Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Juilliard415 Performs Locke, Lawes, Purcell, Handel and Mozart

The Juilliard415, the school's early music ensemble, yesterday afternoon gave one of its four annual noontime performances at Holy Trinity Church.  On this occasion the program was for the most part devoted to the music of British composers of the seventeenth century as represented by Locke, Lawes and Purcell; but the performance also featured works by Handel - who of course had strong ties to England - as well as Mozart who once visited there.

The program opened with two suites of consort music by relatively little known English composers.  First was the Suite in G minor by Matthew Locke from his Little Consort of Three Parts (1651).  This was followed by the Suite in D minor by William Lawes from his Three-Part Consorts.  The performers on both pieces were Augusta McKay Lodge and Jeffrey Girton, violins, and Julia Nilsen-Savage, viola da gamba.  The concept of consort music was uniquely British and dates back to the Elizabethan era   Originally at least, a consort arrangement differed from a modern chamber music ensemble in that all the instruments were of the same family, e.g., viols.  Emphasis was placed on having the instruments play together in unison as opposed to the Italian tradition in which certain instruments were singled out as soloists.  

Next came three pieces by Henry Purcell - the Sonata No. 4 in F major (performed by Toma Iliev, violin; David Dickey, oboe, Adam Cockerham, theorbo; Evan Kory, organ; and Peter Ferretti, violone) and the Sonata No. 7 in E minor (performed by Ambra Casonato, violin; Caroline Ross, oboe; Kamila Marcinkowska-Prasad, bassoon; and Leonard Schmid, organ), both from Sonnata's of III Parts (1683).  These were followed by the Sonata No. 4 in D minor (performed by Karen Dekker and Ūla Kinderyté, violins; Oliver Weston, cello; Robert Warner, harpsichord; and Paul Morton, theorbo) from Ten Sonatas in Four Parts (1697).  Although Purcell began his career as a composer of consort music as evidenced in the series of fantasias he completed in 1680, he was greatly influenced (as were Bach and Handel) by the works of Arcangelo Corelli and other Italian composers and attempted to introduce that country's stylistic innovations into his own music.  His series of sonatas for two violins, bass viol, and harpsichord were published in 1683 and in a foreword to that edition the composer wrote that he had "faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters."  Purcell, who never traveled outside England, only experienced his sources second hand, however, and was never entirely successful in freeing himself of the traditions of English music so that his work became in the end a hybrid of styles.

The performance of the final Purcell piece, the Sonata No. 4, was especially moving as it was dedicated to the memory of one musician's young friend who had only just tragically passed away.

After the English compositions came the Sonata No. 5 in G minor by George Frideric Handel from his VI Sonate, Second Ouvrage (c. 1732) as performed by Isabelle Seula Lee, violin; Fiona Last, oboe; Neil Chen, bassoon; and Gabriel Benton, harpsichord.  The Op. 2 sonatas were first published in 1830 (without the composer's permission by Estienne Roger a/k/a John Walsh) but were actually written much earlier.  Handel, unlike Purcell, had lived for a time in Italy before relocating to England and was consequently quite familiar with the trio sonata form.  The Program Notes written by Neil Chen point out that the material used in the work's four movements were not original but rather adapted from earlier compositions, but this disparity of sources is not at all apparent in a work that actually displays remarkable coherence.

The program ended on an upbeat note with a work by Mozart, his Quartet for flute (Joseph Monticello), violin (Nayeon Kim), viola (Toma Iliev) and cello (Alexander Nicholls) in G major, K. 285a (1778).  I'm not quite sure what connection Mozart's music had to the rest of this program, but it was nonetheless an excellent piece with which to end the recital.  The backstory is this: While visiting Mannheim and as usual short of funds, Mozart accepted a commission from an amateur Dutch flutist named Ferdinand de Jean to write four quartets and three concertos.  Mozart likely took the commission more for the money than any real interest in the music and then tried to get away with recycling his Oboe Concerto in place of one of the promised flute concertos.  As a result,  he was paid only half his commission, a disappointment that led him to make some disparaging remarks on the nature of the instrument.  In spite of all the drama that went into its composition, the quartet is still a thoroughly enjoyable work to hear.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Schubert, Wagner/Liszt and Beethoven

In a program whose theme was "Otherworldly Realms," the Jupiter Players on Monday performed a matinee at Good Shepherd Church that featured the music of Schubert, Wagner and Beethoven.

The program opened with an octet that was actually a transcription of Schubert's final Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, written during the last months of his life in 1828 but only published posthumously.  The present arrangement - for clarinet, horn, bassoon, string quartet, and double bass - given the title Kammersymphonie, was completed by Heribert Breuer.  The sonata itself is one of the greatest works written for solo piano and in my opinion sounds best in its original form.  Breuer's transcription was well done but did not really work.  The beauty of the music could simply not be as well appreciated when played by eight instruments as when performed on piano alone.

