Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Albrechtsberger, Danzi and Haydn

Yesterday evening the Jupiter Players performed the second of their three summer recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  The summer series is focused on those composers who had some association, no matter how slight, with the music of the Mannheim tradition; and this program accordingly featured works by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Franz Danzi and Haydn.

The program opened with Albrechtsberger's Fugue in D minor, Op. 1, No 6 (1780).  Originally composed for three guitars, it was performed here in an arrangement by Beethoven for string quartet.  Albrechtsberger is much better known as a theorist and teacher than as a composer and was in fact an expert on counterpoint.  His influence in this area was enormous as he was the instructor of Anton Reicha who in turn went on to teach counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire.  Among Albrechtsberger's other pupils, the most famous was Beethoven who was referred to Albrechtsberger by Haydn himself.  (Either Haydn felt  Albrechtsberger's mastery of counterpoint to be greater than his own, or he simply found it too difficult to put up with the young Beethoven's intractable attitude and wanted to be rid of him.)  Albrechtsberger did compose of number of chamber works, but most are extremely obscure and rarely if ever played today.  Immediately following this piece, the ensemble performed a short Fugue in G major by Antonio Salieri.

The next work was Danzi's Flute Quartet in D minor Op. 56 No. 2 (1821).  Danzi himself was one of those minor figures who appear at key junctures of musical history without ever managing to attain any degree of fame for themselves.  Largely forgotten today, Danzi was an acquaintance of Mozart, Beethoven and von Weber and held prominent positions in the orchestras at Mannheim and Munich.  He was also during his lifetime one of the most skilled cellists in Europe.  The bulk of his chamber works, though, were not written for strings but rather for wind ensembles, of which the present quartet is an excellent example.  It was a light work but very enjoyable to hear; the final movement, an allegretto, was quite lively.

After intermission, the musicians returned to perform what for me was the highlight of the program, Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Op. 51, Hob. III:50-56 (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze).  The piece, arranged for string quartet by the composer in 1787, was in its original form an orchestral work commissioned in 1783 by one Don José Sáenz de Santa María for performance on Good Friday in a subterranean Spanish church, the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva.  The setting, as described by Haydn, sounds like something from a Dumas novel:
"The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began."
Catholicism in Spain was still then shrouded in mystery and secrecy - the dreaded Spanish Inquisition was still in existence at this point, though not as powerful as it had been in the previous century - and one wonders what the down to earth Viennese composer really thought about this commission, especially when it came time to be paid and he was given a cake filled with golden coins.  The work itself is one of the most powerful Haydn composed and completely unearthly as it proceeds from an introduction in D minor through seven slow movements until finally culminating in Il terremoto ("the earthquake") in C minor.  No matter what one's religious inclinations, it's difficult to listen to this piece, even with the lights on, and not experience an overwhelming sense of awe.

The guest artist at this recital was violinist Danbi Um whom I had coincidentally heard perform on recent broadcasts of the Young Artists Showcase on WQXR.  She did an excellent job there on Schubert's Quarttetsatz, Dvořák's String Sextet in A Major and Webern's Langsamer Satz.  I was just as impressed by her virtuosity at Monday evening's performance.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Lillian Bassman at Edwynn Houk Gallery

In one of the more intriguing exhibits of the summer season, rarely seen works by Lillian Bassman, one of the twentieth century's most original fashion photographers, are now on view at the Edwynn Houk Gallery on Fifth Avenue.

Like her more famous contemporaries Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Bassman was a student of Alexey Brodovitch whom she first met at Manhattan's Textile High School from which she graduated in 1933.  Few individuals have exerted as much influence on American fashion photography as Brodovitch who was employed as art director at Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958.  In this position he was able to share his own sense of style with the many talented photographers who worked with him.  He was in this sense not so much a boss as a collaborator. It was under his direction that Bassman was able to formulate the unique look of her photography.

