Sunday, October 30, 2016

Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Gallery: John Beasely Green and Adam Fuss

I went on Wednesday to see two exhibits at the Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Gallery on Park Avenue.  This is the premier gallery in New York City for anyone with an interest in early photography and alternative processes.

The first exhibit is devoted to the work of John Beasley Greene, an Egyptologist of American descent who died tragically young of tuberculosis at only age 24.  The works on display consist of salt prints and waxed calotype negatives and date from the mid-1850's when the art of photography was still in its infancy.  To us in the twenty-first century there's nothing at all remarkable about Greene's views of the pyramids and monuments of ancient Egypt.  If anything, so familiar have these scenes become that they seem a bit hackneyed.  To the majority of Greene's contemporaries, however, these photographs afforded them their first glimpse of the Mideast and they must have found the content startling indeed.  After the passage of so many years, we can only imagine their reaction.  Greene, who was a student of Gustave Le Gray, was an exceptionally talented photographer to have mastered his craft at so young an age.  If he had lived longer, he would no doubt have been hailed as a master of the medium.  As it is, he is almost forgotten now; but that should in no way lessen our respect for his achievement.  A selection of his photographs is available on the Getty website and they are well worth studying.

Since the Kraus gallery specializes in early photography from the mid-nineteenth century, it's very unusual to find there an exhibit devoted to the work of a living artist.  The exception, whose work is now currently on view, is Adam Fuss.  Fuss is a British photographer who has made a name for himself by combining less commonly utilized techniques, such as pinhole photography, with unusual subject matter.  The current show consists of several oversize daguerreotypes (Fuss claims they are the largest ever created, and I see no reason to doubt this) that portray in separate images snakes and figure models posed on a mattress.  These make for quite striking images.  The figure models are Afro-American women, one of whom is obviously pregnant, whose bodies have been covered in oil to give them a glossy appearance.  In one image, the model's eyes are rendered as shining discs.  The photographer explains his interest photographing this subject matter in an Artist's Statement:
"One key to decoding the rich symbolic figure of the snake is its continuously undulating wavelike form, which mirrors its dual negative and positive, masculine and feminine, natures.  The snake is uncanny and inhabits two worlds.  In my pictures, the gate to the other world is suggested by the mattress, which becomes the stage for a drama both universal and domestic.  The snake arrives on this stage from the underworld.  Other figures emerge, human in nature but a greater part snake."
Accompanying Fuss's own works is a selection of nineteenth century daguerreotypes that fall into two categories: female nudes and postmortem portraits.  These are accompanied by an essay by Fuss in which he hypothesizes that pre-Raphaelite painting was largely inspired by the daguerreotype image but that this influence was never given due credit since photography was at the time not considered an art and therefore not a fit vehicle for artistic inspiration.  It's a fascinating argument for art historians to ponder.  But one need not ascribe to Fuss's theory in order to appreciate these images.  Taken on their own, they are utterly compelling, especially the death portraits which strike the twenty-first century viewer as eerie and even shocking.  Our modern sensibilities are too far removed from our ancestors' social customs and view of death to be able to easily accept them as keepsakes of a departed loved one.  Instead, they strike us as inexpressibly morbid.

The John Beasely Green exhibit continues through December 2, 2016; and Adam Fuss exhibit continues through November 8, 2016.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Juilliard415 Performs Vivaldi and Albinoni

On Tuesday, I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the first of the four recitals the Juilliard415, the school's Baroque chamber ensemble, will give this season.  All the works performed were written by Venetian composers of the seventeenth century.

