Saturday, March 28, 2015

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Ernani

On Thursday evening, the audience at the Met Opera received a special treat - a major early work by Verdi conducted by James Levine and featuring the singing of the legendary Plácido Domingo.

Ernani, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on the 1830 play by Victor Hugo, was the composer's third successful opera following Nabucco and I Lombardi.  What is most notable about its genesis was the total control the young composer displayed over every aspect of the project.  He not only wrote the music, but also supervised Piave closely in his adaptation of Hugo's work.  It was Verdi who had chosen the subject in the first place after having rejected Piave's original libretto, one based on another Hugo historical play, a romantic melodrama that dealt with the career of Cromwell.  This was unusual at the time.  The famous bel canto Italian composers, Rossini and Bellini, had not concerned themselves overmuch with the storyline but had instead concentrated on producing music for that which had been provided them.  Of course, composers had always worked with closely with librettists - witness the collaboration of Mozart and Da Ponte - and requested such changes as they felt necessary, but none before had demanded such complete oversight of the entire production.

The source of Verdi's work had been carefully selected.  The plot, which saw three rival suitors fighting for the hand of  Elvira, could not help but be filled with drama and confrontation even if today its theatrics strike the listener as totally implausible.  And the fact that there were three suitors gave Verdi a range of vocal parts as a tenor, baritone and bass were all played off against one another.  In the end, Ernani was a much richer opera for this combination.  Beyond that, the use of a Hugo drama as a source placed the work squarely in the Romantic tradition, and it thus became quite influential in determining the future course of Italian opera.  The final result was that Ernani became a lasting success in the nineteenth century and Verdi's most often performed work prior to the premiere of Il Trovatore in 1853.  It also confirmed Verdi's position as the foremost composer of Italian opera, a distinction he was to maintain until his death several decades later.

From the very opening, Ernani's music is dominated by forceful rhythms that sweep the story relentlessly forward.  One can only imagine the effect it must have had on early Verdi audiences who had grown used to the precious lyricism of bel canto.  It must have seemed as though a fresh wind were blowing through the staid Teatro la Fenice.  This was something entirely different from the genteel repertoire that had preceded it for the past several decades.  Verdi was as great a showman as a composer and knew better than anyone else at the time how to heighten the dramatic intensity when putting a work onstage.   He credited this to his own experience as a theatergoer.  As quoted in the Program Notes, he stated:
"I've been able to put my finger on so many works which wouldn't have failed if the pieces had been better laid out, the effects better calculated, the musical forms clearer, etc."
Aside from Plácido Domingo - who, although not truly a baritone, was brilliant and magisterial in the role of Don Carlo - there was a full roster of great singers at this performance.  Francesco Meli, more often associated with the bel canto repertoire, gave an exciting performance as Ernani.  Angela Meade as Elvira and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Silva were both excellent in demanding roles.  James Levine, as usual, showed deep understanding of the score and elicited from the orchestra a stunning performance that brought the audience to its feet.  The production itself, an old (1983) staging from the Met's golden days, was sumptuous and wonderful to watch.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Juilliard Chamber Recital: Tchaikovsky Op. 50

At yesterday's one-hour lunchtime recital at Alice Tully, part of the Wednesdays at One series, there was only one piece on the program - the Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 (1881-1882) by Tchaikovsky.

The Op. 50 was the only piano trio Tchaikovsky ever wrote.  He might not have even written that one had he not been implored to do so by his patroness Nadezhda von Meck.  At first, as their correspondence reveals, the composer demurred but provided an surprising reason for doing so.  He wrote:
"I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend ... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings."
And yet, only a year later, Tchaikovsky was hard at work on the piece though he still harbored doubts as to its eventual success that he did not hesitate to communicate to von Meck.  What's most interesting, though, is that when the work was finally completed, Tchaikovsky did not in fact dedicate it to his patroness but instead supplied the subtitle "In memory of a great artist" when sending it to his publisher Jurgenson.  This was a reference to Nikolai Rubinstein who had died several months before in March 1881. The two men had been close colleagues and Rubinstein, a co-founder of the Moscow Conservatory, had once hired Tchaikovsky to teach harmony there.  He had also championed Tchaikovsky's music against the attacks of a group of ultra-nationalist Russian composers known as "The Mighty Handful" who had found the composer's music too Westernized for their taste.  Nevertheless, there had been occasional differences between the two.  Most famously, Rubinstein had in 1874 emphatically rejected Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto but then had later reconsidered his position and gone on to conduct the work.  

