Monday, January 29, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Prokofiev

On Friday afternoon I walked down to Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall to attend the first New York Philharmonic performance I'd heard in several years.  Led by Stéphane Denève, chief conductor of the Brussels Philhamonic, the matinee featured an all-Prokofiev program.

The concert opened with the six-movement suite from Prokofiev's 1919 opera The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33.  The opera itself is one of the composer's most fascinating works; in its bizarre plot - Prokofiev had also authored the libretto - he could even be said to have anticipated surrealism.  I actually saw a production of the full opera at the City Opera in the 1980's and greatly enjoyed the silliness of it all.  Much of the absurdity is lost, of course, in the reduction to a concert suite (completed in 1924 as Op. 33bis); and the passage of time, almost a century now, has robbed even the music of much of its shock value, not least after the March was used as the theme of a popular radio series in the 1940's.  Nevertheless, this is one of Prokofiev's early masterpieces and provides insight into his early approach to modernism, radically different from that of his countryman Stravinsky at a time when both were living as expatriates.

The next work was the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 with guest artist James Ehnes as soloist.  The contrast between Prokofiev's music and Stravinsky's was made even more evident in 1923 when the Concerto was premiered at the same Paris Opera concert at which Stravinsky conducted his Octet for winds, a piece I had heard earlier this month at a ChamberFest recital.  If the sleek coldness of Stravinsky's Octet received all the attention at that concert, Prokofiev's work was no less innovative.  One influence on its composition was Szymanowski's Métopes; Prokofiev had heard in 1916 in St. Petersbug at a performance of the work by violinist Paul Kochanski who then advised Prokofiev on the technical aspects of his own Concerto.  The connections to Métopes was interesting as I had just heard a selection from Szymanowski's Masques earlier in the week.

After intermission, the program concluded with selections from Prokofiev's 1940 ballet Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64.  It's well known that the composer had originally planned to give the piece a happy ending in which Romeo arrived at Juliet's side before she had had time to drink the poison.  Prokofiev justified his new ending by stating "the living can dance, the dying cannot"; the decision may also have reflected his newfound Christian Science beliefs that did not recognize the finality of death.  It's only been in the last few years, though, that it's been revealed Prokofiev was given no real choice in reverting to the original tragic ending.  He had come back to the Soviet Union in 1936 at precisely the wrong time, arriving immediately before Stalin's horrendous purges began in earnest.  The composer's ballet in its original form fell victim when the entire staff of the Bolshoi Theater, where the work was to have been premiered, were removed and its general director Vladimir Mutnykh, who had approved the work in its original form, was liquidated.  It was not unitl 1946 that Stalin allowed the revised version with tragic ending to finally go forward at the Bolshoi.  Simon Morrison, a Princeton music professor writing a book on Prokofiev, uncovered in his researches some twenty minutes of previously unheard music as well as six new dances that were given their premiere by the Mark Morris dance troupe at Bard Summerscape in 2008.  Morrison wrote:
"The version thats known and loved around the world is completely incorrect.  There's an act missing.  There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev's wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will."
It's rather strange to think that the officially sanctioned version, which has since become a staple of the dance repertoire, failed to accurately the composer's true intentions.  It's even been suggested that the principal dancer Galina Ulanova, who later wrote a warm reminiscence of the company's interraction with Prokofiev (reprinted in the Philharmonic's program notes), actually insisted on further changes to the composer's modernist music, including a thickening of the orchestration, in order to make it easier for her to dance.  At this performance, conductor Denève, having expressed dissatisfaction with Prokofiev's three orchestral suites, chose to make his own selection of music from the full score.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Shostakovich, Brahms, Corigliano, Szymanowski and Prokofiev

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to Paul Hall to hear the first 2018 recital given by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum.  The program, which lasted approximately 75 minutes, featured works by prominent twentieth century composers - Shostakovich, John Corigliano, Karol Szymanowski and Prokofiev - as well as three brief excerpts by Brahms.

The recital opened with two selections - the No. 7 in A major and the No. 15 in D-flat major - from Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 (1950-1951).  The cycle was the composer's response to Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier; he was inspired to write it immediately after having helped judge a Bach piano competition in Leipzig in 1950.  The gold medal winner at that competition was in fact a Russian pianist, Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing the composer so admired that he dedicated his work to her.  But this was not Shostakovich's first encounter with Bach's monumental keyboard exercise; he had already in his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932) explored the same concept though not so extensively as here.  While the Op. 87 is inarguably one of Shostakovich's greatest achievements in piano writing, its great length makes performance of the entire work in a single recital problematical with the unfortunate result that the full cycle is not often heard.  Recognition of Shostakovich's accomplishment was also hindered by Soviet censorship that took exception to the work's dissonance and labeled the fugue itself a decadent musical form.  At this recital pianist Anna Han gave so brilliant a performance of the two selections that I wished there had been enough time for her to have played the entire work.

The next piece, performed by Jina Kim, consisted of three selections from Brahms's 8 Klavierstücke, Op. 76 (1878).  These were the No. 1, Capriccio in F-sharp minor; the No. 5, Capriccio in C-sharp minor; and the No. 6, Intermezzo in A major.  In titling the anthology "Piano Pieces," the composer was most probably trying to avoid any programmatic associations.  By taking this route, Brahms consciously distanced himself from the approach taken by his one time mentor Schumann whose solo piano works almost invariably followed some form of extra-musical program.  This may have been an indication that Brahms at this point in his career finally considered himself to have come into his own (his first great success, A German Requiem, had had its premiere in 1869), but it may also have been that he simply wished to call attention to the music rather than to any outside associations that might distract from it.

