Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mostly Mozart Orchestra Performs Mozart and Brahms

Yesterday evening, the Mostly Mozart Orchestra performed a free concert at Avery Fisher Hall.  This "preview" has become an annual event - this was its tenth anniversary - and obtaining tickets has itself evolved into something of a summer ritual.  Lines begin forming hours before the box office opens; by 10 o'clock a huge crowd of classical music lovers fills the plaza as they wait for tickets to be distributed.  Standing (or sitting) in line while reading a book or talking with one's neighbor can be an enjoyable experience, especially when the weather is as fine as it was yesterday morning.

The program at this abbreviated concert consisted of only two works and was performed without intermission.  The composers featured were Mozart and Brahms.

The program opened with Mozart's Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338 (1780).  The work was written at a particularly frustrating point in the composer's career.  He had already spent several years traveling through Europe in search of employment and had only just returned to Salzburg in 1779 to take up the position of concertmaster that his father had manged to secure for him during his absence.  But Mozart had no intention of remaining in such a confining environment.  His patron, Archbishop Colloredo, showed no appreciation of his talent and - even worse for one who aspired to compose operas - the court theater had recently closed.  In 1781, Mozart relocated permanently to Vienna.

In spite of all the bitterness Mozart experienced during this period, the K. 338 is an unusually exuberant work.  It is in three movements, rather than four, a somewhat outdated format that had already fallen out of fashion in the more progressive capitals of Europe but was still in vogue in backward Salzburg.  The key of C major in which the symphony was written was in German music generally reserved for festive occasions and would be used again by Mozart in his final symphony, the 41st.  The music also shows the clear influence of the Italian overture, the sinfonia.  This was not at all unusual in Mozart's output during these years.  He had traveled extensively in Italy from 1769 to 1771 and had brought back with him a profound sense of that country's musical styles that was to permeate much of his later Salzburg work.  This can be seen as early as the Symphony No. 3, K. 138 written in 1772.

The next and final work was Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885).  It presented a startling contrast to the Mozart.  The Brahms is a dark funereal work in the most literal sense of the term.  Some critics have gone so far as to discern within it an anticipation of the bleak fin de siècle mood that was to characterize Viennese music in the following decade.  This negative outlook can be seen most readily in the final movement passacaglia that concludes the symphony; there is not trace of hope to found within it, only an expression of utter despair in the E minor ending.  It's notable that the Second Viennese School composers were in the twentieth century to make extensive use of the passacaglia in their own work and one can only conjecture to what extent these artists found their source of inspiration in this somber Brahms masterpiece.

Though the Mostly Mozart Orchestra displayed a great deal of enthusiasm in their approach to the music, they are not a world class ensemble.  I found the Mozart piece enjoyable, although I was horrified when music director Langrée picked up the microphone in mid-performance in order to give an aside to the audience.  As for the Brahms, the orchestra tried hard but were beyond their depth and failed to master the full complexity of this extremely difficult work.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven

On Monday evening at Christ & St. Stephen's Church, the Jupiter Players performed the last of their three summer recitals.  The program was appropriately entitled Timeless Classics and featured works by the three greatest composers of the Classical period - Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.  Although each of these three left behind him a considerable body of chamber work, only the piece written by Mozart had originally been arranged for chamber ensemble.  In contrast, those by Haydn and Beethoven were transcriptions of larger symphonic works that had later been scored for smaller groups of players.

The program opened with Mozart's Salzburg Symphony No. 3 in F major, K. 138 (1772), a work often referred to more accurately as a Divertimento for String Quartet.  But this is not a true string quartet in the sense we now know it.  Nor, for that matter, were the six "Milanese" quartets, K. 155 through 160, that followed shortly thereafter.  It was not until the following year, 1773, that Mozart first had an opportunity to hear Haydn's quartets (Opp. 9, 17 and 20), an experience that led him to then attempt his own series of six "Viennese" quartets, the K. 168 through 173.  The instant three-movement piece (it lacks the customary minuet) was instead based on the Italian sinfonia and was intended more as a form of light entertainment than any type of serious composition.  Mozart had only recently returned to Salzburg from a visit to Milan, and it is likely he began work on the quartet while still in Italy.  Even if this were not the case, he was still clearly under the influence of that country and its music as he composed this and its two companion pieces, the K. 136 and 137.  All three have a buoyant cheerful character that reflect the fifteen year old's high spirits.  His early patron, Archbishop Schrattenbach, had only just passed and Mozart had not yet begun to encounter the problems that would eventually force him to leave Salzburg for the more congenial atmosphere of Vienna.  The quartet is extremely engaging and demonstrates how precocious a composer Mozart had already become at so young an age, but its true significance lies in its foreshadowing of the great chamber works the composer was later to produce once he had attained full maturity and had left behind the confining atmosphere of Salzburg.