After intermission the program continued with Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Ballade aus dem Fliegenden Holländer, S. 441 (1872).  The opera itself had marked a turning point in Wagner's career.  Der fliegende Holländer was relatively concise and well structured compared to Rienzi, the work which had preceded it, and contained within it many of the themes and motifs the composer was to develop more fully in his later operas.  Based on a satire by Heinrich Heine, the love story of Senta and the Dutchman is a much more intimate setting than those found in the later myth-inspired works and Senta's ballad a more personal expression of love.  Liszt's transcription for piano captures the emotion and pathos of the piece perfectly.  It was played here remarkably well by 17-year old Janice Carissa who already possesses a strong resume and displayed a great deal more talent and self-possession than one would have expected of a performer her age.

The final work on the program was Beethoven's Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1 (1809).  The work was given its nickname the“Ghost” because Beethoven's student Carl Czerny, who was obviously an imaginative soul, believed he saw in the second movement largo a musical representation of Hamlet's father's ghost. Certainly the fact that Beethoven was at the time working on a musical setting for Macbeth and had even gone so far as to copy the movement's opening theme into his sketches for the Witches’ music must have aided Czerny in so astutely discerning the work's Shakespearean source.   Along with the Op. 97, the "Archduke," this is the most famous of the composer's piano trios, and justly so, as much for the bright cheerful music in the outer movements as for the haunted quality of the largo.  Both these elements combine to make this is one of the more explicit expressions of the Romantic ethos that underlay Beethoven's middle period. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

MOMA: Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey

I went last week to MOMA to see the current show, Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-1954, an extensive exhibit that takes up several galleries and contains both paintings and graphic works from all periods of the artist's abbreviated career.  As the museum's website states:
"Exceedingly rare and little-known engravings, lithographs, screenprints, and drawings are also included, highlighting an underappreciated side of one of the most important and influential American artists of the 20th century. By bringing together works made using a range of materials and techniques—both traditional and unorthodox—the exhibition underscores the relentless experimentation and emphasis on process that was at the heart of Pollock’s creativity."
I first became interested in Pollock after having read the exhaustive biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven W. Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  As in their later biography of Van Gogh, the authors focused on the manner by which an individual so dysfunctional that he was barely able to cope with everyday life could manage in the end to transcend his personal afflictions (acute alcoholism in Pollock's case) and become one of the most influential and highly regarded artists of his time.  When I had finished the book I went to the Met Museum to view those Pollock works that were on display.  My reaction was mixed.  Though I was deeply impressed by the large drip paintings, I had difficulty appreciating the few earlier works shown and was unable relate them to the the artist's final masterpieces.

In contrast, I found the carefully curated exhibit at MOMA to be extremely helpful in demonstrating the continuity in Pollock's work and the influences of other artists upon it.  For example, the oil on canvas Flame completed in the 1930's not only reveals the artist's move away from figurative representation (he had been a student of Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League) to abstraction even at that early date but also shows the impact the Mexican mural painter José Clemente Orozco had upon him. In a like manner, the painting Circle (1938-1941) reveals that Pollock had not only absorbed the lessons of Orozco's murals but had also been exposed to the mythical underpinnings of Carl Jung's psychoanalytic theory.  There are also on view selections from the group of eleven engravings Pollock created between 1941 and 1945 while working with Stanley William Hayter, the British printmaker who had relocated to New York during World War II.  These convincingly demonstrate Pollock's talent as a graphic artist.

Of course, the major attraction at the exhibit are the drip paintings that Pollock completed in the late 1940's and early 1950's.  On display are many of his masterpieces, most of which I had never before seen, such as White Light (1954), Shimmering Substances (1946), and my personal favorite Full Fathom Five (1947).  Then there are the oversized canvases - Number 1A, 1948 and One: Number 31, 1950 - on which Pollock had worked while they were spread out on the floor beneath him and to which he assigned numbers rather than titles.  These works, which represent the culmination of Pollock's career as an artist, must be seen to be fully appreciated as representations can only provide vague intimations of their sweep and complexity. 

The exhibit, a "must see" for anyone with the slightest interest in twentieth century American art, continues through May 1, 2016.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Calliope Quartet Performs Glass, Beethoven and Schubert

On Thursday afternoon I went to Paul Hall to hear a performance by the Calliope Quartet - consisting of Tianyang Gao and Julia Glenn, violins; Molly Goldman, viola; and Hélène Werner, cello - that was part of this term's Honors Chamber Music program.  This was actually the third occasion on which I had heard the ensemble perform this season.

The program opened with the Quartet No. 3 by Philip Glass, part of the soundtrack he composed for the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.  In Schrader's film, which I have to admit I haven't seen despite my admiration for Mishima's talent as a writer, several different types of instrumentation were used.  This was appropriate as the author himself employed different literary styles within his own work.  For example, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is sparely written while Mishima's final work, The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, is lush and decadent.  In the film, the string quartet accompanied flashbacks to the writer's early life.  The use of this form, together with black & white photography, was reportedly intended to add a sense of austerity to these scenes.  But the six-movement piece is more than a series of soundtrack accompaniments - each movement contributes to the integrity of the final work and when played together form a chamber piece that stands on its own merits.  Its distinctive sound is vintage Glass and instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with his work.  As performed here it provided an interesting contrast to the classical and romantic quartets that followed.

