Monday, November 28, 2016

Galerie St. Etienne: You Say You Want a Revolution

Without question, the award for the most timely exhibit of the season has to go to Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street.  When the current exhibit, You Say You Want a Revolution, was being organized, there was no way the gallery's curators and staff could have known that political turmoil would soon hit so close to home.  Now, following Donald Trump's surprise victory earlier this month, the stretch of 56th Street immediately behind the gallery has been closed by the police for security reasons - Trump's NYC residence is only a block away - and the artwork condemning social injustice has taken on a new relevance.

The exhibit is subtitled "American Artists and the Communist Party" and there is an excellent unsigned essay in the exhibit guide that traces the complex relationship that existed between left wing artists and the Party leadership in the first half of the twentieth century.  Not all the artists whose work is shown were Party members.  Some, like Stuart Davis and Lynd Ward, were true believers while others, such as Bernarda Bryson Shahn, broke with the Party over its strictures and continued on as "fellow travelers."  The essay also discusses the impact of the New Deal, in the form of the WPA, on American artists in the 1930's when the need for government sponsorship was first recognized.

When one looks at the works on display, however, political considerations become secondary.  However radical the ideology of the graphic artists, at the core of their vision was a profound empathy for the plight of the downtrodden as individuals rather than as examples of an oppressed proletariat.  The subjects of these works transcend in their suffering class labels to become instead fellow humans down on their luck and in need of a helping hand.  The compassion displayed toward these unfortunates is all the more poignant for the dire economic straits which many of the artists themselves were forced to endure during these troubled times.  Their tone is one of outrage against the capitalist greed and racial discrimination that have always been woven into America's fabric.  How can a country as wealthy as this not give assistance to those among us who have nothing?  How can a country which expresses such high ideals in the Bill of Rights persecute its minorities so harshly?  Today, these questions are more pertinent than ever.

All the works shown at the exhibit are of the highest artistic merit.  But even among these, there are some that stand out for their craftsmanship.  The two untitled wood engravings by Lynd Ward, called for convenience sake "Breaking Up the Demonstration" and "The Lynching," were both illustrations for his novel Wild Pilgrimage and show a technical refinement not usually associated with woodcuts.  The gritty oil paintings of Raphael Soyer, such as "Water Street" and "Men at the Mission," possess a stylistic link to the Ashcan School that makes them perfect vehicles for depicting the hardships of the Depression era.  But probably the finest work on view is "The Smell of Defeat" by George Grosz.  As an instructor at the Art Students League, Grosz was able to impart to his students an understanding of art as a form of social protest.  The refusal to turn a blind eye to injustice infused the artist's own work both in Nazi Germany and later, after he had been forced to flee for his life, here in New York City.

The exhibit continues through February 11, 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven and Schumann

Toward the end of each semester at Juilliard, the school stages every Sunday two or three chamber music recitals back to back at Morse Hall.  This past Sunday, I went to one that featured the music of Beethoven and Schumann.

