Thursday, December 29, 2016

Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography

No one can ever accuse Edward Hopper of having been an engaging character.  In photograph after photograph, he looks more like some small town store manager than an internationally known artist.  Bald and invariably wearing the type of conservatively cut suit favored by bankers,  he faces the camera with the unsmiling face of an accountant.  And this was no act.  There was no hidden warmth beneath his dour exterior.  The actress Helen Hayes once said of him: "I had never met a more misanthropic, grumpy, grouchy individual in my life..."

All this makes reading a lengthy biography of the man difficult for the average art lover.  Though he made the obligatory trip to Paris in his youth and spent most of his adult life in the same Washington Square apartment in Greenwich Village, there are no wild escapades to report, no mad flings with models.  Phlegmatic to a fault, he consorted with artists he felt could be helpful to his career, such as Guy Pène du Bois, but formed no deep friendships with them.  In politics, he was so far to the right that he might be labeled a reactionary.  He and his wife once drove 600 miles to register to vote so that they could cast their ballots against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It is only as one proceeds through this exhaustive biography that one comes to realize that it was precisely Hopper's conservatism that made his paintings so effective.  In an exceptionally insightful comment, the author writes: 
"... it is his [Hopper's] profound alienation from contemporary life that makes his art so characteristic of modernity itself."
And this is it in a nutshell.  Hopper, born in 1882 in Nyack, NY, never really left behind his small town nineteenth century roots.  He never really felt at home in twentieth century America, the less so as traditional values gave way in the face of urbanization and technological advances to a rootlessness that even today underlies the American psyche.  Tellingly, in his pictures of New York City, Hopper never painted the full length of the skyscrapers that towered over him but only showed them, if at all, as truncated forms in the background.

Hopper's paintings paradoxically portray everyday scenes in the world about him and yet are filled with a sense of emptiness.  A rundown Victorian mansion in House by the Railroad (1925) and a row of Seventh Avenue storefronts in Early Sunday Morning (1930) are both melancholy remnants of an earlier age that has now vanished.  There are no people in either of these pictures (Hopper painted out a figure he had originally placed in one of the storefront windows in Early Sunday Morning); but when Hopper does paint figures they do not look at one another, nor at the viewer either, and thus their presence only intensifies the pervading sense of loneliness and alienation.  This can be seen clearly in the late 1963 painting People in the Sun.  None of the figures is wearing the casual attire one would expect of sunbathers but each is instead fully suited up in business clothes.  The lone figure in the second row looks down at his book while the four recumbent figures in the front row stare blindly ahead, one through dark glasses, into a featureless landscape.  In Girlie Show (1941), an expressionless dancer is oblivious of the audience as she moves naked about the stage.  In watching her, the viewer, like the audience itself, becomes a voyeur taking a peek at the forbidden.

Gail Levin has given us a well written book that is as thoroughly researched as one would expect of the author of Hopper's catalogue raisomné.  It is subtitled "An Intimate Biography," and so it is in more ways than one.  The drama is provided by excerpts from the diaries kept by Hopper's wife Jo - a frustrated artist who, like her husband, once studied under Robert Henri but was after her marriage completely ignored by the same critics and galleries who rushed to lionize her husband.  Hopper himself, prey to insecurity, did everything he could to crush his wife's career and to discourage her from painting.  Jo's attitude toward her husband was therefore, not surprisingly, at best ambivalent as she gave as good as she got in the couple's frequent physical altercations.  Levin has a great deal of sympathy for Jo, whose own artwork was discarded by the Whitney when it acquired Hopper's collection, and to a large extent the reader sees the artist from this woman's conflicted viewpoint.  Jo was aware of the extent of her husband's achievement and lauded him for it, but at the same time she never lost sight of Hopper's extensive personal failings.

This, anyway, is the narrative Levin offers the reader.  As one progresses through the book, however, Jo comes across more and more as a slightly dotty "cat lady," and one begins to question the prominence accorded her in this biography of her husband and the emphasis placed on the importance of her work whose quality appears, after all, rather dubious.

The book would have benefited greatly from an insert containing color plates of Hopper's major works.  As it is, there are photographs and preparatory drawings scattered throughout the text, but these are all in black & white.  A surprisingly large number of the paintings that are reproduced in monochrome are by Jo.  Unfortunately, these do nothing to support her credibility as a serious artist.  Looking at them, the reader feels that Levin has perhaps allowed her sympathy for the artist's wife to skew her judgment. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

MOMA: Francis Picabia

2016 has seen two major retrospectives of artists who, though acknowledged as among the most important twentieth century cultural figures both for their own achievements and their influence on subsequent generations, are rarely given exhibits here in New York City.  I posted in August my thoughts on the Moholy-Nagy exhiibit at the Guggenheim, and now it is Francis Picabia's turn to take a bow at MOMA in a show entitled Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.