The program began with a work by the most famous of all Italian Baroque masters, Antonio Vivaldi.  The piece was a seven movement chamber concerto in G minor, RV 104, entitled La Notte and published in 1728 in Amsterdam as one of the six flute concertos comprising the Op. 10.  Considering the enormous popularity of The Four Seasons, it's hard to believe today that Vivaldi's music was almost forgotten during the Classical and Romantic eras and really only rediscovered and given the appreciation due it in the twentieth century.  In his position at the Ospedale della Pietà, Vivaldi had a readymade orchestra at hand and composed prolifically for them.  Though he died in relative obscurity in Vienna in 1741, he left behind a staggering number of works, including more than 40 operas.  As for the present piece, its mood reflects the decadence of the Venetian Republic in its final years.  It was a city given over to pleasure and vice, one whose seductive iniquities both Da Ponte and Casanova were later to describe so luridly in their respective memoirs.  There is a distinct sense of menace in this work, and the listener feels all about him the dangers lurking in the darkened streets frequented by masked revelers.   

Following the Vivaldi were a series of works by lesser known composers - a Sonata Decimasesta, a Sonata Qunita a due, and a Sonata Decimaquarta by Dario Castello of whose life almost nothing is known; a Sonata in D minor, Op. 10, No. 18, by Giovanni Legrenzi, an opera composer as well as maestro di cappella at St. Mark's Basilica; a Trio Sonata in D minor by Alessandro Stradella who led a notorious lifestyle and eventually died at the hands of an assassin in Genoa in 1682 after having survived an earlier attempt on his life in Turin in 1677; and a Canzon quarta à 4 by Girolamo Fescobaldi, a master of counterpoint whose keyboard compositions influenced both Bach and Purcell.

The final work on the program was the Trio Sonata No. 1 in D minor by Tomaso Albinoni.  During his lifetime, Albinoni achieved his greatest fame as an operatic composer.  By his own count, he wrote 81 operas.  They were a great success throughout Italy, and the composer was even invited to Munich to direct two of them.  The scores of most of these operas, however, were not published during Albinoni's lifetime and were subsequently lost so that it is primarily for his instrumental pieces that he is remembered today.  Ironically, his greatest claim to fame rests on a piece with which he may have had no actual connection.   That's the famous Adagio in G minor, invariably included in any recorded miscellany of Baroque music.  Whether there actually existed a fragment authored by Albinoni on which the work was based, or whether the entire composition was the invention of musicologist Remo Giazotto is still open to debate.  Nevertheless, it remains one of the few "Baroque" compositions recognizable to the general listener.

Tuesday's recital lasted approximately 75 minutes and, despite the unfamiliarity of most of the pieces performed, was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  This series offers New Yorkers their best opportunity to hear Baroque works played on the period instruments for which they were written.  In addition, the members of the ensemble are not only superb musicians but also possess an unparalleled scholarly knowledge of the music they are offering to their audience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Stravinsky and Ravel

On Sunday afternoon, I went to hear the Omega Ensemble in a free chamber recital at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  On this occasion, the music first visited the Classical period with a rendition of a Beethoven sonata before moving on to twentieth century works by Stravinsky and Ravel.

Before the scheduled program began, there was a brief performance by a "Next Generation" musician, thirteen year old harpist Catherine Hanauer.  It's to the Ensemble's credit that it encourages young musicians in their careers by providing them a forum at these recitals.  The work played by Ms. Hanauer, and quite skillfully too, was the Fantaisie for Harp, Op. 95 (1893) by Camille Saint-Saëns.

The scheduled program then began with a performance of Beethoven's Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2 (1797-1798) with violinist Alexi Kenney and pianist Jessica Osborn.  It's worth noting that even though all ten works Beethoven composed in this genre are commonly referred to as violin sonatas, he himself termed them "for piano and violin," thus making it perfectly clear which instrument of the duo he considered of most importance.  And in fact, these works can most easily be appreciated as piano sonatas with violin accompaniment.  Of his first three works of this type, which collectively form the Op. 12 (dedicated, incidentally, to Antonio Salieri, at the time Vienna's most prominent composer), the No. 2 is the most lighthearted, and one can even discern within it a sense of tenderness.  Though the composer is most often remembered today as a brooding and morose figure tortured to the point of suicide by his deafness, he could, at least in his early period when he was still seeking to establish his reputation in Vienna, be playful and charming.  And that is precisely the mood of this piece.  It may not be his greatest music, but it was certainly pleasant to hear.