First and foremost, all the 35 prints on view at this exhibit exude an aura of glamour.  Bassman worked with the top models of her day - including Sunny Harnett, Suzy Parker, Dovima and Lisa Fonssagrives - and posed them in tableaux that fairly reeked of wealth and sophistication.  It was always made clear that the couture pieces these models wore were designed only for the privileged few, and Bassman did everything she could to emphasize this exclusivity but almost always without using any props other than the clothes themselves.  Instead, the compositions are tight and the figures within them sometimes cropped by the photos' borders.

What is most interesting to a photographer is Bassman's unique style of black & white printing.  Although the photographer was quite adept at using standard printing techniques in the darkroom - as can be seen from Margie Cato, New York (c. 1950) and Southwest Passage - Sunset Pink (1951) - she more often than not broke every rule of making the "normal" print.  Her work exaggerates contrast to the point where detail is frequently lost, and she then pushes the effect even further through the use of selective bleaching.  Often all that is left is line and form.  But the effect of these manipulations, which in lesser hands would have rendered the images merely bizarre, is the creation of modernist artwork of the highest standards.  

Later in her career Bassman began to use digital imaging to reimagine her earlier negatives.  This is not so surprising as it might at first seem.  The radical manipulations she performed in the darkroom actually prefigure the extensive retouching capabilities of programs such as Photoshop.  In this sense Bassman can be seen as a pioneer who was years ahead of her time.  Perhaps the most interesting photograph at the exhibit is Kronung des Chic, Jada from a 1998 issue of German Vogue that is described in the catalog as a "unique reinterpretation."

One feature of the current show that is always appreciated by photographers is the inclusion of contact sheets.  There are three here, each consisting of twelve images shot with a medium format camera on 120 film.  It's much easier to understand the photographer's vision when viewing these sheets and the choices she faced in making a final selection.

The exhibit continues through July 8, 2016.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Met Opera Subscriber Ticket Exchanges Now Open

Subscribers to the Met Opera's 2016/2017 season now have a week to exchange tickets and purchase single tickets before they go on sale to the general public.  I was at the box office yesterday afternoon and found few people in line.  I was in and out within fifteen minutes.

Interested subscribers should check the Met Opera website for specific information.

I now have tickets to all the opera performances I plan to attend in the coming season.  These include Mozart's Don Giovanni and Idomeneo, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeria and Guillaume Tell, Verdi's Nabucco and Aida, Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Wagner's Die Fliegende Hollander.  I can hardly wait for the season to begin.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mary Ellen Mark at Howard Greenberg Gallery

I had not been familiar with Mary Ellen Mark's photography before attending yesterday the current exhibit of her portrait work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on West 57th Street.  This was an oversight on my part.  The late photographer - she passed away last year at age 75 - was extremely talented at capturing the personalities of her sitters and along the way created a number of imaginative and innovative works.

Many of the portraits on display depict troubled youths, sometimes barely older than children.  One of the best of these is a 1983 study of a young girl from Seattle entitled Tiny blowing a bubble.  The manner in which the subject confronts the camera head on is characteristic of Mark's style.  There's no artifice here and no attempt to strike a pose.  Instead Tiny has an air of worldliness that belies her young age.  The same can be seen even more forcefully in a shot from 1990, Amanda and Her Cousin Amy Valdese, that shows a young girl standing in a wading pool and smoking a cigarette while staring coolly into the lens.  Photos such as these and the 1994 Chrissy Damm and Adam Johnson belie the myth of childhood innocence.  The subjects possess an adult sensibility that is almost jaded in its appraisal of the adult world surrounding them.

