Saturday, June 28, 2014

Met Museum: The Flowering of Edo Period Painting

Anyone with the slightest interest in Japanese art should rush to the Met Museum to see The Flowering of Edo Period Painting, a comprehensive exhibit that showcases a number of masterpieces from the Edo Period (1615-1868), the final era of Japan's insularity that ended abruptly with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate following the arrival of Commodore Perry's ships in Edo Bay in 1853.  It was during this time that much of the Japanese artwork, such as ukiyo-e, with which we in the West are now most familiar was completed.  These were the works that had such enormous impact on European artists such as Van Gogh in the late nineteenth century, and influence later termed Japonisme.  It was the Edo Period that witnessed a final flourishing of the visual arts before the Meiji Restoration changed the face of Japanese culture forever by opening it up to foreign influences.

When one thinks of the time in which Japan was still ruled by the shogunate, the image that first springs to a Westerner's mind is that of the ferocious samurai.  Strangely, though, there are only two representations of this warlike culture included in the art shown and both those are period pieces.  One is Minamoto no Yorimasa Aiming an Arrow (1847-1849), a late work by Katsushika Hokusai, an artist best known for his earlier woodblock print, also included in the show, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.  This was the first time I had seen a brush painting by the artist.  Done in ink and color on a hanging silk scroll, the technique gives the work more delicacy than can be seen in Hokusai's woodblock prints.  The other martial work is the six-panel folding screen Race at the Uji River (1760-1767) by Soga Shōhaku.  While much of Shōhaku's work, such as The Immortal Li Tieguai (1760-1764), contains an element of the fantastic, the folding screen is a fairly naturalistic depiction of a scene from Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), a twelfth century work that is among the most famous in Japanese literature.

There are actually several distinct painting schools represented at this exhibit - the rinpa, the bunjinga (also known as nanga), the maruyama-shijō, and ukiyo-e - but it is perhaps more rewarding to view these works in light of their most distinguishing characteristic, an innocence of the outside world that came as a direct result of the strict Tokugawa policy of sakoku.  This can be seen most clearly in the literati paintings which were generally limited in content to the depiction of Chinese subject matter and were often imitative of Chinese landscape painting.  Deprived of direct contact with Chinese tradition, the Japanese literati produced works that were far removed from their sources.  Peach Blossom Spring (1792) by Watanabe Gentai, for example, can be seen as following the Chinese landscape tradition but could never be mistaken as part of it.

The work which most dramatically underscores the isolation felt by the Japanese is the six-panel folding screen entitled A Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan, an anonymous painting from the early seventeenth century at the very beginning of the Edo period.  Here the Japanese fascination with the outside world is made explicit.  As the notes to the exhibit state:
"The Japanese called them Nanban, 'Southern Barbarians,' since they were arriving from India via a southern route. A widespread frenzy of curiosity developed about these strange new arrivals in their giant ships with booming cannons, their mustaches curling beneath their noses, the dark skins of the Goanese sailors, and their exotic clothing."
The Japanese interest in the inhabitants of other lands is also evident in a far more playful work, Tiger (c. 1630-1640) by Tawaraya Sōtatsu.  It only takes one look at the painting to realize the artist has never in his life seen a real tiger.  The creature depicted here, as cute and harmless as a kitten, is an unwitting caricature of the terrifying predator.

My own favorite was a painting firmly rooted in Japanese tradition, Carp and Cherry Blossom Petals in a Stream (c. 1766-1778) by Katsu Jagyoku.  No obvious outside influences are at work here.  The carp had been a subject for Japanese painters for centuries and is shown here together with the sakura for which the Japanese have always displayed so deep an admiration.

The exhibit continues through September 7, 2014.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Met Museum: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy

After having last week viewed Inoue Yūichi's abstract paintings of kanji, it made for an interesting sequel to yesterday visit the Met Museum's current exhibit entitled Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.  What was most striking here was the level of individuality that the artists shown were able to express in their work.  Though limited to five basic styles - seal, clerical, cursive, semi-cursive and standard - each was able, through his mastery of the brush, to impose on the characters a sense of his own personality.  This could most easily be seen in a collaborative work such as Writings in Praise of a Houseboat (c. 1500) in which thirteen prominent Ming dynasty officials, at the invitation of a doctor named Qian, put down side by side on the same handscroll their thoughts on the carefree lives of those who dwelled on the river.

