Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Juilliard415 Performs Blow, Boyce, Vivaldi and Onslow

Yesterday afternoon, at Holy Trinity Church, the Juilliard415 gave their final noontime recital of the season with a program that focused on the music of the English Baroque.  The featured composers were John Blow, William Boyce, Antonio Vivaldi and George Onslow.

The program opened with a Suite in G minor from Blow's Venus and Adonis (1683).  I had never heard of the larger work - nor of the composer himself, for that matter - but it turns out to have been a milestone in the history of English music.  As described in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
"His [Blow's] Venus and Adonis, written between 1680 and 1685 for performance at court and called by him A Masque for the Entertainment of the King, was important in the development of English opera. It is the first surviving dramatic work with English text in which the whole text is set to music without either spoken dialogue or extraneous musical entertainment."
What's remarkable is not only that this was the only such piece Blow composed - he was chorister at the Chapel Royal and the great bulk of his output was comprised of sacred and secular ceremonial music - but even more that his librettist, Anne Finch, was an early feminist.  (Apparently, Blow had a preference for strong willed women.  According to Wikipedia, he later collaborated with the British spy Aphra Behn, she whom Virginia Woolf so admired, on a play entitled The Lucky Chance.)  The Suite in G minor consists of a series of dances - "Entry: A Dance by a Huntsman," "The Graces' Dance" and "Gavatt" - prefaced by an overture and followed by a "ground."  It was certainly lively to hear.  The performers were Nayeon Kim and Isabelle Seula Lee, violins; Nethanel Pollack, viola; Julia Nilsen-Savage, cello; and Gabriel Benton, harpsichord.

The next work was Boyce's Sonata in A minor from Sonatas for Two Violins and a Bass (1747) as performed by Caroline Ross and Fiona Last, oboes; Kamila Marcinkowska-Prasad, bassoon; Adam Cockerham, theorbo; and Evan Kory, harpsichord.  Boyce's trio sonatas were the only chamber works published during his lifetime (by the firm of John Walsh whose founder had gained renown earlier in the century as the publisher Handel's music) and were quite successful.  A website dedicated to Eighteenth Century English Music states:
"According to the musical historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) Boyce’s Trio Sonatas 'were longer and more generally purchased, performed and admired, than any productions of the kind in this kingdom, except those of Corelli' and were 'in constant use, as chamber music in private concerts' and were 'in our theatres…..public gardens, as favourite pieces, during many years'."
Like Beethoven, Boyce suffered from increasing deafness as he grew older.  Due to this misfortune, he was forced to relinquish his position as organist at Chapel Royal and afterwards retired to the country where he edited an anthology of church music that had been begun by his teacher Maurice Greene.

The Boyce piece was followed by Vivaldi's Chamber Concerto in G minor for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Bassoon and Continuo, RV 107 (n.d.) from an autograph manuscript I-Tn, Giordano 31, Bl. 314-323.  I'm not really sure how Vivaldi ended up on a program of English music, but his work is so superb that he's always welcome on any pretext.  This piece stood out in its liveliness and dexterity from those that had preceded it and made them seem almost drab in comparison.  This concerto is unusual in the Baroque chamber repertoire in that it gives equal emphasis to all the principal instruments rather than just focusing on one as soloist.  This gives the final presto movement a somewhat frenzied quality as the instruments pass short solo fragments back and forth at dizzying speed.  The work was expertly performed by Joseph Monticello, flute; David Dickey, oboe; Ambra Casonato, violin; Neil Chen, bassoon; and Robert Warner, harpsichord.

The program closed with the first movement of Onslow's Sting Quintet No. 15 in C minor, Op. 38, titled De la balle ("The Bullet") (1829).  Onslow was another composer a bit out of place on this program since the dates of his career place him firmly in the Romantic period rather than the Baroque.  He was, in fact, an admirer of the music of Berlioz.  Also, having been born in France and having lived there his entire life, Onslow was English only by descent.  In any event, the present quintet has a fascinating backstory.  After having completed the first movement, that played here, Onslow was struck by a bullet while hunting with friends and was left partially deaf as a result.  The later movements thus take on a programmatic function (one senses the influence of Berlioz here) as they describe successively Onslow's pain, fever and recovery.  The musicians who performed this piece were Jeffrey Girton and Augusta McKay Lodge, violins; Toma Iliev, viola; Alexander Nicholls, cello; and Peter Ferretti, double bass.  One only wishes they had played the quintet in its entirety.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Franck and an Improvisation

I went on Sunday to the first of the day's series of chamber music recitals at Morse Hall.  This one featured the music of César Franck in the first half and an improvisation coached by Noam Sivan in the second.