The recital began with Beethoven's Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello in E-flat major, Op. 38.  (The program notes listed this work as Op. 28, but that is incorrect.  The Op. 28 is the composer's Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major.)  The trio is actually an arrangement of perhaps the best known work from Beethoven's early period, the Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1800).  The present reduction was done by Beethoven himself and published in 1805 (the clarinet part can be replaced by a violin depending on which instruments are available).  As cellist Hélène Werner pointed out before beginning the work, it was customary in the nineteenth century for popular works to be arranged for a smaller number of instruments so that they could be performed at home or in a salon setting.  The six-movement Septet is really a form of serenade; it's based loosely on Mozart's Divertimento in E flat major, K. 563 but, at least in my opinion, never rises to the heights of genius of that earlier work.  The Septet nevertheless is an extremely accomplished chamber piece and proved so popular during the composer's lifetime that in later years Beethoven wanted nothing to do with it.  After all, it must have been extremely frustrating for him when producing the transcendent chamber pieces of his late period to have audiences clamoring instead for a performance of this youthful work.  As far as the present reduction is concerned, it is excellent as far as it goes, but the sound is comparatively spare and I would much have preferred to have heard the original version with all seven instruments.  The other two performers at this recital were Noemi Sallai, clarinet, and Mariel Werner, piano; the ensemble was coached by Jon Manasse.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47 (1842).  During his career, Schumann typically immersed himself in composing works for a particular genre before moving on to the next.  1842 was no exception; it was the year in which Schumann wrote many of his most important chamber works.  Aside from the instant quartet, these included the great Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also in E-flat major, as well as the three string quartets that comprise the Op. 41, Schumann's only works in this format, and the Fantasiestücke for piano trio published posthumously in 1887 as Op. 88.  The Quartet was completed immediately after the Quintet and it may have been that Schumann was attempting to further develop the musical ideas he had conceived in the earlier work.  The four movement Quartet is a bit more traditional than the Quintet and the final movement an exercise in counterpoint, but the heart of the work is the andante, placed somewhat unusually as the third movement following the scherzo.  It is so filled with yearning that one is reminded irresistibly of Schubert's great chamber works, particularly the piano trios.  Certainly, in listening to this piece one can better understand the influence that Schubert had on the Romantics who followed him.  The musicians at this performance were Kenneth McDonald, violin; Hannah Geisinger, viola; Noah Koh, cello; Hechengzi Li, piano; they were coached Natasha Brofsky and Matti Raekallio.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart, Schubert and Haydn

At this week's installment of Wednesdays at One at Alice Tully Hall, the Bordone Quartet - consisting of Daniel Cho and Max Tan, violins; Jenni Seo, viola; and Ari Evan, cello - gave an hour-long recital that featured the music of Mozart, Schubert and Haydn.  The ensemble is part of Juilliard's Honors Chamber Music program, described in the program notes as an "intensive yearlong program for select ensembles under the direction of Joseph Lin."  This particular group of musicians was coached by Roger Tapping of the Juilliard Quartet and Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet.

The program opened with Mozart's String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589 (1790), the second of his "Prussian" quartets.  The works in question were given this name on the assumption that they were the result of a commission from King Frederick William II of Prussia.  There is some question, though, whether such a commission actually existed since Mozart took a year off after having completed the first of the series in order to devote himself to the composition of Così fan tutte, the third of the Da Ponte operas.  It's true that the cello is in these quartets given a more prominent role than is customary - Frederick William was an avid amateur cellist - but there is no evidence the king ever actually saw or performed these works.  They were finally published posthumously in 1792.  Although perhaps not as innovative as Mozart's "Haydn" quartets or his "viola" quintets, this is still a work of astonishing beauty, especially in the second movement larghetto, and one of the masterpieces of the chamber repertoire.

The next work was Schubert's String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D. 703 (1820), known as the Quartettsatz.  This one-movement piece, like the much more famous Symphony No. 8, is an unfinished work.  Schubert obviously intended it as the opening movement of a traditional four-movement quartet and in fact began work on the second movement andante before abandoning the project.  As in the case of the No. 8, there is no known reason why the quartet was not completed and conjecture abounds as to the cause.  I think it most likely that Schubert was not yet skilled enough to attempt the heights he later achieved in his final three quartets and, realizing this, put the work aside.  Still, the Quartettsatz represents a huge advance over his previous eleven quartets and points the way to the magnificence of the composer's final years.  The allegro assai is full of fire and passion and thoroughly captivating.  The importance of this work was not immediately recognized, however, and the quartet was not premiered until 1867, almost a half century after its composition.

The final piece was the first movement of Haydn's String Quartet No.  59 in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3 (1793), nicknamed the "Rider" for the galloping (or cantering) rhythm that opens the work.  Dedicated to Haydn's fellow Freemason, Count Apponyi, the Op. 74 quartets may not have been as groundbreaking as those of the Op. 20 or 33, but they are still fine examples of the classical quartet form and very enjoyable to hear.  I only wish there had been time enough for the musicians to have performed the quartet in its entirety.  One can never really appreciate any musical piece when hearing only a fragment.

