. 463).  Though Liszt specialized in the art of transcription, it was usually symphonic or operatic works that he most often paraphrased.  In this work, he undertook the adaptation of a work by J.S. Bach who was himself one of the greatest composers for keyboard.  The result can be seen as much a dialog between two geniuses as it is a transcription.  The respect in which Liszt held Bach, whose reputation had in the nineteenth century largely fallen into obscurity, is evident in every note.  The work is much more restrained than many of Liszt's other transcriptions, and the composer was careful never to let his mastery of the piano intrude on his appreciation of Bach's genius.  It was an excellent work with which to open the recital.  While paying homage to the Baroque, it also anticipated the performance of Liszt's own compositions in the second half of the program.

This was followed by Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 (1821-1822).  The work is famous as the last of the composer's final three piano sonatas and is unusual in that it consists of only two movements.  Originally, Beethoven planned a more traditional piece consisting of three movements, but in the end retained only one of his original sketches (placed here as the first movement).  The new second movement, the magnificent arietta, could have easily been seen as the master's final word on writing music for piano if he had not then gone on to compose the Diabelli Variations in 1823.  As one might imagine, the sonata is a favorite at recitals where pianists wish to demonstrate their mastery of the instrument.  Many years ago, I heard Rudolf Serkin perform it, together with the Opus 109 and 110, at his final recital at Carnegie Hall.  Last season, I heard an excellent performance by Seymour Lipkin at his Paul Hall recital.  The performance by Trifonov, however, was something special.  He brought out a feeling in the music I had never before heard there.  At times, his playing seemed to have an element of jazz technique in its approach to the finale of the second movement.  There was a liveliness here and a refusal to be overawed by the composer's iconic reputation that so often causes his work to be placed on a pedestal and treated as a relic.

After intermission, the program concluded with Liszt's Transcendental Études, S. 139 (1852).  Excellent as the first half was, this was where Trifonov really let go and showed his full genius at the keyboard.  This was an extremely long work consisting of twelve separate pieces and was a diabolical test of the virtuosity of any musician.  Amazingly, the Études are actually simplifications of an earlier set composed in 1837.  One can only imagine how formidable Liszt's technique must have been if he could master pieces even more difficult than those presented here.  As it was, Trifonov held the audience spellbound for over an hour as he performed the entire set from memory.

There was only one encore.  I did not recognize the piece myself, but according to Carnegie Hall's website it was "Alla Reminiscenza" from Forgotten Melodies I, Op. 38 by the Russian composer/ pianist Nikolai Medtner.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Viotti, Liszt, Rubinstein, Enescu and Alkan

At yesterday's matinee at Good Shepherd Church, the Jupiter Symphony Players performed works by several composers - Viotti, Liszt, Rubinstein, Enescu and Alkan - who were counted among the most famous virtuosi of their time.

The program opened with Giovanni Battista Viotti's Flute Quartet in C minor, Op. 22, No. 2 (1803).  In his own day, Viotti was one of the best known violinists in Europe.  He also lived an adventurous life that included flight from the French Revolution, banishment from England and the establishment of wine business.  Along the way, he helped found the Royal Philharmonic Society in London and briefly served as director of the Paris Opera.  The one thing Viotti was not, however, was a flautist.  To the extent his music is remembered at all, it is for his violin concertos.  One source puts it thus:
"The 29 violin concertos remain Viotti's most significant contribution as a composer, and it is in these works that his true compositional prowess is revealed (the many chamber works and vocal arias being, by comparison, relatively uninspired)."
I found the present flute quartet pleasant but little more than that.  It seemed the sort of music one sometimes hears playing in the background as one eats dinner at an expensive restaurant.

Next was Franz Liszt's Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's Ernani (1847-1849).  Liszt is almost as well known for his piano transcriptions as for his original works, and while working in this genre strongly favored paraphrases of popular operas.  Next to Wagner, Verdi was the operatic composer whom Liszt most often chose to transcribe; his Paraphrase on Ernani represented his earliest attempt to capture the spirit of Verdi's music.