Following the Brahms came Corigliano's Etude-Fantasy (1976).  Until recently, though I had long considered Mr. Corigliano one of the most exciting and adventursome American composers now active, I had never heard very much of his piano music.  A few weeks ago at ChamberFest, however, I heard a performance of his two-piano Chiaroscuro (1997) that really shocked me with its originality.  In much the same way, I was deeply impressed with the earlier five-movement Etude-Fantasy performed at this recital.  The composer's own notes to the work are worth quoting in full:
"My Etude Fantasy is actually a set of studies combined into the episodic form and character of a fantasy. The material in the studies is related most obviously by the interval of a second (and its inversion and expansion to sevenths and ninths) which is used both melodically and in the building of the work’s harmonic structure.
"The first etude is for the left hand alone—a 3½-minute, bold, often ferocious statement which introduces both an opening six-note row (the first six notes of the work) and a melodic germ (marked ‘icy’ in the score) which follows the initial outburst. This etude reaches a climax in which both the row and the thematic germ are heard together, and ends as the right hand enters, high on the keyboard, playing a pianissimo, slow chromatic descent which introduces the next etude—a study in legato playing.
"In this short second etude both hands slowly float downward as a constant crossing of contrapuntal lines provides melodic interest. The sustaining of sound as well as the clarity of crossed voices is important here.
"The third etude follows—a fleet development on the simple pattern of a fifth (fingers one and five) contracting to a third (fingers two and four). In this section there is much crossing of hands and during the process a melody emerges in the top voices. A build-up leads to a highly chromatic middle section (marked ‘slithery’) with sudden virtuosic outbursts, after which the melody returns to end the etude as it began.
"The fourth etude is a study of ornaments. Trills, grace notes, tremolos, glissandos and roulades ornament the opening material (Etude 1) and then develop the first four notes of the third etude into a frenetically charged scherzando where the four fingers of the left hand softly play a low cluster of notes (like a distant drum) as the thumb alternates with the right hand in rapid barbaric thrusts. This leads to a restatement of the opening six-note row of the Fantasy in a highly ornamented fashion.
"After a sonorous climax comes the final etude, a study of melody. In it, the player is required to isolate the melodic line, projecting it through the filigree which surrounds it; here the atmosphere is desolate and non-climactic, and the material is based entirely on the melodic implication of the left-hand etude, with slight references to the second (legato) etude. The work ends quietly with the opening motto heard in retrograde accompanying the mournful two-note ostinato."
My appreciation for the work was enhanced by the bravura performance given it on Wednesday by pianist Qilin Sun.  Unfortunately, the program notes to the recital did not indicate if Mr. Corigliano had coached this performance as he had that of Chiaroscuro, but as he's on the Juilliard faculty he most likely had some input.

The next work was "Schéhérazade," taken from Szymanowski's Masques, Op. 34 (1915-1916) and performed by Jiaying Ding.  Masques was written during World War I while the composer was residing at his parents' home in the Ukraine after having been found unfit for military service.  Perhaps it was to escape the immediacy of the war that the composer took refuge in writing programmatic music set in distant times and places.  Shortly after having completed Métopes, Op. 29, whose settings were based on incidents from Homer's Odyssey, Szymanowski again adapted literary sources in Masques but this time more with tongue in cheek, going so far as to describe the work's style to his friend Stefan Spies as "supposedly a parody."  Such a statement, however, belied the composer's serious interest in his sources.  Far from dabbling in Orientalism, Szymanowski had actually traveled to the North Africa where he had encountered Mideastern music first hand.  He was also widely read in Islamic culture.  There is consequently an authenticity in his evocation of The Arabian Nights that raises the music far above the level of a mere pastiche.

The program concluded with pianist Schuaizhi Wang performing Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83.  This is the second of the composer's "War Sonatas."  Although the piece was not completed until 1942, Prokofiev had already begun sketching it as early as 1939 when already at work on the No. 6, Op. 82.  The work was premiered in Moscow in January of 1943 by the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.  By then the Soviet Union was at war and fighting for its very survival as the decisive Battle of Stalingrad raged against the Nazi invaders.  The work captures perfectly the spirit of the times.  If anything, the mood of desperate uncertainty expressed in the No. 6 is only heightened in this work whose opening movement is marked allegro inquieto.  As Richter later remarked:
"With this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by before thereby ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force."
The most interesting movement, for me at least, is the second marked Andante caloroso.  This part could at first be mistaken for the work of Rachmaninoff, so completely does it recall the Russian Romantic tradition.  Though Prokofiev could never have admitted it, the movement seems filled with nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Russia.  To Soviet citizens living through the horrors of war and Stalinism the old days must have seemed in retrospect an ideal time now lost forever.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Royal Concertgebouw Performs Bruch and Mahler

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall for the first time this year to hear the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by Daniele Gatti, perform a Mahler symphony alongside one of the repertoire's best known violin concertos.

