Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Baermann, Czerny and Beethoven

There were three works on the program at yesterday afternoon's recital by the Jupiter Symphony Players at Good Shepherd Church, two of them by highly influential eighteenth century Viennese composers.

The afternoon began with a short adagio by Heinrich Baermann taken, according to the printed program, from his Clarinet Quintet No. 3 in D flat major, Op. 23 (1821).  According to Wikipedia, Baermann "wrote an Adagio for Clarinet and Strings in D-flat which was long misattributed to Richard Wagner."  Baermann himself was among the preeminent clarinet virtuosi of the Romantic era and the musician for whom Mendelssohn wrote the two Konzertstücke, Opp. 113, 114.

The next work was more substantial.  This was the Piano Trio No. 4 in A minor, Op. 289 (1834) by Carl Czerny.  As can be deduced from the work's high opus number, Czerny was an incredibly prolific composer who wrote over a thousand pieces during the course of his career, many of which remain unpublished, and whose final tally of opus numbers eventually reached an astonishing 861.  He was also highly regarded as a piano teacher and authored a number of books containing exercises that are still in use today.  As a pianist, he was a child prodigy who gave his first public performance (playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor) in 1800 at only age 9.  Despite these accomplishments, what Czerny is best remembered for today is his association with two much more famous musicians.  He was not only Beethoven's favorite piano pupil but over the years also became the master's closest confidante.  Though he may not have been the most reliable biographer, much of what we know of Beethoven's life come to us through Czerny.  Additionally, it was he who debuted many of the composer's most significant piano compositions including the Vienna premiere of the Concerto No. 5 ("the Emperor") in 1812.  Later, Czerny became the teacher of Liszt and it was he who introduced the legendary pianist, still only a child, to Beethoven.  The trio performed here was a remarkable work, even if not up to the standards of Beethoven's own compositions for piano, and made me interested in hearing more of this composer's work.

The third and final work on the program was the famous Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major “Eroica” Op. 55, (1804), one of Beethoven's greatest achievements and the work that marked the beginning of his "Middle" period.  This performance followed a transcription by Carl Friedrich Ebers for 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, 2 clarinets and 2 horns.  This was the first I'd heard of Ebers and thought the description of him provided in the Grove Dictionary quite interesting:

"... a man evidently of great ability, but as evidently of little morale, taking any post that offered, and keeping none; doing any work that turned up to keep body and soul together, and at length dying in great poverty at Berlin, Sept. 9, 1836. Some of his arrangements have survived, but his compositions—half-a-dozen operas, symphonies, overtures, dance music, wind-instrument ditto, and, in short, pieces of every size and form—have all disappeared, with the exception of a little drinking song, 'Wir sind die Könige der Welt,' which has hit the true popular vein." 
As the same article goes on to detail the angry protest made by Carl Maria von Weber against the transcription Ebers had made of one of his own chamber works, I was a bit wary of the present arrangement and wondered how accurately it would follow Beethoven's score.  I need not have worried.  Although there were only ten instruments onstage, the arrangement captured the full range of the music in all its complexity.  So rich was the sound that, had I had looked away, I might have thought at times there was a full orchestra present.  When the work finished, the entire audience stood up to applaud the musicians who had worked so hard to give a truly great performance.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Alice Tully: Mannes Orchestra Performs Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Barber and Stravinsky

Yesterday evening, the Mannes Orchestra gave its first concert of the season at Alice Tully Hall.  The students performed a predominantly Russian program that featured works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.  Somewhat incongruously, an overture by American composer Samuel Barber was also included at the beginning of the second half.

The program opened with Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36 (1887-1888).  The work displays the composer's mystical bent at its most intense and is firmly in the tradition of Russian Romanticism.  As was the case with the music of its dedicatees, Mussorgsky and Borodin (both prominent members of "The Five"), it was a deliberate attempt on the composer's part to demonstrate in his work a strong nationalist influence.  Though not particularly religious in nature - it could hardly be termed "sacred music" - the work was one of the very few to incorporate elements of the Orthodox liturgy.  According to Rimsky-Korsakov himself, the piece sought to capture:
"... "the legendary and heathen aspect of the holiday, and the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning".
Conducted by David Hayes, the orchestra was here at its very best as it gave a rousing rendition that was among the finest I've heard by any ensemble.