The next work was Stravinsky's Suite italienne (1932-1933) featuring cellist Andrew Janss.  This is actually one of two chamber arrangements (the other is for piano and violin) Stravinsky based on themes taken from his 1920 ballet Pulcinella which was itself an adaption of eighteenth century commedia del arte music at the time mistakenly attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi.  Thus, ironically, we have the great champion of modernism, the composer of Le sacre du printemps, looking back and taking inspiration from antique musical forms.  The result is that one hears Baroque music as filtered through a twentieth century sensibility.  It's a fascinating combination and it's to Stravinsky's credit that he was able to fashion from it so engaging a work.  In preparing the present arrangement, he collaborated with Gregor Piatigorsky whose mastery of the cello must have been of invaluable assistance.

After intermission, all three musicians returned onstage to perform Ravel's Piano Trio (1914).  Although the work was written on the eve of World War I and immediately before Ravel enlisted in the French medical corps, there is no sense of  impending doom in the trio.  Instead, it concerns itself more with Basque folk music as the composer, who was himself of Basque descent on his mother's side, began work on it while also composing a piano concerto, later abandoned, also based on Basque themes.  In the second movement, Ravel referenced a Malaysian form of poetry in which the second and fourth lines of a quatrain are repeated in the first and third lines of the following verse.  In the third movement passacaglia, Ravel looked back to the musical forms of the Baroque period.  For all its eclecticism, however, the work, written in the traditional four movement format, is thoroughly stamped with the composer's distinctive style.

The Omega Ensemble is an excellent musical group with top-notch musicians.  Sunday's recital proved a very rewarding experience for its enthusiastic audience.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts L'italiana in Algeri

I went on Thursday evening to the Met Opera for the second time this season.  This performance featured James Levine, the company's Music Director Emeritus, conducting one of Rossini's early operas, L'italiana in Algeri, written when he was only 21 years old.

Like Mozart's Don Giovanni, which I saw earlier this month, L'italiana is technically considered, at least according to Wikipedia, a dramma giocoso in which both comic and dramatic elements are commingled.  Taking its inspiration from the works of the Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni, this form of opera was common in the eighteenth century but has now all but disappeared from the repertoire.  To be honest, though, I'm not sure why this particular work was so designated.  It struck me as pure opera buffa, a lighthearted comedy that at times approached slapstick.  The characters were deliberately portrayed as no more than cartoon caricatures, and there were no dark dramatic moments to spoil the fun.  The story of the Turkish bey who longs to marry an Italian girl is, in fact, reminiscent of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but the final scene lacks the latter's compassionate characterization of the pasha whose magnanimity gave such depth to Mozart's singspiel and raised it to a higher level than that of a mere diversion.  From its "surprise" overture, which used the same stratagem as had Haydn in his Symphony No. 94L'italiana's music is charming and vivacious and demonstrates clearly why Rossini was to become, only a few years hence, the most popular opera composer of his day.

The libretto was written by Angelo Anelli who had worked with a number of Italian composers and who in this case adapted one of his own texts that had previously been set to music by Luigi Mosca.  The opera premiered in Venice in 1813 and was wildly successful, and deservedly so, the first of Rossini's works to gain a permanent place in the standard repertoire. 

I never miss an opportunity to hear Maestro Levine conduct and that was really my main motivation in attending this production.  As usual, he turned in a superlative performance on the podium that allowed the audience to truly appreciate Rossini's music.

