Monday, September 26, 2016

Met Museum: Celebrating the Arts of Japan, Rotation 2

After having seen the first rotation of the Met Museum's Celebrating the Arts of Japan exhibit this past winter, I recently returned to view the second rotation.  Almost all the objects shown were taken from the collection of the late Mary Griggs Burke who during her lifetime managed to amass the largest collection of Japanese art outside Japan.

Although there were many great works of art on display, I had the feeling that the best of the collection had already been exhibited in the first rotation; there were many works from that earlier selection I would have preferred to have seen a second time.  Still, there were a number of pieces worth mentioning.

One of the most fascinating, to a Buddhist at least, is a handscroll from 1278 that shows the Ten Verses on Oxherding.  This traditional iconography is one of the most intriguing pictorial representations of the process by which enlightenment is attained.  Perhaps the most difficult for the Westerner to comprehend is the verse, illustrated only by an empty circle, in which the boy, the ox and the surrounding world have all disappeared from sight.

Of the hanging scrolls, the most interesting by far is The Chinese Explorer Zhang Qian on a Raft, painted in the mid-sixteenth century and credited to Maejima Sōyū.  The subject is a mythical explorer who supposedly lived in the second century B.C. and who, while searching for the source of the Yellow River, drifted off instead into the Milky Way.

There are also a pair of early seventeenth century scrolls by Kano Naizen, each of which depicts a mounted Zen monk. The monk Zheng Huangniu was known for riding a yellow ox laden with books and other belongings and in this work rides the ox backwards. Yushanzhu, in contrast, rides a donkey that also carries his belongings.  According to legend, Yushanzhu attained enlightenment when he fell off the donkey while crossing a bridge.

One of the most iconic subjects in Japanese art is that of geese among the reeds on a riverbank.  At this exhibit there is a lovely mid-fourteenth century scroll that shows two geese staring upward at their comrades already flying south for the winter.

Another hanging scroll, this from the Edo period, depicts Hotei and was painted by Ogata Kōrin.  Hotei is a comical Buddhist figure often known as the "Laughing Buddha."  Although sometimes considered a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, he is though to have been inspired by an actual Buddhist monk who lived in China in the tenth century.  Although Korin is known for his idiosyncratic style, this ink wash painting is more in the form of traditional Zen art.

Also from the Edo period is an exquisite lacquer book cabinet (shodansu) inlaid with gold and silver that was built to house all 41 volumes of  A Chronicle of the Great Peace (Taiheiki) with two volumes of the work placed beside it.  This fourteenth century historical epic describes the war between the northern and southern imperial courts that resulted in the extinction of the imperial line that was at the time resident in the southern court of Yoshino.

Another important Japanese historical work is the Heiji monogatari that tells the tale of a samurai rebellion that occurred in the years 1159-1160 and was also concerned with imperial succession. On display here is a scene, painted in the early part of the fourteenth century, that depicts the crucial Battle of Rokuhara.  This, however, is only a fragment mounted on a handscroll that was taken from an edition of the full work that had been badly damaged in the seventeenth century.

Also on view are various examples of ukiyo-e, most of which take as their subject the daily lives of courtesans, as well as several couture gowns by contemporary designer Hanae Mori that were made to order for use by Ms. Burke.

The exhibit continues through May 14, 2017.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Juilliard: Duo Gagnant: French Music for Two Pianos

Yesterday evening, I went to Juilliard for the first time this season to hear a performance given by the Collaborative Piano Department of works for two pianos, all of them by French composers.  Usually, the recitals staged by the department feature the pianists as accompanists either to vocalists or to other instrumentalists, but on this occasion they played in tandem with one another.  The program was entitled Duo Gagnant, which could loosely be translated as "Winning Duets."

The program consisted of some of the repertoire's most famous works interspersed with several that were lesser known.  It consisted of the following pieces:

  • Francis PoulencL’embarquement pour Cynthère performed by Jonathan Feldman, department chair, and doctoral student Dan K. Kurland
  • Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune performed by Michał Biel and faculty member Brian Zeger
  • Cécile ChaminadeDuo Symphonique, Op. 117, performed by Dror Baitel and Nathan Raskin
  • Jean FrançaixHuit Dances Exotiques performed by Cherie Roe and doctoral student Arthur Williford
  • Claude Debussy: Petite Suite performed by Katelan Terrell and Michał Biel
  • Maurice RavelLa Valse performed by Sora Jung and Adam Rothenberg

Of course, it was fun to once again hear the crowd pleasers - Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune, Ravel's La Valse, and most of all Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre - but it was the less familiar works that most interested me.  I had never before heard Debussy's Petite Suite in its original arrangement for four hands.  It was much different than the work I normally associate with that composer; this was much gentler in tone.  Poulenc's 1951 L’embarquement pour Cynthère took its title from a 1717 painting by Watteau of the same name and could so be seen as a form of tone poem.  It was certainly a very rousing piece and sounded at times almost like a swirling dance tune.