The next work Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19 (1915-1917).  It was not until six years after the piece had been completed that it received its 1923 premiere in Paris when it was conducted by Serge Koussevitsky in a concert that also featured Stravinsky conducting his own Octet, a highly popular work that in the end completely overshadowed Prokofiev's opus.  The concerto is a calm and in parts almost gentle work.  Nevertheless it is a thoroughly modern composition and possesses a complex structure that belies the simplicity of its sound.  Prokofiev took his inspiration here from a number of contemporary sources.  As I had mentioned in an earlier post, it was after having heard Szymanowski's Mythes that Prokofiev asked Paul Kochański to consult with him on the the present work.  The soloist at this concert was Yada Lee, the winner of the 2014 Mannes Concerto Competition, who showed herself in this performance a formidable violinist who remained in complete control of her material throughout the three movements.

In the second half, after an unnecessarily long introduction by student conductor Nell Flanders, the orchestra performed Barber's The School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5 (1931).  However anomalous its appearance on this program, this a major piece of American music and deserves to be heard more often.  It is not actually an overture in the traditional sense but rather a single piece that drew its inspiration from Sheridan's eighteenth century satire.  In keeping with its source, the overture has a bright brittle sound that is quite attractive.  Barber was only 21 and still a student at Curtis Music Institute when he wrote the piece.  It was his first work for orchestra and immediately launched his reputation as one of the last century's preeminent American composers.

The evening ended with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite No. 2 (1919), the best known of the three suites the composer extracted from his 1910 ballet.  To my mind, none of the suites really does justice to the original work from which they were extracted.  Of them all, I prefer the first, the 1910, which is the most faithful to its source.  The full ballet, which I heard performed earlier this season at Carnegie Hall by the Berlin Philharmonic, is a magical work.  It famously marked Stravinsky's debut with the Ballets Russes and made him an overnight sensation throughout Europe.  While it pays tribute to the Romantic tradition so well represented in Rimsky-Korsakov's overture at the beginning of the program, it also anticipates the radical rhythmic innovations that would appear only three years later in Le Sacre du printemps.    

The Mannes Orchestra is probably the best student ensemble now performing in New York City.  Its members displayed at last night's concert not only an extremely high level of talent but also complete dedication to giving the best performance possible of the works at hand.  Mannes itself deserves a great deal of credit for continuing its policy of free concerts at a time when other schools have begun to charge exorbitant and wholly unwarranted admission prices.

Friday, November 21, 2014

My First Novel Has Been Published on Amazon

I'm very excited to announce that I've just published my first novel, New York Sonata, as an ebook.  It is currently available for purchase on Amazon.  This is for me the realization of a creative ambition I first conceived decades ago while still an undergraduate English lit major at Fordham University long before I began my career as a photographer.

I hope you'll order the novel at the link shown below and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Carnegie Hall: The San Francisco Symphony Performs Mahler #7

Yesterday evening, Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall in a performance of the Seventh Symphony (1904-1905) by Gustav Mahler.  This was the third Mahler symphony I'd heard at the hall in the past month after having recently attended performances by the Met Orchestra (#9) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (#2).  Listening to these three works in so short a period of time gave enabled me to better appreciate the composer's intentions and creative processes not only in this work but over but over a broad sample of his oeuvre.  Afterwards, I found I could more easily understand the connections that exist among his symphonies. 

The Seventh is one of the composer's lesser known symphonies, its gestation overshadowed perhaps by the tumultuous events that occurred in the composer's life almost immediately after he had completed the orchestration in 1906.  In the following year, after having been targeted by a series of anti-Semitic attacks, he was forced to resign as conductor (Kapellmeister) of the Vienna Hofoper even though he had gone so far as to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1897 in order to secure the post.  In that same year Mahler's young daughter died of scarlet fever and he himself was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition.

The manner in which the work was composed may also have been a factor that led to its lack of appreciation.  It was one of those episodes in Mahler's career that would later provide so much material to psychologists studying his biography.  He had already completed the two Nachtmusik movements in 1904 when he was forced to leave off work on the symphony in order to return to his conducting duties.  When he again took up the symphony the following summer, he experienced a creative block that was only overcome while he was being rowed across the lake near his summer home.  The sound of the oars in the water immediately freed his imagination and allowed him to formulate the theme that introduces the first movement.  