The program opened with Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) with guest artist Janine Jansen as soloist.  Those viewing the full title of the work may be forgiven for their surprise upon discovering that Bruch had actually composed more than one violin concerto as most would be hard pressed to name another work by the composer.  In fact, Bruch wrote two other violin concertos as well as the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra.  He was actually a quite prolific composer and the list of his complete works on Wikipedia is lengthy.  What then was it about the Op. 26, one wonders, that caused it to stand out and achieve such enormous popularity?  Along with the Beethoven Op. 61, the Mendelssohn Op. 64 and the Brahms Op. 77, it was included by virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim in his list of the "four German violin concertos."  My personal belief is that the work's success had much to do with Joachim himself.  In 2014 I attended a concert given by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at which Christian Tetzlaff performed as soloist on Joachim's Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 11, subtitled "In the Hungarian Style."  So closely did it remind me of the Brahms and Bruch concertos that I found myself wondering if those composers had influenced Joachim or if it had been the other way around.  Since Joachim's concerto was composed in 1853 and therefore preceded Bruch's by thirteen years and Brahms's by twenty-five, I would thnk based on chronology alone that Joachim should be given pride of place.  Moreover, it's well known that Joachim made suggestions to Brahms before the premiere of the Op. 77 that he thought would improve it and also wrote the work's best know cadenza.  In a similar manner, Joachim helped Bruch revise the Op. 26 after its first performance in 1866 and then went on to premiere the revised version in 1868.  From the concerto's success it might be inferred that Joachim's assistance was far more substantial than has been recognized and that he played a key role in making the Op. 26 the best known composition by Bruch.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-1888), originally entitled "The Titan." As is the case with any composer writing his first symphony, Mahler struggled mightily with the No. 1. Fifteen years elapsed between the first tentative sketches completed in 1884 and the work's publication in 1899. Mahler was constantly reworking it, creating and then deleting programmatic explanations, first giving titles to each of the movements and then just as quickly removing them. Listening to the music, it seems that Mahler was trying to put into it everything he had experienced in his life up to that point - snatches of Songs of a Wayfarer, a funeral march, bird songs, and even a children's nursery rhyme. No wonder early listeners, including the composer's future wife Alma, were confused and even repelled by what they heard. But underlying the ceaseless experimentation and accumulation of sources is the sense that this is a work of genius, difficult to comprehend perhaps, but undeniably a masterpiece. There is a grandeur in this symphony that makes its original title highly appropriate. It is indeed titanic and a turning point in the history of modern music. In it lie the seeds of the great symphonies that were to come.

The Royal Concertgebouw is one of Europe's leading orchestras and they did an excellent job on Thursday evening, particularly in their playing of the Mahler symphony.  The large number of instruments for which the work is scored make it problematical for any conductor, but Daniele Gatti delivered a tight performance that was received enthusiastically by the audience.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Michael Tilson Thomas to Conduct the Met Orchestra

I received a letter in the mail Wednesday informing me that Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, will make his first appearance with the Met Orchestra on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, during the orchestra's annual end-of-season series at Carnegie Hall to which I subscribe.  The program for that date will also change with Carl Ruggles's Evocations taking the place of the previously scheduled world premiere of Charles Wuorinen's Eros and Nemesis.  The remainder of the program - consisting of Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, featuring soprano Pretty Yende as soloist, and Mahler's Symphony No. 4 - remanins unchanged.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Budapest Festival Orchestra Performs Bach, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff

On Sunday afternoon I walked down to David Geffen Hall to hear the first concert on my Great Performers subscription.  The matinee performance featured Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing major works by Bach, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.

The program opened with Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 (1738-1739).  There are several points to be made in any discussion of Bach's Orchestral Suites.  The first pertains to the date of composition.  That shown above, 1738-1739, is derived from the autographs of flute and viola parts the composer wrote out during his residence in Leipzig.  It's likely, however, that the works were composed much earlier, most likely circa 1720 when Bach was Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold in Köthen.  The second question concerns the size of the orchestra for which Bach composed his suites.  Recent scholarship has proposed that Bach intended that only one instrument perform each part, an arrangement that would obviously limit the ensemble to a small chamber orchestra, and that was exactly how it was performed on Sunday afternoon with only the conductor and seven musicians using period instruments present onstage.  The third question concerns the grouping of the works.  There's no indication that Bach ever intended the four suites as a single set.  Rather they were most likely composed singly at different times and then revised by the composer as he saw fit over the course of years.  The numbering of the suites is then purely arbitrary.  Answers to the above questions are complicated by the fact that the works were not published until 1853, more than one hundred years after the death of the composer.

Orchestral suites were extremely popular during the Baroque period - Telemann is thought to have written hundreds of which 135 have survived - so that it's a testament to Bach's seriousness of purpose that he composed only four of these lighthearted works.  In general, they follow French models, particularly those of Lully, as can readily be determined by the titles of the dance movements contained within them.  Bach, however, also highly respected the work of Italian composers, chief among them Vivaldi, and those Italian influences can be heard in the present piece's Sarabande.

The next work was Beethoven's majestic Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) with guest artist Dénes Várjon as soloist.  Although 1800 is routinely given as the work's date of composition, it obviously wasn't completed in its final form at that time.  Beethoven most probably composed it to be performed at his first Vienna concert in April 1800 but at the last moment substituted another of his early concertos in its place.  Even at the Op. 37's premiere three years later in 1803 the piece still lacked a written piano part with Beethoven playing it from memory.  This is not mere quibbling over dates as Beethoven in 1803 had already entered his middle period and was a far different composer than he had been in 1800 when still deeply under the influence of Classical masters Haydn and Mozart.  The concerto as finally premiered had to have had a different character than that which Beethoven had originally conceived.

Beethoven had modeled the Op. 37 on Mozart's Concerto in C minor, K 491, but it's important to note that Beethoven only used Mozart's work as a stepping off point.  Though in the same key, Beethoven's concerto differs in many respects from its predecessor.  This is most evident in the slow movement largo in the distant key of E major, early evidence of the composer's predilection for sudden jumps to remote keys.  In this case, the audience must have been startled by the unexpected move.

Pianist Dénes Várjon, of whom I have to admit I had never previously heard, did a superb job as soloist.  A student of György Kurtág, he has won numerous awards in Europe but has not yet received the recognition he deserves here in the US.  He played the Beethoven with a sure but light touch that won him a standing ovation.  He then returned to perform an encore that may have been a selection from Bartók's For Children.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-1907).  This is a lush romantic piece whose music swirls about the audience in a heartfelt plea to the emotions.  As stated in Carnegie Hall's program notes to a concert I had previously attended:
"... the Second Symphony is an expansive summation of Rachmaninoff's early style.  The second subject of the finale and the main theme of the slow movement are two of the most extended tunes he ever wrote, and the soulful opening movement is a continual stream of brooding melody."
The work is also famous for being Rachmaninoff's second attempt at symphonic writing after the disastrous reception of his First Symphony in 1895.  Although he had by then composed his Second Piano Concerto, following a long period of psychoanalysis and hypnosis, Rachmaninoff still needed seclusion in which to work out his ideas and so resigned as conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and moved with his family to Dresden.  The Symphony No. 2 proved a great success and still remains one of the composer's most popular works.  It was actually through this symphony that I first came to appreciate the greatness of Rachmaninoff's music.