The next work was Beethoven's Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95 (1810), subtitled the "Serioso" by the composer himself.  What strikes the listener immediately is how different this quartet is in its intensity and willingness to experiment from those that had preceded it.  In such innovations as the abrupt transitions in the first movement and the exploration of distant harmonies (F minor to B minor) in the third movement, the piece anticipates the bold departures of the late quartets.  Beethoven himself was aware of the radical nature of this work and wrote of it:  "The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public."  And indeed the listener often feels he or she is sharing the composer's private thoughts on the nature of music itself as he prepared to leave his heroic middle period behind him and move on to the more abstract compositions that were to follow.  The work is compact, the shortest of Beethoven's string quartets, and moves forward with a concentrated passion appropriate to its name.  In a burst of emotion Beethoven appears in the final movement to free himself once and for all from the influences of Haydn and Mozart only to take just enough time in the light and cheerful coda for one final glance backward as if giving a nod and a wink to the old masters.

After intermission the program ended with Schubert's Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D. 804, Op. 29 (1824), nicknamed the "Rosamunde" after the play by Helmina von Chézy for which Schubert had written the incidental music which he here adapted in the second movement.  The work, along with the Quartet No. 14 written immediately thereafter, represents the composer's greatest achievement in the genre. But characters of the two works are a study in contrasts.  While No. 14 is stark and foreboding and ends in a frenzied tarantella, the No. 13 is far more reflective and, especially in the final movement, is filled with a sense of gentle melancholy.

This was the third time I've heard the Calliope Quartet perform this particular work by Schubert, and I found it very interesting to try to judge the ensemble's progress in mastering its intricacies.  I was, in fact, very impressed by the musicians' virtuosity in performing all three works on the program.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Performs Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven

On Monday evening I went to David Geffen Hall to hear the last concert in my Great Performers subscription series.  This performance was given by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by its music director, violinist Joshua Bell.  Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment as scheduled guest violinist Pamela Frank had suffered a "minor injury" and was unable to appear.  As a result, the work I had been most interested in hearing, J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo in D minor, BWV 1043, was scrapped from the program and the Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, the "Classical Symphony," by Sergei Prokofiev inserted in its place.

Prokofiev, even at the very beginning of his career, possessed a mordant wit and keen sense of humor.  In such works as the Second Piano Concerto and the Scythian Suite, he thoroughly enjoyed provoking the critics and defying their expectations. Nowhere is this trait more apparent than in this first symphony written in 1917 while the composer was on holiday.  Here Prokofiev addressed the problem of using his innovative and sometimes iconoclastic style within a traditional form.  While the work retains the structure of a classical symphony and employs the orchestration typical of that genre, it is in fact a purely modernist work that sometimes seems more a tongue-in-cheek send up of Haydn than a tribute to the revered composer.  This is ultimately, of course, very much in the spirit of Haydn himself who delighted in many of his works in surprising the audience with sudden unexpected twists of his own. 

The next work on the program was Tchaikovsky's ever popular Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878).  Music history is full of ironies.  Eduard Hanslick, champion of Brahms and discoverer of Dvořák, was usually quite astute in his reviews and deservedly one of the most influential critics of the late nineteenth century.  Today, however, he is remembered primarily for his dyspeptic appraisal of Tchaikovsky's concerto:
"The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his latest, long, and pretentious Violin Concerto. For a while it moves soberly, musically, and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and asserts itself to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed. The Adagio is again on its best behavior, to pacify and to win us over. But it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transfers us to a brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage, vulgar faces, we hear the curses, we smell the booze. Friedrich Visser once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear."
His was not the only negative voice.  Violinist Leopold Auer, the original dedicatee, declined the honor and reportedly termed the piece "unplayable."  Even violinist Iosif Kotek who was at the composer's side as he wrote it, refused to play the work and claimed that to do so would hurt his career.  The concerto was eventually premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic with Adolph Brodsky as soloist and gradually won wide popularity it still enjoys today.  This is not to say the early criticism was entirely without merit.  Inspired to write it after having heard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole, Tchaikovsky was far more interested in penning a work that would be pleasant to hear than in constructing a carefully balanced masterpiece.  In the end, he succeeded brilliantly in creating a lyrical work that never fails at its conclusion to bring its listeners to their feet in rapturous applause.

After intermission the orchestra returned to perform the final work on the revised program, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 (1812).  This is one of the more puzzling works in the composer's oeuvre.  It was written well into his late period and yet is classical in form and looks back to the time when he was still a student of Haydn.  While 1812 was not the happiest time in Beethoven's life (witness his letter to the Immortal Beloved), the symphony itself is fairly carefree; it contains no slow movements nor any hints of deep introspection.  It was not enthusiastically received at its premiere, but that is most likely because it was performed after the Seventh Symphony which also premiered at that same concert.  One would have to agree with the audience on that occasion that this is really not the work with which to close a concert.  Indeed, when the Berliner Philharmoniker performed the complete Beethoven cycle in November at Carnegie Hall, the orchestra opened one concert with the Eighth and then closed it with the Sixth, a much more effective placement.  To have given over the entire second half of Wednesday evening's concert to performing this short work, especially after having ended the first half with Tchaikovsky's crowd pleasing concerto, was decidedly anticlimactic. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Pinchas Zukerman Performs with Orpheus

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a performance given by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  Although Orpheus is an exceptional ensemble and well worth hearing for its own sake, I have to admit my main motivation in attending this particular performance was to hear the legendary violinist Pinchas Zukerman play Mozart and Beethoven.

