Sunday, June 28, 2015

Met Museum: Van Gogh: Irises and Roses

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Van Gogh: Irises and Roses, contains only four paintings.   But what masterpieces these works are.  Though less famous than the artist's iconic paintings of sunflowers, these are every bit as worthy of attention.

In this small show, the museum takes from its own collection one painting of irises and one of roses and pairs them with their counterparts now held in other collections - the upright Irises from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the horizontal Roses from the National Gallery of Art.  It is only when viewed together that the true greatness of these four works becomes visible and the artist's intentions made clear.  As the museum's website notes:
"This exhibition will reunite the four paintings for the first time since the artist's death and is timed to coincide with the blooming of the flowers that captured his attention. It will open 125 years to the week that Van Gogh announced to his brother Theo, on May 11 and 13, 1890, that he was working on these 'large bouquets'..."
All four of the works shown date from the last year of the artist's life.  During this period, Van Gogh left the asylum at Saint-Rémy and prepared to travel north to Auvers where he would spend his final months.  Despite his virtual incarceration on the Saint-Rémy hospital grounds and the relapses that had temporarily prevented him from doing any work at all, this had actually been one of the most productive period of the painter's abbreviated career.  Only the year before, in 1889, he had painted his masterpiece, The Starry Night.

Little of the profound psychological problems afflicting Van Gogh can be seen in the four paintings on display here.  Instead,they are carefully composed still life images that convey a sense of serenity.  By the time they were painted, Van Gogh had achieved complete mastery of his unusual style.  The thick impasto strokes of paint have been confidently applied and every detail has been considered.  The ability of the painter to capture the very essence of these flowers is almost uncanny.  It is clear he has put into these works everything he had learned over the past five years since having completed his first major work, The Potato Eaters.  This can be seen even in the two paintings of  roses where the subtle pink shades Van Gogh deliberately chose have faded over the past 125 years and thus robbed the two works of some of their delicate detail.

Very few artists have ever possessed a fraction of Van Gogh's genius.  It's an open question to what extent his madness contributed to the greatness of his work.  Could someone less thoroughly dysfunctional have been able to view reality with the clarity this painter possessed?  But in the end it really doesn't matter.  What's indisputable is that Van Gogh's paintings represent the high point of nineteenth century European art.  Anyone who is able should make the trip to the Met to see these late paintings.  Despite their apparent simplicity, they are truly awe inspiring.  If studied closely by the viewer, they offer a completely new way of perceiving reality and give a better understanding of the artist at the end of his life.

The exhibit continues through August 16, 2015.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Met Museum: China through the Looking Glass

The summer season exhibits at the Met Museum's Costume Exhibit are always something of a guilty pleasure.  They have little to do with fashion and even less with art.  Instead, their principal raison d'être is to serve as chic backgrounds for the annual Vogue galas where television celebrities strut across the floor and sip champagne to the accompaniment of innumerable camera flashes.  The emphasis is inevitably on the shows' entertainment value rather than on any educational or cultural content that might otherwise be found within them.  After all, what better way for the museum to bring in the horde of tourists who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead within a mile of a work of art?

As one would expect, the current exhibit, China through the Looking Glass, is as eye catching an extravaganza as a visitor to the city could wish for.  The set designs, such as the moon-viewing pavilion, are striking and well laid out though sometimes too dimly lit to properly display the fashion pieces contained within them.  On video screens behind these sets are shown colorful excerpts from recent Chinese films, along with audio from their soundtracks, in a calculated attempt to create the proper atmosphere.  The tactic unfortunately fails and what the viewer ends up seeing is more Hollywood than Shanghai.  The museum's website tries mightily to put on this the best face it can:
"At times borrowing from Orientalist tropes, Chinese directors have perpetuated some of the misperceptions that had shaped Western fantasies of China. Aided by such cinematic representations, the comparisons and conversations in the exhibition reimagine the relationship between East and West not as one-sided mimicry but rather as a layered series of enfolded exchanges."
As far as the display of the garments themselves, very often traditional Chinese pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are juxtaposed with those designed by contemporary Westerners.  This does not work at all to the advantage of the Westerners; the Chinese originals created for the imperial court are invariably far superior in both concept and workmanship.  The best is a late nineteenth century red mantle from the Manchu period.  In contrast, the contemporary pieces with which they are paired appear frivolous.  The only twenty-first century designer who can hold his own here is John Galliano.  His work is not only tasteful and imaginative but at times even manages to capture something of the spirit of Chinese art.  The pieces by Ralph Lauren and Yves St. Laurent seem tawdry in comparison.  In general, it is the fashions from the 1920's and 1930's, such as those by Chanel, that come off best among the Western artifacts shown.