Of the five calligraphic styles, the most aesthetically pleasing is easily the cursive.  Through its simplification of the forms of the characters, it allows the practitioner to write in long flowing lines without the need to lift the brush at every turn. At the opposite end is the standard style which immediately strikes one as regimented and mechanical.  Everything here is carefully controlled - the characters are all of uniform size and are evenly spaced.  Sometimes the standard style is even written on lined paper divided into blocks that only emphasize the regularity of the script.

A number of the works included in the exhibit are from the early seventeenth century, a period which saw the fall of the Ming, the last native Chinese dynasty, to the invading Manchus who in turn established the Qing dynasty that was to last into the twentieth century.  It was obviously a time of great social upheaval, and this turmoil is reflected in its calligraphy which often took on baroque and even decadent overtones. An entire section, entitled "Big and Rough," has been given over to these pieces.  The notes to this portion of the exhibit read:
"The calligraphy in this section was made to look bold, powerful—even strange. All these works were made during the seventeenth century, when many turned away from the pursuit of elegance and instead sought the fantastic, bizarre, and grotesque."
It was to these large size works that I felt most attracted.  My favorite was Poem by Wang Wei by Zhang Ruitu.  While the content of the short poem itself was calm and reflective, the powerful brushstrokes that rendered it were in contrast harsh to the point of violence. So much pressure was applied when writing out the characters that the hairs of the brush split to create an effect known as feibai ("flying white").  Another work in a similar though more controlled style that I found intriguing was Poem on a River Sojourn (1645) by Wang Duo.  The work was done in Nanjing, the city where the Ming court resided for a year in exile before its final collapse after the suicide of its last emperor in 1644.

The exhibit continues through August 17, 2014.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Inoue Yūichi at Erik Thomsen

Though considered one of the greatest Japanese artists of the postwar period, Inoue Yūichi (1916-1985) is even today little known in the West.  His works are rarely exhibited here in New York, although his most famous painting Ah, Yokokawa National School (1978) was included in the Guggenheim Soho's 1994 show Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky.  Yūichi himself is partly responsible for this oversight.  He worked for decades as an elementary school teacher in Tokyo and rarely exhibited his work in his own lifetime.  All the more reason then to be grateful to the Erik Thomsen Gallery for mounting such a well thought out exhibit of the artist's kanji paintings dating from the late 1950's and early 1960's.  

In viewing these works it should first be understood that they are not simply oversized examples of Japanese calligraphy.  Rather they are full blown abstract paintings in which the personality of the artist fairly explodes on paper.  Like any great artwork, they demand the viewer's full attention before revealing their meaning.  As one stands in contemplation before them, level after level of detail can be discerned in these monochromatic images.  The challenge in viewing any abstract work, in which the presentation of content is necessarily ambiguous, is to discover within it the artist's true intent rather than to impose one's own meaning on it from without.

The paintings I found myself most attracted to were those in which the ink had been applied more thinly in order to create a "wash" effect.  These seemed better able to draw in one's attention than those in which the black ink had been applied in so thick a layer that they had become opaque and so held the viewer at a greater distance.  My own favorite was Kei ("Favor") (1963).  According to the catalog, the technique used to create this work was "frozen ink" in which the ink is "dissolved in water with gelatin; the brush is dipped in this mixture and left to freeze overnight."

Probably the most moving works shown were those which Yūichi painted late in life when his health had already begun to fail.  Prominent among these was Namu Kanzeon (1980), a gorgeous hanging scroll containing a prayer to Kannon, the Bodhisattva who for Buddhists embodies the ideal of compassion.  Also intriguing were earlier works such as Ippiki-ōkami ("Lone Wolf") (1970), Ran ("Lazy") (1969) and Hin ("Poverty") (1968).  If the first of these had to do with Yūichi's conflicts with fellow artists in the Bokujinkai  ("Men of Ink") group he had helped form, one can only speculate to what extent Yūichi related the second and third subjects to his own condition at the time he painted them.  