This was followed by Anton Rubinstein's String Quartet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (1852).  The composer, elder brother of Nikolai, is best remembered today as the founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he instructed Tchaikovsky in composition.  He was also a remarkable pianist who exerted a strong influence on, among others, Rachmaninoff.  But Rubinstein was also a prolific composer and over the course of his career wrote more than twenty operas as well as a large number of chamber works.  Although the present quartet clearly shows the influence of Mendelssohn, it also has a distinctly Russian flavor.  I was surprised at what an accomplished piece it proved to be.

After intermission, the program continued with George Enescu's Konzertstück for Viola and Piano (1906).  A child prodigy, Enescu is today considered one of the most important of twentieth century composers, but he was also famed for his skill as a violinist.  At the invitation of Gabriel Fauré, Enescu took part in several competitions held at the Paris Conservatoire in the early 1900's and the Konzertstück was one of the pieces he composed for these events.  A hybrid of Romanian folk traditions and West European musical styles, the work gives equal weight to both the piano and viola parts.  Cynthia Phelps joined with pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi to render a truly amazing performance of this work.

The program concluded with Charles-Valentin Alkan's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 30 (1841).  Alkan was yet another child prodigy.  A brilliant pianist, he was located in Paris where he participated in recitals with both Liszt and Chopin before becoming a recluse in 1848 after having been denied the chair of the Paris Conservatoire piano department.  The period preceding this debacle, during which the present trio was written, represents the high point in Alkan's career as a composer.  His biographer William Eddie writes of this work:
"this trio for piano, violin and violoncello in G minor op 30 is the most severely classical of all Alkan's chamber works.  It is influenced by the classical periodic phrase construction of Haydn yet as an early romantic work it nevertheless deserves to take its place in the repertoire alongside the more familiar trios of Mendelssohn which have similarly brilliant piano parts."
Alkan's music was unique and totally unlike that of any other composer I've heard.  It was also technically very demanding, especially in the piano part.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mannes Piano Recital: Vladimir Feltsman Performs Schnittke

Friday evening's recital at Mannes's downtown location featured only two works, both of them by the late twentieth century composer Alfred Schnittke.  The event was curated by pianist Vladimir Feltsman who also took part in the performance of the second work.

It is only recently that Schnittke's importance to the development of serious music has come to be appreciated by the general public.  This despite the fact that, following the death of Shostakovich in 1975, Schnittke was generally recognized by critics as the preeminent Soviet composer of his day, a thinker who exerted a strong influence on other artists not only in Russia but abroad as well.  In January, an entire week of concerts and recitals was staged in his honor and that of his associates at a Julliard Focus series whose highlights included performances of both the Fourth and Eighth symphonies in addition to a number of his chamber works.

Schnittke was a theoretician as well as a composer and wrote a series of seminal essays, the most noteworthy of which dealt with with his espousal of polystylism.  According to this theory, high and low forms of music are combined within a single piece in order to provide to the listener additional associations that enrich the meaning of the work at hand.  Schnittke's interest in such a combination may very well have developed from the schizophrenic nature of his own career.  Since his serious work was repressed by Soviet authorities and remained largely unplayed, Schnittke was forced to earn a living as a composer of film scores.  This was not so unique an occurrence as one might imagine.  Following the uproar over Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, Shostakovich spent much of the following year performing a similar task while all the while keeping a very low profile.  Music for films was considered a safe and acceptable outlet for otherwise problematic Soviet composers as such an activity did not carry with it the political implications entailed in the composition of more public works, such as symphonies.  At any rate, in a biographical essay, Alexander Ivashkin claimed that Schnittke completed as many as 66 such film scores.  No wonder then that Schnittke wrote in his essay "On Concerto Grosso No. 1" the following:
"For several years I experienced an inward urge to write music for the cinema and theater.  At first I enjoyed doing this, then it became a burden, and then it dawned on me: my lifelong task would be to bridge the gap between serious music and music entertainment, even if I broke my neck in the process.  I have this dream of a unified style where fragments of serious music and fragments of music for entertainment would not just be scattered about in a frivolous way, but would be the elements of a diverse musical reality..."
Friday's program opened with a performance by Baron Fenwick, a Mannes student taught by Feltsman, of Schnittke's Piano Sonata No. 1 (1987).  And certainly there could be no greater authority on the work than Feltsman himself as the sonata had been written specifically for him by Schnittke.  In fact, the composer had placed within the score notes that represented both his own and Feltsman's names and from these derived the theme for the entire work.  The sonata turned out to be an incredibly complex and technically demanding piece that showed the great faith Schnittke must have had in Feltsman's abilities as a pianist.  Here, the student Fenwick gave a brilliant performance of the sonata that allowed the listener to fully appreciate its worth.