One section of the exhibit is given over to large format Polaroids measuring 30 x 22.  The use of the view camera in portraiture carries with it an inherent formalism.  It's not possible to take a quick shot with this equipment.  The photographer must instead study the composition of the ground glass in reverse and inverted form before inserting the plate holder and snapping the shutter.  The examples here fall into two categories.  The first three were shot at high school proms in 2008 and each show two subjects standing side by side.  Somehow, though the students stand in close proximity to one another, they are at the same time isolated, each in his or her own world.  The second set of three photos again show two subjects, but this time the subjects are identical twins photographed at a "twins festival" held, appropriately enough, in Twinsburg, Ohio in 2001.  Again there is a psychological distance between the two subjects, in this case made even more striking by the close resemblance between them.

From here the viewer moves on to a selection of celebrity portraits, most of them taken on location rather than having been shot in a studio.  According to Mark's Wikipedia biography, she worked as a "unit photographer" and shot production stills on more than one hundred feature films.  None of those are included in this exhibit, however, only the one-on-one  portraits she took of the films' stars.  The problem here is that the subjects, practiced in posing before cameras, are too self conscious to reveal much of themselves.  Photos of such stars as Jeff Bridges, Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, while exceptionally well executed, show nothing of these actors' inner selves but only the public personae with which they face the public.  The exception is the photo of Patrick Swayze in drag and makeup standing on his lawn with his dog at his feet.  More successful are the celebrity portraits of Henry Miller and Clayton Moore.  In the first, taken in 1975, the elderly author wears a lecherous grin while seated in a wheelchair with the model Twinka kneeling behind him.  It is in the portrait of Clayton Moore that one sees most clearly the influence Diane Arbus had on Marks.  The former "Lone Ranger," now a very old man indeed, sits on a couch in his living room in full costume including mask.  Beside him is a statuette that shows the Ranger atop his rearing horse in the character's most iconic pose while above him hangs a framed Victorian portrait (his mother?).  It is the very normalcy of the surroundings that make this photo so unsettling.

There are a couple of color portraits of Indian and Nepalese prostitutes on view, but the inclusion of these shots only serve to make clear that it was black & white film photography that was Mark's true metier.  She was one of the last century's true masters of the medium.

The exhibit continues through June 18, 2016.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Summer Hiatus

The 2015/2016 music season was one of the best in years, and I enjoyed immensely posting my thoughts on the excellent concerts and recitals I was lucky enough to have attended.  Aside from a couple of summer recitals by the Jupiter Players, however, I do not plan on hearing any more music until the new season begins in late September.  Accordingly, this blog will be largely inactive for the next several months while I turn my attention to writing the first draft of my next novel. 

I hope everyone has a wonderful summer and I look forward to seeing you again in the fall.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Upcoming Concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell

The organizers of the Naumburg Bandshell concert series in Central Park have announced the this summer's upcoming events, and as usual there will be a number of excellent ensembles performing live at this historic venue.  The scheduled Tuesday evening concerts, weather permitting, are as follows:

  • June 14, 2016 - Opening Night with Ensemble LPR.  The program will include works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland, Julia Wolfe, and Charles Ives.
  • June 28, 2016 - The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program.
  • July 12, 2016 - The Knights in an eclectic program that features the music of Haydn, Gabriel Kahane, Franz Schubert, Bob Haggart, Ray Bauduc, and Bob Dylan.
  • July 19, 2016 - The Knights return with another unusual program, this time featuring works by Bartók, Busoni, Dvořák, Boccherini, Shawn Conley, Johann Strauss II, and Taraf De Haïdouks.
  • August 2, 2016 - The East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO) will close the season with works by Joaquín Turina, Claudio Monteverdi, Pierre Jalbert, Witold Lutoslawski, and Antonín Dvořák.

All concerts begin at 7:30 and are free to the public with no tickets required.  For those who are unable to attend, WQXR will broadcast all concerts live.  The Naumburg family has staged concerts in Central Park for 111 years now and the performances are among the best musical offerings of the summer season.  For anyone with a love of great music, they are well worth attending.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Fux, Fuchs, Beethoven and Mendelssohn

On Monday evening I went to hear the first of the Jupiter Players' three summer recitals at Christ and St. Stephens Church on West 69th Street.  The program featured the works of Johann Joseph Fux, George Friedrich Fuchs, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, all of whom had some connection, no matter how vague, to the Mannheim school of music..