The program opened with Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor (1879), a work with a fairly scandalous history that one does not usually associate with chamber music.  It seems that Franck, after having enjoyed for many years a proper bourgeois career as a church organist, suddenly in his mid-50's experienced a mid-life crisis and became infatuated with his pupil Augusta Holmès (who in her photographs hardly looks the part of a femme fatale).   Throwing discretion to the winds, Franck thereupon composed his quintet, one of the most explicitly passionate pieces in the repertoire.  In so doing, he not only managed to upset his wife but also his pianist, fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Whether Saint-Saëns had feelings of his own for Ms. Holmès or whether he was simply put off by the unceasing modulations of the music, he made a scene when at the end of the performance he stalked offstage without accepting the manuscript Franck had dedicated to him.  Leaving all this aside, the surging rhythms and shifting chromatic harmonies make this a truly gripping work that invariably stirs the emotions of the audience.  (They also led Liszt to remark that the piece exceeds "the legitimate bounds of chamber music.")  Personally, though, what I've always enjoyed most about the quintet is the piano's hauntingly romantic melody in the first part of the first movement.

The highly capable musicians at this performance were Amos Fayette and Ani Bukujian, violins; Jiawei Yan, viola; Hut Wongwechwiwat, cello; and Wenting Shi, piano.  Their coaches were Jerome Lowenthal and Samuel Rhodes.

The second and final work was an improvisation that I assume was on an original theme since no credit was given in the program to any composer.  One never really knows what to say about an improvisation for the simple reason that one never knows what the music is supposed to sound like in the first place.  The best I can manage is that it was an enjoyable experience and that all the musicians appeared quite capable on their respective instruments.  It goes without saying that an improvisation is a test of any musician's skill to perform in an ensemble with no score to furnish guidance.  The present piece was performed by Liam Boisset, oboe; Joe Cannella, bassoon; Anthony Bracewell, viola; and Zurab Kobakhidze, piano.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Juilliard Sonatenabend: Respighi, Poulenc and Grieg

The temperature was in the 70's on Thursday afternoon, but there was no air conditioning at Juilliard when I arrived for the Sonatenabend recital at Paul Hall.  The theater was fairly well filled and the air in the room soon became stuffy and unpleasant.

The program opened with Ottorino Respighi's Violin Sonata in B minor, P. 110 (1916-1917) as performed by Samuel Katz, violin, and Katalan Terrell, piano.  This was actually the first performance I can recall having heard of a Respighi chamber work.  Although the sonata was written at roughly the same time as the composer's much more famous tone poem  Fontane di Roma, it bears no relationship to the other work.  It is classical in its three-movement form but, especially in the second movement marked andante espressivo, romantic in character.  The third movement, marked allegro moderato ma energico, is actually a Baroque passacaglia.

The Respighi was followed by the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, FP 184 (1962) by Francis Poulenc.  The musicians were clarinetist Narek Arutyunian and pianist Valeriya Polunina.  Coincidentally, I had seen a performance of the sonata earlier this year in a Chamber Music Society webcast that featured David Shifrin and Gloria Chien.  This was one of Poulenc's last works.  He had been scheduled to play at the premiere with clarinetist Benny Goodman, who had commissioned the work, but unfortunately died shortly before the performance; his place at the piano was then taken by Leonard Bernstein.  Since the composer's passing was unanticipated - he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 62 - there is nothing of a valediction in this work.  Ironically, it had been intended as a memorial for another composer, Arthur Honegger.

The next work was Edvard Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, Op. 13 (1867).   It was performed by violinist Daniel Cho and pianist Sora Jung.  While Grieg's first violin sonata was firmly in the Romantic tradition and in particular showed the influence of Robert Schumann, the composer was a Norwegian nationalist and in his second sonata turned to his country's folk tradition as a source of musical inspiration.  The fact that Grieg was on his honeymoon when he wrote the sonata may have had a great deal to do with its generally genial character.

By this point the program had already lasted over an hour and the temperature had become decidedly uncomfortable.  The musicians on stage had it the worst.  They had to pause after virtually each movement to wipe away the sweat.  Along with a good part of the rest of the audience, I left before the performance of the next work.

For the record, the remaining pieces on the program were Tansman's Sonatine for Bassoon and Piano to be performed by bassoonist Felix Ren and pianist Ho Jae Lee, and Saint-Saens's Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75 to be performed by Hahnsol Kim, violin, and Jinhee Park, piano.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Met Museum: The Power of Prints

For those with an interest in the graphic arts there is currently on view a fascinating exhibit at the Met Museum entitled The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor.  The show celebrates the centenary of the museum's Department of Prints of which Ivins was the founding curator and Mayor his assistant.

This is a relatively small exhibit that takes up only three galleries on the second floor, and the quality of the works shown is uneven as the show sometimes tries too hard to be eclectic in its presentation rather than focusing on the finest examples of the printmaking process.  As the curator's website statement explains:
"It [the exhibition] will display the most beautiful, rare, and exceptional prints alongside the equally important popular and ephemeral works that were collected in the first fifty years of the department's history."
The first gallery (if one enters from the right) contains nineteenth century works that are more representative of popular culture than fine art.  These include everything from playing cards manufactured by Kinney Brothers Tobacco to an 1897 calendar cover by Edward Penfield to an advertisement for Hassan cigarettes ("The Oriental Smoke").  While colorful enough, these are of limited interest.  The best works here are the examples of fin de siècle Parisian poster art by Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret and Georges de Feure.