The title role was sung by mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato making her Met debut as she replaced Elizabeth DeShong, who was forced to withdraw from the entire run due to illness.  I thought Ms. Pizzolato did an entirely acceptable job, all things considered, but she was obviously out of her depth in taking on a starring role in a bel canto opera, especially when in the company of such a talented cast.  It was really tenor René Barbera in the role of Lindorno who stole the show and received the greatest applause.  The supporting roles were expertly handled by baritone Nicola Alaimo as Taddeo and bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as the pasha.

This was one of the Met's older productions dating all the way back to 1973.  It was created by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle who did service as producer, set designer, costume designer and was in the end very successful in providing a buoyant setting for this cheerful work.

All in all, this performance proved a delightful experience and one that was extremely well executed.  I'd recommend it heartily to anyone with a love of Rossini's music who's seeking a fun, entertaining evening at the opera.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Juilliard Piano Recital: Mozart, Chopin and Scriabin

On Wednesday afternoon, Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum staged their first recital at Paul Hall this season.  The program lasted approximately 80 minutes and featured three performances that included works by Mozart, Chopin and Scriabin.

The recital began with Mozart's Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457 (1784).  This is among the most noteworthy of Mozart's piano compositions for several reasons.  First is the choice of a minor key.  In composing his music, Mozart did not choose keys haphazardly and, to an extent, his choice revealed his state of mind at the moment.  Whenever he worked in a minor key the piece was invariably of a more personal nature than those simply intended for public performance.  Secondly, and most unusually, the work is not usually performed as a standalone piece as it was at this recital but is more commonly played together with the Fantasia in C minor, K. 475 composed several months later.  It was Mozart himself who set the precedent for this and one wonders at his purpose in devising the obvious association between the two works, both of which are complete in themselves.  Perhaps he found, in this instance at least, the classical sonata format too constraining and wrote the Fantasia as a means of further expressing the ideas first set forth in the sonata.  Third, K. 457 differs from most of the composer's sonatas in that it does not end with an upbeat climax but rather with an allegro assai that possesses an unusually dark and introspective character, one that has led some critics to see in this movement an anticipation of the Romantic era.  Certainly, there is a correlation between Mozart's sonata and Beethoven's own Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, written fourteen years later.  At this recital, the sonata was performed by Daniel Parker who displayed a great deal of sensitivity in his interpretation.

For the next work pianist Yandi Chen performed all 24 Preludes of Chopin's Op. 28 (1835-1839).  Chopin is often criticized for never having composed any longer works, such as a symphonies, but instead only shorter pieces, the overwhelming majority for the piano, as though this circumstance somehow consigned him to the ranks of lesser composers.  Be that as it may, the preludes stand as masterpieces of miniaturization, each of them self contained and evoking in the listener a different response to each.  Their complexity and depth is all the more amazing considering that the majority were written during the tumultuous winter Chopin spent with George Sand on Majorca, an ordeal Curtis Cate describes in detail in his biography of the novelist.  Though the project itself may have been inspired by Bach, a copy of whose Well Tempered Clavier Chopin had taken with him to the island, the pieces themselves are thoroughly Romantic in character.  The performance at Wednesday's recital was extraordinary in itself as the pianist, over the course of 45 minutes, played all 24 from memory and expertly shaped each with its own distinct identity.

The final work on the program was Scriabin's Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor, Op. 23 (1897-1898) as performed by Randy Ryan.  This was an appropriate work to follow the Chopin since at the time he wrote it Scriabin was still deeply under the influence of the Polish composer.  Perhaps for this reason the sonata is one of Scriabin's more popular works for the piano.  Its Romantic tendencies are apparent throughout, and the work is filled with a sense of pathos.  The composer himself referred to it as "Gothic" and saw in it a musical representation of a ruined castle.  It's quite colorful and filled with youthful elan; there is little in it to suggest the dissonances that would mark his later and more innovative work.

