Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Dimmler, Mozart and Dvořák

On Monday evening the Jupiter Players gave the final recital in their summer series entitled The Mannheim Effect in which they showcased the works of composers whose careers at some point intersected with the Mannheim orchestra, an ensemble which was in the late eighteenth century one of the finest in Europe.  The program on this occasion featured works by Franz Anton Dimmler, Mozart and Dvořák.

The program opened with Dimmler's Clarinet Quartet in B Major.  There's almost no information available online regarding Dimmler (most unusually not even a Wikipedia entry) let alone this particular work.  All I could find regarding the composer was a brief note in the Oxford Index stating that he became a full time horn player with the Mannheim Orichestra in 1771.  I was a little surprised then when this three-movement quartet turned out to be such an excellent piece of music.  While hardly profound, it was nevertheless a highly enjoyable fanciful work, reminiscent in style of Mozart's divertimenti, that was perfect entertainment for a summer evening.

The next work was Mozart's String Quintet No. 2 in C minor K. 406/516b (1787).  I've often considered the composer's "viola quintets" to be among his greatest chamber works.  Although this is an arrangement of an earlier piece and not an original composition, it is still powerful and filled with genius.  In it Mozart recycled a more youthful piece, the Serenade No. 12, K. 388, written when he had only just arrived in Vienna from Salzburg and was anxious to make a good impression on his new audience.  The use of the C minor key, though, gave the serenade a darker and more somber character than was usually encountered in this traditionally lighthearted genre and the composer may have felt its content would be better expressed with strings rather than with winds.  Another consideration was Mozart's need to raise cash.  By 1787, his fortunes in Vienna were already on the wane and he was facing financial difficulties.  This piece, which he offered to the public by subscription along with two other recently completed quintets, the K. 515 and the K. 516, was an attempt to meet his obligations to his friend and fellow Freemason Michael von Puchberg who had previously lent money to the composer to help keep him afloat. In the event, the idea proved a failure, even though Mozart extended the subscription period, and he realized no profit from his endeavor.  It was only in 1792, a year after his death, that the quintet was finally published.  Listening to it, one wonders what more the Viennese could have asked for.  This is a brilliant work, especially the third movement menuetto, a three part canon which in the trio section morphs into a "double mirror canon" in which the voices of the two violins are answered in reverse by the first viola and the cello.  Even for Mozart, it's a stunning display of virtuosity.

After intermission, the program concluded with Dvořák's String Quartet No. 13 in G Major Op. 106 (1895).  The composer's presence on this program was something of a mystery since he really had no connection with Mannheim other than that he possessed, along with every other classical music lover, a high regard for Mozart.  Not that it mattered.  This quartet, along with the No. 12, "the American," is one of Dvořák's finest chamber works.  The listener can hear in the opening movement the composer's joy at once again being in Europe after his sojourn in New York City.  The work is exceptionally well crafted and an excellent example of Dvořák's mature style as he here masterfully combines the four instruments to create a sound that is, especially in the second movement adagio, almost symphonic in its breadth of expression.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Met Museum: Turner's Whaling Pictures

The current exhibit, Turner's Whaling Pictures, at the Met Museum is understandably small since the entire series consists of four paintings only one of which, Whalers, is in the museum's permanent collection.  The other three are on loan from the Tate.

The four paintings were first exhibited by Turner at the Royal Academy in the hope that Elhanan Bicknell, a wealthy art patron whose financing of whaling expeditions had made him his millions, would be interested in buying the lot.  Bicknell did in fact purchase Whalers but then immediately returned it when he found traces of watercolor, considered an inferior medium, on the oil on canvas painting.

What's most interesting about these oversized canvases is the mastery of light that Turner displayed in painting them.  In this sense, the artist clearly anticipated the French Impressionists.  Subject matter is never clearly delineated but rather suggested while light itself becomes these works' true subject.  It's to the credit of British critics of the time that, if somewhat overwhelmed by the artist's stylistic innovations, they were nonetheless able to appreciate Turner's accomplishment in creating these powerful effects.