In the second half of the program (there was no intermission, only a brief pause), Feltsman himself took over the piano for a rendition of the Piano Quintet (1972-1976) that Schnittke had composed in memory of his mother.  Feltsman was joined for the occasion by four very talented Mannes student string players - Hojin Kim, violin; Yuti Chang, violin; Adam Kramer, viola; and Zexun Shen, cello.  As the work progressed, it became clear that this five-movement quintet, which I had never before heard, was indeed one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century chamber repertoire and on a par with that Shostakovich had composed in the same genre.  Though dark and complex, this difficult piece certainly deserves to be heard more often.  I thought it superior, perhaps due to its long gestation, to other of the composer's chamber works I'd heard in the past.  In the end, the quintet proved a truly moving and heartfelt tribute to a departed loved one.

At the conclusion of the recital, Feltsman spoke to the audience about his own friendship with Schnittke.  It is always fascinating to listen to the remarks of a virtuoso who has actually known and been an associate of a famous composer.  The pianist's remarks enhanced the audience's appreciation of this amazing composer and, in a sense, brought him to life before us.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Met Museum: Death Becomes Her

The Met's current fashion exhibit, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, is by far the most interesting the museum has staged in recent years.  Covering the period from 1815 to 1915, the show documents those fashions once worn by the bereaved to signify their loss.

It's difficult for those living in twenty-first century New York to appreciate the changes that have occurred over the past hundred years in the manner in which death is acknowledged in our society.  Though the specter is as present among the living as it always was, the act of dying is today so largely hidden from view that contemporary Americans may be considered to be in a state of denial over its very existence.  No longer are the terminally ill cared for by loved ones at home.  Almost all patients can now expect to spend their last hours hidden conveniently out of sight at a hospital or hospice where family and friends will only briefly visit before returning to their daily routine.  Nor are the dead any longer waked at home in the parlor (now become "the living room") but are instead put on display at a funeral home.  There, before commencing their final ride to the graveyard, they are coiffed and made up by professionals to appear to the greatest extent possible as though they were still among the living.

Such was not always the case.  As the exhibit makes clear, there once existed in our society carefully prescribed customs designed not only to pay respect to those who had passed but also to aid their survivors in overcoming their loss and in returning to the normal workaday world of the living.  Most essential among these was the clothing worn by women who had been deprived of their spouses.  This was appropriate since widowhood was only a century ago a much more overwhelming experience than it is currently.  At that time, women were in every way much more dependent on their husbands than is the case today.  Few then had an income of their own or the means to support themselves through their individual efforts.  The loss of a husband necessarily resulted in a profound change in circumstances for the wife left behind.  There was a new vulnerability that was not only financial but social as well.  Death entailed not only the loss of a provider but also of a protector.

One of the most fascinating features of the exhibit is the progression shown in stages of mourning.  At first, a widow would wear only the heaviest black fabric and crepe.  As time went on - and the mourning period was a drawn out affair that lasted over a period of many months and sometimes even years - the widow would slowly introduce elements of white trim into her outfit and finally wear colors that indicated her proper return to society.  

Gradually, the fashion rituals changed from one generation to the next.  One of the most dramatic examples of this can be seen in the contrast between the plain black clothing worn by Queen Victoria, who mourned for forty years the loss of her beloved consort until her own death in 1901, and the sumptuous gowns designed for her daughter-in-law Queen Alexandra upon the death of her husband the king in 1910.  There was much more involved here than a simple modification in style.  This upheaval in fashion mirrored a change in attitude toward death itself.  The twentieth century was a much different era than that which had preceded it.  There was no longer time in a busy industrial world for drawn out remembrance of those who had passed.  From now on, the dead would be buried as expediently as possible while the world they left behind quickly forgot and moved on.

