Friday, September 26, 2014

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Le Nozze di Figaro

The fall season began in earnest yesterday evening as James Levine took the podium at the Met Opera to conduct a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, a work that is not only of great musical importance (the standard operatic repertoire begins here) but also has a great deal of personal meaning for me.  This was the very first opera I ever saw and provided me almost thirty years ago with my introduction to this fabulous genre I've since come to love so deeply.  On that occasion as well it was Maestro Levine who conducted the work.

Great as Mozart's music is, credit for the success of Figaro should also be given to its superb librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.  If it had not been for Da Ponte's adroit political maneuvering and his personal friendship with Emperor Joseph II, the work might never have been written at all and the world would have lost one of its greatest musical masterpieces.  As it was, the opera marked the beginning of an all too brief collaboration between two consummate artists, a partnership that also later led to the composition of Don Giovanni and Così fan Tutte.  The full story is told not only in Da Ponte's Memoirs but also in the excellent biography, Librettist of Venice, authored by Rodney Bolt.  Both these works also debunk the myth that Joseph II had been strenuously opposed to the production of the opera just as he had earlier banned performances of the Beaumarchais play for having undermined the stature of the monarchy, a serious enough consideration in the age of the French Revolution.

More importantly, Figaro marked a revolution in the composition of opera.  It was Da Ponte's genius to recognize that the then prevalent operatic form, opera seria, was no longer viable.  A holdover from the Baroque period that had been used extensively throughout the eighteenth century by such composers as Gluck and Handel and even Mozart himself in Idomeneo, by the time Figaro was composed in 1786 the form's potential had been thoroughly exhausted and it had already grown archaic.  The days when castrati dominated the stage in Metastasian works were clearly long since past.  It was then that Da Ponte, while studying the libretto of La villanella rapita by Giovanni Bertati, began to see new possibilities in opera buffa, the comic form which up to then had been used in only the most lighthearted of works.  Buffa was more in keeping with the spirit of the age in that it reflected the evolution of opera itself from a purely aristocratic entertainment to an art form to be enjoyed by a newly emerging educated middle class as well.  To quote Rodney Bolt:
"Da Ponte began to pick up traces of a change that was infiltrating opera buffa.  Serious elements entered these comedies, often in a parody of aloof opera seria characters.  'Serious', Da Ponte realized, need not necessarily mean 'solemn'.  He saw the potential of weaving a reflective strand through the comic frivolity - a strand of more profound characterization, of more thought-provoking material than was usual in opera buffa.  Bertati's script, especially, was a thunderclap, a libretto of revolutionary social criticism that worked precisely because of its buffo costume, making points which, had they appeared nakedly in a pamphlet, would have spelled serious trouble for the author."
The result is a triumphantly modern work that leaves far behind the affectations of a dissolute aristocracy even as it lampoons that class' insistence on its traditional privileges.  Nowhere can this be seen so well as in the outright rejection by Figaro of the Count's wish to exercise his droit du seigneur with Susanna on her wedding night.

Yesterday evening's performance was extremely satisfying.  According to the program notes, conductor Levine had already led 67 performances of the opera in the twenty year period between 1985 and 2005.  He certainly knew the score, if not by heart, then well enough to bring out every nuance of Mozart's music.  He and the orchestra well deserved the huge round of applause they received at the beginning of the second half.  The cast itself, though, was not particularly distinguished and would have benefited from the inclusion of more experienced singers.  Perhaps best of those appearing was Isabel Leonard as Cherubino.

