Thursday, December 29, 2016

Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography

No one can ever accuse Edward Hopper of having been an engaging character.  In photograph after photograph, he looks more like some small town store manager than an internationally known artist.  Bald and invariably wearing the type of conservatively cut suit favored by bankers,  he faces the camera with the unsmiling face of an accountant.  And this was no act.  There was no hidden warmth beneath his dour exterior.  The actress Helen Hayes once said of him: "I had never met a more misanthropic, grumpy, grouchy individual in my life..."

All this makes reading a lengthy biography of the man difficult for the average art lover.  Though he made the obligatory trip to Paris in his youth and spent most of his adult life in the same Washington Square apartment in Greenwich Village, there are no wild escapades to report, no mad flings with models.  Phlegmatic to a fault, he consorted with artists he felt could be helpful to his career, such as Guy Pène du Bois, but formed no deep friendships with them.  In politics, he was so far to the right that he might be labeled a reactionary.  He and his wife once drove 600 miles to register to vote so that they could cast their ballots against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It is only as one proceeds through this exhaustive biography that one comes to realize that it was precisely Hopper's conservatism that made his paintings so effective.  In an exceptionally insightful comment, the author writes: 
"... it is his [Hopper's] profound alienation from contemporary life that makes his art so characteristic of modernity itself."
And this is it in a nutshell.  Hopper, born in 1882 in Nyack, NY, never really left behind his small town nineteenth century roots.  He never really felt at home in twentieth century America, the less so as traditional values gave way in the face of urbanization and technological advances to a rootlessness that even today underlies the American psyche.  Tellingly, in his pictures of New York City, Hopper never painted the full length of the skyscrapers that towered over him but only showed them, if at all, as truncated forms in the background.

Hopper's paintings paradoxically portray everyday scenes in the world about him and yet are filled with a sense of emptiness.  A rundown Victorian mansion in House by the Railroad (1925) and a row of Seventh Avenue storefronts in Early Sunday Morning (1930) are both melancholy remnants of an earlier age that has now vanished.  There are no people in either of these pictures (Hopper painted out a figure he had originally placed in one of the storefront windows in Early Sunday Morning); but when Hopper does paint figures they do not look at one another, nor at the viewer either, and thus their presence only intensifies the pervading sense of loneliness and alienation.  This can be seen clearly in the late 1963 painting People in the Sun.  None of the figures is wearing the casual attire one would expect of sunbathers but each is instead fully suited up in business clothes.  The lone figure in the second row looks down at his book while the four recumbent figures in the front row stare blindly ahead, one through dark glasses, into a featureless landscape.  In Girlie Show (1941), an expressionless dancer is oblivious of the audience as she moves naked about the stage.  In watching her, the viewer, like the audience itself, becomes a voyeur taking a peek at the forbidden.

Gail Levin has given us a well written book that is as thoroughly researched as one would expect of the author of Hopper's catalogue raisomné.  It is subtitled "An Intimate Biography," and so it is in more ways than one.  The drama is provided by excerpts from the diaries kept by Hopper's wife Jo - a frustrated artist who, like her husband, once studied under Robert Henri but was after her marriage completely ignored by the same critics and galleries who rushed to lionize her husband.  Hopper himself, prey to insecurity, did everything he could to crush his wife's career and to discourage her from painting.  Jo's attitude toward her husband was therefore, not surprisingly, at best ambivalent as she gave as good as she got in the couple's frequent physical altercations.  Levin has a great deal of sympathy for Jo, whose own artwork was discarded by the Whitney when it acquired Hopper's collection, and to a large extent the reader sees the artist from this woman's conflicted viewpoint.  Jo was aware of the extent of her husband's achievement and lauded him for it, but at the same time she never lost sight of Hopper's extensive personal failings.

This, anyway, is the narrative Levin offers the reader.  As one progresses through the book, however, Jo comes across more and more as a slightly dotty "cat lady," and one begins to question the prominence accorded her in this biography of her husband and the emphasis placed on the importance of her work whose quality appears, after all, rather dubious.

The book would have benefited greatly from an insert containing color plates of Hopper's major works.  As it is, there are photographs and preparatory drawings scattered throughout the text, but these are all in black & white.  A surprisingly large number of the paintings that are reproduced in monochrome are by Jo.  Unfortunately, these do nothing to support her credibility as a serious artist.  Looking at them, the reader feels that Levin has perhaps allowed her sympathy for the artist's wife to skew her judgment. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

MOMA: Francis Picabia

2016 has seen two major retrospectives of artists who, though acknowledged as among the most important twentieth century cultural figures both for their own achievements and their influence on subsequent generations, are rarely given exhibits here in New York City.  I posted in August my thoughts on the Moholy-Nagy exhiibit at the Guggenheim, and now it is Francis Picabia's turn to take a bow at MOMA in a show entitled Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.

To the museum's credit, it has attempted to put on as comprehensive an overview of the work of this complex, enigmatic artist as possible.  This is even more necessary in Picabia's case than in that of other twentieth century artists.  Anything less would have afforded attendees only a partial glimpse of  this often misunderstood genius who moved, seemingly effortlessly, from one style to the next over the course of his career.  Indeed, one reason Picabia is not better known, even today, is that it is difficult to place him with certainty in any one school or movement.  Even though he was gregarious and well liked by almost everyone with whom he came in contact, he resolutely remained a loner who insisted on going his own way.  He was associated with, though never a member of, such diverse groups as the Surrealists, the Cubists, the Arensberg circle, and even Stieglitz's 291 coterie.  In the end, the artist possessed too great a sense of irony to permit affiliation with any one style or group.

The MOMA show moves in a fairly strict chronological order, beginning with Picabia's first incarnation as an "Impressionist" painter circa 1907.  At first glance, these paintings look like outstanding examples of that style, and they in fact received favorable reviews when they were first shown.  But there is something slightly off about them.  When one looks more closely, one can see that while they are not parodies in the strictest sense they are also not completely sincere efforts.  It is as if Picabia, one eyebrow cocked, were viewing this style, whose heyday had already passed, from a more modern point of view.  The closest parallel I can think of is Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 wherein the composer reimagined Haydn's Classical style as it appeared to a twentieth century sensibility.  Picabia is not making fun of the achievements of the Impressionist masters so much as, tongue in cheek, he is reinterpreting their paintings as his own  generation saw them.

The next set of works moved to the opposite end of the spectrum and represented Picabia's "take" on modernism.  Created in 1912, during which period Picabia visited New York, these paintings are perhaps the most successful in the show.  The best is the 1912 abstraction La Source, from MOMA's own collection, a huge canvas almost eight feet square first exhibited at the Salon d'Automne, that challenges all viewer's most cherished assumptions concerning modern art.  But Picabia was not ready to entirely abandon figurative art.  In Dances at the Spring, completed the same year and one of his three entries at the 1913 Armory Show, the figures of the male and female dancers, her leg kicking high, are easily discernible.  After returning to France from New York, where he had had besides his representation at the Armory Show a one-man exhibit at Stieglitz's 291, Picabia painted in 1914 Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie, inspired by the dancing of Stacia Napierkowska that he had witnessed on shipboard during his first transatlantic crossing.

The MOMA exhibit is too large to describe in detail, but there are two categories of work that deserve special mention.  The first of these is a series of "pinup" paintings based on soft-core magazine photos that Picabia completed during World War II while residing in Vichy France.  Although the photographic sources are still clearly visible, the paintings themselves rise almost to the level of myth.  The second category consists of the "Transparencies" in which one painting seems superimposed upon another.  It is almost as if Picabia had here anticipated the "layers" feature of Photoshop in which the opacity can be controlled to reveal an underlying image.  Probably the most successful of this type was the 1930 Aello.