At another Honors Chamber recital last season, Joseph Lin emphasized that the performance was still a "work in progress."  Nevertheless, the chamber performances given by Juilliard musicians in this program were quite polished and satisfying to hear.  Considering that the first semester is only halfway done, the virtuosity shown by all four musicians, even at this early point, was remarkable.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Met Opera: Fabio Luisi Conducts Guillaume Tell

On Saturday afternoon, I went to the Met Opera to hear the new production of Rossini's final opera, Guillaume Tell after just having attended last month a forty-three year old production of one of the composer's earliest operas, L'italiana in Algeri.

Of course, the question is whether Rossini intended his opera as a valediction.  Did he know when composing it that this would be his last work for the stage?  This is highly unlikely as Tell was only the first of five operas he had contracted to compose for the Paris Opera.  And there are, in fact, indications that he had considered writing an opera based on Goethe's Faust before abruptly retiring at the height of his fame at only age 37.  So what happened then?  Rossini himself never explained his sudden retirement at such a young age.  It may have been simply that, as the world's most popular composer, he felt he had no more worlds to conquer and was wealthy enough that he no longer needed to contend with the tumultuous world of European opera.  More likely though, I think, is that he reached a creative impasse.  He could not return to opera buffa because he must have known better than anyone that he could never again write anything that would surpass the wild success of Il barbiere di Siviglia.  On the other hand, while Tell was definitely a step in a new direction, Rossini might very well not have known where to go next with it and finally have seen it as a dead end.

The libretto, written by Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, was based on Friedrich Schiller's eponymous play.  I've always found it fascinating that with so many great German composers, the works of the greatest German poets, Goethe and Schiller, should have been put to music by composers from other countries.  Witness Gounod's Faust and Massenet's Werther.  It's even more perplexing that Rossini should have chosen to write an opera whose hero is a political rebel.  Certainly, he must have known the problems he would encounter with censors if the work were ever to be staged in his native Italy.  Did he think such a subject would endear him to a Parisian audience?  This is highly unlikely since France, in the years following Napoleon's fall, had along with the rest of Europe in the Biedermeier period become as politically oppressive as Italy.

I had never before heard this opera and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.  This was extremely powerful music that moved far beyond the limits of bel canto and pointed the way to the French grand opera style that would emerge later in the nineteenth century.  In it one can also hear an anticipation of the dramatic sweep of Verdi's early works.  If the action had been compressed into a tighter frame, the opera might have gained a more permanent place in the repertoire than it now enjoys.  As it is, this is the first time it has been heard at the Met since 1931 (and for that matter, the very first time it has been sung there in the original French).

As for the performance itself, I thought conductor Fabio Luisi did very well, much better than when I heard him on the podium earlier this season leading Don Giovanni.  As for the singers - Gerald Finley as Tell, Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, and Bryan Hymel as Arnold - they all were excellent; but the real star of the day was the superb Met chorus.  This was a work that made full use of the chorus and these singers put everything they had into it.

Of the production by Pierre Audi, the less said the better as far as I'm concerned.  This was one of those outings in which the Met, in its misguided search for relevance, has completely disregarded the dictates of good taste.  The pillars of light in the second and third acts reminded me of nothing so much as Star Wars light sabers.  Rossini deserves much better than this, especially after an eighty-five year wait.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Carnegie Hall: Berliner Philharmoniker Performs Boulez and Mahler

Yesterday evening, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear Simon Rattle conduct one of the world's greatest orchestras, the Berliner Philharmoniker, as they performed together a program of twentieth century works by Boulez and Mahler.

