Sunday, March 30, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Orpheus Performs Kodály, Bartók and Joachim

Orpheus concluded its subscription series at Carnegie Hall yesterday evening with a program of Hungarian music that featured some lesser known pieces by Kodály, Bartók and the famed violinist Joseph Joachim.  I had never before heard any of them.

The first piece was Kodály's Hungarian Rondo.  In the early twentieth century, Kodály and Bartók had together toured the Hungarian countryside with recording equipment with which they hoped to preserve the folk music of their native country.  The results of this ethnographic endeavor can clearly be heard in the Rondo but not in any dry academic manner.  The soldier's tune at its center is so upbeat that it's hard to imagine Kodály wrote it in 1918, the last year of World War I.  None of the horror or carnage one associates with that period is discernible in this brief ten-minute piece..

Next was Bartók's Divertimento for Strings (1939).  It was written just before Bartók fled Europe and the Nazis and thus marked the end of his association with his patron Paul Sacher who had commissioned not only this work but also the earlier masterwork Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  I found it interesting to compare the Divertimento with the Viola Concerto, written six years later, that I had heard performed the evening before by the Mannes Orchestra at Alice Tully.  While the concerto was composed by a man preparing himself for death, the Divertimento was considerably more relaxed in manner though the title is still a misnomer.  It may not be as intense as much of Bartók's oeuvre; but the work has too much depth, especially in the middle movement, to be taken lightly.  Only in the pizzicato in the last movement is the piece playful as it engages in obvious parody.

It is somewhat misleading to think of Joachim as Hungarian.  He was born in 1831 in what is today part of Austria and then moved at a very young age to Leipzig where he became a student of Mendelssohn under whose baton Joachim played the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1844 in London while still only twelve years old.  Afterwards, he remained in Germany where he became not only a virtuoso violinist but also collaborated with Brahms whose First Symphony he eventually conducted back in England.  Joachim in fact premiered not only Brahms' Violin Concerto but helped revise Bruch's as well and then went on to premiere the revised version.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor is subtitled In the Hungarian Style.  So closely did it remind me of the Brahms and Bruch concertos that I found myself wondering if those composers had influenced Joachim or if it had been the other way around.  As in the other two concertos, the work offered many opportunities for an accomplished violinist to show off his/her skills as a virtuoso.  The soloist yesterday evening was Christian Tetzlaff whom I had last heard play the Ligeti Violin Concerto several years ago with Simon Rattle conducting the ACJW Ensemble.  He made the most of his chance with this piece and performed it brilliantly as he transformed it into a showcase for his talent.  Afterwards, he came back to perform an encore, another lively work in the "Hungarian style" whose title I unfortunately did not catch.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Alice Tully: Mannes Orchestra Performs Bartók, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff

Yesterday the Mannes Orchestra performed its second concert this year at Alice Tully featuring Eastern European music composed in the 1940's.  The first half featured soloists playing concertos by Bartók (viola) and Shostakovich (violin).  After intermission, I heard Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances for the second time this season.  The last occasion was at Carnegie Hall with Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.

On the opening work, Bartók's Viola Concerto (1945) the soloist was Jesus Rodolfo Rodriguez who played the difficult music with great panache.  The program notes bio states that Mr. Rodriguez "received a Master of Music degree at Mannes, where he is currently pursuing a professional studies diploma with Paul Neubauer." Violist Neubauer is known in NYC primarily through his many performances with the Chamber Music Society, but he also collaborated with Peter Bartók on the standard edition of this concerto.  According to Wikipedia, he "edited most of the viola part."  The concerto was the last work composed by Bartók prior to his death in 1945 and was left unfinished.  The composer left behind only sketches which were then put in final form by his friend Tibor Serly in 1949.  The accuracy of Serly's edition, however, has since been questioned.

Shostakovich wrote the Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 in 1947-48 but it was not performed until 1955 when David Oistrakh was soloist at the Leningrad premiere.  Hence a certain confusion in opus numbering.  The delay was caused by Shostakovich's denunciation by the Soviet authorities who objected to his music on political grounds.  It was only after Stalin's death that the work could finally be performed.  Although the concerto is a very personal work, it's also a great vehicle for any violinist because it offers so many opportunities, especially in the second movement, for displays of virtuosity. The talented soloist yesterday evening was Shuaili Du, who is currently attending the Yale School of Music and who has a Master of Music degree from Mannes

The final work was Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45.  Written in 1941, it was his last composition and arguably his best.  Over time, I've come to think of it even more highly than the Second Symphony.  Perhaps it's the sound of the alto saxophone in the first movement that so appeals to me.  At any rate, the Mannes students at Alice Tully gave it a spirited performance that was thoroughly enjoyable.  It was a fine end to an excellent concert well conducted by David Hayes.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weill: ACJW Ensemble Performs Ives, Adams, Lang and Copland

Yesterday evening I saw the ACJW Ensemble in performance for the third time in the past several weeks.  On this occasion they were once again at Weill Recital Hall for a program of modern American music, most of it by well known composers.