To my mind, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is one of the world's finest ensembles and their music director Iván Fischer a superb leader at a time when there is a scarcity of top notch conductors. Anyone who has ever seen this combination perform Bartók's music, as I have, knows that there are no more authoritive interpreters of that composer's works than these musicians.  On Sunday they demonstrated that they are equally at home with the wider European repertoire. Their performance of Rachmaninoff's Second was simply the best I've heard. Conductor and orchestra well deserved the standing ovation they received from the sold out house at its conclusion. Anyone who has an opportunity to hear this orchestra in performance should not hesitate to take it.  They certainly give the audience its money's worth - Sunday's concert lasted a full two hours and forty minutes.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Met Opera: Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera for the first time this year to hear that famous verismo double bill, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, both conducted by Nicola Luisotti, music director of the San Francisco Opera.

Cconsidering the circumstances in which they were composed, it's remarkable that these short pieces have gained such a permanent place in the repertoire that they are performed as regularly as works by Verdi and Puccini.  Both operas were first attempts by their respective composers, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo, who afterwards went on to long careers but never again were able to duplicate their initial successes.  Beyond that, the genre verismo itself was a fairly short lived phenomenon that produced no other true masterpieces. And finally, one-act operas themselves, with the possible exception of Puccini's Il Trittico, have rarely captured the imagination of the public.

What the two operas share are compact storylines.  It's their very brevity that gives them their power.  Each lasts only about an hour and a quarter, but in that short time lurid tales of jealousy and betrayal that end in death have more than enough time to unfold.  In Cavalleria Rusticana, with libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, the villager Turridu who has started an affair with a married woman (his former fiancée Lola) after having first seduced the innocent virgin Santuzza is slain by the cuckolded husband Alfio.  In Pagliacci, with libretto by the composer Leoncavallo, Canio the clown, egged on by Tonio, slays his wife Nedda and her lover Silvio in front of the circus audience after having discovered her plans to elope with Silvio.

This is not to suggest that there are not major differences between Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.  The former can hardly be termed a tragedy since the slain seducer Turridu is actually the guilty party who, for no other reason than hurt pride, has set in motion the violent events that culminate in his death.  It's much different in Pagliacci where Nedda can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape so abusive a husband as Canio.  This lends to her death at the clown's hands the tragic element missing from Cavalleria and so allows the audience to sympathize much more fully with her plight.  Moreover, the death of Nedda in front of the circus audience - and by extension the opera audience watching alongside - cannot help but have much greater emotional impact than the death of Turridu that occurs offstage.

For the above reasons, I've always considered Pagliacci the better of the two operas.  The fact that it had only one librettist - and Leoncallvo was considered next to Boito to be the finest in Italy - results in a more coherent story.  And the device of having a performance within a performance makes the opera audience feel it is part of the action.  In contrast, especially considering this is verismo, Cavalleria is almost entirely lacking in dramatic action except for the moment Alfio challenges Turiddu.  Even more strangely, the fight to the death, which should have been the opera's climactic moment, takes place offstage. This lack of action is only emphasized by the current minimalist production that takes place on a practically bare stage.  One feels at times one is watching an oratorio in concert rather than a fully staged opera.  In the end, Cavalleria seems to serve more as a prelude to the catharsis the audience experiences at the end of Pagliacci than as a work in its own right.

As for the performance itself, it's always exciting when a scheduled lead singer is unable to perform and an unknown newcomer must take her place.  This was especially the case on Saturday as the performance was broadcast via the web to a worldwide audicence.  In Pagliacci, Danielle Pastin appeared on short notice in place of an ailing Aleksandra Kurzak in the role of Nedda while in the minor role of Silvio, Alexey Lavrov replaced Alessio Arduini who was also ill.  I can't honestly say that either one triumphed in their respective roles, but they were both talented singers and certainly held their own.

Roberto Alagna, who did double duty as both Turridu and Canio, and George Gagnidze, who played both Alfio and Tonio, each turned in strong performances.  Ekaterina Semenchuk (whom I had heard sing last month in Verdi's Requiem) as Santuzza was extremely affecting in the difficult part of a woman who first betrays her lover and then is heartbroken by his death.  It's a pivotal role on which the success of the opera depends, and Ms. Semenchuk was able to fully capture the sympathy of the audience.

As mentioned above, the David McVicar production of Cavalleria was a bare bones affair, a strategy I did not think right for this opera.  According to the Met's Program Notes, McVicar had updated the setting to circa 1900; but there were too few props, mostly chairs and candles, to enable the audience to place the opera in any specific time or place.  On the other hand, the production of Pagliacci was definitely one of the best I've seen at the Met in recent years.  It evoked perfectly the thrill of a traveling carnival making a stop at a small town.  This was one of the few times updating, here to the late 1940's, worked well.  The production was extremely handsome without ever being ostentatious.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Schoenberg and Schumann

On Wednesday evening, after having heard that same afternoon an excellent chamber performance at Alice Tully, I went to Paul Hall to hear the final ChamberFest performance I'll be attending this season.  I rarely attend two performances on the same day, but in this case I made an exception as the evening program featured an infrequently performed work by Schoenberg followed by a chamber piece by Schumann that's a standard of the repertoire..

