Friday, February 27, 2015

Met Opera: La Donna del Lago

On Wednesday evening, I went to the Met Opera to hear mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sing with the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez in La Donna del lago.  This was not the first time I had attempted to hear this pair sing together.  They had both been scheduled to appear last season in another Rossini opera, La Cenerentola, but on that occasion Flórez was forced to withdraw due to illness.  His place was taken by Javier Camarena who went on to triumph in the role and in doing so became only the third singer in the Met's history to perform an encore onstage.

La Donna del lago, with a libretto written by Andrea Tottola, was the first opera to have been based on a work by Sir Walter Scott but by no means the last.  Though today it seems incongruous that Italian opera should use Scottish tales of adventure as a source, Scott's novels and poems were actually made to order for a genre constantly in search of both exoticism and romanticism.  As the Wikipedia article notes of Scott's work: " was 'deeply influential in the development of Italian romantic opera' to the extent that by 1840 (barely 20 years after this opera), there were 25 Italian operas based on his works, the most famous being Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835."

Furthering the romanticism that imbues this opera was the fact that both Scott and Tottola were deeply influenced while writing it by the poems of Ossian, a supposedly ancient Gaelic verse cycle transcribed by James Macpherson beginning in 1760.  Though the authenticity of MacPherson's work was called into question even at the time of its publication, it was hugely influential in European culture in the early nineteenth century, especially in the development of the Sturm und Drang movement, and excerpts from it appear even in Goethe's Werther.

Whatever its source, the story certainly moved the action along quite quickly onstage.  There were no lulls in this presentation.  It began with the timeworn device of a king moving in disguise among commoners, followed by the threat of a forced marriage, Scottish rebels taking up arms against their rightful ruler, and a duel between love rivals before the opera finally reached its happy ending.  All this was inestimably helped by Rossini's opera seria music.  Of the works I've heard by this composer, I really thought this was his best and enjoyed it much more than his better known comic operas.  The chorus was used effectively throughout and the bel canto arias given to the principal characters were uniformly beautiful.  Considering how little time Rossini and Tottola had at their disposal to complete the opera, it was a magnificent achievement.

In their appearances at the Met this month, DiDonato and Flórez are actually reprising the roles of Elena and Uberto that they had previously sung to great acclaim in 2010 at the Paris Opera.  Though Flórez's voice sounded a bit weaker in the first act than I had expected, by the beginning of the second act he was in full control.  And DiDonato, if anything, surpassed her achievement last season in La Cenerentola.  The remainder of the cast was equally fine.  Special mention should be made of Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm and John Osborn as Rodrigo.  Conductor Michele Mariotti gave a brilliant interpretation of Rossini's music.

This production is making its first appearance at the Met this season.  It was created as a coproduction with the Santa Fe Opera where it had its premiere in July 2013; it was directed by Paul Curran who is appropriately enough a Scotsman himself.  Unlike many of the Met's recent outings, this was a straightforward production that was not only highly pleasing to watch but, most importantly, didn't get in the way of the music itself.

All in all, this was a highly satisfactory performance by all involved and one of the Met's most successful presentations this season.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance to attend.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mannes Recital: Laurie Smukler and Joel Krosnick with Robert McDonald

On Sunday afternoon, violinist Laurie Smukler and cellist Joel Krosnick joined together to give a chamber music recital at Mannes.  The first part of the program consisted of duos for violin and cello by twentieth and twenty-first century composers Richard Wernick, Roger Sessions and Ralph Shapey.  In the second half, the pair were joined by pianist Robert McDonald for a performance of Smetana's piano music.

But the most notable feature of this recital had nothing to do with music.  Mannes, which is leaving its uptown location at the end of the current semester, is apparently doing no further maintenance at its 85th Street address, no matter how minor the work involved.  While one would not expect the school to undertake any major renovations at this juncture, one would think it might at least change the concert hall's lightbulbs when they blow out.  But it seems this is asking too much.  All through the first half of the program, the two performers were forced to constantly change their positions onstage as they sought sufficient light to read their scores by.  That musicians of this quality should be placed in such a situation is genuinely distressing.  It shows a lack of respect not only to them but to the music as well.  At one point, the musicians were forced to start a piece over again.  Even in the second half, Robert McDonald had to ask Joel Krosnick to move so that he could have the cellist in his line of sight.

As for the music itself, it was clearly in the first half that the musicians' hearts lay.  If there were any doubt of this, Joel Krosnick made a short speech before beginning to play in which he emphasized the importance this music held for performers of his generation.   There were three pieces featured - Wernick's three-movement Sonatina in the Shape of a Pearl (2014), Sessions's Duo (an incomplete work, published 1995) and Shapey's eight Duo Variations (premiered in 2002) - none of which I had ever before heard.  All three works were in a modernist vein and went well with one another.

It was the opening piece by Wernick, who was present in the audience for this performance, that I personally found most interesting.  Though often associated with the Boston School, Wernick's music, at least here, was in its dissonance more reminiscent of Schoenberg's work than that of Irving Fine.  I particularly enjoyed the complex second movement marked Passacaglietta, delicately.   

After intermission, the program concluded with Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 (1854-1855).  Normally, this would have been for me the highlight of the recital.  I had just heard last month at Juilliard's Chamberfest a wonderful performance of this piece that left me deeply moved.  The trio is one of the cornerstones of the Romantic period not only for its heartfelt tribute to the composer's late daughter but also for its incorporation of Czech folk themes decades before Dvořák attempted to work them into his own music.  And certainly Smetana, who after having suffered the horrific loss of most of his family fell victim himself to tinnitus (a condition that eventually progressed to deafness) and finally died mad, can be seen as the epitome of the tragic Romantic artist.  On Sunday afternoon, however, the work just didn't come together for me.  Perhaps the modern pieces played with such passion in the first half rendered it somewhat anticlimactic.

