Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Good Shepherd Church: Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Mozart, Schubert, Schreker and Hiller

At yesterday afternoon's matinee, the Jupiter Symphony Players performed works by Mozart, Schubert, Franz Schreker and Ferdinand Hiller in a program entitled Austro-German Gems.  The works featured were lesser known pieces I had never before heard.  All I knew of them were the brief descriptions I had read on the Jupiter website.

The program opened with three of Mozart's Kegelduette, K. 487/496a, Nos. 4, 5 and 8 (1786).  These duos - Mozart composed twelve in all - were originally written for two horns but were here arranged for horn and clarinet.  According to the Jupiter site, they were "most likely composed for the virtuoso hornist Joseph Leutgeb (a friend of the Mozart family in Salzburg) and completed on July 27, 1786 while playing ninepins."  Apparently Mozart was very fond of a game called kegel (German for "skittles") and it's from this that the work's title derives.  At any rate, these were very brief pieces - it took only ten minutes to perform all three - and were pleasant enough to hear if not particularly distinguished.

The next work was Schreker's Der Wind (1909) arranged for violin, clarinet, horn, cello and piano.  Although Schreker is known today, to the extent that he is remembered at all, as a composer of opera during the Weimar period, he first gained recognition through several dance pieces he had written early in the twentieth century before the outbreak of World War I.  According to Wikipedia:
"His "pantomime", Der Geburtstag der Infantin, commissioned by the dancer Grete Wiesenthal and her sister Elsa for the opening of the 1908 Kunstschau, first called attention to his development as a composer. Such was the success of the venture that Schreker composed several more dance-related works for the two sisters including Der Wind, Valse lente and Ein Tanzspiel (Rokoko)."
The work itself was moody and opened with a the plaintive sound of a violin accompanied only by piano.  To me it foreshadowed Schreker's tragic end as a victim of Nazi persecution.  It certainly would have been interesting to have heard it in performance along with the actual ballet for which it was written.  Reading the quote above, one wonders how much contact Schreker himself might have had with KlimtKokoschka and the other members of the Vienna Secession who participated in the 1908 Kunstschau.  Grete Wiesenthal, the dancer who commissioned the piece, occupies a minor place in the biography of Mahler.  The conductor created a scandal when he bypassed the ballet master at the Hofoper in order to give a coveted role to Wiesenthal and was forced to resign as a result.

The Schreker was followed by Schubert's String Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D. 173 (1815).  The composer was only eighteen at the time he wrote this work.  If it as not as great a masterpiece as the later quartets, it is still a remarkable achievement for one so young to have composed.  It shows clearly the influence Mozart had on Schubert when the latter first began his career.  But already Schubert had an individual style all his own that comes through here perfectly well and impresses the listener with its maturity and self-assurance.

After intermission, the program closed with Hiller's Piano Quartet No. 3 in A minor Op. 133 (1868).  As a close friend of Mendelssohn and a student of Hummel, Hiller was at the very center of German music in the mid-nineteenth century.  He was even the dedicatee of Schumann's piano concerto and conducted that work at its premiere.  Judging by this work's high opus number, he was a very prolific composer; but he first enjoyed a very successful career as a concert pianist and later was appointed director of the Leipzig Gewendhaus Orchestra.  The quartet itself is a major work.  The slow second movement, marked adagio expressivo, that opens with the cello playing alone is particularly beautiful.  Listening to such a work can only make one wonder at the twists of fate that ultimately rendered this composer, so famous in his own day, almost totally forgotten today.  This is definitely a work that deserves to be performed more often.  It also makes one curious to hear more works by Hiller.

The ensemble played all the above works with their usual high level of musicianship.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Carnegie Hall: The English Concert Performs Handel's Alcina

In February, I posted an enthusiastic review of The English Concert's performance of  the oratorio Theodora.  Yesterday afternoon, the orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall with a presentation of yet another Handel classic - the 1735 opera Alcina.  Harpsichordist Harry Bicket once again conducted and the lead this time was sung by Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano who received such acclaim at the Met this past season for her appearance in the title role of Rossini's La Cenerentola.

If Alcina is not very often performed today it is primarily because it was written, as were Handel's other operatic works, in the form of an opera seria.  Though this genre was dominant in the Baroque era - and Handel was in fact one of its leading practitioners - it was doomed to become an anachronism as popular tastes changed.  As the name would imply, the works composed in this mode were deadly serious and usually placed in mythological or historical settings.  To say the plots were unrealistic would be an understatement.  Sung by castrati, these operas were intended purely as aristocratic entertainments and were as far removed from the real world as possible.  As social change swept through Europe in the late eighteenth century and the threat of the French Revolution grew ever more palpable, this outmoded style at last gave way to that of opera buffa which placed new emphasis on the plight of the common man and which used contemporary surroundings rather than the distant past for its settings.  The final nail in the coffin for opera seria was Da Ponte's brilliant libretto for Le nozze di Figaro.  Having studied the libretti of his countryman Bertati, Da Ponte found new possibilities in opera buffa beyond the merely comic and with them the means to give greater depth to characterization than had previously been deemed appropriate.  It is with Figaro that the standard repertoire is usually considered to begin.