One quickly moves on to more important works.  For example, there are an impressive number of illustrated books on display from the fifteenth century that include Underweysung der Messung (Nuremberg, 1538) with woodcuts by Dürer and Bernhard von Breydenbach's Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Mainz, 1440-1497?).

The real highlights of the show are in the third and final gallery.  Here one finds some of the greatest graphic works ever created.  These include a number of engravings by Dürer, some of them well known such as the 1504 Adam and Eve and some less familiar such as the 1501 Saint Eustace that depicts in the background what looks like the same castle that appears in the artist's famous woodcut Knight, Death and the Devil (not on display).  Nearby are equally impressive engravings by Lucas van Leyden and Andrea Mantegna.

The prints I spent the most time examining were those by Rembrandt and Goya.  The Rembrandts included three large drypoint etchings of the same subject, Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses, to which the artist returned over a period of several years.  It was intriguing to see how Rembrandt's visualization of the scene and its subsequent execution evolved over time.  By far, the best was the final depiction completed in 1660.  From a purely technical point of view, though, the most interesting print was the 1658 Reclining Female Nude in which the subject is so heavily inked that it almost entirely recedes into the shadows surrounding it.

The Goya etchings were not only masterpieces of execution but were equally significant for their subject matter.  Goya anticipated twentieth century photojournalism by more than a century in his 1810 Los Desastres de la Guerra series that unflinchingly portrayed the war crimes committed by Napoleonic forces against the Spanish guerillas who opposed them.  Even today when we have become desensitized by the flood of media images with which we are daily bombarded, such works as Y no hai remedio are still deeply unsettling as is the horrific El agarrotado completed several decades before (1778-1780).  Another work, A Giant Seated in a Landscape (sometimes referred to as The Colossus) prefigures the style of the artist's late "Black Paintings."

In addition to the classics, there were many modern works of interest on display in this same gallery.  I was particularly impressed by Joseph Pennell's 1903 Rainy Night, Charing Cross Shops in which the artist somehow managed to create in the etched lines a sense of figures actually blurred by the evening's falling rain.  I found it in this regard superior to the nearby 1883 work by Camille Pissarro, Impressions of Rain, Rouen.  Whistler was represented by several etchings, most notably Nocturne: Palaces, and Edward Hopper by Evening Wind and Night Shadows, both from 1921, the latter of which appeared to have influenced Martin Lewis's later 1928 Relics, Speakeasy Corner.  There were also works on view by John Sloan (Turning Out the Light, 1905) and Reginald Marsh (Tombs Prison, 1929).

The exhibit continues through May 22, 2016.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Jeremy Denk in Recital

On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall Jeremy Denk gave one of his infrequent recitals in the New York City area.  Though I knew the pianist from Chamber Music Society broadcasts I'd heard on WQXR, this was the first chance I'd had to hear him play works for solo piano.

The program Denk had put together for the occasion was fascinating in its diversity.  The first half began on a serious note with Bach's English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808 but then took a more whimsical turn with a selection of ragtime pieces. These included (improbably) Byrd's "The Passinge Mesures: the Nynthe Pavian" from Lady Nevell's Book; Bolcom's Graceful Ghost Rag; the Sunflower Slow Drag by Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin ; Youmans's "Tea for Two" from No, No, Nanette (as arranged by Art Tatum); Hindemith's "Ragtime" from Suite 1922; Stravinsky's Piano-Rag-Music; Ives's "Ragtime Dances" Nos. 3 and 4 from Four Ragtime Dances; Nancarrow's Canon No. 1 from Two Canons for Ursula; and Lambert's "Pilgrim's Chorus" adapted (albeit somewhat loosely) from Wagner's Tannhäuser.

Aside from the opportunity to hear works by two composers - Conlon Nancarrow and Donald Lambert - with whom I was totally unfamiliar except by reputation, I was most intrigued by the works written by Hindemith and Bolcom.  I'm a great admirer of Hindemith's Kammermusik pieces but had never before heard any of his works for piano. The Suite 1922 was apparently written about the same time as Kammermusik, and what I found most interesting about "Ragtime" was his direction to the soloist, as quoted in Carnegie Hall's Program Notes, to "Look on the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and treat accordingly."  This reminded me very much of Bartók's similar consideration of the piano as a percussive instrument, a viewpoint that I've always thought helped give that composer's piano works their unique sound.  As for William Bolcom, who I find it difficult to believe could ever have been a serialist, I knew him primarily from his Cabaret Songs and have always had a particular attachment to "The Ballad of Black Max."  Finally, Stravinsky's Piano-Rag-Music was intriguing simply because I find it fascinating that any composer should have attempted to write jazz by sight reading the sheet music without ever having heard it played.  Perhaps this is why this work's dedicatee Arthur Rubinstein was so "bitterly disappointed" by it.