The recital began with Fux's Sinfonia in F Major (c. 1701) for flute, oboe and cello.  Fux was a late Baroque composer known not so much for his music as for his pedagogical text Gradus ad Parnassum, derived from his studies in Italy of Palestrinian polyphony, that was to become the standard treatise in the practice of counterpoint and is still in use today in musical education courses.  Bach, Hadyn, Mozart and Beethoven all possessed copies and made use of it in their own efforts to master the technique.  In the nineteenth century, Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, the same who prepared the catalog listings of Mozart's music, became interested in Fux's work and prepared a catalog of his compositions as well.  This led to a rediscovery of Fux's music and he is regarded today as one of the most important composers of the Austrian Baroque.  The present Sinfonia - whose six movements included such intriguing titles as La joye des fidels sujets and Les énemis Confus - was an extremely accomplished and enjoyable work and one wonders why Fux is not better known as a composer.

The next work was Fuchs's Horn Quartet No. 1, Op. 31.  Fuchs was a student of Haydn and later became one of the first teachers of clarinet at the newly founded Paris Conservatoire.  Despite these positions, Fuchs was and is one of the most obscure composers I've come across.  Other than the German Wikipedia article, there is almost no biographical information available regarding him.  As for the three movement quartet for horn, violin, viola and cello played at the recital, it was interesting but not particularly distinguished.  It did contain in the violin part an example of the famous "Mannheim rocket."

This was followed by Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 (1801) here transcribed for string quartet by the composer's amanuensis Ferdinand Ries.  This was the piano sonata that immediately followed the much more famous "Moonlight" Sonata and it has sometimes suffered by comparison.  Nonetheless, it is a great work in its own right.  Though the title "Pastoral" was appended to the work by Beethoven's publishers and not the composer himself, it does seem fitting especially in the opening bars of the first movement.  The references to pastoral themes that the composer was to develop more fully in his Sixth Symphony can also be clearly heard in the final movement.  Listening to the work, one has the impression that Beethoven was in a reflective mood when he wrote the piece.  This was shortly before the beginning of the middle period and here the composer seems to be glancing back - this was his last four-movement sonata - at what he had already accomplished even as he looked forward to creating something entirely new.  In this regard, the dedication to Joseph von Sonnenfels is telling.  Swafford, in his biography of the composer, has emphasized the importance the German enlightenment, of which Sonnenfels was a leading figure, had on the development of Beethoven's artistic outlook.  It may have been that Beethoven, in search of new ideas, looked first to the philosophical basis from which his art had originally sprung.

After intermission, the recital concluded with Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1 (1838).  I had only heard a two weeks before a performance at Juilliard of the Quartet No. 4 and it was interesting to compare the character of the two works.  Mendelssohn was always much more a classicist than a romantic in spirit, and so it's not surprising that he chose to write for the second movement of the No. 3 a menuetto rather than a scherzo.  Much more telling is the restraint the composer shows in third movement andante.  There's no wild display of emotion here, only a perfectly planned exercise designed to be pleasant rather than intoxicating.  There's a sense of control and deliberation in the manner in which Mendelssohn created his effects that never allows the listener a glimpse of the individual behind the craftsman.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Neue Galerie: Munch and Expressionism

There are two excellent exhibits, both of them devoted to Expressionism, currently on view at the Neue Galerie on East 86th Street.  The first is Munch and Expressionism, a unique retrospective of the artist's oeuvre, while the second, The Expressionist Nude, displays works by a wide range of German artists who had been influenced by the great Norwegian painter.  Each of them is well worth a visit.