Even in Handel's day, the limits of opera seria had already grown apparent.  In England, though, the challenge to its supremacy came from an unexpected source - the ballad opera.  Only seven years before Alcina's premiere, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay had taken the London musical scene by storm.  Here again, as in opera buffa, the story centered on ordinary people rather than on the aristocracy and their elitist pastimes.  Handel certainly saw the writing on the wall.  For one thing, Alcina was his last opera to use magic as a plot device.  Shortly afterwards, he gave up writing Italian opera altogether and instead concentrated on composing oratorios for his British audiences.

With all that in mind, it's surprising how much fun this opera actually turned out to be.  No matter its archaic structure and implausible plot, this was a highly enjoyable entertainment in every sense.  The work contained some of Handel's finest and most original music.  It was especially evocative, almost spooky, at the close of Act II when Alcina attempted to summon the evil spirits with her magic.  The opera's four-hour length passed very swiftly as the wonderful cast and orchestra received one well deserved round of applause after another from a very appreciative audience.  DiDonato was in perfect form and brought down the house with her Act II arias "Ah! mio cor" and "Ombre pallide."  Everyone else onstage was  equally as good.  Special mention should be given to Christine Rice as Bradamante and Alice Coote as Ruggiero.  This was an excellent example of a talented cast of artists working together as an ensemble.

This concert production premiered earlier in the month at the Barbican Center in London and then traveled to several other European cities before finally arriving in New York.  It was a very polished production and not simply a curiosity offered to devotees of period instruments.  It was all the more disappointing then that the performance at Carnegie Hall failed to sell out.  The empty seats were a sad commentary on the state of the arts in America.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mannes Piano Recital: Couperin, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy, Lieberson and Virgil Thomson

After having just heard on Wednesday a recital given by Juilliard piano students, it was interesting to attend a similar event yesterday evening at Mannes.  Both schools are known for the excellence of their piano departments and this occasion provided an opportunity to make comparisons between the two.  The theme of the Mannes recital was Pianistic Characters, 1714-2014 and was curated by faculty member Thomas Sauer.

The program, which proceeded chronologically by composer, opened with five selections - Allemande (L'Auguste), Première CouranteSarabande (La Majesteuse), Rondeau (Les Abeilles), Gavotte (La Bourbonnaise) - taken from Ordre 1er de clavecin by François Couperin.  I was not familiar with the composer's method of categorization, but according to the Wikipedia article:
"These pieces were not grouped into suites, as was the common practice, but ordres, which were Couperin’s own version of suites containing traditional dances as well as descriptive pieces. The first and last pieces in an ordre were of the same tonality, but the middle pieces could be in other closely related tonalities."
The pianist was David Mamedov a student whom I had heard perform last season and whose playing captured very well the essence of these Baroque pieces originally composed for harpsichord.

The next work consisted of selections from Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 33 (1802).  It's surprising that these wonderful pieces, which Beethoven obviously composed to show off his own skills as a virtuoso, are not performed more often.  This was the first time I'd heard them in many seasons.  The playing by Shuhui (Sophia) Zhou was outstanding and I was easily able to imagine how they must have sounded when Beethoven himself sat at the keyboard.  

Following this were four selections - Des Abends, Aufschwung, Warum, and Grillen - taken from Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837).  For my taste, Schumann put too much thought into these works - inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann - with their constant interplay between the imaginary characters Florestan and Eusebius.  The intellectual content sometimes appears to take precedence over the music itself in Schumann's imagination.  Nevertheless, these pieces were given a great performance here by Kyle Walker, another very talented student whom I had heard play last season. 

I had heard on Wednesday Nos. 15-24 of Chopin's Préludes, Op. 28 (1839) and so was looking forward at Mannes to the performance of more selections from that same series.  This time the pieces chosen were Nos. 1-8 and were played in spectacular fashion by Vladimir Rumyantsev.  I was extremely impressed and actually thought this performance superior to that which I had heard at Juilliard.

The works of Debussy were then featured with selections taken from Préludes, Book II (1912-1913).  Though the composer steadfastly rejected the characterization of his works as "Impressionistic," there is really no other word to describe them.  They linger in the memory like half forgotten dreams.

Several musical portraits by Virgil Thomson were then performed.  Over the course of his career, Thomson composed more than 140 musical portraits for piano.  These were later cataloged by  the critic Anthony Tommasini, himself the subject of one such portrait, and published in a book entitled Virgil Thomson's Musical Portraits (1986).   One review of that work notes:
"At the outset of Part I, the author [Tommasini] reminds us that Virgil Thomson conceived of the musical portrait as an attempt 'to depict in an abstract instrumental composition the inner nature of his portrait subject' (p. 20).  Tommasini informs us as well that the literary portraits of Gertrude Stein impelled Thomson to try to create musical portraits in which he would apply the process used by Stein in her work, a process that Thomson called 'the discipline of spontaneity' (p. 14)."
The five portraits chosen for this session were of Christopher Cox, Barbara Epstein, Franco Assetto, Craig Rutenberg and Paul Sanfacon.  I have to admit I was not familiar with any of these individuals and perhaps for that reason could gain no impression of their characters from their respective portraits.  Both the Debussy and Thomson works were played very well by Shuang Yu.