The program opened with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912), the full (and unwieldly) title of which is Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds "Pierrot lunaire."  More than in other works by Schoenberg it's necessary to understand the cultural context in which Pierrot was created.  Vienna at the time was not only the city of Mahler and Freud but also of such Expressionist artists as Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl, the latter of whom was to play such a pivotal role in Schoenberg's marital life.  The composer himself was an accomplished painter and was as deeply interested in the visual arts as any of his fellow Viennese.  It's not surprising then that he should have attempted to incorporate Expressionist elements in his music. To accomplish this, he turned to sprechstimme, a vocal technique midway between speech and song, when given a commission by cabaret artist Albertine Zehme to set to music twenty-one poems by Albert Giraud as translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben.  The composer had already experimented with sprechstimme two years earlier when orchestrating the final section, Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd, of the revised Gurre-Lieder, a cantata originally steeped in fin de siècle Romanticism, a style repudiated by Schoenberg only a year later after he had already moved on to atonal music; so disenchanted was he with the work that at its work's premiere he refused to turn to acknowledge the audience applauding him.  By the time he composed Pierrot lunaire the composer had fully embraced atonalism even though he had not yet formulated the twelve-tone system that was to be the hallmark of the Second Viennese School.  Schoenberg himself referred to the poems he had set as "melodramas" rather than songs.  However he called them, he was probably as surprised as anyone at the success they enjoyed at the work's premiere that featured the singer Zehme appropriately dressed as Columbine.

It's probably worth mentioning here Schoenberg's obsessive interest in numerology.  (He suffered all his life from triskaidekaphobia, i.e., fear of the number 13.)  It was this interest in numerology that determined the grouping of the melodramas into three groups of seven each.

One of the great things about ChamberFest is that one often hears works by the same composer performed virtually back to back. I had just heard on Tuesday afternoon the composer's String Quartet No. 2 that had anticipated Pierrot by including a part for voice.  Hearing these relatively early works performed so closely together allowed me to better understand the  manner in which Schoenberg combined voice with chamber ensemble to dramatic effect.

The work was performed by what has since come to be known as a "Pierrot Ensemble" consisting of Marie Engle, voice, Giorgio Consolati, flute, Noemi Sallai, clarinet, Sooyeon Kim, violin, Sophia Sun, viola, Thapelo Masita, cello, and Nathan Ben-Yehuda, piano; they were coached by Lucy Shelton and Sylvia Rosenberg.  While all the performances at ChamberFest this season have been excellent, that of Pierrot stood out for its fine ensemble playing on an exceptionally challenging work.  Marie Engle was outstanding on what has to be one of the most demanding vocal parts in the repertoire.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842).  Several seasons ago I heard Schumann's Quintet in recital a day after having heard his Piano Quartet, written the same year and in the same key of E-flat major.  1842 was the year of chamber music for Schumann whose approach to composing was to devote himself entirely to one genre until  he had exhausted its possibilities.  Thus 1840 had been "the year of the song" while in 1841 Schumann had written two of his four symphonies.  It could be argued that of all these cycles the most successful was that devoted to chamber music.  As the critic Richard Aldrich noted as far back as 1929:
"Schumann’s chamber music of 1842 is in many ways among the most perfect of all the products of his genius; the purest and most powerful in its beauty, the strongest in its form, best balanced in its substance, and best adapted in its technical means and processes to the expression of the composer’s thought."
When I had heard the Quartet and Quintet played in such close proximity to one another, I had thought in general the Quintet had a bigger sound suitable for a concert hall while the Quartet was the more intimate work. The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, was clearly meant to impress the listener while the funeral march was not only a Romantic staple but at the same time a glance backward toward Beethoven.  To conclude the Quintet, Schumann wrote a vibrant finale that remains among the finest accomplishments.  Most importantly, in the Quintet he created an entirely new genre insofar as he was the first well known composer to pair the piano with string quartet, an arrangement largely made possible by technical advances in the construction of the fortepiano that finally allowed its sound to be heard over that of the strings. Although Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann at the work's private premiere, made suggestions that led Schumann to revise the work before its public premiere at the Lepzig Gewandhaus (at which Clara did play), that should in no way detract from Schumann's accomplishment.

Before the performance began, violist Sergio Leiva described to the audience Schumann's recurring use of a "Clara" motif within the work.  I found this highly interesting as I had heard earlier in the week Brahms's Op. 60 that had incorporated that composer's own Clara theme.

The musicians were Yujhie He and Yue Qian, violins, Sergio Leiva, viola, Marza Wilks, cello, and Jie Fang, who gave a notable performance on the piano part; their coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Lara Lev.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Stravinsky and Enescu

The third of the ChamberFest recitals I attended this season was a Wednesdays at One matinee at Alice Tully Hall that lasted only an hour but featured two intriguing works that, though notable, are not often heard, one by Stravinsky and the other by George Enescu.

The program opened with Stravinsky's Octet (1923) for winds. Few composers influenced the course of twentieth century music more profoundly than Stravinsky.  While not many would argue this, most would point to Le sacre du printemps, forever immortalized in musical history by the riot that accompanied its premiere in Paris in 1913, as confirmation.  While the ballet was undeniably revolutionary in its radical exploration of dissonance and rhythm, Stravinsky's subsequent move to neo-Classicism could be considered to have had even greater repercussions.  Neo-Classicism was rooted in the aversion to German culture, most especially the Romanticism that infused Wagner's music, during and after World War I.  To replace German Romanticism and the programmatic music that characterized it, Stravinsky looked back to the Classical and Baroque periods.  Already in 1920 he had accepted a commission from the Ballets Russes to rewrite in modernist form music then attributed to Pergolesi for Pulcinella.  In exploring older musical forms Stravinsky also reverted to the cold precision that underlay such devices as fugue and counterpoint.  This even extended to the choice of instrumentation to be employed in scoring a work.  That Stravinsky did this deliberately was explicitly stated a 1924 article in The Arts in which he wrote of the Octet:
"Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments... which are less cold and more vague...  My Octuor is not an 'emotive' work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves."
If then the Octet strikes the listener as cold and lacking in emotional appeal, this was not accidental but carefully calculated on the part of the composer.  In this he influenced any number of composers who came after him.