While the subject of kanji - as well as its relationship to calligraphy and the practice of sho - is fascinating in itself, I lack the scholarly knowledge needed to discuss it in any meaningful manner.  I would instead refer the interested reader to an excellent essay by Joe Earle entitled "Sho: Utter Foolishness, Wonderful Poverty" featured in the catalog.  The article has the rare advantage of being both erudite and highly readable.  It also provides a wealth of background information regarding Yūichi, his teachers, and the art movements which most deeply influenced him, all of which are essential to understanding the ends to which the artist was striving.  It was a quest that led him to destroy any works he considered inferior.

It was while reading Earle's essay that I came across a piece of information regarding Yūichi's life I had not encountered in any of the other scarce biographical materials available.  Earle wrote:
"As the only survivor of more than 1,000 people gathered helplessly for shelter in his school yard during the American firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, Yūichi was perhaps even more deeply affected than some other artists by the horrors of the war..."
One can only imagine how intensely Yūichi must have been traumatized by this event.  (Were the elementary schoolchildren whom he taught among the victims?)  Certainly the firebombing of Tokyo and the subsequent nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were without parallel for their wanton destruction of entire civilian populations in the most horrific manner possible.  Who could have witnessed such atrocities first hand and, seeing the dead all about him, come away with his reason fully intact?  I do not believe it is possible to properly evaluate Yūichi's subsequent life and work without taking this incident into account.

The exhibit continues through June 27, 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

St. Stephen's Church: Jupiter Chamber Players Perform Rossini, Gatti, Tartini, Salieri and Mozart

Yesterday evening, I visited Christ and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on West 69th Street to hear the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players perform works by Rossini, Gatti, Tartini, Salieri and Mozart.  The lighthearted program, entitled The Italians & Mozart, made for an entertaining summer evening.

The program opened with Rossini's overture to La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).  The overture is by far the most famous part of the opera, not only for its innovative use of snare drums, but also for its romantic history.  The story is that when the opera was being written in 1817, its producer was so concerned about having the score completed on time that he actually locked the composer alone in a room and refused to release him until the overture was done.  Rossini is said to have thrown pages out the room's window one by one as he finished them.  Copyists were waiting below and hastened to write out the orchestral parts so that the opera would indeed be ready for its La Scala premiere.  How much truth is contained in this account is open to conjecture.  At any rate, there were no snare drums in evidence yesterday.  The performance was based on a transcription by Franz Alexander Pössinger for string quartet and double bass.  For all its small size, the combination did very well in capturing the electric excitement that characterizes Rossini's overtures.

The work that followed was also arranged for string quartet and double bass.  That was Giuseppe Tartini's Sinfonie in A Major, C. 538, a traditional Baroque four-movement piece that seemed very restrained in comparison to the composer's most famous work, the Devil's Trill Sonata, the latter a showpiece for any violinist's skill.  While Tartini possessed  fabulous ability as a virtuoso, he is also important as the violinist who helped shape the modern method of bowing the instrument 

If Luigi Gatti is remembered at all today, it is primarily through his connection with Mozart.  Gatti's appointment as kapellmeister in Salzburg was a hard blow to Mozart's father Leopold who felt he better deserved the position and its attendant advantages.  Later, after Mozart's death, Gatti rendered assistance to his sister Nannerl who was seeking any lost works by Mozart that might still remain in Salzburg.  In this matter, though, Gatti is said to have been as much a hindrance as a help.  The Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Cello played yesterday showed Gatti to have been a competent if not particularly distinguished composer.  It was a pleasant but not memorable work.

Thanks almost entirely to Peter Shaffer's 1979 play Amadeus, Antonio Salieri has become the most maligned composer in the history of music.  In popular imagination he is even today considered the assassin of Mozart.  This is pure fiction, however, and lacks any basis in fact.  Though the two may have been artistic rivals (and Mozart does accuse Salieri, along with Da Ponte, of "trickery" in his letters to his father), they respected one another's work even if they did occasionally vie with one another for commissions at the Viennese court.  In fact, Salieri was a prolific composer of opera as well as a teacher of both Beethoven and Schubert and did nothing to deserve the bad reputation with which posterity has since burdened him.  The Concertino da camera (1777) for flute and string quartet played at the Jupiter recital was very well constructed even if it did not rise to the level of genius.