Kyle Walker then returned to stage to perform three fantasy pieces by Peter Lieberson composed in memory of three family members who had recently passed on.  The first and third were elegiac while the second middle piece was in contrast rather jarring.  I had not previously been familiar with Lieberson or his work and was surprised to discover he had been a student of Chögyam Trungpa whose works on Buddhism had at one time exerted a great deal of influence on my own thought.

The final work on the program was Commitment Issues (1967) by Edward Windels, a contemporary composer whose work I had again never before heard.  The composer was present for the performance by Julia Hamos and came onstage beforehand to introduce the piece.  Windels is employed in musical theater and the influence of that genre was apparent throughout this short work.  It was both lively and enjoyable.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream

I posted several months ago regarding an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite art I had seen at the Met Museum.  I wrote then that:
"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."
In a certain sense, much the same could be said of the work of the prolific French painter Gustave Moreau.  His late work, in fact, sometimes bears closer affinity to that of Edward Burne-Jones than it does to that of the Symbolist painters with whom he is usually grouped.  This can be seen most clearly in such a painting as Orestes and the Erinyes (1895) or in The Poet and the Siren (1895), an oil on canvas he completed for adaptation into a tapestry.

What crucially distinguishes Moreau's work from that of the Pre-Raphaelites, however, is the former's need to proceed beyond a historical or mythical mise-en-scène to the imagery of the unconscious mind.  There are any number of archetypes, to use Carl Jung's terminology, occupying the canvases Moreau completed during his lifetime; and he reworked these same themes over and over as though fixated upon them.  Salome, in the many representations Moreau completed of her, is not simply another Biblical character but becomes instead the very image of woman as the wanton seductress.

At the same time, I feel it would be incorrect to label Moreau a Symbolist, a term which often seems no more than a catch phrase with which to label those fin de siècle artists who cannot otherwise be easily categorized.  Most importantly, no matter how greatly his work may have been admired by Huysmans, Moreau was not in love with decadence for its own sake.  It should be remembered that the artist was a respected member of the Academy who exhibited at the Salon and who taught at the École des Beaux Arts (where he counted Matisse, among others, as his pupil).  Though he was always first and foremost a painter of historical and mythical scenes, his work nonetheless contained an added psychological dimension that made him a favorite of Breton and the Surrealists.

Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream was published in 1999 to accompany a large traveling exhibit that originated at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris.  It is a sumptuous book and the reproductions are excellent throughout.  It contains four short but informative essays followed by a catalog of 130 works.  Not only are the majority of the major paintings displayed here but so too are the numerous preparatory sketches and studies that went into them.  These show clearly what an exacting draftsman Moreau was in his working methods and how painstakingly he labored to create the final images.  For example, accompanying Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra (1869-1876) are no less than 52 such preparatory works as well as a four-page essay by Larry J. Feinberg that carefully details the history of this painting as thoroughly as any reader could desire.

The highlights of Moreau's career are all here: Orpheus (1865) in which a young woman holds the head and the lyre of the dead poet, The Triumph of Alexander the Great (1890) in which the conqueror receives the submission of a defeated king, and The Apparition (1876) in which Salome has a vision of the decapitated head of John the Baptist.  But there are other works here as well which demonstrate conclusively that Moreau was more than just a genre painter.  Among the most surprising pieces to be included in this volume are Moreau's experiments with pure color, such as Sketch of an Interior (1878), which anticipates twentieth century abstract painting and whose bright coloring almost outdoes that of the Fauves who followed and who looked upon Moreau as the source of their inspiration.

After having read this volume and studied the images within it, I came away with new respect for Moreau.  He was indisputably one of the important French artists of the late nineteenth century.  If his works have fallen out of favor these days, it has more to do with changes in popular taste than with any failing on the part of the artist.  After all, how many are there among us now who have received so sufficient a classical education as to be able to recognize the many classical allusions contained within the painter's oeuvre?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Alice Tully: Juilliard Piano Recital: Scriabin, Ravel, Szymanowski, Mikhashoff and Chopin

Yesterday afternoon's hour-long piano recital by Juilliard students, part of the Wednesdays at One series, featured short works by Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel, Karol Szymanowski, Yvar Mikhashoff and Frédéric Chopin.

The program opened with Scriabin's Fantaisie in B minor, Op. 28 (1900) and was performed by Francisco Montero.  This was an enjoyable one-movement piece about eight minutes in length and fairly characteristic of the composer's works for piano.  An amusing story is told of how Scriabin forgot he had ever written the piece in the first place:
"When Leonid Sabaneyev started to play one of its themes on the piano in Scriabin's Moscow flat (now a museum), Scriabin called out from the next room 'Who wrote that? It sounds familiar.'. 'Your 'Fantasie', was the reply. Scriabin said, 'What Fantasie?'"
The next piece, and for me the real highlight of the recital, was Ravel's "Scarbo" from Gaspard de la nuit (1908).  ChengCheng Yao, the pianist who played it, certainly was looking for a challenge when she chose this piece.  The Wikipedia article (referencing the biography The Brilliant Music of Ravel by Charles Rosen) claimed:
"The piece is famous for its difficulty, partly because Ravel intended the Scarbo movement to be more difficult than Balakirev's Islamey. Because of its technical challenges and profound musical structure, Scarbo is considered one of the most difficult solo piano pieces ever written."
If anything, this was an understatement.  The dexterity and skill demanded by the work was apparent throughout its nine-minute length and I could readily understand why Ravel once said of this piece, "I wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano."  It was difficult to believe the music I heard was produced by one instrument alone.  The performance yesterday was one the most brilliant displays of virtuosity I've seen by any pianist, let alone a student.