This was a new production and that's always a cause for concern, especially in the last few years as the Met has come up with one oddity after another in its search for relevance.  Here the opera was updated, without much reason, to the 1930's.  (In an interview, producer Richard Eyre stated that he had been inspired by Jean Renoir's 1939 La Règle du jeu - a wonderfully sophisticated film that has always been among my cinematic favorites and whose plot was itself to an extent based on that of the opera - but I found the argument unconvincing.)  The best that can be said of this production is that it was fairly unobtrusive.  The set itself, at least what one could see of it (yes, it was very dark), resembled nothing so much as a Con Ed substation.  I do applaud, however, the decision to have only one intermission in the four-act opera (whose running time was still approximately 3 hours 50 minutes).  No matter what may be said of the singers' need to rest their voices, I've never understood the purpose of having a lengthy intermission after each act of a given work.  It only damages the dramatic continuity and unnecessarily drags out the evening for the audience.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Good Shepherd Church: Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Beethoven, Hummel, Glinka and Taneyev

In many ways I found yesterday's matinee by the Jupiter Symphony Players to be more compelling than that I attended two weeks ago and about which I've previously posted.  The reason?  The program consisted entirely of lesser known works I'd never before encountered but that I thought were nevertheless of high quality and well worth the time spent listening.  The theme of the recital centered on the interrelationship of German and Russian music and began with three pieces from the early nineteenth century by Beethoven, Hummel and Glinka followed by a twentieth century piano trio by Sergei Taneyev.

The program opened with Beethoven's 12 Variations on a Russian Dance from Das Waldmädchen in A major, WoO 71 (1796).  As Drew Petersen - the pianist for this solo work (as well as for all the other pieces performed at the recital) - pointed out, Beethoven was fond of variations when he first began his career and often played them extemporaneously as requested by the audience.  Such may very well have been the origin of this particular work, and it's entirely possible Beethoven only troubled to write down the music after having performed it in recital.  The composer's first published work, the WoO 66, was in fact exactly such a set of improvised variations and helped build his initial reputation as both a pianist and composer to be reckoned with.  In any event, the work was a pleasant enough piece from Beethoven's earliest period in Vienna.  An interesting footnote here is the authorship of the ballet Das Waldmädchen itself.  While generally attributed to Paul Wranitzky, the ensemble's website claims it was instead composed by the violinist Giovanni Giornovichi.

The next work was Johann Hummel's Adagio, Variations and Rondo on Schöne Minka, Op. 78 (1818).  The original Schöne Minka ("Pretty Minka") was a well known Ukrainian folk song whose popularity inspired any number of arrangements among classical composers of the time.  Beethoven himself took it on in his Variations, Op. 107, but it is Hummel's arrangement for flute, cello and piano that is most highly regarded today.  The work is an exceptionally polished piece and must have been quite entertaining to the Viennese audiences who first heard it.

The mood changed substantially as the ensemble moved to the next piece, Mikhail Glinka's Trio Pathétique (1832) for clarinet, bassoon and piano.  Although Glinka is widely referred to as the "Father of Russian Music," primarily for his influence on many of his country's other composers, the trio is from his middle period before he had fully incorporated Russian folk idioms into his own compositions and was still heavily affected by German and Italian musical styles.  Yet the tone of the work is quite different from that of the Viennese pieces played earlier.  Glinka had already returned to St. Petersburg from Berlin at the time he wrote the trio and shortly thereafter in 1836 composed one of his most highly regarded works, the opera A Life for the Tsar.

After intermission, the program concluded with Sergei Taneyev's Piano Trio in D major, Op. 22 (1906-1908).  Again, there is no mistaking the Russian spirit in this powerful and emotional work.  Taneyev himself is best remembered today as the object of Sofia Tolstoy's unrequited love.  (The novelist himself reacted to his wife's infatuation by penning The Kreutzer Sonata, a novella most notable for its graphic descriptions of the sexual jealousy that eventually led the protagonist to murder his wife.)  Taneyev was also a close confidante of Tchaikovsky, under whom he had studied composition, and the only one whom that composer allowed to freely criticize his work.  At any rate, the performance of Taneyev's piano trio at yesterday's recital was truly remarkable.  Drew Petersen on piano was joined by Mayuko Kamio on violin and Gabriel Cabezas on cello.  This was the really best I've heard this ensemble play and I was happy to give a standing ovation at the end of the work.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Haydn and Beethoven

Every season, the Orion Quartet put on a series of four recitals at Mannes.  This represents a unique opportunity for those who love classical music to hear one of the world's greatest string quartets give their interpretations of key pieces of the chamber repertoire.  Yesterday evening, in a particularly memorable performance, the ensemble played seminal works by Haydn, often referred to as "the Father of the String Quartet," and Beethoven, who lifted this particular arrangement of instruments to its greatest heights.

