Monday, July 28, 2014

Mostly Mozart Orchestra Performs Mozart, Gluck and Berlioz

When I reached Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday morning at 8:45, the line for the evening's free Mostly Mozart concert had already snaked around the corner onto 66th Street and had continued lengthening even as I watched.  It was another hour and a half before the box office began distributing tickets and by then the line was several blocks long, but it had been a pleasant enough summer morning to sit and read my book while waiting.

The concert itself was not full length but a shortened "preview" without intermission that featured works by Mozart, Gluck and Berlioz performed by the festival orchestra under that baton of its music director Louis Langrée.  If there were a theme to the evening's selections, it was one of lurid melodrama as the orchestra explored first the story of a seducer dragged off to hell by an avenging spirit amid a barrage of pyrotechnics followed by the opium dream of a young man so maddened by his passion for his unrequited love that he imagined himself poisoning her.

The program opened with the overture to Mozart's opera Don Giovanni.  The overture was the last piece of music composed for the opera and was famously completed only hours before the opening night performance.  The musicians at the Prague premiere were not even given the chance to go over the music before having to play it before an audience.  Nevertheless, this was a thrilling work in which Mozart sounded the theme of the divine retribution that would be visited upon his anti-hero when that character refused to repent for his crimes.  In many ways, this was for the time a very modern approach that emphasized the autonomy of the individual who refused to be bound by conventional morality and instead chose to follow his own destiny no matter the consequences.

The next work was the final scene from Gluck's 1761 ballet Don Juan.  Not surprisingly, the plot of the ballet was very similar to that of the Mozart's opera.  By the time it was composed, the story of the unrepentant seducer had become - especially in Italy, as noted by Goethe - an extremely popular entertainment beloved by the public for its hellfire ending.  As Rodney Bolt noted in his biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Librettist of Venice:
"The original Spanish tale of a lascivious aristocrat who meets his doom dated back 150 years to Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla, and had appeared in a variety of versions, including at least four operas, countless puppet shows, plays by Molière and Goldini, and a ballet by Gluck."
It was interesting at this concert to hear Gluck's music played side by side with that which Mozart wrote more than a quarter century later.  The similarities were at once obvious as it was clear that both composers had attempted to find the most terrifying musical description available to accompany the climactic scene of eternal damnation. Though Gluck's technique was masterful and innovative, especially in its use of trombones, it was Mozart's music that was the more sophisticated and thoughtful as he explored the fate of his protagonist with what amounted almost to sympathy.  

The last time I had heard Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique was only in May when I saw the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra perform it at Carnegie Hall with Mariss Jansons conducting.  As I wrote in my post describing that performance, the work was most definitely intended as a self-portrait.  Here, Berlioz clearly identified himself with the suffering Romantic hero who underwent unimaginable pain and even death at the guillotine for the sake of his all-consuming love.  In that sense, the hero of Berlioz' symphony was the spiritual heir to Don Giovanni himself.  There was no sense of repentance or self-doubt in evidence as the composer's alter ego waited for his death sentence to be carried out.  Instead, he was inspired by a final vision of his dead beloved.  The Romantic undercurrent that was only implicit in the music of Gluck and Mozart was here fully manifested.

The Mostly Mozart Orchestra, though obviously not a world class ensemble on the level of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, nevertheless gave a rousing and fully satisfying rendition of the program.  The percussion section, in particular, was very strong in its performance of the Berlioz.  Conductor Langrée should be given a great deal of credit for eliciting from the orchestra members such truly excellent playing.  He used their talents to the fullest, and the entire ensemble richly deserved the standing ovation they received at the end of the concert.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Altered: Appropriation & Photography at Edwynn Houk

Of all the art forms to have emerged in the twentieth century, perhaps the most controversial is that of "appropriation art."  Defined in a Wikipedia article as "the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them," the practice traces its origins to Marcel Duchamp who famously submitted a urinal, which he entitled Fountain, for entry in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit as the work of one R. Mutt.  Defending his entry after its rejection, Duchamp wrote that:
"...whether Mr.Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view-- and created a new thought for that object."
This, of course, provides that rationale for all the appropriation art that has followed.  It should be noted, though, that the found objects (e.g., bicycle wheel, snow shovel, bottle rack), termed "readymades," appropriated by Duchamp were all industrial or commercial products.  Their one shared characteristic, in fact, was that none of them had initially been seen as a work of art precisely because its original function had been purely utilitarian.

It is only when the appropriated objects and images are themselves considered, at least by their authors, to be works of art that problems ensue.  It is then that questions of plagiarism and/or copyright infringement are invariably raised.  In recent years, a number of lawsuits, most notably Rogers v. Koons and  Cariou v. Prince, have been litigated in U.S. courts.  At issue in many of these cases is whether or not the use to which the appropriated material has been put has been "transformative" in the sense that it has led to the creation of an entirely new and unique artwork.

