Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Jazz Age in France

The Jazz Age in France by Charles A. Riley II is actually more a scrapbook than a conventional art book.  Filled with photographs, most of them snapshots, of artists and writers placed alongside reproductions of their artworks, this thin volume is really no more than an introduction to that group of American expatriates who flocked to Paris and the Riviera in the 1920's, those whom Gertrude Stein once famously described as the "Lost Generation."  As such, it is of interest primarily to those who have no prior knowledge of the period as it provides no more than an overview of that glamorous era and, at best, serves only as a guide to further study.  But even those who have a more in-depth knowledge of the period will enjoy the sense of nostalgia the book offers and will no doubt be as charmed as I was by the profusion of illustrations, many of them unfamiliar.

The book is divided into eight chapters and begins, appropriately enough, with an account of the years Gerald and Sara Murphy spent in France.  Although the brief essay in no way expands on the account provided in Calvin Tomkins's Living Well Is the Best Revenge and indeed leaves out many important details of their lives, it does stress the central role the couple played in introducing newly arrived Americans to European modernism.  Though the pair epitomized perfectly the chic glamour of the period, they were also kindhearted and generous individuals of whom no one apparently ever had an ill word to say.  It was for this reason more than any other that almost all the major artists of the period, from Picasso to Fitzgerald, were drawn to their company.  But the Murphys were artists in their own right as well even if their accomplishments are today often overlooked.  One of the best features of The Jazz Age is that it reproduces almost all Gerald's paintings and thus demonstrates convincingly his claim to be considered a major modern artist on the same level as those more famous painters who gathered around him and Sara at Villa America in Cap d'Antibes.

In the following chapters, the book goes on to give brief sketches of those who associated with the Murphys both in Paris and in the south of France.  These constituted pretty much a Who's Who of the cultural and social elite in the years following the end of World War I and included both the American arrivistes and the more established European figures.  Aside from Picasso and Fitzgerald, mentioned above, there was Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, and Diaghilev.

It is in its treatment of Afro-American artists that the book distinguishes itself from other accounts of the period.  Author Riley deserves a great deal of credit for discussing these artists who, all but forgotten today, earned a great deal more appreciation during their lifetimes in Paris than they ever did in their native country and who became a respected part of the city's cultural life.  These artists included such important figures as Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had once been a student of Eakins, Hale Woodruff, William Edouard Scott and William H. Johnson.

The book's discussion of close friends John Dos Passos and E.E. Cummings is surprising for the emphasis it places on the pair's visual art rather than their better known literary works.  There are reproductions of paintings by both these famous writers with which I had previously not been aware.

All in all, The Jazz Age is an excellent introduction to one of the most exciting periods of the twentieth century.  It not only describes the wild parties and Paris nightclubs that characterized the decade, but it also captures very well the cultural and intellectual ferment that permeated all areas of the arts in France during the post-war period.  As usual with books published by Abrams, the richly colored illustrations, many of them taking up an entire page, are expertly reproduced.  The text by Riley, while hardly profound, is engaging and knowledgeable and hits exactly the right tone for such an introductory work.  A more comprehensive bibliography, though, should have been included for those who wished to learn more of its central characters who are here only briefly sketched.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Met Museum: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Metropolitan Collection (Rotation 1, Post 3)

Aside from the many landscape paintings on display, there are several other works at the current Met Museum exhibit Masterpieces of Chinese Painting that are well worth mentioning.

First, there is The Classic of Filial Piety, an eleventh century handscroll on which are inscribed in ink and color scenes from the treatise of the same name that dates from approximately 400 BCE.  The text is made up of eighteen chapters that deal with the proper relationships that exist in society, not only between parent and child but among different social strata as well.  This clearly reflects the influence of Confucian thinking, and the treatise is in fact presented as a series of discussions that took place between the master and his disciple Zengzi.  Beyond this, though, the work looks back in its study of the proper relationships that underlie social harmony to the I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes used in China since time immemorial for divination purposes.  The painting by Li Gonglin, a civil servant, is an obvious attempt to remind his peers of the need to adhere to correct principles in a troubled time.  In so doing, Li Gonglin raises the level of his art to a new dimension of personal expression.  The painting becomes more than merely a decorative object to be judged on its aesthetic value and instead takes on a moral significance as it reaffirms to the viewer the importance of Confucian values to the maintenance of social order.

I had expected to see at the exhibit more images of dragons, so ubiquitous are they in Chinese folklore and iconography.  In the event, the only image on which they were featured was Beneficent Rain, a Yuan dynasty handscroll painted by Zhang Yucai who was not only an artist but also, according to notes provided by the museum, "the thirty-eighth pope of the Zhengyi ('Orthodox Unity') Daoist church."  It was his position as a Daoist patriarch that made Zhang Yucai such an important figure at the Yuan court.  As Adam T. Kessler writes in Song Blue and White Porcelain on the Silk Road:
"Zhang Yucai assisted the Yuan Chengzong emperor, performing thaumaturgic acts of "Daoist Magic."  Subsequently, in 1301 AD Yucai was summoned to meet with the emperor at the Yuan's summer-retreat and alternate-capital, Shangdu.  During the later Wuzong and Renzong reigns, Yucai was bestowed with noble rank, clothing (golden paraphernalia), and a gold seal of authority.  In other words, that the dragon ruling Heaven in this painting bears four claws is consistent with the four-clawed dragons worn by the Yuan emperors; more pertinently, Zhang Yucai's intimate association with the Yuan court."
It's interesting to note that the dragons depicted in Zhang Yucai's painting are not the frightening fire-breathing monsters of Western lore but instead seem more a part of the natural order.  In this, they are similar to those painted earlier by Muqi Fachang and Chen Rong during the Southern Song dynasty.

The influence of Daoism can also be seen in Liu Chen and Rhuan Zao Entering the Tintai Mountains by the Yuan dynasty artist Zhao Cangyun.  This long handscroll retells the delightful Han dynasty legend of two hapless villagers who wander lost in the mountains until they are made guests of female immortals.  In the manner of Rip van Winkle, when they finally return to their homes a few months later they find that in actuality seven generations have passed during their absence.  Much like his subjects, Zhao Cangyun also withdrew to the mountains and there became a recluse.

Chan (Zen) Buddhist influences can also be seen in three Southern Song dynasty paintings on view.  The first of these, Bodhidharma crossing the Yangzi River on a reed, is notable for its depiction of Bodhidharma as a fairly young man and not, as he is usually portrayed, a crazed old recluse.  More important is the technique used in this hanging scroll by Li Yaofu.  Rather than the coarse hurriedly drawn ink strokes typical of Zen painting, the artist here used a wash to soften the lines to the point where they fade to no more than suggestive shadows, a technique referred to as wangliang or "apparition" style painting.  As for Li Yaofu himself, his name appears nowhere in Chinese documents of the period but rather in a much later Japanese catalog of paintings entitled Kundaikan Sbcheki.  This has led some scholars to surmise that he may have been a Japanese monk who traveled through China before returning to his homeland.  The second painting, Meeting between Yaoshan and Li Ao, that is attributed to Zhiweng also makes effective use of the "apparition" style in its illustration of an encounter between a Confucian scholar and a Zen master in which the master, not surprisingly, comes out on top.  Finally, Chan master riding a mule creates a memorable portrait with a few quick brush strokes.

Near the end of the exhibit, I came across three remarkable paintings by a Qing dynasty artist, Bada Shanren, of whom I had never before heard.  These were the hanging scrolls Two eagles and Fish and rocks and the handscroll Birds in a lotus pond.  The last two are almost abstractions and strike the viewer as thoroughly modernist works.  This effect is enhanced by the anthropomorphic expressions with which the artist endowed the mynahs in Birds in a lotus pond.  By painting heavily with ink on the highly absorbent satin, Bada Shanren created huge blots and washes to which he then gave form with a few well placed strokes.