In spite of the lighting problems, this was an excellent recital.  Laurie Smukler and Joel Krosnick are both superb instrumentalists and I thought myself lucky to have had this rare opportunity to hear them perform together.  And Robert McDonald proved himself a fine pianist in the second half.

Friday, February 20, 2015

1900: Art at the Crossroads

1900: Art at the Crossroads was published to accompany a 2000 exhibit that traveled from the Royal Academy of Arts in London to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.  Its purpose was to celebrate the centennial of the 1900 Exposition Universelle that had been held in Paris exactly 100 years before.  This "World's Fair" marked the end of one century and the beginning of the next with a display of international art by seemingly every artist, known and unknown, then active.  As such, it offered attendees an unparalleled opportunity to view side by side existing artistic styles, both those of the nineteenth century that were already falling out of fashion and those modern movements that would come to dominate the twentieth.

This was a fascinating idea for an exhibit.  Rarely are art lovers afforded the chance to compare so directly the old and the new as here.  Usually, movements in art are studied in a vacuum with little or no reference to other styles then prevalent unless these directly impact on the movement under consideration.  A sense of chronology is established in the art student's mind - he or she perceives one movement following the next in an orderly procession from antiquity right up to the present.  Just how deceptive that approach can prove is clearly shown by the present volume.  Revolutionary early pieces by Picasso are juxtaposed with paintings such as Lhermitte's Supper at Erasmus and Bouguereau's Regina Angelorum that even at the time must have seemed terribly anachronistic.  Similarly, the technique of Cézanne's Well in the Park of the Château Noir stands in almost violent contrast to that used by Thomas Moran in Cliff Dwellers even though the two works were painted only a year apart.

One striking omission at the Exposition was any display of graphic work, including photography.  No etchings or lithographs were shown despite the importance these media held for the artists themselves.  Instead, the Fair's organizers deliberately ignored these in favor of painting, sculpture and architectural design which they felt better represented "the higher forms of art."

The book contains only two essays but both are well written and informative.  The first, "Art in 1900: Twilight or Dawn?" by Robert Rosenblum, is primarily a study in aesthetics and gives the reader a brief overview of the various artistic styles on display.  The second essay, by Maryanne Stevens, deals with the politics surrounding the fair.  Ever since the first exposition had been held in France in 1855, there had been an unmistakable political agenda attached to these events.  The fairs were a means by which France sought to assert its primacy not only in the arts but in the political sphere as well.  The nation wished to be seen at once as both a civilizing influence and a world power.  This, of course, resulted in interminable arguments with the country's rivals when it came to the number of foreign works to be included and their placement within the exhibition halls.

While the the book focuses quite properly on the artwork shown at the Exposition, one feels it would not have been entirely remiss to have given passing mention to the Fair's other achievements.  As the Wikipedia article points out:
"The Exposition Universelle was where talking films and escalators were first publicized, and where Campbell's Soup was awarded a gold medal (an image of which still appears on many of the company's products). At the Exposition Rudolf Diesel exhibited his diesel engine, running on peanut oil. Brief films of excerpts from opera and ballet are apparently the first films exhibited publicly with projection of both image and recorded sound...  The centrepiece of the Palais de l'Optique was the 1.25-metre-diameter (49 in) "Great Exposition Refractor". This telescope was the largest refracting telescope at that time."
As in any art book, emphasis is placed on the works themselves.  The reproductions here, as in most Abrams publications, are excellent and are shown in large enough size that one is able to appreciate the detail.  The catalogue is broken down by subject into several subdivisions.  The designations given these sections at times appear extremely arbitrary.  For example, a number of images of mothers breast-feeding their children have been placed under the heading "Religion."  Again, one wonders why Luciano Freire's Country Perfume has been has been assigned a spot under "Social Scenes."  Then there are the odd works, such as Jamin's Brennus and his Loot (a "historical" tableau that vividly anticipates the lurid excesses of pulp art), that are simply lumped together under the name of the Exposition itself.  

In the end, the book serves as an exotic form of time capsule.  It enables the reader to return to the year 1900 and see for himself the tumult the art world was then experiencing as venerable traditions prepared to give way to the startling innovations of modernism.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Beethoven, Spohr and Bruch

Yesterday afternoon, the Jupiter Symphony Players performed a program entitled German Masters in which were featured works by Spohr, Beethoven and Bruch.

The program opened with Beethoven's String Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1 (1797-1798).  The trios were early works, written when the composer was only 28 years old, and represented some of his first attempts at chamber music.  Significantly, once he had begun to compose string quartets, starting a year later with the Op. 18, he never again returned to the trio genre.  No matter that Beethoven considered them - at least at the time he wrote them - his best work, he must have found something wanting and decided he could better express himself in the quartet form.  In this regard, it's interesting that Mozart only composed one string trio himself even though I've always considered that piece, the K. 563 in E-flat major, his greatest achievement in chamber music.  

At any rate, though the trios are not often played today, Beethoven was quite correct to think highly of them.  Even if he had never progressed beyond his early period (and who knows if he ever would have if not impelled by the tragedy of his deafness), Beethoven would still have been one of the nineteenth century's most formidable composers.  We tend now to dismiss the trios and other early pieces, such as the Septet, but they are only minor when compared with the works of genius Beethoven would produce in his middle and late periods.  During his first days in Vienna the composer wrote pieces he felt the audience would most enjoy, and he succeeded brilliantly.  In this work, the second movement adagio is particularly beguiling.