The Piano Performance Forum recitals are an overlooked resource for lovers of piano music here in New York City.  The programs always contain extremely challenging works and the Juilliard musicians who perform them do so with an expertise one would normally only expect to encounter on the main stage at Carnegie Hall.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Simon Rattle Conducts Mahler No. 6

On Monday evening I returned to Carnegie Hall for the third time in five days to hear another wonderful concert.  On this occasion Simon Rattle, who is curating a Perspectives series at the Hall this season, led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, the "Tragic."

The irony of this work, the most pessimistic of all Mahler's symphonies, is that it was written during one of the few happy periods of his life.  He had married the beautiful, and much younger, Alma Schindler only two years before and at the time of composition was busy raising a family.  Perhaps he felt that such happiness could not last, or more likely simply did not allow his personal life to enter into his work as a composer.  Still, there's no denying the sense of foreboding that accompanies the hammer blows in the final movement.  Originally there were three such blows but in Mahler later removed the last, that which according to Alma portended his own death, and replaced it with a moment of stillness.

In many ways, the No. 6 was the closest the composer came to the traditional symphonic structure first formulated by Haydn and then later further developed by Mozart and Beethoven.  It even has a definite key signature (A minor) as well as the conventional four movement structure.  The order of the movements, however, has been a source of controversy almost from the beginning.  In the first edition of the score, Mahler placed the scherzo as the second movement and followed it with the andante as the third.  Almost at once, though, he changed his mind.  In all three performances he personally conducted, he reversed the order and placed the scherzo after the andante.  He then contacted his publisher and directed that an errata notice should be put in all copies of the original score noting the change.  There have been many scholarly arguments among musicologists over the years as to which is correct.  Personally, I believe the wishes of the composer should always be respected and that the revised order should therefore prevail.  At bottom, though, I suspect it's more a matter of taste than anything else.  There are a large number of recordings by respected musicians that support each position.  The one I own, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, is scherzo / andante.  At Monday's performance, however, Rattle opted for the andante / scherzo ordering.

Another point of contention is the subtitle "Tragic."  Mahler went back and forth over the course of his career in his feelings for programmatic titles.  It should be noted that the sobriquet was not set forth on the original score, nor anywhere else for that matter, except on the program title page for the 1907 Vienna performance.  Nevertheless, it's difficult to think of any other description for this work that is so apt.  Even in the gentle andante there is a sense of doom lurking in the background only to arrive full blown in the final movement.

None of these scholarly arguments really matter.  The important thing is the music itself.  The No. 6 is a masterpiece by arguably the greatest composer of the twentieth century.  Many years ago, I saw Bernstein lead a memorable performance with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.  On Monday evening at the same venue, the symphony was given an extraordinary performance that allowed the audience to appreciate the scope of Mahler's genius.  Rattle's conducting was outstanding and he was given full support by one of the country's best orchestras.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie

After having gone on Thursday to Carnegie Hall to hear the Opening Night concert, I returned on Saturday evening to hear another great performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the outstanding Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.  This time there was only work on the program - the Turangalîla-Symphonie by the French composer Olivier Messiaen.

The Turangalîla is a massive symphonic work composed over a two year period from 1946 to 1948 and then revised in 1990 two years before the composer's death.  At the time of the original composition, Messiaen was at the height of his powers.  Only a few years before, while being held prisoner during World War II, he had written his best known work, Quatuor pour la fin du temps.  The commission for the present work from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was an acknowledgement of his growing international reputation.  Ironically, though it was Koussevitzky who had given Messiaen the commission, he was too ill to conduct it himself and the task fortuitously fell instead to his protege Leonard Bernstein.

The symphony, which contains ten distinct movements and runs about 75 minutes in length, is massive in every sense of the word, not least of all in its instrumentation.  It includes not only the usual orchestral instruments but a wide variety of percussive instruments - including vibraphone, glockenspiels, wood blocks, tambourine, maracas and tubular bells - as well as a solo piano and ondes Martenot.  Needless to say, leading such an immense orchestra is a challenge to any conductor.