The exhibit's first rotation will be on view through April 17, 2016, and the second from May 7, 2016 through October 11, 2016.  The museum is also hosting exhibits of Chinese lacquer (through June 19, 2016) and Chinese textiles (also through June 19, 2016).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Met Museum: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Metropolitan Collection (Rotation 1, Post 2)

In my last post I set out to describe the works I'd seen at the Met Museum's current exhibit Masterpieces of Chinese Painting but only got so far as the first two paintings I encountered.  While it's not possible to discuss all the works on display, there are many more that definitely deserve mention.

Among the first of these was a painting by Ma Yuan, an artist I remembered very well from my college studies.  He was one of the most highly regarded painters of the Southern Song dynasty which itself represents the high point of Chinese landscape painting.  He is best known for having developed the "one corner" style of painting in which the subject is placed in a single corner of the painting while the rest of the "canvas" is left blank as though enshrouded in mist.  Though it sounds simple enough, the technique is extremely evocative.  Its use can be seen in the work in question, entitled Viewing plum blossoms by moonlight, done in ink and color on the back of a silk fan which was subsequently mounted in an album.  A scholar sits on the edge of a cliff, his servant standing behind him, while lost in meditation he stares past the branches of the plum tree at the full moon shining beyond.  Ink washes are used to create a sense of perspective as the more distant mountains in the background are shown in paler shades of grey.  The work is very successful in recreating the contemplative mood the scholar must have experienced during his nocturnal musings.

Directly beside the Ma Yuan was another Southern Song landscape, this by Xia Gui, an ink on silk album leaf entitled Mountain Market, Clearing Mist.  While the main subject is rendered in coarse swift strokes through the use of an ax-cut brush, these contrast strongly with the lightened ink wash that successfully creates the illusion of an evaporating mist that partly obscures the background trees and mountains.  The blank upper left area of the painting reinforces this idea of a clearing mist.  Combined, these two highly different techniques make the work a tour de force of landscape art.

There are many other landscapes on view at the exhibit and it was fascinating to be able to chart the development of this genre by moving from one gallery to the next.  One of the most intriguing was Landscape in the style of Fan Kuan by an unknown artist.  To me, this was the very epitome of Song dynasty art and I could not understand how it could ever have been misattributed, as the accompanying documentation states it was, to the much later Ming dynasty.  Other landscapes worth noting were Cloudy Mountains by Fang Congyi, Rocky Landscape with Pines by Zhang Xun, Angling in the Autumn River by Sheng Zhu, Crooked Pine by Wu ZhenFragrant Snow at Broken Bridge by Wang Mian, Crows in Old Trees by Liu Zhichuan and Landscape after a poem by Wang Wei by Tang Di.  All these latter paintings were done, though, during the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol empire created by Kublai Khan.  They lack the sensitivity and evanescence of the earlier Song works and are in general much more literal minded.  Where the Mongols excelled was in the depiction of horses.  The Song's interaction with barbarian tribes can already be seen in the utterly realistic Stag Hunt which may have been painted early on in the period of the Jin-Song wars.

An interesting postscript to Chinese landscape paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties can be found in the painting Drunken Immortal beneath an old tree by Chen Zihe, an artist of the Ming dynasty.  Here the earlier landscape traditions are parodied for comic effect.  The twisted pine leans so precipitously that it seems in its own way as drunken as the "immortal" who dozes beneath its branches.  The earthy humor makes light of the tradition of Daoist sages but its Zen-like irreverence is not entirely out of place.

Though not technically landscapes, there are two other noteworthy depictions of nature at this exhibit.  The first is Narcissus by the Southern Song artist Zhao Mengjian.  This is an extremely long (over 12 feet) handscroll on the which the artist has painstakingly inked an entire row of these flowers.  The point of view is from ground level and the degree of detail is astonishing.  The second is entitled The Pleasures of Fishes and was created by the Yuan dynasty artist  Zhou Dongqing.  This is another exceptionally long (over 19 feet) handscroll along whose length a fantastic array of fish frolic in a stream.  The fish and their movements are depicted so realistically that it seems the artist must have dived underwater to capture them.  The title is derived from an anecdote by the Daoist sage Zhuangzi and it appears the artist himself must have been steeped in Daoist tradition to so well understand the joy the fish feel as they swim playfully about. 

To be continued...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Met Museum: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Metropolitan Collection (Rotation 1, Post 1)

On Monday afternoon I walked across Central Park to the Met Museum to view the current exhibit Masterpieces of Chinese Painting.  This was a large show that stretched through several galleries in the Asian wing.  Most museums would be thrilled to have a fraction of the works on display for their own collections, but the Met's holdings of these priceless works are so vast that the exhibit has to be staged in two rotations.

Years ago, while a student at Fordham, I took a course in Chinese landscape painting and still remember the feeling of serenity I experienced sitting in the darkened lecture hall while the professor fed slides into a projector and briefly described each work as it appeared onscreen.  That same sensation of peace came over me once again on Monday as I wandered from room to room under the subdued lighting.  Much more so than Western art, Chinese painting has a spiritual dimension.  Heavily stylized and filled with symbolic imagery, there is nothing loud or ostentatious in these paintings.  They subtly draw the viewer into an alien world filled with mists where sages sit in contemplation and fishing boats glide silently along the river.  The artists themselves were often government officials and members of the emperor's court or else wandering poets and Buddhist monks.

Since the exhibit proceeded in chronological order, the best came first with extremely rare paintings from the Tang dynasty.  To one side as I entered was Night-Shining White by Han Gan,  Done in ink on a handscroll and surrounded by imperial seals, this work - a portrait of the Emperor Xuanzong's favorite charger - is probably the most famous depiction of a horse in art history.  A millennium after it was painted, the steed seems alive as it paws the ground and rears its head.

The next work that caught my attention was Emperor Xuanzong's Flight to Shu, painted by an unknown artist in the Southern Song dynasty.  What's curious about this work is that many years ago I acquired from the museum's gift shop a full-size reproduction that still hangs framed in my living room.  The title on the reproduction, though, was given as The Tribute Horse which I'd always assumed to be a reference to the riderless mount shown among the entourage slowly making its way through the mountains.  At the current show, however, a different explanation was provided the viewer.
"In 745, after thirty-three years of able rule, the Tang emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56) fell in love with the concubine Yang Guifei and became indifferent to his duties. When Yang's favorite general, An Lushan, rebelled in 755, Yang Guifei was blamed. Forced to flee from the capital at Xi'an to the safety of Shu (Sichuan Province), the emperor was confronted by mutinous troops demanding the execution of his lover. Reluctantly assenting, Xuanzong witnessed the act in horror and shame and abdicated soon after. This painting depicts the somber imperial entourage after the execution."
In this interpretation, the empty saddle then belongs to the executed Yang Guifei

It's startling to realize I have stared at the reproduction every day for so many years without ever having known the true meaning of its iconography.  I couldn't understand why the painting had been given the wrong title - especially as the story of the executed Yang Guifei is one of the most celebrated in Chinese literature - until I came across an article written by Alan Priest, curator of Far Eastern Art, in an October 1943 Met Museum bulletin.  He wrote:
"The peculiar thing about our picture is that across one of the most majestic of Chinese landscapes there moves a procession of riders, bepomped and glittering, so sure of themselves that they seem completely unaware of the scene through which they pass...  One might, however, advance an explanation for it: as a courtly compliment the painter was depicting the passage of one of the famous tribute horses of the T'ang emperor T'ai Tsung.  (If so, this is the only time a painter weighed imperial glory against immortal hills.) Such a suggestion may go too far in guesswork, but something of the sort is happening."
At some point then after Priest had published his article new information must have come to light that allowed the museum staff to correctly divine the true meaning of the painting.  It would be interesting to learn the backstory of the research that enabled this reinterpretation.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven and Schubert

Juilliard's semester-end chamber music recitals concluded this past Sunday afternoon.  I chose to attend the 1:00 p.m. performance and was quite pleased to find that the program featured well known works by Beethoven and Schubert.  There was a bit of drama before things began, though, when the lead-off musicians could not be located.  But no one in the audience seemed to mind waiting a few minutes - everyone realizes how busy Juilliard students are - and the recital, once the errant players had been located, started only fifteen minutes behind schedule.

