Friday, December 29, 2017

Met Museum: Leonardo to Matisse

I walked across Central Park to the Met Museum on the day after Christmas only to find long lines of people standing outside in the freezing cold.  Even once inside the building, there was still a long delay at the understaffed ticket counters.  Fortunately, the exhibits I'd come to see were worth the wait.  The first of these was Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection.

Lehman was an extremely knowledgeable collector whose eclectic taste, as the exhibit's title would testify, spanned the centuries from the early Renaissance to the Modern age.  The show takes up several galleries on the museum's lower level among which the works are divided according to the periods in which they were created.

The Renaissance gallery contains a number of striking works, some by major artists and others that are anonymous or by lesser known craftsmen.  There are none by Michelangelo, who currently has his own show upstairs, and the sole contribution by Leonardo, A Bear Walking (1482-1485), is not particularly significant, only a rough sketch that may have been intended for a treatise on comparative anatomy.  Much more impressive are two anonymous works from the mid-fifteenth century, Bearded Nude Male Figure Running and The Descent into Limbo.  The latter's iconography is unusual is that it shows Christ from behind as he bends forward to enter the small entranceway to the underworld.  There is also a sketch for the Sforza equestrian monument, a commission later given to Leonardo (who never completed it), by Antonio Pollaiuolo as well as a very well drawn Head of a Man Wearing a Cap by an unknown Florentine artist who may have been associated with Domenico Ghirlandaio to whom Michelangelo was apprenticed at the beginning of his career.

Probably the finest drawings in the show are those from northern Europe.  Here one finds several works by Albrecht Dürer, including a charming nude entitled Fortuna in a Niche (1498).  It is, however, Dürer's 1493 self-portrait (on the same sheet as a study of hand and a pillow) that is in my opinion the finest work in the show.  Here the skeptical expression in the artist's eyes makes the drawing seem strangely modern; one feels it could have been drawn yesterday rather than five centuries ago.  Also in this section are two drawings by Rembrandt, one of which is a rough copy of Leonardo's Last Supper (though to the best of my knowledge the Dutch master never saw the original) and the other a pastoral scene entitled Cottage near the Entrance to a Wood.  One notable German work is the Bust of a Man in a Hat Gazing Upward (c. 1480-1490) by Martin Schongauer whose engraving The Temptation of St. Anthony inspired Michelangelo's first painting (both are currently on view upstairs in the Michelangelo exhibit).  Then there is the Ecstatic Christ (c. 1510-1511) by Hans Baldung that defies all orthodox Church iconography by showing the crucified savior reclining on the ground shortly before his death.

Returning to southern Europe, there are two drawings by Tiepelo, one of which is a delightful study of several Punchinello characters felling a tree.  Canaletto is represented, not by one of his iconic views of Venice, but by a drawing of Warwick Castle completed while he was working in England.  Finally, there is Goya's Self-Portrait in a Cocked Hat (c. 1790) with eyes askance.

Judging by the number of French drawings shown at the exhibit, this was Lehman's favorite source of art.  There's no room here to mention them all, but there are several that stand out.  One is Delacroix's Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (1827-1828) wherein the two Shakesperean characters contemplte the skull of Yorick. Others include Ingres's study for Raphael and La Fornarina, Daumier's Two Drinkers, Degas's Study of a Ballet Dancer, Seurat's study for Poseuses, Redon's Pegasus and Bellerophon, and Matisse's 1923 Reflection in the Mirror, a study for his painting Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror.  Also included in this section is Van Gogh's early Road in Etten (1881) even though it was completed while the artist still resided in the Netherlands.

Compared to the crowds thronging the Michelangelo and Rodin exhibits, this show was sparsely attended.  It was nevertheless a feast for those who appreciate drawing as an art in itself and not merely as the stepchild of painting.

The exhibit continues through January 7, 2018.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Howard Greenberg Gallery: The Immigrants

The Howard Greenberg Gallery on East 57th Street describes its current show, The Immigrants, as "a group exhibition of works by select photographers."  Such a generic title hardly does justice to the wide range of artists whose works are shown here.  For once, politics and polemics take second place to quality and craftsmanship.

The exhibit opens with an image by Ernst Haas entitled Last Displaced Person Boat (gelatin silver pirnt, 1951) that sets the tone of the show perfectly.  Here a group of European immigrants crowd the rails of their ship and lean forward to catch their first glimpse of their new home.  One can only imagine the range of emotions they must have experienced at that moment.  Although Haas is remembered today primarily for his pioneering color work with Kodachrome, he was earlier in his career a master of black & white photography as this splendid image clearly demonstrates.

Next are two photographs by Alfred Stieglitz.  The first is his masterpiece The Steerage (1907, photogravure printed 1915-1916) that is considered by some to be quite simply the greatest photograph ever taken.  Its composition, with the gangway that moves diagonally across the middle neatly dividing the upper class passengers from those in steerage, is as close to perfection as can be achieved.  Next to this image is his equally famous City of Ambition (1910, printed 1920's) in the form of a very rare gelatin silver contact print. 

Lewis Hine is represented not only by photographs taken over the course of several decades on Ellis Island of which the best in my opinion is Climbing into America (1905) but also by his iconic Powerhouse Mechanic (1924) that gives an excellent indication of the type of work newcomers found once they were settled in the US.  This aspect of immigration can also be seen in photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White's Ludlum Steel Company (1930). Imogen Cunningham, the last artist one would associate with social realism, photographed the poignant Angel Island (1952).  The great FSA photographer Dorothea Lange has several photographs in the show, some of which depict the travails of interned Japanese citizens after the commencement of World War II, as well as I Am an American (1942).  There are also several photographs by Jacob Riis showing immingrant life on New York's Lower East Side in the late nineteenth century.  Even Eadweard Muybridge, most famous for his "stop motion" photographs, makes an appearance at the show with The "Heathen Chinese" Finding the Color (c. 1871, albumen print on stereograph) that shows Chinese workers laboring in the California gold fields under inhuman conditions.

Some of the photographs shown at the exhibit are not an exact fit with the underlying theme of immigration but are welcome nonetheless.  These include several images by Robert Capa including one taken on D-Day at Omaha Beach.  I had hitherto believed only one photograph from this first day of invasion had survived (almost all were destroyed accidentally in processing) and was heartened to learn that there are more still in existence.  Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith is an wonderful photograph, but unless there is a context of which I am unaware it has only the loosest association with immigration.  There is also a intriguing photograph by Robert Frank entitled Road to La Paz, Bolivia (1949) taken years before he commenced work on The Americans.  Finally, the exhibit ends on an ironic note with The Vanishing Race (1904) by Edward S. Curtis depicting the only group in this country not descended from immigrants.  What's not generally known about Curtis's photographs of Native Americans is that they are not documentary.  By the time Curtis began his series, the Native American way of life had indeed vanished and the photographer was forced to pose his subjects in clothing and activities that they had already abandoned.

Altogether, this is an excellent well curated show, one of the best of the season, and should not be missed. 

The exhibit continues through January 27, 2018.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Breuer: Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed

After having viewed the Neue Galeie's large retrospective Munch and Expressionism only last year, I was surprised to see another exhibit of the artist's work on display in New York City so soon thereafter.  Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the Met Breuer is not so large or ambitious as its predecessor but it is nevertheless still well worth visiting.