The first piece was The Unanswered Question (1908, rev. 1030-1935) by Charles Ives.  Composed as a companion piece to Central Park in the Dark, the work takes its title from a line in the poem The Sphinx by Ralph Waldo Emerson that reads "Thou art the unanswered question." The work is an exercise in polyrhythm and polytonality with three distinct groups of instruments performing at the same time what are essentially three different pieces of music played at different speeds.  In composing such a work, Ives was once again decades ahead of his time as is suggested by the fact that the first performance did not take place until 1946.  At yesterday's concert, the strings were placed at one side of the stage and the woodwinds at another while the trumpet was played offstage from the balcony.  It was a very effective arrangement that allowed the audience to better grasp Ives' intentions.

There followed Shaker Loops (1978) by John Adams.  The work was created from fragments of an earlier string quartet entitled Wavemaker with which the composer had been dissatisfied.  He redid the work in its present form in four movements and scored it for string septet.  It is minimalist and repetitive - hence the reference to tape "loops" that can be played over and over - and is meant to evoke the ecstatic gyrations induced by the Shakers in their religious worship.  It's an interesting concept that actually works quite well in performance.

The third piece was pierced (2007) by David Lang.  This was an interesting, fast moving piece that fit in very well with the Ives and Adams works that had come before it.  It was scored for solo piano, solo cello and solo percussion together with string quintet.  In the program notes, the conception of the work is described as follows:
"In pierced, Lang asserts that he wanted to create the dynamic of antagonism between the two parties, but less in the way of soloists fighting against the orchestra 'for the supremacy of their ideas.'  To achieve this, he composed a 'permeable membrane, a kind of filter or fabric between the soloists and the ensemble' that allows for a mix of sounds and crossover."
The composer was present in the hall and took a bow onstage at the conclusion of the performance.

The recital concluded with one of the best known pieces of modern American music, Appalachian Spring (1944) by Aaron Copland.  Although early in his career Copland studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, he is most famous for the populist works he composed in the 1930's and 1940's.  Aside from Appalachian Spring, these include Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942).  He was given impetus in this direction, interestingly enough, by Alfred Stieglitz and was also influenced by the photography of Walker Evans.  Later, as anti-Communist sentiments pervaded American culture and Copland himself was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he abandoned the leftist sentiments which had been at the core of these works and moved closer to European musical trends, including serialism.  Although Appalachian Spring is very melodic and pleasant to listen to, I found its traditional structure a bit anticlimactic after the works that had preceded it. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Met Opera: Andrea Chénier

I went yesterday evening to hear Andrea Chénier performed at the Met.  The opera by Umberto Giordano has not often appeared in the repertory in recent years.  I was interested in seeing it primarily because I had long ago heard the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti sing the title role.  He took full advantage of the part to render one of his best performances and received thunderous applause at the end of Act IV.

The fact that Andrea Chénier is a period piece set during the French Revolution often masks the fact that it is actually an excellent example of Italian verismo opera.  Giordano had close ties to the verist composers Franchetti and Mascagni who both, at various times, helped him in his career and with the production of this opera.  Though the librettist Luigi Illica (who also wrote Tosca for Puccini and La Wally for Catalani) took creative liberties in his text, the story is firmly rooted in historical fact.  There really was a French poet named André Chénier who was guillotined only hours before the end of the Reign of Terror.  Two of his poems were actually used as the basis for the tenor arias Un di all'azzuro spazio and Come un bel di di maggio.  The grittiness of the French Revolution with all its proletarian ardor and its unjust persecution of the innocent pervades the opera and undercuts the fancy dress of the opening ballroom scene.