The program opened with Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47 (1803), nicknamed the "Kreutzer Sonata" after the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer.  Kreutzer. however, was not the original dedicatee.  That honor had first been given to George Bridgetower, the violinist who had performed the sonata at its premiere with Beethoven himself playing the pianoforte part.  Bridgetower must have been quite a competent musician.  Without benefit of any rehearsal, according to Ferdinand Ries whom Beethoven summoned at 4:30 a.m. to copy the work, he was able to sight read his part while looking over Beethoven's shoulder at the composer's own copy of the score and even under those circumstances was able to make a correction Beethoven accepted, gleefully exclaiming "Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!" ("Once again, my dear boy!").  Unfortunately, the two decided to celebrate after the performance ended and went out together for drinks.  Since for some unknown reason the concert had begun at the ungodly hour of 8:00 a.m., it may have been a bad idea to start making the rounds of the bars so early in the day.  While the two friends were downing their liquor, Bridgetower began making unflattering remarks concerning the questionable virtue of a woman of his acquaintance.  The woman turned out to be friend of Beethoven who was not at all happy to hear her treated so shabbily.  He removed Bridgetower's name as dedicatee when the sonata was published and gave the honor instead to Kreutzer whom he had met only once and then briefly.  In a further twist, Kreutzer, not pleased at being second in line, declared the work "outrageously unintelligible" and never performed it.  Beethoven seems not to have had any luck with his dedications.  One need only remember what happened the following year when his plan to dedicate his Third Symphony, the "Eroica," to Napoleon went fatefully awry.

More important than the dedication, though, was the music itself.  It was written at the inception of Beethoven's middle period but already shows a clear break from the Classical Haydnesque works that had preceded it.  It is much grander in scope than the composer's prior eight sonatas for violin, a point Beethoven emphasized by including in the title the phrase “almost in the manner of a concerto.”  The first movement starts off with a few slow chords that sound so awkward that the listener wonders if the violinist is perhaps experiencing difficulty at the very beginning of the piece.  From there, the violin and piano move from key to key as though Beethoven were experimenting with the relationships among them in search of a particular combination.  The second movement andante is based on a theme and variations, a technique Beethoven had practiced from his earliest days as a pianist, sometimes improvising variations on popular tunes whose names the audiences called out to him during recitals.  What is unusual here is the complexity of the theme itself.  Normally the composer would keep this fairly simple if for no other reason than to allow himself the widest latitude in creating the variations upon it.  But this theme is complex and demanding and the variations derived from it all the more masterful.  The third movement, a tarantella, was originally written for an earlier sonata, the Op. 30, No. 1.  Beethoven had been in such haste to perform with Bridgetower that he hadn't time to write a new ending but simply used what was at hand.  The movement is much more lighthearted than the first two and seems somewhat mismatched.

The performers were Yuanmiao Li, violin, and Re Zhang, piano; the coaches were Ronald Copes and Jerome Lowenthal.

The second and final work on the program was Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, D. 898 (1827).  The composer's two piano trios, written shortly before his death, are rightfully considered masterpieces of the genre and are among his greatest chamber compositions.  He had written an earlier trio, also in B-flat major, the D. 28, while still a student of Salieri and then for reasons unknown had abandoned the form.  It was not until he had become friends with the Czech pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet who was capable of playing on the same level as violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Josef Linke that Schubert was inspired to return to the genre.  While the models he had to work from, including those of Beethoven, were in the Classical style, Schubert more or less reinvented the trio as a vehicle for pure Romanticism.  The D. 898 is literally filled with melody right from the beginning of the opening movement that is so effervescent it reminds one in this regard of the "Trout" quintet.  And the second movement andante un poco mosso is among the loveliest Schubert ever composed.  

The ensemble, coached by Jerome Lowenthal, consisted of Chener Yuan, violin; Yifei Li, cello; and Jiaxin Min, piano.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Orchestra Now Performs Mozart, Weiner, Schumann and Ligeti

While most of New York City waited in line to see the premiere of the new Star Wars film on Friday evening, I rode the subway down to Cooper Union in the Village to attend a free performance given by The Orchestra Now, a training orchestra and part of a master’s degree program sponsored by Bard College. I had never before heard of the ensemble, which was only established earlier this year and whose music director is Leon Botstein, also music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and, not coincidentally, President of Bard College. I was also attracted by the eclectic program which included works by Mozart, Weiner, Schumann and Ligeti.

The program opened with Mozart's Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297/300a (1778), nicknamed the "Paris."  This exuberant piece is a always a crowd pleaser, and for good reason - Mozart, traveling though Europe in search of employment that would allow him to leave his hated position at Salzburg, here much more deliberately than in other works set out to create a symphony that would delight his listeners and bring him the celebrity he had once enjoyed as a child prodigy.  To this end, he followed Parisian custom by opening his allegro movements with le premier coup d'archet with all members of the orchestra playing in unison.  He even went so far as to rewrite the andante to suit the taste of Joseph Legros, leader of the Concert Spirituel, even though Mozart himself saw nothing wrong with the original movement as he had written it.  (Both are excellent, so much so that even now musicologists are not completely certain whether it was the andante in 3/4 time or that in 6/8, the version most often played today, that was the original.)  More important to the development of Mozart's future music was his first use on this occasion of clarinets in a symphonic orchestration.  The result of the composer's exertions was a shimmering work that betrayed no sense of the anguish he must surely have felt over the final illness of his mother who died on July 3, only two weeks after the Concert Spirituel's first performance.

The next work was Leó Weiner's Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3 (1906).  I had heard a performance of this piece two years ago when Iván Fischer, noted for his interpretations of Hungarian music, conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Carnegie Hall.  At the time I found the work "pleasant enough but steeped in the traditions of the nineteenth century."  Although Weiner did incorporate elements of his country's folk music into his compositions, he never delved into this tradition as deeply as his contemporaries Bartók and Kodály but instead used these elements more as a means to provide local color to his thoroughly orthodox compositions.  Weiner was not one to take chances, either in his music or in his life.  Once he had been appointed in 1908 to a teaching position at the Budapest Academy of Music he remained there until his retirement in 1949.  Judging from the success of his pupils, teaching may have been his forte.  The most prominent of Weiner's former students were the conductors Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, both of whom went on to lead the Chicago Symphony.  In fact, Solti's last recording, released posthumously in 1998, included a performance of the Serenade.

After intermission, the program resumed with Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E major, Op. 52 (1841, rev. 1845).   The piece is not often performed and I honestly can't remember the last time I heard it in concert.  Part of this has to do with the perception of Schumann as an imperfect symphonic composer.  (In his own time this may have had something to do with his total ineptitude as a conductor in leading these works.)  The Overture, Scherzo and Finale receives even less respect than his four full length symphonies as it is often viewed as "incomplete" in its lack of a slow movement.  Schumann himself termed it a sinfonetta, which carries with it the unfortunate implication that it is somehow more lightweight than his other works in this genre.  In actuality, the omission works to the piece's advantage.  Its very brevity makes it more taut and compact and gives to it a power and liveliness sometimes missing in his other orchestral works.