The next work was Louis Spohr's Quintet in C minor, Op. 52 (1820) for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano.  Spohr is typical of the composers the Jupiter ensemble delights in presenting.  The composer was, at least early in the nineteenth century, as popular as Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Weber and Mendelssohn, all of whom he met at one time or another on his travels through Europe.  It was only in the twentieth century that Spohr's work fell into obscurity and his reputation languished.  Some of this neglect was rooted in political considerations.  His oratorio The Last Judgment was often performed in England prior to the commencement of World War I at which time its German origin rendered it unfashionable; his opera Jessonda had been highly regarded by Strauss but was banned by the Nazis when they assumed power in Germany.  In addition, Spohr's adherence to classical forms must eventually have seemed outdated when compared with the modernism of later composers. 

The present quintet took as its models the works which Mozart and Beethoven had written for similar instrumentation (the oboe was here replaced by a flute).  Spohr had composed the piece for his wife, a professional harpist and competent pianist, and so favored the piano part over the winds.  It was an interesting if not completely successful exercise.  

After intermission, the program closed with Max Bruch's String Quintet in A minor (1918-1920).  Bruch, of course, is most best known today for only one piece, his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, but he was actually an extremely prolific composer who worked in a number of genres including opera and choral works.  Like Brahms, Bruch remained rooted in the tradition of Romantic classicism and his work for that reason often resembles that of his more famous contemporary.  For a long while it was thought that the present piece, written in the last year of Bruch's life, was his only attempt at composing a string quintet.  In 2008, however, another quintet, this in E-flat major and copied in his daughter-in-law's hand, was discovered.  It is still the A minor, though, that is best known and most often performed.  This was a lush Romantic masterpiece that might very well have been written one hundred years earlier.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Laurie Smukler and Seymour Lipkin

Living here on the Upper West Side, I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to hear many great chamber recitals.  This season, I expect to attend more than fifteen performance by the excellent Jupiter Symphony Players alone.  Of these many performances, however, two that stand out are those recently given with Seymour Lipkin as pianist.  The man is one of the finest musicians now active and a great favorite of audiences here in New York City, but still he has never received nearly enough of the recognition he deserves.  This may in part be due to the fact he is a faculty member at Juilliard (the only venue where I have heard him play) and not a touring musician, and yet he is fully the equal of any soloist I have seen over the years at Carnegie Hall.

This was the third attempt at staging this event.  It had already been postponed from its original date in the first part of the season and then was canceled again when the city was recently threatened by a blizzard.  But if Mr. Lipkin does not have much success in scheduling his recitals, he certainly has a great deal in the violinists with whom he's chosen to work.  I had already seen him last month with Miriam Fried in a recital of Mozart's G minor Piano Quartet, K. 478 and had thought that incredible enough before having then heard him play with Laurie Smukler in Friday evening's all-Schubert program.  I had never before heard Ms. Smukler perform and was deeply impressed by the quality of her playing.  Schubert's violin works require not only a mastery of the instrument but also the ability to play together with the piano rather than be merely accompanied by it.  Ms. Smukler excelled on both these counts.

The program opened with the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, D. 574, Op. 162 (1817).  Written when the composer was still only twenty years old, this was the last of Schubert's violin sonatas (he wrote four altogether - the first three, written in 1816, are usually referred to as sonatinas).  The year 1817 had been an exciting one for Schubert - he had moved from home, given up his teaching position and scored his first real musical success with the now lost cantata Prometheus - and this may have had something to do with the new directions his work began to take.  Essentially, as he found his own voice, Schubert was leaving behind the strong influence of Beethoven that had given much of his early work an imitative quality.  Though the presence of Beethoven, most clearly recognizable in the scherzo, can still be heard, there is a new lyricism in this work that separates it from those written the year before.  This is especially evident in the two final movements, the andantino and the closing allegro.

This was followed by Mr. Lipkin playing two selections from Schubert's first four Impromptus, D. 899, Op. 90 (1827).  These were the No. 3 in G-flat major and the No. 4 in A-flat major.  I've always felt the impromptus, along with the moments musicaux with which they are usually paired, are the most beautiful of Schubert's piano works and the pieces in which his incipient romanticism is most fully realized.  There is something heartrendingly beautiful about them that brings home to the listener Schubert's sense of his own impending death.  Though the depths of the composer's sorrow can be heard in every note, there is nothing maudlin about them.  What makes them work is their suggestive power.  Mr. Lipkin's rendition was all the more powerful for being so subdued and straightforward; his limpid playing allowed the beauty of the pieces to shine forth on its own.