Andrea Chénier is an operatic masterpiece filled with music that provides incredible opportunities for both tenor and soprano.  As the program notes remark, however, "Star power has been the driving force behind productions of Andrea Chénier since the work's Met premiere in 1921."  It was a disappointment then that a better cast was not provided for yesterday evening's performance.  Tenor Marcelo Álvarez was simply not up to the part of Chénier and could not carry the role.  One longed to hear a Pavarotti or Domingo bring down the house once again.  Soprano Patricia Racette, though adequate in the great Act III aria La mamma morta, fared little better.  This lack of first tier singing was a shame because the conducting by Gianandrea Noseda was solid, and the 1996 production by Nicolas Joel was as attractive as ever.  One must hope that in the future the Met will do better by Giordano.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

NY Philharmonic Performs Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin

The Philharmonic performed an afternoon of late nineteenth and early twentieth century music at yesterday's matinee that was fun and spirited and one of the more enjoyable programs I've attended at Avery Fisher this season.

The first half was short and, as is the practice at the Saturday matinee concerts, consisted of only a single chamber work performed by members of the orchestra - here Sheryl Staples, violin; Michelle Kim, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola; and Eileen Moon, cello.  The piece was the String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893) by Claude Debussy.  It was the composer's only work in this genre (though he did plan a second which was never completed), but its originality has had an incredible impact on the course of musical history.  The quartet's structure was traditional in form, but radically different in its execution from any that had preceded it.  Though clearly influenced by the cyclic design of Franck's own 1889 string quartet, Debussy's work went off in an entirely new direction in which he developed the first movement theme throughout the composition rather than simply repeating it in each movement.  The tones and rhythms he employed were influenced by the sounds Javanese gamelan he had heard at the Paris International Exposition and would later be termed "Impressionist" (a label Debussy himself always rejected).  They prefigured the stylistic innovations that would appear only a year later in Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune which is often claimed to have ushered in the entire era of modern music.  The performance yesterday by the Philharmonic members was one of the best I have heard.  It captured very well the music's elusive quality.

After intermission, the full orchestra came onstage to perform two piano concertos.  These were the Piano Concerto in G (1929-1931) by Maurice Ravel and the Concerto in F (1925) by George Gershwin.  Jeffrey Kahane conducted and was also the soloist on both pieces.  It's extremely unusual to hear two piano concertos played one after the other, and this instance gave me a chance to hear similarities between the two pieces I might otherwise have missed.  Primarily, both are deliberately playful and light in their presentation.  In fact, Ravel is quoted in the program notes as saying:
"The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or dramatic effects...  I had intended to title this concerto 'Divertissement.'  Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so because the title 'Concerto' should be sufficiently clear."
As for Gershwin's concerto, it was always intended, from the time it was first commissioned by Walter Damrosch, as a followup to the 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and was meant to build on the earlier piece's combination of jazz and symphonic music in a popular work, only this time in one that was not programmatic.

The renditions of these two concertos was excellent.  I have never been that impressed by Jeffrey Kahane, either as a pianist or a conductor, but at this concert he truly seemed to have found his métier.  His spirited performance, as well as that of the orchestra, energized the audience and called forth long rounds of applause at its end.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Haydn, Bartók and Bridge

Thursday evening, the Orion Quartet gave the third of their four annual recitals at Mannes.  Here was one of the world's best chamber ensembles performing a selection of works by Haydn, Bartók and Frank Bridge.

The first work was Haydn's Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3 (1772).  The Op. 20 quartets are best known today for the influence they exerted on the development of the modern string quartet.  They exerted a great deal of influence on Mozart's and Beethoven's work in this genre and, along with the later Op. 33 quartets, helped Haydn earn his reputation as "the father of the string quartet."  The piece is is more emotionally expressive than Haydn's earlier work, and its dark emotional outlook represents a change in the composer's style that can also be seen in the symphonies written during this same period.  This was the era during which the sturm und drang movement, championed early on by both Goethe and Schiller, gained prominence in Europe as a reaction to the dry rationalism of the Enlightenment.  The Op. 20 quartets are particularly notable for the new emphasis Haydn placed on the lower register strings.  Rather than using the viola and cello merely as accompaniment to the two violins, the composer gave them both distinct voices and equal parts in a manner Goethe described as "four rational people conversing."

The next work was Bartók's Quartet No. 6 (1939).  This was the piece that was of most interest to me.  Although it was the quartets that first drew me years ago to an appreciation of Bartók's music, it has only been fairly recently - largely through listening to performances conducted by Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra - that I have come to appreciate the composer's impact on twentieth century music and to better understand the full range of his achievements.  Still, I think the quartets, most notably the No. 6, the last work he composed in Hungary, are really his masterpieces.  The problem is that many ensembles that attempt these pieces do not really seem to approach them properly.  Many times I have been disappointed to hear the quartets played as though they were classical compositions.  My own favorites are the performances by the Takács Quartet which I feel best preserve the Hungarian idiom employed by Bartók in the composition of his music. Nonetheless, I was still very much impressed by the interpretation presented by the Orion Quartet. It was not at all academic in its presentation and showed full respect for Bartók's intentions.  The performance was thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable.