To the museum's credit, it has attempted to put on as comprehensive an overview of the work of this complex, enigmatic artist as possible.  This is even more necessary in Picabia's case than in that of other twentieth century artists.  Anything less would have afforded attendees only a partial glimpse of  this often misunderstood genius who moved, seemingly effortlessly, from one style to the next over the course of his career.  Indeed, one reason Picabia is not better known, even today, is that it is difficult to place him with certainty in any one school or movement.  Even though he was gregarious and well liked by almost everyone with whom he came in contact, he resolutely remained a loner who insisted on going his own way.  He was associated with, though never a member of, such diverse groups as the Surrealists, the Cubists, the Arensberg circle, and even Stieglitz's 291 coterie.  In the end, the artist possessed too great a sense of irony to permit affiliation with any one style or group.

The MOMA show moves in a fairly strict chronological order, beginning with Picabia's first incarnation as an "Impressionist" painter circa 1907.  At first glance, these paintings look like outstanding examples of that style, and they in fact received favorable reviews when they were first shown.  But there is something slightly off about them.  When one looks more closely, one can see that while they are not parodies in the strictest sense they are also not completely sincere efforts.  It is as if Picabia, one eyebrow cocked, were viewing this style, whose heyday had already passed, from a more modern point of view.  The closest parallel I can think of is Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 wherein the composer reimagined Haydn's Classical style as it appeared to a twentieth century sensibility.  Picabia is not making fun of the achievements of the Impressionist masters so much as, tongue in cheek, he is reinterpreting their paintings as his own  generation saw them.

The next set of works moved to the opposite end of the spectrum and represented Picabia's "take" on modernism.  Created in 1912, during which period Picabia visited New York, these paintings are perhaps the most successful in the show.  The best is the 1912 abstraction La Source, from MOMA's own collection, a huge canvas almost eight feet square first exhibited at the Salon d'Automne, that challenges all viewer's most cherished assumptions concerning modern art.  But Picabia was not ready to entirely abandon figurative art.  In Dances at the Spring, completed the same year and one of his three entries at the 1913 Armory Show, the figures of the male and female dancers, her leg kicking high, are easily discernible.  After returning to France from New York, where he had had besides his representation at the Armory Show a one-man exhibit at Stieglitz's 291, Picabia painted in 1914 Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie, inspired by the dancing of Stacia Napierkowska that he had witnessed on shipboard during his first transatlantic crossing.

The MOMA exhibit is too large to describe in detail, but there are two categories of work that deserve special mention.  The first of these is a series of "pinup" paintings based on soft-core magazine photos that Picabia completed during World War II while residing in Vichy France.  Although the photographic sources are still clearly visible, the paintings themselves rise almost to the level of myth.  The second category consists of the "Transparencies" in which one painting seems superimposed upon another.  It is almost as if Picabia had here anticipated the "layers" feature of Photoshop in which the opacity can be controlled to reveal an underlying image.  Probably the most successful of this type was the 1930 Aello.

The exhibit continues through March 19, 2017.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Juilliard415 Performs Handel, Manfredini, Fontana and Vivaldi

I attended what was for me the last musical event of 2016 on Tuesday when I visited  Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the Juilliard415 perform the second of its four annual recitals at that location.  The ensemble has this term been focusing on the Baroque music of Italy and the program accordingly included works by Handel, Manfredini, Fontana and Vivaldi.  If the inclusion of Handel appears at first incongruous, it should be remembered that the composer, though he was born in Germany and spent most of his life in England, received his early training in Italy and there achieved his first major successes. 

The recital began with Handel's Sonata in B minor, HWV 386b, Op. 2, No. 1 (1727).  The music publishing industry in the early eighteenth century operated with much less propriety than today.  Copyrights were, of course, nonexistent at the time and pirated editions the norm.  Handel's Op. 2 actually was a compilation of works from early in the composer's career that were already decades old when published without the composer's knowledge or authorization by John Walsh.  The works were deservedly popular and far more sophisticated than most of the music then offered to the public.  The present piece was written for two treble instruments, here played by the unusual combination of flute and oboe, together with continuo, cello and harpsichord.  As the program notes by Katarzyna Klukzykowska point out, the largo contains a quote from the aria Crede l'uom ch'egli riposi taken from Handel's first oratorio Time and Disillusionment (1707).