While the old fashions may strike the viewer today as inordinately morbid, they must be seen as part of a psychological healing process that has no parallel in modern society.  One must wonder how much damage is inflicted by their removal on the minds of the bereaved who are no longer given an adequate opportunity to adjust to their loss.  The repression of mourning ceremonies is not at all a healthy sign since it is through participation in these rites that one comes to terms with the knowledge of one's own impending end.  Instead, Americans today do everything in their power to distract themselves from thinking of those last moments that every day draw closer to them.  The finality of death is no longer accepted and no psychological preparation is made for it.  It is actually the repression of all thought of dying that is unwholesome and that makes the end harder to bear when it finally arrives.

The exhibit continues through February 1, 2015.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Met Museum: El Greco in New York

The title of the current Met Museum exhibit, El Greco in New York, is not the most felicitous.  It creates the unfortunate impression that the artist at some point managed a trip to the city and perhaps left behind some paintings to commemorate his visit.  In the event, this is a relatively small installation of some sixteen paintings, most of them completed during the final years of El Greco's life while he was resident in Spain.  Many of the artist's most famous paintings, most notably The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, are missing.  Nevertheless, all the works shown here are masterpieces and every effort should be made to view them.  Collectively, they demonstrate the appearance of a totally new vision in European art.

It should first of all be remembered that El Greco was in no sense a Spanish artist.  He was already age 37, the exact midpoint of his life, when he arrived in that country.  If he spent the remainder of his days there, it was only because he had no practical alternative.  He had already failed in Rome.  During the seven years he had spent in that city, he had received no major commissions from the Church but had instead earned his living as a miniaturist.  Compared to the Italian capital, Toledo was a cultural backwater and the artist may very well have felt himself an exile there.

Much has been made over the years of El Greco's "eccentricity," and certainly his art was so unique that he could not be said to belong to any school.  But the painter's eccentricity extended to his personal life as well.  How else can one describe an artist who made an offer to the pope to paint over Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling?  It was probably his politically incorrect character as much as anything else that was responsible for El Greco's move from Italy to Spain.  To an extent, it also accounted for the lack of recognition given him in his own lifetime.  In fact, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the artist's greatness first began to be widely appreciated.

If one wishes to discover the basis of El Greco's inspiration, one must look first of all to Venice.  Even if 1541 (the year of the artist's birth in Crete, a Venetian possession) coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the city's decline (1530, according to John Julius Norwich's A History of Venice), the republic remained a world power and Europe's most important cultural center during the brief period El Greco resided there.  Its greatest painter Titian was still active, though already in his 80's, and the aspiring artist quickly became his "disciple."  Anyone seeking to discover at least one source of El Greco's style need only glance at Titian's final painting, the 1575 Pietà.  

Beyond the influence of other artists, much of what viewers find most striking in El Greco's work may very well derive from his singular appreciation of light.  According to Wikipedia:
"Clovio reports visiting El Greco on a summer's day while the artist was still in Rome. El Greco was sitting in a darkened room, because he found the darkness more conducive to thought than the light of the day, which disturbed his 'inner light'."
I think it is possible that El Greco was able to visualize the properties of light in an entirely different manner than did his contemporaries.  Perhaps the turbulent skies so often seen in the background of El Greco's paintings were depicted as such principally for the lighting effects they offered.  Further, when I studied one of the paintings on display at the Met, The Adoration of the Shepherds, what struck me most forcibly was the lighting used.  It is the infant in the manger that is the actual light source.  The figures surrounding him are lit from below by the glow from the baby at the center of the image.

Other major works shown at the Met include The Vision of St. John, also known as The Opening of the Fifth Seal, (1609-1614) and View of Toledo (1598-1599).  The former is often cited as a source of inspiration for Picasso when he was preparing to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

The exhibit continues through February 1, 2015.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Juilliard Vocal Recital: Mozart, Debussy, Rossini, Ravel and Bolcom

It was a rainy afternoon yesterday in NYC, but a good crowd still turned out at Alice Tully to hear the latest Wednesdays at One installment.  This time the hour-long recital featured vocal works by five composers - Mozart, Debussy, Rossini, Ravel and Bolcom.