Next was Szymanowski's Variations in B flat, Op. 3 (1901-1903), a piece the composer dedicated to Artur Rubinstein.  This was an early work written when the composer was only about 20 years old.  Although Szymanowski is often considered the most important Polish composer of the twentieth century, there were few recognizable traces of that country's tradition in this work.  I thought it was much more reminiscent of Scriabin.  The talented pianist was Yun Wei.

This was followed by Mikhashoff's "Portrait of Madame Butterfly," an operatic sonata-fantasy on themes of Puccini in four parts (Prelude, Scherzo: Flower Duet, Nocturne and Finale).  I had never before heard of Mikhashoff, perhaps because he was known primarily as a pianist rather than a composer.  (I found it interesting that his original name was Ronald Mackay - Mikhashoff was his grandfather's name - and that he had had another career in the 1960's as a ballroom dancer.)  This transcription was clearly intended to show off the pianist's skills and was given an exciting rendition by Christopher Reynolds.

The recital concluded with those staples of the repertoire, Chopin's Preludes, Op. 28, Nos. 15 -24 (1839).  These are among the most lovely miniatures ever composed for the piano.  Here they were given a very able rendition by pianist Wenting Shi but seemed somewhat anticlimactic after the more flamboyant works that had preceded them.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Mannes: Richard Goode Master Class

When a non-musician sees a great pianist in recital, appearances can sometimes be deceiving .  So skillful and talented is the artist and so familiar is he with the piece at hand that a spectator often fails to appreciate all the thought and hard work that are involved before the pianist ever sets foot onstage.  So natural is the musician's playing and so effortless does he make it seem that one is tempted to think that with only a few hours practice one could do just as well himself.  Attending a master class such as that given yesterday morning at Mannes by Richard Goode serves an excellent corrective to any such misconceptions.

The class was in three parts and scheduled to last the same number of hours.  I only stayed myself for the first section which lasted 75 minutes and dealt with the Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:50 by Joseph Haydn as performed by a highly talented student named Hsin-I Huang.

The class began with the student's performance of the opening movement Allegro.  Goode then joined him onstage and proceeded to analyze his technique.  Though it would be impossible to recapitulate everything that was said (at any rate, I wasn't taking notes and can only paraphrase), the thrust of Goode's advice was to move as far away as possible from any approach that would give the playing a mechanical sound.  He commented that though it is important to keep the proper tempo, the pianist should should not be ruled by the metronome.  

When it came to the second movement Adagio, Goode made the interesting observation that the hardest part of playing a slow movement is making the notes disappear.  In other words, the playing should be so fluid that a listener is never conscious of individual notes.  Instead of hearing them - and listeners tend to focus most especially on sixteenth notes - an audience should be listening to where they are going.

Anything else said would be too technical or too specific to be of general use.  The above are most interesting as an indication of the thoughts a pianist has, or should have, when first approaching a great work of music.  Obviously, he does not simply sit down at the keyboard and pound out a tune.  A great deal of deliberation must first go into determining the composer's original intentions and thereby deciding how the piece should best be performed.  In this regard, Goode noted that it was both a blessing and a curse that Haydn did not leave more explicit instructions for the instrumentalist.  While a pianist may lack the composer's guidance, he also has more freedom to maneuver in order to achieve the sound he considers most appropriate.

I wondered what the lasting effect of this class was on the student.  Though the assistance he received on this one work was obvious, how did that carry over to other pieces he might play in the future?  I would think the ultimate benefit lay not so much in the implementation of any specific advice as in the development of a general approach to be taken when performing a work for the first time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Good Shepherd Church: Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Fuchs, Beethoven, Bartók and Dvořák

The theme of yesterday afternoon's recital by the Jupiter Symphony Players was "Contrasts" and featured little known works by four very different composers - Johann Fuchs, Ludwig van Beethoven, Béla Bartók and Antonin Dvořák.

The program opened with Beethoven's Duo in E-flat major for viola and cello mit zwei obligaten Augengläsern ("with two obbligato eyeglasses"), WoO.  Though written in 1796, when the composer was 26 and already established in Vienna, the piece was not published until 1912.  Beethoven had originally composed it to be played informally by himself and a friend, Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanowecz, who was an amateur cellist and who, like Beethoven himself, suffered from poor eyesight.  Hence the private joke regarding the eyeglasses.  The piece was brief, about ten minutes in length, and consisted of only two movements, an Allegro and Menuetto, performed without pause  This was a slight work, of course, but still delightful to hear.  It also offered some insight into the lighter side of the composer's character toward the end of his early period when he was only beginning to experience the first symptoms of his deafness.  

The next work was Fuchs's Trio in D major for clarinet, viola and cello (1808).  Fuchs is not particularly well remembered today.  He was one of those, together with Hummel and Tomasini, who oversaw the running of the Esterházy Court after Haydn's retirement; in 1809 he was appointed to Haydn's former position as kapellmeister. The trio consisted of four carefully composed movements - Allegro non molto, Romanze, Menuetto and Finale - and was a pleasant enough piece if not particularly inventive.