The exhibit continues through March 19, 2017.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Juilliard415 Performs Handel, Manfredini, Fontana and Vivaldi

I attended what was for me the last musical event of 2016 on Tuesday when I visited  Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the Juilliard415 perform the second of its four annual recitals at that location.  The ensemble has this term been focusing on the Baroque music of Italy and the program accordingly included works by Handel, Manfredini, Fontana and Vivaldi.  If the inclusion of Handel appears at first incongruous, it should be remembered that the composer, though he was born in Germany and spent most of his life in England, received his early training in Italy and there achieved his first major successes. 

The recital began with Handel's Sonata in B minor, HWV 386b, Op. 2, No. 1 (1727).  The music publishing industry in the early eighteenth century operated with much less propriety than today.  Copyrights were, of course, nonexistent at the time and pirated editions the norm.  Handel's Op. 2 actually was a compilation of works from early in the composer's career that were already decades old when published without the composer's knowledge or authorization by John Walsh.  The works were deservedly popular and far more sophisticated than most of the music then offered to the public.  The present piece was written for two treble instruments, here played by the unusual combination of flute and oboe, together with continuo, cello and harpsichord.  As the program notes by Katarzyna Klukzykowska point out, the largo contains a quote from the aria Crede l'uom ch'egli riposi taken from Handel's first oratorio Time and Disillusionment (1707).

The next two works - the Op. 2, Nos. 3 and 8 - were by Francesco Manfredini and were taken from his 1709 Sinfonia da chiesa.  Manfredini was born in Pistoria, studied violin under Giuseppe Torelli in Bologna and then spent time in the court of Monaco before finally returning the Pistoria where he spent the remainder of his life.  Much of his work, including all his ecclesiastical compositions, have been lost but what remains shows him to have been a talented composer.  The Op. 2, Sinfonia da chiesa, was a followup of sorts to his Concertini per camera, Op. 1, a collection of twelve chamber sonatas. The selections performed here were both arranged for two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord and bass.

Next came a work entitled Sonata nona (1641) by Giovanni Battista Fontana.  Little is known of Fontana's life and, aside from eighteen sonatas of which the present piece is one, all his work has been lost.  The sonatas that survived were published posthumously, and the preface to them indicates that the composer had been highly regarded by his contemporaries.  The short Sonata nona was performed on violin, dulcian and theorbo.

The program then returned to Handel for a selection of movements taken from his trio sonatas, Opp. 2 and 5.  These consisted of an andante & allegro, an adagio, a march, an andante and finally closed with a passacaille.  Fiona Last wrote in the program notes that the medley represented an attempt by the ensemble to break with the usual slow-fast-slow-fast progression of movements typical of Baroque music in order to provide something more innovative.  The use of three treble instruments - flute, oboe and violin - with a bassoon and harpsichord providing continuo was another break with tradition.

The program concluded with Vivaldi's Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Op. 1, RV 73 taken from Suonate da Camera a Tre (1705).  Perhaps due to the use of a minor key, the work was a much more subdued piece than one is accustomed to hearing from this composer though it still possessed its own haunting beauty.  Two violins took the treble parts while continuo, rather than being played by harpsichord and a single low register instrument, was instead given to cello, bass and theorbo.

This was a particularly fine recital and an excellent way to end a year filled with wonderful musical experiences.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dutilleux, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn

Yesterday was the last day for the this term's series of Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals at Juilliard's Morse Hall.  The 1:00 p.m. performance I attended actually consisted of two recitals combined into one and ran approximately 150 minutes in length.  While the opening piece was a determinedly modern work by the twentieth century composer Henri Dutilleux, a piece described in the composer's New York Times obituary as "enigmatic," the remainder of the program was devoted to nineteenth century classics by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

The performance began with Dutilleux's Les Citations.  The work was written in 1985 while Dutilleux was composer-in-residence at the Aldeburgh Festival and was dedicated to the Festival's host, tenor Peter Pears.  It was to Pears that the citation referred to in the title was given as the first movement quotes an aria from the first act of Peter Grimes.  (Pears was the partner of composer Benjamin Britten.)  The work was then recalled only to be revised by Dutilleux in 1991 and again in 2010.   In its original form, it was a one-movement work for oboe, harpsichord and percussion.  The 1991 revision, that performed at this recital, not only included a new movement but also added a bass to the instrumentation. The performers here were Timothy Daniels, oboe, Sebastian Zinca, bass, Robert Fleitz, harpsichord, and Greg LaRosa, percussion; their coach was Jeffrey Milarsky.

After a brief pause, the recital continued with the remainder of the works performed for authenticity's sake on period instruments, including two antique fortepianos.  An early version of the instrument, much smaller in size than the modern piano, was used for the first several pieces.  It had a much less vibrant sound than the modern piano, almost "tinny" at times, and did not appear very sturdily built.  Looking at it, it was difficult to picture Beethoven performing his thunderous piano works, such as the Hammerklavier, on it without smashing it to bits. The second fortepiano, that used for the last pieces, was much larger and resembled more closely the modern piano in both size and sound.

First came three songs by Beethoven - Adelaide, Op. 46, Die laute Klage, WoO 135, and An die Hoffnung, Op. 32.  The three lieder were sung by tenor Chance Jonas-O-Toole; he was accompanied by pianist Derek Wang.  As the opus numbers would indicate, these were drawn from various periods in Beethoven's career.  He was not known as a composer of lieder and this was a rare opportunity to hear his works for voice.  Although Adelaide is his best known song, it's An die Hoffnung that has the most interesting story.  Beethoven originally composed it in 1805 to words by Christoph August Tiedge. It was only years later, in 1816, that Beethoven discovered that the text he had used was incomplete.  He then composed a completely new setting for the poem that was much longer and struck a completely different tone.  

The next work was again by Beethoven, his Sonata for Fortepiano and Violin in E-flat major, Op. 12, No. 3 (1798). The Op. 12 was Beethoven's first attempt at writing violin sonatas and it's telling that he had them published as sonatas for piano and violin rather than vice versa, thus underscoring which instrument he considered the more important of the two.  He was still in his early period at this point in his career and under the influence of Mozart's writing for the violin.  As one listens, it's clear from the outset that this is not a mature work.  In fact, when first published the Op. 12 was criticized by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung for "a certain contrariness and artificiality."  The masterful "Kreutzer" Sonata, Op. 47 still lay several years in the future, and in between Beethoven would publish the Opp. 23, 24 and 30.  Still, the present sonata has definite charm and is quite pleasing to hear.  The violinist was Kako Miura and the pianist Christopher Staknys.

After this came Schubert's Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen, D. 803 (1824).  Trockne Blumen was the eighteenth song from the cycle Die schöne Müllerin.  In it, the singer rather morbidly wishes that he can take the miller's daughter's flower's to his grave so that they may once again bloom.  It was after having heard a performance of the entire cycle that flutist Ferdinand Pogner commissioned Schubert to write a series of variations upon this particular song.  The resulting piece isn't nearly so mournful as its source would suggest and its conclusion is even rather upbeat.  The work was performed exceptionally well by Melanie Williams playing a Baroque flute; her accompanist was pianist Ke Wang.