The show is broken down into four galleries.  The first is given over to self-portraits painted at various times in the artist's career including that completed shortly before his death that gives the exhibit its title.  Though Munch never sought to disguise his features in his self portraits, he did show himself in a number of different poses and settings.  In the self portrait with cigarette, for example, he struck the pose of a well to do bohemian.  Of them all, the one I found most interesting was that set in a hotel bar in Weimar.  There's a profound sense of melancholy here.  In it, the artist made himself the archetype of those lonely souls we still see sitting by themselves lost in a somber mood at some New York nightspot while all around them is gaiety.

The second gallery depicts The Struggle against Death, a series of sickroom and deathbed paintings inspired by the early death of Munch's sister.  In a number of paintings, most explicitly in the 1895 "Death in the Sickroom" and "The Struggle against Death" itself, the artist tried to come to terms with his grief long after his sister had passed.  There are two versions here of "The Sick Child" from 1886.  Munch felt that this work, painted with the help of an eleven year old neighbor as model, was a turning point in his career that finally allowed him to go beyond technique and to paint expressively.

The third gallery, very obviously intended to complement the second, is entitled The Frieze of Life.  The reference here is to a series of paintings Munch first exhibited in 1893 in Berlin under the title Study for a Series: Love.  The artist later expanded this cycle under the somewhat awkward title Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love and Death.  The gallery is dominated by the large allegorical painting "The Dance of Life" from 1900 that shows figures moving clumsily in a landscape that might represent an evening garden party.  With the exception of one couple placed in the background, the figures' movements are stilted, and they paradoxically seem more alone in a group than if they had been painted individually.  One of the more interesting works in this gallery is "Red Virginia Creeper," also from 1900.  The center of attention here is not the house in the background covered with red creeping vines but rather the figure in the foreground whose face is a study in anxiety.  Another work worth noting is "The Death of Marat," a sensationalised rendering that resulted from an argument between the artist and his fiancee that ended with Munch being shot with a gun the two had struggled over.  Other well known paintings in this section include "The Kiss" and "Ashes."

The fourth and final gallery is entitled In the Studio but it really serves as a catch all for paintings that did not fit easily into the three preceding categories.  Here are two of Munch's best known paintings, "Puberty" and "Madonna," the latter in two different versions.  The most compelling images, however, are two nudes Munch painted of his seventeen year old housekeeper.  In both "Weeping Nude" and "Naked Model" the young housekeeper appears in great distress and not at all a willing model.  One can't help but wonder at the nature of her relationship to the artist.  Had she been coerced into posing for her employer?  Had there been a physical relationship between the two that was not entirely consensual?

Missing at the exhibit are any of the many versions of "The Scream," but that image has grown so popular in our time - a testament to the anxiety that permeates modern society - that its presence hangs unseen over the entire show.

The exhibit continues through February 4, 2018.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Met Museum: Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, is a huge undertaking that extends through several galleries on the museum's second floor that together comprise a stunning tribute to the genius of one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.  The emphasis throughout is not on finished works but rather on the preparatory drawings and designs that lay behind them.

The first gallery deals with the accomplishments of the young Michelangelo who began his career in Florence as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio who was himself a highly competent draftsman.  It was, in fact, from Ghirlandaio that Michelangelo learned the technique of cross hatching that allowed him to produce in his drawings subtle tonal variations.  Also included in this gallery are works by Francesco Granacci, the artist's fellow pupil at Ghirlandaio's studio.  But by far the most interesting work in the gallery is one of Michelangelo's earliest paintings, The Torment of St. Anthony, hung directly beside the engraving by Martin Schongauer that served as its source.  Though Michelangelo considered sculpture a much higher form of art than painting, his ability with a brush was unsurpassed.

The second gallery contains a single Michelangelo sculpture, an armless Cupid, surrounded by examples of Italian and Classical sculpture that had inspired the artist.  In fact, so well versed was Michelangelo in the techniques of antiquity that he once passed off one of his own works as a newly discovered Classical sculpture.  His skill was such that no one suspected it was a counterfeit.

The gallery that unsurprisingly is of most interest to visitors is that devoted to the painting of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.  A huge overhead transparency of the finished work has been placed on the gallery's own ceiling and there is even a reproduction of the scaffolding on which Michelangelo lay while painting it (though it's unlike the original scaffolding was as smooth and polished as that shown at the museum).  Underneath, are a selection of preparatory drawings, such as that for the Libyan Sibyl.  It is really only after having viewed these studies that one can truly appreciate the full extent of Michelangelo's achievement.

The ceiling was not the only artwork by Michelangelo to adorn the Sistine Chapel.  In 1534 he returned to paint the fresco of The Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar.  Not only are there prepatory studies at this exhibit but also a copy of the original work before it was defaced by religious conservatives who objected to the nudity that had been depicted within it.

Though the term "Renaissance man" has become hackneyed through overuse, there is good reason to apply it to Michelangelo.  As was the case with his fellow Florentine Leonardo, the artist's interests extended far beyond painting and sculpture.  Among his many architectural accomplishments was the design of the tomb of Pope Julius II and that of the Medici funerary chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo.  The capstone of Michelangelo's architectural career, however, was his commission to design St. Peter's Basilica, together with its great curved dome, that still stands today at the center of Vatican City.

For many, Michelangelo is known only as the sculptor of David and of the Pieta.  The achievement of the Met exhibit is to demonstrate that, great as these two works are, there is much more to Michelangelo's artistry.  One cannot but come away with a deepened appreciation of his genius in many different genres.  This is without question the most important show of the year in New York City.

The exhibit continues through February 12, 2018.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Juilliard Vocal Arts: Ibert, Grieg and Strauss

On Wednesday afternoon I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the last Wednesdays at One performance of the year.  The roughly fifty-minute recital featured five Juilliard vocalists accompanied by pianists from the school's Collaborative Piano Departement singing works by a variety of composers.  The full program was as follows:

  • Jacques Ibert - "Chanson du départ," "Chanson à Dulcinée," "Chanson du Duc," and "Chanson de la mort," all from Chansons de Don Quichotte // William Socolof, bass-baritone, Adam Rothenberg, piano
  • Ivor Gurney - "Sleep," No. 4, from Five Elizabethan Songs; Michael Head - "The Ships of Arcady," No. 1 from Over the Rim of the Moon; Frank Bridge - Love Went A-Riding," H. 114 // Katerina Burton, soprano, Cameron Richardson-Eames, piano
  • Edvard Grieg - "Lauf der Welt," Op. 48, No. 3, "Zur Rosenzeit," Op. 48, No. 5, "Spielmannslied" // Äneas Humm, baritone, Chris Reynolds, piano
  • Henri Duparc - "L'invitation au voyage," "Au pays où se fait la guerre" // Marie Engle, mezzo-soprano, Katelan Terrell, piano
  • Richard Strauss - "Allerseelen," Op. 10, No. 8, "Befreit," Op. 39, No. 4, "Cäcilie," Op. 27, No. 2 // Rebecca Pedersen, soprano, Minjung Jung, piano

While all the works were well sung, those that I enjoyed best were the Strauss lieder.  It was really in the composition of vocal music, both operas and lieder, that Strauss truly excelled and not the bombastic tone poems for which he is best known.  In particular, I have great admiration for the 1938 opera Daphne that is rarely performed.  I was lucky enough several years ago to have heard it sung in concert at Carnegie Hall with Renée Fleming in the title role.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Lully, Couperin, Marais and Leclair

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West where the Juilliard415, the school's Baroque ensemble, was performing another lunchtime recital.  As on the last occasion, the group showcased the music of France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in a program entitled Les Plaisirs de Versailles et Paris: French Chamber Music from the Ancien Regime.