After intermission, the Quartet was joined by violist Michael Tree, formerly of the Guarneri Quartet, and cellist Marcy Rosen in a performance of Bridge's Sextet in E-flat, H. 107 (1906- 1912).  This was the first time I had heard any of Bridge's music.  Hitherto, I had known of him primarily as the teacher of Benjamin Britten.  The music was pleasant and melodic but somewhat anticlimactic after having heard the works by Haydn and Bartok in the first half.  Though I'm probably being unfair to Bridge, the piece seemed to me at times little more than Edwardian period music more appropriate for use on the soundtrack of a PBS Masterpiece Theater presentation than for performance in a recital hall.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Wozzeck

The opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg is certainly not part of the familiar repertoire.  In both content and musical style, it's about as far as one can get from such favorites as La Bohème.  There are no pretty arias here, only bleak despair.  It's surprising then that there have been two productions within a few weeks of one another here in New York City.  The first was at Carnegie Hall when the Vienna Philharmonic performed it on February 28 under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst (replacing Daniele Gatti) as part of the Vienna: City of Dreams Festival; the second was a revival of the Met Opera production and was conducted by James Levine.  An unexpected link between the two productions was baritone Matthias Goerne who played the title role in the Carnegie Hall production and then agreed to reprise the part on short notice at the Met when Thomas Hampson was taken ill on the evening of the season's first performance.

I became interested in this opera last May when attending a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  At that time, Simon Rattle conducted a brilliant rendition of the concert suite excerpts featuring the singing of soprano Barbara Hannigan.  In the review I wrote in my blog, I said then:
"For me, the highlight of the concert was Berg's suite taken from his opera Wozzeck, his masterpiece of naturalism that ends with the despairing cry Wir arme Leut! ("We poor people!").  Too little credit has been given to Berg for his brilliance in composing operas, Wozzeck and Lulu both, that while atonal in structure were also among the most accessible of those written in the last century."
There are no doubt those who would question my use of the term "accessible."  Though the opera achieved a surprising degree of popularity during Berg's lifetime, the critics were not always kind to it.  One online article quotes a Deutsche Zeitung review of opening night in December 1925 as follows:
"As I was leaving the State Opera, I had the sensation of having been not in a public theater but in an insane asylum. On the stage, in the orchestra, in the stalls—plain madmen…For all these mass attacks and instrumental assaults have nothing to do with European music and musical evolution."
It was largely due to the enthusiasm of James Levine that Wozzeck has remained the Met's repertory, and I was anxious to hear his interpretation of this music best known for its full use of atonality and sprechgesang.  In preparation, I had already heard earlier this month two other works by Berg - the Adagio from the Kammerkonzert performed by the ACJW Ensemble and the Lyric Suite performed by the Juilliard Quartet.

I had already known that the libretto was based closely on a play written by Georg Büchner before his death in 1837 but not performed until 1913 when Berg saw the first production in Vienna.  I had not realized, though, until I'd seen the program notes that the play in turn had been based on a real life 1821 incident in which an unbalanced soldier named Woyzeck had murdered his mistress in a fit of jealousy.  A medical report was prepared regarding Woyzeck's sanity; the report quoted the soldier's own words and these phrases were eventually incorporated into the drama.  During the war years, Berg came to see affinities between the situation of Wozzeck and that which he endured himself while in military service.  He wrote to his wife: 
"I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact, humiliated."
Wozzeck's view of downtrodden humanity is utterly nihilistic.  There is no hope for these lost souls.  Wozzeck himself is not so much crazed as ground down by a life of relentless poverty until he can no longer control his actions.  It was partly for this reason, as well as Berg's Jewish ancestry, that the opera was later condemned by the Nazis as degenerate.  The spare 1997 Mark Lamos production is in perfect keeping with the work's dark Expressionist spirit as are the sets by Robert Israel that are all sharp angles and painted black.  The entire ensemble, including Thomas Hampson as Wozzeck and Deborah Voigt as Marie, gave great performances as they worked together with conductor James Levine to to create a near perfect realization of Berg's vision.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Vienna Philharmonic Performs Schubert and Mahler

Yesterday evening, the Vienna Philharmonic returned to Carnegie Hall to perform two well known symphonies as part of the concert hall's ongoing Vienna: City of Dreams celebration.  The conductor for the occasion was Christoph Eschenbach who was filling in for the ailing Daniele Gatti.