In contrast the the range of music presented in the first half of the program, the second consisted of only one work, but what a work - Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (1828), which I consider the greatest solo work ever written for piano.  It's also the piece by whose performance I customarily judge a pianist's ability.  I had heard in November a stunning rendition by András Schiff, about which I had posted here, and I was anxious to compare that interpretation with Denk's own.  Although I don't think Schubert intended his final sonatas to be a valediction, his illness may have contributed to the sense of unease that underlies their calm exterior. 

At the conclusion of the printed program, the pianist played one of Bach's Goldberg Variations, the 13th, as an encore.

Jeremy Denk, who was awarded Juilliard's prestigious Petschek prize, possesses a formidable technique.  He is also an extremely articulate individual.  One feels when listening to him, either speaking or playing, that he has consciously taken on the role of a guide who wishes to introduce the listener to elements in the music that heretofore may have gone unnoticed.  One is impressed as much by the force of his intellect as by his virtuosity at the keyboard.

After the recital ended, I attended a brief reception for the pianist in the Rohatyn Room.  Mr. Denk good naturedly answered questions for several minutes, but it was obvious that he was exhausted from his performance.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Met Opera: Sondra Radvanovsky Sings in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux

On Saturday afternoon the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang the part of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux to a sold out audience at the Met Opera.  This was the third "Tudor Queen" role she had sung this season, thus replicating Beverly Sills's accomplishment at the City Opera in the 1970's.  I had already heard Radvanovsky sing the title role in Anna Bolena in January and had been suitably impressed.  As for the opera itself, the handsome David McVicar production that premiered earlier this season marked the the work's first staging at the Met.

Donizetti's tragic opera, with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, was written at a time of intense personal tragedy in the composer's own life.  In the year preceding its 1837 premiere at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Donizetti had lost almost his entire family - both parents, his wife and two children.  As he himself wrote:"Without father, without mother, without wife, without children ... for whom do I work then?"  In light of these losses it's remarkable that he still had the self-possession to compose any work, let alone such a masterpiece.  And it certainly was a triumph of composition, a tightly constructed work that contained some of his most beautiful bel canto arias.

As in Donizetti's other Tudor operas, he had here a story readymade for staging.  While the opera may not be historically accurate, it does play its setting to the hilt and ends with a "mad scene" every bit as compelling as that of Lucia di Lammermoor written two years earlier.  What I thought most interesting, though, was the manner in which Elisabeth's jealous rage is cannily paralleled by that of the Duke of Nottingham.  By mirroring Elizabeth's state of mind in another character, the opera gives her role a great deal more depth than it would otherwise possess.

The production was certainly a triumph for Radvanovsky who has firmly established herself as one of the finest bel canto singers to arrive on the scene in decades.  I first saw her in Bellini's Norma several seasons ago and was deeply impressed even then by her vocal range.  And she was aided on Saturday afternoon by a splendid supporting cast.  Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča was simply superb as Sara while tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role of the doomed Devereux thrilled the audience with his solo aria in Act III.  And baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, who starred earlier this season with Polenzani in Les pêcheurs des perles, was highly effective as the Duke of Nottingham who after all has the best line in the entire opera when at the end he tells the Queen, "Blood I wanted, and blood I got!"

I was especially impressed by David McVicar's production.  It may not have been quite so opulent as the stagings Zeffirelli created for the Met in the 1980's, but it was still extremely elegant.  Even better, by making use of only one set it allowed the action to proceed without interruption and thereby helped heighten the drama.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

James Levine Steps Down as Music Director of the Met Opera

In a press release that was quickly followed by a New York Times article, the Met Opera has announced that James Levine, its music director for the past forty years, is stepping down for reasons of health.  No new director has yet been named though Yannick Nézet-Séguin, currently music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is often mentioned.  For me, the loss of Mr. Levine is personal.  Ever since I first began attending the opera almost thirty years ago, I have been lucky enough to have lived within walking distance of any number of performances conducted by Mr. Levine.  It would be fair to say that it is he who has shaped my entire understanding of what opera is and how valuable a resource it provides.  Just last week, I attended a stellar performance of Simon Boccanegra starring Plácido Domingo that was expertly led by Mr. Levine.  Although he will continue as "music director emeritus," whatever that may mean, his vision at the helm of the company will be sorely missed.