Although lip service is paid to the writings of Said (who in any event was far more concerned with the Mideast than he was with China and who had nothing at all to say about couture), the presentation is to an extent an inadvertent exercise in racial stereotyping as nearly all the Western works shown represent no more than a distorted image of an ancient civilization.  These works do not use the Chinese originals as sources but instead find their inspiration in a Chinese empire that never existed anywhere but in the imaginations of  Europeans and Americans obsessed with its exoticism.

If the show has a true star, it's Anna May Wong.  It was probably a mistake to have shown video of so beautiful and cultured an actress at the Vogue gala.  It contained a selection of scenes - including an all too brief dance sequence from the 1934 Limehouse Blues - taken from the many films in which she starred.  No one ever gave the lie to the derogatory racial stereotypes of Chinese women as well as she did.  She possessed a talent and intelligence that couldn't be hidden even in the hackneyed roles assigned her, and her dignity and glamour were apparent throughout.

The exhibit continues through August 16, 2015.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Rameau, Gouvy and Mendelssohn

On Monday evening, the Jupiter Players performed the first of their three summertime recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street, one of the few ecclesiastical spaces in the neighborhood to boast air conditioning.  The first part of the program consisted of works from the French repertoire by Jean-Phillipe Rameau and Louis Théodore Gouvy while the second half featured one of Mendelssohn's finest chamber works.

The program opened with Rameau's 6th Concert en Sextuor for three violins, viola and two cellos.  Along with Lully, Rameau was the most important French composer of the Baroque era.  He is best known today for his operas; but was already age 50 when he wrote his first, Hippolyte et Aricie, that was so innovative in its approach to operatic composition that it quickly became something of a succès de scandale.  In addition to opera, however, Rameau also composed a single work of chamber music, the Pièces de Clavecin en concerts (1741).  The five pieces contained therein differed significantly from the then prevalent Italian trio sonatas in the emphasis they placed on the harpsichord which here became central to the composition rather than merely a form of continuo.  Together with a sixth piece taken from a miscellany of keyboard works, including La Poule and L'Egyptienne, they were transcribed in 1768 by Jacques-Joseph-Marie Decroix, a lawyer and early admirer of Rameau's music, and entitled Six Concerts en sextuor.  It was the sixth that was performed on Monday evening; I found it thoroughly enjoyable for the potpourri of styles it encompassed.

The next work was Gouvy's String Quintet in G major, Op. 55 (1869) for two violins, viola and two cellos.  If it was Rameau's foray into opera that brought him his greatest fame, it was Gouvy's failure to work in the same genre that consigned him to oblivion.  There was little place in nineteenth century France for a composer who devoted himself solely on instrumental music, no matter how accomplished his works may have been.  Though Gouvy had the enthusiastic support of a number of prominent composers, most notably Berlioz, the public wanted nothing to do with him if he were unwilling to produce the operatic works they craved.  It was only in the late twentieth century, when his Requiem was finally recorded, that Gouvy began to receive some form of recognition.  The present work, while not necessarily modeled after Schubert's Quintet, though possessing the same unusual instrumentation, was most definitely influenced by it.  Unfortunately, Gouvy's quintet possessed little of the genius displayed throughout Schubert's masterpiece.  It was competent but, although there were some lovely passages in the second movement andantino con moto, it was not particularly memorable.

After intermission, the program concluded with Mendelssohn's String Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1825).  No one would argue that this constituted one of the high points of the nineteenth century chamber repertoire.  Along with the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Octet, written while the composer was still only a teenager, was considered the first indisputable proof of his genius; and certainly even Mozart at that age had failed to produce anything that could surpass it.  Although the double string quartet form had been explored earlier by Louis Spohr, Mendelssohn's opus differed radically in that all eight instruments were melded together to create a true symphonic experience rather than breaking off to play individual parts.  That this was deliberate can be determined from the composer's handwritten note on the autograph score:
 "The Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type." 
Indeed, Mendelssohn later orchestrated the third movement scherzo, said to have been inspired by the Walpurgis Nacht scene in Goethe's Faust, as a replacement for the third movement minuet in his First Symphony at its premiere by the London Philharmonic Society in 1829.