Still, there can be no doubt that the Seventh is an important work that deserves a close listening.  The blurb contained in the evening's Program Notes put it very succinctly:
"Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is one of the composer’s most fanciful works. It’s a magical five-movement masterpiece that’s mysterious, nostalgic, and humorous in its boisterous finale. Scored for a massive orchestra that includes cowbells, mandolin, and guitar, Mahler’s symphony takes the listener on one of the great orchestral journeys."
Beyond that the work is of interest to musicologists in that Mahler here resumed his experimentation with "progressive tonality," a concept that Wagner had first explored in Tristan und Isolde as early as 1859.  Mahler took the idea even further in this symphony by demonstrating a progression not only through the length of the entire symphony itself (E minor to C major) but in individual movements as well (B minor to E major in the opening Langsam).

Though there were unfortunately many empty seats at yesterday's performance, this was a major event for anyone with an interest in Mahler's work.  I had heard Levine conduct the same symphony with the Met Orchestra last season and thought it interesting to compare that with the rendition given here by Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.  Though too much time had elapsed for me to make a point by point comparison, I considered the latter's performance well articulated and fully engaging.  Tilson Thomas is an excellent conductor and I had very much enjoyed the performance he led last season with this same orchestra of Mahler's Ninth.  I am already looking forward to the orchestra's return next year when it will hopefully perform another of this composer's symphonies.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mannes Faculty Recital: Chin Kim and David Oei

On Sunday afternoon, two talented faculty members - Chin Kim, violin, and David Oei,  piano - gave their annual chamber music recital at Mannes.  It was a well thought out program that contained in the first half classical works by Schubert and Beethoven and in the second half a selection of exciting twentieth century pieces by Ysaÿe, Falla and Szymanowski.

The program opened with Schubert's Sonata in G minor for Violin and Piano, D 408 (1816).  This piece, one of three Schubert composed while still only 19 years old, was originally published posthumously under the title "sonatina" by Diabelli in 1836 in the hope of attracting less skilled amateur violinists to purchase it.  Though it sounds deceptively simple, and perhaps for that reason is not often performed by virtuosi, it is actually a complex and rewarding work.  It was a pleasure to hear this sonata, particularly the mellow andante, played so well.

The next work was Beethoven's Sonata in C minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 30, No. 2 (1802), a work that was composed more than a decade before Schubert's sonata.  It has often been said that Beethoven's violin sonatas are actually piano sonatas with violin accompaniment, and it is noteworthy that it is the piano alone that opens all four movements here and introduces the theme of each.  The work was written at a critical time in Beethoven's life shortly after he had drafted the famous Heiligenstadt Testament in an attempt to come to terms with his increasing deafness.  That period marked a turning point in the composer's career but it is difficult to detect any inner turmoil in this particular work, least of all in the placid adagio cantabile.  It was around this time that the composer's brother Carl assumed something of the role of manager, and it's possible he may have exerted influence on Beethoven to produce pieces suited to popular taste that could more easily be sold to the public.  Though the composer had the year before remarked to his friend, violinist Wenzel Krumpholz, "I am only a little satisfied with my previous works.  From today on I will take a new path," little of that new direction can be seen here except briefly in the Finale.  It would not be until a year later, in the Op. 47 "Kreutzer" sonata, that Beethoven truly achieved a breakthrough in the genre.

After intermission, the program continued with Ysaÿe's Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 27, No. 6 (1923).  This was one of a group of six ambitious sonatas, each one of which was composed in the style of a different violinist and then dedicated to that artist.  At last year's recital, Kim performed the No. 4 dedicated to Fritz Kreisler.  On this occasion he played that dedicated to Manuel Quiroga, the famous Galician violinist whose career was cut short in the 1930's, first by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in his home country and then by a traffic accident in New York City.  (His fellow violinist Kreisler was also badly injured in a similar accident in this same city.)  As I have never heard any of Quiroga's recordings, I cannot say how well this piece approximated his style, but it was certainly a lively showpiece that gave Kim an opportunity to fully demonstrate his skill.

