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.