After another brief pause, the program continued with one of Schubert's greatest works for piano, the Fantasia in F minor for four hands, D. 940 (1828).  All the composer's works from the last year of his life are to be counted among his finest, but none more so than this achingly beautiful piano piece which was only published posthumously.  That it was dedicated to Karoline Esterházy for whom the composer felt an unrequited passion shows that even at the end of his life Schubert was unable to abandon the ideal of love even though he was fated never to experience its joys.  He returned here to the genre he had more or less created several years before with his "Wanderer" fantasy in which all four movements are played without pause to create a harmonious whole.  But the Fantasia has none of Romantic heroism of the "Wanderer" but is instead a hymn to the power of love.  Only in the concluding measures does Schubert acknowledge the pain of his impending death.  The two excellent pianists were Anastasiya Magamedova and Natalie Vargas-Nedvetsky.

After the Fantasia came three songs by Schubert - Lachen und Wienen, An die Musik, and Rastlose Liebe - sung by mezzo-soprano Maggie Valdman accompanied by pianist Jiawei Lyu.  Of the three, my favorite has always been An die Musik.  With text by Franz von Schober, who later was to write the libretto for Schubert's opera Alfonso und Estrella, this early song from 1817 is a paean to music itself.

The program closed with one of Mendelssohn's best known chamber pieces, the Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49 (1839).  The work's popularity is no accident.  As I noted in a previous post, a dissertation by Ron Regev suggests that Mendelssohn may have cared more about his audience's reaction to this work than to others. Regev writes:
"On the other hand, the undertone of some of his [Mendelssohn's] letters, as well as the final outcome of his debate with Hiller concerning the Trio suggests that he was not impervious to the lure of public affection."
It was Ferdinand Hiller, of course, who persuaded Mendelssohn to completely rewrite the piano part to bring it more into accord with popular tastes.  He later recalled:
"Certain pianoforte passages in it [the trio], constructed on broken chords, seemed to me - to speak candidly - somewhat old-fashioned.  I had lived may years in Paris, seeing Liszt frequently, and Chopin every day, so that I was thoroughly accustomed to the richness of passages which marked the new pianoforte school.  I made some observations to Mendelssohn on this point, suggesting certain alterations, but at first he would not listen to me."
In his paper, Regev goes on to do an exhaustive analysis of all the changes Mendelssohn made in his revised score.  To whatever extent these changes altered the nature of the work, the final result is certainly much more stirring than can be found in many other of Mendelssohn's pieces.  From the cello's opening notes on, the trio captures the hearts of its audience.  One cannot listen without being moved.  The musicians for this work were Alana Youssefian, violin, Matt Zucker, cello, and Nathaniel LaNasa, fortepiano.  I had just heard Mendelssohn's second trio, the Op. 66, last week at a Wednesdays at One performance by the Altezza Trio and I was struck as I listened to this first trio how completely different the two works are.

In some ways, the use of the fortepiano in the second half of the program was more interesting than the music itself.  It certainly changed the character of the music by altering the dynamics of the relationships among the instruments.  This was especially apparent in a work such as the Beethoven violin sonata where the violin stood out more clearly than in performances I've heard with modern instruments.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mendelssohn and Schoenfield

This week's Wednesdays at One performance was given over to Juilliard's Honors Chamber Music program.  The Altezza Piano Trio - Momo Wong, violin; Khari Joyner, cello; and Qilin Sun, piano - are one of the ensembles participating in the prestigious program this year.  Coached by Natasha Brofsky and Joseph Kalichstein, the musicians gave a roughly 50 minute recital that featured works by Mendelssohn and Paul Schoenfield.

The performance began with Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op.  66 (1845).  By the time he had written the Op. 66, Mendelssohn was an experienced composer and had attained full mastery of the effects he sought to create.  This was the second trio Mendelssohn had written and if it was not as popular as the Op. 49 it was still a work of genius, particularly in the balance the composer achieved in blending the three parts, giving each instrument a distinct voice while integrating them seamlessly into a whole.  The work proceeds from a fiery opening to a gentle second movement that is reminiscent of Mendelssohn's "songs without words" for piano.  The sprightly third movement scherzo leads directly to a passionate, but not overly dark, finale.  The inclusion of the old Lutheran hymn in the final movement endows the work with a Romantic flavor.

The second and final work was shorter but equally enjoyable.  This was Schoenfield's Café Music, described by the composer as follows:
"The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio that plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music – music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just    barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th-century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement."
The work was written as a commission from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra who gave it its premiere in 1987.  It was a fun, rambunctious piece that was a big hit with the audience; they gave it a standing ovation at its conclusion.

With recitals such as this, Juilliard has made itself into one of the country's foremost resources for high quality performances of chamber music.  The Wednesdays at One series is just one of  a series of opportunities music lovers have to hear the greatest works in the chamber repertoire.  There are also the Sunday afternoon recitals at Morse Hall, the period instrument performances given by the Juilliard415 at Holy Trinity Church and, in January, the annual Chamberfest extravaganza.   It's to the school's credit that it helps keep alive the tradition of fine chamber music even at a time when the general public has increasingly forsaken cultural pursuits in favor of mass market entertainment.  The works played at these recitals represent a cultural heritage handed down over the centuries from the world's finest composers, and it should never be allowed to become forgotten through the indifference of those unable to appreciate its importance.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Met Museum: Three Exhibits Closing in January

The weather has turned cold and blustery lately as New York City has gotten its first taste of winter a bit early this year.  It was a perfect time to walk across a nearly deserted Central Park - even the tourists abandon it when the temperature drops too low - to visit the Met Museum for a last chance to view three major shows before they close next month.

The first, Jerusalem 1000 - 1400, closes January 8, 2017.  Subtitled "Every People Under Heaven," the exhibit emphasizes the interrelationships among Christians, Jews and Muslims in this city holy to all three.  This intermingling of faiths can be seen in a copy of the gospels translated into Arabic or in a Moorish dagger on which is inscribed a scene of St. George slaying the dragon.  The lighting throughout the galleries is so subdued that the visitor feels he or she is inside a church, a feeling which is particularly appropriate since almost all the objects on view have a religious significance.  There are, for example, a large number of reliquaries and crosses as well as copies of sacred texts.  The major places of worship - the destroyed Temple of Solomon, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock - are each given their own installation.  But there are also a number of secular artworks, the most interesting of which to me was a celestial globe that once belonged to the thirteenth century Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

The second exhibit, Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant, also closes on January 8, 2017.  Though Jean-Honoré Fragonard completed over 500 paintings and became famous for his facility with color, this exhibit is given over to his graphic works - drawings and etchings - almost all of them monochromatic.  For the most part, the content of these graphic works is strikingly different from that of the paintings.  Largely absent is the frolicsome suggestiveness of his most iconic works, such as his best known painting The Swing, which detailed the amorous play of French aristocrats at the court of Louis XVI.  More attention is instead given to landscapes travel sketches, and studies of workers and peasants.  A number of late drawings are notable for the looseness with which they were sketched.  The etchings are particularly interesting.  Some, such as The Vision of Saint Jerome, are so richly detailed that they bear comparison to Goya's work in this medium.

There's a bit more time to see the third show, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio, which runs through January 22, 2017.  I have to admit I had never heard of this artist before visiting the exhibit, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were the first major exhibit devoted to his work.  Part of the reason for Valentin's obscurity was his short lifespan.  He died at only age 41 after having completed some 60 paintings, 45 of which are on view here.  Though the title "Beyond Caravaggio" would suggest that Valentin's work ultimately surpassed that of his predecessor, that's not at all the case.  True, Valentin was a talented painter and shrewd enough to have taken advantage of changing tastes, but his work lacks Caravaggio's genius.  While the latter was a revolutionary whose new naturalistic style of painting took Italy by storm, Valentin was a careful craftsman who was content to work in the other's shadow.  In fact, Valentin never studied under Caravaggio or even met him; he learned the Italian's style secondhand from Simon Vouet, a French painter who enjoyed immense success in Italy.  One can't hold this against Valentin - he was as entitled as anyone else to earn a living - but it hardly marks him for greatness.  Still, his work is definitely worth seeing.  What is most interesting to a photographer is Valentin's use of lighting.  Like Caravaggio, Valentin was a Tenebrist and much of the power of his work comes from the contrast of deep shadow to dramatic lighting.  If he had lived longer, he might have been able to free himself from Caravaggio's influence and become his own man.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart and Tchaikovsky

There were three pieces on the program for yesterday's 3:00 p.m. chamber recital at Morse Hall, but in the event only two were performed.  No reason was given why Handel's Trio Sonata No. 8 was canceled, but my own best guess would be that some hapless student failed to take into account the amount of time needed to navigate the NYC subway system on weekends.  Luckily, the two remaining works on the program were both major pieces and well worth hearing.