The program opened with mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, accompanied by Hea Youn Chung, performing Mozart's Alma grande e nobil core, K.578 (1789).  This was the first of three "insertion" arias written for Louise Villeneuve, who played Dorabella in the original production of Così fan Tutte.  According to Alfred Einstein:
"This was written for Cimarosa's Intermezzo I due baroni di Rocca Azzurra, and it breathes the indignation of a young lady at whom Mozart secretly pokes fun in the orchestra part - a ravishing piece."
More pointedly, Mozart biographer Hermann Abert notes: 
"'Alma Grande' is a binary aria, powerful in expression, that makes only limited demands on the singer's range and vocal flexibility."
Next were "Pantomime" (text by Paul Verlaine) and "Apparition" (text by Stéphane Mallarmé) from Debussy's Quatre Chansons de Jeunesse (1882-1884) sung by soprano Jessine Johnson accompanied by Daniel Fung.  These are early works by Debussy and were written for Marie Blanche Visnier, a singer with whom the young composer had become madly infatuated.  The first song deals with characters from the commedia dell'arte while the second is a sentimental reminiscence of first love.  Though the mood of the music in both is an accurate reflection of the symbolist poetry of the texts, it was not clear to me how deeply the composer himself was involved with this literary movement.  Both songs were performed with a great deal of feeling by Johnson whom I thought the most talented of the five students appearing.

Following was Rossini's La regata veneziana from the wonderfully titled Péchés de vieillesse ("Sins of Old Age") sung by mezzo-soprano Marguerite Jones accompanied by HoJae Lee.  These salon works, which provided a vivid description of a Venetian gondola race, were composed long after Rossini had retired from his opera career and were never intended for publication.  The problem I had listening to these selections was that I heard them performed exquisitely only last month by Joyce DiDonato in her recital at Carnegie Hall.  Di Donato had nailed the three songs so perfectly that Jones, though obviously a talented student, could only come in a distant second in her performance of the same pieces.

The next selection - Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932) - featured the only male singer to appear yesterday afternoon, baritone Joe Eletto accompanied by Dan K. Kurland.  These three songs were the last works completed by Ravel.  They had originally been commissioned by the Russian bass singer Fédor Chaliapine who was to play the Cervantes character in a 1933 film directed by G.W. Pabst.  Unfortunately, Ravel was not able to complete the work on time and the music and songs actually used in the film were instead written by Jacques Ibert.

The program concluded with three of Bolcom's Cabaret Songs sung by mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms accompanied by Edward Kim.  The one song "Black Max," a cabaret piece that strongly reminded me of Kurt Weill's music for The Threepenny Opera, turned out to be the highlight of the afternoon.  The song's lyrics had been written by Arnold Weinstein, a writer whose affiliation with the New York School had introduced him to a number of prominent visual artists including Willem de Kooning.  Bolcom later provided the following description of the work's inception:
"One day in the 1950s Arnold was visiting his friend Willem de Kooning’s studio. Bill’s brother had come to visit from Rotterdam, where they both had grown up...and they reminisced about the bohemian life in their home city in the 1930s.... The artists’ and prostitutes’ section of the city was the same quarter, with a lively street life. One of the most picaresque characters on the Rotterdam streets was 'Zwarte Max;' this is Black Max’s portrait 'as told by the de Kooning boys.'"
Bottoms not only sang well but in her slinky black dress also looked the very incarnation of a seductive chanteuse.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Met Opera: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Saturday afternoon's presentation at the Met of  Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was the first opportunity I'd had to see this masterpiece by Shostakovich in performance.  I have to admit I'd wanted to attend as much for the opera's historical background as for its music; it was this piece, of course, that was the cause of the first denunciation against the composer in 1936 at the very beginning of the Stalin's "Great Purge."  In the years that followed, Shostakovich was to see many of his closest friends imprisoned or executed and his own life put at risk.