The news was accompanied by a rather obnoxious column by Anthony Tommasini. the Times music critic whose judgment has in the past so often been suspect that one sometimes wonders if he has actually heard the performances he critiques.  After tossing Mr. Levine a bone ("'Music director emeritus' is an honor — the capstone of a career, and hardly its finale."), Mr. Tommasini went on to disparage the beloved conductor with such pithy remarks as  "For many years now, Mr. Levine has not adequately fulfilled these responsibilities [as music director]" and "The time has come for a real music director to step in and bring new energy and vision."  Please.  In the entire history of the Met no one has done so much for that institution as Mr. Levine.  Almost single handedly he has overcome the apathy with which an increasingly less educated (at least as concerns the liberal arts) public views the entire genre.  It is well understood that opera has been on the decline for almost a century, at least partly as a result of the cataclysmic cultural changes that followed the end of World War I.  If it were not for the tireless efforts of Mr. Levine, Met audiences would undoubtedly be much smaller than they are now and whatever future opera may still have would be severely jeopardized.  Before taking issue with Mr. Levine for failing to stage a new opera every season, the critic should first determine where exactly these worthy works are to be found.  Even new operas of quality, such as those of John Adams and Philip Glass, have had difficulty attracting audiences, the majority of whom would rather see La bohème yet again, assuming of course that they are willing to take the time to see anything at all.  To bring a second rate work to the stage simply because it is "new" would be disastrous.  In short, I would much rather trust Mr. Levine's judgment as to what works deserve to be shown.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Michael Tilson Thomas Conducts Schubert and Mahler

Yesterday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear Michael Tilson Thomas lead the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of works by Schubert and and Mahler.  I'd been looking forward to this concert for some time.  I consider Tilson Thomas, who has been the orchestra's music director for more than two decades, to be one of the foremost American conductors now active and I've found his interpretations of Mahler, in particular, to be extremely insightful.

The program opened with Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (1822), commonly referred to as the "Unfinished" Symphony.  Although Schubert did die tragically young at only age 31, the Eighth was not, contrary to what one might suppose, left incomplete due to the composer's early demise but rather because Schubert chose to abandon it after having composed only the first two movements. He then passed it on to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner.  The young Hüttenbrenner, instead of completing the work for a premiere at  the Graz Music Society as Schubert had intended, locked the manuscript away and kept its existence secret for more than forty years.  Since the two existing movements prove the work to be by any standard a major symphony, there have been any number of theories put forth over the years to explain why Schubert failed to follow through with its composition (including the unlikely scenario that Hüttenbrenner absentmindedly lost the two final movements on his way home); but I don't think it's necessary to entertain any conspiracy theories to account for it.  To an incredible degree, music simply poured from Schubert's pen as he produced, seemingly without effort, one masterpiece after another.  He may have felt that what he had already written was too radically inventive to be appreciated by the Viennese audiences of his day and so decided to put the piece aside and move on to the next.  After all, even when it was first premiered in 1865 the symphony was considerably ahead of its time in its form.  Or Schubert, meditating on his own mortality, may have felt the work was too personal a statement to be shared.  Certainly the symphony is so pervaded with a sense of overwhelming tragedy that the listener cannot but help find in it a prefiguration of the composer's untimely end. 

After intermission, the program concluded with the work I'd been most interested in hearing, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") (1908-1909).  For the performance of this work, the orchestra was joined onstage by Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, and Simon O'Neill, tenor.  This choral work is in effect Mahler's Ninth Symphony and would have been so designated had not the superstitious composer feared that any work so labeled would prove to be his swan song just as it had been for both Beethoven and Schubert.  (And ironically, so it was - Mahler died before having completed the orchestration of his Tenth Symphony and thus ended with only nine to his credit.)   The most noteworthy feature of this intensely personal work is the fear of death that permeates it from beginning to end.  Mahler was so conscious of already having suffered the three hammer blows of fate (i.e., his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera, the death of his young daughter, and the diagnosis of his terminal heart condition) that he left off the final stroke when conducting his Sixth Symphony.  In light of this, the shift in texts from German folklore to adaptations of Chinese verse is particularly significant.  While it's true that Japonisme and Orientalism were prevalent in fin de siècle Europe, there is much more involved here.  Chinese philosophy - at least insofar as Mahler understood it - represented a different outlook on life and death.  While Western thought since the advent of Romanticism had exalted the individual and saw only tragedy in his fall, Chinese philosophy viewed man as only a part of a larger social entity.  Hence the emphasis placed in Confucianism on filial respect and the proper rules of conduct toward those above and below oneself in society.  In this sense, Das Lied von der Erde can be seen as an attempt of the part of the composer to come to terms with death by adopting a new outlook in which his own mortality was not so much a personal issue as part of the ongoing life cycle in which birth and death are but two sides of the same coin.  The fact that Mahler never conducted this work during his own lifetime - the posthumous 1911 premiere was led by Bruno Walter - is an indication of the privacy with which he sought to shroud his fears.

The performance of both works was extremely accomplished.  All involved worked seamlessly together to give an exemplary reading of these two great symphonies.  It was obvious that Tilson Thomas had given a great deal of thought to the composers' intentions and had carefully sought to realize them in performance.  This was especially evident in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde; it was finely phrased and truly rewarding to those with a love of Mahler's music.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Strauss and Beethoven

This week's Wednesdays at One performance was given over to symphonic works as the Juilliard Lab Orchestra, under the batons of two student conductors, gave a one-hour concert that featured the music of Strauss and Beethoven.