The next two works - the Op. 2, Nos. 3 and 8 - were by Francesco Manfredini and were taken from his 1709 Sinfonia da chiesa.  Manfredini was born in Pistoria, studied violin under Giuseppe Torelli in Bologna and then spent time in the court of Monaco before finally returning the Pistoria where he spent the remainder of his life.  Much of his work, including all his ecclesiastical compositions, have been lost but what remains shows him to have been a talented composer.  The Op. 2, Sinfonia da chiesa, was a followup of sorts to his Concertini per camera, Op. 1, a collection of twelve chamber sonatas. The selections performed here were both arranged for two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord and bass.

Next came a work entitled Sonata nona (1641) by Giovanni Battista Fontana.  Little is known of Fontana's life and, aside from eighteen sonatas of which the present piece is one, all his work has been lost.  The sonatas that survived were published posthumously, and the preface to them indicates that the composer had been highly regarded by his contemporaries.  The short Sonata nona was performed on violin, dulcian and theorbo.

The program then returned to Handel for a selection of movements taken from his trio sonatas, Opp. 2 and 5.  These consisted of an andante & allegro, an adagio, a march, an andante and finally closed with a passacaille.  Fiona Last wrote in the program notes that the medley represented an attempt by the ensemble to break with the usual slow-fast-slow-fast progression of movements typical of Baroque music in order to provide something more innovative.  The use of three treble instruments - flute, oboe and violin - with a bassoon and harpsichord providing continuo was another break with tradition.

The program concluded with Vivaldi's Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Op. 1, RV 73 taken from Suonate da Camera a Tre (1705).  Perhaps due to the use of a minor key, the work was a much more subdued piece than one is accustomed to hearing from this composer though it still possessed its own haunting beauty.  Two violins took the treble parts while continuo, rather than being played by harpsichord and a single low register instrument, was instead given to cello, bass and theorbo.

This was a particularly fine recital and an excellent way to end a year filled with wonderful musical experiences.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dutilleux, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn

Yesterday was the last day for the this term's series of Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals at Juilliard's Morse Hall.  The 1:00 p.m. performance I attended actually consisted of two recitals combined into one and ran approximately 150 minutes in length.  While the opening piece was a determinedly modern work by the twentieth century composer Henri Dutilleux, a piece described in the composer's New York Times obituary as "enigmatic," the remainder of the program was devoted to nineteenth century classics by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

The performance began with Dutilleux's Les Citations.  The work was written in 1985 while Dutilleux was composer-in-residence at the Aldeburgh Festival and was dedicated to the Festival's host, tenor Peter Pears.  It was to Pears that the citation referred to in the title was given as the first movement quotes an aria from the first act of Peter Grimes.  (Pears was the partner of composer Benjamin Britten.)  The work was then recalled only to be revised by Dutilleux in 1991 and again in 2010.   In its original form, it was a one-movement work for oboe, harpsichord and percussion.  The 1991 revision, that performed at this recital, not only included a new movement but also added a bass to the instrumentation. The performers here were Timothy Daniels, oboe, Sebastian Zinca, bass, Robert Fleitz, harpsichord, and Greg LaRosa, percussion; their coach was Jeffrey Milarsky.

After a brief pause, the recital continued with the remainder of the works performed for authenticity's sake on period instruments, including two antique fortepianos.  An early version of the instrument, much smaller in size than the modern piano, was used for the first several pieces.  It had a much less vibrant sound than the modern piano, almost "tinny" at times, and did not appear very sturdily built.  Looking at it, it was difficult to picture Beethoven performing his thunderous piano works, such as the Hammerklavier, on it without smashing it to bits. The second fortepiano, that used for the last pieces, was much larger and resembled more closely the modern piano in both size and sound.

First came three songs by Beethoven - Adelaide, Op. 46, Die laute Klage, WoO 135, and An die Hoffnung, Op. 32.  The three lieder were sung by tenor Chance Jonas-O-Toole; he was accompanied by pianist Derek Wang.  As the opus numbers would indicate, these were drawn from various periods in Beethoven's career.  He was not known as a composer of lieder and this was a rare opportunity to hear his works for voice.  Although Adelaide is his best known song, it's An die Hoffnung that has the most interesting story.  Beethoven originally composed it in 1805 to words by Christoph August Tiedge. It was only years later, in 1816, that Beethoven discovered that the text he had used was incomplete.  He then composed a completely new setting for the poem that was much longer and struck a completely different tone.  