The recital began with Mozart's Piano Trio in E-flat major, K. 498 (1786) for piano, clarinet and viola.  Long after Mozart's death, the work was given the nickname Kegelstatt by the music's publishers who most likely confused it with the K. 487 composed a month earlier on whose score Mozart had noted that it had been written while playing skittles.  Since it made for a good story, the unlikely name stuck.  Far more important is the work's place to the clarinet repertoire.  At the time, the clarinet was a relatively new instrument.  Haydn only began to make use of it in 1793 when he composed his Symphony No. 99 in preparation for his second London tour.  Probably he viewed it as a novelty that would delight English audiences.  The clarinet might not have made so prominent an appearance in Mozart's later work if it hadn't been for his friendship with Anton Stadler, a dissolute character who was nevertheless the world's first true clarinet virtuoso performing on an instrument of his own design.  As it is, the trio is the first work written for this particular combination of instruments.  The occasion was a private performance at the home of Mozart's friend Nikolaus von Jacquin to whose daughter Mozart had dedicated the work.  The musicians were most likely said daughter Franziska Jacquin on piano, Stadler playing clarinet and Mozart himself performing the viola part.  The composer did not shortchange his friends.  This is one of his finest chamber works and contains several interesting features from the highly unusual use of an andante as an opening movement to the seven part rondo that closes the piece.  The trio was performed here by Philip Solomon, clarinet, Andrea Fortier, viola, and Anran Qian, piano.  They were coached by Lara Lev and Jerome Lowenthal.

The second and final work on the shortened program was Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 (1882).  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 having done 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 musicians at this performance were Kenneth Liao, violin, Seth Biagini, cello, and Aileen Gozali, piano; the coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Darrett Adkins.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Haydn and Mozart

Earlier this week, as part of the Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall, the Juilliard Lab Orchestra gave an excellent performance of two great symphonies from the Classical period in a one-hour concert that highlighted the talents of four student conductors.

The program opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major, Hob. I:99 (1793).  This was the first of six symphonies the composer wrote in anticipation of his second visit to London in 1794.  Haydn had enjoyed the adulation he had received during his first London tour, not to mention the great amount of money he had earned from it, and was determined to pull out all the stops to impress his wildly enthusiastic English audiences.  The present work was intended as a showcase for the talents of "the father of the symphony" and Haydn left nothing to chance.  He even included for the first time clarinets in the instrumentation.  When the work premiered in London, Haydn's efforts were rewarded with what one newspaper described as "rapturous applause."  The two conductors at Wednesday's performance were Benjamin Hochman (movements 1 and 3) and Jane H. Kim (movements 2 and 4); the latter's work on the finale was especially noteworthy.

The second and final work on the program was Mozart's penultimate symphony, the No. 41 in C major, K. 551 (1788), the "Jupiter" - a sobriquet given it not by the composer but some time after Mozart's death by Johann Peter Salomon, the same impresario who arranged both Haydn's London tours.  Even so, the nickname is highly appropriate, for this is truly the most majestic of Mozart's symphonic works.  Though it may never have been performed during his lifetime - there's no clear evidence either way - it was nevertheless the culmination of his writing for orchestra.  This can be seen most clearly in the finale where, in an astonishing display of fugal writing, he has five separate melodies playing in counterpoint to one another.  As one listener wrote:
"The mass of simultaneously writhing fragments, at all rhythmic levels and in all instruments, with the relentless background of the four whole-notes, cannot be taken in. It reveals vistas of contrapuntal infinity. The coda thus creates a cognitive exhaustion born of sheer magnitude. It makes vivid the mathematical sublime."
The two conductors for the Mozart symphony were Gregor A. Mayrhofer (movements 1 and 3) and Jesse Brault (movements 2 and 4).

In listening to these two symphonies back to back, one could not help thinking of the contrasts in the careers of the two composers, who were not rivals so much as personal friends who exchanged musical ideas.  The second London journey was the high point of Haydn's career.  After almost thirty years of relative isolation spent working for the Esterházy family, he became with his London journeys an international celebrity, universally regarded as the greatest composer in Europe.  Mozart, on the other hand, by the time of his death in 1791 was living in obscurity and near poverty, his days of fame as a child prodigy long forgotten.  Ironically, one of the few to appreciate his genius was the loyal Haydn who famously averred to Mozart's father Leopold:
"Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name; he has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition."
It was only after his death that Mozart's greatness was at last recognized and that his reputation grew to equal, if not surpass, Haydn's own.  Such are the vagaries of fate.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Weber, Bruch and Brahms

On Monday, I went to hear the Jupiter Players give a matinee performance, appropriately entitled German Masters, at Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street.  The program featured major works by three of the greatest German Romantics - Carl Maria von Weber, Max Bruch and Brahms.

The program opened with Weber's Trio in G minor, Op. 63 (1818-1819) for flute, cello and piano.  Weber's music is not that often performed and listening to the lively piece, which I had never heard before, made me realize what a shame that it is.  This is really wonderful music that makes the Romantic era come alive.  Though it opens in the key of G minor, it soon moves to a major key and is filled with pleasant surprises, as when the opening theme is unexpectedly recalled at the end of the first movement.  The real delight is the lyrical third movement andante, titled by the composer Schäfers Klage ("Shepherd’s Lament"), that provides a musical setting for Goethe's 1802 poem.  Written shortly before Weber began work on Der Freischütz, the trio was premiered at the home of Louis Spohr, and Weber was quite pleased with the result.

The next work was Bruch's Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 5 (1858), a youthful work written when the composer was only age 19 and still heavily under the influence of Mendelssohn.  Later, Bruch would follow Brahms in the tradition of Romantic Classicism, but he never possessed the latter's genius even if his own violin concerto came to rival Brahms's in popularity.  This particular three-movement work, whatever promise it may show, is not entirely successful and at times sounds almost turgid.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (1864-1865).  This was the piece I'd really come to hear.  It's a masterpiece, and I've always considered it among Brahms's finest chamber works.  He was only age 32 when he completed the piece, and it's somewhat surprising he never returned to the genre after having achieved such outstanding success with both this and the Sextet No. 1 written five years earlier.  In the No. 2, Brahms displays an astonishing mastery of counterpoint and, in the third movement, new dexterity in composing variations.  Of course, one reason the Sextet has gained attention is the coded reference in the first movement to Agathe von Siebold.  In 1858, while staying in Göttingen, Brahms had met Agathe, a doctor's daughter and an excellent amateur singer, and become infatuated with her to the point that they became briefly engaged before Brahms abruptly broke it off.  He must still have had strong feelings for her, however, to have remembered her seven years later in this work.

