Friday, January 31, 2014

Juilliard Focus 2014: Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov and Pärt

The fifth program in Juilliard's Focus 2014 series, and the second I attended, consisted of chamber pieces composed by Schnittke and his circle of associates.

The first half of the program was a potpourri of short works.  It started off with Schnittke's Homage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979), a piano piece composed for six hands.  Though the work may have lacked substance, it did display a great deal of humor as it parodied the styles of the three great Russian composers.  It was also definitely entertaining to watch three pianists crowded at the same keyboard and trying hard not to get in one another's way.

There followed Trio for Three Trumpets (1976) by Sofia Gubaidulina.  On the few occasions I've heard Gubaidulina's music I've experienced difficulty in appreciating it.  To me, it has always seemed more noise than music.  No doubt this is a failing on my part, not the composer's.  The program claims the work creates a "complex polyphony from uniformity," but I am just not able to hear it.

Pianist Fanya Lin then played two short pieces by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov - Elegy (1976/1999), and Hymn - 2001.  Of the two, I great preferred Hymn which seemed to me a throwback in miniature to the great piano works of the nineteenth century.  In fact, the bulk of Silvestrov's work seems to consist of these short piano pieces that possess a very attractive sound but are too limited in scope and length to provide for the development of any of Silvestrov's own musical ideas.  At best, they succeed in their limited format by calling to mind the works of far greater composers from a distant era.

Concluding the first half, countertenor Eric Jurenas sang two works by Arvo Pärt.  The first, entitled Es sang vor langen Jahren (So Many Years Ago) and based on a text by Clemens von Brentano, was sung to the accompaniment of violin and viola while the second, My Heart's in the Highlands, based on the famous poem by Robert Burns, was accompanied by electric organ.  They were both very moving pieces that examined the theme of loneliness from very much the same perspective.  Their aching Romanticism was a good match for Pärt's spiritual style of composition.

The second half of the program consisted of only one work, Schnittke's String Quartet No. 4 (1989).  This is a long piece (about 40 minutes) and very dense.  Although comprised of five distinct movements, these do not seem so clean cut from one another but rather an expression of a single voice that continues on through the length of the work.  As in many of Schnittke's later works, there is an overwhelming sense of despair that underlies the music and gives it its great poignancy.  It is quite clearly the work of a man who knows he is dying.  But there is never any trace of self pity or false sentimentality here.  Rather, it as though Schnittke has moved beyond his theories of composition in order to create a summation of what he has learned from life through his music.  The work possesses a sincerity that cannot leave the listener's heart untouched.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s

Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, published to accompany an exhibit of the same name held at the Metropolitan Museum in 2006, has a very narrow focus - portraits painted in Germany during the brief heyday of the Weimar Republic in the style of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) school.  This approach is further limited by its inclusion of only Verist works painted by left wing artists such as Dix, Grosz and Beckmann.

The term Neue Sachlichkeit itself was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub to describe an exhibit he had planned in 1923 for the Mannheim Kunsthalle where he was then director.  The intent was to showcase post-expressionist German art, and it was Hartlaub himself who first provided the distinction between Classicists and Verists.

The differences between the radical Verists and the conservative, if not reactionary, Classicists have more to do with opposing world views than with artistic techniques. Following the end of World War I, Germany found itself in chaos.  Not only had seven million of its citizens been killed in action and millions more wounded and maimed, effectively wiping out an entire generation, but the country now found itself on the verge of economic and social collapse.  The Weimar Republic was at best a compromise that desperately attempted to hold off an armed confrontation between the left and right, both of which had been thoroughly radicalized by their country's devastating defeat.

The Classicists, promoting what they termed "Magic Realism," urged a return to order and turned a blind eye to the reality of their surroundings.  Their depictions of leading figures ended up unimaginative portrayals of upstanding citizens moving through a world that was still depicted as well organized and fully functional.  The Verists, on the other hand, did not blink when viewing the disruption about them and instead incorporated these horrors into their work.  With unbending ferocity, they painted (and drew) exactly as they saw them the maimed soldiers, corrupt politicians, cocaine addicts, prostitutes and sexual deviants.