Messiaen, no matter how brilliant a composer, could be quite tiresome in describing the sources of his inspiration especially when they referred to his Christian faith.  His description of the Turangalîla, however, is refreshingly simple.  When questioned, he is quoted as having said only, "It's a love song."  It was only after he had completed the work that he gave it its tongue twister of a name and provided titles to the four main themes.  There are other sources as well, though, and some of them are quite surprising.  The Turangalîla II movement, for example, was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Though the Turangalîla is a symphonic work, it stands outside the Western tradition inherited from Haydn and Beethoven.  There is none of the expected development or recapitulation.  To this end, the program notes quote Edward Said:
"Whereas the main Western musical tradition by and large relies upon development, control, inventiveness, and rhythm in the service of logical control, Messiaen's music is consciously at some eccentric distance from these characteristics.  Instead his work emphasizes repetition and stasis..."
Or, as Pierre Boulez, more succinctly put it: "Messiaen doesn't compose, he juxtaposes."

While one cannot discount the theoretical aspect of this music (it was a milestone in the development of post-war serialism), there was also an emotional side to the work's composition.  Shortly after Messiaen had taken on a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire, he had fallen in love with a much younger student, Yvonne Loriod.  By the time he came to write the present symphony, he had already composed in 1943 Visions de l'Amen which he had then premiered with himself and Loriod playing the two piano parts.  Considering the prominence given the piano part (played by Loriod at the premiere) and that of the ondes Martenot (played by Loriod's sister Jeanne) in rhe Turangalîla as well as Messiaen's description of the work as a love song, it's possible to see his romantic attachment as the driving force behind the work's completion.

As one might expect, the experience of hearing such an immense work, when properly performed and conducted, is overwhelming.  When I had heard Dudamel and the Orquesta on Thursday evening, it had been primarily a festive occasion in which the enjoyment of the audience had been the main concern.  Saturday evening's performance of so complex a work as the Turangalîla was a much greater test for both conductor and ensemble.  They both handled their task superlatively, as did soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on the extremely demanding piano part.  The soloist on the ondes Martenot was Cynthia Millar.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Carnegie Hall Opening Night: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Le Sacre du printemps

Yesterday evening, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first concert of the season, an Opening Night program that focused on two wildly different dance pieces from the early twentieth century, one by Ravel and the other by Stravinsky, both of them sharing a connection with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

The evening began with Ravel's La Valse.  Though the piece was originally conceived as a tribute to Johann Strauss and the gaiety of pre-war Vienna, it took on another meaning - no matter how vehemently Ravel may have denied it - when the work finally came to be written in 1919 at a time when Europe was still reeling from the cataclysmic effects of four years of war.  The halcyon days of the Belle Époque that had initially inspired the work seemed impossibly distant from this new vantage point and were looked back upon not so much with nostalgia as with a sense they had all along been unreal, a veneer thinly covering the strife and discontent that were eventually to rise to the surface and plunge the continent into four years of madness.  Though the piece, which in actuality contains a series of waltzes, begins pleasantly enough, a sense of something not quite right soon makes itself felt, and the work ends with a death-like coda that sounds as if a music box had burst a spring and ended on a false note.

It was La Valse that ended Ravel's association with the Ballets Russes.  Although Diaghiliev admitted the work was a masterpiece, he then went on to claim that it was not a ballet but "a portrait of ballet."  Ravel was understandably insulted and broke off all contact with the impresario.  So upset was the composer that when he met Diaghilev again years later he wouldn't even shake his hand, an act that led the latter to challenge him to a duel.  One can't blame Ravel for his indignation.  This was one of his finest creations and even today one of his most popular works.