The evening ended with a performance of György Ligeti's Concert Românesc ("Romanian Concerto") (1951).  This was the work I'd been most interested in hearing and I found it fascinating for its blending of two distinct styles.  The first two movements were thoroughly grounded in Hungarian folk music and were more than a little reminiscent of Bartók's adaptations of this same source material.  But the final two movements, those which infuriated Soviet censors to the extent that the work was banned after a single rehearsal and not performed publicly until 1971, looked ahead to the uncompromising experimental compositions Ligeti completed after his move to Cologne.  The final movement, in particular, was filled with dissonance as individual instruments pursued distinct themes independently of one another.  Though this forced melding of two different traditions might seem at first glance an uneasy combination, the piece actually worked quite well.  I'm often surprised how appealing audiences find the work of this determinedly avant-garde composer, most especially on the two occasions I've heard his Mysteries of the Macabre.  Friday evening was no exception and those in attendance applauded loudly at the Concerto's conclusion. 

Bearing in mind that its talented members have only been playing together since September, the ensemble did a fine job as they moved from one very different piece to the next.  It's a small group, more a chamber orchestra really, but definitely worth taking the time to hear.  It's conductor, Zachary Schwartzman, appeared comfortable on the podium and fully in control, not an easy task when directing musicians who have had relatively little time to come together as a unit.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Haydn, Lickl, Handel and Dohnányi

For their last recital of 2015 the Jupiter Players performed a fascinating program at St. Stephen's Church that, even if it were not technically holiday music, was certainly in the spirit of the season.  The Austrian and Hungarian composers featured were Haydn, Lickl, Handel and Dohnányi.

The program opened with Haydn's String Trio in G major, Op. 53, No.1 (1790) as transcribed from the Piano Sonata Hob. XVI:40 (1784).  All three string trios in the Op. 53 are identical to the Hob. XVI:40-42 keyboard sonatas.  Although the sonatas were published first and are customarily considered the original versions of these pieces, it's not actually known when they were written or even if they do in fact antedate the trios.  Some musicologists believe it may have been the other way around and that the sonatas were in fact derived from the trios.  It's also unknown who completed the transcriptions, whether it was the composer himself or a colleague.  Certainly, just as he was "father of the string quartet," Haydn was a master of the string trio form as well.  He wrote some 80 trios for traditional instrumentation as well as a huge number (126) for viola, cello and the baryton (a lower register string instrument played by his patron Prince Esterházy that has since fallen out of use).

The next work was Johann Georg Lickl's Cassazione in E-flat major (1798) for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon. Lickl, a student of Albrechtsberger and Haydn, was a (very) minor Austrian composer who is today no more than a footnote in Viennese musical history.  In spite of his lack of renown, Lickl somehow managed to produce the present serenade, a piece so lovely that when it was first discovered in 1910 it was thought to be a lost Mozart work, or so at least its publisher Albert J. Andraud claimed when it first made the cassazione available in 1936.  Still, after having heard the piece, it's not difficult to understand how such a mistake could have been made.  The four-movement work is absolutely charming and bears more than a superficial resemblance to the wind serenades that Mozart himself authored.  No matter how obscure its composer, the work itself deserves a permanent place in the repertoire.

The first half of the recital ended with a Passacaglia composed by Handel and transcribed for violin and viola by Johan Halvorsen in 1894.   Based on the last movement of Handel’s Keyboard Suite No. 7 in G minor, HWV 432, the work consists of sixteen variations over a continuing bassline.  A thesis by one Jessica Emory details Halvorsen's changes to the original work and argues that these are so extensive that the result can be viewed as an original work in its own right.  An interesting sidelight is that famed violinist Jascha Heifetz took Halvorsen's piece and rewrote it for two violins.  The manuscript was only discovered in 2012 among Heifetz Collection papers at the Library of Congress.  In any event, the version for violin and viola performed here was a showcase for the virtuoso skills of guest artists Josef Špaček, concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic, and violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt.

After intermission the recital continued with Liszt's 1879 transcription of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel's first opera Almira.  Liszt, of course, is known as much for his transcriptions as for his original compositions.  An article in Wikipedia lists 99 composers whose works Liszt transcribed or arranged for piano(s).  A separate article gives the history of this particular transcription which was completed by Liszt for his English student Walter Bache who at the time was preparing to travel to England to take part in a Handel festival:
"Liszt's decision to set Handel was probably due at least in part to please British audiences, for whom Handel was still the preeminent national composer and before whom Bache would likely appear. Nevertheless, the choice of subject matter was surprising, not only by being Handel instead of Bach but also from being taken from a Handel opera which was virtually ignored at the time."
Guest pianist William Wolfram gave an excellent rendition of this difficult piece.

The program concluded with Ernő Dohnányi's Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1 (1894).  Unlike his fellow Hungarian composers, Bartók and Kodály, Dohnányi did not find inspiration in his native country's folk music but rather turned to the Classical/Romatic tradition of Brahms who in fact said of this piece: "I could not have written it better myself" and thereupon arranged for its first public performance.  It's easy to understand Brahms's enthusiasm.  This is a powerful work whose symphonic breadth stretches the boundaries of chamber repertoire, so much so that the listener finds it hard to believe that this was Dohnányi's first published work.  It deserves to be heard more often.  As it is, the performance provided a fitting end to the ensemble's 2015 recital series.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Music: Improvisations, Schumann and Dvořák

On Sunday afternoon I went for the second week in a row to Morse Hall to hear the 1:00 p.m. chamber recital, the first of three being given that day.  The program began with a pair of original improvisations and then took a turn to the Romantic era with the piano music of Schumann and Dvořák.

The two improvisations that opened the program were entitled "Home Again" and "There is nobody asleep," both of which were coached by Noam Sivan.  Although the program notes credited the first piece to bassist Sebastian Zinca and the second to harpist Caroline Bembia, Sebastian took the time to explain in opening remarks that neither he nor Caroline were composers in the traditional sense of the term.  I took this to mean that both musicians had only devised the themes of their respective works and that all five musicians in the ensemble were responsible for the final pieces heard by the audience.  The other three performers in the group, who collectively called themselves The Illustrators, were Stephanie Kwak, flute; Christian Lundqvist, percussion; and Chi Wei Lo, piano and synthesizer.

I had never really been conscious of improvisations as a separate genre until I attended performances at Chamberfest this year and last at which they were featured prominently.  On the first occasion the tango music of Piazzolla was used as a basis while on the second the Broadway music of Sondheim and Gershwin served the same function.  I've also heard members of the Juilliard415 perform a Baroque improvisation on an original theme.  As I've been exposed to these improvisational performances, I've gained a much deeper appreciation of the difficulties the musicians face - they are forced to work without the aid of a score and are more of less required to come up with music appropriate to the theme even as they are playing it with the other members of their ensemble.  This requires skills that go far beyond mastery of a given instrument.

The next work was Schumann's Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110 (1851).  Though filled with the spirit of Romanticism, this piece is not often performed today.  It was composed at a time when the composer, experiencing difficulties as conductor of the Düsseldorf Orchestra, turned to chamber music as a distraction and produced some of his most important, if little recognized, works including the two violin sonatas.  They give the lie to critics' assertions that Schumann's music had begun to deteriorate in quality as his mental condition worsened.  The trio is incredibly passionate but shows the composer in full control of his material from the wildly romantic opening right through to the playful ending.  The piece was performed by Lyly Li, violin; Jennifer Carpenter, cello; and Yihui Liu, piano; it was coached by Aaron Wunsch.