The above by way of introduction to the current exhibit at the Edwynn Houk Gallery entitled Altered: Appropriation & Photography.  The small show consists of the work of four artists - Robert Heinecken, Vik Muniz (whose work is also currently on display at Houk's Zurich location), Sebastiaan Bremer and Lalla Essaydi.

Of the four artists shown, I found the works of Lalla Essaydi to be the least interesting, perhaps because they so obviously followed a politically correct agenda.  Here is an artist who has read Said's Orientalism and taken it to heart.  Using well known nineteenth century paintings by such artists as Sargent and Ingres as a starting point, Essaydi has attempted to reimagine them as large format color photographs.  But to what point?  The recreations are not very skillfully done and tell the reader nothing that is not contained in the far better executed originals.  Moreover, Essaydi's extensive use of henna calligraphy seems really only a form a graffiti placed on the surface of the image rather than an integral part of its content.  It adds nothing to the photos and, since its purpose is never made clear, ends up becoming only a distraction to their understanding.

Like Essaydi, Vik Muniz also uses nineteenth century artwork, in this case Cézanne and Courbet, as the basis of two of his works.  The vivid pigment coloring of his Montagne Sainte Victoire lends a fascinating and highly tactile sense of texture to that work. The monochromatic Origin of the World has a gritty sense of realism but is nowhere near as shocking as the original.  Moving away from the work of those classic artists, both Prometheus after Titian and Princess Diana are playful and clever pieces, but neither rises to the level of great art.  The latter work, with its faux puzzle piece surface texture, is actually highly imitative of Warhol's style.

It is ironic that the works of the late Robert Heinecken, who termed himself a "para-photographer" because he so rarely used a camera, are the most "photographic" in the show.  Both his Recto/Verso and Vary Cliche/Autoeroticism are highly sophisticated and accomplished collages.  The former especially, by showing both sides of the magazine pages from which it was taken, creates a serendipitous juxtaposition of imagery that gives the trivial source material a new level of meaning.

The works I most enjoyed viewing at the exhibit were the five "Eye" prints by Sebastiaan Bremer.  These were hand painted high contrast black & white prints with "mixed media" that hearkened back to the best work of the Surrealists in their expression of subconscious imagery.  The patterns placed on the close-up studies of the human eye had an almost psychedelic feel to them.  On the other hand, Bremer's Juliet India, however technically accomplished, did not really work well as a photograph.  The viewer's eye moved across the surface of the work without finding a point on which to fix its attention.

The exhibit continues through August 22, 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

MOMA: Photographic Processes in the Studio

The current photography exhibit at MOMA, A World of Its Own: Photographic Processes in the Studio, is given an interesting description on the museum's website:
"A World of Its Own offers another history of photography—a photography created within the walls of the studio, and yet as innovative as its more extroverted counterpart, street photography."
In reading this, one wonders first of all what has happened to such other non-studio genres as photojournalism and landscape photography.  Surely street photography is not the only type of photography conducted outside studio walls.  Still, the point is clear enough.  Though some works shown, as in the case of Julia Margaret Cameron's portraits, might actually have been photographed outdoors rather than in an indoor studio, the prints (and videos) on display are all "constructed" shots, i.e. planned rather than simply taken.  As one might expect from so broad an approach, the result is a confusing affair in which the works of a number of different photographers, representing seemingly every period and every nationality, have been hung side by side in a muddle of styles and techniques with little thought given to the relationship that each might have to another . 

The works which fare the best here are the classics by well known photographers.  These would include Edward Steichen's sensitive portrait of Anna May Wong and Nadar's of the mime Duburau as Pierrot.  Alongside a huge print by Avedon of an unemployed casino croupier is his group study of Andy Warhol posing with members of the Factory.  There are two nudes of Tina Modotti taken by Edward Weston in Mexico, a self portrait of Brancusi sitting among his sculptures, portraits and still lifes by Irving Penn, a wonderful arrangement of seaside artifacts by Paul Outerbridge as well as the exhibit's avatar, Laboratory of the Future, by Man Ray.  Inevitably, several motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge have also been included.

There is also on display some interesting work be lesser known photographers.  These include two studies by Barbara Kasten that reveal a mastery of color technique and a series of disturbing self portraits by Adrian Piper that intentionally dissolve into darkness and disembodiment.

In summary, there is some great photographic work contained in A World of Its Own that is well worth seeing, but the presentation at this exhibit does these pieces a disservice through its lack of coherence.  It would have been much better for MOMA to have put on a show with a narrower theme that could have been more easily grasped by viewers and that would have allowed the significance of these photographs to have been more readily apparent.