The program opened with the Symphony in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6 (c. 1760) by Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of J.S. Bach.  Johann was something of an anomaly in his family.  One imagines all the Bachs as sober German Protestants perennially dressed in black.  But Johann traveled first to sunny Italy, where he actually converted to Catholicism (though most likely for practical reasons), and then on to England where he composed operas, organized public concerts and became tutor to George III's German born queen.  It was while in London that he befriended Mozart and performed with him.  No matter how anglicized he became, however, Johann did not forget his German roots.  The present symphony is an example of sturm und drang, the pre-Romantic movement that swept through German arts in the second half of the eighteenth century.  Notably, all the movements are in a minor key.

Next came Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216 (1775).  While Mozart is most often thought of as a virtuoso pianist, he was also a more than competent violinist and this is reflected in the five concertos he wrote for that instrument.  The No. 3, in particular, shows a great advance in the young Mozart's abilities as a composer.  One reason for this was his fascination with Italian opera, an interest that was to continue for the rest of his life.  Mozart had only just completed Il rè pastore, K. 208, that same year and used one of its arias in the concerto's first movement allegro.  But it could be argued that even beyond this the concerto takes its playful mood and sense of drama directly from the Italian operatic tradition.

the ensemble and soloist returned to perform Beethoven's Romance for Violin and Orchestra in G Major, Op. 40 (1802).  Like Mozart, Beethoven was another performer whose pianistic talent obscured his ability as a violinist.  The first position he held before relocating to Vienna was actually as a violist in the Bonn court orchestra.  In light of this it's surprising that, considering the extent of his oeuvre, Beethoven wrote so little for the violin other than the sonatas.  Aside from the Op. 61 Concerto, the two Romances are the only works he composed for violin and orchestra.  Although some critics have seen in them foreshadowings of the concerto, they really belong more properly to Beethoven's early period and as such still show the strong influence of Haydn and Mozart.  While Beethoven must have learned much from writing them, the concerto stands on its own and owes little to these earlier exercises.

Pinchas Zukerman has performed regularly here in New York over the decades and I've been lucky enough to have heard him often.  When I first saw him he was known primarily as a virtuoso violist.  But his mastery of the violin is equally impressive.  I've heard the Mozart concerto many times but never so well performed as it was here.  It was a tribute to the ability of the Orpheus musicians and the soloist that even without a conductor the entire ensemble was able to flawlessly performs so complex a work.

After intermission came the New York premiere of Vision Machine (2016) by Harold Meltzer.  According to the Program Notes, the Brooklyn born composer has several times found inspiration for his compositions in examples of modern architecture.  This particular work is his response to a New York City residential high rise, 100 Eleventh Avenue in Chelsea, and the title is taken from architect Jean Nouvel's description of the edifice.

The evening concluded with Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917) by Maurice Ravel.  The work can perhaps best be viewed as this composer's attempt to make sense of the horror of a World War that was still raging about him even as he wrote.  The use of formalized Baroque dances, though rendered with modernist neoclassical technique, may have been a device deliberately employed to impose some type of structure on what was essentially a chaotic event that could not be completely comprehended by those who witnessed it or participated in the destruction it wrought.  It is difficult for us one hundred years later to imagine the feelings of cultured Europeans who saw the Western civilization they no doubt had regarded as immutable suddenly give way to barbarism.  The effect would have been traumatic for those who survived.  Ravel was luckier than most and was discharged from the French army in the first year of the war (he was already almost age 40 and suffered from a heart condition) at which time he began work on the solo piano piece from which this orchestration is taken.  Others were not as lucky as he, and each movement is dedicated to the memory of a fallen comrade.  The resulting work has a charm that makes it seem a holdover from an earlier and happier time.  It is as if one had discovered among war torn ruins an antique and exquisitely crafted music box.  The reference to the Baroque composer Couperin is indicative of the surge in wartime nationalism that enveloped Ravel and his compatriots as they turned away from the music of Wagner and other German composers; this same spirit also informed Debussy's final works.  For some reason, the orchestration contains two less movements, the Fugue and Toccata, than were contained in the original piano version.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Carnegie Hall: American Symphony Orchestra Performs Busch and Reger

On Thursday evening the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, performed its third concert of the season at Carnegie Hall.  This performance, whose theme was entitled Giant in the Shadows, featured the work of Max Reger alongside that of his protégé Adolf Busch.