The next work was again by Beethoven, his Sonata for Fortepiano and Violin in E-flat major, Op. 12, No. 3 (1798). The Op. 12 was Beethoven's first attempt at writing violin sonatas and it's telling that he had them published as sonatas for piano and violin rather than vice versa, thus underscoring which instrument he considered the more important of the two.  He was still in his early period at this point in his career and under the influence of Mozart's writing for the violin.  As one listens, it's clear from the outset that this is not a mature work.  In fact, when first published the Op. 12 was criticized by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung for "a certain contrariness and artificiality."  The masterful "Kreutzer" Sonata, Op. 47 still lay several years in the future, and in between Beethoven would publish the Opp. 23, 24 and 30.  Still, the present sonata has definite charm and is quite pleasing to hear.  The violinist was Kako Miura and the pianist Christopher Staknys.

After this came Schubert's Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen, D. 803 (1824).  Trockne Blumen was the eighteenth song from the cycle Die schöne Müllerin.  In it, the singer rather morbidly wishes that he can take the miller's daughter's flower's to his grave so that they may once again bloom.  It was after having heard a performance of the entire cycle that flutist Ferdinand Pogner commissioned Schubert to write a series of variations upon this particular song.  The resulting piece isn't nearly so mournful as its source would suggest and its conclusion is even rather upbeat.  The work was performed exceptionally well by Melanie Williams playing a Baroque flute; her accompanist was pianist Ke Wang.

After another brief pause, the program continued with one of Schubert's greatest works for piano, the Fantasia in F minor for four hands, D. 940 (1828).  All the composer's works from the last year of his life are to be counted among his finest, but none more so than this achingly beautiful piano piece which was only published posthumously.  That it was dedicated to Karoline Esterházy for whom the composer felt an unrequited passion shows that even at the end of his life Schubert was unable to abandon the ideal of love even though he was fated never to experience its joys.  He returned here to the genre he had more or less created several years before with his "Wanderer" fantasy in which all four movements are played without pause to create a harmonious whole.  But the Fantasia has none of Romantic heroism of the "Wanderer" but is instead a hymn to the power of love.  Only in the concluding measures does Schubert acknowledge the pain of his impending death.  The two excellent pianists were Anastasiya Magamedova and Natalie Vargas-Nedvetsky.

After the Fantasia came three songs by Schubert - Lachen und Wienen, An die Musik, and Rastlose Liebe - sung by mezzo-soprano Maggie Valdman accompanied by pianist Jiawei Lyu.  Of the three, my favorite has always been An die Musik.  With text by Franz von Schober, who later was to write the libretto for Schubert's opera Alfonso und Estrella, this early song from 1817 is a paean to music itself.

The program closed with one of Mendelssohn's best known chamber pieces, the Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49 (1839).  The work's popularity is no accident.  As I noted in a previous post, a dissertation by Ron Regev suggests that Mendelssohn may have cared more about his audience's reaction to this work than to others. Regev writes:
"On the other hand, the undertone of some of his [Mendelssohn's] letters, as well as the final outcome of his debate with Hiller concerning the Trio suggests that he was not impervious to the lure of public affection."
It was Ferdinand Hiller, of course, who persuaded Mendelssohn to completely rewrite the piano part to bring it more into accord with popular tastes.  He later recalled:
"Certain pianoforte passages in it [the trio], constructed on broken chords, seemed to me - to speak candidly - somewhat old-fashioned.  I had lived may years in Paris, seeing Liszt frequently, and Chopin every day, so that I was thoroughly accustomed to the richness of passages which marked the new pianoforte school.  I made some observations to Mendelssohn on this point, suggesting certain alterations, but at first he would not listen to me."
In his paper, Regev goes on to do an exhaustive analysis of all the changes Mendelssohn made in his revised score.  To whatever extent these changes altered the nature of the work, the final result is certainly much more stirring than can be found in many other of Mendelssohn's pieces.  From the cello's opening notes on, the trio captures the hearts of its audience.  One cannot listen without being moved.  The musicians for this work were Alana Youssefian, violin, Matt Zucker, cello, and Nathaniel LaNasa, fortepiano.  I had just heard Mendelssohn's second trio, the Op. 66, last week at a Wednesdays at One performance by the Altezza Trio and I was struck as I listened to this first trio how completely different the two works are.