The program opened with Haydn's Quartet in F minor, Op. 20 No. 5 (1772).  There can be no doubt that the six works that make up the Op. 20 broke new ground in the development of the string quartet, most notably the No. 5 which made use of the F minor key to create a somber mood not previously associated with the genre and in which the influence of the highly emotional Sturm und Drang movement then prevalent in Europe can most clearly be seen.  This pre-Romantic rejection of Rationalism had already led Haydn to a refutation of the popular Galante style in favor of a return to the earlier Baroque use of counterpoint.  As the Wikipedia article states most emphatically:
"When Haydn published his opus 33 quartets, ten years after the opus 20, he wrote that they were composed in 'an entirely new and particular manner.' But, if the opus 33 was the culmination of a process, opus 20 was the proving ground. In this set of quartets, Haydn defined the nature of the string quartet — the special interplay of instruments that Goethe called 'four rational people conversing.' Many of the compositional techniques used by composers of string quartets to the present day were tried out and perfected in these works. 
"'This cannot be overstated,' writes Ron Drummond.  'The six string quartets of Opus 20 are as important in the history of music, and had as radically a transforming effect on the very field of musical possibility itself, as Beethoven's Third Symphony would 33 years later.'  And Sir Donald Tovey writes of the quartets, 'Every page of the six quartets of op. 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance... there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much.'"
The second work on the program, the Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33 No. 2 (1781), was also by Haydn and taken from a later group of quartets that were, if anything, of even greater importance than those of the Op. 20.  That Haydn himself considered them as such can be seen from the private subscription letters he wrote in which he referred to them, as noted above, as having been written "in an entirely new, special way."  The Op. 33 pieces, known as the "Russian" after their dedicatee Grand Duke Paul, differ from those of the Op. 20 in that they are generally more lighthearted in character.  This is especially true of the No. 2 which was nicknamed the "Joke" for the numerous false endings Haydn placed in the final movement to confuse his listeners.  This should not be taken to imply, however, that these quartets were any less seriously constructed than those he had written nine years before.  To the contrary, their complexity was to give inspiration to both Mozart and Beethoven in the composition of their own works and thus provide the basis for the classical string quartet as we now know it.

After intermission, the program concluded with Beethoven's Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (1825).  This was music on an entirely different plane than that performed in the first half and offered the audience the opportunity to witness the evolution of the string quartet in the half century that lay between Haydn's Op. 20 and Beethoven's late works.  I have always considered Op. 132, together with its companion the Op. 131, to be the two greatest chamber pieces ever composed.  Certainly there is no precedent for the long third movement, written in the Lydian mode, in which Beethoven gave thanks for his recovery from a near fatal illness.  To me, it has an almost mystical quality that can be found nowhere else in his oeuvre.  The work never fails to reward the attentive listener with profound insight into the mind of the composer as he triumphed over deafness and ill health to arrive at last at apotheosis.  It is perhaps the most sublime achievement of Beethoven's late period, even greater in its celebration of the human spirit than the more famous Ninth Symphony.

Once again the Orion Quartet, in a flawless performance of these difficult works, proved itself to be foremost string quartet ensemble now active.  Beyond the technical virtuosity of its members - Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violin; Steven Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello - these artists invariably display total empathy with the composers whose music they perform as well as deep respect for each work's meaning.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Highlights of the Coming 2014-2015 Season

Now that summer has ended, it's time once again to look forward to the coming season of classical music and opera in New York City.  I've already purchased my subscriptions and single tickets and am looking forward with great anticipation to seeing a number of great performances over the next several months.