As always, the Jupiter ensemble musicians were excellent at this performance and were joined by a trio of virtuoso guest musicians - Mikhail Kopelman violin, Elizaveta Kopelman piano, and Cynthia Phelps viola.  The entire recital was extremely rewarding and well appreciated by its enthusiastic audience.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann

Juilliard's Sunday chamber music marathons at Morse Hall continued this weekend with four performances through the afternoon and early evening.  At the 3:00 p.m. session I attended, the program included major works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann.

The program opened with Mozart's String Quartet in G major, K. 387 (1782).  This is the first of the six "Haydn" quartets, so called for the composer's dedication of these works to his mentor.  It was very appropriately given, for the string quartet form was a relatively new genre and was still being developed by the older composer even as Mozart wrote these works.  The influence Haydn exerted upon Mozart, in this genre at least, was inestimable.  It must be remembered that at the time these quartets were written Mozart had only recently arrived in Vienna while Haydn had long been established as the capital's most revered master.  It is to Mozart's credit that he was willing to learn from the older man.  Even for a genius such as Mozart, the string quartet form posed challenges he needed to overcome before producing his own masterpieces.  In his dedication, he spoke of the "long and laborious endeavor" required of him.  In the end, he was supremely successful.  The andante cantabile is one of his finest slow movements and has rightfully been compared to an operatic aria for the manner in which the first violin soars and dips as it changes register.  The work was performed by Chener Yuan and Hiu Sing Fan, violins, Hannah Geisinger, viola, and Yifei Li, cello; their coach was Ronald Copes.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 (1808) nicknamed the "Ghost" for the strange scoring of the second movement largo.  Its unusual, almost "spooky" sound is made even more evident by the brightness of the two surrounding movements.  Certainly, this has made the work one of the best known of the composer's piano trios.  It was written at the height of Beethoven's Middle Period when he was constantly challenging himself to create radically new music that would be unlike anything that had preceded it.  The performers at this recital were Anna Han, piano, Matthew Chen, cello, and Ashley Park, violin.  They were coached by Astrid Schween and Hung-Kuan Chen.

The third and final work - there was no intermission - was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842).  I had just heard two weeks ago at another Juilliard recital the composer's Piano Quartet, written the same year and in the same key of E-flat major.  It was interesting to compare the two works.  In general, and to oversimplify, the Quintet has a bigger sound that is at times almost symphonic while the Quartet is a more intimate work.  The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, is designed to impress the listener while the funeral march that follows is the very essence of Romanticism.  And at the end is the vibrant finale that is among the finest chamber movements Schumann composed during his short career.  In addition, this is the first major piece to pair the piano with string quartet, and Schumann deserves credit for having established with it a new musical genre.  It was Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann, who premiered the work at a private gathering and his suggestions led Schumann to make a number of revisions before the public premiere (at which Clara did play), but the honors are all due to Schumann himself.  The musicians who performed it here were Soo Yeon Kim and Kathy Chia Fu Weng, violins, Andrea Fortier, viola, Yu Yu Liu, cello, and Qi Kong, piano.  Their coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Astrid Schween.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Galerie St. Etienne: You Say You Want a Revolution

Without question, the award for the most timely exhibit of the season has to go to Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street.  When the current exhibit, You Say You Want a Revolution, was being organized, there was no way the gallery's curators and staff could have known that political turmoil would soon hit so close to home.  Now, following Donald Trump's surprise victory earlier this month, the stretch of 56th Street immediately behind the gallery has been closed by the police for security reasons - Trump's NYC residence is only a block away - and the artwork condemning social injustice has taken on a new relevance.

The exhibit is subtitled "American Artists and the Communist Party" and there is an excellent unsigned essay in the exhibit guide that traces the complex relationship that existed between left wing artists and the Party leadership in the first half of the twentieth century.  Not all the artists whose work is shown were Party members.  Some, like Stuart Davis and Lynd Ward, were true believers while others, such as Bernarda Bryson Shahn, broke with the Party over its strictures and continued on as "fellow travelers."  The essay also discusses the impact of the New Deal, in the form of the WPA, on American artists in the 1930's when the need for government sponsorship was first recognized.

When one looks at the works on display, however, political considerations become secondary.  However radical the ideology of the graphic artists, at the core of their vision was a profound empathy for the plight of the downtrodden as individuals rather than as examples of an oppressed proletariat.  The subjects of these works transcend in their suffering class labels to become instead fellow humans down on their luck and in need of a helping hand.  The compassion displayed toward these unfortunates is all the more poignant for the dire economic straits which many of the artists themselves were forced to endure during these troubled times.  Their tone is one of outrage against the capitalist greed and racial discrimination that have always been woven into America's fabric.  How can a country as wealthy as this not give assistance to those among us who have nothing?  How can a country which expresses such high ideals in the Bill of Rights persecute its minorities so harshly?  Today, these questions are more pertinent than ever.

All the works shown at the exhibit are of the highest artistic merit.  But even among these, there are some that stand out for their craftsmanship.  The two untitled wood engravings by Lynd Ward, called for convenience sake "Breaking Up the Demonstration" and "The Lynching," were both illustrations for his novel Wild Pilgrimage and show a technical refinement not usually associated with woodcuts.  The gritty oil paintings of Raphael Soyer, such as "Water Street" and "Men at the Mission," possess a stylistic link to the Ashcan School that makes them perfect vehicles for depicting the hardships of the Depression era.  But probably the finest work on view is "The Smell of Defeat" by George Grosz.  As an instructor at the Art Students League, Grosz was able to impart to his students an understanding of art as a form of social protest.  The refusal to turn a blind eye to injustice infused the artist's own work both in Nazi Germany and later, after he had been forced to flee for his life, here in New York City.

The exhibit continues through February 11, 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven and Schumann

Toward the end of each semester at Juilliard, the school stages every Sunday two or three chamber music recitals back to back at Morse Hall.  This past Sunday, I went to one that featured the music of Beethoven and Schumann.

The recital began with Beethoven's Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello in E-flat major, Op. 38.  (The program notes listed this work as Op. 28, but that is incorrect.  The Op. 28 is the composer's Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major.)  The trio is actually an arrangement of perhaps the best known work from Beethoven's early period, the Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1800).  The present reduction was done by Beethoven himself and published in 1805 (the clarinet part can be replaced by a violin depending on which instruments are available).  As cellist Hélène Werner pointed out before beginning the work, it was customary in the nineteenth century for popular works to be arranged for a smaller number of instruments so that they could be performed at home or in a salon setting.  The six-movement Septet is really a form of serenade; it's based loosely on Mozart's Divertimento in E flat major, K. 563 but, at least in my opinion, never rises to the heights of genius of that earlier work.  The Septet nevertheless is an extremely accomplished chamber piece and proved so popular during the composer's lifetime that in later years Beethoven wanted nothing to do with it.  After all, it must have been extremely frustrating for him when producing the transcendent chamber pieces of his late period to have audiences clamoring instead for a performance of this youthful work.  As far as the present reduction is concerned, it is excellent as far as it goes, but the sound is comparatively spare and I would much have preferred to have heard the original version with all seven instruments.  The other two performers at this recital were Noemi Sallai, clarinet, and Mariel Werner, piano; the ensemble was coached by Jon Manasse.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47 (1842).  During his career, Schumann typically immersed himself in composing works for a particular genre before moving on to the next.  1842 was no exception; it was the year in which Schumann wrote many of his most important chamber works.  Aside from the instant quartet, these included the great Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also in E-flat major, as well as the three string quartets that comprise the Op. 41, Schumann's only works in this format, and the Fantasiestücke for piano trio published posthumously in 1887 as Op. 88.  The Quartet was completed immediately after the Quintet and it may have been that Schumann was attempting to further develop the musical ideas he had conceived in the earlier work.  The four movement Quartet is a bit more traditional than the Quintet and the final movement an exercise in counterpoint, but the heart of the work is the andante, placed somewhat unusually as the third movement following the scherzo.  It is so filled with yearning that one is reminded irresistibly of Schubert's great chamber works, particularly the piano trios.  Certainly, in listening to this piece one can better understand the influence that Schubert had on the Romantics who followed him.  The musicians at this performance were Kenneth McDonald, violin; Hannah Geisinger, viola; Noah Koh, cello; Hechengzi Li, piano; they were coached Natasha Brofsky and Matti Raekallio.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart, Schubert and Haydn

At this week's installment of Wednesdays at One at Alice Tully Hall, the Bordone Quartet - consisting of Daniel Cho and Max Tan, violins; Jenni Seo, viola; and Ari Evan, cello - gave an hour-long recital that featured the music of Mozart, Schubert and Haydn.  The ensemble is part of Juilliard's Honors Chamber Music program, described in the program notes as an "intensive yearlong program for select ensembles under the direction of Joseph Lin."  This particular group of musicians was coached by Roger Tapping of the Juilliard Quartet and Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet.