The Octet was the highlight of the evening.  All the performers involved joined together to give an unusually strong ensemble performance and received a well deserved standing ovation at the work's conclusion.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Autoharp Recital

Most of the performances I write about here are of classical music or opera.  On Saturday afternoon, though, I had an opportunity to attend something truly unique - an autoharp recital held at a Japanese association in an office building on Eighth Avenue.

The performer was my best friend Chiemi Aoki from Tokyo.  Though I have known Chiemi for ten years now, this was the first chance I'd had to hear her sing and play.  I found she had a truly beautiful soprano voice, clear and limpid, and played her instrument with considerable skill.  This in itself was quite an accomplishment as the autoharp is almost unknown in Japan and there are no teachers or lesson books available to those seeking instruction.

The music itself was what would be labeled "folk" in our own country even though, with the exception of "Amazing Grace," all the vocals were sung entirely in Japanese.  These were simple uplifting melodies that possessed a strong spiritual dimension.  Chiemi also sang one lovely song at the end that she had composed herself.

As I was the only American in attendance, the afternoon afforded a fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture and manners.  The audience here was totally involved and sang and danced along to the music with a great show of spirit.  And all the guests were wonderfully hospitable to the outsider among them as they drew me to my feet and had me dance alongside them.  I ended up enjoying myself immensely.  This was really the most fun I'd had since my last visit to Tokyo.

I've posted more photos of the event on my other blog, The Photographer as Novelist.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Alice Tully: Adam Golka Performs Beethoven, Lutoslawski, Bartók, Chopin and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went to Alice Tully to hear a recital by pianist Adam Golka for the benefit of the Musicians Emergency Fund.  Although I was not familiar with the musician himself, I was sufficiently intrigued by the program - which included selections by Beethoven, Lutoslawski, Bartók, Chopin and Brahms - to attend the event.  With the exception of the Lutoslawski, these were all well known works.

The matinee began with a performance of Lutoslawski's Butoliki ("Bucolics") (1952).  The composer had a difficult life.  While still a child, he was taken by the Bolsheviks to Moscow where his parents were held prisoner and eventually executed by a firing squad; in the 1940's, he was persecuted by the Nazis; and in the 1950's, his work was subjected to strict censorship by the Soviets.  Lutoslawski certainly didn't give much of himself away in this piece whose five movements were identified only by tempo markings.  It was the last movement, marked allegro marziale, that was the strongest even though there was nothing particularly martial about it.  (For that matter, none of the movements were even remotely bucolic.)  It had a bright modern sound that captivated the listener and dated from the period when Lutoslawski, in order to earn a living, was composing popular music under the name "Derwid" while at the same time working on his more serious compositions.  That was before the 1956 "Polish October," when Soviet interference lessened and Lutoslawski first began to receive recognition as a major composer.

The next work was Bartók's Szabadban ("Out of Doors"), Sz, 81, BB 89 (1926).  It was written, along with many of the composer's most famous piano pieces, at a time when he was first becoming aware of the piano's ability to function as a percussive instrument.  (It was this same insight into the properties of the instrument that would underlie the composition of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion more than ten years later.)  The present work consisted of five movements each of which, unusually for Bartók, was provided with a programmatic title - "With Drums and Pipes"; "Barcarolla"; "Musettes"; "The Night's Music"; and "The Chase."  Of all these, it was the fourth movement, Az éjszaka zenéje, that was to prove the most popular and was often played by the composer in his recitals during that period.  This may have been at least partly due to the fact that it was an excellent example of Bartók's "night music" style characterized, according to one source, by "eerie dissonances providing a backdrop to sounds of nature and lonely melodies."

The final work before intermission was Brahms's Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854).  The work was written shortly after Robert Schumann's suicide attempt and consequent commitment to a sanatorium.  Brahms, along with Joseph Joachim and Julius Otto Grimm (to whom the Op. 10 was dedicated), temporarily moved into the Schumann household in Düsseldorf in order to help care for the children; and it was at this time that he began to develop his personal attachment to Clara.  Though the ballade form had been invented by Chopin only little more than a decade before, Brahms's approach to the genre was quite different from that of his predecessor.  This may have been because the style was too recent to have been formalized.  Notably, Brahms took the term "ballade" much more literally than had Chopin and actually based the first of the series, the D minor, on a grisly Scottish ballad entitled Edward.   The music was therefore necessarily much more programmatic in nature as it closely followed its source material.  It was no accident that Brahms should have turned to Scottish poetry for his inspiration as he had been deeply influenced, as had many other Romantics, by the work of Ossian.