The next piece was Haydn's Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, H. I:103 (1795), nicknamed "The Drumroll" for the timpani that open the full orchestral version.  This was one of the composer's most famous symphonic works, written on the occasion of his second visit to London at a time when he had already been acknowledged "father of the symphony."  In its original form, it made use of a much larger ensemble, consisting of some sixty instruments, than was then the custom.  Perhaps in this, his next to last symphony, Hadyn wished to show off to his English audience his full mastery of the genre.  If so, he succeeded beyond all expectation.  The second movement andante was so well received at its premiere that it had to be encored.  But it was in the complex final movement, which Haydn later shortened when conducting the work in Vienna, that the composer's full genius could best be appreciated.  At the recital on Monday evening, the transcription performed was for flute quintet and had been artfully arranged by J.P. Salomon, the producer of Haydn's London concerts.  Aside from his role as impresario, Salomon was himself an accomplished violinist and the founder of a respected string ensemble that had already premiered the composer's Opp. 71 and 74 quartets.  Though Salomon no doubt intended the current arrangement primarily as a showpiece for his ensemble, the work went on to enjoy great popularity among amateur musicians throughout the nineteenth century.  The transcription captured very well the spirit of the original; the inclusion of only a single flute worked far better than I had anticipated in capturing the full range of the winds which in the original had consisted of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and two trumpets.

After intermission, the program closed with one of Beethoven's best known works, the Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (1808), nicknamed the "Pastorale."  Although Beethoven is today considered the epitome of the the classical composer, it would be equally correct to see him, especially in a work such as this, as a forerunner of the Romantic movement.  The symphony shows a completely different side of his character from the "heroic" stance more commonly associated with him during his Middle Period.  Countless descriptions of the eccentric composer lodged in his Vienna apartment have tended to blind us to Beethoven's intense love of nature, a trait that was later to become emblematic of the Romantic artist.  Instead of locking himself in his rooms as his hearing affliction worsened, Beethoven more than ever sought the solitude of the countryside where he would at last be free from the troublesome intrusions of his fellow men.  According to Anton Schindler, the composer's favorite reading during this period was Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God in the Realm of Nature and Providence.  The Sixth Symphony thus can be seen as Beethoven's tribute to the natural world in which he felt so at home; it was an attempt to recreate in his music the sounds of nature he was no longer able to enjoy himself but could only imagine.  There were few precedents for such an approach.  Haydn's oratorio The Seasons was much too stylized and lost in its mythological antecedents to have served as a true source of inspiration.  Much closer was Portrait musical de la nature (Pastoralsymphonie) written in 1784 by Justin Heinrich Knecht; the descriptions given by its author to each of its five movements, in fact, were remarkably similar to the programmatic titles Beethoven devised for his own work.  The transcription for string sextet played here was completed by Michael Gotthard Fischer, a composer and organist who was a contemporary of Beethoven.  The six musicians, even with the diminished resources available to them, still strove their utmost to bring out the full glory of this work and ended by leaving the audience with a truly memorable performance.  Though all the performers were uniformly excellent, I was especially impressed with the virtuosity of guest artist Danbi Um who played first violin brilliantly while using a 1683 "ex-Petschek" Amati.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Paul Outerbridge

If ever there were an artist in need of a good biographer, it's the photographer Paul Outerbridge.  A perfectionist who excelled in the creation of black & white platinum prints, he was also a pioneer in the evolution of color photography.  Prior to the advent of Kodachrome, Outerbridge's remarkable Carbro-color prints provided the most accurate and practical means of color representation then possible.  But it was hardly a simple process.  As Elaine Dines-Cox has written in this volume, one of the few monographs of his work to have been published:
"Several laborious hours of concentrated effort and financial investment went into making a single Carbro-color print.  It is unique among photographic processes because the pigments used are the same as in oil paint.  Not only are the pigments unusually permanent, but the exhibit an extra-dimensional quality, the shadows perceptibly deeper in their glossy appearance and the highlights finely graded in their matte surface."
Outerbridge was not only a consummate craftsman, however, but an important modern artist as well.  In 1921, he enrolled at Clarence White's photography school in New York where he was taught by Max Weber.  The influence of the latter was most apparent in his "consideration of two-dimensional Cubist abstract theory in relation to photographing three-dimensional objects."  This proved inspirational to the young Outerbridge who thereafter ingeniously incorporated Cubist design in his early black & white photography through the use of form, pattern and shadow.  His success can clearly be seen in such works as Saltine Box and Ide Collar (both from 1922).  

In 1925, Outerbridge traveled to Paris where he met Man Ray and Berenice Abbott who in turn introduced him to such luminaries as Duchamp, Picasso, Picabia and Brâncusi.  Following his divorce from wife Paula, he relocated to Berlin in 1928 where he studied cinema with the director G.W. Pabst, who was at this time working on his most famous film, Pandora's Box.