The recital lasted about 70 minutes and was extremely enjoyable.  All the pianists were uniformly excellent and received a well earned ovation from the enthusiastic audience at the end of the performance.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Mendelssohn, Kahn, Schubert and Brahms

Yesterday afternoon, the Jupiter Players performed the first in the new season's series of twenty chamber music recitals at Christ and St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  It was an auspicious beginning that featured works by several of the nineteenth century's most important composers - Mendelssohn, Robert Kahn, Schubert and Brahms.

The program opened with Mendelssohn's  Rondo Capriccioso in E Major, Op. 14 (1830), one of his most popular works for solo piano - perhaps because, as  one critic has suggested, " sounds more difficult to play than it actually is." - here arranged by one G. Günther for two violins and viola.  Though the autograph of the final work is dated June 13, 1830, the work had been begun much earlier, and the closing 6/8 presto in E minor was actually completed in 1828.  Mendelssohn returned to the work after he had made the acquaintance of Munich pianist Delphine von Schauroth.  The two exchanged musical pieces as gifts and Mendelssohn's contribution was the present piece, now complete with the addition of the opening 4/4 andante in E major.  Though the arrangement for strings played here was lively enough, I much preferred the original for solo piano.

The next work was Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”), D. 965 (1828).  Schubert was the greatest songwriter of the nineteenth century and never so much as in this lied written shortly before his untimely death.  It was composed for the soprano, Anna Milder-Hauptmann, whom Schubert held in high regard and was premiered in Latvia on February 10, 1830.  The verses themselves were taken from poems by Wilhelm Müller and Karl August Varnhagen von Ense.  The instrumentation was for soprano, clarinet, and piano.

Another vocal piece followed, a song cycle by Robert Kahn entitled Jungbrunnen (“Fountain of Youth”), Op. 46 (1906).  Kahn was a  protege of Brahms, and the great composer's influence can clearly be heard here.   During the period in which Kahn composed this cycle he was not only a teacher at the prestigious Königlichen Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where his students included Arthur Rubinstein, but also performed as a lied accompanist and chamber musician.  This piece, whose lyrics were written by Paul Heyse, Nobel laureate for Literature in 1910, was scored for soprano, violin, cello, and piano.  The titles of the songs were "The roses are blooming"; "My heart is pounding"; "Cool forest night"; "I wander through the chilly forest"; "My mind is cheerful"; "In moonlight"; and "There is a gale blowing."  Despite Kahn's relative obscurity, this was a major work of great beauty and deserves to be heard more often.

The soloist on both the Schubert and the Kahn was soprano Hyunah Yu.  I had never before heard her perform and was impressed by her ability and range.  She was very successful in conveying to the audience both works' strong emotional content.

After intermission, the program closed with Brahms's Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864).  The work began as a string quintet (in this case, a quartet with an additional cello) that the composer wrote in 1862 and later transcribed into a sonata for two pianos (Op. 34b).  The sonata was not particularly well received when it was premiered by the composer and pianist Carl Tausig, but Brahms did not withdraw it from publication.  The quintet itself, which violinist Joseph Joachim had found lacking in "charm," was eventually destroyed.  This was par for the course with Brahms who, ever the perfectionist, never hesitated to discard any work that failed to meet his high standards.  As one would expect with a work that had so prolonged a gestation, the final product sounded a bit awkward in some passages; but it was nevertheless successful, especially in the second movement andante, un poco adagio, in expressing its composer's Romantic ethos.  Considering that the piece was originally conceived entirely for string instruments, it was remarkable how prominent a part the piano was given in the final version.

Friday, September 9, 2016

NYC Classical Music Season 2016 - 2017

Summer has ended and it's time to get ready for the beginning of the classical music season here in New York City.  I already have purchased all my tickets and filled all my subscriptions and am now eagerly awaiting the first week of October when things start off.

At the Met, I'm scheduled to attend eight operas.  This will be the first season without James Levine as Music Director and it will be interesting to see if any changes have already taken place within the company.  Maestro Levine will still be present as "Music Director Emeritus," however, and will be conducting three operas - Rossini's L’Italiana in Algeria, Mozart's Idomeneo, and Verdi's Nabucco, the last with the great Placido Domingo singing the lead role as a baritone.  I'll also be seeing a new production of Rossini's final work, Guillaume Tell, in what will be the opera's first staging at the Met in over 80 years.  Another new production will be Gounod's Roméo et Juliette featuring the wonderful soprano Diana Damrau as Juliet.  Later in the season, I'll see Verdi's Aida for the first time in many years and will also have an opportunity to hear the work of the "Music Director Designate," Yannick Nézet-Séguin, when he takes the podium in late April to conduct Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer.  It all begins on October 1 when Fabio Luisi conducts what for me is the greatest opera of them all, Mozart's Don Giovanni.  This will be the first opportunity I've had to hear the much touted baritone Simon Keenlyside who will be taking on the title role.