The structure of the trio itself is highly unusual.  It consists of two long movements.  The first, pezzo elegiaco, opens with a cello solo and contains a beautifully lyrical theme and funeral march that could well be considered the epitome of Russian romanticism.  The second movement is a set of twelve variations and coda that at the end repeats the mournful theme from the first movement.  

The work was first performed in the composer's absence at the Moscow Conservatory in March 1882 on the first anniversary of Rubinstein's death.  In April, after Tchaikovsky had returned from Rome where he had written the piece, another private performance was held in the composer's presence.  Tchaikovsky took advantage of the opportunity to make a number of changes to the score.  Finally, in October, the revised work received its public premiere at the Russian Musical Society with Sergei Taneyev playing the piano part.  

The performers yesterday afternoon were Sissi Yuqing Zhang (violin), Yin Xiong (cello) and Han Chen (piano).  The trio is a long, highly complex work - the piano part is among the most difficult Tchaikovsky ever composed - and the musicians deserve every credit for having played it here so successfully.  Their coaches for this performance - Joseph Lin (violin), David Finckel (cello) and Joseph Kalichstein (piano) - are all extraordinary musicians in their own right and it would be fascinating to hear their rendition of this same work at some future recital.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mannes: Orion Quartet Performs Beethoven and Dvořák

It was snowing on Friday evening and the sidewalks on the Upper West Side were coated with slush, but the Orion Quartet still drew a full audience as it performed the fourth in this season's series of recitals at Mannes.  There were only two pieces on the program on this occasion but both were full-length masterpieces by two of the nineteenth century's most important composers - Beethoven and Dvořák.

In the first half, the ensemble, with Todd Phillips on first violin, played Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 127 (1824).  While all of Beethoven's late period works can with some justification be considered works of genius, none are more deserving of this description than his final series of quartets.  In them, he summed up all he had learned of music, and indeed of life, in the course of his long career.  They were in a very real sense his final testament.  Though the original commission, received in 1822 from Prince Nikolas Galitzin, was for only three string quartets, so great was Beethoven's enthusiasm for the project that he eventually wrote five.  Of these, the first of the set to be completed was the Op. 127.  Though in this work the composer adhered to the traditional four-movement structure (the only other in the series to do so was the last, the Op. 135), Beethoven had originally considered two additional movements, one between the first and second and the other between the third and fourth.  The heart of the piece was the powerful second movement adagio with its six variations.

After a brief intermission, the evening closed with Dvořák's Quartet in G major, Op. 106 (1895), this time with Daniel Phillips playing first violin.  Although this quartet was given a later opus number than the Op. 105, which Dvořák had begun while still living in New York, it was the Op. 106 that was completed first.  For the most part, the quartet is an exuberant work that reflects the composer's joy at once again finding himself home in Europe.  Only in the second movement is there any sense of darkness as the mood turns to one of deep melancholy.  There may have been a personal reason behind this sadness.  1895 had witnessed the death of Dvořák's sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová (née Čermáková), who had also been the composer's unrequited first love and there may have been some reflection of this loss behind the adagio's poignancy.

This was the last recital to be given by the Orion Quartet at Mannes's concert hall on 85th Street.  The school will be moving downtown at the end of the semester and relocating to the New School's facilities on West 13th Street.  While it is no doubt more practical to have all the music school's facilities together at one spot, the closure is still a great loss for the community.  I don't know if the Quartet will continue its recital series at the new location, but there was a palpable sense of nostalgia among the audience members, myself included, as the evening drew to a close.  As I've said often, the Orion Quartet is one of the world's premier chamber ensembles and the performances they've given here on the West Side have been a great gift to those who have a passion for classical music and who have been able to appreciate the high quality of the performances they've been offered.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Carnegie Hall: Philadelphia Orchestra: Joyce DiDonato Sings Bel Canto

On Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was joined by tenor Lawrence Brownlee and soprano Laura Claycomb (the latter replacing Nicole Cabell who was forced to withdraw due to illness) in performing a program that included some of the most famous arias of the bel canto era - among them works by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.  The singers were  lucky enough to be accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra, a truly great ensemble, under the capable baton of Maurizio Benini.  This was the last installment of DiDonato's "Perspective" series at the Hall, and she did her best to turn the evening into a truly festive occasion.