In some ways, the use of the fortepiano in the second half of the program was more interesting than the music itself.  It certainly changed the character of the music by altering the dynamics of the relationships among the instruments.  This was especially apparent in a work such as the Beethoven violin sonata where the violin stood out more clearly than in performances I've heard with modern instruments.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mendelssohn and Schoenfield

This week's Wednesdays at One performance was given over to Juilliard's Honors Chamber Music program.  The Altezza Piano Trio - Momo Wong, violin; Khari Joyner, cello; and Qilin Sun, piano - are one of the ensembles participating in the prestigious program this year.  Coached by Natasha Brofsky and Joseph Kalichstein, the musicians gave a roughly 50 minute recital that featured works by Mendelssohn and Paul Schoenfield.

The performance began with Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op.  66 (1845).  By the time he had written the Op. 66, Mendelssohn was an experienced composer and had attained full mastery of the effects he sought to create.  This was the second trio Mendelssohn had written and if it was not as popular as the Op. 49 it was still a work of genius, particularly in the balance the composer achieved in blending the three parts, giving each instrument a distinct voice while integrating them seamlessly into a whole.  The work proceeds from a fiery opening to a gentle second movement that is reminiscent of Mendelssohn's "songs without words" for piano.  The sprightly third movement scherzo leads directly to a passionate, but not overly dark, finale.  The inclusion of the old Lutheran hymn in the final movement endows the work with a Romantic flavor.

The second and final work was shorter but equally enjoyable.  This was Schoenfield's Café Music, described by the composer as follows:
"The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio that plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music – music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just    barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th-century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement."
The work was written as a commission from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra who gave it its premiere in 1987.  It was a fun, rambunctious piece that was a big hit with the audience; they gave it a standing ovation at its conclusion.

With recitals such as this, Juilliard has made itself into one of the country's foremost resources for high quality performances of chamber music.  The Wednesdays at One series is just one of  a series of opportunities music lovers have to hear the greatest works in the chamber repertoire.  There are also the Sunday afternoon recitals at Morse Hall, the period instrument performances given by the Juilliard415 at Holy Trinity Church and, in January, the annual Chamberfest extravaganza.   It's to the school's credit that it helps keep alive the tradition of fine chamber music even at a time when the general public has increasingly forsaken cultural pursuits in favor of mass market entertainment.  The works played at these recitals represent a cultural heritage handed down over the centuries from the world's finest composers, and it should never be allowed to become forgotten through the indifference of those unable to appreciate its importance.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Met Museum: Three Exhibits Closing in January

The weather has turned cold and blustery lately as New York City has gotten its first taste of winter a bit early this year.  It was a perfect time to walk across a nearly deserted Central Park - even the tourists abandon it when the temperature drops too low - to visit the Met Museum for a last chance to view three major shows before they close next month.

The first, Jerusalem 1000 - 1400, closes January 8, 2017.  Subtitled "Every People Under Heaven," the exhibit emphasizes the interrelationships among Christians, Jews and Muslims in this city holy to all three.  This intermingling of faiths can be seen in a copy of the gospels translated into Arabic or in a Moorish dagger on which is inscribed a scene of St. George slaying the dragon.  The lighting throughout the galleries is so subdued that the visitor feels he or she is inside a church, a feeling which is particularly appropriate since almost all the objects on view have a religious significance.  There are, for example, a large number of reliquaries and crosses as well as copies of sacred texts.  The major places of worship - the destroyed Temple of Solomon, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock - are each given their own installation.  But there are also a number of secular artworks, the most interesting of which to me was a celestial globe that once belonged to the thirteenth century Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

The second exhibit, Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant, also closes on January 8, 2017.  Though Jean-Honoré Fragonard completed over 500 paintings and became famous for his facility with color, this exhibit is given over to his graphic works - drawings and etchings - almost all of them monochromatic.  For the most part, the content of these graphic works is strikingly different from that of the paintings.  Largely absent is the frolicsome suggestiveness of his most iconic works, such as his best known painting The Swing, which detailed the amorous play of French aristocrats at the court of Louis XVI.  More attention is instead given to landscapes travel sketches, and studies of workers and peasants.  A number of late drawings are notable for the looseness with which they were sketched.  The etchings are particularly interesting.  Some, such as The Vision of Saint Jerome, are so richly detailed that they bear comparison to Goya's work in this medium.