The evening began with Boulez's Éclat.  The title is taken from the French verb éclater whose most literal translation is "to burst forth," but which also has a secondary meaning of "to sparkle" or "to glow."  Both those meanings could equally well be applied to the work at hand as it explodes on opening with shimmering beauty and then quietly vanishes.  Boulez, who was in his youth a student of Messiaen, was one of the last century's composers most given to experimentation.  This piece, which is at once atonal and to an extent aleatoric, consists of a dialog between, on the one hand, the orchestra's strings, winds and brass and, on the other, the percussive instruments.  There is no audible pattern to the music, just as in random conversation there is also no discernible pattern.  As one source notes:
"The harmony is therefore never revealed directly, but results from complex interactions, by means of which it is revealed only subliminally."
In spite of this, the work is much more pleasing to hear than most atonal works.  It is as if the composer has allowed the instruments to speak with their own voices without regard to traditional orchestration.

The second and final work on the program was Mahler's Symphony No. 7.  There's a famous anecdote regarding the composition of this symphony.  After having completed the three inner movements in the summer of 1904, Mahler found himself at a loss the following summer when he again set to work on the symphony.  Unable to proceed with the outer movements, he traveled restlessly in search of inspiration but to no avail.  When he returned from his journey, however, and was being rowed across the lake to his summer residence at Maiernigg, he suddenly had a moment of epiphany while listening to the sound of the boat's oars; he at once threw himself into composing the remainder of the work and completed it in an astonishingly short time.  Even if the story is not completely factual - and it certainly seems to simple an explanation considering the complexity of the work - it does give some indication of Mahler's working methods.

In a letter to William Ritter, Mahler succinctly described the structure of the No. 7 as follows: "Three night pieces; the finale, bright day. As a foundation for the whole, the first movement."  It's this journey from night to day that has caused the work to be given the nickname, never approved by Mahler himself, of "Song of the Night."  But the music is atmospheric enough not to need any programmatic references.  After a lengthy first movement, whose slow Langsam opening does indeed call to mind the sound of oars rowing through water, the symphony proceeds to the three inner movements - two marked Nachtmusik surrounding a Scherzo - before proceeding to a more upbeat Rondo finale.  It's the Scherzo, marked Schattenhaft ("like a shadow") that really anchors the work and is the key to its character.  There's something terribly bitter about it, reminding one of those unwanted recollections that come like specters to haunt one on sleepless nights.

The No. 7 has never been one of Mahler's popular symphonies.  Perhaps that's because, in spite of the bright closing, the work is at its center so unremittingly dark and even, especially in the dissonant Scherzo, bizarre.  The work was, however, at this performance given a brilliant performance that fully engaged the audience.  I had heard Simon Rattle last month conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's No. 6 and enjoyed hearing so soon thereafter his interpretation of another of the late symphonies.  If nothing else, it gave me a better idea of Mahler's progression as a composer and helped me better understand what he sought to accomplish in his series of symphonic works.  Both conductor and orchestra were at their best throughout the performance.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Leslie Feeley Gallery: Cornelia Thomsen

I recently went to see Cornelia Thomsen's one-woman show, entitled Strokes, that's currently on view at the Leslie Feeley Gallery on East 68th Street.  On arrival, I found that there are actually two distinct genres of abstract art on display.  The first consists of vertical lines, or stripes, painted with oil on canvas while the second are pen and ink drawings on paper.

I had previously seen samples of earlier stripe paintings by the artist and found the new works much more interesting and accessible.  While the earlier works contained more color, the stripes were too crowded together for my taste, almost like the slats of a fence; and, like a fence, they almost forcibly pushed the viewer back and allowed him no entry to the artist's imaginative world.  The newer works, in contrast, appear at first monochromatic and create a much different psychological effect.  Rather than holding one back, these paintings impress one as multi-lane roadways that lead the viewer ever forward.  But that's not to say they are as straightforward as they first appear, nor for that matter are they completely monochromatic.  When one looks closely, one can see that these are not simple flat lines laid down in a single stroke.  In fact, they are made up of many layers of paint that have been painstakingly applied, pointillist style, in infinitesimal brushstrokes, thus allowing for shadowing as well as a slight blurring (or "feathering," to use a term taken from digital imaging) of the edges.  These, combined with a variety of different colored pigments, together give the paintings more depth, and thereby greater meaning, and render them almost three dimensional.  This can be seen most clearly in the pairing Stripes Nr. 102+103, which I consider the most successful of the paintings shown.