After a ten minute intermission, the program concluded with the Fantasie in C major for Violin and Piano, D. 934, Op. Post. 159 (1827).  This was Schubert's final work for piano and violin, and the first full work he had written for that pairing of instruments (aside from the Rondo in B minor, D. 895) following the completion of the A major Sonata ten years before.  It was premiered at a private recital in Vienna in 1828 by pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet and violinist Josef Slavik.  Despite the virtuosity of both musicians (Chopin himself described Slavik as "a second Paganini"), the performance was reported not to have been a success.  This was most probably because the Viennese audience found the work to be too innovative.  The Romantic "fantasy" was still a fairly new concept at that time and must have seemed quite radical to those accustomed to more classical forms.  That Schubert's work gave full rein to his lyrical impulses can clearly be seen in the composer's adaptation of his own lied Sei mir gegrüßt, D. 741 in the andantino movement.  But it is precisely this Romantic element that makes the work so attractive to modern day listeners.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Haydn

Thursday evening at Mannes, the Orion Quartet gave the third in its series of four annual recitals.  The ensemble has emphasized the music of Haydn this season, and on this occasion all the works scheduled were by that composer.  Haydn, of course, is known as the "father of the string quartet" and this was a wonderful opportunity to hear works from various points in his career played side by side.  This allowed the listener to better trace the development of the composer's style and the increasing mastery of the genre that culminated in the completion of his final quartet.  It is a mistake to view Haydn merely as a predecessor to Mozart and Beethoven - he was as great a genius in his own right, and his works are not only among the earliest quartets written but the finest as well.

The program opened with the Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3, Hob. III:74 (1793), one of the six "Apponyi Quartets" and nicknamed "The Rider" for the galloping pace of its final movement.  It was dedicated to the Hungarian nobleman Count Antal Apponyi, an excellent violinist himself and later the patron of Beethoven.  There's a certain irony in this.  As social change swept through Europe on the heels of the French Revolution, the music of that turbulent era also underwent a profound transformation.  No longer was classical music the sole preserve of royalty and the nobility.  While hitherto composers had written works intended for private performance at aristocratic courts such as that of the Esterházys where Haydn himself had been employed, there was now a new emphasis on the common man as public concert halls began to proliferate and royal patronage gave way to ticket sales.  Already, in 1786, Da Ponte had abandoned the pretensions of opera seria when writing the libretto for Le nozze di Figaro, a work that explicitly called into question the hereditary rights of the old order.  In the same way, though Haydn may have dedicated his work to an aristocrat, he was actually looking forward to hearing them performed in London where they would be published in 1795 and where the impresario Johann Salomon had already arranged public performances at the Hanover Square Rooms.  When the Orion Quartet played this same work earlier in the month at the Chamber Music Society, the Program Notes observed:
"The Quartets, Opp. 71 and 74 occupy an important niche in the history of chamber music as the first such works written expressly for public performance.  Haydn, who was always sensitive to accommodating his audiences, made the Quartets suitable for the concert hall by providing them with ample dramatic contrasts, basing them on easily memorable thematic material, allowing a certain virtuosity to the first violinist in the fast movements (to show off Salomon's considerable skills), and giving them an almost symphonic breadth of expression."
The next work was the Quartet in C major, Op. 50, No. 2, Hob. III:45 (1787), one of the six "Prussian Quartets."  It was through their dedication to Frederick William II that the works gained their nickname, but it was really the publishing rights that most concerned Haydn.  The composer, who could be quite avaricious at times, sold these to two different firms - Ataria in Vienna and Foster in London - while all the while leading each to believe they held exclusive rights.

After intermission, the program closed with the Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No.2, Hob. III:82 (1799), one of the two "Lobkowitz Quartets."  This was the last of Haydn's string quartets (the Op. 103 consists of two middle movements from an uncompleted work) and the one he himself termed his most beautiful.  The original commission from Prince Lobkowitz had called for six pieces, but Haydn's health was already failing and he was unable to complete the full series.

The Orion Quartet consists of four extremely gifted musicians - Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violin; Steven Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello - and is one of the very best chamber ensembles now active anywhere.  One could not have asked for a better performance than that they gave Thursday evening.  Throughout the recital, all four showed displayed a deep understanding of Haydn's music and total respect for the composer.  Their magnificent playing brought out nuances in the pieces I had never before realized were there.   It was truly a privilege to have heard them.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Met Opera: Valery Gergiev Conducts Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle

On Tuesday evening,  I went to the Met Opera to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the new production of a double bill featuring two rarely performed works, Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle.  This was my second attempt.  I had  originally been scheduled to attend the season premiere at the end of January, but the Met canceled that performance in anticipation of a blizzard that never materialized.  It's highly unusual for the company to cancel due to inclement weather, but there was no alternative on that occasion as public transportation was shut down and cars ordered off the roads.

What was most intriguing to me in this presentation was that while both operas on the program are derived from fairy tales the two are vastly different in character.  While Iolanta is obviously a nineteenth century romantic piece that never aspires to be more than simple entertainment, much in the same manner as the composer's Nutcracker ballet with which it shared the bill at its premiere,  Bluebeard's Castle is a dark haunting piece that fearlessly explores the workings of a twisted mind.

The program opened with Iolanta starring Anna Netrebko in the title role.  This was the second opportunity I'd had in as many days to hear the famous Russian soprano.  She had appeared at the Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon after mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča had fallen ill and been forced to withdraw.  Netrebko definitely appeared much more at home at the Met performing Tchaikovsky's music than she had at Carnegie Hall singing works by Dvořák and Strauss.  Gergiev too appeared at ease, as well he should.  Though he has sometimes encountered problems in other areas of the repertoire, he is without peer when it comes to interpreting his own country's music.  I was extremely impressed last season when he conducted the same composer's Eugene Onegin, another production in which he was paired with Nebretko who on that occasion sang the role of Tatiana.