Following this came Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole for Violin and Piano (1926), arranged by Paul Kochański.  Though there would not on the surface appear to be any relationship between the music of Falla and Szymanowski, the composer whose work followed this, the link between them was actually Paul Kochański, himself an extremely talented violinist and a composer in his own right.  It was he who transcribed six of Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas (1915) into the present arrangement.  (So pleased was Falla with what Kochański's had accomplished that he rededicated the newly transcribed work to the violinists's wife.)  Though the title would imply that all six songs derive from folk sources, this is only the case with two - Nana and Canción.  The other four - El Paño Moruno, Polo, Asturiana and Jota - are original compositions Falla created in the style of Spanish folk music.  They are all colorful and passionate in the Latin tradition.  Asturiana is probably the best known of the set, but I also very much enjoyed the flamenco sound of Polo.

The evening concluded with two works by Szymanowski, La Fontaine d'Arethuse ("The Fountain of Arethusa"), Op. 30, No. 1 from Mythes (1915) and Tarantella, Op. 28, No. 2 (1915).  Mythes, the most popular of Szymanowski's works, took Greek mythology as its source; the section played here, La Fontaine d'Arethuse, tells the story of a nymph fleeing from Alpheus who was turned into a stream.  The work was written in close collaboration with Kochański, and the two musicians gave the premiere together in Humań in 1916.  (This was another work dedicated to the violinists's wife.)  It marked a great change in Szymanowski's style, hitherto heavily influenced by German music.  In fact, this new piece contained so wide range of techniques and complicated harmonies that, after having first heard it, Prokofiev asked Kochański to consult with him on the composition of his own First Violin Concerto.  Tarantella, another piece premiered by Kochański, was, as its name would suggest, a lively work that provided a fitting end to this thoroughly enjoyable recital.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mannes Piano Recital: Toward the Light

Friday evening, the Mannes piano department put on another in its series of student recitals, but this one turned out to be a multimedia experience quite different from other classical music events I've attended this season.  The program, entitled Toward the Light, was curated by faculty member Eteri Andjaparidze and was apparently a recreation of a similar recital in which she had taken part in the early 1990's, one that had been conceived by composer George Flynn and staged at DePaul University in Chicago.  Aside from the music, there was visual accompaniment in the form of a stunning abstract animation projected onscreen over the heads of the students as they played.  Meanwhile, the audience sat in the dark and watched and listened exactly as they would had they been in a movie theater.  There were only the briefest pauses between pieces and no intermission during the hour long performance.  Only at the very end did the students appear onstage to take a bow and receive the applause due them.

Though this was the first time I had ever seen it applied to classical music, the concept itself was not new to me.  In the 1960's, liquid light shows were very common component of counterculture musical productions.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the Joshua Light Show that routinely accompanied rock concerts held at Manhattan's Fillmore East.  The purpose of these shows was to create a true psychedelic event in which visuals and music combined in an almost hallucinatory manner.  Although the animation shown at Mannes was obviously a high tech artifact that had been computer generated, many of its effects were quite reminiscent of those of the old fashioned light shows I had witnessed a half century before. 

The music itself explored the works of a wide range of composers but placed greatest emphasis on those artists active in the early twentieth century.  All the pieces took as their subject some manifestation of light, such as moonlight or fire.  The full program, together with the names of the student pianists who performed each piece, was as follows: Alexander Scriabin, Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (Reed Tetzloff); Franz Liszt, Angelus! Prière aux anges gardiens from Années de pèlerinage III, S. 163 (Jose Ortega Arias); Moritz Moszkowski, Étincelles, Op. 36 No. 6 (David Mamedov); Olivier Messiaen, Études de rythme: Ile de feu I (Santiago Lomelin); Claude Debussy, Clair de lune from Suite Bergamasque, Feux d'artifices, L. 123/12 from Préludes (Gvantsa Zangaladze); Manuel de Falla, Danza ritual del fuego (Santiago Lomelin); George Flynn, Toward the Light (Ariela Bohrod); J. S. Bach, arr. Myra Hess, Jesus bleibet meine Freude from Herz und Mun und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 (Reed Tetzloff).

The real star of this performance, however, was the light show itself.  Despite a few intrusive technical glitches, the visuals could only be described as mesmerizing.  Like their East Village predecessors, they provided to the audience an experience that once would have been described as "consciousness expanding."  In its attempt to enhance the appreciation of music on a visual as well as on an auditory sensory level the animation approximated very well the sensation of synesthesia.