The program opened with Mozart's String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589 (1790), the second of his "Prussian" quartets.  The works in question were given this name on the assumption that they were the result of a commission from King Frederick William II of Prussia.  There is some question, though, whether such a commission actually existed since Mozart took a year off after having completed the first of the series in order to devote himself to the composition of Così fan tutte, the third of the Da Ponte operas.  It's true that the cello is in these quartets given a more prominent role than is customary - Frederick William was an avid amateur cellist - but there is no evidence the king ever actually saw or performed these works.  They were finally published posthumously in 1792.  Although perhaps not as innovative as Mozart's "Haydn" quartets or his "viola" quintets, this is still a work of astonishing beauty, especially in the second movement larghetto, and one of the masterpieces of the chamber repertoire.

The next work was Schubert's String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D. 703 (1820), known as the Quartettsatz.  This one-movement piece, like the much more famous Symphony No. 8, is an unfinished work.  Schubert obviously intended it as the opening movement of a traditional four-movement quartet and in fact began work on the second movement andante before abandoning the project.  As in the case of the No. 8, there is no known reason why the quartet was not completed and conjecture abounds as to the cause.  I think it most likely that Schubert was not yet skilled enough to attempt the heights he later achieved in his final three quartets and, realizing this, put the work aside.  Still, the Quartettsatz represents a huge advance over his previous eleven quartets and points the way to the magnificence of the composer's final years.  The allegro assai is full of fire and passion and thoroughly captivating.  The importance of this work was not immediately recognized, however, and the quartet was not premiered until 1867, almost a half century after its composition.

The final piece was the first movement of Haydn's String Quartet No.  59 in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3 (1793), nicknamed the "Rider" for the galloping (or cantering) rhythm that opens the work.  Dedicated to Haydn's fellow Freemason, Count Apponyi, the Op. 74 quartets may not have been as groundbreaking as those of the Op. 20 or 33, but they are still fine examples of the classical quartet form and very enjoyable to hear.  I only wish there had been time enough for the musicians to have performed the quartet in its entirety.  One can never really appreciate any musical piece when hearing only a fragment.

At another Honors Chamber recital last season, Joseph Lin emphasized that the performance was still a "work in progress."  Nevertheless, the chamber performances given by Juilliard musicians in this program were quite polished and satisfying to hear.  Considering that the first semester is only halfway done, the virtuosity shown by all four musicians, even at this early point, was remarkable.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Met Opera: Fabio Luisi Conducts Guillaume Tell

On Saturday afternoon, I went to the Met Opera to hear the new production of Rossini's final opera, Guillaume Tell after just having attended last month a forty-three year old production of one of the composer's earliest operas, L'italiana in Algeri.

Of course, the question is whether Rossini intended his opera as a valediction.  Did he know when composing it that this would be his last work for the stage?  This is highly unlikely as Tell was only the first of five operas he had contracted to compose for the Paris Opera.  And there are, in fact, indications that he had considered writing an opera based on Goethe's Faust before abruptly retiring at the height of his fame at only age 37.  So what happened then?  Rossini himself never explained his sudden retirement at such a young age.  It may have been simply that, as the world's most popular composer, he felt he had no more worlds to conquer and was wealthy enough that he no longer needed to contend with the tumultuous world of European opera.  More likely though, I think, is that he reached a creative impasse.  He could not return to opera buffa because he must have known better than anyone that he could never again write anything that would surpass the wild success of Il barbiere di Siviglia.  On the other hand, while Tell was definitely a step in a new direction, Rossini might very well not have known where to go next with it and finally have seen it as a dead end.

The libretto, written by Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, was based on Friedrich Schiller's eponymous play.  I've always found it fascinating that with so many great German composers, the works of the greatest German poets, Goethe and Schiller, should have been put to music by composers from other countries.  Witness Gounod's Faust and Massenet's Werther.  It's even more perplexing that Rossini should have chosen to write an opera whose hero is a political rebel.  Certainly, he must have known the problems he would encounter with censors if the work were ever to be staged in his native Italy.  Did he think such a subject would endear him to a Parisian audience?  This is highly unlikely since France, in the years following Napoleon's fall, had along with the rest of Europe in the Biedermeier period become as politically oppressive as Italy.

I had never before heard this opera and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.  This was extremely powerful music that moved far beyond the limits of bel canto and pointed the way to the French grand opera style that would emerge later in the nineteenth century.  In it one can also hear an anticipation of the dramatic sweep of Verdi's early works.  If the action had been compressed into a tighter frame, the opera might have gained a more permanent place in the repertoire than it now enjoys.  As it is, this is the first time it has been heard at the Met since 1931 (and for that matter, the very first time it has been sung there in the original French).

As for the performance itself, I thought conductor Fabio Luisi did very well, much better than when I heard him on the podium earlier this season leading Don Giovanni.  As for the singers - Gerald Finley as Tell, Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, and Bryan Hymel as Arnold - they all were excellent; but the real star of the day was the superb Met chorus.  This was a work that made full use of the chorus and these singers put everything they had into it.

Of the production by Pierre Audi, the less said the better as far as I'm concerned.  This was one of those outings in which the Met, in its misguided search for relevance, has completely disregarded the dictates of good taste.  The pillars of light in the second and third acts reminded me of nothing so much as Star Wars light sabers.  Rossini deserves much better than this, especially after an eighty-five year wait.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Berliner Philharmoniker Performs Boulez and Mahler

Yesterday evening, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear Simon Rattle conduct one of the world's greatest orchestras, the Berliner Philharmoniker, as they performed together a program of twentieth century works by Boulez and Mahler.

The evening began with Boulez's Éclat.  The title is taken from the French verb éclater whose most literal translation is "to burst forth," but which also has a secondary meaning of "to sparkle" or "to glow."  Both those meanings could equally well be applied to the work at hand as it explodes on opening with shimmering beauty and then quietly vanishes.  Boulez, who was in his youth a student of Messiaen, was one of the last century's composers most given to experimentation.  This piece, which is at once atonal and to an extent aleatoric, consists of a dialog between, on the one hand, the orchestra's strings, winds and brass and, on the other, the percussive instruments.  There is no audible pattern to the music, just as in random conversation there is also no discernible pattern.  As one source notes:
"The harmony is therefore never revealed directly, but results from complex interactions, by means of which it is revealed only subliminally."
In spite of this, the work is much more pleasing to hear than most atonal works.  It is as if the composer has allowed the instruments to speak with their own voices without regard to traditional orchestration.