The recital began with Jean Baptiste Lully's Ballet du Palace d'Alcine from Les Plaisirs de l'île enchantée (1664) arranged for two violins, viola, two cellos and guitar.  Several seasons ago, I heard the English Concert perform a work on the same subject, Handel's 1728 opera Alcina, and thought it one of the most enjoyable examples of opera seria I'd come across.  Lully's music was of an entirely different character.  Written for the festivities staged at Versailles by Louis XIV in honor of his long suffering wife, Maria Theresa, and his mother, Anne of Austria, the music was as thoroughly stately and correct as the occasion required.  At the time he composed it, Lully was at the pinnacle of his career.  As superintendent of royal music, he was director of the two court violin orchestras and had primary responsibility for the many ballets and recitals ordered by the king.  He had also begun his collaboration with the playwright Molière that was to culminate six years later in the incidental music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

The next work was François Couperin's La Françoise from Les Nations (1726) arranged for flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord.  The composer's contributions to French music were among the most important of the Baroque era.  An ardent admirer of Arcangelo Corelli, it was Couperin who first introduced the trio sonata to France.  In October, I heard the Juilliard415 perform another selection from Les NationsDances from L'Espagnole.  In such works as Les goûts réunis Couperin was attempting to reconcile the widely divergent musical forms then in vogue among various European countries in order to create a truly international style.  

There were two works on the program by Marin Marais, both taken from Pièces en trio (1692).  The first was the Suite No. 3 in D major arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord while the second, the Suite No. 1 in C major, was arranged for two violins, bassoon and theorbo.  Marais had been a student of Lully, and like his mentor he found favor at the French court where he was given the high sounding title ordinaire de la chambre du roy pour la viole.  His most important works were the five books he contributed to Pièces de viole (1686-1725) that were distinguished by the highly detailed instructions to musicians regarding the fingerings to be used in performance.

In between the two pieces by Marais, the ensemble performed Jean-Marie Leclair's Deuxième Récréation de musique d'une exécution facile, Op. 8 (1737) arranged for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.  I had previously heard selections from this same work at the ensemble's October recital but arranged for different instrumentation.  The piece, which isn't nearly as easy as its title would lead one to beleive, was something of a departure for the composer, most of whose works consisted of extremely challenging violin sonatas.  This is not surprising since LeClair was a virtuoso violinist who, despite a five year absence in the Netherlands, exerted great influence on the development of French violin music.

The program concluded with Louis-Antoine Dornel's Suite No. 3 in D minor from Livre de simphonies (1709) arranged for two violins, cello and harpsichord.  Though held in high esteem during his lifetime, Dornel was largely forgotten after his death, perhaps because so little of his music survived him.  For seventeen years he was music master of the Académie Française, but none of the sacred music he composed in fulfillment of his duties is still extant.  The present suite was competent and pleasant enough to hear but not particularly memorable.

The recital lasted a full hour and forty minutes with no intermission, but no one in the audience was complaining.  It was our good luck to have heard such accomplished musicians perform once popular works that have fallen into obscurity over the course of centuries but are no less wonderful for that. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Eccles, Britten and Dvořák

On Sunday afternoon I walked down to Juilliard to hear another of the chamber music recitals given each week at Morse Hall.  One of the best things about the series is the wide range of composers whose works are featured.  On this occasion the program went from the Baroque to the twentieth century and then back to the Classical Romanticism of the nineteenth century.

The program opened with Henry Eccles's Sonata in G minor for violin and continuo (c. 1720), performed here in a 1929 arrangement by Serge Koussevitzky for double bass and piano.  It wasn't until I read Eccles's biography in Wikipedia that I learned how freely he had committed plagiarism in compiling his Twelve Solos for the Violin, of which the present sonata in G minor is designated as No. 11.  One doesn't expect such outright mendacity from classical composers and it's only fitting that his lack of scruples should be all that he's now remembered for.  As for Koussevitzky's arrangement, it's an odd one, though the great conductor can hardly be blamed for attempting to enlarge the repertoire for his chosen instrument.  Both piano and double bass are low register instruments, and that can't help but darken the character of the music.  It would have been much more interesting to have heard the piece performed as originally intended with a violin or flute playing the treble lines with piano or some other form of continuo providing accompaniment.

The musicians were Szu Ting Chen, double bass, and Nuoya Zhang, piano; their coach was Eugene Levinson.

The next work was the String Quartet No. 2 (1945) by Benjamin Britten.  There have been only two truly great composers in British musical history - Britten and Henry Purcell - so it's fitting that the former should have composed a piece commemorating the 200th anninversary of the latter's death in 1745.  The intent is made explicit in the third and final movement, marked chacony, that is longer than the first two combined.  Purcell was a master of the Baroque chaconne and Britten here supplies a dizzying number of variations - three groups of six interspersed with cadenzas for solo instruments and a final set of three variations at the movement's end.  It's a virtuoso turn and a stylish tribute to Purcell, but I actually found the much shorter second movement far more interesting.  It's unsettling music, played entirely with muted strings, that gives the work an entirely different character.  It's as though the listener were given a brief glimpse of a dark subtext running beneath the surface of the music.

The work was performed by Choi Tung Yeung and Yutsuki Beppu, violins, Christine Wu, viola, and Ayoun Alexandra Kim, cello; they were coached by Natasha Brofsky and Joel Smirnoff.

After a short intermission, the program concluded with Antonin Dvořák's much loved Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887).  There are relatively few major piano quintets in the nineteenth century chamber repertoire.  The form more or less came into being with Schumann's Op. 44.  Later in the century, both Dvořák and Brahms tried their hands at it.  The present work was initially conceived as a revision of a youthful work, the Op. 5, for the same instrumentation and in the same key.  I have a superlative recording of both quintets performed by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet that shows quite clearly when played side by side the distance traveled by Dvořák as his talent matured. The most moving part of the later work is the second movement dumka in which the composer displayed his mastery of folk sources.

What's interesting in listening to such an arrangement is the manner in which a particular composer integrates the piano with the string quartet format. In Dvořák's work, the piano is made the backbone of the piece and engages throughout in a full dialog with the strings. Dvořák's lyrical study of Czech folk music here results in one of his most successful and enjoyable compositions.

On this piece the musicians were Jackie Tso and Peter Lin, violins, Candy Yang, viola, Jan Fuller, cello, and Chaeyoung Park, piano; their coach was Darret Adkins.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Staley Wise Gallery: Sheila Metzner

On Thursday I took advantage of the sunny weather to take a long walk through the Village and Soho.  On the way I stopped at the Strand on Broadway to look through the stacks of used books; then, having purchased a copy of Blake Crouch's novel Dark Matter, I made my way to Crosby Street where I saw the current retrospective of Sheila Metzner's photographs at the Staley Wise Gallery.

Metzner, a native New Yorker born in Brooklyn, has had a distinguished career as a photographer significantly aided by her background as an advertising agency art director.  And it's in her advertising and editorial work, along with her portraiture, that she shines the brightest.  The best works here by far were The Kiss for Fendi (1986) in two versions, one with sculpture and one with male model; Rosemary with Ungaro Hat for Vogue (1985); Uma for Patou (1986); the monochromatic Striped Glove (1988); and Ennis Brown House for Vogue (1992).  These, along with portraits of Warren Beatty (1991) and Brooke Shields (1985), are masterpieces of classical style and refined taste.  Interestingly, considering how long Metzner had been a photographer, all the above works were created in a relatively short seven year period.