Mozart's Eine kleine nachtmusik, which closed yesterday's program, demonstrated perfectly why Mozart's works are still performed everywhere today while those of his contemporaries have by and large fallen into obscurity.  Though so often played that it has perhaps become over familiar, it still stood out so clearly from from the company of the other pieces that even a non-musician could not fail to appreciate the genius of its composition.  Beyond that, the work, described by Mozart biographer Hildesheimer as "an occasional piece from a light but happy pen," was thoroughly enjoyable and seemed to capture the very essence of the beautiful summer evening outside.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Denis Matsuev Performs Haydn, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky

Despite the presence on yesterday evening's program of pieces by Haydn and Schumann, the real attractions of Denis Matsuev's recital at Carnegie Hall were the works of Russian composers Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.  It was in fact after having heard the pianist perform Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gergiev last October at the same venue that I had gotten a ticket for this event.  Yesterday's recital had originally been scheduled for late January but had then been postponed after Matsuev had fallen ill and been unable to perform.

The program opened with Haydn's Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 52 (1794), the last of the composer's sonatas and often considered his best.  It was written during his second visit to London and dedicated to Therese Jansen, a well known pianist of the time and the wife of Haydn's good friend Gaetano Bartolozzi.  The work is the very epitome of the classical tradition and it is interesting to compare it to piano sonatas Mozart had written only a few years before.

There followed Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834-1835), one of the composer's most famous pieces for solo piano.  The work consists of twenty-one movements, each intended to represent a masked reveler at the carnival celebration that traditionally precedes the Lenten period.  As such, it is somewhat similar in theme to Schumann's earlier Papillons, Op. 2 (1831) which also purports to represent masked figures at a ball.  Carnaval is an extremely complex work - during his lifetime Schumann had always considered his piano compositions too advanced for the general public - and one whose intricacy is a test for the skills of any pianist.

After intermission, having disposed of Haydn and Schumann, the pianist arrived at what for me was the real meat of the recital - the works of the Russian composers.  First were two preludes by Rachmaninoff, the Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 (1901) and the Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12 (1910).  The latter, as recorded by Vladimir Horowitz, is a particular favorite of mine and the one I consider the composer's best in this genre.

Following these short works came two pieces by Tchaikovsky, the Dumka in C Minor, Op. 59 (1886) and the Méditation, Op. 72, No. 5 (1893).  The pianist Vladimir Feltsman has written of the former piece:
"The Dumka is very popular and rightly so. There is everything here that a choreographer could want: melancholy, nostalgia, joy, wild dancing, celebration of the pleasures in life, and then a melancholy tune of indescribable sadness (besishodnost in Russian) before beauty returns. It is a very Russian 'scene' indeed!"
The second Tchaikovsky piece, the Méditation, was among the last he wrote for solo piano.  The work was one of eighteen pieces (the original intention had been to compose thirty) Tchaikovsky composed while working on sketches for the Sixth Symphony.

The final work on the program was Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36, written in 1913 and then drastically shortened in the composer's 1931 revision.  Elements of both versions were later incorporated in a 1940 edition assembled by Horowitz that restored some of the cuts made by Rachmaninoff.  It was the 1931 version that was performed yesterday evening.

I was only able to stay for the first encore, Tchaikovsky's "May" from The Seasons, Op. 37b, No. 5.

Denis Matsuev is an extremely talented pianist and has been something of a celebrity ever since having won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998.  Still only in his thirties, he has already established a reputation for his expertise in the Russian repertoire.  It was apparent at this recital that he had chosen a program that would test his ability at the keyboard and show off his skills to the best advantage.  Though I did not think the Haydn was a good fit for his style, Matsuev was in full control on the Schumann.   It was in the second half, though, that he really displayed brilliance in his interpretations of Tchaikovsky's and Rachmaninoff's music.  Any pianist who attempts these does so with the ghosts of the past hovering about him - he knows even before he takes the stage that his playing will inevitably be compared to that of Horowitz and Rachmaninoff himself.  It is to Matsuev's credit that he accepted this challenge.  Certainly the audience at this sold out event was enthusiastic in showing its appreciation.