Of the artists represented in Glitter and Doom perhaps the most important is Otto Dix.  Not coincidentally, he was the only one of the Verists to have served on the front lines for the entire duration of the war.  When it ended, no one was in a better position than he to acknowledge the full implications of its outcome.  Looking at Dix' work is akin to viewing illustrations of the cabaret world described so well by Isherwood in The Berlin Stories.  Even more fully than in his portraits, Dix uses the Metropolis Triptych (cartoon, 1928, plate 75) and the shocking watercolor The Dream of the Sadist I (1922, plate 82) to provide the viewer a window into the decadence of the period.

The volume features three well written essays of which "Faces of the Weimar Republic" by Ian Baruma is particularly recommended.  In addition, the catalog entries which accompany the excellent reproductions are detailed and provide biographical information for both the artists and their subjects as well as detailed analyses of the artworks themselves.

An interesting sequel to the Verist art movement was the Degenerate Art Exhibit held in Munich in 1937 in which many of the pieces shown in this book were displayed and ridiculed side by side with paintings by Matisse and Picasso.  Only recently, as reported in a BBC news article, has a list been published by London's Victoria and Albert Museum showing the final disposition of these artworks.  Many were destroyed by the Nazis although some, ironically, were rescued for his own collection by Goering, who well recognized their monetary value if not their artistic importance.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Met Opera: Renée Fleming in Rusalka

Yesterday evening's performance of Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak featured soprano Renée Fleming in one her signature roles.  This was the first opportunity I'd had to hear Ms. Fleming this season and I was eagerly anticipating her appearance in a part which I'd never before heard her sing.

The opera itself was first performed in Prague in 1901 and was one of Dvorak's last major works before his death in 1904.  He composed the opera to a libretto completed by Jaroslav Kvapil, director of the National Theater in Prague, in 1899 before he had even met Dvorak.  The composer had always had a great interest in his homeland's folk music and folklore and was already familiar with the classic fairy tales by Karel Erben on which Kvapil's libretto was based.  These provided a perfect setting for Dvorak's music.  He had played viola at various opera orchestras in his student days and was able to complete the score fairly rapidly.

Although I am a great fan of Dvorak's work, I do not believe his strength lay in operatic composition.  While Rusalka contains a some of Dvorak's most beautiful music - and that is saying a great deal - it often seems to drift and lacks the dramatic focus needed to sustain audience attention over a long period of time (three hours, not counting intermissions).  In addition, the work contains one of the most bizarre plot devices to be found in any opera - when Rusalka drinks the magic potion toward the end of Act I, she immediately loses the power of speech.  As a result, Ms. Fleming spends almost the entirety of Act II miming her part onstage and not singing a single note.  There are other problems with the plot as well.  As Michael Beckerman notes in the program guide:
"The Prince is not simply an inconstant lover, punished by the spirit world for his philandering, but rather a victim of an inevitable series of consequences stemming from a supernatural agreement he never accepted or understood."
Aside from Ms. Fleming, the cast included tenor Piotr Beczala as the Prince and Dolora Zajick as the Witch.  Both were extremely capable in their parts. The conductor was Yannick Nézet-Séguin who displayed a great deal of sensitivity to Dvorak's music and whose work on the podium was excellent.  The production itself was designed in 1993 by Otto Schenk.  This was long before the Met commenced its misguided quest for "relevance" in its set designs. It is a shame that if one wishes to see a Met production that is both beautiful and evocative, one must generally limit oneself to attending these older productions.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Juilliard Focus 2014: Pärt, Kancheli and Schnittke

It was not until I read a biographical note by Alexander Ivashkin in A Schnittke Reader that I finally reached some understanding of the composer's intentions.  I had previously had no idea that Schnittke had written 66 (!!) film scores in the course of his career.  Suddenly his most famous quote, taken from "On Concerto Grosso No. 1," made sense to me.
"... 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."
There can be no doubt today that Schnittke is among the most important composers of the second half of the twentieth century.  Though he may not have been the first to introduce the use of polystylism in musical composition, he deserves full credit for having recognized its importance to modern music and for having formulated its theoretical dimensions in his seminal essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music" (1971).  It is perfectly fitting that Juilliard should honor this genius on the 80th anniversary of his birth with a weeklong festival that celebrates not only his own music but also that of those composers closest to him.