For some reason, the pianist chose to combine the Bartók with the Brahms works without leaving any break between them.  This did not serve either piece well and was confusing to the audience.

The second half of the program began with Beethoven's Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2 (1796-1798).  This was something of a disappointment as the program had originally called for a performance of the Sonata in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2 (1795).  Even though the A major is an earlier work, it is - to my mind at least - a far more interesting and ambitious piece than the F major which is rather undistinguished in its half hearted attempts at humor.  The pianist, however, had already performed the F major last month at a Beethoven Sonata Marathon at BAM and no doubt found it less trouble to reprise the more familiar material at this recital.

The afternoon ended with two pieces by Chopin, the Nocturne in G major, Op. 37, No. 2 (1840) followed by the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 (1841).  Both these works were written about the same time, and some critics have seen in each reminiscences of the summer the composer spent in Majorca in the company of George Sand.  The nocturne, unfortunately not so popular today as it once was, is one of Chopin's best and has a haunting melody that reminds the listener of a Venetian barcarolle.  The ballade, the only one of the four to conclude on a major chord, was dedicated to Pauline de Noailles and is often thought to have been inspired by the poem Undine by Adam Mickiewicz, but a more explicit program has been ascribed to it that relates to the time Chopin and Sand spent at the Valldemosa monastery where conditions during their stay were far from ideal.  Be that as it may, I recently came across a fascinating comment on this piece by pianist Paul Cantrell:
"The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece."
Another Chopin piece that had not originally been scheduled was also included on the program.  That was the Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44 (1841).  As the piece was quite different in spirit from both the nocturne and ballade - its central movement is a mazurka introduced in an awkward fashion - there appeared little reason for its presence other than to take up time.  Chopin himself seemed of two minds regarding the piece; while working on it, he wrote to Julian Fontana: "The weather here [in Nohant] has been exceedingly lovely for several days, but as for my music, it is ugly."

Friday, June 5, 2015

ACJW Ensemble Performs Mozart, Janáček and Schumann

On Wednesday evening I went to Paul Hall to hear the ACJW Ensemble perform works by Mozart, Janáček and Schumann.  As I had not renewed my subscription to the ensemble's series at Weill, this was only the third opportunity I'd had this season to hear these excellent musicians.

The program opened with Mozart's Quintet for Horn and Strings in E-flat Major, K. 407 (1782).  The work was composed at a turning point in Mozart's career.  After having quarreled bitterly with Archbishop Colloredo, he had left Salzburg the year before to start over in Vienna where he hoped to eventually make his fortune.  He was also a newlywed after having married Constanze Weber in August of that year.  The quintet was written for Ignaz Leutgeb, a former member of the Salzburg orchestra who had relocated to Vienna at about the same time as Mozart.  He must have been quite a virtuoso if he were able to handle the intricacies of the horn part that were made all the more difficult by the absence of any valves on the instrument.  Mozart went on to write his four horn concertos for Leutgeb, who also ran an unsuccessful cheese shop that had been financed by Mozart's father Leopold, and the two continued as close friends even if Mozart did sometimes tease the musician unmercifully with his jokes.  In later years, Leutgeb was one of those willing to lend Mozart money when the composer had fallen on hard times.

Mozart's quintet is unique among his works in its unusual configuration of instruments.  Aside from the horn, the work was arranged for one violin, two violas and one cello.  Mozart was an accomplished violist and displayed a great affinity for that instrument.  Here the viola's mellow tones worked perfectly in conjunction with the low range of the horn.  In some places, the piece seemed more a concerto than a chamber work as the horn was continually given solo passages in which the strings were used only as accompaniment.

The next work was Janáček's Mládí ("Youth") (1924) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and bass clarinet.  It's seems that the composer's chamber works have been performed more often than usual during the past few seasons; hitherto I hadn't had much opportunity to hear any other than his two famous string quartets.  As I've been exposed to more of Janáček's oeuvre, I've gained a much greater respect for his abilities.  The work at hand consisted of a standard arrangement for a woodwind sextet and served the work's purpose very well.  The composer's intent had been autobiographical.  He had wished to create in musical form a reminiscence of his long past schooldays (Janáček was already age 70 at the time he wrote this music) at the Augustinian monastery in Brno, the Moravian city in which he spent almost his entire life.