The musicians on this piece were Viola Chan, flute, Kamalia Freyling, clarinet, Steven Palacio and Emmali Ouderkirk, bassoons, Lasse Bjerknaes-Jacobsen and Kevin Quill, trumpets, and Ricardo Pedrares-Patino and Aaron Albert, trombones; their coach was Raymond Mase.

The second piece on yesterday's program could not have been more dissimilar from the first.  Although Enescu's work contained the same number of instruments as did Stravinsky's, this time the ensemble was comprised entirely of strings rather than winds.  In the Octet in C major, Op. 7 (1900) two full string quartets played side by side, a combination previously employed most famously by Mendelssohn in his own youthful Op. 20.  But this was hardly the biggest difference between the two present pieces.  The Op. 7, composed roughly a quarter century before Stravinsky's Octet, was in striking contrast to the latter in its passionate emotionalism.  One could say it was precisely the type of work Stravinsky set himself against in his neo-Classical period.  Here was lush fin de siècle Romanticism made only more ardent by the youth of the composer at the time he wrote it.  This could be heard most clearly in the slow third movement marked lentement.  The use of French markings was also an indication that his sources of inspiration were more French than German - the Octet is dedicated to André Gedalge, Eenescu's teacher at the Paris Conservatory - even if the second movement was cast in the form of fugue. The Romantic roots of the piece were emphasized by Enescu himself when, in a 1950 preface to a new edition of the score, he described the entire piece as a single movement in sonata-allegro form, a concept that had previously been explored by Liszt and other prominent Romantic composers. 

The work was performed by Harriet Langley, Emma Frucht, George Meyer, and Amelia Dietrich, violins, Jasper Snow and Emily Liu, violas, Edvard Pogossian and Clare Bradford, cellos; they were coached by Don Weilerstein and David Finckel.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Schoenberg and Schubert

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear my second installment of Juilliard's ChamberFest series.  This particular recital was the one I'd been most looking forward to hearing since its program featured two works for strings that I've always held in the highest esteem and numbered among their respective composers' greatest works.

The program opened with Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 10 (1908). The Op. 10 is one of the most unusual string quartets in the repertoire - the last two movements set to music poems by Stefan George and call for their texts to be sung by soprano to the accompaniment of the strings.  The quartet proved to be a turning point in Schoenberg's career, what he himself termed "the transition to my second period."  In researching the history of the quartet, I came across an informative article by Bryan R. Simms that traced the personal crises that led the composer to so complete change in direction.  According to Simms, there were two situations in Schoenberg's life that together had a shattering impact on his psyche and caused him to seek a new path.  The first of these was the almost universal rejection his most recent music had received when first introduced in Vienna.  By his own admission, Schoenberg, who had always harbored an inflated estimate of his own worth, had expected his First Quartet, Op. 7, and his Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, to be the keys to his long awaited acceptance as a great composer.  In a 1937 lecture he recollected:
"After having finished the composition of the Kammersymphonie it was not only the expectation of success which filled me with joy. It was another and a more important matter. I believed I had now found my own personal style of composing and that all problems which had previously troubled a young composer had been solved... It was as lovely a dream as it was a disappointing illusion."
The reality proved far different than the composer had imagined.  In regard to the First Quartet, the critic Heinrich Schenker, invited to its premiere by the composer himself, wrote: "If there are criminals in the world of art, this composer - whether by birth or by his own making - would have to be counted among them."  As if this weren't enough, the Chamber Symphony fared even worse on its first hearing.  Describing the work's Musikverein premiere, only three days after that of the First Quartet, attendee Egon Wellesz wrote: "Never before or after has a concert in Vienna ended in such tumult."

It was in reaction to these criticisms that Schoenberg, still in search of acceptance if not outright fame, began work on the Second Quartet.  Originally he had planned to take a step back with this work and to make his music more readily accessible, once again dividing the piece into conventional movements.  After having sketched the first two movements, however, he was dealt a further blow, this one even more personal.  He was abandoned by his wife Mathilde who had run off with the painter Richard Gerstl.  To an egotist such as Schoenberg it had to have been devastating to have received two such rebuffs in so short a time.  It was in near despair then that he turned to the two poems by Stefan George as a means to express his unhappiness. Ironically, it was the inclusion of the Litanei and Entrückung in the third and fourth movements that finally led the composer to the discovery of a new style from which he would shortly thereafter develop the twelve-tone technique.

The quartet was performed by Jessica Niles, voice, Leerone Hakami and Jieming Tang, violins, Lauren Siess, viola, and Chloe Hong, cello; they were coached by Fred Sherry and Sanford Sylvan.

After a brief intermission, the recital concluded with what is undeniably Schubert's greatest chamber work, the String Quintet in C major, D. 956 (1828), the last the composer completed before his untimely death.  The one feature that's most often remarked upon when discussing this work is its use of an additional cello.  In this the composer broke new ground.  While his models Mozart and Beethoven had both written string quintets in the key of C major, they had opted for an additional viola rather than a cello.  Only Boccherini had made use of an additional cello in his own quintets but to much different effect.  Still, there was a precedent of sorts in Schubert's own oeuvre in the Piano Quintet in A major in which the composer, rather than scoring the work for piano with string quartet, had dispensed with a second violin and instead added a double bass.  Though this had not been done as a matter of choice - Schubert had been commissioned to write a work using the same instrumentation as had Hummel in his rearranged Septet - the obvious result in both the string quintet and the piano quintet was an increased sonority in the lower registers.  Though one might think that this was done to achieve a more darkened mood - one immediately calls to mind the elegiac character of Arensky's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35 - this was certainly not the case in the piano quintet, the "Trout," which is overall as joyous a work as one could imagine.  Rather the use of an additional cello enabled Schubert to express his vision with greater breadth than could be achieved with either a standard string quartet or a viola quintet.  And indeed the string quintet possesses a truly symphonic character.  In other words, the use of an additional cello fundamentally altered the character of the work from a straightforward chamber piece to a larger vehicle in which Schubert could express his ideas nearly as fully as in an orchestral work.