The Met Opera, having resolved its labor disputes for this year at least, will be offering a number of important works in repertoire.  I considered last season, when I attended eleven performances, to be the best the Met had put on in decades and I'm now hoping for more of the same.  In making my selection of tickets, I was most anxious to attend those performances that will be conducted by James Levine.  As he approaches retirement, Levine has distinguished himself many times over as one of the greatest opera conductors of the past century.  At this point, any occasion on which he takes the podium should be considered a historic performance and a "must see" for anyone with the slightest interest in the vocal arts.  Those operas which I will be attending and that Maestro Levine is scheduled to conduct include a new production of  Le Nozze di Figaro as well as Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Ernani and Un Ballo in Maschera.  In addition to those conducted by Levine, there are other significant operas in repertory.  These include Massenet's Manon, a new production of La Donna del Lago featuring Rossini specialist Joyce DiDonato, and a double bill that pairs Tchaikovsky's Iolanta with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, both conducted by Valery Gergiev.

At Carnegie Hall, I will be seeing more of James Levine as he leads the Met Opera Orchestra in three Sunday matinee performances, one of which will include Mahler's Ninth Symphony.  Still more Mahler symphonies have been programmed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (#2) and the San Francisco Symphony (#7).  Other great orchestras that will be on stage this season will include the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle, performing Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances together with Stravinsky's Firebird and the Chicago Symphony, led by Riccardo Muti, performing Scriabin's First and Third Symphonies.  Joyce DiDonato will be appearing several times at Stern Auditorium as part of the Perspectives series, most notably in a concert version of Handel's Alcina conducted by Baroque specialist Harry Bicket.  As far as recitals, there will be more than the usual number of talented pianists.  These include Richard Goode, András Schiff, Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang and Leif Ove Andsnes.

With ticket prices beginning at only $10, the Jupiter Symphony Players have established themselves as one of the best values for chamber music available in New York City.  The ensemble consistently puts together intriguing programs that include lesser known works along with old favorites.  This season the group's guest artists will include such excellent musicians as Seymour Lipkin and Cynthia Phelps.

Finally, but not least, Mannes Music School continues to show its support for the community by offering most performances for free.  The highlights here will be a series of four recitals by the extraordinary Orion Quartet and a faculty recital that features Gilbert Kalish with Timothy Eddy.  There will also be free performances given by the Mannes student orchestra at Alice Tully Hall.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Good Shepherd Church: Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Mozart, Liszt, Haydn and Schumann

Yesterday afternoon the Jupiter Symphony Players began their 2014-2015 season at Good Shepherd Church with a matinee performance of well known pieces by Mozart, Liszt, Haydn and Schumann.  The house was packed - extra seats had to brought in - and the audience, as is always the case for this ensemble, was extremely enthusiastic.

The program opened with Mozart's Flute Quartet No. 1 in D major, K. 285 (1777), one of three quartets for that instrument commissioned of Mozart during his stay in Mannheim - he was at the time traveling through Europe with his mother in search of employment - by an amateur flautist  named Ferdinand Dejean (in some sources, Willem Britten DeJong).  The three-movement piece is very light and without much substance, a fact that may be attributed as much to Mozart's young age as to his stated antipathy towards the flute.  Nevertheless, it is also an enjoyable early work so filled with high spirits that it is always a pleasure to hear it.  Its second movement, a brief adagio in B minor, is particularly beguiling.

The next work consisted of two selections for solo piano from Liszt's Tre sonetti del Petrarca (1839-1846).  This work was later revised by the composer and eventually incorporated (as Nos. 4 to 6) into the second suite, Deuxième année: Italie, of his Années de pèlerinage.  These compositions were in fact early tone poems in which Liszt described in musical form the impressions he had received while traveling through Italy from 1837 to 1839 in the company of Marie d’Agoult.  The selections at hand drew their inspiration from Petrarch sonnets Nos. 47 and 104.  It is interesting to consider how intensely the legendary poet's verses must have fired the imagination of the Romantic composer when he first read them, most especially the 47th in which Petrarch "blesses all the circumstances of his passion."  The two short pieces were expertly played at this recital by Canadian pianist André Laplante.