In the catalog's erudite introductory essay by Robert C. Morgan, the writer references the Bauhaus as the source of Ms. Thomsen's approach to art.  I myself would go slightly further back to the De Stijl movement (which itself, of course, exerted tremendous influence on the development of the Bauhaus aesthetic).  Certainly, the paintings shown here conform perfectly to Mondrian's dictum, as set forth in his essay "Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art," that natural form and color should be disregarded in favor of "abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour."  While Ms. Thomsen's style is entirely her own, to me there exists a definite affinity between her work and that of such De Stijl artists as Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Vilmos Huszár

The second category of work shown at the exhibit, that of the pen and ink drawings, differs greatly from the paintings in both content and style.  They share, however, the artist's intense attention to detail.  The tiny cross-hatched lines of which the drawings are composed have been meticulously drawn with an old fashioned nib pen on BFK Rives paper so that the final work has more the appearance of a mezzotint than that of a drawing.  The lines combine to form great swirling patterns that attract the viewer's gaze and hold his attention.  Some, such as Drawing Nr. 37 and Drawing Nr. 44, are so light as to be almost ephemeral, while at the opposite end of the spectrum is Drawing Nr. 10, so dark that it can only be described as brooding; it contains within it a palpable air of foreboding.  In fact, when looking at this last work, I was reminded quite strongly of Leonardo's late series of Deluge drawings, not so much for its technique as its overwhelming sense of doom.    

Viewing abstract art is always problematical.  As much as figurative or landscape art, it demands a reaction from the viewer, but one lacking the visceral response to content necessarily associated with representational art.  With little to guide him or her, the viewer is instead called upon not only to make a determination as to the meaning of the work but also to the artist's purpose in creating it.  In order to know what to make of it, the viewer is thus required to become more deeply involved with an abstraction and to study it more closely than would be the case with a work of representational art.  The danger, of course, is that the viewer will impose his own interpretation on the work at hand rather than allow the artist's intention to make itself manifest.

The exhibit continues through December 15, 2016.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Masahiro Miwa, Scriabin, Ryo Takahashi and Chopin

Earlier this week, I attended the first of this season's Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall.  These one-hour recitals and concerts allow Juilliard students the opportunity to perform before a live audience and are always marked with a very high degree of musicianship.  This particular recital featured five Juilliard pianists giving their renditions of works by the same number of composers - Beethoven, Masahiro Miwa, Scriabin, Ryo Takahashi and Chopin - some of whom were very well known and others whose music I was hearing for the first time.

The program opened with Wei Lin Chang performing Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 (c. 1796-1798).  This piece was from the composer's Early Period and was written at a time when he was seeking to consolidate his reputation in Vienna as a virtuoso pianist as well as a promising composer.  That's not to suggest, however, that this is any sense a "beginner" work.  Some of Beethoven's greatest works, such as the Fifth Symphony, were written in the key of C minor and the sonata's final movement contains a clear anticipation of that symphony's motto-theme.  The second movement adagio molto stands out for its delicacy, and the final movement's quiet ending after a turbulent beginning is indicative of Beethoven's growing stylistic maturity.

The next pianist to take the stage was Joey Chang who provided his interpretation of Masahiro Miwa's Rainbow Machine: Genesis of a Chant.  This was a highly unusual work.  The Tokyo-born composer, who began his career by forming a rock band while still in high school, is known for creating computer programmed music; the present piece, commissioned for the Hamamatsu Piano Competition, was indeed composed "automatically" from a computer algorithm.  Miwa wrote on the score of the work:
"Only the pitch and timing of the music are indicated; how the notes are played, pedaling and articulation are left to the musician's own choice." 
The next work was much more familiar - Scriabin's Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907).  I had heard last month at another Juilliard recital a performance of the composer's Sonata No. 3, and the difference in style between that and the No. 5, written some ten years later, is staggering.  While the No. 3 is a thoroughly Romantic work and still indebted to Chopin's influence, the No. 5 is much more modern and displays a mystical inclination.  This is not surprising when one considers it was written at approximately the same time as the revolutionary Le Poème de l'extase.  Scriabin himself, when he completed the sonata, considered it the best work he had ever written.  The pianist was Thomas Steigerwald who gave one of the best performances of the afternoon on a work so taxing that Sviatoslav Richter termed it "the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertory..."