The piano department represents one of Mannes's greatest strengths.  Its curated  recitals never hesitate to explore lesser known areas of the repertoire, and the performance of the pieces chosen is at the highest level.  They are well worth attending, especially when they indulge in such imaginative experimentation as this.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Paul Hall: ACJW Ensemble Performs Hindemith, Martinů and Dohnányi

Tuesday evening's recital at Paul Hall by the ACJW Ensemble featured a program of twentieth century works by Hindemith, Martinů and Dohnányi.  The ACJW is a two-year fellowship program sponsored jointly by Carnegie Hall and Juilliard, and so there is a complete turnover biennially in the lineup of musicians.  This recital was the first opportunity I'd had to hear the new cast of players.

The program opened with Hindemith's Septet (1948) for flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, horn, bass clarinet and bassoon.  Although the work was actually written long after Hindemith had emigrated to the US and become an American citizen, it was greatly influenced by the intense cultural dialog that had taken place decades before in 1920's Weimar Germany.  One of the key concepts to have arisen during this period was that of Neue Sachlichkeit, a conservative interdisciplinary artistic movement that began in the visual arts as a reaction to German Expressionism.  In music, its impetus was provided by discontent with the twelve-tone school and other progressive twentieth century trends and reflected a renewed interest in Baroque and Renaissance forms that eventually led to the adoption of a neo-classical aesthetic.  For those interested, there is a lengthy doctoral dissertation available online by one Benjamin Eric Shaffer of the University of North Texas that traces in far greater detail the relationship between Hindemith's Septet and Neue Sachlichkeit.

All the above aside, Hindemith's music sounds thoroughly modern and is quite engaging.  I was already a huge fan of his Kammermusik and welcomed the opportunity to hear this rarely performed piece.  It is also worth noting that Hindemith was one of the few composers to have mastered nearly full range of orchestral instruments, a fact that may account for the unusual choice of instruments for which this work was scored.

The  Hindemith Septet was followed by Martinů's La revue de cuisine (1927) for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, cello, violin and piano.  The four-movement suite was taken from the score of a playful one-act ballet in which the dancers took on the roles of kitchen utensils.  Though on one level a rollicking jazz cabaret piece representative of the wild Parisian nightlife of the 1920's, it was at the same time a serious work in which the composer anticipated many of the styles to be found in post-war modern music.  At the time it was written, Martinů was a student of Albert Roussel and the ballets he wrote during this period allowed him to develop in an informal manner the musical ideas he had acquired during his studies.

After intermission, the program concluded with Dohnányi's Sextet in C major, Op. 37 (1935) for  clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano.  This was another piece of music to incorporate jazz elements but in a much different manner than was employed in the piece by Martinů.  As one online source noted of the Finale:
"Here the musical spirit is more like that of a Gershwin who stayed overlong in a Viennese hotel band, complete with a comical waltz interjection that dips into Mahlerian grotesquerie and a sassy kick to close."
For all that, I found this piece somewhat overwrought in its adherence to a Brahmsian style of composition especially coming after such a lighthearted piece as Martinů's suite.  I did however appreciate the irony of the final movement in which the composer had adroitly inserted a Strauss-like waltz.  This seemed to me a prescient description of 1930's Europe dancing complacently along while all the while ignoring warnings of yet another world war fast approaching.

Dohnányi, like his countryman Liszt, was as famous for his skills as a pianist as he was for his compositions.  During the 1930's and 1940's Dohnányi, as conductor of both the Budapest Philharmonic and the Budapest Radio Orchestra, was one of the most prominent figures in the Hungarian musical scene.  As did Hindemith, he too eventually emigrated to the US on a permanent basis and enjoyed here a successful career until his death in 1960.

I had attended ACJW recitals, both at Weill and Juilliard, regularly for the past two seasons and missed seeing familiar faces, but I felt this new cast of players possessed talent equal to that of the group's alumni.  I also applaud the ensemble for continuing the innovative programming I had come to expect.  Attending these recitals affords an opportunity to hear works of modern music not often explored by less adventurous ensembles.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Schumann, Bartók and Haydn

Yesterday evening the Orion Quartet performed the second of their four annual recitals at Mannes.  The works performed were all mainstays of the repertoire by three of music's most famous and influential composers - Schumann, Bartók and Haydn.