This was followed by what was for me the highlight of the afternoon, Bartók's Contrasts (1938), a wonderful chamber work I had never before heard performed.  Arranged for clarinet, violin and piano, the work was commissioned by, of all people, Benny Goodman, though it was actually the violinist Joseph Szigeti (for whom Bartók had already written in 1929 his Rhapsody No. 1) who initially approached the composer.  As first written, the piece consisted of only two movements, Verbunkos ("Recruiting Dance") and Sebes ("Fast Dance").  After the work - initially entitled Rhapsody - had had its premiere, Bartók added the middle movement, Pihenő ("Relaxation").  The complete work was then performed at Carnegie Hall in 1940 by Goodman, Szigeti and Bartók himself.  It was a lively exciting work derived, like much of Bartók's output, from elements of Hungarian and Romanian folk music but at the same time possessing a unique jazz flavor.

After intermission, the program closed with Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87 (1889).  This work, composed several years before Dvořák's New York sojourn, is one of those pieces that most clearly show the influence of Brahms even though it also contains a number of references to the Czech folk music that so heavily influenced Dvořák's oeuvre.  For my taste, the work was somewhat overdone.  It seemed at times, especially in the final movement, that Dvořák was writing music more suitable for an orchestra than for a simple chamber arrangement.  The Jupiter website referred to it as "big, bold and beautiful," and perhaps for me that was the problem - it was too much so.

The level of performance on all the pieces was excellent and each of the five musicians - Max Levinson, piano; Mark Kaplan, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Austin Huntington, cello; and Vadim Lando, clarinet - deserved a great deal of credit for being able to work so well with one another as an ensemble.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Carnegie Hall: James Levine Conducts Mahler #9

Yesterday afternoon the Met Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, performed works by Mozart and Mahler to begin their season of Sunday matinee concerts at Carnegie Hall.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 (1785) and featured Maurizio Pollini as soloist.  The concerto was an unusual choice.  In a concert where one of Mahler's longer symphonies is to be performed, the opening piece, if indeed there is one, is most often a little known work chosen more for its brevity than any other reason.  The Piano Concerto No. 21, of course, does not meet this criterion.  Instead, it is deservedly one of Mozart's best known and most often recorded works.  The second movement andante, in particular, is of haunting loveliness.  (And yes, this was the music included on the soundtrack of the Swedish film Elvira Madigan that for years gave the entire concerto its nickname.)

The K. 467 was written in Vienna at the peak of Mozart's popularity as a pianist and is only one of the many concertos he wrote for that instrument during this period.  Only a few weeks before, he had been soloist at the premiere of another masterpiece, the Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466.  If anything, despite its pleasant sound, the Piano Concerto No. 21 is an even more difficult work than its predecessor and serves as a test of any pianist's ability. The composer's father Leopold, who was visiting Vienna at the time of the premiere, described it as "astonishingly difficult."  I thought Pollini yesterday handled the challenge brilliantly.  I have seen this pianist often over the years and have always been impressed with his clear style of playing.  Although he has been faulted by some critics for a lack of emotional involvement, he has always seemed to me totally caught up in the music at hand.  Since none of Mozart's original cadenzas have survived, Pollini played those composed by Salvatore Sciarrino.  As for Levine's conducting, he brought to this interpretation of Mozart's music the same insight and ability he demonstrated at the performance of Figaro I attended at the Met several weeks ago.

After intermission, the orchestra closed the concert with Mahler's Symphony No. 9 (1908-1909).  Although this was not really the composer's last work - he in fact lived long enough to complete a substantial portion of the Symphony No. 10 - it certainly is his final word on the inevitability of death, a subject that had preoccupied him in one form or another all his life.  This is one point on which all the commentators are in agreement.  As Alban Berg wrote in 1912:
"This whole [first] movement is dominated by the presentiment of death, which makes itself known again and again over the movement's course. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense eruptions following the most gentle passages, and of course this intensity is strongest in the horrible moment where death becomes a certainty, where, in the middle of the deepest, most poignant longing for life, death makes itself known 'with the greatest violence.' Against that, there is no resistance."
And Leonard Bernstein is equally emphatic:
"The Ninth is the ultimate farewell … the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up."
Not that the entire symphony is one long funeral march.  The second movement Ländler is a relaxed if idiosyncratic take on the Austrian folk dance and a reflection of the composer's intense love of nature.  In the final movement, Mahler looks beyond death to new horizons in music itself.  The symphony has no home key - the movements progress from D to C to A minor and finally end in D-flat.  This abandonment of traditional tonality was to have a huge effect on Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School in the coming years.

I had seen Levine conduct this work with the Met Orchestra several years ago and thought this performance the better of the two.  In fact, this was one of the best performances of Mahler I've heard in quite some time.  In such a long work it is difficult for any conductor to maintain a level of intensity that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat throughout, but Levine here managed the feat quite well.  His conducting, as far as I could tell, was flawless.  The hushed ending of the final movement.was magical.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reception for Fukami Sueharu at Erik Thomsen Gallery

A reception was held this past Thursday evening at Erik Thomsen Gallery for Fukami Sueharu, the Japanese sculptor whose works are currently on exhibit.  I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to have met such a great artist.