So fixed a place in the repertoire has Le Sacre du printemps now attained that it's difficult to believe it could once have been as controversial as its history suggests.  Everyone knows the story of the infamous 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that ended in a riot, though there were those who claimed at the time that this was a response to Nijinsky's choreography rather than Stravinsky's music.  (Years ago I saw a recreation of the original production staged by the Joffrey Ballet and thought it magnificent.)  What can't be denied, however, is that this was one of the earliest triumphs of modernism no matter that it had its roots firmly in the Russian folk tradition.  Even now, despite its familiarity, there is something deeply unsettling in the savage rhythms that burst out of nowhere and challenge the sensibilities of the audience.  There are very few other works in the repertoire so gripping as this.  As for the orchestra's interpretation here, I thought it too polished for my taste.  There was little in evidence of the primeval Russian energy that infuses Stravinsky's music.

I had seen Gustavo Dudamel conduct for the first time last season when he led the L.A. Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler No. 3 and had been suitably impressed.  It was one of the few occasions on which I'd witnessed a performer actually live up to the hype he'd received in the media.  He really was that good.  At this concert I had an opportunity to hear him with his other orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.  Together they showed themselves to be a world class ensemble fully the equal of any European orchestra.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Met Opera: Fabio Luisi Conducts Don Giovanni

On Saturday afternoon, I attended my first opera of the season at the Met.  I thought it an auspicious beginning to the new season to start with the greatest opera ever composed - Don Giovanni.

This was the second collaboration between Mozart and the Italian poet Lorenzo Da Ponte.  While credit for the opera's enduring popularity is most often given to Mozart - and rightfully so, for this is perhaps the greatest music he ever composed - it would be a great mistake to overlook the contribution made by his librettist.  Da Ponte, no matter how picaresque a character, was a true child of the Enlightenment.  He, better than most, realized that the days when opera was a pastime only of an entitled aristocracy were fast coming to an end.  It was really he who saw the possibility of replacing opera seria, with its plots taken from ancient history and classical mythology, with an entirely new operatic form that was no longer inspired by antique themes.  In Don Giovanni, he took a morality tale that had been treated countless times before and made of it a proto-Romantic vehicle in which the protagonist defied conventional mores and even the threat of eternal damnation in order to live his life as he saw fit.

It's the ending of the opera that's problematic.  If regarded purely in terms of dramatic function, the finale should obviously come when the unrepentant protagonist is dragged off to hell by the Commendatore's ghost.  Not only is this musically one of the most powerful moments in all opera, it is the point to which the audience's expectations have been deliberately led through both acts.  It serves to bring the action full circle from the opening scene in which the Commendatore is murdered and vengeance is sworn ("Ah, vendicar, se il puoi, giura quel sangue ognor!").  The closing scene seems almost grotesquely anti-climactic and its moral forced ("Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, e de' perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual").  But its seemingly incongruous inclusion is not arbitrary.  The reason for its placement is set forth quite clearly in Da Ponte's memoirs:
"The finale must, through a dogma of the theater, produce on the stage every singer of the cast, be there three hundred of them, and whether by ones, by twos, by threes or by sixes, tens or sixties; and they must have solos, duets, terzets, sextets, tenets, sixtyets; and if the plot of the drama does not permit, the poet must find a way to make it permit..."
Of course, the one singer necessarily missing from all this tumult is the most important of all, Don Giovanni himself.

It's interesting that Da Ponte should have chosen Seville as the setting for the opera.  Although the Met's program notes describe the city as "a mythical world of winding streets, hot-blooded young men, and exotically beautiful women sequestered behind latticed windows," Da Ponte's good friend Casanova painted a starkly different picture of Spain in his memoirs.  In fact, the country was at this time still an extremely repressive society and the dread Inquisition was still in existence.  It was a dour world that had no place for a real life Don Giovanni and Casanova moved on as soon as he was able.