The opera itself had been written in 1934 and had initially received excellent reviews and enjoyed great popularity in the two years following its Leningrad premiere.  There were several foreign productions including an American tour that featured a sold out appearance at the Met in 1935.  The real trouble began in Moscow when Stalin himself chose to attend a Bolshoi Theater performance at which the composer was also present.  The Wikipedia article references biographer Elizabeth Wilson as its source in describing the scene:
"When he [Shostakovich] arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was 'white as a sheet' when he went to take his bow after the third act."
Two days later an article appeared in the official party organ Pravda entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" which violently attacked Shostakovich for, among other failings, his sympathetic treatment of the murderess Katerina.  For some time thereafter, the composer lived in very real fear of losing his life.  He was forced to withdraw his Fourth Symphony, deeply influenced by Mahler's music, before its premiere and instead spent the next several months composing film music, a "safe" genre that carried with it no political implications.  It was not until the 1937 premiere of his Fifth Symphony that Shostakovich once again regained official favor and could breathe more easily.

With so much history behind it, the opera was difficult to evaluate it on its own merits.  The libretto by Alexander Preis, based on a novel of the same name by Nikolai Leskov, is certainly lurid enough to put any Italian verismo work to shame.  Almost all the characters are thoroughly corrupt; the protagonist Katerina is the double murderer of both her father-in-law and her husband.  To that extent the work is as deeply imbued with naturalism as any Zola novel, and its bleak outlook is reminiscent of the tone of Gorky's play The Lower Depths.  The vulgarity that so disturbed Stalin is definitely present here and was in fact so deliberately emphasized by the composer that a New York Sun review described the music played during the violent lovemaking between Katerina and Sergei as "pornophony."  In this particular production the effect is heightened by such grotesque trappings as the disco ball used in the Act III wedding scene.  At the same time, though, the composer displayed a great deal of sympathy for his characters.  Most notably, Shostakovich broke with Leskov in his portrayal of Katerina and made her a much more sympathetic character than the novel's coldhearted monster.  She is here as much victim as criminal and possesses a humanity that raises her death to the level of tragedy.

The star of the show was Eva-Maria Westbroek in the role of Katerina, but Brandon Jovanovich also handed in a great performance as Sergei while James Conlon did a fine job conducting.  I think Shostakovich would have been pleased by the excesses of Graham Vick's production which captured very well the spirit of the piece.

The beginning of the opera was delayed almost a quarter hour by a problem in the orchestra pit.  The stage manager eventually came out and asked for patience.  By way of explanation, he told the audience that the score was "difficult to light."  As I had never imagined that musical scores printed on paper could differ that much from one another, I found this truly bizarre.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Baermann, Czerny and Beethoven

There were three works on the program at yesterday afternoon's recital by the Jupiter Symphony Players at Good Shepherd Church, two of them by highly influential eighteenth century Viennese composers.

The afternoon began with a short adagio by Heinrich Baermann taken, according to the printed program, from his Clarinet Quintet No. 3 in D flat major, Op. 23 (1821).  According to Wikipedia, Baermann "wrote an Adagio for Clarinet and Strings in D-flat which was long misattributed to Richard Wagner."  Baermann himself was among the preeminent clarinet virtuosi of the Romantic era and the musician for whom Mendelssohn wrote the two Konzertstücke, Opp. 113, 114.

The next work was more substantial.  This was the Piano Trio No. 4 in A minor, Op. 289 (1834) by Carl Czerny.  As can be deduced from the work's high opus number, Czerny was an incredibly prolific composer who wrote over a thousand pieces during the course of his career, many of which remain unpublished, and whose final tally of opus numbers eventually reached an astonishing 861.  He was also highly regarded as a piano teacher and authored a number of books containing exercises that are still in use today.  As a pianist, he was a child prodigy who gave his first public performance (playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor) in 1800 at only age 9.  Despite these accomplishments, what Czerny is best remembered for today is his association with two much more famous musicians.  He was not only Beethoven's favorite piano pupil but over the years also became the master's closest confidante.  Though he may not have been the most reliable biographer, much of what we know of Beethoven's life come to us through Czerny.  Additionally, it was he who debuted many of the composer's most significant piano compositions including the Vienna premiere of the Concerto No. 5 ("the Emperor") in 1812.  Later, Czerny became the teacher of Liszt and it was he who introduced the legendary pianist, still only a child, to Beethoven.  The trio performed here was a remarkable work, even if not up to the standards of Beethoven's own compositions for piano, and made me interested in hearing more of this composer's work.