After a brief intermission, the program closed with Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87 (1889).  The piece was written fourteen years after the Quartet in D major and might never have been completed at all if the composer had not been constantly goaded by his publisher Simrock.  Surprisingly, it's not one of Dvořák's more famous chamber works even though it's a wonderful statement of the Romantic ethos he had acquired from Brahms.  The second movement lento has a sweet haunting character while the third movement contains elements of the East European folk tunes Dvořák would soon develop more fully in his much better known "Dumky" Trio.  In contrast, the final movement, almost symphonic in its sound, is so powerful it fairly sweeps the listener along to the work's conclusion.  I had heard the quartet performed over a year ago at a Jupiter Players' recital and, though it was played very well, had not been able to sufficiently appreciate it; but I enjoyed it much more this time around.  The musicians, coached by Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet, were Katherine Liu, violin; Natasha Galitzine, viola; Julia Henderson, cello; and Ian-Joe (Joey) Chang, piano.  All four did an excellent job but I was most impressed with Joey Chang's work on piano.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Book Reading: Luc Sante's The Other Paris

On Wednesday evening I rode the subway down to the Village and then walked through Washington Square Park, where a holiday tree lighting ceremony was in progress under the arch, to NYU's Maison Francaise to hear Luc Sante give a reading from his most recent book, The Other Paris.

I'd read Sante's Low Life decades ago when it was first published.  As someone who is himself fourth generation NYC Irish - according to an 1861 census, my great-great grandfather had a shoe repair business on Greene Street only blocks from where the reading took place - I loved the gritty ambiance Sante captured so well in his book.  It covered much the same ground as Asbury's The Gangs of New York but was much more evocative, without ever attempting to romanticize its subject, in recounting the nefarious exploits of the nineteenth century underworld.  At the time I read it many reminders of those days were still to be found in pre-gentrified Manhattan.  The building that had once housed McGurk's Suicide Hall, for example, still stood dilapidated on Bowery just north of Houston.  All that has since been swept away, of course, along with the old ethnic neighborhoods as the city has been made over into an upscale shopping mall and its character destroyed.

Although I haven't yet read The Other Paris, I anticipated that it would approach the City of Lights in much the same manner as had been used in the earlier work on New York, and Sante more or less confirmed this before beginning the reading by referring to the book as Low Life Paris.  That was fine with me.  I've traveled a great deal, but I've never cared for the brightly lit tourist spots where Americans huddle with one another, too timid to explore the dark side streets where no one speaks English.  I used to love walking through Paris at night.  Wandering along the boulevards, I tried to imagine what the ancient city must have been like before Haussmann's renovation transformed it into a modern metropolis.  Unfortunately, since Paris has now gentrified to almost the same degree as New York, I no longer visit there.

To my surprise, the reading was much more crowded than I'd anticipated.  The large room at Maison Francaise was packed to the point where it was standing room only.  Sante read from the book for about a half hour.  He has a deep sonorous voice that was well suited to the subject matter.  His prose is rich in imagery and makes free use of descriptive adjectives as it details, for example, the history of the "Zone" and the ragpickers who once made their home there. The audience was very appreciative and gave him a loud round of applause when he'd finished.

Afterwards, during the question and answer period, I asked if, as a teacher of photography history, he saw any equivalence in what he had attempted in his book and what Brassaï had accomplished on a visual level in Paris de Nuit.  Sante responded first by saying that he had not used any of Brassaï's photographs in his book because the photographer's estate was a "bear" to deal with.  He also reminded us that many of Brassaï's most iconic images were staged (a point Alain Sayag also emphasized in his monograph) but acknowledged that Brassaï was the "patron saint" of The Other Paris.

After the reading had concluded, I approached Sante to thank him for comments he had once made about some photographs I had years before sent him via an unsolicited email.  Although I only spoke to him for about ten seconds, he was extremely gracious.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Juilliard Vocal Recital: Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, Britten, et al.

Yesterday's installment of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series was devoted to the vocal arts and featured five talented singers and their accompanists in an hour-long program of songs written by a wide variety of composers, some of whom had previously been unknown to me.

The program began with baritone Dominik Belavy and pianist William Kelley performing selections from Songs of Travel (1901-1904) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of which used as texts poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's 1896 collection of the same name.  The three selections sung here were "The vagabond," "Whither must I wander?" and "The roadside fire."  I found these songs the most evocative performed at the recital, but that is no doubt because the texts were in English and of such a profoundly wistful nature.  The loneliness and sense of transience that is always inherent in any poetic work dealing with travel can't help but affect the emotions of even the most stolid audience. 

Mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze and pianist Valeriya Polunina took the stage next and performed a selection of four Russian songs.  These were (in English translation) Tchaikovsky's "None but the lonely heart" (text by Lev Mei based on a poem by Goethe), Rimsky-Korsakov's "What I secretly dream about" (text by Apollon Nikolayevich Maykov), Tchaikovsky's "In the middle of the noisy ball" (text by A.K. Tolstoy) and Yuri Alexandrovic Shaporin's "Your southern voice is languid" (text by Alexander Blok).  I had known Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov primarily from their orchestral works and, to a lesser extent, their operas.  It was fascinating to hear their genius brought to bear on an entirely different genre.  I was also intrigued to learn that Tolstoy had written the text used by Tchaikovsky in one of his songs.  It's been many years since I read any of Tolstoy's works - most recently the novel The Vampire - but I remember having enjoyed his style much more than that of his dour cousin Leo.

The third singer was tenor Matthew Swensen; William Kelley was once again accompanist.  Together they performed three Scandinavian songs - Edvard Grieg's "A dream" (text by Friedrich von Bodenstedt), Sibelius's "Was it a dream?" (text by Josef JuliusWecksell) and "The girl came from meeting her lover" (text by Johan Ruhenberg), and finally Hugo Alfvén's "I long for you" (text by Ernest Thiel).  The real surprise here was the Sibelius piece.  I had heard Leif Ove Andsnes perform several of Sibelius's piano pieces last month at Carnegie Hall and had not expected such sensitivity from a composer whom I had previously known mainly for his fervent nationalism.  It was also the first opportunity I'd had to hear any of Hugo Alfvén's music, though the Swedish composer was apparently quite prolific.

Afterwards. bass Daniel Miroslaw, accompanied by pianist Michael Biel, came onstage to perform two songs from Four Love Sonnets by Tadeusz Baird that took as their texts Shakespeare's Sonnet 56: "Sweet love" and Sonnet 97: "How like a winter hath my absence been."  They then performed Henryk Czyz's "Farewell" (translated into Polish from a poem by Pushkin).  I have to admit I'd never heard of either of these two composers before attending this recital.  But then again Polish music, other than that of Chopin and occasionally Wieniawski and Szymanowski, is rarely given the attention it deserves.  It was hard to get a sense of Baird's and Czyz's artistry from such brief pieces as were performed here, but I would definitely be interested in hearing more of their music.  

The final performer was soprano Alexandra Razskazoff; the indefatigable William Kelley returned as accompanist.  Together they performed four selections from On this Island, Op. 11 (1937) by Benjamin Britten with texts by W.H. Auden - "Let the florid music praise!," "Now the leaves are falling fast," "Nocturne" and "As it is, plenty."  These works complemented very well the Vaughan Williams selections that opened the program.  Stevenson and Auden possessed completely different sensibilities as poets and their respective settings highlighted the differences between the two British composers who took them up.  Nothing can provide greater insight into the character of any artist than studying the poets who are most meaningful to him.