There's a bit more time to see the third show, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio, which runs through January 22, 2017.  I have to admit I had never heard of this artist before visiting the exhibit, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were the first major exhibit devoted to his work.  Part of the reason for Valentin's obscurity was his short lifespan.  He died at only age 41 after having completed some 60 paintings, 45 of which are on view here.  Though the title "Beyond Caravaggio" would suggest that Valentin's work ultimately surpassed that of his predecessor, that's not at all the case.  True, Valentin was a talented painter and shrewd enough to have taken advantage of changing tastes, but his work lacks Caravaggio's genius.  While the latter was a revolutionary whose new naturalistic style of painting took Italy by storm, Valentin was a careful craftsman who was content to work in the other's shadow.  In fact, Valentin never studied under Caravaggio or even met him; he learned the Italian's style secondhand from Simon Vouet, a French painter who enjoyed immense success in Italy.  One can't hold this against Valentin - he was as entitled as anyone else to earn a living - but it hardly marks him for greatness.  Still, his work is definitely worth seeing.  What is most interesting to a photographer is Valentin's use of lighting.  Like Caravaggio, Valentin was a Tenebrist and much of the power of his work comes from the contrast of deep shadow to dramatic lighting.  If he had lived longer, he might have been able to free himself from Caravaggio's influence and become his own man.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart and Tchaikovsky

There were three pieces on the program for yesterday's 3:00 p.m. chamber recital at Morse Hall, but in the event only two were performed.  No reason was given why Handel's Trio Sonata No. 8 was canceled, but my own best guess would be that some hapless student failed to take into account the amount of time needed to navigate the NYC subway system on weekends.  Luckily, the two remaining works on the program were both major pieces and well worth hearing.

The recital began with Mozart's Piano Trio in E-flat major, K. 498 (1786) for piano, clarinet and viola.  Long after Mozart's death, the work was given the nickname Kegelstatt by the music's publishers who most likely confused it with the K. 487 composed a month earlier on whose score Mozart had noted that it had been written while playing skittles.  Since it made for a good story, the unlikely name stuck.  Far more important is the work's place to the clarinet repertoire.  At the time, the clarinet was a relatively new instrument.  Haydn only began to make use of it in 1793 when he composed his Symphony No. 99 in preparation for his second London tour.  Probably he viewed it as a novelty that would delight English audiences.  The clarinet might not have made so prominent an appearance in Mozart's later work if it hadn't been for his friendship with Anton Stadler, a dissolute character who was nevertheless the world's first true clarinet virtuoso performing on an instrument of his own design.  As it is, the trio is the first work written for this particular combination of instruments.  The occasion was a private performance at the home of Mozart's friend Nikolaus von Jacquin to whose daughter Mozart had dedicated the work.  The musicians were most likely said daughter Franziska Jacquin on piano, Stadler playing clarinet and Mozart himself performing the viola part.  The composer did not shortchange his friends.  This is one of his finest chamber works and contains several interesting features from the highly unusual use of an andante as an opening movement to the seven part rondo that closes the piece.  The trio was performed here by Philip Solomon, clarinet, Andrea Fortier, viola, and Anran Qian, piano.  They were coached by Lara Lev and Jerome Lowenthal.

The second and final work on the shortened program was Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 (1882).  The Op. 50 was the only piano trio Tchaikovsky ever wrote.  He might not have even written that one had he not been implored to do so by his patroness Nadezhda von Meck.  At first, as their correspondence reveals, the composer demurred but provided an surprising reason for having done so.  He wrote:
"I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend ... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings."
And yet, only a year later, Tchaikovsky was hard at work on the piece though he still harbored doubts as to its eventual success that he did not hesitate to communicate to von Meck.  What's most interesting, though, is that when the work was finally completed, Tchaikovsky did not in fact dedicate it to his patroness but instead supplied the subtitle "In memory of a great artist" when sending it to his publisher Jurgenson.  This was a reference to Nikolai Rubinstein who had died several months before in March 1881. The two men had been close colleagues and Rubinstein, a co-founder of the Moscow Conservatory, had once hired Tchaikovsky to teach harmony there.  He had also championed Tchaikovsky's music against the attacks of a group of ultra-nationalist Russian composers known as "The Mighty Handful" who had found the composer's music too Westernized for their taste.  Nevertheless, there had been occasional differences between the two.  Most famously, Rubinstein had in 1874 emphatically rejected Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto but then had later reconsidered his position and gone on to conduct the work.  