Next came another work I'd never previously heard - Ryo Takahashi's Wearing Glass Slipper as performed by Akari Mizumoto.  I could find no information regarding either the composer or this piece of music when I attempted to do research online.  Does the title refer to the Cinderella fairy tale?  All I can say is that it was a short work, approximately five minutes in length, and required an unusual amount of dexterity on the part of the pianist.

The program closed with Chopin's Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 (1831-1832).  Though the term scherzo, literally translated, means "joke," there is little humor in this dark piece.  This may have been due to Chopin's emotional involvement in the political situation in his homeland where the failure of  the "November Revolution" had led to the complete absorption of Poland into the Russian empire.  The Scherzo is a highly complex work that was intended to challenge the skill of even virtuoso pianists.  It was here given a bravura performance by Anastasia Magamedova.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Two Great Webcasts Available on WQXR

As of the time of this writing, there are now being shown two excellent webcasts on WQXR's website via  I have no idea how long they will be available for viewing.

The first of these presents, in its entirety, the 2016 Richard Tucker Gala that was recorded live on October 30th at Carnegie Hall.  Featured performers include, among others, Renée Fleming, soprano; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Javier Camarena, tenor; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; and the New York Choral Society.

The second webcast features the Juilliard415, the school's early music ensemble, in a performance from WQXR's Greene Space that was recorded yesterday, November 2nd.  The program includes selections by Venetian Baroque masters, including Castello, Stradella, Albinoni and Vivaldi.  I saw the Juilliard musicians perform these same pieces last week in a recital at Holy Trinity Church and was deeply impressed by the high quality of the performance.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Saint-Saëns, Alkan, Liszt and Schubert

On Monday afternoon, I went to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear the Jupiter Players perform their annual Halloween program.  This year, the performance featured appropriately eerie selections by Saint-Saëns, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Liszt and Schubert.

The program opened with Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874), originally composed for voice and piano and here transcribed for violin and piano.  Using as its text a verse by the Symbolist poet Henri Cazalis, the original piece was an attempt to put to music the medieval superstition of the Dance of Death when on Halloween Death calls the departed from their graves and makes then dance to the tune of his fiddle until at dawn they return to their resting places.  It opens with the note D struck twelve times to mimic the clock striking midnight on the stroke of which Death makes his appearance.  In the spirit of the piece (forgive the pun), Saint-Saëns resorted to a number of devices to create its unearthly effects.  These ranged from the use of a tritone to a direct quote, albeit in a major key, from the Dies Irae.  As a result, the lively music sounds strangely dissonant.

The next piece was Alkan's Marcia funèbre sulla morte d’un Pappagallo ("Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot") (1859) for two oboes, clarinet, bassoon and vocal quartet.  Alkan was a contemporary of Saint-Saëns and Liszt and led a somewhat eccentric lifestyle in Paris during the course of which he moved from being a minor celebrity to a recluse who translated both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  Though largely forgotten today, he was in his own time both a virtuoso pianist and a composer of note.  The Marcia funèbre is a decidedly bizarre piece, and not just for its title.  At this recital, the winds began playing as the musicians marched in single file from offstage.  It was a fun piece, but one so obscure and unusual that I'm not likely ever to encounter it again.

Following this work came Liszt's Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata (1849), better known simply as the Dante Sonata.  It's a one-movement sonata originally published in 1856 as part of the second volume of the composer's Années de pèlerinage.  The work contains two very different themes, the first of which, that representing the souls of the damned, is very appropriate to the Halloween holiday.  As was the case with Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre, the work makes use of the tritone whose dissonant nature earned it the appellation diabolus in musica in the Middle Ages.  The theme is moreover in the key of D minor, the same Mozart put to such effective use in Don Giovanni, which conveys to the listener a sense of spectral foreboding.