The opening night concert on Friday evening began with the performance of a new version of La Sindone (2005, revised 2013) by Arvo Pärt.  Ever since I heard Fratres and Für Alina earlier this season at a Mannes piano recital, I have been fascinated by Pärt's creations.  I thought the title given that recital, The Mystics, was a very apt description of the composer's music. There is something inexpressibly moving in his tintinnabular style that makes listening to this composer's work an almost religious experience.  It was an inspired choice that Pärt should have been commissioned to write this piece whose first performance was given at Turin Cathedral on the occasion of the 2006 Winter Olympics.  The new version represents a major revision of this work.  As noted in the program:
"The revision of La Sindone turned out to be in many ways a new piece, a fundamental clarification and condensation of the original.  The entire central section was completely recomposed."  
The next work was Daytime Prayers for chamber ensemble, clarinet and "boy soprano" (1990) by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli.  As is apparent from the title, this was another work with clear cut religious overtones.  It represented the second part of a four part cycle entitled Life Without Christmas, a reference to the repression of religious beliefs in Georgia under the Soviet regime. The use of a clarinet soloist, here Yeon-Hyung Lim, and child soprano - sung here incredibly well by twelve-year old soloist Augie Regger of the Saint Thomas Choir School - imparted to the piece so ethereal a tone that one might indeed have been listening to a prayer sung in a church.

The program concluded with Schnittke's own Symphony No. 4 (1984) in the New York premiere of its sinfonietta version scored for small chamber ensemble, piano, soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  This was the first opportunity I'd had to hear one of the composer's longer works for orchestra and thought it much more successful than many of the the chamber works which unfortunately sometimes appear too self conscious and strive too hard for effect.  Here the piano, expertly played by Naomi Causby, percussion and choral parts blended seamlessly together.  As in the other works on the program, this piece too incorporated a set of references to religious motifs.  The program noted that in this symphony Schnittke "turned his attention to unifying features in the music of three strands of Christianity ... with additional references to Jewish chant."  The final result was counterintuitive to the extent it possessed a unity one would not normally have expected from the intermingling of such diverse sources.  The program further noted:
"Unlike many of Schnittke's works, which are constructed as collages of disparate yet unified elements, this Symphony unfolds in a single direction, almost obsessive in its sense of purpose."
There is an enlightening article in The Juilliard Journal by Joel Sachs (who also wrote the above quoted program notes), founder of the New Juilliard Ensemble and conductor at yesterday evening's concert, that provides a great deal of insight into Schnittke's career and the achievements of his circle of associates.  Mr. Sachs deserves a great deal of credit for bringing Schnittke's music to the attention of Western listeners in the first place.  It was he who led the American premiere of Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 1 in January 1980, thus providing Western audiences their first encounter with the composer's oeuvre.   Mr. Sach's conducting on Friday evening was sensitive and fully respectful of the various composers' intentions.  The performance by the student musicians was of the highest order and made this flawless performance truly an evening to be remembered.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Denis Matsuev Recital Postponed

Carnegie Hall's website has posted an announcement that the recital by pianist Denis Matsuev - originally scheduled for this Thursday, January 30th at Stern Auditorium - has been rescheduled to Sunday, June 15, 2014 due to illness.  Although I hold a ticket to this event, I have not yet received any direct notification from Carnegie Hall itself regarding this change.

I first saw Mr. Matsuev in October when he performed the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev and was very favorably impressed by his performance.  I posted my comments at that time.  I had been looking forward to Thursday's recital primarily because Mr. Matsuev would again be playing Rachmaninoff's music, most notably the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat.  Now I'll look forward to hearing the piece performed in June instead.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Juilliard Baroque: Handel, CPE Bach, Telemann, Zelenka and JS Bach

Juilliard Baroque is a faculty ensemble established at 2009.  The four members who performed at yesterday evening's recital were Gonzalo Ruiz (oboe) sporting a durag, Robert Mealy (violin), Dominic Teresi (bassoon) and Jeffrey Grossman (harpsichord).  The program consisted of works by German composers written in the early decades of the eighteenth century, roughly 1820 to 1840.

The first piece was the Trio Sonata in B flat, Op. 2, No. 3 by George Frideric Handel.  Though the entire Op. 2 was first published in 1730, it is not possible to accurately assign dates of composition to the individual trios contained within it as the autographs are no longer extant.

The second piece was the Sonata for Oboe and Basso Continuo in G minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.  The work is generally dated between 1731 and 1735 in the early part of Bach's career immediately following his graduation from Leipzig University.