I first encountered Fukami's ceramic work earlier this year at Points of Departure, an exhibit at the Japan Society of works on loan from the Brooklyn Museum.  What struck me most forcibly when on that occasion I viewed Infinity II (1994) was its distinctly modernist appearance.  The first association that came to mind was the Romanian sculptor Brâncuși.  Though Fukami himself has never acknowledged any Western influence on his work, it's impossible to believe when viewing these pieces that he could have been completely unaware of artistic tendencies that so closely paralleled his own style of expression.  Here is the same airiness and flowing freedom of movement that one finds in the best of Brâncuși's sculptures.  These wavelike pieces by Fukami seem in fact the very embodiment of an artist's soaring imagination.

One aspect of Fukami's work I noted at the exhibit was the enormous change that resulted from the use of different ceramic techniques.  And the contrast was not merely a superficial dissimilarity in appearance such as one might expect from a change in method.  Rather, it seemed at times as though the work of two artists rather than only the one had been put on display.  Just one look at any given work was sufficient to identify the procedure used to create it.  The first method was that of the potter's wheel.  The wheel thrown works were those which one customarily associates with custom ceramics made for everyday use.  These pieces included such artifacts as flower vases and an incense burner as well as familiar box shapes.  The second method was the high pressure slip casting normally used in the commercial manufacture of large standardized ceramics such as sanitary fixtures.  Fukami was first introduced to this process by his older brother in 1980.  It was the use of a mold that enabled the artist to produce the purely abstract works that are so avant-garde in appearance.  Though it was the slip cast works that were the most striking at this show and drew the most attention, the wheel thrown works possessed a low key charm of their own that invited closer inspection and rewarded the attentive viewer with an appreciation of their unaffected beauty.

Apart from their significance as fine art, Fukami's ceramics are also notable for the breathtaking quality of their craftsmanship.  While the designs themselves are of striking simplicity, it would be a great mistake to believe that they were therefore easy to produce.  One can only imagine how arduous a process was required to create just the smooth glaze that so evenly coats each piece.  Only years of constant practice could give an artist the control needed to execute such work.  And indeed Fukami learned the art of porcelain manufacture from his father.  As Shinya Maezaki notes in the informative essay included in the catalog:
"Growing up in such an environment, Fukami came to understand how important it was not to make any compromises in the selection of raw materials, the thoroughness of one’s preparations, or the quality of the finished work. In this respect, his formation as a ceramic artist was very different from that of someone who comes to ceramics as a hobby or diversion. As the son of a yakiya, a ceramic manufacturer with his own noborigama, he never once saw ceramics merely as a source of pleasure."
The Thomsen Gallery is itself impressive for the quality of the artists it presents.  In June, I attended an exhibit at the gallery of abstract kanji paintings by Inoue Yūichi and considered it the best one-man show I'd seen in many years.  Part of Eric's success is no doubt due to his training as well as his fluency in Japanese.  A biographical entry on the gallery's website notes that he "was the first foreigner to apprentice to an art dealer in Japan (the Tanaka Onkodô Gallery in Aoyama, Tokyo)."  When it came to staging the Fukami exhibit, he was also helped by the fact that his brother is married to Fukami's niece.  It was at the wedding of those two that Eric and Fukami first met.

On Thursday evening I also met Erik's wife Cornelia, a significant artist in her own right.  Though I haven't yet had a chance to see her original paintings - they are currently on exhibit at the Lesley Feely Gallery - I was very impressed by the quality of her work as shown in the catalog on display.

The Fukami Sueharu exhibit continues through October 31, 2014.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Juilliard415 at Holy Trinity: Castello, Marini, Corelli, Telemann and Vivaldi

What I enjoyed most about yesterday's noontime recital by the Juilliard415, the school's period instrument student group, was the opportunity to hear the works of lesser known artists - Dario Castello and Biagio Marini- performed together with those of the more famous composers - Arcangelo Corelli, Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi - who followed them.  It not only made for a more balanced program but also served to focus the audience's attention on the extent to which the former pair had influenced the latter group's style of composition.

The recital first focused on the stile moderno as practiced by Castello and Marini in the early seventeenth century.  An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica is quite explicit in emphasizing the importance this movement held in the development of the Western musical tradition:
"One of the most dramatic turning points in the history of music occurred at the beginning of the 17th century, with Italy again leading the way. While the stile antico, the universal polyphonic style of the 16th century, continued, it was henceforth reserved for sacred music, while the stile moderno, or nuove musiche—with its emphasis on solo voice, polarity of the melody and the bass line, and interest in expressive harmony—developed for secular usage. The expanded vocabulary allowed for a clearer distinction between sacred and secular music as well as between vocal and instrumental idioms, and national differences became more pronounced."
While listening to Castello's Sonata undecima and Sonata decima (both from Sonate Concertante in Stil Moderno, Libro II, 1644) and Marini's L'Aguzzona (from Affetti Musicali, 1617), it became readily apparent that Venice must necessarily be regarded at this period in its history as one of the foremost musical centers of Europe.  And this not only for the accomplishments of its most celebrated composer, Claudio Monteverdi, but for those of his contemporaries as well.  In these short pieces can be heard the very beginnings of the standard repertoire when secular music first diverged from the sacred Church music that had prevailed through the Renaissance.  Hearing afterwards the more polished compositions of Corelli, Telemann and Vivaldi, I was better able to appreciate the sources from which these geniuses had drawn their inspiration.