The third and final work on the program was the famous Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major “Eroica” Op. 55, (1804), one of Beethoven's greatest achievements and the work that marked the beginning of his "Middle" period.  This performance followed a transcription by Carl Friedrich Ebers for 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, 2 clarinets and 2 horns.  This was the first I'd heard of Ebers and thought the description of him provided in the Grove Dictionary quite interesting:

"... a man evidently of great ability, but as evidently of little morale, taking any post that offered, and keeping none; doing any work that turned up to keep body and soul together, and at length dying in great poverty at Berlin, Sept. 9, 1836. Some of his arrangements have survived, but his compositions—half-a-dozen operas, symphonies, overtures, dance music, wind-instrument ditto, and, in short, pieces of every size and form—have all disappeared, with the exception of a little drinking song, 'Wir sind die Könige der Welt,' which has hit the true popular vein." 
As the same article goes on to detail the angry protest made by Carl Maria von Weber against the transcription Ebers had made of one of his own chamber works, I was a bit wary of the present arrangement and wondered how accurately it would follow Beethoven's score.  I need not have worried.  Although there were only ten instruments onstage, the arrangement captured the full range of the music in all its complexity.  So rich was the sound that, had I had looked away, I might have thought at times there was a full orchestra present.  When the work finished, the entire audience stood up to applaud the musicians who had worked so hard to give a truly great performance.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Alice Tully: Mannes Orchestra Performs Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Barber and Stravinsky

Yesterday evening, the Mannes Orchestra gave its first concert of the season at Alice Tully Hall.  The students performed a predominantly Russian program that featured works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.  Somewhat incongruously, an overture by American composer Samuel Barber was also included at the beginning of the second half.

The program opened with Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36 (1887-1888).  The work displays the composer's mystical bent at its most intense and is firmly in the tradition of Russian Romanticism.  As was the case with the music of its dedicatees, Mussorgsky and Borodin (both prominent members of "The Five"), it was a deliberate attempt on the composer's part to demonstrate in his work a strong nationalist influence.  Though not particularly religious in nature - it could hardly be termed "sacred music" - the work was one of the very few to incorporate elements of the Orthodox liturgy.  According to Rimsky-Korsakov himself, the piece sought to capture:
"... "the legendary and heathen aspect of the holiday, and the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning".
Conducted by David Hayes, the orchestra was here at its very best as it gave a rousing rendition that was among the finest I've heard by any ensemble.

The next work Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19 (1915-1917).  It was not until six years after the piece had been completed that it received its 1923 premiere in Paris when it was conducted by Serge Koussevitsky in a concert that also featured Stravinsky conducting his own Octet, a highly popular work that in the end completely overshadowed Prokofiev's opus.  The concerto is a calm and in parts almost gentle work.  Nevertheless it is a thoroughly modern composition and possesses a complex structure that belies the simplicity of its sound.  Prokofiev took his inspiration here from a number of contemporary sources.  As I had mentioned in an earlier post, it was after having heard Szymanowski's Mythes that Prokofiev asked Paul Kochański to consult with him on the the present work.  The soloist at this concert was Yada Lee, the winner of the 2014 Mannes Concerto Competition, who showed herself in this performance a formidable violinist who remained in complete control of her material throughout the three movements.

In the second half, after an unnecessarily long introduction by student conductor Nell Flanders, the orchestra performed Barber's The School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5 (1931).  However anomalous its appearance on this program, this a major piece of American music and deserves to be heard more often.  It is not actually an overture in the traditional sense but rather a single piece that drew its inspiration from Sheridan's eighteenth century satire.  In keeping with its source, the overture has a bright brittle sound that is quite attractive.  Barber was only 21 and still a student at Curtis Music Institute when he wrote the piece.  It was his first work for orchestra and immediately launched his reputation as one of the last century's preeminent American composers.