What distinguishes Metzner's prints is the use of the Fresson process, an alternative printing technique from the late nineteenth century succinctly defined by Merriam Webster as follows:
"a printing process in photography which is similar to the carbon process but with no transferring and in which development of the image occurs when pigment is removed from the unexposed portions of the image by washing the print surface with finely divided wet sawdust."
The process gives prints an extraordinary richness that has to be seen in the original to be truly appreciated.  Its unique qualities cannot be conveyed by reproductions.

Having said this, however, I have to admit the print I most admired at the exhibit, Rebecca for Marlo's Flowers (1984), is a traditional C-print, perhaps because its large size made it unsuitable for the Fresson process. 

There are other works on view at the exhibit, but to my mind they did not rise to the same level as the works mentioned above.  Photographs of children and husband Jeffrey, with the exception of Stella.Fever (1978), were really no more than family snapshots no matter how well printed.  The cityscapes depicting the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building showed the same hackneyed views every tourist to the city takes while visiting here.  As for Elaine, the 1988 tribute to Man Ray that appears to have been solarized (i.e., Sabatier Effect), any photographer who attempts to emulate the work of a true master does so at her own risk.  Unless one is a genius on the same level as Man Ray, which is highly unlikely, the comparison is bound to be unfavorable.  No matter how well intentioned the tribute, it's not going to come off anywhere near as well as the original.

I should mention that the staff at Staley Wise were among the friendliest and most helpful I've encountered at any New York City gallery.

The exhibit continues through January 20, 2018.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Françaix, Ravel and Piazzolla

On Sunday afternoon I went to Morse Hall to hear a midafternoon performance of chamber music, one of four scheduled for that afternoon.  These Sunday chamber marathons that run roughly from noon to 9 p.m. are feasts for those with a love of the chamber repertoire, not only for the high level of musicianship but also for the highly diverse programs on offer.  The 2:30 performance I attended featured works by three twentieth century composers - Jean Françaix, Maurice Ravel and Astor Piazzolla.

The recital began with a performance of Françaix's Musique de Cour (1937) for violin, flute and piano, a reduction of the full work composed that same year for violin, flute and orchestra.  Despite the large number of works written by Françaix - forty for flute alone - he is not a particularly well known composer and relatively little has been written about him.  An interesting dissertation by one Abby Bridgett Grace Fraser suggests that this neglect may simply have been the result of his having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., France in the years following World Wars I and II.  In a time of intense doubt and soul searching as exemplified by the rise of Existentialism, Françaix was a neo-classical composer who believed in "musique pour faire plaisir" and made no apology for the highly accessible style of his work  Certainly the present piece was lighthearted and highly enjoyable to hear.  As both Debussy and Ravel had done before him, Françaix here sought to conjure the past glories of French music.

The musicians were Ji Soo Choi, violin, Jihyuk Park, flute, and Wei Lin Chang, piano; their coaches were Sylvia Rosenberg and Vivian Weilerstein.

The next work was Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927).  As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata.  The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed.  The No. 2 was an entirely different matter.  This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel was masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano.  This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another.  But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting.  Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. 

The sonata was performed by Wei Lu, violin, and Zhu Wang, piano; they were coached by Nicholas Mann and Jerome Lowenthal.

After a brief intermission, the program concluded with Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango (1986) for violin and marimba, an arrangement of the original work for flute and guitar.  Piazzolla was, of course, one of the most important figures in the development of tango music, so much so that he is now universally identified with it.  In this piece, perhaps his most famous work, he attempted to chronicle the evolution of the tango as it moved from the brothel, where it had its first incarnation as lively dance music, to the cafe, the nightclub, and finally the concert hall.  Piazzolla's own program notes for each section can be found in the Wikipedia article devoted to the piece.  They provide a better summary than I could ever hope to give here.

The two musicians were Ann Cho, violin, and Leo Simon, marimba; their coaches were Joseph Lin and Greg Zuber.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Verdi's Requiem

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear a rare rendition of the Verdi Requiem.   Like all performances of this work in rencent memory, it was led by Music Director Emeritus James Levine.  Fittingly, following the untimely death last month of beloved baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Met annonunced that all four performances this season would be dedicatd to his memory.

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. 

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, not least because it had so strongly promoted Italian independence.  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.

Unlike other examples of the genre, the Requiem is most often viewed as a concert piece rather than a mass, and there definitely is some truth to the accusation often leveled against it that it is an opera masquerading as liturgical music.  In this case, the dedication of the Requiem to Mr. Hvorostovsky enhanced its spiritual power and raised it to a higher level than it would have enjoyed if it had only been performed for its own sake.  And no one could have deserved the tribute more than the great baritone.  I last saw him perform two years ago in one of his three appearances as Count Di Luna in Il Trovatore and always had the highest regard for his ability as an artist.

This was one of the finest performances of the Requiem that one could have hoped to hear.  Maestro Levine was as impressive as ever on the podium, and he was ably assisted here not only by four superlative singers - Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano, Ekaterina Semenchuk, mezzo-soprano, Aleksandrs Antonenko, tenor, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass - but also by what I consider the world's greatest chorus, the Met's own.

*** It was only after I'd attended the performance and drafted much of the above post that I saw the Sunday newspapers and became aware of the controversy surrounding Mr. Levine's activities.  I had heard no mention of it at the Met on Saturday afternoon.  It comes as a great shock to all of us who have regularly attended the Met Opera over the years. ***

Friday, December 1, 2017

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Wagner, Debussy and Schumann

Earlier this week, the Juilliard Lab Orchestra made its first appearance this season at the school's popular Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall in a program that featured well known orchestral works by Wagner, Debussy and Schumann.

The program opened with Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862) conducted by Elinor Rufeizen. The opera itself is an anomaly among Wagner's works in that it is a comic light-hearted work that takes as its theme music making itself.  Not suprisingly, Wagner here sympathizes with the forces of musical change as essential to creative growth.  I've never had the stamina to sit through the entire opera (at roughly four and one half hours one of Wagner's longest) and doubt I ever will, so I appreciated the opportunity to hear at least some of its themes in condensed form in the Prelude.  It's interesting to note that while most composers write the overture after having completed the opera itself when they can select those themes they feel best represent the entire score, Wagner did it the other way around and first began work on the Prelude before moving on to the full opera.   

The next work was Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) conducted by Jesse Brault.  It's hard to believe while listening to this short work that it was written in the nineteenth century even if for no other reason than that it does not fit into any known musical genre.  The closest might be the tone poem, but the music is not really programmatic despite its source in Mallarmé's poem which actually, at least in translation, evokes a completely different mood.  No less an authority than Pierre Boulez has found in Debussy's piece the beginning of modern music, but I don't believe that that's really accurate either.  The music is not so much modernist as impressionist (no matter how much Debussy detested the term) and I think it's best viewed as a recreation in musical form of a series of sensuous experiences.  The composer himself described it as "a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams..."  As such, it readily lent itself to adaptation into one of the Ballets Russes best known, and most scandalous, dance works.  Many years ago, I saw a performance by the Joffrey Ballet that attempted to recreate the original productions of both Le sacre du printemps and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, including both costumes and choreography, and I still consider this the best realization of the mood Debussy sought to create.  It brought to life the sense of unfulfilled longing that suffuses the piece.