The program opened with Strauss's Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888).  The work was conducted by Gregor A. Mayrhofer.  This is one of Strauss's earliest tone poems, written when he was only 25 years old, and its immediate success helped establish the young composer's growing reputation.  Based on a fragment of a play by Nikolaus Lenau, who died in an insane asylum in 1850, the work is more restrained and less bombastic than Strauss's later tone poems, such as Ein Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra.  It is also, as the Wikipedia article points out, a work of such technical difficulty that it is often used at orchestral auditions.  It is to the credit of the Juilliard ensemble that they would attempt such a challenging piece and then carry it off so well.

The concert ended with a rousing performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-1812), the work Wagner famously referred to as "the apotheosis of the dance."  The conducting duties were split on this piece - Jesse Brault conducted movements 1 through 3 and Gregor A. Mayrhofer returned to the podium to conduct movement 4.  The predominant sensation the listener experiences in this symphony is one of relentless momentum.  There are no slow movements in this work.  The changes of key in the first movement (from A major to C major to F major) are abrupt and create an impression of speed.  Perhaps this irresistible energy is what made the symphony so popular with Viennese audiences.  It was well received at its 1813 premiere, much better than the Eighth which also received its first hearing at this same performance, even if the show was stolen by the composer's thumping Op. 91, Wellington's Victory and by the mechanical novelties created by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, inventor of the metronome.  There were thankfully no such devices at this performance, but the audience was enthusiastic enough as it was.  All the orchestra members, as well as the two conductors, outdid themselves here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Ravel and Schubert

I went on Sunday afternoon to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear one of the several chamber music recitals given that day.  The program at the performance I chose featured works by Ravel and Schubert.  Though these are both among my favorite composers, I was unfamiliar with either of the works performed at this recital.

The program opened with Ravel's Piano Trio (1914) as performed by Sissi Yuqing Zhang, violin, Yin Xiong, cello, and Han Chen, piano.  As the date of composition indicates, this work was composed on the eve of World War I and was hurriedly completed as Ravel prepared to enlist in the French army.  While one might expect the calamitous events transpiring throughout Europe to be reflected in the piece, there is actually no trace of turmoil in the trio.  It is instead a sophisticated chamber work appropriate to performance in the Parisian salons that would soon cease to function.  Although Ravel is known for his masterful ability at orchestration, some of his finest works are chamber pieces where he limited himself to only a few instruments.  The trio is in the traditional four-movement format - ModéréPantoum (Assez vif), Passacaille (Très large), Final (Animé) - but found its inspiration in a number of unusual sources.  The first movement, for example, is based on the Basque dance known as zortziko while the second movement takes its title from a type of Malaysian poetry.  Nevertheless, the final work is quintessentially French in its overall style.

The second and final work was Schubert's String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887 (1826).  The musicians were Sissi Yuqing Zhang and Cathy Chia-Fu Weng, violins, Jossalyn Jensen, viola, and Yin Xiong, cello.  The composition of this work followed that of Schubert's two most famous quartets, the No, 13, "Rosamunde," and the No. 14, "Death and the Maiden," but the piece has never managed to achieve the popularity accorded those two earlier works.  That may be at least partially because it is not based as were the two previous on any of Schubert's well known melodies.  Instead, there is a definite tension in the first movement as Schubert shifts from major to minor keys.  This creates a nervous energy that puts the listener on edge.  The final movement, marked allegro assai, renews this sense of emotional upheaval and does not provide the listener any sense of peace at its conclusion.  In the end, this is an extremely powerful work in which Schubert can be heard seeking to expand the limits of the quartet format just as Beethoven was doing at roughly the same time in his own late quartets.  Schubert had begun his cycle in 1820 with the composition of his Quartettsatz that came to be known as the Quartet No. 12 and would reach its apogee in the great C major Quintet in 1828, the last year of the composer's life.  The No. 15 was another giant step along the way.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Met Opera: Plácido Domingo Sings in Simon Boccanegra

The Met Opera's music director James Levine returned to the podium on Saturday afternoon to conduct a matinee performance of Simon Boccanegra, the opera by Giuseppe Verdi based loosely on the life of the former pirate who became the first doge of Genoa in 1339.

Even for Italian opera, this work has an unusually convoluted history.  The original version, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, premiered in Venice at La Fenice in 1857.  It was based on the play by Antonio García Gutiérrez, another of whose dramas had furnished the plot of Verdi's 1853 Il trovatore.  Verdi had not been entirely satisfied with Piave's work, however, and while in Paris arranged to have the libretto reworked by the exiled Italian diplomat Giuseppe Montanelli.  Piave was kept in ignorance of the situation until Verdi finally presented him with a copy of the revised libretto more of less as a fait accompli.   But in spite of Montanelli's alterations the opera opened to mixed reviews and Verdi himself described it as a "fiasco."  The biggest problem was the byzantine plot whose intrigues and machinations the audience (as well as critics) had difficulty following.  The work stumbled along for several years until it finally fell out of the repertory.