There followed the Fantasia for Harpsichord by Georg Philipp Telemann.  This relatively short piece was interesting in that it seemed somewhat out of place in the Baroque repertoire.  It actually reminded me more of one of those nineteenth century compositions intended as showpieces for piano virtuosos.  Mr. Grossman played it with a great deal of flair.

The final piece before intermission was the Trio Sonata in B flat by Jan Dismas Zelenka.  Though Zelenka was a member of the Dresden orchestra and spent most of his career in that city, he was actually Czech and his musical style was influenced by the folk music of his homeland.  Unappreciated during his lifetime and forgotten afterwards, Zelenka was only rediscovered in the nineteenth century through the efforts of his countrymen.  Smetana first introduced one of Zelenka's orchestral suites in Prague in 1863.

After intermission, the program continued with another piece by Telemann, the Trio Sonata in G minor from Essercizii Musici.  Though Telemann is considered today one of the most prolific of the Baroque composers, this may at least have been in part due to a need to pay off the enormous gambling debts incurred by his wife, Maria Catherina, who was also conducting a liaison with a Swedish military officer at the same time.

The evening concluded with two works by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Sonata in G for Violin and Basso Continuo and the Trio Sonata in F.  The latter was an arrangement by Gonzalo Ruiz of a trio sonata originally composed for organ, the BMV 525.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Alice Tully: Glenn Dicterow's Farewell Recital

Although Glenn Dicterow will continue as concertmaster of the NY Philharmonic until the end of the season, yesterday afternoon's recital at Alice Tully, a production of both  the Philharmonic and Juilliard (where it is part of the Saidenberg Faculty Recital series), marked his formal farewell to New York.  It was an occasion for nostalgia for those who have attended Philharmonic concerts over the years.  Mr. Dicterow was already installed in his position as concertmaster when I first began attending performances at Lincoln Center in 1986.  He was appointed to that position by Zubin Mehta in 1980 and has held it ever since.  In the process, he has become one of classical music's most familiar face to audiences here in the city.  Mr. Dicterow, however, also has strong ties to Los Angeles, where his father was principal second violin in the LA Philharmonic for a number of years, and will shortly be relocating to the West Coast.

The program opened with excerpts from the Much Ado About Nothing Suite (1918) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Remembered today primarily for the great number of Hollywood film scores he wrote (and for two of which he won the Academy Award), the composer was already at age eleven a child prodigy in Vienna where his music was praised by both Mahler and Strauss.  It was only after the Anschluss in 1938 that Korngold's residence in the United States became permanent.  Long before that, at age twenty, the youthful composer was commissioned by the Vienna Burgtheater to write incidental music to the Shakespearean comedy from which the instant suite for violin and piano was adapted.  As accompaniment to dramatic action, the music clearly foreshadowed that to which Korngold would devote himself during his Hollywood sojourn.

The next work was the Violin Sonata (1964) by John Corigliano.  What made the piece a particularly apt selection for this recital was the fact that the composer had written it for his father, himself concertmaster at the NY Philharmonic for over twenty years.  Unfortunately, the elder Corigliano did not care for the work and, according to one source, "discouraged his son's efforts at composition at every turn: 'Performers don't want to bother with your work and audiences don't want to hear it. So what are you doing it for?'"

On both the Korngold and the Corigliano, Mr. Dicterow was ably accompanied by pianist Gerald Robbins.

The program concluded with an old favorite, the "American" String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 (1893) by Antonin Dvorak whose Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor I had just heard on Saturday as part of Juilliard's ChamberFest series.  The ad hoc chamber ensemble at Mr. Dicterow's recital was the appropriately named Antonin String Quartet.  Aside from Mr. Dicterow on first violin, the other members of the quartet were Lisa Kim (violin), Karen Dreyfus (viola) and Eileen Moon (cello).

At the recital's end, Mr. Dicterow and the other quartet members were repeatedly called back onstage by the audience's enthusiastic applause.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Juilliard ChamberFest: Brahms, Piazzolla and Dvorak

Today was the final day of the 2014 ChamberFest, an annual event held each January at Juilliard and performed by students who gave up their last week of winter break to practice and be coached in an interpretation of a significant chamber work.  The festival is a treat for anyone with an interest in such music.  The inclusion of twenty ensembles allows the listener to hear not only favorite masterworks but new and challenging pieces as well.  Though the musicians are technically still students - and this is how I've referred to them in my posts - that designation is somewhat misleading.  Though a few are still at the pre-college level, they are all prodigiously talented professional musicians, many of whom have already given solo recitals and appeared with major orchestras.  Their coaches are not only highly trained educators but are themselves some of the most accomplished and best known chamber musicians in the world.