The second and final work on the program was Mahler's Symphony No. 7.  There's a famous anecdote regarding the composition of this symphony.  After having completed the three inner movements in the summer of 1904, Mahler found himself at a loss the following summer when he again set to work on the symphony.  Unable to proceed with the outer movements, he traveled restlessly in search of inspiration but to no avail.  When he returned from his journey, however, and was being rowed across the lake to his summer residence at Maiernigg, he suddenly had a moment of epiphany while listening to the sound of the boat's oars; he at once threw himself into composing the remainder of the work and completed it in an astonishingly short time.  Even if the story is not completely factual - and it certainly seems to simple an explanation considering the complexity of the work - it does give some indication of Mahler's working methods.

In a letter to William Ritter, Mahler succinctly described the structure of the No. 7 as follows: "Three night pieces; the finale, bright day. As a foundation for the whole, the first movement."  It's this journey from night to day that has caused the work to be given the nickname, never approved by Mahler himself, of "Song of the Night."  But the music is atmospheric enough not to need any programmatic references.  After a lengthy first movement, whose slow Langsam opening does indeed call to mind the sound of oars rowing through water, the symphony proceeds to the three inner movements - two marked Nachtmusik surrounding a Scherzo - before proceeding to a more upbeat Rondo finale.  It's the Scherzo, marked Schattenhaft ("like a shadow") that really anchors the work and is the key to its character.  There's something terribly bitter about it, reminding one of those unwanted recollections that come like specters to haunt one on sleepless nights.

The No. 7 has never been one of Mahler's popular symphonies.  Perhaps that's because, in spite of the bright closing, the work is at its center so unremittingly dark and even, especially in the dissonant Scherzo, bizarre.  The work was, however, at this performance given a brilliant performance that fully engaged the audience.  I had heard Simon Rattle last month conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's No. 6 and enjoyed hearing so soon thereafter his interpretation of another of the late symphonies.  If nothing else, it gave me a better idea of Mahler's progression as a composer and helped me better understand what he sought to accomplish in his series of symphonic works.  Both conductor and orchestra were at their best throughout the performance.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Leslie Feeley Gallery: Cornelia Thomsen

I recently went to see Cornelia Thomsen's one-woman show, entitled Strokes, that's currently on view at the Leslie Feeley Gallery on East 68th Street.  On arrival, I found that there are actually two distinct genres of abstract art on display.  The first consists of vertical lines, or stripes, painted with oil on canvas while the second are pen and ink drawings on paper.

I had previously seen samples of earlier stripe paintings by the artist and found the new works much more interesting and accessible.  While the earlier works contained more color, the stripes were too crowded together for my taste, almost like the slats of a fence; and, like a fence, they almost forcibly pushed the viewer back and allowed him no entry to the artist's imaginative world.  The newer works, in contrast, appear at first monochromatic and create a much different psychological effect.  Rather than holding one back, these paintings impress one as multi-lane roadways that lead the viewer ever forward.  But that's not to say they are as straightforward as they first appear, nor for that matter are they completely monochromatic.  When one looks closely, one can see that these are not simple flat lines laid down in a single stroke.  In fact, they are made up of many layers of paint that have been painstakingly applied, pointillist style, in infinitesimal brushstrokes, thus allowing for shadowing as well as a slight blurring (or "feathering," to use a term taken from digital imaging) of the edges.  These, combined with a variety of different colored pigments, together give the paintings more depth, and thereby greater meaning, and render them almost three dimensional.  This can be seen most clearly in the pairing Stripes Nr. 102+103, which I consider the most successful of the paintings shown.

In the catalog's erudite introductory essay by Robert C. Morgan, the writer references the Bauhaus as the source of Ms. Thomsen's approach to art.  I myself would go slightly further back to the De Stijl movement (which itself, of course, exerted tremendous influence on the development of the Bauhaus aesthetic).  Certainly, the paintings shown here conform perfectly to Mondrian's dictum, as set forth in his essay "Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art," that natural form and color should be disregarded in favor of "abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour."  While Ms. Thomsen's style is entirely her own, to me there exists a definite affinity between her work and that of such De Stijl artists as Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Vilmos Huszár

The second category of work shown at the exhibit, that of the pen and ink drawings, differs greatly from the paintings in both content and style.  They share, however, the artist's intense attention to detail.  The tiny cross-hatched lines of which the drawings are composed have been meticulously drawn with an old fashioned nib pen on BFK Rives paper so that the final work has more the appearance of a mezzotint than that of a drawing.  The lines combine to form great swirling patterns that attract the viewer's gaze and hold his attention.  Some, such as Drawing Nr. 37 and Drawing Nr. 44, are so light as to be almost ephemeral, while at the opposite end of the spectrum is Drawing Nr. 10, so dark that it can only be described as brooding; it contains within it a palpable air of foreboding.  In fact, when looking at this last work, I was reminded quite strongly of Leonardo's late series of Deluge drawings, not so much for its technique as its overwhelming sense of doom.    

Viewing abstract art is always problematical.  As much as figurative or landscape art, it demands a reaction from the viewer, but one lacking the visceral response to content necessarily associated with representational art.  With little to guide him or her, the viewer is instead called upon not only to make a determination as to the meaning of the work but also to the artist's purpose in creating it.  In order to know what to make of it, the viewer is thus required to become more deeply involved with an abstraction and to study it more closely than would be the case with a work of representational art.  The danger, of course, is that the viewer will impose his own interpretation on the work at hand rather than allow the artist's intention to make itself manifest.

The exhibit continues through December 15, 2016.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Masahiro Miwa, Scriabin, Ryo Takahashi and Chopin

Earlier this week, I attended the first of this season's Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall.  These one-hour recitals and concerts allow Juilliard students the opportunity to perform before a live audience and are always marked with a very high degree of musicianship.  This particular recital featured five Juilliard pianists giving their renditions of works by the same number of composers - Beethoven, Masahiro Miwa, Scriabin, Ryo Takahashi and Chopin - some of whom were very well known and others whose music I was hearing for the first time.

The program opened with Wei Lin Chang performing Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 (c. 1796-1798).  This piece was from the composer's Early Period and was written at a time when he was seeking to consolidate his reputation in Vienna as a virtuoso pianist as well as a promising composer.  That's not to suggest, however, that this is any sense a "beginner" work.  Some of Beethoven's greatest works, such as the Fifth Symphony, were written in the key of C minor and the sonata's final movement contains a clear anticipation of that symphony's motto-theme.  The second movement adagio molto stands out for its delicacy, and the final movement's quiet ending after a turbulent beginning is indicative of Beethoven's growing stylistic maturity.

The next pianist to take the stage was Joey Chang who provided his interpretation of Masahiro Miwa's Rainbow Machine: Genesis of a Chant.  This was a highly unusual work.  The Tokyo-born composer, who began his career by forming a rock band while still in high school, is known for creating computer programmed music; the present piece, commissioned for the Hamamatsu Piano Competition, was indeed composed "automatically" from a computer algorithm.  Miwa wrote on the score of the work:
"Only the pitch and timing of the music are indicated; how the notes are played, pedaling and articulation are left to the musician's own choice." 
The next work was much more familiar - Scriabin's Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907).  I had heard last month at another Juilliard recital a performance of the composer's Sonata No. 3, and the difference in style between that and the No. 5, written some ten years later, is staggering.  While the No. 3 is a thoroughly Romantic work and still indebted to Chopin's influence, the No. 5 is much more modern and displays a mystical inclination.  This is not surprising when one considers it was written at approximately the same time as the revolutionary Le Poème de l'extase.  Scriabin himself, when he completed the sonata, considered it the best work he had ever written.  The pianist was Thomas Steigerwald who gave one of the best performances of the afternoon on a work so taxing that Sviatoslav Richter termed it "the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertory..."