In the introduction to the evening's entertainment, the Program Notes made an interesting point about Italian opera:
"Italian opera in the 18th century focused increasingly on the integrity of the dramatic narrative, allowing the music to support the story rather than serving as an end in itself. Significantly, though, most of those developments were instituted by foreign composers, including Handel, Gluck, and Mozart. It was probably only a matter of time before the Italians themselves reclaimed the lead in the evolution of opera, a genre that, of course, they had invented in the first place."
Actually, the person most responsible for the growing emphasis placed on dramatic narrative was that lifelong champion of Italian culture, Lorenzo Da Ponte.  It was, after all, the libretti he wrote for Mozart's three most famous works that ushered in a new era of opera.  It is no accident that the standard repertoire begins with Figaro, and this is as much to Da Ponte's credit as it is to Mozart's.  It was he who first saw the limitations of opera seria, that entertainment of aristocrats, in an age of social upheaval.  Following the lead of his countryman Bertati, he found unsuspected depths in opera buffa that made it the perfect vehicle for serious storytelling.

If anything, the decades between the death of Mozart and the first successes of Verdi represented something of a regression.  Though the lyrical bel canto operas were among the most beautiful in the repertoire, the loveliness achieved in musical expression came at the cost of a loss of dramatic intensity.  As one Wikipedia entry notes:
"Orchestration became heavier, coloratura was reduced, especially for men's voices, and more importance was placed on lyrical pathos."
The evening featured not only arias by the three most famous bel canto composers - Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini - but also the music of two lesser known artists, Michele Carafa and Giovanni Pacini.  Carafa was a student of Cherubini and wrote 29 operas between 1816 and 1847.  After that, though, he gave up composing for the last 25 years of his life and instead became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire.  Pacini was also an incredibly prolific composer with a staggering 74 operas to his credit and was at one time director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.  It was their misfortune that both men's careers were overshadowed by those of the three far more illustrious composers who dominated opera in the early nineteenth century.

The program differed somewhat from that originally announced.  In the first half, following a performance of Rossini's Overture to Aureliano in Palmira, DiDonato came onstage to sing Carafa's "L'amica ancor non torna ... Oh, di sorte crudel" from Le nozze di Lammermoor.  I had never before heard this piece and was deeply impressed by DiDonato's performance.  Next were two pieces by Donizetti taken from his most famous opera, L'elisir d'amore.  These were "Una furtiva lagrima," a solo by Brownlee, and "Prendi, per me sei libero," a duet in which Brownlee was joined by Claycomb.  Both singers were in exceptionally fine voice here.  Afterwards, to close the first half, DiDonato returned to sing another little known piece, "Ove t'aggiri, o barbaro" from Pacini's Stella di Napoli and scored another triumph.

Fine as the first half was, it was really in the second half that the concert came alive.  It began with two Bellini arias taken from I Capuleti e i Montecchi - "Eccomi in lieta vesta ... Oh! quante volte" sung solo by Claycomb followed by the duet "Oh! mia Giulietta" sung by Claycomb and DiDonato.  The latter piece was really the highlight of the program, and the two singers put everything they had into making this crowd pleaser a roaring success.  Afterwards, Brownlee returned onstage to sing "La maîtresse du roi... Ange si pur" from Donizetti's  La favorite.  This aria is something of a rarity in bel canto in that it is one of the few sung in French rather than Italian.   (There does exist a corrupted Italian version entitled La favorita that is more often performed.)  Finally, the program ended with what everyone had been waiting for all evening - DiDonato singing Rossini.  The mezzo has been dazzling Met audiences for several seasons now with her interpretations of this composer's works, and on Wednesday evening she brought the Carnegie Hall audience to their feet with her rendition of "Reidi al soglio" from Zelmira.