The program at yesterday's matinee began with the String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36 (1865) by Johannes Brahms.  The work is scored for two violins, two violas and two cellos.  It was written for a singer named Agathe von Siebold with whom the composer was infatuated and for whom he had previously written lieder.  In the first movement, Brahms had the two violins secretly spell out her name.  When von Siebold subsequently broker off her relationship with Brahms, the composer wrote: "Here I have freed myself from my last love."  That was quite a statement from a man still in his early thirties.

The next work was the highlight of the concert, at least as far as I was concerned.  Bearing the deceptively simple title Improvisations, this work by Astor Piazzolla marked the first time a series of improvisations had been performed at a ChamberFest.  The violinist, Johnna Wu, announced to the audience that this was also the first time this group of musicians had played such a work.  The piece was scored for violin, viola, bass, piano and vibraphone and was coached by Noam Sivan to whom the players expressed a great deal of gratitude for having opened their eyes to the possibilities to be found in an improvisational approach to music.  The work actually consisted of three short pieces which together had a wonderful jazzy feel to them.

After intermission, the program concluded with the Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 (1891) by Antonin Dvorak.  Among the composer's most famous works, it was nicknamed the Dumky because it made use of the Ukrainian duma - a form that might best be described as a melancholy ballad interspersed with upbeat Slavic dances - in all six movements.  This performance featured magnificent playing on the piano part by Adria Ye.  Her performance was so impressive that it's difficult to believe she's still only age 16 and a pre-college student.  The trio itself was coached by Adria Ye's teacher, Yoheved Kaplinsky, Chair of Juilliard's Piano Department.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Juilliard ChamberFest: Wuorinen, Ravel and Schoenberg

The program at yesterday evening's ChamberFest recital at Paul Hall began with New York Notes (1982) -  a piece written for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and percussion - by Charles Wuorinen.  The work made use of a conductor though I'm not quite sure why one was required for such a relatively small ensemble.  On his website, Wuorinen explained the structure of the work as follows:
"Its twenty minute length is divided into a conventional three-movement succession, with fast movements outside and a slow movement inside. The tempo, however, is always the same, so that the dif­fering speeds contained in the work are all expressed through note-value alterations rather than pulse changes."
The next piece was the Introduction and Allegro (1905) by Maurice Ravel.  I've never been overly fond of this work which was composed for harp, flute, clarinet, two violins, viola and cello.  The work's ethereal tone to me lacks the depth found in the composer's other pieces of chamber music.  The musicians here did give an absorbing performance, though, one that completely captivated the audience.  Caroline Bembia played particularly well on harp and received a huge round of applause.

The program closed with Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899) for two violins, two violas and two cellos by Arnold Schoenberg.  Based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, this is a very early work by the composer and one I've heard often over the years, most recently earlier this season at a recital at Mannes.  A few months ago, however, I heard an archived broadcast on WQXR of Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic in an arrangement for orchestra.  That rendition was so outstanding that it's been difficult for me since to listen to the original arrangement for sextet.  Which is not to suggest that yesterday evening's performance wasn't extremely well executed.  These students' playing was uniformly excellent and fully realized the pathos Schoenberg had woven into the music.  The work was coached by Fred Sherry.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The History of Fashion Photography

One volume I've had lying about literally for decades and have finally found time to read is The History of Fashion Photography by Nancy Hall-Duncan.  The book was written to accompany an exhibit at the George Eastman House, where the author was then working as an assistant curator, that was held in 1977 and that attempted to provide a comprehensive overview of its subject up to that date.

The history proceeds chronologically from the industry's beginnings when the available technology prohibited any reproduction at all of photos, through the earliest era of fashion magazines when Baron Adolph de Meyer and Edward Steichen (who had died only four years before this book was written) were employed one after the other by Condé Nast, and from there decade by decade to the time of the work's publication.  Along the way, each new movement and change in taste is carefully described and analyzed.  For me, the most interesting chapters are those dealing with Pictorialism and Surrealism.