The first piece on the program was the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (1822), famously known as the "Unfinished Symphony," by Franz Schubert.  Consisting of only two completed movements, there has always been a great deal of controversy over why the composer (who lived another six years) failed to complete it or whether in fact it actually is incomplete in the first place.  Since these questions will almost certainly never be answered, there is really not much point discussing them.  Though it contains some of Schubert's best orchestral music, to me it has never been more than a haunting fragment and frustrating in its inconclusiveness.  It never really lives up to the promise of its opening theme.  One feels that if Schubert had managed to complete it, the symphony would have been one of the great masterworks of the orchestral repertoire rather than the enigma it remains in its present form.

After intermission, the orchestra performed the second and final piece, the Symphony No. 4 in G (1900) by Gustav Mahler.  The choice of a Mahler symphony was particularly appropriate for a concert by this orchestra.  Although the composer held a number of conducting appointments during his career (including, in this city, both the New York Philharmonic and the Met Opera), he is most often associated with his tenure as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic.  This association may in large part be due to virulent anti-Semitism he endured while at that post until he was finally forced to resign.  It was a shameful episode that in subsequent years has conferred upon Mahler an aura of martyrdom that unfortunately too often distracts attention from his accomplishments as a composer.

The entire symphony is really built around the poem, Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) at the end of the final movement.  Everything that comes before only leads up to this climax, but it is a very gentle one when it finally arrives and the music fades away in a hush.  Soprano Juliane Banse, whom I'd never heard before, was excellent and captured very well the sense of childish wonder implicit in the lyrics.

The second movement scherzo is also of interest insofar as it demonstrates that Mahler's preoccupation with death commenced long before the diagnosis of his own terminal heart condition.  This "dance of death" was supposedly inspired, according to an account by Alma Mahler, by the painting Self Portrait with Death (1872) by the Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin.

I had been very interested in seeing Mr. Eschenbach conduct this concert.  Ever since his abrupt departure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2008, he has been a lightning rod for controversy with supporters and detractors of his conducting abilities arguing vociferously with one another in the media.  Many of the details have been set forth in the Wikipedia article devoted to him.  He certainly seemed in control yesterday evening.  Both pieces were well articulated, though the tempo for the Mahler symphony seemed a bit slow and drawn out at times.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mannes Faculty Recital: Hugo Goldenzweig

Yesterday evening, I returned to Mannes for the first time this year to hear a faculty recital by Argentinian born pianist Hugo Goldenzweig.  It was an unusual program that featured a combination of wildly different types of music.  Unfortunately, though the temperature outside was well below freezing, there was no heating provided in the concert hall at Mannes, a circumstance that made it difficult for the shivering audience to concentrate on the performance.

The program began with three pieces by Domenico Scarlatti - the Sonata in E, L. 21, K. 162; the Sonata in E, L. 63, K. 163; and the Toccata in D minor.  Then came Haydn's four movement Divertimento in G, Hob. XVI/8 (1766).  These early light classical pieces, originally written for harpsichord, worked well with Mr. Goldenzweig's careful formal style.

Following the Haydn came the Sonata No. 3 in F (1946) by Dmitri Kabalevsky.  This was an interesting choice.  I can't ever remember having heard before any of this composer's piano pieces in performance and had really known of him only from The Comedians.  The sonata, if not inspired, was still well thought out and pleasant to hear.  It had a distinctly Russian tone to it that I enjoyed.

After intermission, Mr. Goldenzweig performed eight Études by Frédéric Chopin - the E, Op. 10, No. 3; the G-flat, Op. 10, No. 5; the C minor, Op. 10, No. 12; the No. 1 in F minor (Trois Nouvelle Etudes); the F minor, Op. 25, No. 2; the E minor, Op. 25, No. 5; the C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7; and the A minor, Op. 25, No. 11.  These were obviously Mr. Goldenzweig's forte.  According to his biography, his doctoral dissertation was a performance guide for the Chopin Études.