The concert ended with a performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38 (1841), nicknamed the "Spring."  This is one of the composer's most enjoyable and accessible works, a true masterpiece of the Romantic movement.  Although Schumann had made abortive attempts at orchestral writing as early as 1832, this was his first full length symphony and all the more remarkable for having been drafted in only four days.  If it drew its immediate inspiration from the poetry of Adolf Böttger, its true impetus was Schumann's recent marriage to Clara.  Nothing could so evoke the joys of spring for a young man even in the depths of the German winter (the work was composed in January) as being at last married to his one true love.  With the full support of Clara - who herself wrote: "My highest wish is that he [Robert] should compose for orchestra—that is his field! May I succeed in bringing him to it!" - Schumann must have felt himself at this point at the very beginning of a brilliant career in which anything was possible.  He may also have drawn inspiration from Schubert's Ninth Symphony which he had himself discovered while visiting Vienna only two years before.  Certainly, any composer who aspired to symphonic writing could not but have been moved by the greatness of Schubert's achievement and would have longed to emulate it to whatever extent he was capable.  Ironically, the very brightness of Schumann's music compels the listener to contrast it to the composer's own sad end.  He would attempt suicide in 1854, only fourteen years after the symphony's composition, and then die two years later while institutionalized.  In hearing the Op. 38, one cannot help listening for some premonition of the tragedy that was to come.  The conductors on this work were Benjamin Hochman on the first two movements and Jane Kim on the final two movements.

The temperature on Wednesday rose to 63F in Central Park.  Stepping out of the auditorium after just having heard Schumann's symphony, I couldn't help but feel a sense of spring myself.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I walked to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear the Omega Ensemble perform a full length program that included works by Beethoven and Brahms.

Omega recitals traditionally began with a short performance by a young musician referred to as a "next generation artist."  In this case the artist  was 12 year old pianist Sabrina Lu who proceeded to play two short works - Chopin's Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 (1844) followed by Alberto Ginastera's Danza del gaucho matrero, Op. 2, No. 3 from Danzas Argentinas (1937).  I was very surprised to hear so young a performer choose the Ginastera.  It's a virtuoso piece that combines very successfully elements of South American folk music with the dissonance of the twelve-tone school.  I much preferred Ms. Lu's rendition of this work to that of the Chopin Berceuse, although she played both pieces exceptionally well.

Following this introductory performance the recital proper commenced with Gabriel Cabezas, cello, and Liza Stepanova, piano, performing Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796).  The two Op. 5 cello sonatas were both written in Berlin while Beethoven was on a concert tour.  Never one to miss a chance for patronage, Beethoven dedicated the sonatas to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, who obligingly rewarded the young composer with a gold snuff box filled with gold coins.  Though these are youthful works from the composer's early period, they do provide indications of the greatness that was to come.  Most importantly, Beethoven was for once working without the benefit of models composed by either Haydn or Mozart.  In that sense, he can be seen as creating here a new Classical genre.  For the first time, the parts for the piano were fully written out, a sharp break from the Baroque practice of leaving them unwritten and using the keyboard only as part of the basso continuo.

The first half of the program concluded with violinist Itamar Zorman joining Ms. Stepanova on three popular short works arranged for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz - Rachmaninoff's song How Fair This Spot, Op. 21, No. 7 (1900-1902), Debussy's famous Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), and Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926).

The most interesting of these three works, perhaps because I had previously been familiar with only the original score for solo piano, was the Three Preludes.  The work reflects Gershwin's ambition to be taken seriously as a classical composer.  Though he had gained international recognition with Rhapsody in Blue, written two years earlier, he was still viewed primarily as a composer of Broadway show tunes.   Accordingly, he came up with the idea of a complete set of 24 preludes in the grand manner of Chopin, but the number was gradually reduced, first to seven, then to five, and finally to three.  It is the second movement in C-sharp minor, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, that is the longest and most successful.  Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby.

After a short intermisson the recital concluded with a performance of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (1854, rev. 1889).  The trio was originally composed in 1854 when Brahms was 21 years old and only a year after he had first become acquainted with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, without question the most significant encounter of his musical career.   Brahms wrote the greater portion of the trio in Hanover, where he had been visiting the famed violinist Joseph Joachim in the company of the Schumanns, and then completed it shortly after the couple had returned to Düsseldorf.  Unfortunately, almost immediately upon his return home, Robert, who had suffered from severe depression for most of his life, attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Rhine.  Brahms rushed to Clara's side and helped her place Robert in an asylum in Bonn where he remained until his death at age 46 only two years later.  Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to know if either Joachim or the Schumanns had any direct influence on the composition of the work.  Certainly, there were some evident connections.  For example, Brahms had inscribed at the top of the score the words "Kreisler junior."  This was a reference to a fictional character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a widely read critic and author of fantastic stories.  Schumann had found inspiration from this same character in his 1838 piano cycle Kreisleriana, Op. 16.

On the recommendation of Clara to Breitkopf und Härtel, the trio was the first of Brahms's chamber works to be published.  (For that matter, it was his first piece to be played in the U.S. when in November 1855 it was given its American premiere in New York by the pianist William Mason.)  When Simrock took over the publication of Brahms's works in 1889 the firm gave the composer the opportunity to revise any he so chose.  Brahms took advantage of the offer to extensively revise the Op. 8 trio in spite of his famous remark that his intention had been "not to stick a wig on it but merely to comb its hair a little."  The thrust of the revisions was to tone down Brahms's youthful Romanticism in favor of the more restrained style of his mature works.  What's most remarkable about the revision, however, is that Brahms did not withdraw the earlier version from publication but instead left both available.  Considering what a perfectionist Brahms was (he is reported to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published and then only after having made extensive revisions following a private performance), it is astonishing that he would allow continued publication of an earlier version of whose deficiencies he felt so strongly that he took the time after the lapse of so many years to correct them.  One can only assume that the older Brahms felt a strong degree of nostalgia for the passionate Romantic he had once been.  Perhaps too the fact that the work's initial composition had been so intimately connected with Brahms's first meeting with his beloved Clara had created an emotional attachment in his mind that he was unwilling to let go.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Valery Gergiev Conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in Prokofiev #6

On Wednesday evening I went to hear the Mariinsky Orchestra perform under the baton of its Music Director Valery Gergiev on the second evening of its two-night engagement at Carnegie Hall.  On this occasion, the program was rather eclectic and featured works by Strauss and Prokofiev as well as the New York premiere of a piano concerto by Daniil Trifonov who appeared here in the dual roles of composer and pianist.

The program opened with Strauss's tone poem, Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888) in E major.  To be honest, I've never greatly cared for Strauss's tone poems.  They belong to the first part of the composer's career when, filled with hubris, he nustakenly thought he was leading German music in an entirely new direction just as Wagner had done before him.  But the belief was illusory.  For one thing, Strauss did not invent the tone poem, only the catchy label.  He had actually been preceded in his endeavor not only by Liszt but by Beethoven as well.  After all, what is the Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral, if not a tone poem in all but name?  More importantly, the tone poem was a musical dead end rather than a new beginning.  By the time Strauss composed the last of them in 1915, the bloated Eine Alpensinfonie, Mahler and Stravinsky had already revolutionized Western music with their modernism. As musical tastes changed, the tone poem was revealed to be an anachronism, no more than a curious holdover from the nineteenth century.  In retrospect, the arc of Don Juan's music parallels the course of Strauss's own career - it begins with a loud fanfare only to die away softly at the end.