After the printed program had ended, all three singers came onstage and DiDonato gave a short charming speech in which she expressed her gratitude to all involved before launching into an exuberant encore by Rossini, "À la faveur de cette nuit obscure” from Le comte Ory, with both Claycomb and Brownlee at her side.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Lachner, Schubert and Beethoven

At yesterday afternoon's matinee at Good Shepherd Church, the Jupiter Symphony Players performed works by Lachner, Schubert and Beethoven in a selection that traced the development of chamber music in the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) and beyond.  As such, the afternoon provided a great deal of insight into the tastes of nineteenth century Viennese audiences.  Essentially, this involved a broadening of musical appreciation in the newly emerged middle class.  No longer was serious music the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy.  Under the new social order, music was now being written to be played at home and in informal settings rather than solely in those venues where it could only be heard by a privileged few.

The program opened with Lachner's Nonet in F major for violin, viola, cello, double bass and wind quintet (1875).  I had not expected to find much documentation online regarding this rather obscure work, but I did in fact come across a detailed analysis contained in a 2007 thesis by Andrew L. de Alvaré that provided an excellent context.  Alvaré first pointed out the similarities between Lachner's 1824 Septet and the the much later Nonet, though he also made note of the fact that the structures of these two pieces differed to the extent that that of the five-movement Septet was akin to a classical divertimento while that of the four-movement Nonet more closely resembled that of a string quartet.  While Lachner's Septet drew its inspiration from Beethoven's Septet as well as Schubert's Octet (composed the same year as Lachner's work), it altered the instrumentation by replacing the bassoon used in the two earlier works with a flute.  There were other, more important differences as well.  As Alvaré noted:
"However, he [Lachner] also incorporates numerous elements to accommodate Romantic era tastes, resulting in a different mood than presented in Beethoven’s Septet. The symmetry and balance of the old-fashioned style galant have been removed entirely, and the unequal phrase-lengths that Lachner uses in their place complement a more advanced harmonic style... Lachner includes movements in both the major and minor keys built on the sixth scale-degrees, while Beethoven and Schubert used neither in their chamber works for large ensembles."
It was more than fifty years after having written the Septet that Lachner composed the Nonet.  But not only were there stylistic similarities between the two, there was also a common intent - to provide middle class audiences with attractive sounding light pieces imbued with a strong Romantic spirit.  This continuity was not at all surprising in light of the change in circumstances that had occurred in the interim in Lachner's life.  In 1864, Wagner had seen to it that Lachner was replaced as royal kapellmeister in Munich by his own protege Hans von Bülow, whose wife Wagner was later to steal.  The move effectively ended Lachner's career and must have convinced him that his sympathies lay more with the common people than with Ludwig II and his court.  The composer also had had time to absorb more musical influences.  Interestingly, Lachner's Nonet makes use of the same instrumentation as that written by Louis Spohr.

After intermission, the program continued with Schubert's Ellen’s dritte Gesang “Ave Maria,” D. 839, Op. 52, No. 6 (1825).  This was the sixth of seven songs Schubert based on Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.  Coincidentally, I had seen a wonderful performance of Rossini's La Donna del Lago just last month at the Met Opera and so was looking forward to hearing Schubert's adaptation of the same source material.  Ironically, I found the music quite familiar.  I had heard it often at church when I was a child, but with the original lyrics replaced by the Latin verses of the "Hail Mary."  Gina Cuffari, who doubles as the ensemble's bassoonist, sang the piece wonderfully well.

The afternoon ended with one of Beethoven's most famous chamber works, the Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97, nicknamed the "Archduke" (1811).  In a sense, the work stood at an opposite pole from Lachner's Nonet.  If the latter had been written for middle class audiences and was intended to be played by amateurs, Beethoven's work was, as witnessed by the dedication to Archduke Rudolf, meant for the enjoyment of aristocratic patrons and the playing of highly qualified professional musicians.  (Ignaz SchuppanzighJosef Linke and Beethoven himself gave the first performance of the work.  The 1814 premiere marked Beethoven's last public appearance as a pianist.)   Nor was the work in any sense informal.  This was a grand, symphonic piece in which Beethoven clearly intended to show off his skill as a composer.  Not that the stateliness of presentation in any way undermined the bright cheerful nature of the work that was most evident in the closing movement.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Met Opera: Manon

On Thursday evening, the Met Opera staged a performance of Manon, a work considered - along with Faust and Carmen - to be at the heart of the French operatic repertory.  It received such acclaim after its premiere that even when the illustrious Puccini composed his own Manon Lescaut less than ten years later, it never succeeded in overtaking the popularity of the earlier work.