I very much enjoyed this recital, especially as it provided such an interesting sampling of works from composers of different nationalities and cultures.  Aside from the Singers in Recital series offered by Carnegie Hall, there are not many opportunities even here in New York City to hear recitals by gifted vocalists.  Juilliard's offerings are all the more appreciated then for allowing listeners the chance to hear works that are otherwise not available except perhaps on hard to find recordings.  They are for that reason alone exceptionally valuable resources.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Juilliard415 Performs Dornel, Marais, Couperin, Leclair, Guignon and Lully

Yesterday, the Juilliard415 performed one of its free noontime recitals at Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West.  Unlike its sister series, Wednesdays at One, that are only an hour in length, the 415 ensemble often treats its audiences to full length recitals.  This one lasted an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.  The 415 recitals also differ from other Juilliard performances in that they provide full program notes rather than a simple listing of the works to be performed.  This is greatly appreciated, especially as many Baroque pieces, and even the names of their respective composers. are thoroughly unfamiliar to modern day listeners.  The notes, written by the students themselves, are quite erudite and extremely helpful.

Before the performance began, Artistic Director Robert Mealey spoke briefly.  He indicated that during each semester the ensemble focused on the Baroque music of one particular nationality.  As this semester's focus was on French music, the program accordingly featured works by Dornel, Marais, Couperin, Leclair, Guignon and Lully.

The first work was Louis-Antoine Dorel's Suite in D minor from Livre de Simphonies, Op. 1 (1709) performed by Ambra Casonata (violin), Fiona Last (oboe), Neil Chen (bassoon) and Paul Morton (guitar).  The program notes for this work, written by Ambra Casonata, contained the interesting comment that: "The piece is not technically demanding; therefore, the players have to research a refined and tasteful sound appropriate for such a work."  I took this to mean that the very simplicity of the music gave the performers leeway to improvise as they played their parts.

Next was Marin Marais's Suite No. 1 from Pieces en Trio (1692) performed by David Dickey (oboe), Nayeon Kim (violin), Kamila Marcinkowska-Prasad (bassoon) and Evan Kory (harpsichord).  Although violin and oboe were used in this arrangement, the program notes by Evan Kory pointed out that recorders or flutes could be used in their place.  Obviously, arrangements for given instruments were much less formalized during the Baroque.  The absence of orchestras and ensembles as we know them today would have necessitated that a piece of music could be played with whatever appropriate instruments were at hand.

The third work was François Couperin's Dances from L'Espagnole from Les Nations (1726) performed by Jeffrey Girton and Augusta McKay Lodge (violins), Keiran Campbell (cello) and Leonard Schmid (harpsichord).  Another Couperin work was played later in the program.  That was La Paix du Parnasse (Sonade en Trio) from Concert en forme d'apothéose à la mémoire de l'incomparable M. de Lully (1724) performed by Toma Iliev (violin), Caroline Ross (oboe), Alexander Nicholls (cello) and Gabriel Benton (harpsichord).

Couperin was distinguished by his desire to reconcile the radically different styles of French and Italian music.  He was a fervent admirer of the work of both Lully and Corelli and composed pieces dedicated to each of them.  La Paix du Parnasse was an attempt to find common ground between the two countries' musical idioms.  Ironically, Lully, born Giovanni Battista Lulli, was himself Italian but evolved into such a Francophile that he used his position as superintendent of music under Louis XIV to rid French music of any foreign elements, particularly those of his own country of birth.

Following the first Couperin work came a series of excerpts from Jean-Marie Leclair's Deuxième recréation de musique, Op. 8 (1764) performed by Joseph Monticello (flute), Isabelle Seul-a Lee (violin), Julia Nilsen Savage (cello) and Robert Warner (harpsichord).  Leclair, a violin virtuoso, was another composer who followed Couperin in trying to integrate the disparate styles of French and Italian music.  Though the trio sonata was originally an Italian musical form, Leclair here filled it with flourishes in the French style, including its opening overture.  While I was listening to the piece, it seemed inordinately long for the two movements shown in the program.  After the recital had finished, Mr. Mealy was kind enough to write in for me on my program the titles of the five movements that had been left out, presumably due to a printing error.  After the work had concluded, the musicians gave a short encore highlighted by Joseph Monticello's incredible performance on a Baroque piccolo.

The next to last work was Jean-Pierre Guignon's Sonata in D major, Op. 4, No. 2 from Six Sonates en trio (c. 1742) performed by Ūla Kinderyté and Karen Dekker (violins), Oliver Weston (cello) and Adam Cockerham (theorbo).  Born Giovanni Pietro Ghignone, the composer was another Italian who found success in Paris where he was eventually appointed roy et maître des ménétrieres.  The program notes written by Adam Cockerham gave a rather negative description of the character of Guignon (whose name signifies "bad luck" in French).  Apparently, the composer was avaricious and litigious and heartily despised in his own time.  

The recital ended with Jean-Baptiste Lully's Dances from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) performed by Jeffrey Girton and Karen Dekker (violins), Ūla Kinderyté and Netanel Pollack (violas), Oliver Weston (cello), Peter Ferretti (bass) and Adam Cockerham (theorbo).  As someone who had studied French literature in college, I was fascinated to learn that Lully had written incidental music to Molière's famous comedy.  And not only that, but also that during the premiere Molière himself had played the part of the foolish protagonist while Lully had danced in the ballet that followed the conclusion of the play.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dutilleux, Beethoven and Mozart

I went to Juilliard yesterday to hear the 1:00 p.m. chamber recital at Morse Hall, the first of three to be given that afternoon.  Unfortunately, Juilliard does not release in advance the program details for any of its free student recitals.  Listeners therefore need pick a time at random and hope for the best.  Luckily for me, the "pot luck" program I ended up hearing was quite satisfactory, featuring as it did works by Dutilleux, Beethoven and Mozart.

The program began with Dutilleux's Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1947), an obscure work I'd never before encountered.  It was performed by Lauren Williams, oboe, and Joe Mohan, piano; the piece was coached by Baruch Arnon.  This was actually the second time I'd heard Dutilleux's music this season - in October the American Symphony Orchestra performed his Correspondances at Carnegie Hall - and the first chance I'd had to hear any of his chamber works.  The sonata was composed for a quite specific purpose.  During the post-war period well known composers, among them Messiaen and Jolivet, were commissioned by the Paris Conservatory to create concours competition pieces, i.e., works to be performed by Conservatory students to determine which among them were qualified to receive a diploma.  Accordingly, these works were deliberately designed to be as difficult as possible.  Dutilleux's sonata seizes on every opportunity, from changes in register to awkward fingerings, to tax the skill of the performer.

The next two works were much more familiar.  The first was Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2 (1802).  The violinist was Cindy Lin and the pianist Jae Young Kim; the coach was violinist Lara Lev.  1802, the year in which the three Op. 30 sonatas were completed, was of course the same year the Heiligenstadt Testament was written and for that reason the most significant in Beethoven's career as a composer.  This was when he stood poised to enter the heroic phase referred to as his Middle Period.  Something of the grandeur and drama of the works to come can be seen in this sonata.  Except in the playful third movement scherzo, the work is filled with drama right from the turbulent opening of the first movement.  From here on, Beethoven gave much more weight to the violin as an equal partner of the piano when composing his sonatas.  But he still had not forgotten that he was himself a pianist, and it is this instrument rather than the violin that opens all four movements and introduces the thematic content of each.  