The program opened with Busch's Three Études for Orchestra, Op. 55 (1941).  Busch, grandfather of the evening's soloist Peter Serkin, was one of those rare heroic figures who put matters of conscience above all else.  Though little remembered today, he was in the 1920's one of the most successful and highly regarded violinists in the Germany.  As Hitler rose inexorably to power, however, Busch decided he could no longer in good conscience remain in the country of his birth and in 1927 emigrated to Switzerland.  He angrily refused the Nazis' invitations to return to Germany and finally relocated to the U.S. where shortly before his death in 1952 he co-founded the Marlboro Music Festival with his son-in-law Rudolf Serkin.  The Three Études was one of the first works he composed after arriving in America.

It was appropriate that the soloist on the next piece, Reger's Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 114 (1910), was Peter Serkin whose father Rudolf had championed the work and was the first in this country to record it in 1959.  It's difficult today to understand how important a position Reger held in German music at the turn of the twentieth century.  A contemporary of Mahler and Strauss, he was seen by many as a genius of equal talent.  He was a fervent admirer of the music of Brahms (as was Schoenberg at a later date) and his work can be viewed as a bridge between that composer's classical/romantic style and the dissonant modernism first introduced by Wagner.  Though he worked with traditional genres, as in the present concerto, Reger was uncompromisingly modern in his style of composition; this earned him the scorn of critics and contributed to the neglect his music suffered after his death in 1916 at age 42.  It's not surprising then that the Piano Concerto, premiered by Frieda Kwast-Hodapp with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, was savaged by the critics.  While Reger was accustomed to dealing with such ignorance, he was nevertheless deeply hurt by it.  The Program Notes quote him as saying: "My Piano Concerto is going to be misunderstood for years … The musical language is too austere … The public will need some time to get used to it."

Reger was right.  The concerto is extremely difficult to appreciate on first hearing.  It's a terrifically complex work that makes no concessions to the listener.  Peter Serkin was superb in his interpretation this work known for its technical difficulty. One felt throughout that he was performing the music exactly as the composer had intended it to be heard.  He and the orchestra, under Botstein's expert direction, played together seamlessly.

I wasn't able to stay for the second half (the first half alone was 90 minutes long), but the orchestra was scheduled to perform Reger's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.A. Hiller in E major, Op. 100 (1904-1907). At the time the work was written Reger had taken a position as music director at Leipzig University and had begun to receive his first international recognition.  No doubt it was his residence in Leipzig that sparked his interest in Hiller who in 1781 had been appointed the first Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus.  Like the later and much better known Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132, the present work allowed Reger to explore the traditions of German music, not only those of Hiller, an important figure in the development of singspiel, but those of J.S. Bach as well.  The work consists of a theme marked andante grazioso followed by eleven variations and then a long fugue introduced by the first violins.  The contrapuntal writing effectively allowed Reger to put the techniques of Bach in the service of modernism and in so doing prepared the way for the Second Viennese School.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Mahler #3

I went on Sunday afternoon to David Geffen Hall to hear Gustavo Dudamel lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler's Third Symphony.  I'd previously heard a radio broadcast during which Dudamel conducted this same work with the Berliner Philharmoniker, but this was the first opportunity I'd had to actually see him on the podium.  I was interested to know if in person he would live up to all the acclamation with which he's inundated during the past several years.

At approximately one hour and forty minutes, the Third is the longest symphony Mahler ever wrote, and for that matter one of the longest in the entire repertoire.  For that reason alone it's one of the composer's most infrequently performed works.  It is a demanding experience for both listeners and musicians that requires total immersion in an imaginative world whose meaning, despite the programmatic titles that were later dropped, is never made explicit.

The powerful and loud opening of the first movement, marked Kräftig. Entschieden, reminded me of the opening of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, written at roughly the same time as the Third; but the music soon sank to a more introspective level.  It was as if in this long movement Mahler was creating a setting from which the five movements of the second half would evolve.

The two movements in the second half that most catch the listener's attention are the fourth and fifth. These are both choral pieces but of entirely different forms.  The fourth is the setting of Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra, a work published only a few years earlier that had exerted an incredible influence on European thought, particularly in Germany.  Sung by alto alone, it is soft and meditative as it explores the depths of both suffering and joy.  Its introspective musings contrast sharply with the deceptively playful children's chorus of the fifth movement, "Es sungen drei Engel" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  This leads directly into the lengthy adagio the concludes the symphony.  Here the work finds its resolution in the most stately form imaginable.  The world Mahler has created here becomes complete.

The world "colossal" could equally well be applied to both the symphony itself and its performance on Sunday afternoon.  Whatever reservations I might have had concerning Dudamel's ability were totally dissipated here.  His was a tour de force fully equal to the complexity of Mahler's score.  It was every bit as good, if not better, than Leonard Bernstein's 1987 recording with the New York Philharmonic.  And Dudamel had able assistance from the other participants.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic demonstrated convincingly that it was a world class ensemble, and the two choruses - the Concert Chorale of New York led by Thomas Bagwell and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus led by Dianna Berkun Menaker - were exceptional as was mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford.  This was a truly historic performance that will long be remembered by everyone who was lucky enough to  have attended.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Japanese Art at the Ukrainian Society

This is Asia week in New York City, and in honor of the occasion the Japanese Art Dealers Association (JADA) held an exhibit at the Ukrainian Society on Fifth Avenue at 79th Street.  Represented were Sebastian Izzard LLC Asian Art, Leighton R. Longhi, Inc. Oriental Fine Art, Mika Gallery, Erik Thomsen Asian Art and Koichi Yanagi Oriental Fine Arts.  I went on Saturday to see the exhibit and was deeply impressed by the quality of artwork shown.  Many of these pieces were priceless treasures of Japanese culture by some of that country's most famous artists.