The evening ended with a novel arrangement by William Schimmel entitled A Schubert/Liszt Lovetale in which Mr. Goldenzweig was joined by Mr. Schimmel himself playing accordion.  In the program notes, Mr. Schimmel described the piece as follows:
"A Schubert/Liszt Lovetale is an assemblage of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz and Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy.  Here, the accordion joins the piano creating a sense of orchestration in the manner of Liszt's own orchestrations of the Wanderer Fantasy as well of his Mephisto Waltz... The fusion of the two pieces sets up a travel through time, a quantum leap from Schubert to Liszt, allowing improvisation to flow out of the requirements of the original structured works as well as their style."
It was an interesting concept, but one which in the end worked better in theory than in actual performance.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Paul Hall: ACJW Ensemble Performs Berg, Schoenberg and Beethoven

On Tuesday evening the ACJW Ensemble gave a free recital at Juilliard that featured the work of three composers - Berg, Schoenberg and Beethoven - in an interesting mix that highlighted the changes in German music from the very beginning of the nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century.

The program opened with Berg's Adagio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano from the Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto). Although the Concerto itself was completed in 1925 - it was composed for Schoenberg's fiftieth birthday - the adagio was arranged by the composer in 1935 as a separate work in which the full Concerto's original 13 winds were reduced to a single clarinet.  Surprisingly for a work so structurally complex (technically, the adagio is a palindrome, i.e., a work which reads the same in reverse as going forward), the short movement was extremely sensual and moody in the evocation of its Viennese setting.

The next work was Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 10 (1908).  Although the quartet was dedicated to the composer's wife, Mathilde (Zemlinsky's sister), she was not with him at the time he completed it but was instead living with Richard Gerstl for whom she had briefly forsaken her husband.  Gerstl was a then unknown artist who only achieved posthumous fame for the use in his paintings of a pointillism that managed to bridge the gap between Expressionism and Impressionism.  After Mathilde had returned to Schoenberg, Gerstl committed suicide at the age of 25 by both hanging and stabbing himself after having first burned his papers and drawings.

Although the first three movements of the quartet are tonal, the fourth movement has no key signature and represents Schoenberg's first known use of atonality.  The work is also significant in that the final two movements are settings for poems by Stefan George respectively entitled Litanei (Litany) and Entrückung (Rapture).  The quartet thus became the only example of its genre with which I'm familiar to incorporate a part for soprano.  In 1937, Schoenberg wrote:
"I was inspired by poems of Stefan George, the German poet, to compose music to some of his poems and, surprisingly, without any expectation on my part, these songs showed a style quite different from everything I had written before."
What to me was most remarkable in the quartet was the quotation in the second movement of the popular Viennese song Oh du lieber Augustin.  I once read a biography of Mahler that recounted the composer's famous meeting with Freud.  According to the author, Freud regressed Mahler to his childhood and the composer then recalled a repressed memory in which he had fled an argument between his parents only to collide in the street with an organ grinder who was playing this very same song.  Supposedly, it was due to this traumatic experience that Mahler could not help combining high and low forms of music in the composition of his symphonies and thus anticipated the concept of polystylism later formulated by Schnittke.  This fascinating anecdote is also retold in an online NPR article:
"Freud got to the root of the problem. It seemed that Mahler's father had brutalized his mother. When Mahler was a young boy there had been a particularly violent encounter between them.. [sic] Mahler had run from. As he reached the street a hurdy-gurdy was cranking out 'Ach, Du lieber Augustin,' and ever since, in Mahler's mind, high emotion and light music been [sic] intertwined."
Since Schoenberg and Mahler knew one another very well and Mahler was in fact an early champion of Schoenberg's music, I wondered if the reference to this song was an indication that Schoenberg had originally intended the quartet as a tribute to Mahler only to change the dedication upon the return of the wayward Mathilde.

After intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's famous Septet in E-flat, Op. 20 (1800).  Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and bass, the six-movement work was written toward the end of the composer's early period only a short time before he began experiencing serious problems with his hearing.  Although it does not show the full genius Beethoven was to display in subsequent works, the septet is still a very innovative composition and extremely enjoyable to hear.  This youthful piece possesses a buoyancy and exuberance that is difficult to reconcile with the dour image of the older Beethoven.  Perhaps because the work reminded the composer of a happier time in his life, he never quite forgave it the success it enjoyed and instead claimed its popularity distracted attention from his more important later works.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Changes in Juilliard Ticket Procedures

There have been changes this season to Juilliard's procedures for the distribution of tickets to events held at both Alice Tully and at Juilliard itself.

Beginning in the Fall of 2013, events held at Alice Tully Hall - which had in previous years been free to the public - became paid events.  This change primarily affected performances by the Juilliard Orchestra which now cost $20 per ticket (discounted to $10 for students and seniors).  Since this change obviated the problem of unused free tickets, there was no longer any need for waiting lines outside the hall on the evening of the performance.  The only exception I know of to this new policy was the Glenn Dicterow recital in January (possibly because this event was a joint production of the NY Philharmonic and Juilliard's Saidenberg Faculty Recital series) for which a very limited number of free tickets were distributed at the Juilliard box office and a waiting line was permitted to form an hour before the show began.