After intermission, the program concluded with Mozart's famous Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581 (1789).  The five musicians were Hannah Cho and Greg Cardi, violins; Matthew Sinno, viola; Megan Yip, cello; and Zachary Hann, clarinet.  Lara Lev was once again the coach.  Recently I had a conversation with a clarinetist about the extended range instrument, the bassett clarinet, used by Anton Stadler for whom this work was written.  I was surprised to learn that there are relatively few notes in the K. 581 and the Clarinet Concerto, K. 622 that make use of this extended range and that the greater part of each could be played on the traditional soprano clarinet in use today.  This would seem to indicate the advertisement for the premiere performance of the Concerto somewhat hyped the instrument's properties.
"Herr Stadler the elder, in the service of his majesty the Kaiser, will play a concerto on the Bass-Klarinet and a variation on the Bass-Klarinet, an instrument of new invention and manufacture of the court instrument maker Theodor Loz; this instrument has two more tones than the normal clarinet."
At any rate, the clarinetist at this performance, as at almost all I've seen, made use of the traditional clarinet without apparently encountering any difficulties.  Still, the recording of both pieces that I own and most admire is that performed by David Shifrin in which he does make use of the extended range instrument.  Still, this might have more to do with the skill of the performer than with the instrument used.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Beethoven, Kirchner and Haydn

On Friday evening the Orion Quartet performed at Mannes's Tisch Auditorium a recital that featured works by the classical composers Beethoven and Haydn as well as a mid-twentieth century work by Leon Kirchner.

The program opened with Beethoven's String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op. 95 (1810).  This was the only quartet to which the composer gave a title, and a very apt one at that, having inscribed on the autograph the phrase Quartett Serioso.  Although composed in 1810, the piece was not published until 1816, an indication that Beethoven realized fully well the difficulty such a dark and highly personal work would have in finding acceptance among audiences of his time.  In fact, in a letter to George Smart, the conductor who had led the London performances of Beethoven's symphonies, he instructed:
"The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public."
At the time the quartet was composed Beethoven had once again fallen into one of his periodic moods of despair, in this instance occasioned by the failure of his relationship with the "Immortal Beloved."  Just as in 1802, when he had written the Heiligenstadt Testament, he now again considered suicide, going so far as to state:
"If I had not read somewhere that no one should quit life voluntarily while he could still do something worthwhile, I would have been dead long ago and certainly by my own hand. Oh, life is so beautiful, but for me it is poisoned forever."
But it was not only the emotional content that made hearing the quartet so problematic.  Just as his earlier despondency had given way to the successes of the Middle Period, so this new crisis led to the breakthroughs of the Late Period.  In a very definite sense the experimentation contained in the Op. 95 - for example, the progression in the third movement from F minor to the tonally distant key of B minor - prefigured the radical innovations of the late quartets.

The next work was Kirchner's Sting Quartet No. 1 (1949).  Kirchner, though perhaps not so well known to the general public as he deserves to be, was an icon of twentieth-century music.  He studied under Schoenberg at UCLA but never adopted the twelve-tone technique in his own music.  Instead, in true American fashion, he developed a style uniquely his own.  I am not sufficiently qualified to describe that style and so would do best to quote the composer's own notes on the First Quartet, a piece he admitted was heavily influenced by Bartók's music:
"The first movement of the Quartet, Allegro ma non troppo, is divided into 4 sections. The first section contains 2 expositions of thematic material presented in the opening measures. The second section contrasts this material harmonically, metrically and structurally. The third section is a pre-recapitulation of the modified introductory material and the final section combines the functions of the recapitulation and coda."
Before beginning the piece, first violinist Daniel Phillips spoke briefly of the Orion Quartet's long association with the late composer who actually wrote one of his quartets for them.  The ensemble will be performing all four quartets at Lincoln Center in May 2016.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Haydn's String Quartet in G minor, "Rider," Op. 74, No. 3 (1793), nicknamed "the Rider" after the final movement's galloping rhythms.  The three Op. 74 quartets, along with the Op. 71, are often referred to as the "Apponyi quartets" after Count Anton Georg Apponyi who paid the composer 100 ducats for the privilege of having them dedicated to him.  This was really the piece I'd been most interested in hearing.  The Orion Quartet's performances of Haydn's works in this genre are without question the best and most authoritative I've encountered.  I've been fortunate enough to have attended a number of the ensemble's recitals at Mannes over the past few seasons and have gained from them a much deeper understanding of the depth of the composer's genius.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Mendelssohn and Brahms

It was a rainy afternoon in Manhattan yesterday, but the large and enthusiastic audience at Alice Tully disregarded the weather long enough to attend an hour long performance of symphonic music by Mendelssohn and Brahms as performed by the Juilliard Lab Orchestra.  This was actually the first opportunity I'd had to hear the orchestra, one of several sponsored by Juilliard.  According to the school's website:
"The Lab Orchestra is conducted by students of the Orchestral Conducting program under the supervision of Alan Gilbert, and gives both the student conductors and student musicians the opportunity to learn major works of orchestral repertoire while working each week with Maestro Gilbert and/or special guests."
The program opened with Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 (1830).  Though approximately the same length as an operatic overture, this roughly ten-minute piece was not composed as a prelude to a larger opus but was instead written to be played on its own as a self-contained work.  This was not at all uncommon during the early nineteenth century Romantic period.  These pieces were intended by their composers to evoke a specific mood or feeling and, as such, were forerunners of the much longer tone poems that Strauss was to create decades later.  The composition of this specific overture was occasioned by Mendelssohn's visit to Fingal's Cave while traveling through Scotland after first having visited England as a guest of the Philharmonic Society.  If a journey to the uninhabited island of Staffa off Scotland's barren coast seems an unlikely side trip for a German tourist on holiday, it must be remembered that Scotland was at that time, however unlikely it may seem to us today, a spiritual center of the Romantic movement.  This was not only due to the immensely popular novels of Walter Scott but also to the historical and poetic writings of James Macpherson that exerted a tremendous influence on German literature, most notably on the work of the young Goethe.  Macpherson claimed to have discovered and translated the poetry of an ancient Gaelic scribe named Ossian who had purportedly written a work entitled Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books.  Ironically, more than a century after Macpherson had been unmasked as an extremely talented charlatan who had concocted the poems on his own, James Joyce also made use of the name of the legendary Irish hero Finn McCool, from which Fingal is derived, for the title of his final novel Finnegan's Wake.  In the meantime, the British naturalist Joseph Banks, unaware of Macpherson's deception, had renamed the cave in the Hebrides in honor of Ossian's protagonist.  It must then have been a moving experience for Mendelssohn to have visited the cave whose original Gaelic name was An Uamh Bhin ("the melodious cave") given it for its acoustical properties.  He was certainly inspired enough to have composed one of his most powerful orchestral works.

The next and final work was Brahms's Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877), the most popular of the composer's four symphonic works.  While it had taken the composer more than a decade to complete his Symphony No. 1, he was able to finish the Second in a few short months.  If this is indicative of anything, it's that Brahms had finally been able to throw off his morbid preoccupation with Beethoven's symphonic works and become his own man.  This new found freedom is reflected in the music itself.  If it could be described in a single word, it would be "tranquil."  Gone entirely is the tortured soul searching and self consciousness that had made the No. 1 so ponderous.  But Brahms had not been able even here to entirely free himself from Beethoven's shadow.  During his lifetime the work was often referred to as the "Pastoral," a direct comparison to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

The exuberant playing of the orchestra was fully in keeping with the spirit of the music.  They did a fine job.  Still, there is an inherent problem in listening to a performance by any school orchestra.  While members of established professional orchestras play with one another for decades and are thereby able to create a distinctive "sound" for their ensembles, that is simply not possible with an orchestra whose membership, no matter how talented, must necessarily completely turn over every four years.  Such a lack of continuity was yesterday worsened by having three different conductors - Jesse Brault, Gregor Mayrhofer and Nimrod David Pfeffer - take turns on the podium for each movement.  But this is a small quibble considering what a thoroughly enjoyable performance the orchestra put on for its appreciative audience.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Juon, Arensky and Tchaikovsky

At yesterday's matinee at Good Shepherd Church, the Jupiter Players performed an all-Russian program that featured the music of Juon, Arensky and Tchaikovsky, all of whom had at one time or anther been affiliated with the Moscow Conservatory.