This was a relatively small show considering the number of exhibitors involved and took up only three galleries.  Still, there were a number of exquisite works on display that made the visit worthwhile for anyone with a serious interest in Japanese art.  There were important examples of sculpture, ceramics, textiles, metalwork and lacquer on view; for me, however, the principal works of interest were the paintings and folding screens.

Of the paintings, the most exciting was a Muromachi period album containing twelve sheets of painting and eleven sheets of text done in ink, color and gold on paper.  Each small painting illustrated a different scene from the Genji monogatari placed beside the appropriate text written in old Japanese.  Even the paper on which the text was written was a work of art with an exquisite blue wave pattern at the top of each sheet.

Another notable painting was a hanging scroll by an unknown artist from the Edo period.  The painting, done in ink and entitled Amida Sanson Raigo, at first glance seemed to be no more than a faded line drawing.  Only when one looked closely was it possible to discern that the lines were in fact actually made up of thousands of extraordinarily tiny ideograms taken from a Buddhist sutra.  I still don't understand how the artist was able to paint such tiny characters.  It was a truly amazing accomplishment.

Other hanging scrolls of note were Owl on a Branch by Soga Nichokuan, Daruma, Priest Donrin, and Priest Eka by Kanō Tan'yū, and Mount Fuji by Yokoi Kinkoku (all from the Edo period); Hell Courtesan and Two Crows on a Branch Overlooking Asakusa by Kawanabe Kyōsai, Carp Ascending a Waterfall and Carp Swimming among Water Plants by Shibata Zeshin (all from the Meiji period).  The scrolls I personally found most intriguing, however, were three by the great Meiji period ukiyo-e artist Taiso Yoshitoshi - The Fox Cry, Faith in the Third-Day Moon - Yukimori and Kumasaka in the Misty Moonlight.

Of the folding screens, the most impressive was the Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, a pair of six-panel folding screens, each of them almost ten feet long, by an anonymous Edo period artist that traced the legendary route that connected the cities of Edo and Kyoto.  The amount of detail shown on these screens was staggering.

There were also three screens on display from the more recent Taisho period.  These were Pine Trees and Bamboo by Mori Tetsuzan and Nakai Rankō, Pine Trees by the Ocean by Kawashima Baikyū, and Cloudy Mountains, Lofty Eminence by Nishii Keigaku.

Unfortunately, the exhibit ends today, March 14, 2016; but one can still visit the galleries mentioned above to see the Japanese masterpieces they have available.

Friday, March 11, 2016

ACJW Ensemble Performs Villa-Lobos, Golijov and Shostakovich

The ACJW Ensemble performed on Tuesday evening the third of this season's four recitals at Juilliard's Paul Hall.  The program featured the works of three modern composers - Heitor Villa-Lobos, Osvaldo Golijov and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The program opened with Villa-Lobos's Trio for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon (1921).  As early as 1912 the composer began experimenting with a form of Brazilian folk music known as chôros in which street musicians would improvise on whatever European and African instruments were at hand.  In the context of Villa-Lobos's oeuvre, this evolved into a synthesis of European and Afro-Latin rhythms that became the basis of his music's distinctive sound.  Whatever its sources, the result was a purely Brazilian artifact that the composer here refined in the present wind trio and would later develop more fully in his Bachianas Brasileiras.  Somehow, though, this work lacked the vibrancy that one normally associates with Villa-Lobos's music.  While carefully constructed and well performed at this recital, it failed to move this listener.

The next work was Golijov's The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1994) for clarinet and string quartet.  Perhaps due to the classical arrangement of instruments, this quintet is one of the composer's more accessible works.  Lasting a little more than half an hour, the piece takes as its subject Jewish mysticism as embodied in the figure of Isaac, a Kabbalist scholar who lived in Provence in the thirteenth century.  Each of the three movements is intended to represent a different language of the Jewish people.  As Golijov has commented:
"I hear the prelude and the first movement, the most ancient, in Arameic; the second movement is in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile; the third movement and postlude are in sacred Hebrew."
At the heart of the piece is the same klezmer music to which Shostakovich also referred in the finale of his trio, the next piece on the program.  But here it has a different meaning.  The second movement is based on The Old Klezmer Band, a traditional tune played at Jewish ceremonies that emphasizes the endurance of that people in the face of the adversity they have continually faced through history.  This is a lively work that I enjoyed quite a bit more than the few other Golijov pieces I've encountered, probably because it is so much less cerebral and instead operates on an intuitive level as it attempts to capture something of the fulfillment Isaac must have found as he pursued his arcane studies.  The piece was performed in almost total darkness with the only illumination the lamps on the performers' music stands.  No reason was given for this but it may have been intended to simulate the blindness Isaac experience throughout his life.