Iolanta was Tchaikovsky's last opera; he died less than a year after its 1892 premiere in St. Petersburg.  Unfortunately, it was not one of his greatest works.  For that matter, the composer never had a great deal of luck with opera.  Although he composed eleven, only two - Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades - have found a permanent place in the repertory.  The others are rarely performed outside Russia.  Iolanta's libretto, based on a Danish play by Henrik Hertz, was written by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest and followed the standard formula of a knight who happens upon a sleeping princess and immediately falls in love in love with her.  The princess is blind, but love conquers all and her sight is miraculously restored at the opera's end.  There is no originality in any of this, of course, and that's the problem.  The opera never rises above the level of its source material and is totally lacking in drama and passion.  There is some pleasant music and a few great songs but nothing that makes for a memorable experience.

After intermission, Gergiev again took the podium to conduct Bluebeard's Castle.  This was really the work I had been most interested in hearing.  In contrast to the Tchaikovsky, it is a thoroughly modern piece whose intensity owes as much to the psychological depth of its libretto as it does to Bartók's fascinating score.  The Prologue makes this clear when it asks: "Where is the stage: outside or within, Ladies and Gentlemen?"  As Judith moves from one locked room to the next, the listener understands her horror as she penetrates ever deeper into Bluebeard's subconscious and forces him to reveal to her his innermost secrets.  The use of only two characters heightens the drama and at times creates an almost unbearable sensation of claustrophobia.  The audience begins to feel that they too are confined with a protagonist who may very well be a sadistic madman.  Even if the sinister overtones of sex and violence are never made explicit - the work was, after all, written in 1912 - they still lurk in the shadows and contribute to Judith's growing trepidation.  All the while, Bartók's music enhances the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding.  This is particularly apparent in the use of the minor second whenever there is any mention of blood.

The libretto, based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, was written by Béla Balázs, a friend of both Bartók and Kodály.  Significantly, Balázs based the verses in his libretto on Hungarian folk ballads, a form already of deep interest to Bartók from his ethnological research, and this is no doubt one reason the composer was attracted to the project in the first place.  To the Met's credit, the original Hungarian lyrics were retained in this production as was the spoken prologue.

Though Gergiev's is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Hungarian music, he does have considerable experience with this work and has previously recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra.  Here he did a wonderful job in bringing out the full genius of Bartók's score.  Nadja Michael sang the role of Judith and Mikhail Petrenko that of Bluebeard.  The two interacted extremely well together and were excellent in capturing the spirit of the complex characters they portrayed.

Both operas were directed by Mariusz Trelinski.  According to the Program Notes, he was inspired by classic noir films of the 1940's, but certainly none that I've ever seen.  The production of Iolanta was acceptable if uninspired, but that of Bluebeard's Castle was an entirely different matter.  I thought it self indulgent to the point that it distracted attention from the opera itself.  The sets seemed to have been inspired by the artwork of H.R. Giger and had nothing whatsoever to do with either Bartók or his music.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Carnegie Hall: James Levine Conducts Beethoven and Schumann

There was a last minute replacement at Carnegie Hall yesterday afternoon as soprano Anna Netrebko appeared at the Met Orchestra concert conducted by James Levine in place of mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča who had been scheduled to perform Seven Early Songs by Berg but who had fallen ill the week before and been forced to withdraw.  Ms. Netrebko instead performed songs by Dvořák and Strauss.  The remainder of the program featured works by Beethoven, Carter and Schumann.

The matinee began with Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-1802).  The work is significant for having been composed at approximately the same time as Beethoven wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his two brothers in which he first acknowledged his increasing deafness and the impact that this affliction had had upon his life, even driving him to thoughts of suicide.  It's not a great leap then to consider the entire symphony as an affirmation of the composer's commitment to his music and his refusal to give in to despair.  Such a view would explain the bright cheerful character of the work as well as its deliberate departure from the Haydnesque form of the First Symphony.  This was a transitional piece in the most literal sense.  In its insistence on covering new ground it marked the composer's passage from his early to middle period.  Though not yet fully demonstrating the genius that would infuse the Third Symphony, it was amazingly innovative in every respect.  The lengthy introduction to the first movement, the use of a scherzo in place of a minuet, and the wealth of new ideas found in the fourth movement are all conscious breaks with tradition and with the expectations of the audience as well.  As such, the work was unappreciated by its first listeners who were thoroughly disconcerted by its novelty.  Ironically, it is today overlooked by audiences for not being as radical as the composer's later symphonies.  It  certainly received the attention it deserved at this concert however.  Levine's conducting was brilliant, and this was really one of the best performances of a Beethoven symphony I've heard.  Right from the opening bars of the first movement, Levine made it clear to everyone in attendance that this was the work of a genius who was striving mightily to leave behind his journeyman period and move to a higher, more heroic plane.

Following the Beethoven, Anna Netrebko came onstage to sing two works, Dvořák's "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka (1901) and Strauss's "Cäcilie," Op. 27, No. 2 (1894).  This choice was to me surprising as it contained none of the Russian pieces for which the soprano is best known.  I had heard Renee Fleming sing in Rusalka just last season at the Met; and that soprano is also, of course, justly famous for her interpretations of Strauss.  Ms. Netrebko's performance, if not as highly polished as one might have hoped for, was still excellent and enthusiastically received by the audience.

After intermission, the program continued with Carter's Three Illusions (2002-2004).  This is actually a collection of three miniatures, each of which had been composed separately, that only find their full meaning when performed together.  All three contain allusions to literary sources that the composer, who had majored in English literature at Harvard, obviously intended should be taken into account when listening to the music.  These range from Cervantes's Don Quixote, to Roman myth, to Thomas More's Utopia.  The first piece Micomicón, was dedicated to James Levine who had premiered the entire work with the Boston Symphony in 2005.