Since last having seen Manon years ago, I'd gained a much greater respect for its creator Jules Massenet than I had once held.  Although highly regarded during his lifetime, his works largely fell into oblivion after his death.  Of his more than thirty operas, only Manon and Werther managed to retain a place in the standard repertoire.  The composer himself, perhaps a victim of his own success, had never been held in particular esteem by the critics and was eventually relegated to little more than a footnote in the history of opera.  Even after his rediscovery in the mid-twentieth century, the critical analysis devoted to him remained condescending.  A good example would be the opinion expressed in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera:
"It would be absurd to claim that he [Massenet] was anything more than a second-rate composer; he nevertheless deserves to be seen, like Richard Strauss, at least as a first-class second-rate one."
Some of this lack of appreciation may have been due to the bias shown French music in general, especially when held in comparison to the accomplishments of Italian composers.  (Puccini himself gave voice to this prejudice when arguing for his own project: "Massenet feels it [the story of Manon] as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.")  Another factor may have been that Massenet was admittedly inconsistent; not all his works, especially not those written in the years immediately preceding his death, achieved the same high standard as that of his most famous operas.  Still, Massenet's work at its best was not only extremely entertaining but highly inventive and impressively constructed.  Manon, Werther and Thaïs are all exciting works to hear.

The plot of Manon, as set forth in the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, was the type of romantic melodrama that has always been a prime source of operatic inspiration.  The story of an innocent young girl on her way to the convent who meets her true love only to be seduced by a rich older man was one that was sure to appeal to the fatuous Parisian audiences of the day.  And at the end, of course, came the uplifting moral lesson.  Once poor Manon had seen the error of her ways, there was nothing left for her to do but to die in the arms of the hapless Des Grieux while acknowledging that the happiness he had promised would never be hers.  Her fatalism as she pronounces the final words, "Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut," sums it all up nicely.  How apt that the story's original author, Abbé Prévost, should have been a clergyman.

Another reason I had wanted to attend this performance was to hear Diana Damrau sing again.  I had seen her at the Met last season in La sonnambula and had thought her superb on that occasion.  Here she was joined by Vittorio Grigolo, whose credits oddly enough also include an appearance on Dancing with the Stars, as her des Grieux.  The two shared a definite chemistry that caught fire in third act when Manon confronted Des Grieux at Saint-Sulpice.  Their meeting followed a bravura performance by Grigolo of the aria Ah ! Fuyez, douce image.  As Manon finally convinced Des Grieux to break his vows and return to her, the effect on the audience was electric.

This performance of Manon was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume who unfortunately failed to bring forth all that the music offered.  The 2012 production, a joint effort with several other opera houses including Convent Garden and La Scala, was designed by Laurent Pelly and was a great disappointment.  It was a drab and lifeless affair that appeared to have taken its inspiration from commonplace industrial designs.  There was no beauty or magic to it at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Carnegie Hall: András Schiff Performs Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert

Yesterday evening at Carnegie Hall, the Hungarian pianist András Schiff performed in recital several of the most important late works by the music's greatest classical composers - Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