There matters rested until 1880 when Verdi's publisher Ricordi tried to resuscitate the opera and at the same time reconcile Verdi with the composer Arrigo Boito who had years earlier grossly insulted Verdi with his Ode saffica col bicchiere alla mano (in which Boito praised the composer Franco Faccio for "purifying the altar of Italian opera now besmirched like the walls of a brothel").  At the time he had written his ode, Boito had thought he and such composers as Faccio represented the future of Italian music while such old-guard stalwarts as Verdi were nothing more than impediments to realizing this grand vision.  In the twenty years that had followed, though, Boito had experienced continued disappointments, most notably the failure of his 1868 Mefistofele, and he was now most anxious to effect a rapprochement with Verdi.  The two, who would later collaborate on Otello and Falstaff, worked together through 1880 and made a number of changes to the libretto, the most important of which was the addition of the dramatic council chamber scene to the end of what was now Act I.  But even with these changes Simon Boccanegra has never enjoyed the popularity of other Verdi operas and is not so often performed.  I personally found myself less moved than I had expected at the conclusion despite a superb performance by all concerned.

Plácido Domingo, who had made his first appearance as a baritone in the role of Boccanegra in 2007 at the Berlin State Opera, reprised the part in 2010 at the Met with James Levine as the conductor.  So it was a reunion of sorts when they again worked together on Saturday afternoon.  The two, of course, have shared a long history at the Met, most especially in the years when Domingo was rightfully regarded as one of the world's greatest tenors.  Seeing him onstage is always a thrilling moment for any opera lover.  In a Playbill interview the great singer discussed his transition from tenor to baritone:
"I can only have my own voice, and I have never pretended to have a specifically baritonal type of sound.  I think I still sound exactly like Plácido Domingo, even when I am singing in a lower register.  Often in opera the baritone is a father or a character somewhat older than the tenor, and since I want to continue to give everything I have as an opera singer for as long as I can, I feel these more mature roles are more appropriate to my age."
In other roles, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto (whom I saw many years ago play Leoporello in Don Giovanni) was excellent as Fiesco/Grimaldi.  Two newcomers - Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Maria/Amelia and Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno - were both more than satisfactory in their parts especially in their duet early in Act I.

The production by Giancarlo del Monaco debuted in 1995 (on which occasion Plácido Domingo played the role of Gabriele) and did very well in providing the necessary historical color in a handsome setting.  My only complaint was that the Prologue was so darkly lit - even when the torches were carried in - that I had trouble seeing what was happening onstage.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Juilliard Recital: Vocal Arts

This week's Wednesdays at One recital at Alice Tully was given over to vocal arts.  There were so many pieces and performers on the program that I really can't do more in such a limited space than to provide a program listing in order of appearance.
  • Canticle I: My beloved is mine and I am his, Op. 40, by Benjamin Britten (Michael St. Peter, tenor, and Dan K. Kuland, piano) 
  • Auf dem Kirchhofe and Unbewegte laue Luft by Johannes Brahms; Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte by Jean Sibelius (Angela Vallone, soprano, and William Kelley, piano) 
  • Des fleurs and De Soir from Proses lyriques by Claude Debussy (Nicolette Mavroleon, soprano, and Nathan Raskin, piano) 
  • Fußreise, Um Mitternacht, Zur Warnung and Der Feuerreiter from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike by Hugo Wolf (Jake Alan Nelson, baritone, and Dror Baitel, piano) 
  • Ptak from Trzy pieśni, Op. 3, by Henryk Górecki; Sál mín svífur burt from New Icelandic Folksongs, Op. 9, by Evan Fein; George from Cabaret Songs, Vol. 2, by William Bolcom (Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone, and William Kelley, piano)
For the record, my favorites were Wolf's Der Feuerreiter ("The Fire-Rider") and Bolcom's George.  But all the performances were excellent and it was exciting to hear so many unfamiliar pieces sung so well.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Brahms

I went on Sunday afternoon to Morse Hall to hear the first of the day's series of chamber music recitals.  The forty-minute program - performed by Randall Goosby, violin; Daniel Hass, cello; and Sarina Zhang, piano - featured only one work, the first of Brahms's three piano trios.

The Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 was originally composed in 1854 when Brahms was only 21 years old and only a year after he had first become acquainted with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, without question the most significant encounter of his musical career.   Brahms wrote the greater portion of the trio Hanover, where he had been visiting the famed violinist Joseph Joachim in the company of the Schumanns, and then completed it shortly after the couple had returned to Düsseldorf.  Unfortunately, almost immediately upon his return home, Robert, who had suffered from severe depression for most of his life, attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Rhine.  Brahms rushed to Clara's side and helped her place Robert in an asylum in Bonn where he remained until his death at age 46 only two years later.  Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to know if either Joachim or the Schumanns had any direct influence on the composition of the work.  Certainly, there were some evident connections.  For example, Brahms had inscribed at the top of the score the words "Kreisler junior."  This was a reference to a fictional character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a widely read critic and author of fantastic stories.  Schumann had found inspiration from this same character in his 1838 piano cycle Kreisleriana, Op. 16.