The next work was the New York premiere of Trifonov's Piano Concerto (2014), a neo-romantic work that tried very hard throughout to conjure the spirit of Rachmaninoff.  I was less than impressed with it myself.  This was music that took itself much too seriously, not least in the stormy piano part.  It did, however, provide Mr. Trifonov several opportunities to display his considerable talent at the keyboard.  In an earlier post I described Schumann's early piano quartet in C minor as "overwrought," and the same description could just as well apply to the present work.  Schumann did go on to compose some of the repertoire's finest chamber works, however, and it's just as possible that Mr. Trifonov will also move forward to far greater accomplishments.

After intermission the program concluded with the work I had really come to hear, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111 (1947).  I'm certainly not the first to note that this is a very dark work indeed.  Prokofiev himself referred to "the painful results of war" when discussing its mood.  As in his earlier Violin Sonata in F minor, there is a clear sense of hysteria lurking just behind the music; it threatens to break forth into the open at any moment and overwhelm both musicians and audience  If one listens closely enough, one can hear the mocking laughter of the graveyard.  It would be naive, though, to suppose this mood was only the result of war, terrible as World War II was for the Russian populace.  Much of the work's unease has to do with the ferocity of Stalin's purges that continued unabated throughout the war years and even afterwards.  There's a sense of disbelief that one should have survived the hardships of a world war only to face a postwar reality that's no less horrifying in its inhumanity.  In this sense, the political censors were perfectly correct in condemning both the work and its composer.  The symphony is a powerful indictment of the entire Soviet system as it reveals a nation reeling from psychological trauma that can never completely heal.

Valery Gergiev is at his best when conducting works from the Russian repertoire, and he did a tremendous job with the Prokofiev.  This is a work where everything happens beneath the surface; it needs a sure hand to bring forth all its nuanced psychological implications.  Hearing it performed so well by such a great orchestra on Wednesday evening was a truly rewarding experience.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ensemble Connect Performs Brahms and Dvořák

On Tuesday evening I visited Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear a chamber recital given by Ensemble Connect (formerly the ACJW Ensemble), the fellowship program jointly sponsored by Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, and the NYC Department of Education.  On this occasion, the group focused on nineteenth century Classical Romanticism and presented two works by its foremost proponents, Brahms and Dvořák.  Perhaps to add more variety to the program, the ensemble opened with a short piece by contemporary composer Stephen Hartke.

It's difficult to adequately describe in words Hartke's intiguingly entitled The Horse with the Lavender Eye (1997) for violin, clarinet and piano.  This may be at least in part due to the the sources of inspiration for each of the four movements - "Music of the Left," "The Servant of Two Masters," "Waltzing at the Abyss," and "Cancel My Rumba Lesson."  According to Hartke's website, the movements derive from "Carlo Goldoni to Japanese court music to the cartoonist R. Crumb, as well as 19th century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis and Looney Tunes."  As Hartke writes:
"The connective thread of all these images began to dawn on me only in the midst of composing the work: all the movements have to do in one way or another with a sense of being off-balance -- playing music with only one side of the body; being caught between insistent and conflicting demands; dancing dangerously close to a precipice, and only narrowly avoiding tumbling in; and, finally, not really being able to dance the rumba at all."
For the most part, Hartke was surprisingly successful in interweaving these disparate strands into a cohesive whole even though the music was largely atonal and filled with dissonance.  It also required that the musicians master extremely unusual techniques as when the violinist, with left hand held behind her back, plucked the strings with her right hand while keeping the instrument tucked tightly under her chin.  It was only in the final movement's coda that the music regained its balance with a melodic tonality.

The next work was Brahms's Trio in E-flat Major for Violin, Horn, and Piano, Op. 40 (1865, rev. 1891).  This work marks a turning point in the composer's career, and not only for its unusual instrumentation.  Brahms was 32 years old at the time he wrote the piece and at the exact midpoint of his life.  I think it's fair to hold that in this work Brahms was bidding farewell to his youth with one last backward glance, an idea supported by the trio's elegiac character.  The composer's mother had died in the same year that Brahms wrote the trio, and there are allusions scattered throughout that refer to her passing as well as to his own youth.  For one thing, Brahms had studied the natural horn in boyhood and it's significant that he specified the use of that instrument here rather than the valve horn that had already been in common use for some thirty years.  Beyond its connection to Brahms's childhood, the waldhorn has a more mellow tone tinged with a hint of sadness that makes it appropriate for a memorial work.  The sorrow Brahms felt for his late mother can most clearly be heard in the third movement, marked adagio mesto, that is among the most poignant slow movements he ever composed.  As if this marking were not enough to indicate the composer was here thinking of his mother, he quotes in this same movement the folk song Dort in den Weiden steht ein Haus ("There in the Willows Stands a House") that his mother had taught him many years before.  Still another link to the past is the anachronistic ordering of the movements slow-fast-slow-fast in the tradition of the Baroque sonata da chiesa.  All these elements combine to make the horn trio unique in Brahms's oeuvre.  He didn't compose another chamber piece after this (not counting any drafts he may have destroyed in the interim because they did not measure up to his high standards) for the next eight years.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875), known as the "Double Bass" for its distinctive instrumentation in which a bass was added to the traditional string quartet in order to achieve a more pronounced sonority in the lower register. Despite its deceptively high opus number (it was originally published as the Op. 18), the quintet is a relatively early work composed before Dvořák had come to the attention of Brahms and Hanslick in 1877 and before having been launched on an international career. Originally written as a submission to a local competition, which it easily won, the piece went unperformed for a number of years until Dvořák, whose work was by then highly popular, finally sent it to his publisher Simrock. As such, the quintet provides an excellent demonstration of the composer's early style as he moved away from the influence of Wagner's music and began finding his own voice. It's a remarkably cohesive work and one that deserves a more prominent place in the chamber repertoire. The present performance was notable for its inclusion of the slow intemezzo movement that Dvořák had originally removed from fear the work would be too long and later adapted as his Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40.

I had only the day before heard Dvořák's String Sextet in A major, Op. 48 (1878) for two violins, two violas and two cellos, and it was interesting to compare these two string works written only three years apart.  In the interim, of course, Dvořák had won the Austria prize and attained international fame.  One can accordingly detect in the sextet a new found self confidence and a more mature style.  Certainly, in the later work the composer showed greater willingness to move beyond his German models and embrace his own country's folk heritage.

I've attended recitals given by the Ensemble Connect for many years, both at Juilliard and at Weill Recital Hall, and have always been impressed by the high level of musicianship demonstrated by its members.  One problem, though, is that the program lasts only two years, at which time there's a complete turnover in membership.  I think it's very difficult for any chamber ensemble to establish a distinctive sound in so short a space of time.  It's also somewhat disconcerting to an audience who have become used to hearing music performed by one particular group of musicians to abruptly find themselves faced with an entirely new cast of characters.  The discontinuity can be unsettling.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform: Kalliwoda, Schumann and Dvořák

On Monday afternoon I went to hear another Jupiter Players performance at Good Shepherd church on West 66th Street.  The program, entitled Stars in Prague, featured the works of three composers - Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda, Schumann and Dvořák - all of whom had some association with the city, although in the case of Schumann the connection was very slight indeed.