The structure of the trio itself is highly unusual.  It consists of two long movements.  The first, pezzo elegiaco, opens with a cello solo and contains a beautifully lyrical theme and funeral march that could well be considered the epitome of Russian romanticism.  The second movement is a set of twelve variations and coda that at the end repeats the mournful theme from the first movement.  

The work was first performed in the composer's absence at the Moscow Conservatory in March 1882 on the first anniversary of Rubinstein's death.  In April, after Tchaikovsky had returned from Rome where he had written the piece, another private performance was held in the composer's presence.  Tchaikovsky took advantage of the opportunity to make a number of changes to the score.  Finally, in October, the revised work received its public premiere at the Russian Musical Society with Sergei Taneyev playing the piano part. 

The musicians at this performance were Kenneth Liao, violin, Seth Biagini, cello, and Aileen Gozali, piano; the coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Darrett Adkins.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Haydn and Mozart

Earlier this week, as part of the Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall, the Juilliard Lab Orchestra gave an excellent performance of two great symphonies from the Classical period in a one-hour concert that highlighted the talents of four student conductors.

The program opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major, Hob. I:99 (1793).  This was the first of six symphonies the composer wrote in anticipation of his second visit to London in 1794.  Haydn had enjoyed the adulation he had received during his first London tour, not to mention the great amount of money he had earned from it, and was determined to pull out all the stops to impress his wildly enthusiastic English audiences.  The present work was intended as a showcase for the talents of "the father of the symphony" and Haydn left nothing to chance.  He even included for the first time clarinets in the instrumentation.  When the work premiered in London, Haydn's efforts were rewarded with what one newspaper described as "rapturous applause."  The two conductors at Wednesday's performance were Benjamin Hochman (movements 1 and 3) and Jane H. Kim (movements 2 and 4); the latter's work on the finale was especially noteworthy.

The second and final work on the program was Mozart's penultimate symphony, the No. 41 in C major, K. 551 (1788), the "Jupiter" - a sobriquet given it not by the composer but some time after Mozart's death by Johann Peter Salomon, the same impresario who arranged both Haydn's London tours.  Even so, the nickname is highly appropriate, for this is truly the most majestic of Mozart's symphonic works.  Though it may never have been performed during his lifetime - there's no clear evidence either way - it was nevertheless the culmination of his writing for orchestra.  This can be seen most clearly in the finale where, in an astonishing display of fugal writing, he has five separate melodies playing in counterpoint to one another.  As one listener wrote:
"The mass of simultaneously writhing fragments, at all rhythmic levels and in all instruments, with the relentless background of the four whole-notes, cannot be taken in. It reveals vistas of contrapuntal infinity. The coda thus creates a cognitive exhaustion born of sheer magnitude. It makes vivid the mathematical sublime."
The two conductors for the Mozart symphony were Gregor A. Mayrhofer (movements 1 and 3) and Jesse Brault (movements 2 and 4).

In listening to these two symphonies back to back, one could not help thinking of the contrasts in the careers of the two composers, who were not rivals so much as personal friends who exchanged musical ideas.  The second London journey was the high point of Haydn's career.  After almost thirty years of relative isolation spent working for the Esterházy family, he became with his London journeys an international celebrity, universally regarded as the greatest composer in Europe.  Mozart, on the other hand, by the time of his death in 1791 was living in obscurity and near poverty, his days of fame as a child prodigy long forgotten.  Ironically, one of the few to appreciate his genius was the loyal Haydn who famously averred to Mozart's father Leopold:
"Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name; he has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition."
It was only after his death that Mozart's greatness was at last recognized and that his reputation grew to equal, if not surpass, Haydn's own.  Such are the vagaries of fate.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Jupiter Players Perform Weber, Bruch and Brahms

On Monday, I went to hear the Jupiter Players give a matinee performance, appropriately entitled German Masters, at Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street.  The program featured major works by three of the greatest German Romantics - Carl Maria von Weber, Max Bruch and Brahms.

The program opened with Weber's Trio in G minor, Op. 63 (1818-1819) for flute, cello and piano.  Weber's music is not that often performed and listening to the lively piece, which I had never heard before, made me realize what a shame that it is.  This is really wonderful music that makes the Romantic era come alive.  Though it opens in the key of G minor, it soon moves to a major key and is filled with pleasant surprises, as when the opening theme is unexpectedly recalled at the end of the first movement.  The real delight is the lyrical third movement andante, titled by the composer Schäfers Klage ("Shepherd’s Lament"), that provides a musical setting for Goethe's 1802 poem.  Written shortly before Weber began work on Der Freischütz, the trio was premiered at the home of Louis Spohr, and Weber was quite pleased with the result.