The exhibit continues through October 5, 2014.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bolshoi Opera Performs in Concert Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride

Yesterday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall, while the rest of NYC watched the World Cup finals, the Bolshoi Opera performed in concert The Tsar's Bride by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival.  Though I prefer to see opera fully staged, I went knowing this would be a rare opportunity to hear a legendary company perform a work by one of the most influential of late nineteenth century Russian composers.

Rimsky-Korsakov is known in the West today primarily as the composer of the lovely tone poem Scheherazade.  But this was only one work in a long career marked by associations with composers known as The Five (which group also included Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin) and later The Belyayev Circle (which group also included Alexander Glazunov), both of which strongly stressed the importance of nationalism in Russian music.  The primary difference between the two groups was the latter's willingness to adopt Western musical styles to achieve its aims.  This was largely due to the influence of Tchaikovsky who had long served as mentor to Rimsky-Korsakov and with whom he maintained even closer ties from 1887 onward.  As a result of these relationships, Rimsky-Korsakov was at the very center of the Russian musical tradition as it emerged into the twentieth century, and he exerted an enormous influence on such seminal figures as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff.  In fact, when Rachmaninoff fled Russia at the onset of the Revolution, the only score he took with him was that of The Golden Cockerel.

Though the plot of The Tsar's Bride, based on a play by Lev Mey, was pure melodrama - complete with poisons, love potions, sexual blackmail and even a forced marriage to Ivan the Terrible - the opera itself was utterly compelling if only for the masterful score.  It held the sold out audience on the edge of their seats throughout its four movements (some three hours in length, not including two intermissions).

The elaborate production was superb.  It was led by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky who made his debut with the Bolshoi Theater in 1951 when he conducted Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty.  Himself  the son of a noted conductor and now aged 83, Rozhdestvensky has lost none of his skill at the podium.  That he remains a stalwart of the Russian musical scene can be seen from the great number of compositions dedicated to him over the years.  The ubiquitous Alfred Schnittke wrote:
"I once calculated that there are now some forty compositions written for Rozhdestvensky—either derived from his ideas or else he was the first to conduct them. I could not believe it, but it really is so. I could even say that nearly all my own work as a composer depended on contact with him and on the many talks we had. It was in these talks that I conceived the idea for many of my compositions. I count that as one of the luckiest circumstances of my life."
The Bolshoi orchestra showed itself in performance fully the equal of other great international ensembles and together with the chorus provided magnificent support for the singers.  Of these, Uliana Alexyuk, who only made her Bolshoi debut in 2010, was excellent as Marfa as was baritone Alexander Kasyanov in the pivotal role of Grigory.  Svetlana Shilova as Lyubasha also deserves credit for her affecting a cappella singing at the party scene in the first act.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Guggenheim: Italian Futurism 1909-1944

What has always made any widespread acceptance of Futurism problematic is above all its unholy alliance with Mussolini and Fascism as well as its endorsement of war as a means of modernization.  From today's point of view, Futurism is the most politically incorrect of all the major twentieth century art movements.  Its founder and leading proponent, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, was in fact co-author of the original 1919 Fascist Manifesto and one of Mussolini's earliest and most ardent supporters.  In its introduction to Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, the exhibition website acknowledges this point:
"The Futurists’ celebration of war as a means to remake Italy and their support of Italy’s entrance into World War I also constitute part of the movement’s narrative, as does the later, complicated relationship between Futurism and Italian fascism."
Beyond this, on an aesthetic level, Futurism suffered from a lack of great artists and original themes.  While such artists as Marinetti, Benedetta Cappa (his wife), Umberto Boccioni, and Gino Severini may have been extremely talented, they lacked true genius and were often better theorists than craftsmen.  In certain respects, the plans the Futurists promoted for modernizing architecture and design were similar to those put forth by the German Bauhaus but were less far reaching and ultimately had less lasting impact.  Ironically, one reason for Futurism's failure to impress itself more fully on popular culture was Mussolini's and right wing Fascists' preference for a more classical style that eschewed modernism in all its forms.

In painting, much of the Futurist style was derived from other European influences such as DivisionismCubism and Surrealism and showed little innovation of its own.  Increasingly, Futurist works displayed a graphic quality that anticipated some elements of pop art, a trend that can be seen most clearly in Fortunato Depero's ads for Campari.  The inclusion of graphic elements is also increasingly evident in Futurism's final phase, Aeropittura ("Inspired by Flight"), that focused on the airplane as the icon of the modern world and concerned itself with imagery inspired by air travel.  Some of these works resemble poster art more than they do painting.  The two best examples are Tullio Crali's 1939 Prima che si apra il paracadute ("Before the Parachute Opens") which rivals the era's best war photography for pure excitement, and Guglielmo Sansoni's Sorvolando in spirale il Colosseo [Spirilata] ("Flying over the Coliseum in a Spiral [Spiraling]"), also from 1939.