The afternoon ended with a performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1845-1846).  As is well known, this was actually the third symphony Schumann managed to finish - the D minor, completed in 1841 was extensively revised in 1851 and eventually published as the composer's Fourth Symphony.  Schumann also made several other attempts in 1841 at symphonic composition but eventually abandoned these before proceeding in 1842 to focus primarily on the writing of chamber music.  To a certain extent, Schumann's difficulties with symphonic composition reflected his own fragile psychological state.  His Wikipedia biography remarks that during the time Schumann worked on the Second Symphony:

"...he suffered from persistent 'nervous prostration'. As soon as he began to work, he was seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death, experiencing an abhorrence of high places, all metal instruments (even keys), and drugs. Schumann's diaries also state that he suffered perpetually from imagining that he had the note A5 sounding in his ears."
But another difficulty lay in the status of the symphony itself following the passing of Beethoven and Schubert in the early nineteenth century.  By the mid-1800's, fewer symphonies were being composed and those that were brought to fruition, such as those written by Mendelssohn, were on a more modest scale than the grand works of the masters.  There may have been some doubt in Schumann's mind as to how viable a genre the symphony remained.  Not coincidentally, his protégé Brahms was also to have a great deal of trouble when later composing his own first symphony.  It may have been Schumann's discovery of Schubert's Ninth Symphony (he was shown the manuscript by Ferdinand Schubert while visiting Vienna in 1838) that convinced him of the possibilities the symphony still held for composers and inspired him to begin his own.

Whatever problems Schumann may have encountered in writing his symphony, the work itself triumphs over them.  The music is cohesively written and contains few traces of the mental anguish the composer was then experiencing.  In the final movement, he pays tribute to his wife Clara in his quotation of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte ("To the Distant Beloved").  Once again, Levine's conducting was flawless.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp ... in resonance

Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp ... in resonance, published to accompany a 1998-1999 exhibit of the same name at the Philadelphia Museum, is not only an exceptionally well produced art book but also an excellent resource for readers with an interest in either of the two artists or in the Surrealist movement itself.

Although I had several years ago read Utopia Parkway, Deborah Solomon's biography of Cornell, as well as several works on Duchamp, including Calvin Tomkins's biography, none of these made more than passing reference to the friendship that existed between the two men.  I had never known, most importantly, that Cornell had assembled the Duchamp Dossier that provides the raison d'être for the present volume.  Perhaps one reason for this lack of documentation is that the two artists were, on the surface at least, complete opposites.  Cornell was naive and socially maladroit; he was a retiring personality who never traveled far from his home in Queens.  Duchamp, on the other hand, was the complete sophisticate, a lover of beautiful women who moved easily between New York and Paris.  While the one sat quietly on the fringes of the art world, the other was at its very center.

And yet in retrospect it is not at all surprising that a close association should exist between Cornell and Duchamp.  Not only were both active in creating art in a Surrealist style (though neither claimed membership in the movement itself) but both had independently hit on the same means of presentation of that art.  It was not a coincidence that Duchamp hired Cornell in 1942 to create the containers for his Boîte-en-valise.  More important than the fact that Cornell had prior experience in creating boxes to house his own artwork was Duchamp's recognition of a sensibility akin to his own.  He certainly appreciated Cornell's achievement.  In 1951 he wrote, "Personally I consider him [Cornell] one among the best American artists of today."

The key link between Cornell and Duchamp was that both elevated "found items" to the level of art.  While Cornell searched diligently through the second-hand bookstores on Fourth Avenue for material for his boxes, Duchamp took whatever caught his fancy and labeled it a "readymade."  Here was a convergence of vision that prefigured present day "appropriation art" as well as Pop Art.  No longer was it necessary for an artist to create an opus entirely on his own.  He could make do with what was at hand.  Art was what the artist said it was.  This truly revolutionary concept was what lay behind Duchamp's submission of Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917.

The book contains five well written essays on the artists and their association with one another.  This includes a delightful virtual tour of Manhattan circa 1942 when Duchamp and Cornell first began working together.  (They had actually met much earlier in 1933 at a Brancusi exhibit installed by Duchamp at the Brummer Gallery.)  There is also a comprehensive chronology that traces the lives of both men.  In the margins of the essay pages are a number of photographs that illustrate very well the points made in the text and are therefore extremely useful to the reader, especially one lacking any previous knowledge of Surrealism.  One often wishes, though, that these black & white photos had been reproduced in a larger size than that shown.

At the heart of ... in resonance are the plates.  These are divided into three sections - the Dossier itself, a collection of Duchamp's works and another of Cornell's.  It's obvious that the selections shown have been deliberately chosen to demonstrate how well the work of one artist complements that of the other.  And this is certainly the case.  Looking at these plates, all of them magnificently photographed and reproduced, one becomes aware how alike these two eccentric personalities really were no matter how dissimilar to one another they may have appeared at first glance.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Schubert and Chopin

Yesterday afternoon's one-hour piano recital, part of the school's Wednesdays at One series, featured four Juilliard students performing works by Bach, Schubert and Chopin.

The program opened with Colton Peltier playing Bach's Tocatta in C minor, BMV 911.  As no autograph of any of Bach's seven tocattas exists - they survive only in copies made by his students - determining the date of composition of this work is problematical.  The most likely guess is between 1709 and 1711 but in no event later than 1714 (the work was first published in 1839).  Even if one accepts the latest date, this would mean Bach composed the piece while still only in his twenties, an incredible achievement considering the complexity of the music.  Bach had by then returned from his lengthy 1805 visit with Dieterich Buxtehude in Lübeck where he had attended the older composer's abendmusik performances at St. Mary's Church.  Buxtehude was himself a composer of preludes and tocattas and a master of the fugue.  His influence can clearly be heard throughout the tocattas and other works from Bach's early period; the BMV 911, in fact, contains one of the longest fugues the composer ever wrote.  Bach was highly regarded in his own day for his prowess as a keyboardist and this daunting work was most  likely intended to display his skills to their best advantage.  