The five musicians were Ariel Seunghyun Lee and Elaine Qianru He, violins, Ao Peng, viola, and Andrew Cone and Shangwen Liao, cellos; their coach was Joel Smirnoff.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Corigliano, Bax and Brahms

One of the events I most look forward to each season is Juilliard's ChamberFest program.  Every year, a select group of students give up a week of their mid-term vacation to take part in a series of intensive chamber music workshops, the products of which are duly presented during the second week of January.  The lucky audiences have an opportunity to hear masterworks by noted composers, many of which are not performed as often as one would wish.

The first recital I attended was held yesterday afternoon at Paul Hall and featured works by John Corigliano, Arnold Bax and Brahms.  The Corigliano was of special interest since this is only the second time I can remember a work for only two instruments having been included in a ChamberFest program, the first having been Messiaen's Visions de l’Amen in 2016.

It was in fact with Corigliano's Chiaroscuro for two pianos (1997) that the program opened.  The piece is often cited as an example of quarter tone music in which twelve equivalent intervals of the chromatic scale are split into twenty-four equivalent microtonal intervals. As pianist Anna Han explained before beginning the performance, the composer, who had been commissioned to write the piece for a two-piano competition, had felt it would be repetitive to have two pianos limited to the same eighty-eight keys and so had required that one piano be tuned a quarter tone lower than the other, thus providing the musicians with a total of one hundred seventy-six keys.

As a photographer, I was intrigued by the work's title.  "Chiaroscuro," defined in Wikipedia as a "technique, developed during the Renaissance, that uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms, often to dramatic effect," is an important tool in photographic lighting.  Corigliano also obviously had photography on his mind since he named the three movements "Light," "Shadows" and "Strobe."  And indeed there were strong tonal contrasts throughout the length of the work.  

The two extremely talented pianists were Anna Han and Yijia Wang.  They were coached by John Corigliano himself who then appeared onstage to take a bow at the end of the performance.

The next piece was Bax's Piano Quintet in G minor (1915).  Although idiosyncratic in its composition, the fairly long piece was highly accessible, perhaps because much of it displayed strong Romantic influences.  The most interesting movement of this work though, at least to anyone of Irish descent, was the middle that was easily recognizable as a Celtic melody.

The work was performed by Sophia Steger and Sein An, violins, Isabella Bignasca, viola, Jenny Bahk, cello, and Siyumeng Wang, piano; they were coached by Jonathan Feldman.

After intermission, the recital ended with the only well known piece on the progrram, Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60 (1875), nicknamed the "Werther."  As a composer, Brahms was ever the perfectionist - he is reputed to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before finally allowing publication of the two that made up the Op. 51 - but there is something more at work in the length of time, almost a full twenty years, that elapsed before he completed work on the present piece.  He began drafting it in 1855 at roughly the same time he commenced work on his first two piano quartets, the Opp. 25 and 26, but while those were published shortly thereafter Brahms did not publish the final version of the Op. 60 until 1875 after having made extensive revisions including the change of home key from C sharp minor to C minor.  Other and more significant changes included the composition of a new finale, the old having been recast as the scherzo, and a new slow movement.

If one wonders why Brahms was so conflicted over this particular work, the answer may lie in its thoroughly Romantic "Werther" nickname.  It was the composer himself who first connected the work to Goethe's doomed sturm und drang protagonist when he wrote to his close friend Theodor Billroth that "the quartet has communicated itself to me only in the strangest ways...For instance, the illustration to the last chapter of the man in the blue frock and yellow waistcoat."  Brahms then expanded on the analogy when he submitted the manuscript to his publisher Simrock, writing:
"On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose."
Werther, of course, also shot himself in the head, driven to suicide by his love for a woman engaged to another man, and Brahms had found himself in an eerily similar situation in 1855 when staying with the Schumann household after Robert had been committed to an asylum.  Brahms, despite the Classical structure of his works, was nothing if not a Romantic and so identified with Werther's plight that he more or less declared his own strong feelings by transposing in the quartet's first movement Schumann's own Clara motif into one created by himself.  In this regard, there is an interesting article by Eric Sams entitled "Brahms and his Clara Themes."  It may be then that Brahms so procrastinated over the publication of the Op. 60 because he felt that in its original form it was simply too personal a work to be made public.  Even in the quartet's revised form, the first movement seems overwrought, especially for a composer as reserved as Brahms.  In a like manner, the beautiful slow movement can only be described as a hymn of ineffable longing.

The musicians for this last work were Byungchan Lee, violin, Elijah Spies, viola, Jonathan Lien, cello, and Chaeyoung Park, piano; their coaches were Lara Lev and Vivian Weilerstein.

Monday, January 8, 2018

NYC's Classical Music Season: The Second Half

Now that the holidays are past I'm looking forward to the second half of New York City's classical music season.  There are some great recitals, concerts and operas coming up.

January will be noteworthy for the number of chamber music recitals I'll be attending.  I had thought the first would be given last week by the Ensemble Connect at Paul Hall.  This is an extremely talented group of musicians, and their performance would have been the perfect introduction to Juilliard's annual Chamberfest scheduled for this coming week.  Unfortunately, the Ensemble Connect's recital was postponed due to the snowstorm that hit the city on Thursday.  But no matter.  I'll be going to hear many more Juilliard chamber music recitals in the next few months, including two given at Holy Trinity Church by the Juilliard415, the school's Baroque ensemble, on period instruments.