At Carnegie Hall, I'll be attending the Opening Night celebration when Gustavo Dudamel will lead the Simón Bolivar Orchestra in a rendition of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps.  Two nights later, I'll return to hear the same conductor and ensemble perform a work I'm eagerly anticipating, Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie.  Shortly thereafter, Simon Rattle will conduct Mahler's Symphony No. 6 with the Philadelphia Orchestra only a few weeks before he returns to lead another great orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, in Mahler's Symphony No. 7.  Other orchestral performances at the Hall this season will include Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bruckner's No. 9, Franz Wesler-Möst leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert's Ninth Symphony, Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony in Beethoven's Third, the Eroica, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting a concert version of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the great Valery Gergiev conducting the Munich Philharmonic in yet another rendition of the Beethoven's Eroica, and finally at the very end of the season Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Met Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 1.  As far as solo recitals, those I will attend all take place in the latter part of the season when I will hear four pianists whom I consider among the greatest now active - András Schiff, Richard Goode, Mitsuko Uchida and Yefim Bronfman. 

I also renewed my subscription to the Lincoln Center's Great Performers series at David Geffen Hall and will first be hearing at the end of October the London Symphony perform Verdi's Requiem and then in the second half of the season, on two consecutive dates, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, led by its Music Director Iván Fischer, in performances of Beethoven's First, Fifth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.

Finally, I plan on attending several chamber performances given by the Jupiter Players and any number of recitals at Juilliard.

All in all, it should be a great season.  And of course, as soon as I've heard them, I'll be posting my thoughts on all these performances here on this blog.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Met Breuer: Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

Although Diane Arbus is generally considered one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, her work has not that often been exhibited since her death at age 48 in 1971.  I was all the more interested then in seeing the current show, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, at the Met Museum's new space at the Breuer, formerly the site of the Whitney Museum.

The exhibit limits itself to the period from 1956 to 1962 when Arbus first broke away from the fashion photography she had been producing with her husband Allan Arbus.  During these years, Arbus worked exclusively in 35mm format before moving on to a medium format camera (according to Patricia Bosworth's biography, a Pentax).

Although it was obvious from looking at the 100+ photos on view that Arbus was still refining her style at this point, it was clear that she already understood the direction she wished to pursue.  Her predilection for the unusual and grotesque is readily apparent.  It was during this period that she produced some of her best known photos, most famously the grimacing young boy holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park.  Many of the photos were of female impersonators and even more were shots taken of classic films, such as Dracula, being shown on television or movie screens.  The interiors of movie theaters and empty stores also provided her with subject matter.

In a separate gallery, nine of the ten prints from Arbus's one and only portfolio were placed on view along with the title page she'd written out by hand.  These prints included her most iconic photos, such as that of two twin girls standing side by side.  Also among them was the freakish shot of a giant standing in a stooped over position beside his normal sized parents in their Bronx living room.  Why the tenth print was placed in an outer gallery rather than here with the other nine was not explained.

In another room were hung works by those photographers who had exerted an early influence on Arbus.  The usual suspects were all present - Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and, of course, Lisette Model under whom Arbus briefly studied. (Curiously, there were no works shown by Berenice Abbott who had also instructed Arbus at an earlier point in her career.)  There was also a street portrait by the German photographer August Sander whom one would usually not associate with Arbus's more spontaneous style; on the other hand, his ability to create a sense of normalcy in the portrayal of his subjects was germane to what Arbus was attempting in her own oeuvre.

One shortcoming of the exhibit was the lack of technical information.  No data was provided regarding the cameras Arbus used or the film she shot on.  It might have been Kodak Tri-X, first introduced in 35mm format in 1954, but that's just an educated guess.  Since the majority of the photos were taken in low light, it would have been interesting to know if the film had been "pushed" (i.e., shot at a higher speed than the film's stated ISO).  Unfortunately, the handsomely designed catalog was also lacking this information, at least as far as I could tell while browsing through it.  When I asked if a curator was available, I was told none was on site to answer my questions.

One aspect of Arbus's work that is not often mentioned is her skill in the darkroom.  All the works on view were extremely well printed, but no information was provided as to whether or not these were actually vintage prints.  (It's worth noting that those photographs reproduced in a 2003 publication, Revelations, had not been printed by Arbus herself.)  At the exhibit, a few empty boxes of 11 x 14" Dupont enlarging paper were shown in a glass case to one side.  I found this significant because I had always regarded Agfa Portriga Rapid as the photographer's paper of choice.  It also would have been very helpful in understanding the decisions Arbus had made in the darkroom if the photographer's contact sheets had here been made available for study.

As for the venue itself, the Met has apparently made no major renovations to the Whitney's old space other than a quick paint job. The galleries on the second floor where the exhibit was held were fairly spacious - a good thing considering how crowded they were - and included a table and stools as well as a few more comfortable armchairs.

The exhibit continues through November 27, 2016.