The program opened with Schumann's String Quartet in F major, No. 2, Op. 41, No. 2 (1842).  Although no one would deny that Schumann's quartets, particularly the No. 2 played here, are masterpieces, all three were written in the shadow of those composed earlier by Beethoven and Schubert; and it is for that reason that they most probably do not receive as much respect as they should.  The No. 2 is deservedly the best known of the three and a great chamber work by any standard.  The deeply reflective Allegro vivace that opens the work is a perfect expression of the introspective Romantic temperament that Schumann embodied so well both in his work and in his life.  Following this movement comes the adroit Andante quasi variazioni.  Variations are a genre in themselves, a form virtually every great composer has pursued.  Beethoven worked at them assiduously throughout his career from his earliest days in Vienna (I recently wrote of a recital by Timothy Eddy and Gilbert Kalish where the 1801 Seven Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, WoO 46 were performed) to the late period Diabelli Variations, the composer's greatest work for piano.  Schumann here provided a worthy followup to those of the master, the influence of whose late quartets can be felt throughout the entire length of the present work.

The Schumann was followed by Bartók's String Quartet No. 6, Sz. 114 (1939).  I was surprised to see this work on the program as the group had only just performed it here at Mannes last March.  I reviewed my post on that recital and felt my comments applied just as well to this performance as they did to the last.

After intermission, the program concluded with Haydn's String Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5, Hob. III/79 (1797) in a reprise of a performance the Quartet had given with the Chamber Music Society in January.  The ensemble had already played at their September recital at Mannes works from Hadyn's Op. 20 and Op. 33, and the performance of the present work enabled the audience to better trace the composer's development of the genre at a later stage in his career (the Op. 76 were composed some fifteen years after the Op. 33).  This was a fascinating glimpse into the creative processes of "the father of the string quartet."  The six pieces constitute the last full set of quartets to be composed by Haydn and would be of importance to musicologists for that fact alone.  By the time he had completed them, the form of the quartet as we recognize it today had been well established and would serve as a model for Mozart, Beethoven and future composers.  But even without their historical significance, the Op. 76 works still deserve attention as they are among the finest examples of the genre.  Despite the nickname "Largo" sometimes given it after the notation for its second movement, the quartet itself is a bright fast moving work about eighteen minutes in length that seems over almost before it had begun so quickly does the time pass.  Few works by Haydn or any other composer are so thoroughly enjoyable.

The Orion Quartet worked together flawlessly to give as precise a reading as possible of these seminal works.  At the conclusion of the recital, the wildly enthusiastic audience gave the ensemble a standing ovation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Joyce DiDonato Performs Vivaldi, Fauré, Rossini, Head and Hahn

After having just last week heard Joyce DiDonato's bravura performance in Handel's Alcina, I went yesterday evening to Carnegie Hall to hear her perform in recital a program entitled A Journey through Venice that featured the works of Vivaldi, Fauré, Rossini, Michael Head and Reynaldo Hahn.  Her accompanist on piano was David Zobel.

The program opened with two arias by Vivaldi, "Onde chiare che sussurrate" and "Amato ben," both taken from Ercole su'l Termodonte, RV 710 (1723).  Listening today to Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, it is difficult to believe that the composer's works languished in obscurity following his death in 1741 until rescued by a revival of interest in the early twentieth century.  (Even during his own lifetime Vivaldi was not always sufficiently appreciated.  He was dismissed for two years beginning in 1709 from his position of maestro di violino at the famed Ospedale della Pietà by its Board of Directors.)  It took an even longer time for an appreciation of Vivaldi's operatic achievements to begin even though by his own claim he had composed during his career a total of 94 works in this genre.  Ironically, Ercole was composed not in Venice but in Rome, though many of the arias in it were taken from Vivaldi's Venetian works.  The libretto by the Florentine Antonio Salvi used as its subject the ninth of the twelve labors of Hercules in which the mythic hero does battle with the Amazons.

The works by Vivaldi were the only ones included in the program to date from Venice's 1,400 year existence as a republic, an era that saw the formidable city state rise to take its place among Europe's greatest powers.  (This fascinating period has been chronicled in detail by John Julius Norwich in A History of Venice, an excellent study whose greatest fault lies in its neglect of the city's rich cultural and musical achievements.)  The pieces which followed were all composed after the city's fall to Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century when Venice surrendered its former glory only to become instead a tourist destination for wealthy Europeans.  

The next works in the recital featured Fauré's Cinq mélodies "de Venise", Op. 58 (1891).  Fauré was a quintessentially French composer and it is important to note that these pieces were, by the composer's own admission, not about Venice but rather "of Venice."  I felt these were the weakest pieces on the program.  They were too contrived and self conscious for my taste and seemed to lack any genuine feeling.