As for orchestral music, I'll be hearing two performances of Mahler's symphonies this month at Carnegie Hall.  On the 18th the Royal Concertgebouw will perform the First Symphony, and on the 23rd the Cleveland Orchestra will give their interpretation of the No. 9.  Also at Carnegie Hall in coming months I'll  hear the Chicago Symphony with Muti conducting Stravinsky; the Vienna Philharmonic performing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique; the Bayerisches Staatorchester with Kirill Petrenko, who next season will become chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, leading the ensemble in Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony; the Boston Symphony with Andriss Nelson conducting Act II of Wanger's Tristan; the Kamerata Baltica performing Chopin's Concerto No. 1 with Daniil Trifonov as soloist; and at the very end of the season three performances by the Met Orchestra.  And it's not only orchestral works I'll be hearing at Carnegie Hall.  I also have tickets to  two virtuoso piano recitals by Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff at that same venue.

Meanwhile, at Lincoln Center, the Great Performers series will live up to its name with concerts given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer conducting Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony; the L.A. Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel conducting Beethoven's No. 9; and - in what should be the highlights of the entire season - the London Symphony with its new music director Simon Rattle conducting performances of Mahler No. 9 and Das Lied von der Erde.

As far as opera is concerned I'll be seeing at the Met performances of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, Rossini's Semiramide, Strauss's Elektra, Verdi's Luisa Miller, and Massenet's Cendrillon.

Obviously, the next several months will be exciting ones for those with a love of classical music.  I'll be blogging here about all the performances I've been fortunate enough to have attended.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

"Pictorialist Models" Now Free of Charge

For the time being at least, Pictorialist Models - which is actually my photography portfolio in ebook format - is available free of charge from the Smashwords website.

This is traditional (non-digital) photography.  I shot all the photographs contained within the book on black & white film and then printed the negatives in a wet darkroom.

The ebook is in pdf format and can be downloaded at the link shown below.  Note that some of the photos contain artistic nudity.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Met Museum: Adolf de Meyer Photographs

After having seen the exhibit of masterpiece drawings during my visit to the Met Museum on December 26th, I then viewed an exhibit of photographs by Adolf de Meyer appropriately entitled Quicksilver Brilliance.  The small Gilman Paper gallery in which the show was set was so sparsely attended that it was difficult to believe I was only steps from the crush of holiday visitors who'd come to view the museum's Rodin exhibit in the much larger space directly outside it.

Though largely forgotten now, de Meyer secured his place in photographic history by becoming one of the world's first editorial photographers.  From 1913 to 1921 he was both Vogue's and Vanity Fair's principal photographer at a moment when technical advances in the halftone process allowed magazines for the first time to illustrate their covers and pages with actual photographs rather than with illustrations based upon them.  This in turn created a demand for skilled photographers whose work would now be viewed directly by the public without the assistance of an intermediary.  Largely by accident, de Meyer found himself in the right place at the right time.

De Meyer lived a flamboyant lifestyle in the upper echelons of early twentieth century high society.  Whether or not he was actually a baron, as he chose to style himself, he moved easily in aristocratic circles.  His enrtee to this privileged group was greatly facilitated by his marriage of convenience (de Meyer was gay) in 1899 to Olga Caracciolo, an Italian noblewoman rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Edward VII.  With Olga at his side, de Meyer gained first hand knowledge of the sophisiticated lifestyles of the social elite as well as the couture in which they attired themselves.  This was to be invaluable to him at Vogue and later, in Paris, at Harper's Bazaar.

No matter how fortuitous the circumstances that led to his success, de Meyer was a highly accomplished photographer who well deserved the positions he held.  He had already become a member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1893 and from 1903 to 1907 had his work published prominently in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work.  The association with Stieglitz (whose own Spring Showers was on view at the exhibit) was particularly significant because it reinforced the pictorialist style of de Meyer's work at a time when the movement had reached its zenith during the Photo Secession.  Pictorialism's soft focus techniques proved a perfect match for the fashion work on which the photographer was soon to embark.

If there are not more original prints at the current exhibit, it's because most of de Meyer's work was unfortunately destroyed during World War II.  Enough remains, however, to attest to his skill as a darkroom technician.  That displayed here is drawn entirely from the Met's own collection.

Surprisingly, the two finest works at the exhibit, both of them photographed in 1906 and both of them platinum prints, are neither portraits nor fashion work but floral still lifes.  The Shadows on the Wall (Chrysanthemums) and Water Lilies are exquisite works, the latter also shown reproduced as a photogravure in Camera Work.  There is a sensitivity to beauty in them that makes it clear why de Meyer felt so at home in Japan, the source of a number of photographs displayed here including Ueno Tōshō-gū, View through the Window of a Garden, and Garden Pool with Waterlilies, all of them photographed while on a visit to that country in 1900.  The last is a carbon print, a notoriously difficult medium with which to work, that creates an inherently sharper print than platinum though it lacks the latter's tonal range.  It attests to de Meyer's superlative ability in printing his images.

The fashion and portraiture work itself seems extremely dated today with the exception of the portrait of Josephine Baker (direct carbon print, c. 1925-1926) in which all the performer's vitality is captured even though she is dressed in a full length gown rather than in her infamous danse sauvage banana outfit.

One item I had never before seen and found fascinating was a 1914 book of dance photographs taken of the original Ballets Russes production of L'Après-midi d'un faune.  The the book consists of fourteen collotypes of which six have been temporarily removed and hung, including the portrait of Nijinsky as the faun.  As a photographer, I wondered what film emulsion de Meyer had used that had allowed him to capture motion in low light without any blurring.  (It's also possible the photographer asked the dancers to freeze a given position for the length of the exposure.)  There were also two platinum prints showing dancers in motion on view that were not part of the book but obviously related to it, at least in theme.  The more interesting was a nude study, the only one ever taken by de Meyer, in which the dancer had donned a grotesque mask.

Once the Photo Secession had ended and Stieglitz had moved on with Paul Strand to straight photography, pictorialism became something of a lost cause.  De Meyer was just one of many talented photographers whose work fell into obscurity as tastes changed.  Perhaps one day the pendulum will swing back again and he will receive the recognition he deserves.

The exhibit continues through March 18, 2018.

Monday, January 1, 2018