There was, incidentally, an intriguing moment at the end of the first half when Matsuev came out on stage to take a bow and then refused to accept a bouquet of flowers offered by an audience member.  Instead, he left it lying on the floor of the stage.  I do not know the story behind this or if it had anything to do with the Ukrainian protesters demonstrating outside the hall, but it did make for a moment of dramatic theater.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Paris in 19th-Century Photographs at Hans P. Kraus Jr.

There are two small exhibits currently on view at Hans P. Kraus Jr. that are well worth a trip to the Upper East Side.

The first show, entitled Paris in 19th-Century Photographs, is a marvelous followup to the Met Museum's recent Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris.  In fact, the Kraus exhibit does have on display two excellent prints by Marville, Rue au Lard, Paris (1865-1869) and Opéra Candélabre à 7 lumières avec globe (c. 1874), that form part of his comprehensive documentation of the modernization of Paris under Napoleon III.  The former is a very atmospheric depiction of one of those dark narrow streets that were demolished by Haussmann while the latter is of an ornate street lamp created for the new Palais Garnier.  Complementing this last work are several studies by Louis-Émile Durandelle of large scale decorative objects meant to be placed within the opera house itself.  Unlike Marville's work, which was photographed in situ, the photographs by Durandelle were completed outdoors in daylight before the ornaments were actually installed, no doubt because the lighting inside the opera house was too dim to be used in any but the longest exposures.  Interestingly, both Marville and Durandelle used the same photographic media - albumen prints made from collodion negatives - indicating how popular these processes had become and how completely they had supplanted the earlier calotype negative and salt print methods invented by Talbot that had been in universal use only a few years before.

That great landmark of Paris, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is shown here in the works of several photographers.  These include Henri Le Secq, Charles Soulier and Charles Nègre.  (Nègre's 1853 view of Notre Dame is represented by both the waxed paper negative and the salt print made from it.)  Accompanying these is a view of another Parisian church, Talbot's Église de la Madelaine (1843), a varnished salt print from a calotype negative.

The two high points of the present exhibit are the Pavillon Rohan, Louvre, Paris (c. 1857-1859) by Gustave Le Gray and the Facade of a private house in Paris (c. 1855) attributed to Louis-Auguste Bisson and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson (Bisson Fréres).  The Le Gray photograph, a large-format well executed salt print, is remarkable for what it does not portray.  Le Gray's trademark, which distinguishes his work from that of almost all other nineteenth century photographers, is the well exposed sky which dominates virtually all his landscape photography.  He achieved this effect by combination printing, i.e., using one negative for the foreground and another for the sky.  This is most easily accomplished in seascapes where the horizon invariably consists of a straight horizontal line.  In Pavillon Rohan, however, the irregular shape of the Louvre building itself prohibited this practice so that the sky instead appears as a complete blank with no detail visible.  The Bisson print is notable for an entirely different reason.  The image appears at first no more than a straightforward photograph of an upscale Parisian residence shot at street level.  It is only on closer inspection that the viewer notes the "swirling" effect evident in the trees to the side and the main doorway at the center.  It is evident that the print was deliberately manipulated, though how this was achieved during the contact printing process is unknown.

The second exhibit now on display at the Kraus gallery consists of several drawings made by Sir John Herschel with the aid of a camera lucida.  It was Talbot's frustration with this instrument, due to his total inability to draw, that famously led to his invention of photography.  Unlike his associate, Herschel was an excellent draftsman and extremely proficient in working with the device.  And therein lies the irony.  As photo historian Larry Schaaf has noted, Herschel himself could have invented photography before 1839 but for the fact that he preferred the camera lucida whose use necessitated extended scientific observation.  Though Herschel's drawings may not in themselves be great works of art, they thus offer a fascinating footnote to the history of photography.  In addition, they are not only delightful to look at but also provide the viewer with glimpses of nineteenth century Europe that are so detailed they actually rival photographs for accuracy.  In this regard, the best is no doubt Lake of Brienz from Iseltwald (1821) whose careful shading is reminiscent of an aquatint.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Whitney: American Legends

The only exhibit now open at the Whitney is American Legends: From Calder to O'Keefe, a selection of works by thirteen artists from the museum's permanent collection.  So impromptu is the presentation that one has the sense that the show was hurriedly assembled for no other reason than to have something on the walls following the close of the Biennial on May 25th.  Admission was complimentary on the day I visited, and the galleries were almost empty.