Two other areas of interest that the exhibit touches upon are photography and architecture.  The best examples of the former came early in the Futurist movement, circa 1911, when Anton Giulio Bragaglia, working with his photographer brother, developed a style termed "photodynamism" that attempted to depict motion rather than to freeze it.  The technique leaned heavily on the earlier discoveries of photography pioneers Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey.  As far as architecture, the most noteworthy feature of the designs of Antonio Sant'Elia, Mario Chiattone and Virgilio Marchi is how few of them were actually executed.  Even now their stark modernity comes as something of a shock.  It's interesting to speculate how different today's cities might look if these designs from the World War I era had ever been fully implemented. 

However one may feel about Futurism itself, there can be no doubt that the Guggenheim has done a magnificent job in staging this exhibit under the direction of senior curator Vivien Greene.  It is as comprehensive an overview of this movement as one is likely to see.  If the show does not often rise to the level of true greatness, the fault lies not with the presentation but with the lack of depth in the artworks themselves.

The exhibit continues through September 1, 2014.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

St. Stephen's Church: Jupiter Chamber Players Perform Mozart, Krommer and Dvořák

Yesterday evening's performance by the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players included two works by Mozart, the Sonata for Bassoon and Cello in B flat, K. 292 (1775) and the Oboe Quartet in F, K. 370 (1781).  It should be remarked at the outset that the attribution of the former piece to Mozart has been contested.  The IMSLP entry for it states: "According to Grove Music, Mozart's authorship of this work is considered 'doubtful'."  Originally the three-movement sonata was thought to have been composed for two bassoons rather than the arrangement given in the published version and been written for amateur bassoonist Baron Thaddäus von Dürnitz (who had also commissioned the composer's Piano Sonata No. 6 in D, K. 284 (205b) and then failed to pay for it) while Mozart was in Munich with his father Leopold supervising the preparations for his opera La finta Giardiniera, K. 196.  Though the sonata was exceptionally well played, this was not a particularly inspiring work and I can well understand how some might question its authorship.  If it was indeed written by Mozart, little of his genius is here apparent.

After the sonata, the ensemble performed a work by Franz Krommer, the Flute Quartet in F Major, Op. 17.  Krommer was a successful Czech composer working in Vienna and a contemporary of Beethoven.  He was also extremely prolific; by the time of his death in 1831, his works with opus numbers amounted to 110 plus a great many more without such designation.  The quartet was most likely composed some time after Krommer was appointed Maestro di Cappella for Duke Ignaz Fuchs in 1798.  This was the first opportunity I'd had to hear any of Krommer's works, but I was not greatly impressed.  While the quartet was a competent enough journeyman work, it was not at all memorable.  It made clear why, despite the enormous number of works to his credit, Krommer is so rarely performed today.

There are no doubts concerning the authorship of the Oboe Quartet.  This is one of Mozart's most popular works, and rightfully so.  Like the earlier work, it too was written on a trip to Munich.  This time, Mozart was there at the invitation of Elector Karl Theodor who had commissioned from the composer the opera Idomeneo, K. 366 in 1780. The quartet itself was commissioned by Friedrich Ramm, principal oboist in the Elector's orchestra.  The quartet is among the most charming of Mozart's chamber works for a wind instrument and I never tire of listening to it.

The program concluded with the String Quartet No. 14 in A flat, Op. 105 (1896) by Antonín Dvořák.  This was the composer's last string quartet and the one I've always considered his best.  Though it lacks the enormous popular appeal of the 12th Quartet (the "American"), the 14th is much more tightly constructed.  It is as though Dvořák knew that he would not be returning again to the composition of chamber music and wished to put into this final masterpiece everything he had learned over the years.  He actually began composing the brooding first movement while still in New York.  Upon his return to Europe, he put the work aside while writing yet another string quartet, the Op. 106, and only returned to it after he had finished work on that piece.  In the years that followed, until his death in 1904, Dvořák would concentrate his efforts on the writing of operas to such an extent that the joyous closing movement of the Op. 105 can be seen as a valediction to his composition of absolute music.  The long final movement, marked allegro ma non troppo, caps the work perfectly and brings it to a most satisfying conclusion.

The guest performer at yesterday's recital was the talented violinist Xiao-Dong Wang, who is a founding member of Concertante and the winner of the Yehudi Menuhin and Wieniawski-Lipinski Competitions.  His performance as first violin on the Dvořák quartet was excellent.