 After a short intermission, the program concluded with Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944).  This was the piece I'd been most interested in hearing.  The work was conceived as a eulogy both for the composer's close friend  Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died of a heart attack at only age 42 during the Soviet evacuation of Novosibirsk, as well as the victims of the Holocaust whose horrific fate was only then coming to light following the liberation of the death camps by the Allied forces.  The music itself is fittingly bleak and holds out no hope to the listener.  From the cello's strangely dissonant harmonics that open the work to the bitter parody of klezmer music that concludes it, the pervading sense is one of utter despair.  Even though at the time of its composition the German forces were in retreat while the Russians were steadily advancing toward victory, there is nowhere to be found any of the jubilation one would expect to hear.  It is as if the horrifying experience of World War II had continued too long to allow even the possibility of hope.  In the end, this harrowing trio, one of Shostakovich's most powerful and heartfelt chamber works, is a eulogy for everything that existed before the war and that is now lost beyond reclamation.  The final movement thus becomes a ritualized dance of death.  This sense was captured particularly well by the excellent playing of pianist Shir Semmel.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Met Opera: Manon Lescaut

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met to hear Puccini's third opera, and his first great popular success, Manon Lescaut.  I'd never before heard any of the composer's first three operas but had become interested after having read this past summer a sympathetic biography written by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, a former contributor to Opera News.

The libretto is officially credited to Giuseppe Giacosa and poet Luigi Illica but many more were involved before it was finished.  At one point or another, even the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo and the publisher Giulio Ricordi took part.  So confused was the authorship, in fact, that the first edition of the score did not list any librettist at all  Puccini's inability to get along with his librettists and his constant demand for revisions were legendary and continued throughout his career.  He steadfastly refused to ever work again with Fernando Fontana, the librettist for his first two operas, even though it was he who had given Puccini the original idea for Tosca.  In the end, it was Giacosa and Illica who remained in an uneasy partnership with Puccini and collaborated with him on his next three operas, arguably his most famous.  This may have had as much to do with the pair's ability to accommodate Puccini's indecisive nature as with their undeniable talent.

I had known that Puccini had been as deeply influenced by Wagner's music as that of Verdi but had never heard the German's presence so clearly in his later operas as in this.  It was especially apparent in the intermezzo before the beginning of Act III.  Still, even in this early work, Puccini's distinctive style was already in place.  Manon's death at the end of the final act foreshadows, both dramatically and musically, that of Mimi at the conclusion of his next opera La bohème.

Puccini's music was well served at Saturday's performance by an excellent cast and conductor.  Kristine Opolais as Manon and Roberto Alagna as Des Grieux both gave strong performances.  As usual, Fabio Luisi, whose understated conducting never seems to get the respect it deserves, was fully in control on the podium.

This was a new production by Richard Eyre who is becoming something of a fixture at the Met.  His work falls between a traditional opulence reminiscent of Franco Zeffirelli's productions and the more notably contemporary, and sometimes outrageous, outings in which the Met has indulged in recent years in the name of relevance.  The sets were marvelous and I was particularly impressed by Eyre's rendering of the ship in Act III.  The only problematical elements were the towering staircases in Acts I and II.  Along with the rest of the audience, I kept waiting for a cast member to trip and tumble headlong down to the stage.

Considering that Manon Lescaut cannot be considered a truly major opera and that there were no big names on hand, this was still an thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon in New York City.  One can only imagine the excitement that must have electrified the house when the opera premiered at the Met in 1907.  Puccini himself was present in the audience on that occasion while Enrico Caruso stood onstage to sing the role of Des Grieux.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Haydn*, Kahn, Schubert and Beethoven

On Monday afternoon I walked down to Good Shepherd Church where I heard the Jupiter Players perform a program of German music that featured the works of Haydn (not really), Robert Kahn, Schubert and Beethoven.

The program opened with Haydn's Flute Quartet in D major, Op. 5, No. 1, Hob. II:D9 (n.d.).  The Hoboken numbering system used here is a tipoff to the listener that this is not an authentic work - the Roman numeral II places it among the divertimenti, and the letter D, the key in which the work is written, is an indication that the work was falsely attributed to Haydn.  Other than in orchestrations of larger works, the composer actually wrote very little music for the flute which only attained its modern form in the mid-nineteenth century through the efforts of Theobald Böhm.  To meet demand, publishers of Haydn's chamber works were not above fixing his name to pieces with which he had had no connection.  The present work was pleasant enough and skillfully composed but unfortunately exhibited none of Haydn's genius.