This month, there have been changes to the ticketing procedures for free events held at such Juilliard venues as Paul Hall.  While unticketed student recitals are still open to the public on a "walk in" basis, free tickets that had previously been distributed at the Juilliard box office for other events are now only available online.  This requires users to first establish an account with Juilliard, a fairly simple routine in which users need provide only minimal personal information.  Once again, waiting lines have been abolished.

All the above changes have been summarized on Juilliard's website as follows:
"All student recitals are free, and no tickets are required. 
Many free performances, however, do require tickets, which are available ONLINE ONLY at The Box Office does not distribute free tickets in person, except for concerts in Alice Tully Hall. Please note that standby for returns or cancellations is no longer possible at Juilliard.
Tickets for paid events at Juilliard may be purchased at the Juilliard Box Office, or online at For anyone without online access, a ticket kiosk will be installed in the Juilliard lobby for use anytime the School is open. 
Tickets for Juilliard concerts in Alice Tully Hall are available for purchase at the Alice Tully Hall Box Office, online at or by calling CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500. Tickets for freee [sic] concerts in Alice Tully Hall are distributed at the Juilliard Box Office."
As far as I'm concerned, these changes are welcome.  In the past, I'd had to waste an entire morning walking to Juilliard and then waiting in line over an hour for the box office to open.  I can now procure my tickets online in less than five minutes.  As for the paid events at Alice Tully, the only one I attended this season was the recital given by the Juilliard Quartet last month.  I felt it was well worth the discounted $10 admission fee to see a performance by one of the world's greatest chamber ensembles.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Egon Schiele: Life and Work

When one thinks of modern art in the first decade of the twentieth century, what immediately comes to mind are the French.  There are Braque and Picasso inventing Cubism, Matisse developing Fauvism, and above all the iconoclast Duchamp questioning the very meaning of art.  While these giants fully deserve the recognition they've received, an unfortunate side effect of the attention paid them has been to divert attention from art created elsewhere in Europe, most notably German Expressionism, during that same period.  This neglect has not been entirely the fault of art historians.  The political turmoil which Germany suffered from the beginning of World War I through the end of World War II effectively cut off that country from many forms of cultural exchange, a loss only exacerbated by the Nazi denigration of so called entartete Kunst (degenerate art).  The Nazi agenda resulted in the curtailment of the careers of many important German artists and the suppression, if not outright destruction, of their artworks.  Although Schiele's work was not included in the 1937 Munich show, perhaps because at the time it was not considered valuable enough to be worth confiscation, his name continued to languish in obscurity.

There are other reasons why Schiele did not attain fame any earlier than was the case.  It was his misfortune to die very young, at age 28, in the great flu pandemic of 1918 before he was able to fully establish his reputation and create a mature body of work.  Although he attained some success during his lifetime, it was only after his death that the scope of his achievement came to be appreciated.  In recent years, the notoriety surrounding Portrait of Wally (1912), as an example of artwork looted by the Nazis from European Jews, helped push his name to prominence.  Personally, I consider Schiele the greatest German artist of the twentieth century.

Egon Schiele: Life and Work (Abrams, 2003) by Jane Kallir is an excellent and very readable introduction to this important artist.  The text is an evenhanded and insightful analysis of Schiele's life and work and is accompanied by excellent reproductions of the artist's major works, including 94 full color plates.  Ms. Kallir herself is well qualified to write about her subject.  Her father, Otto Nirenstein, published in 1930 the first catalogue raisonné of Schiele's work and later established in New York City the Galerie St. Etienne with which Ms. Kallir is still affiliated.  The gallery is an important venue for the exhibition of German Expressionist works.  I've previously posted a review of the exhibit Egon Schiele's Women held there in 2012.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Met Opera: Jonas Kaufmann as Werther

Yesterday evening, I attended the new production of Werther that has been receiving so much attention in the media lately, primarily for the performance of tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.