After intermission, the evening ended with Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 63 (1847).  This was the strongest performance of the evening.  It was also particularly interesting to hear this work after having attended a performance on Sunday of Mendelssohn's C minor trio that had been written only two years earlier.  In fact, Schumann's choice of the D minor key in his own work was a tribute to Mendelssohn's D minor trio with which Schumann had been extremely impressed and had written upon first hearing it:
",,,the most masterly trio of the present era, just as, in their times, were the B-flat [Archduke] and D major [Ghost] trios of Beethoven and that of Schubert in E-flat major. It is a beautiful composition that years from now will delight our grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
Listening to any of the works Schumann composed in the 1840's, one cannot help watching for signs of the incipient madness that was to overtake him in the following decade.  And indeed this trio, especially in the first and third movements, is filled with darkness to the extent that Schumann himself characterized the piece as "gloomy."  The death of his infant son Emil, which occurred as the composer was at work on the trio, could only have contributed to the sense of despair with which the work is infused.

Of the three Schumann trios, it is the D minor that is usually regarded as the most accomplished.  In a sense, however, it is a throwback to the Baroque era in that the strings are not given equal weight with the piano and are sometimes used only as accompaniment.  In spite of this, the trio is one of the composer's most successful and best known chamber pieces.  It's definitely a powerful work, and the three talented musicians who performed it on Wednesday evening did an excellent job of expressing all the depth of feeling Schumann had put into it.  These were Shir Semmel, piano; Siwoo Kim, violin; and Caleb van der Swaagh, cello.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Omega Ensemble Performs Shostakovich, Brahms and Mendelssohn

On Sunday afternoon at Christ and St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street the Omega Ensemble performed works by Shostakovich, Brahms and Mendelssohn as well as a medley of virtuoso violin pieces.  This was the first chance I'd had to hear the ensemble perform since last May; I noted, however, that the musicians playing at this recital were all listed on the program as "guest artists."

The program opened with the fourth movement allegretto from Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944).  As an introduction to the full program, it was an odd choice.  Written while World War II was still raging and details of  the Holocaust were only first coming to the world's attention, the movement (aptly termed a "Dance of Death" in the Wikipedia article) is utterly bleak and filled with despair.  Shostakovich was not Jewish himself, but it would have been difficult for him not to have recognized an analogy in the plight of the Jews under Hitler to the oppression the Russian people were at the same time experiencing under Stalin.  Reinforcing this interpretation was Shostakovich's use of the same Jewish melody in his String Quartet No. 8, perhaps the most personal of all his chamber works.

As was customary at all the Omega Ensemble's recitals, this opening work was performed by a young musician referred to as a "Next Generation Artist."  Here that performer was the violinist Ari Boutris.  He was accompanied by cellist Brook Speltz and pianist Dominic Cheli.

The full program then opened with Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, Brahms's Contemplation as arranged by Jascha Hefeitz, Witold Lutoslawski's Subito, and Manuel Ponce's Estrellita, again arranged by Heifetz.  These were all showpieces designed to display the talents of the violinist, here Brendan Speltz, to best advantage.

This was followed by Brahms's Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38 (1862-1865).  As can be seen by the dates of composition, the entire work was not completed in a single attempt.  Brahms had originally composed the first two movements, along with an adagio he later deleted, in 1862 and only returned to the work three years later at which time he composed the final movement, an allegro whose opening theme is taken from Bach's Contrapunctus 13 from Die Kunst der Fuge.  The entire sonata is actually "a homage to J.S. Bach" as the principal theme of the first movement is also taken from that same masterpiece.  Perhaps because Brahms himself played the piano at the work's Mannheim premiere, the composer was very careful to note that in this work, dedicated to cellist Josef Gänsbacher, the piano part should be given as much importance as that of the cello.  He wrote:
"[the piano] should be a partner - often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner - but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role."
After intermission, the program concluded with Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845).  This was a fairly late work, written only two years before the composer's untimely death in 1847, and displays the full range of Mendelssohn's genius.  By the time he came to write the piece, the piano trio already had a fairly distinguished history.  Originally a genre that even in Haydn's time had emphasized the piano part and made use of the strings only in a supportive role (Haydn had in fact titled his earliest trios "Sonatas for pianoforte with accompaniment of violin and violoncello"), it had been given a much more balanced arrangement by Beethoven, most notably in his masterpiece the Archduke Trio, in which the strings were raised to the level of full partners.  And, of course, Mendelssohn himself had already had the experience of writing his own D minor trio, the Op. 49, six years before. The most remarkable feature of the Op. 66, which is not nearly so famous or often performed as the earlier trio, was Mendelssohn's implementation in the final movement of a well known 1524 Lutheran chorale Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