The program opened with Haydn's Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI: 50 (1794).  The piece dates from the composer's second trip to London and was dedicated to Terese Jansen Bartolozzi, a well known pianist and music teacher, who published the work in 1800.  More important, though, was the piano for which Hadyn intended the work.  This was the large "English" piano he encountered while in London.  Its most notable feature was a keyboard whose range extended beyond that of the fortepianos he had previously used in Vienna.  Hadyn was so enthralled by the possibilities of the instrument that he brought one back with him when he eventually returned to Austria.  It must have been incredibly exciting for a composer as experienced as Haydn to come into contact with an instrument whose modifications opened up to him new possibilities in the expression of his ideas.  In writing a sonata to be played upon it, he was able to move beyond the limitations previously imposed by the fortepiano and create music of far greater complexity.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 (1820).  This was the first of the master's three final sonatas and, together with the Diabelli Variations he wrote during the same period, the culmination of his thoughts on music composed for the piano.  In its structure, the Op. 109 differs so markedly from all the Beethoven sonatas that had preceded it that it is fair to call it revolutionary.  The first movement is extremely short, so much so that it has been suggested that the composer originally intended the work to consist of only the latter two movements and added this on later.  The third movement is most unusual for a sonata in that it contains a theme and variations.  Beethoven wrote the piece at the same time he was working on the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis and it was obvious that he was moving into uncharted territory.  His inability to hear his own works or those of other composers had completely isolated him by this point from the world around him.  Terrible as it must have been to have been so afflicted, his condition can actually be seen as an advantage in the sense that he was free to move forward with the development of his own musical ideas without having to concern himself with popular taste or even the sound of his own works when played.  More than any other artist before or since, he was locked into the world of pure imagination and freed from any other considerations.

This was followed by Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545 (1788).  The fact that this well known piece was described by Mozart himself as being "for beginners" has created a misconception that this sonata - it is sometimes referred to as Sonata semplice - is somehow inferior to the composer's other late works.  This is not the case at all.  From the opening bars, this is Mozart at his finest in his unmistakable late style.  If anything, the simplicity of style allows the listener to better appreciate the composer's genius.

The program ended with Schubert's Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958 (1828).  When listening to any of the works written by Schubert in the last year of his life it's difficult not to give way to sentimentality and to read into them the composer's presentiment of his own impending death.  This is certainly true of the last three sonatas which have an almost symphonic grandeur that in the nineteenth century led critics to unfairly view them as mere imitations of Beethoven's equally imposing piano works.  But this is unfair.  Although the works are quite clearly influenced by Beethoven, they have their own distinct style and voice and reveal Schubert to have been a great composer in his own right.  While they do give a nod to Beethoven's classic style, they are firmly within the Romantic tradition in their celebration of the tragic artist doomed to die young and unappreciated.  As such, they are incredibly moving works.

András Schiff is a wonderful pianist.  I first took note of his talent when I purchased last year a recording of all three Bartók concertos he had made with fellow Hungarian Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orichestra.  At yesterday evening's recital, he was in total command of his instrument and showed his deep passion for the music in every note he played.  His style was impeccable - as classic as the music he was performing - and never interfered with my appreciation of the works themselves.  Although I had long been familiar with all the pieces on the program, Schiff made each seem fresh and brought to them all a new level of insight.  I came away feeling I had witnessed a revelation of sorts.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Met Opera: Les Contes d'Hoffman

Thursday was another day of miserable weather in New York City as several inches of snow fell in Manhattan.  As a result, the Met Opera was emptier that evening than I can ever remember having seen it.  I would estimate the house was only one third full.  Those who were hardy enough to brave the elements, however, were handsomely rewarded as they watched James Levine conduct a vivid performance of Les Contes d'Hoffman, a work I hadn't seen in more than twenty years.  I still remember that last performance because it featured Plácido Domingo singing with Samuel Ramey.

Hoffman was the final work by Jacques Offenbach, better known during his lifetime for the huge number of operettas he composed.  His most famous works in this genre were La vie parisienne (1866) and Orphée aux enfers (1858).  It was for the second act of the latter that Offenbach wrote the tune Galop infernal which gained notoriety on its own as the music for the infamous "can-can" dance.  Through these operettas the composer came to be as deeply associated with the popular image of nineteenth century Paris as was the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.  But it was Hoffman, not premiered until four months after his death in 1880, that was to be Offenbach's greatest achievement.

It is interesting to speculate why Offenbach so radically changed direction near the very end of his life after he had already become enormously successful composing operettas.  The answer most probably lay in the vast cultural and political disruptions that followed the Franco-Prussian War.  Offenbach's music had always been closely associated with the opulent lifestyle that had characterized the Second Empire.  After France's bitter military defeat, not only did these lighthearted operettas immediately fall out of favor but Offenbach too, as both a Jew and a German, found himself ostracized by those who once flocked to hear his work.  Reinventing himself as a composer of serious opera may have seemed to him the only way to salvage his career.