The final work in the program was one of the greatest works in the chamber repertoire, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (1824), nicknamed "Death and the Maiden" after the eponymous Schubert lied whose music appears in the quartet's second movement.  This work, of course, transcends mere holiday entertainment.  For one thing, the concept of death, always a theme of deep interest to the Romantics, was much more personal to this composer than to his peers.  He had only four more years to live when he wrote it, and the notion of Death coming to carry him off was very real indeed.  Nowhere else is the repertoire is the farewell to life rendered in so heartbreaking fashion as it is here.  We can clearly hear in it Schubert's despair at having to die at so young an age as the quartet gives voice to the words of his own song.
"Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!"
Death here is not some idle fancy with which to frighten the children but an inevitability from which there is no escape, not for Schubert, not for any of us.  It's this that gives the music the awful power that moves us so deeply.

The Jupiter Players' ensemble members always display a high level of musicianship.  At this recital, they were joined by three superlative guest artists - pianist Drew Petersen, violinist Danbi Um, and violist Cynthia Phelps.  The combination made for one of the best chamber recitals I've heard this season.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Verdi Requiem

I've always considered Verdi the greatest of all Italian opera composers; in my estimation I place ahead of his Otello only Mozart's Da Ponte operas.  And just as the two composers created the greatest operas of all time, so they each also penned Requiems that are masterpieces of the genre.  Although over the years I've heard many broadcasts and recordings of the Verdi Requiem, Sunday afternoon's rendition at David Geffen Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda is the first live performance I can remember having attended.

The Requiem has a convoluted history that demonstrates how difficult it was for an opera composer, even one of such stature as Verdi, to work freely in nineteenth century Italy.  The piece began as part of a joint effort by a dozen composers in 1868 to create a Requiem in honor of the legendary Rossini who had only just passed away.  In the end, nothing came of the project and it was abandoned.  Whether this was entirely the fault of the proposed conductor Angelo Mariani, as Verdi claimed, or whether there were differences among the composers themselves, this is one of those all too common episodes in Italian musical history that reveal the disruptive personality conflicts that existed in that country's musical establishment.

Verdi never abandoned the Libera me that had been his contribution to the aborted Mariani project and five years later, in 1873, he saw his chance to finally put it to use upon the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni whose work he had greatly respected.  This time Verdi, wary of any further collaborations, decided to write the entire Requiem himself.  And not only did he compose it on his own, but he even conducted the premiere in Milan in 1874.  Even then, though, Verdi was not free of problems.  He had vehemently insisted the premiere be given at the Church of San Marco, but the Catholic Church in Italy did not then allow women to sing at church services.  The only way around this prohibition was to perform the work, not as a traditional mass, but only as one stripped of the sacrament of Communion.  And even then Milan's Archbishop insisted that the female singers should not be allowed to appear in plain sight.

The Requiem differs from most other examples of the genre in that it is not so much a liturgical work as a concert piece that makes full use of operatic techniques.  As a result, it is heard more often in concert halls than in ecclesiastical settings.  That in no way, however, reduces the spiritual power of the work.  It is utterly profound and moving when heard in any venue and most especially so when performed by an ensemble of such high caliber as the London Symphony Orchestra.

Gianandrea Noseda has been having a banner year.  He was not only named one of the two principal guest conductors of the LSO, but was also appointed music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.  He did an excellent job leading Les pêcheurs de perles last season at the Met and I'm eager to hear him conduct Diana Damrau there this season in Romeo et Juliette.  His performance Sunday afternoon was exemplary.

The singers were uniformly excellent.  They included Erika Grimaldi, soprano; Daniela Barcellona, mezzo-soprano; Vitalij Kowaljow, bass; and Giorgio Berrugi, tenor, who replaced Francesco Meli on short notice.  And one could not ask for a finer chorus than the London Symphony's own, directed by Simon Halsey.