The first half ended with Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major, H. 1/105 (1792), a piece written in London at the request of impresario Johann Peter Salomon, the same who affixed the title "Jupiter" to Mozart's 41st symphony.  A sinfonia concertante is basically a classical concerto in which the orchestra accompanies more than one solo instrument.  The present work was originally scored for four solo instruments - violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.  It is not clear why these particular four instruments should have been chosen other than that similar compositions by Haydn's former student Ignaz Pleyel had recently proved successful.  At yesterday's recital, the work was performed in an arrangement by Mordechai Rechtman for string sextet that was thoroughly satisfying and preserved all the genius of Haydn's music.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 (1842), one of the composer's best known works from his "Year of Chamber Music."  It was also one of the earliest examples of the piano quintet as we now know it, that is, the pairing of piano with string quartet.  Although the work was dedicated to Schumann's wife Clara, it was actually Felix Mendelssohn who gave the first private performance and who afterwards suggested various revisions to it.  The Jupiter Players gave a strong interpretation and pianist Laplante once again displayed a great affinity for the Romantic repertoire.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Met Museum: The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design, is extremely limited in its scope.  That the entire show takes up only one small gallery on the museum's main floor should perhaps come as no great surprise.  Victorian art has long been out of fashion and these days is usually described in such disparaging terms as "quaint" and given short shrift by historians.  Even in its own time, the movement exerted a good deal more influence on the development of the decorative arts in Great Britain than it did on the course of European art history.

The concept that informs the Pre-Raphaelite vision is ultimately unworldy.  It looks back longingly to the Quattrocento period before the "corrupting" influence of Raphael had yet made itself felt and helped lead to the glories of the High Renaissance.  There is a certain naivete at work here insofar as a long ago period has been remembered nostalgically by artists who have turned their backs on the modern world - Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris had actually once been theology students at Oxford - and who have then attempted to recall this earlier time, not as it was, but as they would like it to have been.  It is no accident that the greatest aesthetic influence on the movement should have been the writings of John Ruskin whose idealization of the past and exaltation of the Gothic can most clearly be seen in The Stones of Venice.  The results of any such attempts to recreate the spirit of a vanished era must necessarily strike the viewer as artificial.  They become cleverly executed tableaux rather than living works of art.

The centerpiece of the current exhibit is clearly Burne-Jones' The Love Song (1868-1877), a large-scale oil on canvas that the museum refers to on its website as "its greatest Pre-Raphaelite acquisition."  It is an extremely mannered painting that is imitative of Botticelli's style but contains nothing of that artist's genius.  Arranged around it are a number of other paintings and drawings of which the three most interesting - perhaps because the sitters had such close relationships with the artists that they bring these works to life almost in spite of themselves - are The Convalescent (1872), a study of the artist's dangerously ill wife by Ford Madox Brown, an 1868 portrait of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that clearly shows the artist's growing infatuation with his married subject, and Lady Lilith (1867) in which Rossetti depicts his mistress Fanny Cornforth as the infamous Biblical character.  Another work, the painting Lachrymae (1894-1895) by Frederic Leighton, whose association with the Pre-Raphaelites is tenuous at best, is no more than a colorful exercise in sentimentality.  Notable by its absence is the work most often associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1870), the painting that is usually considered the artist's masterpiece.

As far as photography is concerned, there is only one example on view, an illustration by Julia Margaret Cameron commissioned by her neighbor Tennyson for his Idylls of the King.  Cameron was an exceptional photographer - I posted last fall a review of an exhibit of her work also held at the Met Museum - and it is a shame that she should be represented here by such a mawkish piece.  (Curiously, the photo on display is not that shown on the museum's website.)  Much more interesting are two portraits which are not hung at the show but are contained in the museum's printed flyer for it.  These are a dual portrait from 1890 of Morris and Burne-Jones taken by Frederick Hollyer and an evocative 1863 portrait of a seated Rossetti taken by Lewis Carroll.

The works on display that deserve the greatest attention are those related to the Arts and Crafts movement.  Among these are Burne-Jones' tapestry Angeli Laudantes (1898), two ceramic plates by William de Morgan and the textile hanging Bird (1878) by William Morris.  The show would have benefited greatly by the inclusion of more such craftwork.