The evening ended with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite No. 2 (1919), the best known of the three suites the composer extracted from his 1910 ballet.  To my mind, none of the suites really does justice to the original work from which they were extracted.  Of them all, I prefer the first, the 1910, which is the most faithful to its source.  The full ballet, which I heard performed earlier this season at Carnegie Hall by the Berlin Philharmonic, is a magical work.  It famously marked Stravinsky's debut with the Ballets Russes and made him an overnight sensation throughout Europe.  While it pays tribute to the Romantic tradition so well represented in Rimsky-Korsakov's overture at the beginning of the program, it also anticipates the radical rhythmic innovations that would appear only three years later in Le Sacre du printemps.    

The Mannes Orchestra is probably the best student ensemble now performing in New York City.  Its members displayed at last night's concert not only an extremely high level of talent but also complete dedication to giving the best performance possible of the works at hand.  Mannes itself deserves a great deal of credit for continuing its policy of free concerts at a time when other schools have begun to charge exorbitant and wholly unwarranted admission prices.

Friday, November 21, 2014

My First Novel Has Been Published on Amazon

I'm very excited to announce that I've just published my first novel, New York Sonata, as an ebook.  It is currently available for purchase on Amazon.  This is for me the realization of a creative ambition I first conceived decades ago while still an undergraduate English lit major at Fordham University long before I began my career as a photographer.

I hope you'll order the novel at the link shown below and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Carnegie Hall: The San Francisco Symphony Performs Mahler #7

Yesterday evening, Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall in a performance of the Seventh Symphony (1904-1905) by Gustav Mahler.  This was the third Mahler symphony I'd heard at the hall in the past month after having recently attended performances by the Met Orchestra (#9) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (#2).  Listening to these three works in so short a period of time gave enabled me to better appreciate the composer's intentions and creative processes not only in this work but over but over a broad sample of his oeuvre.  Afterwards, I found I could more easily understand the connections that exist among his symphonies. 

The Seventh is one of the composer's lesser known symphonies, its gestation overshadowed perhaps by the tumultuous events that occurred in the composer's life almost immediately after he had completed the orchestration in 1906.  In the following year, after having been targeted by a series of anti-Semitic attacks, he was forced to resign as conductor (Kapellmeister) of the Vienna Hofoper even though he had gone so far as to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1897 in order to secure the post.  In that same year Mahler's young daughter died of scarlet fever and he himself was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition.

The manner in which the work was composed may also have been a factor that led to its lack of appreciation.  It was one of those episodes in Mahler's career that would later provide so much material to psychologists studying his biography.  He had already completed the two Nachtmusik movements in 1904 when he was forced to leave off work on the symphony in order to return to his conducting duties.  When he again took up the symphony the following summer, he experienced a creative block that was only overcome while he was being rowed across the lake near his summer home.  The sound of the oars in the water immediately freed his imagination and allowed him to formulate the theme that introduces the first movement.  

Still, there can be no doubt that the Seventh is an important work that deserves a close listening.  The blurb contained in the evening's Program Notes put it very succinctly:
"Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is one of the composer’s most fanciful works. It’s a magical five-movement masterpiece that’s mysterious, nostalgic, and humorous in its boisterous finale. Scored for a massive orchestra that includes cowbells, mandolin, and guitar, Mahler’s symphony takes the listener on one of the great orchestral journeys."
Beyond that the work is of interest to musicologists in that Mahler here resumed his experimentation with "progressive tonality," a concept that Wagner had first explored in Tristan und Isolde as early as 1859.  Mahler took the idea even further in this symphony by demonstrating a progression not only through the length of the entire symphony itself (E minor to C major) but in individual movements as well (B minor to E major in the opening Langsam).

Though there were unfortunately many empty seats at yesterday's performance, this was a major event for anyone with an interest in Mahler's work.  I had heard Levine conduct the same symphony with the Met Orchestra last season and thought it interesting to compare that with the rendition given here by Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.  Though too much time had elapsed for me to make a point by point comparison, I considered the latter's performance well articulated and fully engaging.  Tilson Thomas is an excellent conductor and I had very much enjoyed the performance he led last season with this same orchestra of Mahler's Ninth.  I am already looking forward to the orchestra's return next year when it will hopefully perform another of this composer's symphonies.