The performance itself was competently done - if lacking in inspiration - with Fabio Luisi, the Met's principal conductor, leading an excellent cast that included Simon Keenlyside in the title role and Adam Plachetka as Leporello.  As the afternoon dragged on, though, the performance never really caught fire or inspired the imagination.  Not helping matters was the 2011 production by Michael Grandage that was so dark and gloomy that it was difficult at times to see what was happening onstage.  Such a wonderful work deserves better.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Juilliard: Bachauer Piano Recital

On Thursday evening, I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the annual Bachauer Piano Recital honoring the two winners of this year's competition, each of whom received a $10,000 grant.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable event that provided an opportunity for listeners to hear two talented young musicians at the very beginning of their careers.

Following introductory remarks by Joseph W. Polisi, President of Juilliard, the first pianist appeared on stage.  This was Anna Han, a student of Robert McDonald.  For her part of the recital, she selected four works, beginning with the first movement Allegro moderato of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82.  Ms. Han then played without pause the final three short pieces - Scriabin's Prelude Op. 11, No. 12 followed by two Chopin Op. 33 Mazurkas, the No. 2 in C Major and the No. 3 in D Major.

I had heard the great pianist Yefim Bronfman perform all three of Prokofiev's "War Sonatas" beginning with the No. 6 at a recital at Carnegie Hall in May.  I had been struck then by the dissonance that marked the opening movement as one hand played in A major and the other in A minor.  This created in the listener's mind a sense of instability that Prokofiev might very well have intended to reflect the paranoia Soviets were then experiencing under the weight of Stalin's purges.

The twenty-four preludes that constitute Scriabin's Op. 11 were written early in his career when he was still deeply under the influence of Chopin.  They were, in fact, deliberately modeled after those comprising Chopin's Op. 28 and followed the same key sequence.  By performing the Chopin Mazurkas immediately after the Scriabin Prelude, Ms. Han emphasized both composers' Romantic tendencies.  Surprisingly, the Chopin pieces turned out to be the only non-Russian works on the program.

The second performer to take the stage was Mackenzie Melemed, yet another student of Robert McDonald.  His performance consisted of two Russian pieces - the Sonata Tragica Op.39, No.5, and the Canzona Matinata, Op.39, No.4. by Nikolai Medtner.  These works, which were by far the most interesting performed at the recital, were written by Medtner in 1919-1920 shortly before he emigrated from Russia where he had been a student of Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory.  They are described in the composer's Wikipedia biography as follows:
"The Eleventh [Sonata], 'Sonata Tragica' in C minor, Op. 39, No. 5, concludes 'Forgotten Melodies (Second Cycle)'. There is some repetition of themes in this set as well—the piece which precedes the Sonata, 'Canzona Matinata', contains a theme which recurs in the Sonata, and according to Medtner's wishes both pieces are to be played attacca—without pause. This is also a single movement sonata-allegro form, but Allegro, dramatic and ferocious, with three themes of which one (the reminiscence from 'Canzona Matinata') does not return. A violent coda concludes."
Following Mr. Melemed's performance and a brief chat with radio host Bob Sherman, both musicians performed together the second movement Valse (Presto in G major) from Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2, Op. 17, the piano duo premiered by the composer and his close friend Vladimir Horowitz at a Beverly Hills party in 1942.

It was interesting to compare the Medtner pieces to those by Rachmaninoff .  Not only were both composers fellow countrymen who had fled the Revolution, but both were confirmed Romantics.  Rachmaninoff's second suite for two pianos was written in 1901 immediately before his famous Piano Concerto No. 2.  Although it is the concerto, famously dedicated to the psychotherapist Nikolai Dahl, that is generally considered to mark Rachmaninoff's return to creativity following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony, the suite can also be viewed as a turning point for Rachmaninoff.

There was a pause between the two musicians' performances during which McGraw-Hill Chairman Harold McGraw III presented violinist Karen Cueva with an award for music education and community outreach.  The program notes indicated that Ms. Cueva, who has both an undergraduate degree from Juilliard and a Masters in Education from Harvard, is currently Manager of Learning & Education Programs at Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute.

The recital will be broadcast on WQXR at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5th, as part of the Young Artists Showcase series.