The opera is, of course, based on the fantastic tales of the eponymous E.T.A. Hoffman who, besides being a writer, was also a composer of some note.  His stories are still in print, even if not so often read today, and in their own time were extraordinarily influential.  The French in particular idolized Hoffman in much the same way they had that other author of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe.  Not only was this opera based on Hoffman's stories but so also were the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppélia.  The stories' popularity owed a great deal to the fantastic content that reflected perfectly the Romantic sentiments of the age.    The three tales used in this opera had previously been adapted in a play, Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann, by librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré who had also collaborated on the libretto for Gounod's Faust.  By the time the libretto for Hoffman came to be written Carré had died and Barbier became the sole librettist.  The titles of the stories used were Der Sandmann ("The Sandman"), Rath Krespel ("Councillor Krespel") and Das verlorene Spiegelbild ("The Lost Reflection").

Though Hoffman's own life was not quite as sensational as that of his namesake narrator, it was still quite adventurous enough.  It may have been his achievements in music, though, that attracted Offenbach's attention.  Not only had Hoffman composed both instrumental and vocal music, he had also authored several seminal works of musical criticism.  

In spite of the difficulty I had getting there, I very much enjoyed Thursday evening's performance.  Levine, as usual, was masterful on the podium and here had the assistance of some very able singers.  Of the three heroines, I thought the best was Audrey Luna in the role of Olympia.  Matthew Polenzani was excellent as Hoffman as was Karine Deshayes as Nicklausse.  The production. which originally premiered in 2009, was directed by Bartlett Sher and was exceptionally well done.  The first and third acts, with their lavish sets, were especially notable.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Jupiter Symphony Players Perform Milhaud, Dvořák, Gershwin and Henry Hadley

At yesterday afternoon's matinee at Good Shepherd Church, the Jupiter Symphony Players performed a program entitled The New World that included chamber works by American composers as well as Europeans who were at one time or another resident in this country.  The artists featured included Milhaud, Dvořák, Gershwin and Hadley.

The program opened with George Gershwin's Lullaby (circa 1919 but not premiered in its original form until 1967).  This was Gershwin's earliest "classical" work, actually a composition assignment from his harmony teacher Edward Kilenyi, Sr.  Gershwin later used the piece as the basis for an aria, "Has Anyone Seen My Joe?" in the 1922 opera Blue Monday.  (Though the opera itself, part of George White's Scandals, was a failure, it was heard by Paul Whiteman who thereupon gave Gershwin the commission for Rhapsody in Blue.)  In spite of its origin as "serious" music, this subdued work did not entirely abandon the popular idiom for which Gershwin was already known.  It was simple, very obviously a learning exercise, and pleasant enough to hear..

Following this came Earl Wild's Étude on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" (1973), one of his Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs.  During his lifetime, Wild was an extraordinarily successful American pianist and known for his transcriptions not only of Gershwin's work but also that of other composers, including Rachmaninoff.  His long association with Gershwin's music began in 1942 when he was invited by Toscanini to perform Rhapsody in Blue with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  While I thought the present transcription interesting, I much preferred the improvisation on the same Gershwin number I had heard in January at Juilliard's Chamberfest.

The next work was Henry Hadley's Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 50 (1919).  It's hard to believe now, so completely has he been forgotten, that Hadley was once among the most prominent and highly respected American composers.  He was also an associate conductor to the New York Philharmonic as well as the first American composer to conduct his own work, Cleopatra's Night, at the Met Opera.  It was the Romantic nature of Hadley's own music, along with his admiration for Wagner, that proved his downfall as popular taste changed.  This quintet was very much in the style of Brahms and even at the time it was first performed must have seemed something of an anachronism.