The program opened with Juon's Divertimento in C major, Op. 34 (c. 1906) for clarinet and two violas.  Although Juon was born in Russia and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, he spent much of his adult life in Germany where he was employed by Joseph Joachim as an instructor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin.  Rather than compose music in the Russian style, Juon instead favored the romanticism of Brahms and was for that reason known during his lifetime as the "Russian Brahms."  It's not quite fair, however, to pigeonhole Juon in this manner.  In composing the piece at hand, he showed a great deal more originality than such a sobriquet would indicate.  Not only was the divertimento scored for an unusual combination of instruments, but Juon approached it in a singular manner as well.  Consisting of four movements - Variations, Serenade, Exotic Intermezzo and Ländler - it did possess a romantic flavor but was quite unlike any Brahms piece I've heard.  This even though the opening of the first movement was written in the Hungarian Minor scale which Brahms also made frequent use of in many of his works.

The Juon was followed by Arensky's Piano Trio No. 2 in F minor, Op. 73 (1905?).  Arensky, who had been Juon's teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, was a talented enough composer, but the gambling and alcoholism that led to his death at age 44 sometimes makes him seem more like a character from a Dostoevsky novel.  If it had not been for these addictions he might have had a much more successful career.  As it was, he became friends with Tchaikovsky while a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and produced some excellent chamber music of which the trio is one of the better known examples.  Certainly he followed the spirit of Russian romanticism in this piece, but the piano solo that follows the strings' introduction in the second movement is also very reminiscent of Chopin.  The final movement is a theme and variations, a device at which Arensky excelled, and the penultimate variation concludes in a dazzling burst of virtuosity.  The father-daughter team of violinist Mikhail Kopelman and pianist Elizaveta Kopelman themselves displayed a high level of virtuosity in their interpretation of this piece.

After intermission, the program ended with Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 (1890).  The first thing one must remember about this piece, a string sextet in D minor, is that despite its title it contains no "Italian" melodies.  The work was so named because Tchaikovsky began work on the slow movement while composing his opera The Queen of Spades during a visit to Florence.  In fact, the last two movements are filled with references to Russian folk music.  Still, it is the impassioned second movement adagio cantabile that forms the core of this work.  Though the sextet was fully sketched out in only two weeks, the composition did not come easily to Tchaikovsky.  In June 1890, he complained in a letter to his brother Modest:
"I'm composing with unbelievable effort. I am hampered not by lack of ideas but by the novelty of the form, for there must be six independent but at the same time homogeneous parts."
As a result, there is a great deal of tension throughout the work as the composer strove to place the indigenous Russian content within the structure of a classical Western format.  Perhaps for this reason Tchaikovsky shelved the sextet after its first public performance by the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society who had commissioned it and then thoroughly revised the final two movements a year later before submitting the work for publication.

The six string players - Mikhail Kopelman and Emily Daggett-Smith, violins; Cynthia Phelps and Cong Wu, violas; and Christine Lamprea and Zlatomir Fung, cellos - deserve special recognition for their outstanding work on this difficult piece.  Though they had only practiced together for a week, one would have thought they had worked together as an ensemble for years.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts

Though Arthur Wesley Dow is little remembered today, the crafts movement he founded and influenced was at the turn of the twentieth century a powerful force in American art, and Dow's ideas still resonate in any discussion of the aesthetics of the period.  As an instructor at Pratt, the New York Art Students League and the Columbia University Teachers College, he was able to disseminate his ideas among his students, many of whom went on to become artists in their own right.  Among them were such luminaries as Georgia O'Keefe and Max Weber.

While Dow was born in New England and trained as an artist at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, the real source of his inspiration came from Japan.  During the late nineteenth century, many European artists such as Whistler and Van Gogh were profoundly influenced by the artworks, particularly the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, that had begun to appear after Japan had finally been opened to the West in 1853.  Japonisme became something of a vogue and was even used for decorative purposes.  Dow's interest, however, ran far deeper.  After having encountered the work of the printmaker Hokusai he wrote:
"It is now plain to me that Whistler and Pennell whom I have admired as great originals are only copying the Japanese.  One evening with Hokusai gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures."
Dow then befriended Ernest Fenollosa, at the time curator of the Boston Museum's Japanese collection, and began an exhaustive study of printmaking techniques.  So successful was he in mastering the ukiyo-e process with the assistance of Sylvester Koehler, the museum's print curator, that in 1895 Dow's prints of New England scenes were given a one-man exhibition organized by Fenollosa.  But Dow's achievement was more than a technical success.  He had recognized in the ukiyo-e prints he had viewed the underlying Japanese principle of notan, the massing of blocks of light and shadow, and had been able to incorporate it into his own style and to promote this aesthetic in the creation of modernist works. 

Dow was also a talented photographer and member of the Boston Camera Club.  He applied to his photographic work the same concept of notan that he had used in his printmaking.  As such, he found himself firmly in the camp of the Pictorialist movement.  Not only did he instruct such prominent photographers as Gertrude Käsebier, Barbara Morgan and Alvin Langdon Coburn, he also hired Clarence White to teach photography at the Teachers College.

Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts was written to accompany an exhibit given by the American Federation of Arts in 1999.  It consists of two short essays and a number of excellent reproductions not only of  Dow's own works but those of his students as well.  The first essay, written by Nancy E. Green, is the more useful and provides a broad outlook over the course of Dow's career.  Unfortunately, Green is so determined to demonstrate the depth of Dow's influence on the course of American art that she spends more time discussing his students and followers than she does the artist himself.  The second essay, written by Jessie Poesch, has a much narrower focus and limits itself to an overview of the ceramics inspired by Dow's teaching.  In spite of its limitations, the book is a useful introduction to an important American artist.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Memoriam: Seymour Lipkin

According to an obituary recently published in The New York Times, the wonderful pianist and Juilliard faculty member Seymour Lipkin passed away on November 16th at age 88.  

I was fortunate enough to have heard Mr. Lipkin, who won first prize at the Rachmaninoff Competition in 1948, perform several times in the past few seasons.  He gave an impressive solo recital at Juilliard in 2013 where he expertly played sonatas by Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.  More recently, he performed, again at Juilliard, at a joint recital with violinist Laurie Smukler.  In the solo portion of that program, he gave his interpretation of two impromptus from Schubert's Op. 90.  At the time, I described his work at the keyboard as "limpid."  Then, in an appearance with the Jupiter Symphony Players, he accompanied guest violinist Miriam Fried and members of the ensemble on Mozart's great piano quartet in G minor, K. 478.  

In addition to his considerable skills as a pianist, Mr. Lipkin was also an able conductor who served as music director and principal guest conductor of the Joffrey Ballet Company (1966-1979) and as music director of the Long Island Symphony (1963-1979).

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Lipkin once at intermission before a performance and found him to be a friendly approachable man with a good sense of humor who appeared to sincerely appreciate my words of praise.  Though he never received the wide public recognition he most surely deserved, he was held in high esteem both by his colleagues and appreciative audiences.  He will be missed.