Following this were two arias by Rossini, La regata veneziana from Péchés de vieillese, Vol. I, Nos. 8-10; and "Assisa al piè d’un salice ... Deh, calma" from Otello (1816).  Péchés (whose full title translates as "Sins of Old Age") is actually a anthology consisting of 150 vocal and solo piano works composed by Rossini late in life and never intended for publication.  They were rather clever satirical pieces meant for the entertainment of the composer's dinner guests.  The spirit of these songs was radically different from that of the arias that followed after intermission.  Though Rossini's Otello lacks the genius of the later (1887) Verdi opera, it is nonetheless a brilliant and moving work.  DiDonato is best known as a Rossini specialist and she excelled in these dramatic arias sung be Desdemona as she awaits her fate at her jealous husband's hands.

The next pieces were Three Songs of Venice (1974) by Michael Head whose work I had never before heard.  These were originally written for the great mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and were first performed posthumously in London at a 1977 "Save Venice Fund" benefit.  The three songs - "The Gondolier", "St. Mark's Square" and "Rain Storm" - were moody and evocative.  In her introductory remarks DiDonato spoke of how well these pieces had brought the city to life for her, and I found myself in complete agreement.  These were really the highlights of the program.  They captured very well in their quiet way what it must be like for one to wander through Venice's narrow streets and canals on rainy days when no tourists are about.

The program concluded with five pieces - "Sopra l'acqua indormenzada", "La barcheta", "L'avertimento", "Che pecà" and "La primavera" - from Hahn's six-song cycle Venezia (1901).  I was very interested in hearing these pieces as I had only encountered Hahn's work for the first time the season before last at a recital given by Susan Graham (in a joint appearance with Renée Fleming); I subsequently acquired Graham's recording La Belle Époque that contained 24 of Hahn's songs.  Most famous as the lover of Marcel Proust, Hahn imparted to his songs an insouciant charm that made them quite beguiling.  It was easy to picture the composer playing the upright piano from his gondola as crowds gathered on the bridges overhead to listen.

The evening proved an excellent entertainment that provided the audience a glimpse into another reality, one that was highly cultured and yet filled with romantic associations.   DiDonato was in fine voice throughout and thoroughly charming in her remarks between pieces.  Zobel played remarkably well as accompanist but was never intrusive.  The piano stayed in the background as the singer captivated everyone with this lovely music.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mannes Faculty Recital: Timothy Eddy and Gilbert Kalish

Yesterday evening, Mannes faculty members Timothy Eddy and Gilbert Kalish appeared together to perform a program of cello sonatas.  The two have given annual recitals at the Concert Hall for quite some time, and this one was even more special than most as it was the last to be held there.  (The building has already been sold, and the school will be moving at the end of the next semester.)  The program included works by Beethoven, Debussy, Mendelssohn and Sheila Silver.

The evening began with Beethoven's Seven Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, WoO 46 (1801).  Early in his career, Beethoven was fond of composing sets of variations on tunes that were popular at the moment.  These particular ones were written after Mozart's Die Zauberflöte had been staged to great acclaim at the Vienna Hoftheater early that same year.  Beethoven, who himself was later to struggle with mastery of the operatic form, had already become familiar with Mozart's operas while still a member of the Bonn Opera orchestra and had greatly admired, if not envied, the late composer's ability in this genre.  These variations were brief, about ten minutes in all, and were lively and pleasant to hear.  The cello and piano worked very well together in rendering the duet between Pamina and Papageno.

The next work was Sonata for Cello and Piano (1988) by Sheila Silver, a contemporary composer whose work I had never before heard.  The work had actually been written for these two performers; and, before commencing, they each spoke a few words about the sonata and their friendship with the composer whom they had first met years before at Stonybrook.  They noted that aside from playing many of Silver's works in recital they had also recorded a number of them.  The sonata was a full blown piece of great complexity; it consisted of three long movements, the most interesting of which was the Theme and Variations, and altogether ran about 45 minutes in length.  The composer herself was present and came onstage at the work's conclusion to take a bow.