Edvard Munch is generally known today for his iconic painting The Scream created in 1893. (Although the original is not included in this display, an 1895 version in pastels together with two monochromatic lithograph variants have been given places of honor at the exhibit.)  Perhaps no other image captures so well the anxiety and alienation faced by modern man.  And yet in his long career - Munch lived until 1944 - he created any number of equally powerful works.  Not only that, but he was constantly experimenting with new styles and always attempting to grow as an artist.  As he gained a following among the early Expressionists, particularly members of Die Brücke, Munch was able to see his reflection in their work and to successfully incorporate it into his own, something of which only a great artist is capable.  One only has to look at the two versions of Puberty on view to see the cross-fertilization of ideas.  The first is a monochromatic lithograph created in 1895 at roughly the same time as the original oil painting (not on view).  It is fairly naturalistic in its depiction of a young girl sitting on the edge of her bed with legs held tightly together and arms crossed before her.  The second is an oil on canvas from 1914-1916 that is much more highly stylized in what we would today recognize as an Expressionist manner.

Other seminal paintings on view include Munch's famous Madonna in both its original 1894 oil on canvas version as well as a slightly later color lithograph with a bright border and a strange figure in the lower left hand corner.  Also shown is Angst, again in several versions.   And there are many lesser known works which have been placed side by side with pieces by prominent German Expressionists that show quite clearly how deep and lasting was Munch's influence on the generation of artists that followed him.  Most prominent among these are Schiele, Kirchner, Heckel and Nolde,  And there are works by other artists - such as Gerstl, Kokoschka and even Beckmann - on whom Munch's influence is not so readily apparent until one takes a closer look.

In the end, what strikes the viewer most forcefully in Munch's work is the pervading sense of alienation.  So many of the figures he depicts, as in the 1891 oil on canvas Melancholy, are alone and downcast.  Even when two people are shown together - as in Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones, an oil on canvas from 1905 - the artist carefully separates them from one another as, with backs to the viewer, they stare out to sea.  In search of what?  Although they share the same canvas, they inhabit different worlds.

The second exhibit, The Expressionist Nude, complements the first very well.  Contained in a single gallery on the second floor, these are all works on paper and include a number of important nudes by Klimt, Gerstl, Schiele, Kirchner and Kokoschka.  The most interesting for me, though, were a selection of enigmatic pieces by Kubin.  The most powerful of these was entitled Suicide, a pen and ink drawing that showed a drowned woman, her face contracted in a grimace, floating on the water on the back of a giant fish.  One immediately thinks of Shakespeare's Ophelia.

Both exhibits continue through June 13, 2016.

Friday, June 3, 2016

ACJW Ensemble Performs Spohr and Beethoven

On Wednesday evening, the ACJW Ensemble gave the last of its four annual recitals at Paul Hall with a program that featured the works of Louis Spohr and Beethoven.  It was a rather poignant moment as this was also the last musical event to be given at Juilliard until the beginning of next season.

The program opened with Spohr's Septet in A Minor, Op. 147 (1853) performed by Michael James Smith, piano, Beomjae Kim, flute, Stanislav Chernyshev, clarinet, Michael Zuber, bassoon, Jenny Ney, horn, Elizabeth Fayette, violin, and Caleb van der Swaagh, cello.  As the high opus number would indicate, Spohr was a prolific composer in the Romantic tradition and during his lifetime an important musical figure in Europe.  He was a conductor at Vienna's Theater an der Wein, music director of the Frankfurt Opera (where he staged his own version of the Faust legend), and a friend of Beethoven.  Though largely forgotten after his death, his works are currently enjoying a revival of interest in Europe.  This particular piece, written when the composer was already 69 years old, was unusual in his canon in its inclusion of a piano.  Although Spohr had written a number of chamber works over the course of his career, the majority of these had either been for strings, including 36 string quartets, or for strings and winds, including a Nonet in F major and an Octet in E major.  That is not to say, however, that the composer did not experience difficulty, at least in this piece, in melding such disparate parts into a seamlessly integrated whole.  At any rate, the present work was pleasant enough to hear if not particularly distinguished.  