The next pianist was Shengliang Zhang who played Schubert's Impromptus Nos. 2 and 3, D. 899, Op. 90 (1827).  All eight of Schubert's Impromptus were written in the year before his death, though only the first four were published during his lifetime.  Of the two pieces performed here, it is really the No. 3 in G flat major that most immediately captures the listener's attention.  It is a highly lyrical work that seems to flow effortlessly forward.  As with almost all Schubert's late works, it is infused with an awareness of his own mortality.  Here, though, there is only a sense of gentle resignation to fate and a touch of wistfulness.    

Yuchong Wu came onstage to perform the first set of works by Chopin, the Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39 (1839) and the Mazurkas, Op. 17 (1832-1833).  Chopin actually composed four scherzos, but the third is by far the best known, perhaps because it is also the most dramatic.  The fact that it was composed at the abandoned monastery of Valldemossa while visiting Majorca with George Sand may or may not have had something to do with this.  The music itself is often compared to that of Beethoven for its grandeur.  The main theme is particularly difficult to play and requires excellent technique on the part of the pianist.  

Mazurkas are historically, of course, a traditional form of Polish folk dance.  It's significant then that Chopin wrote the Op. 17 after having been deeply politicized by the November Uprising in which Poland revolted against Russian domination.  He left Warsaw only a month before the rebellion began and thereafter was forced to live as an expatriate.  For all that, Chopin's mazurkas are considerably more sophisticated than their folk sources as they include the use of fugue and counterpoint among other advanced techniques.  To me, they are among the most appealing of the genres in which Chopin chose to work.  

The final work was also by Chopin, his Fourth Ballade, Op. 52 (1842, revised 1843) as performed by Qi Kong.  The ballade genre itself was Chopin's own invention and was reputed, at least by Robert Schumann, to have been inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz.  All four are extremely complex works but the fourth most especially so in its extensive use of counterpoint and its simultaneous development of both the first and second themes.  It's a truly amazing work and arguably one of Chopin's greatest achievements as a composer.

After having attended several Juilliard piano recitals in this Wednesday series, it's become apparent to me that the programs are deliberately chosen to include the most difficult pieces in the repertoire.  Each of the works performed yesterday afternoon share one common factor and that is that they all require the highest level of skill on the part of the pianist.  There are no "easy" pieces here but rather those best intended to display the virtuosity of the performer.  Even the most experienced pianist would find these works challenging.  Though the setting at Alice Tully is decidedly low key and informal, the performances given here are every bit as dazzling as one could hope to hear at any famous international competition.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Muti Conducts Scriabin and Prokofiev

Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the third of a three concert series, continued their exploration of Scriabin's symphonic music and also took advantage of the presence of the Chicago Symphony Chorus to perform one of Prokofiev's most powerful works.

The program opened with Scriabin's Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 26 (1899-1900).  This was a massive work in terms of the orchestral forces used, and Scriabin certainly must have had a great deal of confidence in his ability if he were willing to set himself such a challenge when he had hitherto only composed for the piano.  And he was largely successful.  For a first symphony, this was a solid accomplishment even if Scriabin had not yet discovered the distinctive style that, beginning with the Third Symphony, would set apart his later orchestral works.

The work did not win immediate recognition.  The November 1900 premiere in St. Petersburg, conducted by Anatoly Liadov, was a resounding failure.  The unavailability of any chorus to perform the closing movement may have had as much to do with this as Liadov's inept conducting.  Even so, a later performance conducted by Vasily Safonov, Scriabin's former teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, fared little better.  In retrospect, it is difficult to understand why this should have been the case.  Although the music was definitely innovative, it was still firmly within the late nineteenth century Romantic tradition and should not have been unduly shocking to Russian audiences.

The symphony is in six movements.  It opens with a majestic lento that sets the tone for the remainder of the work.  It is obvious throughout that Scriabin is seeking as powerful a setting as possible for his vision of art as a means of human salvation.  This becomes explicit in the final choral movement which sets to music the composer's own hymn to art's redemptive power.  In Scriabin's imagination, art is raised to the level of a divine force.   
"Come, all peoples of the world,
Let us sing the praises of Art!
Glory to Art,
Glory forever!"
In listening to the symphony's triumphant finale, I could not help but be reminded of that of Mahler's Second Symphony written only five years before.  Though the differences were largely superficial - Scriabin's work nowhere approached the level of Mahler's sublime masterpiece - I wondered if Scriabin might not have been influenced by it.  I searched online but could find no evidence of any direct connection.  To the best of my knowledge, Scriabin never met Mahler nor attended any performance of his work.  That does not necessarily mean, however, that he had never seen a copy of the score.

After intermission, the afternoon ended with with a performance of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 (1939), a rearrangement in cantata form, with text by poet Vladimir Lugovskoy, of the composer's score for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film.  Like so many other Russian works from this period, the composition of the cantata had its roots in politics.  While Eisenstein's film - which reached its climax in the horrific annihilation of the Teutonic Knights by Russian forces in 1265 - had originally been intended to build Soviet morale as war with Germany loomed closer, all that changed when Stalin signed off on a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939.  The film suddenly became an embarrassment in the face of this reversal of policy and was quickly removed from Russian theaters.  Hoping to salvage something of his music, Prokofiev reworked the material into a less politically sensitive form.  This was an immense task as it not only involved the introduction of a chorus but also the need to orchestrate the work for a much larger array of instruments than had been used in making the film.