There is no theme, at least none that I could discover, that holds this exhibit together other than that all the artists shown were active at some point in the twentieth century.  No documentation, not even a press release, is available to visitors; and the small placards placed on the wall contain only a paragraph or two of information.  Overall, the whole proceeding, organized by curator Barbara Haskell, has a slapdash feel to it.  For example, there may very well be a valid reason Hopper's paintings were placed in a room opposite Eggleston's chromogenic photo prints; but whatever that purpose, it is never explained to the viewer.

This is not to suggest that the exhibit is not worth visiting.  Not only are there on display masterpieces by such well known masters as Lichtenstein and O'Keefe, but there are also represented artists who are perhaps not so famous but whose work certainly deserves to be seen more often.  Prominent among these is Morris Graves, an expressionist painter who was active in the Pacific Northwest.  The three paintings shown by Graves are all from a relatively early period in his career and all feature birds as their subjects.  There is one dark brooding work whose title I cannot remember, completed during World War II, that shows a raven and a ghostly helmeted figure in the background that is quite powerful.

Another often overlooked artist whose works are on display is Alice Neel, as well knows for her political activism and eccentric life as for her painting.  While her works reveal expressionist influences, they also have a pop sensibility and can be quite shocking in their graphic representation of subject matter.  Two of the more striking works now on display are Neel's portrait of critic John Perreault lounging nude on an unmade bed and a portrayal of a shirtless Andy Warhol that reveals to the viewer his abdominal scars and surgical corset, both the result of his having been shot in 1968 by Valerie Solanas.

Looking later at the museum's website I saw displayed in the "Works from the Exhibition" section a number of pieces I had not encountered at the exhibit itself.  At first I thought I had managed to miss a large portion of the show.  It was only when I looked more closely that I learned that this is a rotating exhibit, though when and how often changes are made is nowhere explained.  For the record, a full list of the artists currently on view is as follows: Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Burgoyne Diller, William Eggleston, Morris Graves, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Jacob Lawrence, Roy Lichtenstein, Elie Nadelman, Alice Neel, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

The exhibit continues through June 29, 2014.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

WQXR Live Broadcast of Arvo Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen

One composer who has generated a considerable amount of interest recently is the Estonian Arvo Pärt.  Once known primarily through his association with the late Alfred Schnittke, Pärt has emerged in his own right as a leading figure in contemporary music.  According to Wikipedia, which used The Bachtrack Stats as its source, "As of 2013, Pärt has been the most performed contemporary composer in the world for three years in a row."  That's quite an impressive statistic.

I had heard Pärt's music earlier this year when the Juilliard Focus program gave the world premiere of a revised version of La Sindone, originally performed at the Turin Cathedral while that city hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics.  Other works by Pärt were performed on subsequent evenings.  These included Fratres (1979/1989), For Alina (1976) and My Heart's in the Highlands (2000).  I found Pärt's music, whose style the composer himself has described as tintinnabuli (i.e., the ringing of bells), extremely engrossing and I can well understand the popularity he now enjoys.