In general, Ms. Hall-Duncan's treatment is insightful and even-handed without ever becoming pedantic.  Some photographers she mentions, such as Bob Richardson, have themselves fallen out of fashion but most have stood the test of time very well.   An entire chapter is devoted to the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  The selection of photos from the original exhibit is excellent and makes this one of the best anthologies of fashion photography available.

What truly makes the book fascinating to read now is its perspective - that of the late 1970's. This, of course, was still the era when print editions of fashion magazines such as Vogue reigned supreme.  There's no intimation at all of the upheaval that the introduction of digital cameras and the internet would bring to the fields of editorial and advertising photography. It was an analog world where photos were shot on film and then converted into halftone reproductions using methods that would now be considered primitive.  The leading practitioners of fashion photography at the time of publication were Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Deborah Turbeville, though icons such as Cecil Beaton were still alive and are described in the present tense.

Unfortunately, this is a poorly designed book.  Although the jacket states that the Alpine edition is produced from the "very same plates" as the first edition (Abrams), there is a great deal left to be desired.  The crowded text is in a sans serif font that is difficult to read and that is so far to the edge that it falls into the volume's gutter.  Footnotes are placed awkwardly on the opposite side of the page where the text would normally be shown.  More importantly, the photographic reproductions themselves are not of first rate quality.  Interestingly, this seems more a problem with the black & white photos than with the color.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Juilliard ChamberFest: Schnittke, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky

Yesterday evening was the first opportunity I had to hear a recital in the week long festival of chamber music at Paul Hall.  The series is always well produced and provides an excellent showcase for these students' enormous talents.  This particular performance provided an opportunity to revisit masterpieces of the Russian repertoire.

The program began with Serenade (1968) by Alfred Schnittke.  Written for an unusual combination of instruments - clarinet, violin, piano, bass and percussion - this is a fairly early chamber work by the composer and anticipates his 1971 essay on polystylism in its evocation of popular music, beginning with the clarinet's opening reference to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue that is actually more of a parody than a quotation.  As in much of Schnittke's work, there is an underlying sense of anger as the music struggles ever more forcefully to make its intentions clear.  There is certainly nothing "laid back" here.  One senses a great deal of frustration and self-consciousness on the composer's part as he attempts to create new forms of musical expression that will set his work apart.  Perhaps he felt some foreboding of the crippling strokes that would eventually curtail both his career and his life.  I've always found it ironic that a composer who tried so hard to leave behind the work of his predecessors should end up buried in the same cemetery as Shostakovich.

It was somehow fitting then that the second piece on the program should be the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) by Shostakovich himself.  My admiration for the composer's chamber works has grown steadily over the years.  This is in no small part due to a series of magnificent performances of these works I've heard in the past few months.  In this regard, special mention should be given to pianist Anne-Marie McDermott's recent work with the Chamber Music Society.  Hers are as close to definitive interpretations of the composer's chamber work as one is likely to hear.  Yesterday evening marked another excellent rendition as three Juilliard students played the Trio No. 2, one of the composer's most most notable pieces.  Written toward the end of World War II, the work fully reflects the composer's revulsion to the horrors of war.  The quotation of Jewish musical themes in the final movement serves almost as a memorial to the Holocaust.  I felt the students managed to capture very well the sense of despair that permeates the piece and finally overwhelms the listener.  The performance was coached by Lara Lev whom I heard in solo recital earlier this season.  Her deep understanding of Soviet music is unsurpassed and no doubt had a great deal to do with the success of this rendition.

The great surprise of the evening was Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 (1892) by Tchaikovsky.  I have to admit that this sting sextet has never been a great favorite of mine, perhaps because I'd never before attended a performance so outstanding as that which I heard yesterday evening.  That the musicians who played the piece are still students seems incredible to me.  This was bravura music making and the students well deserved the standing ovation they received at the work's conclusion.  Credit must also be given to the coaching of Samuel Rhodes, who stepped down only in 2013 as violist of the Juilliard String Quartet after a run of almost 45 years.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Juilliard: ACJW Ensemble Performs Ligeti, Debussy and Fauré

Yesterday evening's recital at Paul Hall by the ACJW Ensemble featured chamber works by Ligeti, Debussy and Fauré.