One cannot discuss any aspect of whaling without some consideration of Herman Melville's great novel, Moby Dick, published near the time of Turner's passing.  The relationship may, however, be more than incidental.  The exhibit contains a quote from the novel in which Ishmael, before leaving port, sees at a tavern a painting depicting a whaling scene.  Certainly the description from the novel could very well apply to Whalers, the only of the series in which a whale is actually depicted, but there is no real evidence that Melville actually saw Turner's work while visiting London.  It remains only a tantalizing possibility.

Although the museum's website doesn't list them, there are other items on view at the exhibit.  There is a small scale painting that Turner completed much earlier of a whaling scene that was to be used by an engraver as a source for a book illustration.  It is not a major work, however, and is useful primarily as an indicator of the great stylistic changes the artist effected toward the end of his career as he left literal representation behind.  There are also a few nineteenth century table lamps whose only real excuse for being there is that they burned whale oil.  More important is a copy of Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale once owned by Melville and on which he inscribed a note to the effect that it was this book that Turner, who had never actually seen a whale, used as a source in his paintings.  Finally, there is a sketch of the artist himself that renders him, even if unintentionally, more as a character from a Dickens novel than as one of England's greatest painters.

The exhibit continues through August 7, 2016.

Friday, July 1, 2016

MOMA: Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty

The current exhibit at MOMA, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, is interesting for the insight it provides into the working methods of one of the most prominent French artists of the late nineteenth century.  Those who are familiar with Degas only though his iconic pastels of dancers will be surprised to learn that he also experimented widely with the graphic arts.  As the museum's website states:
"Captivated by the monotype’s potential, he immersed in the technique with enormous enthusiasm, taking the medium to radical ends. He expanded the possibilities of drawing, created surfaces with a heightened sense of tactility, and invented new means for new subjects, from dancers in motion to the radiance of electric light, from women in intimate settings to meteorological effects in nature."
Unfortunately, the website does not offer any images of the works on view to help the public better understand the nature of the exhibit.

The monotype process itself can briefly be explained as a method in which the artist draws or paints an image on a matrix, most often a copper etching plate, and then uses an etching press to transfer that image to a sheet of art paper.  This is in contrast to the etching process in which lines are incised directly onto the plate and then inked before being put in the press.  As a result, only one impression can be obtained for a monotype while a number of impressions can be obtained of an etching before the plate becomes unusable.  A key difference in the final image is that monotypes appear less sharp than etchings.  One could say that they have a more "impressionistic" nature.  A hybrid form is the monoprint whose plate already possesses permanent features, such as incised lines, before the artist paints an image upon it.  Cognates, on the other hand, are created by pressing the wet monoprint against another sheet of paper and thus transferring the image, in reverse, to the second sheet.

Degas was always willing to experiment.  Last year, I reviewed the Met Museum's monograph, Edgar Degas, Photographer, that traced the artist's interest late in life in mastering the photographic process.  What is most interesting is that in practicing both monotype and photographic techniques, Degas displayed little regard for "rules."  Instead he delighted in adapting these processes to his own ends.  He was, in fact, wildly creative and his works in both media are truly distinctive and stamped with his own personality.  This can be seen most clearly in the "dark field" or "reductive" prints achieved by wiping away ink with a rag, stick or even fingers.  The wiping necessarily blurs the image and renders it indistinct while at the same time building tone. 

The show at MOMA consists of several different parts.  The largest part is given over to Degas's work with street scenes, cabaret interiors, dancers (the monochromatic Three Ballet Dancers is one of the most notable works in the show) and nudes (including several candid brothel scenes that appear to anticipate Brassaï's 1930's photographs in Paris de Nuit), the same subjects he pursued in other media.  There is also a gallery displaying his landscape work, but to me this was the weakest part of the exhibit.  One gallery is given over to the artist's "dark" monotypes.  Another contains works in other media created after Degas had given up making monotypes with the aim of demonstrating the extent to which his monotyping had a lasting impact on his oeuvre.

The exhibit continues through July 24, 2016.