The next work was Kahn's Quintet in C minor (1911) for violin, clarinet, horn, cello and piano.  Early in life Kahn was befriended by Brahms but was too shy to accept the great composer's offer to make him his pupil.  Instead, he worked as a freelance composer, chamber musician and accompanist in Leipzig and Berlin and was then admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1916.  When he was almost 70 years old, Kahn was forced to flee Germany in the face of the Nazi takeover and died in obscurity in England seventeen years later.  The quintet performed here was distinguished by the unusual combination of instruments for which it was scored.  Together they gave the work a truly unique sound that was almost symphonic.  It was sometimes difficult for the listener to believe there were only five instruments onstage.

The first half of the program ended with Schubert's Notturno in E-flat major, Op. 148, D. 897 (1827).  This stand alone adagio from the composer's late period is one of his most beautiful creations and is sometimes thought to have been a discarded slow movement from the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major.  If so, it's difficult to understand why Schubert would have jettisoned it. The slow sustained melody with which it opens also looks ahead to the great Quintet in C major that Schubert would compose the following year.

After intermission the musicians performed Beethoven's String Quintet in C major, Op. 29 (1801), nicknamed "The Storm."  This was one of the last works of the composer's Early Period, written at approximately the same time as the Op. 18 quartets and the First Symphony and only a year before the famous Heilgenstadt Testimony led him into his Middle Period.  The quintet is so rich a work that one wonders why it is not performed more often.  Certainly the enchanting adagio is one of the loveliest the composer ever wrote.  Beethoven's only attempt at the quintet form (not counting two rearrangements), it anticipates, most especially in the first movement, the Razumovsky quartets that would come five years later.  As for the source of its sobriquet, that was derived from the tumultuous presto finale.

I had not been to a Jupiter Players recital in several months and was gratified to learn that they had lost none of their élan.  The guest artists Timur Mustakimov, piano, and Elizabeth Fayette, violin, were both exceptionally talented.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Vienna Philharmonic Performs Wagner

The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Valery Gergiev, arrived in New York City this past weekend for a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall.  This is one of the world's greatest orchestras and its annual visits are always among the most highly anticipated events of the season.

On Friday evening, WQXR broadcast the first of these concerts.  The program included Wagner's Overture to Der fliegende Holländer, Debussy's La Mer, and finally Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.   I had heard earlier this month a broadcast performance of the composer's original piano version of this last work and found it far preferable to Ravel's interpretation.  It is ironic that Mussorgsky, who so promoted the Russian national spirit in his music, should have had his most famous work transformed by Ravel into an elegant crowd pleaser that is at times more French than Russian in its sensibilities.

After having heard the broadcast concert, I went on Saturday evening to Carnegie Hall to hear the orchestra perform live a program that once again featured the music of Wagner and Mussorgsky alongside a new work by the contemporary Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth.  Before entering the hall, I had to pass a line of protesters who found Gergiev's close friendship with Putin objectionable.

The program opened with the Prelude to Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina (1872-1880).  Along with his fellow members of the "Five" Mussorgsky was, as mentioned above, a nationalist and a great proponent of returning to original native sources in Russian art.  The plot of Khovanshchina was one that would have held great personal meaning for him as it told the story of the late seventeenth century struggle of the old guard against the Westernization attempted by the young tsars Ivan and Peter and their regent sister Sofia.  The strife that forms the plot of the opera is, however, not in evidence in the Prelude which Mussorgsky described in a letter as: "Dawn over Moscow, matins with cock-crow, the patrol, the taking down of the chains."  This was a lyrical poetic piece of a type one does not usually associate with Mussorgsky.

This short introduction was followed by the New York premiere of Neuwirth's Masaot / Clocks Without Hands, a 2013 work that had been co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall.  Ms. Neuwirth provided the following description in the Program Notes:
"Masaot / Clocks Without Hands can be seen as a poetic reflection on how memories fade. The piece combines recurrent fragments of melodies from different places and experiences from my grandfather's life. It is a 'shaped stream of memories.'"
Though the work had originally been commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death, there was little in it reminiscent of that composer's genius though at times the finale did seem a parody of the Ninth Symphony's rondo-burleske.  In general, I did not find this work particularly successful; and, judging from their reaction, neither did the rest of the audience who sat patiently through the 25 minute work and then politely applauded the composer as she took her bow onstage.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform the highlight of the evening - selections from Wagner's Götterdämmerung (1876), the final opera of the Ring cycle. The pieces chosen were "Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey," "Siegfried's Death and Funeral March," and "Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene."  Though orchestral excerpts from the Ring are always popular since they provide a series of highlights to those unable or unwilling to sit through the full four-opera work, they can never render the intense emotional impact that comes from hearing these long operas on four consecutive evenings until the fall of Valhalla that ends the saga finally provides the audience its catharsis.  Reducing these works to a "greatest hits" format violates everything the composer was striving for in designing Bayreuth as the total theater in which to showcase them.  That being said, this was nevertheless a powerful moving experience.  Rarely have I heard Wagner's music so well performed as it was by the Vienna Philharmonic Saturday evening.  Gergiev's conducting was a tour de force.  The soprano who sang Brünnhilde’s part - Wagner specialist Heidi Melton whom I had never before heard - did an excellent job in conveying the character's searing emotion as she prepared to follow Siegfried in death.