Yesterday evening, WQXR presented a live broadcast from the Met Museum of Pärt's 1997 choral work Kanon Pokajanen that had originally been written to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the Cologne Cathedral.  Translated as Canon of Repentance, it was expertly performed by the ensemble and conductor to whom it had been dedicated, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste.  Although much of Pärt's music contains a mystical element, this was particularly evident in the rendition of the present work which was sung a cappella in Church Slavonic as is traditional in the Eastern rite.  The text itself was taken from an eighth century Orthodox sacred writing whose roots lay deep within the Byzantine tradition.  Also evident was Pärt's extensive knowledge of plainsong and Gregorian chant, both of which he had studied extensively in the 1970's.  Though these influences are associated with Western Christianity rather than Eastern Orthodox, they served the composer quite well in this work.  Pärt wrote of the piece:
"Many years ago, when I first became involved in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, I came across a text that made a profound impression on me although I cannot have understood it at the time. It was the Canon of Repentance
"Since then I have often returned these verses, slowly and arduously seeking to unfold their meaning...  I then decided to set it to music in its entirety-from beginning to end. This allowed me to stay with it, to devote myself to it; and, at the very least, its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score."
The end result was a fascinating mixture of contemporary and liturgical music.  (Not surprisingly, it was part of the Arvo Pärt Project sponsored by St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.)  Lasting approximately 70 minutes, it was sung flawlessly by the choir and applauded enthusiastically by the audience at the Met's Temple of Dendur, a most appropriate setting for such a work.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

American Academy: Charles Ives' Studio

I had heard scattered performances of Charles Ives' music over the years, but it was not until I attended a student piano recital at Mannes last October that I finally gained some understanding of the level of innovation that Ives, working entirely on his own and without knowledge of the European modernists, managed to bring to twentieth century music.  The only work on the program that evening was the Concord Sonata.  Although this is arguably the greatest work for solo piano ever written by an American composer, it is also among the least performed.  In fact, the Mannes recital was the only opportunity I've had to hear it.  No matter.  Listening to it on that one occasion was enough to provide me with an inkling of how far in advance of their time Ives' compositions actually were.  As Schnittke has written in his essay "Stereophonic Tendencies in Modern Orchestral Thinking":
"In conclusion, we should add that the stereophony of the 1950s and 1960s, like most of the other technical devices used by contemporary composers, was anticipated at the beginning of the century by Charles Ives."
If there were any doubt in my mind of the truth of Schnittke's assertion, I had only to listen to a recording of the Fourth Symphony in the second movement of which two orchestral groups led by different conductors "collide" on stage while playing vastly different pieces of music.

I recently finished reading an excellent biography entitled Charles Ives: A Life with Music by Jan Swafford.  The author, himself a composer, has been a lifelong fan of Ives and displays in his writing a deep empathy for both the man and his music.  Not that Ives is an easy subject to write about.  He was at once warm hearted and cantankerous, a musical genius and a pragmatic insurance executive.  But Swafford explores as fully as possible all the contradictions in Ives' life and personality.  Though he is extremely sympathetic, the author does not flinch from showing the dark side of Ives' character, even going so far as to raise the possibility that the composer may have suffered from mental illness.  He also offers, in non-technical terms, a comprehensive background and analysis of each of Ives' major works.  In so doing, he also provides the reader with a detailed history of American music in the first part of the twentieth century, a knowledge of which is essential for anyone seeking a context in which to place Ives' work.  Along the way, Swafford introduces a cast of now almost forgotten characters - such eccentric figures as Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles and Nicolas Slonimsky - whose lives are fascinating in themselves.  The book is not light reading; but, like Ives' music, it richly rewards its audience for their attention.

After having read Swafford's biography, I was thrilled to see that the American Academy of Arts and Letters had arranged for the study of Ives' West Redding home to be transported from Connecticut and reconstructed exactly as he had left it on the Academy's premises in upper Manhattan.  This followed directly from the controversy surrounding the fate of the home itself, as outlined in an article on WQXR, after it had recently been sold to a new owner.  Unfortunately, the Academy has failed to provide visitors with a meaningful experience.  The room has been completely roped off and its contents can only be seen in dim light from a distance.  While there are rows of books lining the study's shelves, one is not able to see the titles of the faded volumes.  There is a bulletin board to which Ives pinned letters and articles of interest, but these are too far away to be made out clearly.  No description is given of the photographs and memorabilia that fill the room nor is any inventory provided.  In other words, there is nothing more to be seen by traveling to West 155th Street than is already visible in the photo shown on the Academy's press release.  The curators did not even trouble themselves to provide audio samples of Ives' music that could be heard on site by those not already familiar with it.  All this is extremely frustrating.  It is a wasted opportunity to better acquaint those interested with a deeper knowledge of Ives' legacy.

The studio is currently open to public view through June 15, 2014.