The first piece on the program, and the one I was most interested in hearing, was Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (1968) by György Ligeti.  This is not one of the composer's better known works but was still intriguing to hear since it provides an excellent example of Ligeti's use of "micropolyphony" in which tone clusters are no longer discrete but instead gradually transition from one to the next.  An article by Robert Kirzinger, quoted in online program notes provided by the Kimmel Center, details the structure of the work:
"Each movement treats one aspect or a particular instrument of the quintet. The even-numbered movements are miniature concertos for each of the instruments-the clarinet in the second movement, the flute in the fourth, the horn in a tiny reflection of Ligeti’s own Cello Concerto in the eighth movement, and so on. The odd-numbered movements are studies in ensemble texture and harmony..."
The next piece on the program was Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915).  This was actually the fourth time I've heard this popular piece performed this season, and it has been interesting for me to track the differences among the various renditions.  In general, I found the ACJW's interpretation crisp and well articulated and thought it compared very well with that performed by Carol Wincenc and friends at her Juilliard faculty recital in October.  An interesting note found in the Wikipedia article states that the composer had originally intended to use an oboe in the instrumentation but had finally decided to replace it with the viola because he felt "that the viola’s timbre would be a better combination for the flute."

The final piece on the program was Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15. The piece had an unusually long gestation - it was written from 1876 to 1879 and was premiered in 1880; the final movement was then revised in 1883.  Like Debussy, Fauré rejected the influence of Wagner and German music and pursued his own course.  The quartet is an excellent early example of what he sought to accomplish in his chamber works almost all of which contain a piano in the instrumentation.  My favorite part in this piece is the piano melody, introduced by the strings' pizzicato, in the second movement scherzo.  It sounds incredibly modern to my ears and not at all a product of the nineteenth century. Though by no stretch of the imagination can Fauré be considered a romantic, the adagio that follows is passionate and intense and filled with emotion.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Looking Back at 2013

As the second half of the current classical music scene is about to begin, this might be an appropriate moment to look back appreciatively at the first half.  In this regard, two items immediately come to mind.

For me, the most notable highlight of the past few months was the triumphant return of James Levine.  It was he, perhaps more than any other musician, who helped instill in me my original love for opera.  Beginning in 1986, I saw him conduct any number of important works at the Met, and it was his careful reading of these masterpieces that shaped my understanding and appreciation of the repertoire.  Unfortunately, after having suffered a severe spinal injury two years ago, Mr. Levine had regretfully been written off by most opera lovers, myself included, as a retiree and his title of Music Director at the Met considered more honorary than otherwise.  I don't think anyone really expected to ever again see Mr. Levine at the podium.  The maestro, however, surprised everyone by taking on a full schedule in September and once more thrilling audiences with his superb conducting.

I was lucky enough to have seen Mr. Levine on four separate occasions in recent months - twice at Carnegie Hall, where he led a subscription series with the Met Orchestra, and twice at the Met Opera itself.  The Carnegie Hall series this season focused on the seventh symphonies of several prominent composers.  At one concert Mr. Levine conducted Beethoven's Seventh and at another Mahler's Seventh.  Both were splendid renditions of two of the best known symphonic works in the repertoire.  At the first concert, Mr. Levine also regaled the audience with the rarely heard solo cantata Giovanna d'Arco by Rossini as sung by the great mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato.  The two operas conducted by Mr. Levine at the Met were Mozart's Così fan Tutte and Verdi's Falstaff.  These were both mature works by the two respective composers (indeed, Falstaff was Verdi's final opera) and it took a sure hand to bring out all the complexities contained in the music.  In both cases, Mr. Levine demonstrated that he was fully up to the task at hand.  The Mozart in particular was gratifying in that this was the first time I was able to place the work in my own mind on the same level as the other two Da Ponte operas, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.

My other chosen highlight this season is less obvious than that of Mr. Levine.  The Piano Department at Mannes Music School put on a series of student recitals earlier this season that were astonishing both for the skill displayed by the pianists and equally for the innovation shown in the programming choices.  One recital featured works by Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, each of them arranged by the composer for two pianos.  Another afforded me the only opportunity I've had to hear a performance of Ives' Concord Sonata. My favorite, entitled The Mystics, presented works with which I had not been familiar by such composers as Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov.  All the recitals were given eloquent introductions by Pavlina Dokovska, the Department Chair, that helped provide a much needed context for these works.  By the time the series had concluded, I possessed a much greater understanding of twentieth century piano music, one that has enabled me to better appreciate the performances I've since attended.