On the recommendation of Clara to Breitkopf und Härtel, the trio was the first of Brahms's chamber works to be published.  (For that matter, it was his first piece to be played in the U.S. when in November 1855 it was given its American premiere in New York by the pianist William Mason.)  When Simrock took over the publication of Brahms's works in 1889 the firm gave the composer the opportunity to revise any he so chose.  Brahms took advantage of the offer to extensively revise the Op. 8 trio in spite of his famous remark that his intention had been "not to stick a wig on it but merely to comb its hair a little."  The thrust of the revisions was to tone down Brahms's youthful Romanticism in favor of the more restrained style of his mature works.  What's most remarkable about the revision, however, is that Brahms did not withdraw the earlier version from publication but left both available.  Considering what a perfectionist Brahms was (he is reported to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published and then only after having made extensive revisions following a private performance), it is astonishing that he would allow continued publication of an earlier version of whose deficiencies he felt so strongly that he took the time after the lapse of so many years to correct them.  One can only assume that the older Brahms felt a strong degree of nostalgia for the passionate Romantic he had once been.  Perhaps too the fact that the work's initial composition had been so intimately connected with Brahms's first meeting with his beloved Clara had created an emotional attachment in his mind that he was unwilling to let go.

The performance of the revised trio at Sunday's recital was excellent.  Though I would have enjoyed hearing at least once the original 1854 version for comparison's sake, there can be no argument that the 1889 version is one of Brahms's greatest achievements in chamber music.  The three Juilliard musicians here did full justice to it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart and Janáček

This week's Wednesday at One performance at Alice Tully was a one-hour recital that showcased two Juilliard chamber ensembles in a program devoted to the music of Mozart and Janáček.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478 (1785).  We in the twenty-first century have put Mozart on so high a pedestal that we often forget he was a working musician who very much needed to earn a living in order to pay his rent and support his family.  As such, he faced the same dilemma that still confronts artists today.  Should he use (or rather misuse) his talent to pander to popular taste and turn out pieces that would be commercially successful even if not particularly original, or should he instead follow his genius and produce the highest level works of which he was capable even if these proved less profitable?  Over and over Mozart took the high road.  He ceased giving his once remunerative series of subscription concerts when he could no longer attract audiences.  The problem here was that his music had simply become too radical for Viennese audiences to easily follow.  The K. 478 was another case in point.  Approached by his publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister to compose three piano quartets, then still a relatively new genre, Mozart could have played safe and turned out variations on the traditional trio form, a very basic arrangement in which the strings invariably served in a supporting role to the keyboard.  Instead Mozart not only created a work in which the individual string parts were fully realized but one that also required the highest level of virtuosity on the part of the pianist.  Audiences, however, were distinctly underwhelmed.  As a later 1788 review in Weimar's Journal des Luxus und der Moden put it:
"As performed by amateurs, it [the Quartet] could not please: everybody yawned with boredom with the incomprehensible tintamarre of four instruments which could not keep together and whose senseless concentus never allowed any unity of feeling."
This was a piece that could never be mastered by the bulk of Hoffmeister's customers as the canny publisher immediately realized.  When he rebuked Mozart over this and threatened to cancel the balance of the commission, though, the composer is reported to have replied, "Then I will write nothing more, and go hungry, or may the Devil take me."  One has to admire his integrity.

Even today performance of this dark G minor work is problematic for any but the greatest musicians.  I was lucky enough early last year to have heard the late Seymour Lipkin (with Miriam Fried on violin) give a wonderful performance that brought out the greatness of the music and helped me better appreciate it.  If not yet at that high level of musicianship, Wednesday's rendition by the Zelda Piano Quartet - consisting of Philip Zuckerman, violin; Jasper Snow, viola; Edvard Pogossian, cello; and Tomer Gewirtzman, piano - was still quite acceptable, even if at times a bit too strident for my taste in the outer movements, and displayed a great deal of talent.  I enjoyed it very much.

The second and final work on the program was Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 (1923), nicknamed the "Kreutzer Sonata."  Unusual though it is for a string quartet to have programmatic content, Janáček's work was derived from Tolstoy's eponymous short story which in turn was inspired by Beethoven's famous Violin Sonata No. 9.  Tolstoy's story, in which the protagonist murders the wife he suspects of adultery, is a dark and cynical take on Western attitudes towards marriage. sexuality and the rights of women. Janáček's piece mirrors the protagonist's agitated state of mind through rapid shifts in tempo and the use of such devices as tremelo and pizzicato.  The work references Beethoven's sonata by quoting the second theme of the first movement in the quartet's third movement but in a minor rather than major key.  This is set out in a canon played by the first violin and cello only to be interrupted by dissonant outbursts from the viola and second violin that remind the listener of similar strategies Bartok made us of in his own quartets.  The piece was performed by the Cavatina Quartet whose members are Mariella Haubs and Randall Goosby, violins; Jameel Martin, viola; and Yi Qun Xu, cello.