Aside from his work in fine arts, Outerbridge was also a highly successful commercial photographer, especially after his return to America in 1929, and his work was regularly published in many prominent periodicals, including Vogue and Vanity Fair

Given the quality and importance of Outerbridge's work, one might wonder why he is not better known today.  The answer to this may lie at least partly in the reception given the highly erotic body of work he created in the 1930's and 1940's.  While Outerbridge had often photographed classical black & white nudes in his earlier years, the later work was much more sexualized and often crossed the border into fetish.  The fact that these were shot in color added to their graphic nature and made them that much more disturbing to conservative American viewers.  If the photos had been published in Europe, they might not have elicited such heated response.  In America, on the contrary, the introduction of such themes could well have ended a photographer's career and consigned his reputation to oblivion. 

Paul Outerbridge is a valuable book if only because there are so few devoted to the photographer and his oeuvre.  It opens with a intriguing 1931 essay by Condé Nast art director M.F. Agha that introduces us to the artist at the height of his fame.  This is followed by an all too short biographical essay by Elaine Dines-Cox that never reveals anything of the inner man and leaves the reader wishing for much more information and insight than is here provided.  One invaluable addition to the book for anyone still practicing traditional photography is Outerbridge's own detailed instructions for using the Carbro process.  As for the reproductions, there is a wide selection representing all phases of the photographer's career.  They are of excellent quality though they can, of course, only approximate the tonal values of Outerbridge's original prints.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jupiter Players Perform Mozart, Michael Haydn and Brahms

On Monday evening at Christ & St. Stephen's Church, the Jupiter Players performed the second of their summertime recitals with a program spanning the hundred year period between 1773 and 1873 that overlapped both the Classical and Romantic eras.  The works featured were all by prominent composers - Mozart, Michael Haydn and Brahms.

The program opened with Michael Haydn's Divertimento in E-flat major, P. 111 (1790), a quintet in eight movements for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin and viola.  The younger Haydn's work was greatly admired by Mozart, and the two shared a close friendship.  It's interesting to compare their respective experiences in Salzburg.  While Mozart was never able to conform to the strictures imposed by his patron, Archbishop Colloredo, Haydn fit right in and enjoyed a successful career.  In 1762 he was appointed kapellmeister, a position he held for 43 years until shortly before his death in 1806.  It would seem then that it may have been Mozart's temperament more than anything else that caused him to chafe at his own position in the Salzburg court and that led him to constantly travel in search of a new sinecure until he finally relocated permanently to Vienna in 1781.  (In fairness to Mozart, however, it should be noted that his annual salary in Salzburg was very low, only 150 florins, and that his desire to compose operas was hampered by the closure of the court theater in 1775.)  At any rate, there was clearly an exchange of ideas between the two composers.  Mozart's influence can clearly be heard in this piece and there is strong resemblance to his own divertimenti.

The next work was Mozart's String Quintet No. 1 in B-flat major, K. 174 (1773).  This was the first of Mozart's "viola quintets," so named because they added an extra viola to the standard string quartet ensemble.  Up until this point, string quintets had usually, following the lead of Boccherini, added an extra cello to the quartet form when seeking to better utilize the strings' lower registers.  Mozart, though, had always displayed an affinity for the viola and had in fact chosen that instrument when playing quartets with Haydn.  There weren't many antecedents for such an arrangement, but the composer may have been influenced to an extent by the notturni of Michael Haydn, scored for the same instruments, though these were usually of a lighter character that more closely resembled a serenade.  It's certain that Mozart found in this combination opportunities to explore his musical ideas in greater depth as he was to return to this form several times throughout his career.  His final major chamber work was in fact the Quintet in E-flat major, K. 614, composed in 1791, the year of his death.  Though the K. 174 does not attain the same heights as the late quintets, it is nonetheless an impressive show of skill for so young a composer.  This is especially evident in the contrapuntal writing in the final movement which Mozart extensively revised that same year after having heard Haydn's Op. 17 and 20 quartets performed in Vienna.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873).  In composing his string quartets, Brahms encountered the same problem as in writing his symphonies - he was haunted by the greatness of Beethoven's achievement in both these genres.  It's difficult for us to imagine today how daunting it must have been for any nineteenth century composer, especially one residing in Vienna, to follow in the footsteps of the master.  Any musical work that was produced would necessarily be compared to Beethoven's and would inevitably come up short.  The Op. 51 pieces were not Brahms's first attempt at the quartet form; he was rumored to have written and then destroyed at least twenty before allowing these two to be published.  And even then he worked on these for almost a decade before he was satisfied.  He is known to have scheduled a private performance, after which he made substantial revisions, before releasing them to the public.  Perhaps all this hand wringing did not work to the benefit of these works.  They sometimes strike the listener has having been too deliberately planned and thought out to be truly enjoyable.  This particular work, however, does possess a more Romantic and lyrical quality than many other Brahms chamber works, especially in the second movement andante moderato in which he did not seem to be trying as hard to outdo Beethoven and instead let his own gentle melancholy come to the fore.