Next came another work I'd never previously heard - Ryo Takahashi's Wearing Glass Slipper as performed by Akari Mizumoto.  I could find no information regarding either the composer or this piece of music when I attempted to do research online.  Does the title refer to the Cinderella fairy tale?  All I can say is that it was a short work, approximately five minutes in length, and required an unusual amount of dexterity on the part of the pianist.

The program closed with Chopin's Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 (1831-1832).  Though the term scherzo, literally translated, means "joke," there is little humor in this dark piece.  This may have been due to Chopin's emotional involvement in the political situation in his homeland where the failure of  the "November Revolution" had led to the complete absorption of Poland into the Russian empire.  The Scherzo is a highly complex work that was intended to challenge the skill of even virtuoso pianists.  It was here given a bravura performance by Anastasia Magamedova.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Two Great Webcasts Available on WQXR

As of the time of this writing, there are now being shown two excellent webcasts on WQXR's website via  I have no idea how long they will be available for viewing.

The first of these presents, in its entirety, the 2016 Richard Tucker Gala that was recorded live on October 30th at Carnegie Hall.  Featured performers include, among others, Renée Fleming, soprano; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Javier Camarena, tenor; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; and the New York Choral Society.

The second webcast features the Juilliard415, the school's early music ensemble, in a performance from WQXR's Greene Space that was recorded yesterday, November 2nd.  The program includes selections by Venetian Baroque masters, including Castello, Stradella, Albinoni and Vivaldi.  I saw the Juilliard musicians perform these same pieces last week in a recital at Holy Trinity Church and was deeply impressed by the high quality of the performance.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Saint-Saëns, Alkan, Liszt and Schubert

On Monday afternoon, I went to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear the Jupiter Players perform their annual Halloween program.  This year, the performance featured appropriately eerie selections by Saint-Saëns, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Liszt and Schubert.

The program opened with Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874), originally composed for voice and piano and here transcribed for violin and piano.  Using as its text a verse by the Symbolist poet Henri Cazalis, the original piece was an attempt to put to music the medieval superstition of the Dance of Death when on Halloween Death calls the departed from their graves and makes then dance to the tune of his fiddle until at dawn they return to their resting places.  It opens with the note D struck twelve times to mimic the clock striking midnight on the stroke of which Death makes his appearance.  In the spirit of the piece (forgive the pun), Saint-Saëns resorted to a number of devices to create its unearthly effects.  These ranged from the use of a tritone to a direct quote, albeit in a major key, from the Dies Irae.  As a result, the lively music sounds strangely dissonant.

The next piece was Alkan's Marcia funèbre sulla morte d’un Pappagallo ("Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot") (1859) for two oboes, clarinet, bassoon and vocal quartet.  Alkan was a contemporary of Saint-Saëns and Liszt and led a somewhat eccentric lifestyle in Paris during the course of which he moved from being a minor celebrity to a recluse who translated both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  Though largely forgotten today, he was in his own time both a virtuoso pianist and a composer of note.  The Marcia funèbre is a decidedly bizarre piece, and not just for its title.  At this recital, the winds began playing as the musicians marched in single file from offstage.  It was a fun piece, but one so obscure and unusual that I'm not likely ever to encounter it again.

Following this work came Liszt's Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata (1849), better known simply as the Dante Sonata.  It's a one-movement sonata originally published in 1856 as part of the second volume of the composer's Années de pèlerinage.  The work contains two very different themes, the first of which, that representing the souls of the damned, is very appropriate to the Halloween holiday.  As was the case with Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre, the work makes use of the tritone whose dissonant nature earned it the appellation diabolus in musica in the Middle Ages.  The theme is moreover in the key of D minor, the same Mozart put to such effective use in Don Giovanni, which conveys to the listener a sense of spectral foreboding.

The final work in the program was one of the greatest works in the chamber repertoire, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (1824), nicknamed "Death and the Maiden" after the eponymous Schubert lied whose music appears in the quartet's second movement.  This work, of course, transcends mere holiday entertainment.  For one thing, the concept of death, always a theme of deep interest to the Romantics, was much more personal to this composer than to his peers.  He had only four more years to live when he wrote it, and the notion of Death coming to carry him off was very real indeed.  Nowhere else is the repertoire is the farewell to life rendered in so heartbreaking fashion as it is here.  We can clearly hear in it Schubert's despair at having to die at so young an age as the quartet gives voice to the words of his own song.
"Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!"
Death here is not some idle fancy with which to frighten the children but an inevitability from which there is no escape, not for Schubert, not for any of us.  It's this that gives the music the awful power that moves us so deeply.

The Jupiter Players' ensemble members always display a high level of musicianship.  At this recital, they were joined by three superlative guest artists - pianist Drew Petersen, violinist Danbi Um, and violist Cynthia Phelps.  The combination made for one of the best chamber recitals I've heard this season.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Verdi Requiem

I've always considered Verdi the greatest of all Italian opera composers; in my estimation I place ahead of his Otello only Mozart's Da Ponte operas.  And just as the two composers created the greatest operas of all time, so they each also penned Requiems that are masterpieces of the genre.  Although over the years I've heard many broadcasts and recordings of the Verdi Requiem, Sunday afternoon's rendition at David Geffen Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda is the first live performance I can remember having attended.

The Requiem has a convoluted history that demonstrates how difficult it was for an opera composer, even one of such stature as Verdi, to work freely in nineteenth century Italy.  The piece began as part of a joint effort by a dozen composers in 1868 to create a Requiem in honor of the legendary Rossini who had only just passed away.  In the end, nothing came of the project and it was abandoned.  Whether this was entirely the fault of the proposed conductor Angelo Mariani, as Verdi claimed, or whether there were differences among the composers themselves, this is one of those all too common episodes in Italian musical history that reveal the disruptive personality conflicts that existed in that country's musical establishment.

Verdi never abandoned the Libera me that had been his contribution to the aborted Mariani project and five years later, in 1873, he saw his chance to finally put it to use upon the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni whose work he had greatly respected.  This time Verdi, wary of any further collaborations, decided to write the entire Requiem himself.  And not only did he compose it on his own, but he even conducted the premiere in Milan in 1874.  Even then, though, Verdi was not free of problems.  He had vehemently insisted the premiere be given at the Church of San Marco, but the Catholic Church in Italy did not then allow women to sing at church services.  The only way around this prohibition was to perform the work, not as a traditional mass, but only as one stripped of the sacrament of Communion.  And even then Milan's Archbishop insisted that the female singers should not be allowed to appear in plain sight.

The Requiem differs from most other examples of the genre in that it is not so much a liturgical work as a concert piece that makes full use of operatic techniques.  As a result, it is heard more often in concert halls than in ecclesiastical settings.  That in no way, however, reduces the spiritual power of the work.  It is utterly profound and moving when heard in any venue and most especially so when performed by an ensemble of such high caliber as the London Symphony Orchestra.

Gianandrea Noseda has been having a banner year.  He was not only named one of the two principal guest conductors of the LSO, but was also appointed music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.  He did an excellent job leading Les pêcheurs de perles last season at the Met and I'm eager to hear him conduct Diana Damrau there this season in Romeo et Juliette.  His performance Sunday afternoon was exemplary.

The singers were uniformly excellent.  They included Erika Grimaldi, soprano; Daniela Barcellona, mezzo-soprano; Vitalij Kowaljow, bass; and Giorgio Berrugi, tenor, who replaced Francesco Meli on short notice.  And one could not ask for a finer chorus than the London Symphony's own, directed by Simon Halsey.