This was followed by Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915).  The work was one of three sonatas from a projected series of six that Debussy composed toward the end of his life.  World War I was then raging throughout Europe, and Debussy's intent had been to produce music of a strong national character - the influence of Couperin can be heard throughout - to compete in importance with the works of German composers such as Wagner.  Debussy was certainly successful to the extent that this work, despite its brevity, has become over the years one of the mainstays of the genre.  The cello part of this three movement sonata is technically demanding and so presents a challenge to even the most talented performer.

After intermission, the program closed with Mendelssohn's Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 2 in D major, Op. 58 (1843).  Mendelssohn, of course, is one of the nineteenth century's greatest composers of chamber works, and this piece is a fine example of his skill.  It was originally written for Count Mateusz Wielhorski, an advanced amateur who not only owned a Stradivarius but was also the dedicatee of Schumann’s Piano Quartet.  Influences of Mendelssohn's other works can easily be seen in this sonata.  This is especially true of the second movement where can be discerned traces of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on whose composition Mendelssohn was then also working.  In general, the sonata is a bright exuberant piece that allows for a great range of interaction between the two instrumentalists.

The encore was the lovely second movement cavatine from the Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, FP 143 (1948) by Francis Poulenc.

Both performers are among the very best practitioners on their respective instruments, and I considered it a privilege to have been able to hear them play together.  There was a full house at yesterday's recital, and the rest of the audience was as appreciative as I was.  They gave the duo a huge and well deserved round of applause at the conclusion of the performance.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Carnegie Hall: The Philadelphia Orchestra Performs Mahler #2

After having heard earlier this month the Met Orchestra's performance of Mahler #9, I went yesterday evening to Carnegie Hall to watch the Philadelphia Orchestra perform that composer's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection."  The program was conducted by the ensemble's music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and featured Angela Meade (soprano) and Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) as soloists.  The fifth-movement chorus was provided by the Westminster Choir.

Of all the works in the repertoire, it is probably the Second Symphony that has exerted the greatest influence on me over the years.  I first heard it back in 1980's when Leonard Bernstein, filling in for a colleague who'd fallen ill, conducted the New York Philharmonic on short notice.  Even after all this time, I still consider this the single best classical music performance I've ever attended.  No other work has ever affected me as deeply as has this symphony.  Its reflections on death and rebirth possess a profundity that forces the listener to reexamine his beliefs on the very meaning of existence.  The conclusion, in which life emerges triumphant over death, never fails to have a huge emotional impact on the audience.

Much has been written about the possible programs Mahler had in mind when composing his symphonies.  This confusion was at least partly caused by the stance taken by Mahler himself - he continually issued statements on the meaning of his work only to later withdraw them.  This ambivalence may have had something to do with the composer's wish not to have his work considered alongside that of the other famous conductor/composer of the era, Richard Strauss, whose tone poems do indeed correspond to quite explicit musical programs.

If one wishes to ascertain the true genesis of this symphony, one would do best to study Mahler's troubled relationship with his mentor, the prominent conductor Hans von Bülow.  It was von Bülow's rejection of Mahler's early music - he actually covered his ears when the composer sat at the piano and played selections for him - that created doubts in Mahler's mind serious enough to stall his progress on this work.  Upon von Bülow's death, this crisis of confidence was suddenly resolved and Mahler was at last able to see his way forward.  He acknowledged as much in a letter to Arthur Seidl that was quoted in this concert's Program Notes:
"I had long considered the idea of employing a chorus for the last movement, and only the fear that this might be seen as a superficial imitation of Beethoven made me hesitate time and again. Then Bülow died, and I went to his funeral. My mood as I sat there thinking of the man who had died was wholly in tune with the work that was growing in my mind. Suddenly the choir chanted from the organ-loft the Klopstock chorale Auferstehn! It was as if I had been struck by lightning-the whole work now stood clearly before me! Such is the flash for which the creator waits, such is sacred inspiration!"
A psychoanalyst could spend years studying Mahler's conflicted feelings toward von Bülow, but it's really not necessary.  It's only important to note that the resolution brought about by the latter's death allowed a dam to burst within Mahler's unconscious.  All the musical ideas he had kept bottled up all at once poured forth in the form of this magnificent symphony.  His final stanzas, taken from Klopstock, are one long hymn of affirmation.

The performance yesterday evening was very good, though it seemed to slip a bit at the end of the third movement.  The finale, though, was as exciting as anyone could have hoped for, and the orchestra received a huge round of applause when it finished.