After intermission, the recital concluded with Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 (1811) nicknamed the "Archduke" for its dedication to the composer's patron, Archduke Rudolph.  This was the last and finest of Beethoven's piano trios and is almost symphonic in its breadth.  Beyond that, its first performances were notable for having been the last occasions on which the composer appeared in public as a pianist.  It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been for Beethoven, who had once been the foremost virtuoso in Vienna, to have realized that his ability at the keyboard was irretrievably lost.  Louis Spohr, who was present at the premiere, somewhat unkindly described the state in which Beethoven's encroaching deafness had left him:
"On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate."
Though written toward the end of the composer's middle period, the trio already looked ahead to the masterpieces of the late period.  This is most evident in the elaborate set of variations that make up the slow third movement, an andante cantabile.  It sometimes seems Beethoven's entire career was determined by his deafness.  Just as his despair at the loss of his hearing had marked the beginning of his middle period, so its advancement to the point he could no longer play the piano propelled him forward into his late period in which he appeared to have thought more in terms of pure music than of composing for individual instruments.

I thought it was fitting that the regular season in which I attended so many wonderful performances should end with a rendition of a work by the Beethoven, arguably the greatest of all composers.  The ACJW muisicans - Shir Semmel, piano; Kobi Malkin, violin; and Andrea Casarrubios, cello - were all outstanding in their interpretation of this masterpiece of the chamber repertoire.  In particular, Shir Semmel, whom I had heard perform in March the piano part on the Shostakovich Trio No. 2 in E minor, stood out here in her mastery of the difficult keyboard part.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Met Museum: Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, is not particularly large - it takes up only one gallery - but is still worth a visit for anyone with an interest in documentary photography.  The works shown here are all drawn from the museum's permanent collection and, as the museum's website notes, constitute a "rogues gallery" of underworld figures, some notorious and others anonymous.

The most interesting photos here are the crime scene photos; even after so many years they still possess a macabre fascination for the viewer.  The most famous examples of this genre were of course taken by Weegee.  On view is his Human Head Cakebox Murder in which the spectators are photographed from such an angle that they themselves appear headless.  But there are others of equal impact, such as a photo of a man who died from a drug overdose stretched out in a Bronx hallway so narrow the photograph by Leonard Freed had to be taken from the staircase above, thus unwittingly providing a unique point of view.  Another photo, taken of the corpse of a knife wielding man shot dead by police in the Bronx, has connotations that would not have occurred to its original viewers.- seen now, one cannot help wondering if the knife were placed in the dead man's hand by the police after he had been killed.  Then there are the sensationalist photos of Ruth Snyder dying horribly in the electric chair at Sing Sing and a photo of a "girl resembling" Patti Hearst robbing a bank in California.  One of the best shows a robber firing his gun directly into the lens of a surveillance camera in a failed attempt to disable it.

As one would expect, there are a number of photos related to political assassinations, the crimes that have always been most thoroughly covered by the media. There are photos of the gun that killed Robert Kennedy, the famous photo of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald, and the scene of the hanging of Lincoln's assassins.

The exhibit also contains work by well known photographers who were inspired by crime and its perpetrators.  These are of mixed quality.  Work by Walker Evans, William Klein, Larry Clark, and even Andy Warhol seem out of place here.  The exception is Avedon's penetrating portrait of In Cold Blood killer Dick Hickok, taken at the request of friend Truman Capote, that is absolutely chilling.  Like the anonymous portrait of 12-year old Freddie Scheiderer who shot to death his two sisters, the photo is frightening precisely because its subject is so ordinary - he could have been any one of us.

The least interesting photos - though given the most prominence, both at the exhibit itself and on the museum's website - are mugshots, including the posed portraits taken by Alphonse Bertillon.  These lack drama, and the subjects themselves are too conscious of the camera to expose their true personalities to it.

The exhibit continues through July 31, 2016.