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.