The resulting cantata is a singular addition to Prokofiev's oeuvre.  The irony that informs so many of his other pieces is entirely absent here.  This is a sincere and straightforward acclamation of the Russian spirit.  Much of the music is brooding and almost ponderous at times as it builds in intensity to the "Battle on the Ice."  Only in the final movement, after victory has been achieved, is a touch of lightness introduced in the celebratory ringing of the bells.

Considering that this was Superbowl Sunday, there was a fairly large and enthusiastic audience on hand.  Only a few seats in the rear balcony were empty.  Muti and the CSO made the most of their opportunity to show a NYC audience what they were capable of.  I thought this an even better performance than that given on Friday evening.  Muti was in full control of the large orchestra as he led it through both these highly complex and difficult works.  The chorus, together with soloists Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano) and Sergey Skorokhodov (tenor), were excellent as they did their part to make this a truly memorable performance for all involved.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Muti Conducts Mendelssohn, Debussy and Scriabin

Despite the increasing interest in recent years in Scriabin's music, that composer's revolutionary symphonic works are even today still too rarely heard.  I jumped at the chance then, despite the plummeting temperatures here in NYC, to go Friday evening to Carnegie Hall where Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the first of a series of three concerts, were scheduled to perform not only a Scriabin symphony but orchestral works by Mendelssohn and Debussy as well.

The program opened with Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Op. 27 (1828).  This work is really as much about Beethoven as it is the two poems by Goethe on which it was based.  Fourteen years before Mendelssohn composed his overture, Beethoven had already set the same verses to music in his own Op. 112 for chorus and orchestra.  The composer had intended his cantata as a gesture of admiration - he had met Goethe in 1814 in Teplitz and had spent quite some time in his company - but the poet continued to ignore the tribute even after Beethoven had written to express his disappointment at Goethe's lack of acknowledgment.
"I am now faced with the fact that I too must remind you of my existence—I trust that you received the dedication to Your Excellency of Meersstille und Glückliche Fahrt which I have set to music. It would afford me much pleasure to know whether I had united my harmony with yours in appropriate fashion . . . . How highly would I value a general comment from you on the composing of music or on setting your poems to music!"
No explanation has ever been given why Goethe treated Beethoven so badly, nor why Mendelssohn should then choose the same texts when later creating his own instrumental music.  There is, after all, more than a passing resemblance between Mendelssohn's work and that of Beethoven (for one thing, both pieces are written in the key of D major).  Adding to the mystery is the fact that neither Beethoven nor Mendelssohn had any real knowledge of the sea; neither of them ever set foot on a ship.

Written in an era when the sea was still viewed as a hostile force, Goethe's two poems express highly contrasting moods.  In the first, there is a sense of dread as the sailor regards the completely calm conditions that prevent his ship from moving forward; in the second, there is a palpable sense of relief as the voyage ends without incident and land finally appears on the horizon.  Mendelssohn's overture captures very well this shift from ominous stillness to rising winds to exuberance at once again returning to the safety of firm ground.  In so doing, the music anticipates, as the Program Notes correctly point out, the tone poem genre that would appear later in the century.  The problem, though, is that there is too little drama in both the situations described.  The listener waits in vain for a storm to arise on the high seas but instead encounters only serenity.

The next work was Debussy's La mer (1903-1905).  Its subject matter made it a natural choice to follow the Mendelssohn and the pairing worked well.  Although when listening to this piece one always imagines sunlight glinting off Mediterranean waters, Debussy actually composed it while staying in East Sussex in England.  It was the composer's skill at creating impressions of calm vistas and gentle breezes that imbued the work with its magical character.  So popular has this piece become over the years that it's difficult to believe now that when the work premiered it was not well received, perhaps because it did not fit the standard symphonic form to which audiences had by then grown accustomed.  It's also of interest that Debussy finally decided to title the first movement "From dawn to noon on the sea" when in a 1903 letter to his publisher he had originally referred to it as "Beautiful sea by the bloodthirsty islands."

After intermission, the orchestra performed the work I had really come to hear, Scriabin's Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 43, "The Divine Poem" (1902-1904).  This is a huge mystical work whose four movements are played without pause.  The music soars and seems to reach ever upward until finally it reaches a tumultuous climax that leaves the audience emotionally exhausted.  This is in accord with the work's program, outlined by the composer's lover Tatiana Schloezer, that described mankind's religious ascent from pantheism to "unity with the universe."  It's noteworthy that Scriabin, a prolific composer of piano music who only later in his career, as his vision grew ever more grandiose, turned to writing orchestral music should also have prepared a piano version of his symphony.  At least one critic, Leonid Sabaneyev, preferred this approach, claiming that when played in this form it sounded "much better than with an orchestra."

As for the performance itself, Muti has always been a conductor worth listening to no matter what the program.  Although he has been hounded by controversy throughout his career, he has an uncanny ability to discover new levels of meaning in whatever music is being performed.  Whenever I have heard him conduct, I've always come away feeling I've gained new insight into the music at hand no matter how often I've heard it before.  Moreover, in the CSO, Muti has an incredible orchestra with which to work; their playing is always superb.  This was an excellent concert from any perspective.