The next work was Bruch's Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 5 (1858), a youthful work written when the composer was only age 19 and still heavily under the influence of Mendelssohn.  Later, Bruch would follow Brahms in the tradition of Romantic Classicism, but he never possessed the latter's genius even if his own violin concerto came to rival Brahms's in popularity.  This particular three-movement work, whatever promise it may show, is not entirely successful and at times sounds almost turgid.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (1864-1865).  This was the piece I'd really come to hear.  It's a masterpiece, and I've always considered it among Brahms's finest chamber works.  He was only age 32 when he completed the piece, and it's somewhat surprising he never returned to the genre after having achieved such outstanding success with both this and the Sextet No. 1 written five years earlier.  In the No. 2, Brahms displays an astonishing mastery of counterpoint and, in the third movement, new dexterity in composing variations.  Of course, one reason the Sextet has gained attention is the coded reference in the first movement to Agathe von Siebold.  In 1858, while staying in Göttingen, Brahms had met Agathe, a doctor's daughter and an excellent amateur singer, and become infatuated with her to the point that they became briefly engaged before Brahms abruptly broke it off.  He must still have had strong feelings for her, however, to have remembered her seven years later in this work.

As always, the Jupiter ensemble musicians were excellent at this performance and were joined by a trio of virtuoso guest musicians - Mikhail Kopelman violin, Elizaveta Kopelman piano, and Cynthia Phelps viola.  The entire recital was extremely rewarding and well appreciated by its enthusiastic audience.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann

Juilliard's Sunday chamber music marathons at Morse Hall continued this weekend with four performances through the afternoon and early evening.  At the 3:00 p.m. session I attended, the program included major works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann.

The program opened with Mozart's String Quartet in G major, K. 387 (1782).  This is the first of the six "Haydn" quartets, so called for the composer's dedication of these works to his mentor.  It was very appropriately given, for the string quartet form was a relatively new genre and was still being developed by the older composer even as Mozart wrote these works.  The influence Haydn exerted upon Mozart, in this genre at least, was inestimable.  It must be remembered that at the time these quartets were written Mozart had only recently arrived in Vienna while Haydn had long been established as the capital's most revered master.  It is to Mozart's credit that he was willing to learn from the older man.  Even for a genius such as Mozart, the string quartet form posed challenges he needed to overcome before producing his own masterpieces.  In his dedication, he spoke of the "long and laborious endeavor" required of him.  In the end, he was supremely successful.  The andante cantabile is one of his finest slow movements and has rightfully been compared to an operatic aria for the manner in which the first violin soars and dips as it changes register.  The work was performed by Chener Yuan and Hiu Sing Fan, violins, Hannah Geisinger, viola, and Yifei Li, cello; their coach was Ronald Copes.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 (1808) nicknamed the "Ghost" for the strange scoring of the second movement largo.  Its unusual, almost "spooky" sound is made even more evident by the brightness of the two surrounding movements.  Certainly, this has made the work one of the best known of the composer's piano trios.  It was written at the height of Beethoven's Middle Period when he was constantly challenging himself to create radically new music that would be unlike anything that had preceded it.  The performers at this recital were Anna Han, piano, Matthew Chen, cello, and Ashley Park, violin.  They were coached by Astrid Schween and Hung-Kuan Chen.

The third and final work - there was no intermission - was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842).  I had just heard two weeks ago at another Juilliard recital the composer's Piano Quartet, written the same year and in the same key of E-flat major.  It was interesting to compare the two works.  In general, and to oversimplify, the Quintet has a bigger sound that is at times almost symphonic while the Quartet is a more intimate work.  The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, is designed to impress the listener while the funeral march that follows is the very essence of Romanticism.  And at the end is the vibrant finale that is among the finest chamber movements Schumann composed during his short career.  In addition, this is the first major piece to pair the piano with string quartet, and Schumann deserves credit for having established with it a new musical genre.  It was Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann, who premiered the work at a private gathering and his suggestions led Schumann to make a number of revisions before the public premiere (at which Clara did play), but the honors are all due to Schumann himself.  The musicians who performed it here were Soo Yeon Kim and Kathy Chia Fu Weng, violins, Andrea Fortier, viola, Yu Yu Liu, cello, and Qi Kong, piano.  Their coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Astrid Schween.