It's always intrigued me that Goethe, considered (along with Schiller) the greatest of  all German poets, had his two best known works, Werther and Faust, adapted by French composers, Massenet and Gounod respectively, when there were extant so many German composers of genius who should have rushed to take on the task.  Whatever the reason, it was a great stroke of luck for for opera lovers that Massenet took on the task and completed the adaptation himself.  Though originally rejected by the Paris Opéra-Comique for being "too serious," Werther proved to be the composer's masterpiece.  Though Massenet's works are not as popular today as they were in the nineteenth century, I think this neglect is unjust.  His music at its best, as in the opera Thaïs, can be hauntingly beautiful.  It is a perfect fit here in this sturm und drang tale of a broken hearted young poet who kills himself for love.

My own favorite tenor was always Alfredo Kraus whom I heard sing the part of Werther at the Met back in the 1980's.  I always considered this role his greatest achievement, and I was curious to see how well Kaufmann would handle it.  It's of course impossible to compare two performances thirty years apart - memory is too unreliable - but it seemed to me that Kaufmann did full justice to the role even if he never quite reached the heights once attained by Kraus.  Kaufmann's singing was especially effective in the crucial third act where Werther, held in the grip of uncontrollable passion, confronts Charlotte and then in despair determines to end his life.  His aria Pourquoi me réveiller? rightly drew thunderous applause from the audience.

The remainder of the cast, supported by the workmanlike conducting of Alain Altinoglu, performed very well together as an ensemble.  Sophie Koch as Charlotte and Lisette Oropesa as Sophie both handed in memorable performances.

The new production, updated from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, by Richard Eyre is another great success for the Met this season.  Though it employs a  number of high tech devices, such as the projection screens used in the Interlude between the third and fourth acts, these are never overly distracting and add to the audience's enjoyment.  The sets are the creations of Rob Howell and are quite evocative.  For example, the parlor of Albert's aristocratic mansion that's shown in the third act provides a tense setting for Werther's explosive exchange with Charlotte.  The trappings of wealth in the rich man's home stand in stark contrast to the bare furnishings of Werther's garret in the final act.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Weill: ACJW Ensemble Performs Mozart, Haas and Schoenberg

Friday evening's recital by the ACJW Ensemble was part of Carnegie Hall's Vienna: City of Dreams Festival that will continue for the next several weeks and, according to the Hall's website, will focus on "symphonic and operatic masterpieces, chamber music, and lieder, as well as a sampling of new sounds that are emerging from this historic cultural capital."  Accordingly, the program for Friday's event was entirely given over to the works of Viennese composers of different periods.

The evening began with a performance of the Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat, K. 452 (1784) by Mozart.  The work, with its unusual combination of instruments (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano), was originally composed in honor of Prince Aloys Lichtenstein who was expected to attend the premiere and who had already announced his intention of forming a harmonie (wind band).  Although, in the event, Prince Lichtenstein failed to appear at the concert in his honor, the work nevertheless marked an important development in Mozart's style.  Before this, he had used winds in his concertos only to double the strings.  It was only in this work that the winds came into their own as instruments with distinctive voices.  Mozart would follow up this innovation in his Piano Concerto in G, K. 453 written shortly thereafter.

There followed the premiere of a new work by Georg Friedrich Haas entitled Anachronism (2013) that had been commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Ensemble.  It was scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, bass and piano.  The composer was present at the performance and briefly came onstage to describe the work.  His comments were very similar to those quoted in the program:
"Anachronism seems to be fundamentally different from my former pieces.  A fast, monotonous movement in 11/8 lasting 14 minutes.  Without pauses.  Almost breathless. 
"But the harmonic progressions, the developments of the chords are the same as I used before.  The only - and fundamental - difference is that here, the former static processes have been broken into a significant metric pulsation."
The work was extremely difficult to play, especially for the wind instruments, in that there were no breaks at all during the length of the piece.  The composer lightheartedly apologized to the musicians for this inconvenience.  The work itself was fast and repetitious and very reminiscent of Steve Reich's style, a comparison Haas himself made to the audience.

The final piece was Schoenberg's fin de siecle masterpiece Verklarte Nächt, Op. 4 (1899) in its original arrangement for string sextet.  This was the fourth time this season I'd heard this piece, most recently at Juilliard's Chamberfest last month, and this was without doubt the best rendition to date.  The work itself shows clearly the influence of German romanticism on the young composer as well as his feelings for Mathilde von Zemlinsky, sister of the composer, whom Schoenberg had only recently met and would later marry.  The music has a haunting nocturnal quality that captures quite well the spirit of Dehmel's poem.

As always, the Ensemble displayed a remarkable degree of musicianship in performing each piece on the program.  One could not ask for better than this.  Along with the Chamber Music Society, the Ensemble provides New Yorkers with their best opportunity to hear masterworks of the chamber repertoire played at the highest level.