After intermission, the ensemble played Darius Milhaud's Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, Op. 157b (1936).  Milhaud, a member of the group of Parisian composers referred to as Les Six, was incredibly prolific; at the time of his death in 1974 he had more than four hundred opus numbers to his credit.  This piece was adapted from incidental music Milhaud had written for a play by Jean Anouilh entitled Le voyageur sans bagage ("The Traveler without Luggage").  Despite the Baroque titles of its four movements, its sound was clearly indebted to jazz.  Indeed, Milhaud had been deeply influenced by jazz ever since he had traveled to New York City in 1922 and visited Harlem; at one point in the 1940's he even had pianist Dave Brubeck as a student.

The final work on the program was Antonin Dvořák's String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 (1893) nicknamed the "American."  This is perhaps the most famous of Dvořák's chamber works and justly so.  It is a beautifully lyrical piece the composer wrote while on vacation in Iowa during his stay in America and has quite a different sound from the music he composed in his native country.  Here he was no longer using Czech folk tunes as a source of inspiration but rather the Afro-American spirituals to which he had been introduced by Harry Burleigh in New York City.  It was this association that led directly to Dvořák's employment of the pentatonic scale at the beginning of each of the quartet's four movements.  The four musicians - Francisco Fullana, violin; Lisa Shihoten, violin; Erika Gray, viola; and David Requiro, cello - yesterday gave an excellent performance that elicited a strong emotional response from the audience, myself included.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making

Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making is an excellent study of the artist's work that was published to accompany a 2001 exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada.  It contains not only examples of the artist's most important paintings and drawings, shown in two separate catalogues, but several essays that help place the artist in the context of fin de siècle Vienna when that city was home not only to the Secession but also to the music of Mahler and the psychoanalytic theories of Freud.

I have to admit that I have always resisted the idea of viewing Klimt as a modernist.  To me he has always represented the old guard that only gave way grudgingly to the expressionist art of Schiele and Kokoschka.  If Klimt was anything, he was a Symbolist and heavily influenced by other artists of that school, most notably Khnopff, Toorop, Stuck and Munch.  Symbolism looked back to the nineteenth century Romantic tradition, most especially in the emphasis it placed on decadence, and cannot help appearing somewhat old fashioned when compared to recent trends in early twentieth century art.  One must remember that at the same time Klimt was painting his romantic figurative works Braque and Picasso were experimenting with Cubism and Matisse with Fauvism.  In addition, Klimt's interest in the applied arts - he had spent seven years as as student at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule - placed him squarely within the Art Nouveau movement and imbued his work with a highly decorative character.  Nevertheless, the Vienna Secession did represent a conscious break by young artists dissatisfied with the staid academic traditions of the period, and it was a sincere attempt to move German art in a radical new direction.

There is no denying that Klimt was at least at first a prominent member of the Viennese art establishment.  Together with his brother Ernst and a student named Matsch, he formed the Künstlerkompanie through which the three received a contract from the Imperial Building Commission to complete various decorative projects within Vienna's public spaces.  It was only after the death of Ernst that Klimt began to work in a highly individualized style that eventually resulted in a scandal over a commission he had been awarded that involved the completion of several ceiling paintings at the University of Vienna.  The ideas he came up with - on the subjects of Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence - were filled with pessimism and nude images that were totally out of character with the spirit of the project.  Even today, photographs of these works (the originals were destroyed by fire during World War II) can be shocking to the viewer.   After having returned the advance he had received for these works, Klimt went his own way and never again took a public commission.  But the experience had set him on a new direction that was to culminate in his design for the Beethoven Frieze in 1902.   Even so, Klimt remained a prominent society portraitist till the very end of his career and became quite wealthy depicting the likenesses of Vienna's elite. 

The paintings reproduced in the book offer an extensive overview of Klimt's career and allow the reader to follow his development as an artist from his earliest historical tableaux and mythical allegories to the final portraits he left uncompleted at the time of his death.  Included here are a number of landscapes in the pointillist style.  These are not nearly so well known as the artist's figure studies and show another side to his work and character.  Several key paintings are missing from the exhibit, however, and their absence limits the scope of this volume.  This is not so much a problem with the drawings, though, and from them the reader is able to gain a great deal of insight into Klimt's working methods.  The commentary offered by Marian Bisanz-Prakken in the essay that accompanies these graphic works is especially useful in demonstrating their place within the whole of the artist's oeuvre.