The exhibit continues through October 26, 2014.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tina Modotti: Radical Photographer

Tina Modotti: Radical Photographer by Margaret Hooks is an excellent biography of a major photographer who for too long languished in the shadow of her much more famous mentor Edward Weston.  Not only were Modotti's creative accomplishments overshadowed by the attention given Weston's, they were also the victim of Modotti's own sensational lifestyle which saw her abandon photography altogether for a life of political activism in the cause of international Communism after the murder of her revolutionary lover Julio Antonio Mella in Mexico City in 1929.  As a result, Modotti's oeuvre is much smaller than that of most other major photographers and therefore more difficult to evaluate objectively.  Matters have not been helped by a lack of reliable biographies and critical studies.  Pino Cacucci's Tina Modotti: A Life, for example, is a lurid account that focuses primarily on the photographer's involvement with Soviet agent Vittorio Vidali.  It goes so far as to suggest that Modotti was not only involved in Mella's assassination but in that of Trotsky as well and even hints that Modotti was eventually poisoned by Vidali as her usefulness to the party came to an end.

Biographer Hooks goes a long way to redressing these problems by providing a balanced and compassionate overview of Modotti's entire life.  The inclusion in Hooks' book of reproductions of Modotti's photographs (as well as photos taken by Weston for which she modeled), though not of the highest quality, allows the reader to form his/her own opinion of Modotti's skills.  What emerges is a portrait of an extremely talented and caring, if somewhat naive, woman who allowed her passion for the oppressed to overcome her better judgment as she was inexorably drawn into a political movement whose aims she was not fully able to grasp until it was no longer possible to end her participation in them.

Modotti was born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. at an early age.  It was her early life as an immigrant in San Francisco that provided her earliest insight into the plight of the downtrodden and displaced.  She herself did not suffer greatly, though, and soon began an acting career that took her to Hollywood where she starred in the silent film The Tiger's Coat and where she eventually married Roubaix "Robo" de l'Abrie Richey.  Although Richey is usually portrayed as a minor figure in Modotti's life, it was his decision to travel to Mexico, where he soon after died, that was the catalyst for Modotti's own relocation to that country.  The influence that Mexico had upon her cannot be overestimated.  Not only did she there come into her own as a photographer, but she also made important connections among that country's most significant artists.  These included such major figures as Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo as well as muralist José Clemento Orozco, all of whom held radical left wing beliefs.  It was through these associations that Modotti began the political involvement that would prove her downfall.

As a photographer, Modotti is often seen as a mere acolyte of Weston rather than an important artist in her own right.  This is unfair.  While the importance of Weston's tutelage cannot be overlooked, Modotti successfully used the skills he had taught her to express her own unique vision.  Though she had a highly advanced aesthetic sensibility - as can be seen in her famous Calla Lillies (c. 1925) - and was extremely gifted as a portrait artist, Modotti emphasized in her work a radical social conscience entirely missing from Weston's output.  It is in such works as Worker's Parade (1926), Hands Holding Tool (c. 1927) and Mella's Typewriter (1928) that she truly came into her own.

If one seeks reasons for the lack of critical attention paid to Modotti until recently, I think there are two principal causes.  The first is political and fairly straightforward.  At the time of her death in 1942, the U.S. was on the verge of entering the Cold War.  Modotti's status as an avowed Stalinist agent during the Spanish Civil War and afterwards clearly prevented her acceptance and recognition in this country for decades.  The second and more complex cause is that of gender bias.  Modotti was not only a female photographer in a profession dominated by males, she was also an emancipated woman who had a great many lovers over the course of her lifetime.  It can easily be argued that her perceived promiscuity caused her to be held in lower esteem than would otherwise have been the case.  If this is indeed true, then there is clearly a double standard at work inasmuch her lover Weston was never penalized in his professional standing for the many notorious affairs he himself conducted over the years.  At any rate, it is now time to view Modotti independently of her political and personal life and to acknowledge her achievement as one of the twentieth century's greatest photographers.