The performance of Corelli's Sonata in E minor, Op. 1, No. 2 (from Sonata a tre, Op. 1, 1681) as arranged yesterday for oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord made it at once clear why this Bolognese composer experienced the overwhelming popularity he enjoyed in his day.  Though he may not have invented the trio sonata, Corelli's success in this genre overshadowed that of all other Baroque composers.  The work was dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden who had relocated to Rome following her abdication and had taken Corelli into her service.  Corelli's trio sonatas were also sometimes referred to as sonatas da chiesa (as were the first eight of his Concerti grossi, Op. 6), though they had nothing at all to do with church music and were completely secular in character.

Telemann was another composer who was deeply influenced by the stile moderno and who managed to transform it into a truly international style on his travels through Germany.  His Quartet in D major (from Musique de table, 1733) was an unusual arrangement for two flutes, bassoon and harpsichord.  

The program ended where it had begun - in Venice.  The final work was Vivaldi's La Pastorella, RV 95, most commonly arranged for recorder, violin, oboe, bassoon and basso continuo though in yesterday's performance a flute was substituted for the recorder and the bassoon was eliminated altogether.  So ubiquitous and familiar to our ears has Vivaldi's music become in our time that it's difficult to believe that his work lay forgotten for centuries after his death.  He was certainly popular enough in his own time.  According to a footnote in A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich:
"Such was its reputation [referring to the Pietà orphanage where Vivaldi was maestro di cappella] that a plaque was placed in the south outer wall of the church, threatening 'fulmination,' excommunication and other dire penalties on any parents who attempted to pass off their legitimate offspring as orphans to gain them admission.  It is still there today."
At any rate, the concerto provided a perfect ending to a fine recital by talented musicians.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Mannes Alumni Recital: Finkel, Finkel, and Rutkowski

Yesterday afternoon there was an unusual recital at Mannes given by three alumni, two of whom - pianist Elliot Finkel and clarinetist Joseph Rutkowski - had first begun performing together in 1973 while still students.  They were joined in this program by Ian Finkel on xylophone.  As one would imagine from such a combination of instruments, the program was rather eclectic.  Though the majority of works were well known favorites, most had originally been intended for other instruments and were played here in transcriptions.

The program opened with the overture to Pique Dame ("The Queen of Spades") by Franz von Suppé.  Suppé was known in his own day as a popular and prolific composer of light pieces and at the time of his death in 1895 had more than two hundred works to his credit including any number of operettas.  At one point he even found employment as a bass singer in a production of L'elisir d'amore, though the fact that Donizetti was a distant relation may have had more than a little to do with this.  After the close of the nineteenth century, however, Suppé's posthumous reputation did not fare very well at all.  Though two of his comic operas had been performed at the Met, little of his work found a permanent place in the repertoire.  Many of the overtures to his operettas, however, are still performed regularly at "pops" concerts.  That chosen yesterday was so sprightly and energetic that it was easy to understand its continued popularity.

The next work was the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Mikhail Glinka.  Originally, this was a sonata for viola and piano in D minor written between 1825 and 1828 but only published posthumously in 1932.  The work had been left in an incomplete form by the composer and consisted of only two movements, both of which were played yesterday in a transcription by one Charles West.  Coincidentally, I had only heard for the first time last month, in a recital given by the Jupiter Symphony Players, the composer's Trio Pathétique for clarinet, bassoon and piano from roughly the same period, and I was thus able to make some comparisons between the two works.  What was most interesting was how how few Russian influences and motifs appeared in either piece.  This though Glinka is often referred to as "the father of Russian music."

The next piece, the Danse caracatéristique, op. 72 no. 4 (1893) by Pyotr Tchaikovsky was the fourth of the composer's 18 Morceaux and again was originally written for other instrumentation, in this case piano and cello.

Perhaps the best known work on the program, and another initially arranged for piano and cello, was the 1933 Suite italienne from the ballet Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky.  The suite itself was completed by the composer with the collaboration of the famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who, like Stravinsky, had been born in Russia before being forced into exile by the Revolution.  After just having attended a performance of The Firebird on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, it was a fascinating experience to hear so soon afterwards music from Pulcinella, another commission given the composer by the Ballets Russes.  This piece too represented a milestone for Stravinsky in that it is usually considered the first significant work of his neo-classical period and as such represents a startling departure from his previous style of composition.  In mimicking the eighteenth century commedia dell'arte music that had at that time been incorrectly attributed to Pergolesi, Stravinsky modernized the concept through the use of updated rhythms and harmonies that transformed the ballet into a quintessentially twentieth century work.

At its premiere in 1828, the Fantasia in C major, D. 934 (1828) by Franz Schubert was a resounding failure and was only published posthumously in 1850.  Even today this piece, originally composed for violin and piano, is not often played and is usually not that highly regarded among Schubert's late works.  There is some awkwardness in the development of the theme and variations - taken from the 1821 song Sei mir gegrüβt - and a number of critics have pointed to changes in the "fantasy" genre itself between the Classical and Romantic periods as the cause.  