The recital opened with Kalliwoda's Morceau de Salon, Op. 229 (1859) for clarinet and piano.  Kalliwoda (actually Jan Křtitel Václav Kalivoda in the original Czech) is another of those composers whose music the Jupiter Players specialize in performing, that is, works by individuals who were prominent during their own lifetimes and bona fide members of the musical establishment but who after their deaths were immediately consigned to oblivion and their music forgotten.  After having listened to the present piece, I don't feel Kalliwoda was done any great injustice.  This short work was mildly entertaining but, as the title would indicate, nothing more than salon music.  It was written several years after the composer had retired as conductor of the Donaueschingen orchestra whose theater had in any event burned to the ground.  If its rendition on Monday had a saving grace, it was ensemble member Vadim Lando's standout performance on clarinet .

The next work was Schumann's Piano Quartet in C minor, WoO 32 (1828).  This is not, of course, the composer's famous Quartet in E-flat major but rather a youthful effort written some thirteen years before when Schumann was only 19 years old and had barely begun to learn his trade.  At the time of the work's composition Schumann was still studying law in Leipzig and had not yet begun his apprenticeship as an aspiring concert pianist under thet tutelage of Friedrich Wieck, his future father-in-law.  As such, this slight work is of only historical interest.  The most interesting revelation to be gleaned from it is that Schumann was no prodigy. While the work possesses some slight charms - Schumann was later to use one of its themes in his Op. 4 Intermezzi - it fails to give any indication of the great works that were to come.  If I were asked to describe the quartet in one word, it would be "overwrought."  Considering how young Schumann was at the time he composed it, that's not especailly surprising.

After intermission, the program concluded with the work I had really come to hear, Dvořák's String Sextet in A major, Op. 48 (1878) for two violins, two violas and two cellos.  The work was written relatively early in Dvořák's career, only a few years after he had first come to prominence by winning the Austrian Prize (in a competition that had been judged by both Eduard Hanslick and Brahms himself) and in the same year as his breakthrough success with the Slavonic Dances.  The fact that Joseph Joachim was among the musicians who played the sextet at its Berlin premiere - this was Dvořák's first major work to be premiered outside Bohemia - was one sign that the composer had at last arrived.  Another indication of Dvořák's increasing confidence in his abilities can be found in the emphasis he now placed on traditional Czech folk music, especially in the use of the dumka in the second movement, in place of the German works that had hitherto served as his models.  This is reinforced by the reference to the Slavonic Dances in the third movement trio and again in the third variation in the fourth movement.

As always, the musicianship at this recital was beyond reproach.  I had previously heard guest artists Elizaveta Kopelman, piano, and Mikhail Kopelman, violin, perform with this same company and been greatly impressed by their virtuosity.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Met Opera: Massenet's Thaïs

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to see a performance of Thaïs, a work by Jules Massenet with libretto by Louis Gallet, that has been enjoying a revival of popularity during the past several years.  For that matter, Massenet's ability as a composer has itself been undergoing a critical reappraisal in the course of the last half century.  Long dismissed as merely a hack who pandered to popular taste, he has come to be seen as one of the major French composers of the nineteenth century.

The criticism leveled against Massenet after his death was not completely without merit.  Like other French composers of his day, he willingly provided ballet scenes in place of dramatic action and favored librettos whose love stories contained titillating elements, in this case the story of an ascetic monk whose sexual longings are awakened by an encounter with a courtesan whose character is not far different from Violetta's in Verdi's La Traviata.  But it must be remembered that Massenet was writing for a Parisian audience that demanded such conventions, no matter how regrettable they may seem to modern audiences.  Only consider the near riot that erupted at the Paris Opéra when in 1861 Wagner insisted on putting the ballet in Act I of Tannhäuser rather than in Act II, thus inconveniencing members of the Jockey Club.  If Massenet's works were accordingly more entertainment than high art, they nevertheless filled that role brilliantly with music that was extremely accomplished.

There are more serious themes that underlie the plot of Thaïs.  Among these are the anti-clericism that ran through French thought in the late nineteenth century.  The character of Athanaël, who believes he is acting out of the highest principles in saving Thaïs from a life of sin only to discover at the end that he has really been motivated by carnal desire, is a study in hypocrisy even if Athanaël is unaware of his true feelings until it is too late.  Another theme is that of Orientalism that so pervaded European culture in the nineteenth century only to be castigated by Edward Said in the 1970's.  Here it provides a sense of exoticism in the libretto as well as in Massenet's music that must have significantly added to the opera's charms for its original audience.  It's really difficult to criticize Massenet on this count since he was really only following in the tradition Mozart had established as early as the eighteenth century in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Although Manon (1884) is universally regarded as Massenet's greatest creation, I think that honor should more justly be accorded to Werther (1887), an exceptionally accomplished adaptation of Goethe's classic that can best be appreciated when the title role is sung by a great tenor, such as Alfredo Kraus in the 1980's.  Thaïs, in my opinion at least, falls somewhere in between these two works.  Its music, notably the entr'acte Méditation, is bewitching in its beauty and the two main characters, Thaïs and Athanaël, are carefully enough delineated that they arouse genuine sympathy.  The use of an Alexandrian setting is at once exotic and at the same time paradoxically ascetic . 

Saturday's performance was the first time I'd seen the opera.  Although the cast contained no big names and was led by a lesser known conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, I'd been anxious to attend a performance of Thaïs ever since having purchased the recording featuring Renée Fleming in the title role.  As it turned out, this was a sturdy performance even if it never rose to the heights of greatness.  Villaume did a workmanlike job on the podium that allowed the sensuous beauty of Massenet's music to shine.  Ailyn Pérez as Thaïs and Gerald Finley as Athanaël both turned in strong if not inspiring performances.  The 2008 production John Cox was handsome without being unduly ostentatious.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Israel Philharmonic Performs Mahler #3

Yesterday evening I went for the first time this season to Carnegie Hall where the Israel Philharmonic was performing under the baton of Zubin Mehta, the orchestra's Music Director for Life.  This was the first opportunity I'd had in several years to hear both orchestra and conductor, and I was very interested to discover how well they would fare with one of the longest and most challenging symphonies in the repertoire (as well as the only work on the program), Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 3.

At approximately one hour and forty minutes, the Third is the longest symphony Mahler ever wrote, and for that matter one of the longest in the entire repertoire.  For that reason alone it's one of the composer's less frequently performed works.  It is a demanding experience for both listeners and musicians that requires total immersion in an imaginative world whose meaning, despite the programmatic titles that were later dropped, is never made explicit.

The powerful crashing opening of the first movement, marked Kräftig. Entschieden, reminded me of of Strauss's more heroic tone poems, not coincidentally written at roughly the same time as the Third; but the music soon sank to a more introspective level.  It was as if in this long movement Mahler was creating a setting from which the five movements of the second half would evolve.  I had not realized until recently that the movement's opening theme was adapted from the fourth movement of Brahms's Symphony No. 1.

The two movements in the second half that most catch the listener's attention are the fourth and fifth.  These are both choral pieces but of entirely different forms. The fourth is the setting of Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra, a work published only a few years earlier that had exerted an incredible influence on European thought, particularly in Germany.  Sung by alto alone, it is soft and meditative as it explores the depths of both suffering and joy.  Its introspective musings contrast sharply with the deceptively playful children's chorus of the fifth movement, "Es sungen drei Engel" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  This leads directly into the lengthy adagio the concludes the symphony. Here the work finds its resolution in the most stately form imaginable.  The world Mahler has created here becomes complete.