The concert closed with an adaptation, narrated by Brian McNally, of the delightful children's story Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67 (1936) by Sergei Prokofiev.  It was followed in an encore by another Prokofiev work, the march from The Love for Three Oranges.

Yesterday's recital ended up being a great deal more rewarding than I had originally anticipated.  Much of the credit for this goes to the three musicians, all of whom were extremely accomplished.  Moreover, hearing familiar pieces played by a novel arrangement of instruments cannot but help force the listener to approach those works from a fresh perspective and with renewed appreciation.  I thought the pieces that here worked best were the lighter ones by Suppé and Prokofiev, although the Glinka sonata was also fascinating in its own right.  On the other hand, I did not think the Stravinsky sounded as well as when played in its traditional arrangement, and the Schubert was much too turgid a piece to be truly enjoyable in any form whatsoever.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Berlin Philharmonic Performs Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky

Yesterday evening the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Simon Rattle, performed at Carnegie Hall one work each by Russia's two great twentieth century exiles, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky.  I had deliberately chosen this program over that of the Opening Night festivities held the evening before because I had felt that the inclusion of the Bruch Violin Concerto in the latter was obviously out of context and would serve only to distract my attention from the masterpieces that opened and closed the program.  It did not greatly help matters that on Opening Night the Stravinsky opus was shortened to include only the ballet's closing scenes.

In the event, it was fascinating to observe the pairing of two composers who, despite their similar backgrounds and expatriate status, were complete opposites in almost every respect.  For Rachmaninoff can most easily be thought of as the last of the Russian romantics and, as such, the true heir to Tchaikovsky and the lush nineteenth century tradition he represented.  Rachmaninoff's fascination with such artists as Poe and Böcklin had led him to reimagine the past in terms that seem to us today almost Gothic in their sensibilities.  This can most easily be seen in works such as Isle of the Dead, with its repeated references to the medieval Dies Irae, and in the choral symphony The Bells based on Poe's poem.  His fellow countryman, on the other hand, was the veritable avatar of modernism.  The collaborator of both Diaghilev and Picasso, Stravinsky formulated in Le Sacre du Printemps a totally new approach to rhythm that radically changed the course of twentieth century music and even now exerts a strong influence on the work of post-modernist composers.

The Carnegie Hall concert thus became a study in contrasts.  As acknowledged in the Program Notes:
"Rachmaninoff stayed true to the old Russia that Stravinsky abandoned; the Symphonic Dances evoke a haunting nostalgia for a lost era, while The Firebird projects an endless freshness and sense of possibility, looking forward to a new world even as it celebrates an older one."
It was with the Symphonic Dances, Op.45 (1940) that the program opened.  This was, of course, Rachmaninoff's last composition and can be viewed as a summation of all he had hitherto accomplished.  Though completely secular in nature, the three-movement piece is replete with any number of references to Russian liturgical music as well as to Rachmaninoff's own earlier works, including his 1895 First Symphony.  Not only is the Dies Irae once again present but this time, in the final movement, the quote taken from it is placed alongside another chosen from the ninth movement of the composer's 1915 All-Night Vigil as though to emphasize to the listener the eternal conflict between death and resurrection.  Clearly, Rachmaninoff intended the Dances to be seen as his valediction.  What's also noteworthy in the piece are its powerful rhythms that demonstrate, intentionally or not, the influence Stravinsky's work had had upon that of his peer.

I've previously posted about an excellent performance of this piece I saw last season at Carnegie Hall with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.  That occasion provided me with a benchmark with which to judge the current performance.  I felt that while the Berlin Philharmonic's rendition had a full rich sound it was somewhat impersonal and lacked the passionate intensity that the Mariinsky Orchestra had brought to their interpretation.  As such, it failed to involve me as completely as it might otherwise have.

The Firebird (1910) is most significant for having been the then unknown composer's first commission from the Ballets Russes.  The story had already been developed by Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine by the time Stravinsky commenced work on the score.  (Coincidentally, Rachmaninoff had corresponded extensively with Fokine while in the process of composing Symphonic Dances, but both men then died in 1942 before any ballet could be derived from it.)  This was the company's first original score and its success led directly to Stravinsky's later engagements on Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913).  As an early work, The Firebird represents an intermediate period in Stravinsky's career when he had not yet completely freed himself from the Russian romantic tradition - the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov can easily be distinguished throughout - but was already moving forward in the modernist vein that would be much more apparent in the scores immediately following it.  Certainly, The Firebird was Stravinsky's great breakthrough and the first real indication of the genius he would later display.

Thankfully, the orchestra yesterday evening performed the ballet's complete score rather than only highlights.  Unlike the reduced 1919 and 1945 suites, the original score (as well as the 1910 suite) was arranged by the composer for full orchestra.  Although Stravinsky later bemoaned this instrumentation as "wastefully large," its use allowed the audience to better experience the work as he had initially conceived it.  When played in its entirety rather than in suite form the ballet provided to the listener a great deal of insight into the mind of a young composer as he struggled to rid himself of past influences and discover his own style.  For these reasons it was in many ways more interesting to hear than the work which had preceded it.  The orchestra itself gave a careful nuanced reading that brought out all the subtlety of the composition.