I had heard a stunning rendition of the No. 3 in the spring of 2016 when Gustavo Dudamel led the L.A. Philharmonic as part of the Great Performers series at Lincoln Center. It was really that performance that allowed me to first truly appreciate how great a work this is, certainly one of Mahler's finest achievements.  I thought yesterday evening's performance to be on the same level.  The audience was held spellbound through work's entire length.  Mehta did an excellent job on the podium as he exerted tight control of the orchestra.  Japanese mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, supported by the Manhattan Girls Chorus, was outstanding in the symphony's choral movements.

The concert was broadcast live on WQXR, New York City's classical music station, and the archived performance is available for listening on the WQXR website.  Nothing, however, can match the thrill of actually having been at Carnegie Hall to hear the work performed live. It was a truly amazing experience.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Elizabeth Chang

On Saturday afternoon, I walked down to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear a one-hour recital given by violinist Elizabeth Chang, a member of the school's pre-college faculty, and her accompanist on piano, Steven Beck.  The short program limited itself to two early twentieth century works by Hungarian composers.

The recital opened with Ernő Dohnányi's Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 21 (1912). In the first half of the twentieth century, Dohnányi was a major figure on the European musical scene. He was successively an instructor at the Berlin Hochschule, Director of the Budapest Academy, and Music Director of the Budapest Philharmonic.  His musical compositions were highly regarded and regularly performed at major venues.  As a virtuoso pianist, Dohnányi toured both Europe and the United States to great acclaim.  In spite of all this, he was largely forgotten after his death and his music is not often performed today.  Part of the reason may be that as a composer he never really outgrew the influence of Brahms; unlike his fellow countryman Bartók, Dohnányi remained firmly rooted in nineteenth century aesthetics.  This sometimes has the unfortunate effect of making his music seem out of date to the modern listener.  Certainly, the sonata performed here is deeply indebted to Brahms.  The work consists of three movements, all of them fast, with the opening theme of the first movement reappearing as the coda to the final movement.  It's an accomplished piece of music filled with the spirit of Classical Romanticism.  Listening to it, one can understand why Brahms had championed Dohnányi's earliest endeavor, the 1895 piano quintet in C minor.  By 1912, though, Classical Romanticism had finally given way to Modernism and the Dohnányi sonata was already an anachronism at the time of its publication.

The second and final work was Béla Bartók's Violin Sonata No. 1, Sz. 75 (1921).  Although one always thinks of Bartók first as a pianist, one only has to look to his amazing six quartets to appreciate how adept he was at composing for strings.  The present three-movement work, completed only a few years after The Miraculous Mandarin, was written during a period when Bartók had fully embraced both Modernism and the dissonance that accompanied it.  There is a sense of violent unease throughout the work, and the final movement's folk sources are transformed almost beyond recognition.  Both the Sonata No. 1 and the No. 2 that followed a year later were dedicated to Jelly d’Arányi, one of the most notable violinists of her day and a great-grand niece of Joseph Joachim.  Even though both composer and soloist were Hungarian, d’Arányi was based in London and it was there that the premieres of both sonatas were given with d’Arányi on violin and Bartók playing the piano part.  

The Bartók sonata is a technically challenging work that places great demands on both performers. Steven Beck was extremely impressive in his handling of the difficult piano part while Ms. Chang displayed a seemingly effortless virtuosity on violin.

Ms. Chang made a few remarks from the stage, but unfortunately these were largely inaudible even though I was seated in the fourth row.  She may very well have been calling attention to the contrasts between the two works on the program.  Dohnányi and Bartók were born only four years apart (1877 and 1881 respectively) and yet they represented two entirely different eras.  Nothing could so have emphasized the Modernism of the Bartók sonata as its placement beside the Dohnányi.  Perhaps it was only my taste in music, but the Bartók seemed almost a century after its composition as alive and vital as any contemporary music - how strange and jarring it must have sounded to its first listeners - while the Dohnányi, written less than ten years before, appeared more a carefully done academic exercise, a calculated tribute to European music's past glories.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Art Book: Metropolitan Lives

One of my favorite schools of painting, perhaps because I'm a native New Yorker, is that of the Ashcan Artists - Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan and George Bellows.  From roughly 1904 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 they pioneered a distinctive style of American realism.  The group actually had its beginnings in Philadelphia in the 1890's where most of its members were employed as illustrators at the city's newspapers.  It was Henri who drew them together there with the inspirational Tuesday evening talks he gave at his studio.  Rebecca Zurier's essay, "The Making of Six New York Artists," fails to mention, though, that Henri and several of his protégés had previously studied under Thomas Anshutz, a former student of Thomas Eakins, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  After the artists had relocated to New York City the movement gained its greatest renown with the show of "the Eight" at Macbeth Galleries in 1908.  (The membership of the Ashcan Artists and the Eight was not identical.  Three of the Eight – Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast - did not paint in the Ashcan style while George Bellows, who did, was not included in the 1908 exhibit.)

If there was a literary inspiration for the Ashcan Artists, it was certainly Walt Whitman whose celebration of the common man and the American spirit was embodied in their paintings.  As political radicals (Sloan was a member of the Socialist Party and served on the editorial board of The Masses), the artists did not hesitate to go into the tenements and red light districts and make them the subject of their paintings.  It was this that distinguished their work from other strands of American realism.  And in this sense New York City was the perfect subject for their art.  Robert Snyder's essay "City in Transition" begins:
"The greatest theater in New York has always been the theater of its streets, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. The city that emerged was both coarse and inspiring.  Tenements sprawled in the shadows of skyscrapers.  Sidewalks rang with a symphony of languages.  Street-corner socialists battled sweatshop tyrants.  Bright lights illuminated nickelodeons and vaudeville theaters, the new temples of mass culture."
But the paintings these artists produced were not in any way didactic but rather celebrations of the teeming life that filled the streets from the Battery to Harlem.  They portrayed the immigrants in their ethnic neighborhoods, the shopgirls on their way to work, the crowds gathered underneath the elevated lines to hear election results with pure affection.  They realized that it was these masses of people pursuing their dreams and enjoying their leisure that made this country great.  It's no accident that the longest essay in the book is Snyder and Zurier's "Picturing the City."

What makes this book especially poignant is the fact that when it was published much of the New York City the Ashcan Artists portrayed could still be found in spirit if not in fact.  The rich still lived side by side with the poor and the same polyglot mixture of peoples could still be seen following their traditional routines.  In the last twenty years, though, that New York City has disappeared as real estate interests have transformed the city into an enclave that's now exclusively for the rich.  The vibrance and zest for life is gone now as venerable institutions are put out of business and the buildings that housed them torn down to make way for high-rise condos.  The few venues that remain, such as McSorley's in the East Village, are nothing more than museums left intact to provide local color.  

Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York was published to accompany a 1995-1996 exhibit of the same name presented by the National Museum of American Art.  It consists of a series of well written essays by Rebecca Zurier, Robert W. Snyder and Virginia M. Mecklenburg and a huge number of reproductions, not only of the Ashcan Artists' paintings, but of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings and memorabilia from the period in which they worked.  Together they bring back to life, if only in print, the dynamic metropolis New York City was at the beginning of the twentieth century when everything seemed possible to its inhabitants.  It's not so much a scholarly work as a loving tribute.