Friday, March 30, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Bayerisches Staatsorchester Performs Brahms and Tchaikovsky

On Wednesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Bayerisches Staatsorchester (in English, the Bavarian State Orchestra), one of Europe's premiere ensembles, led by its Music Director Kirill Petrenko.  Although the program contained only two works, it was a long concert that lasted more than two hours.

The concert opened with Brahms's Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102 (1887).  Although written a good ten years before his death in 1897, the concerto was the composer's penultimate orchestral work.  As such, one would expect it to be performed much more often than is the case.  Part of the problem is no doubt the practical difficulty in scheduling two virtuoso soloists to perform together with orchestra.  A much more fundamental problem, however, lies in the work's inception.  It was written not as the result of musical inspiration but rather as a very deliberate attempt on Brahms's part to win back the friendship of  violinist Joseph Joachim who had broken with the composer after the latter had taken the part of Joachim's wife, singer Amalie Schneeweiss, in her contentious divorce proceedings.  As Amalie was a friend of both Brahms and Clara Schumann, the composer may have felt he had had no other option than to defend her honor after she had been accused of adultery by a jealous Joachim. In any event, the loss of Joachim's friendship was a harsh blow to Brahms who owed to it even his introduction to the Schumanns as far back as 1854.  In writing the concerto, which Brahms thought might be a more acceptable offering to Joachim than a piece for violin alone, the composer employed every device that came to mind, including the insertion of a theme from a Viotti violin concerto that Joachim particularly enjoyed performing and a variation on the FAE motif that was Joachim's musical signature.  As a result, the concerto was too calculated a piece to ever come alive in its own right.  The critic Eduard Hanslick recognized this when he condemned the piece, no matter how gently, as "a product of a great constructive mind rather than an irresistible inspiration of creative imagination and invention."  Even Clara, normally Brahms's strongest supporter, criticized the work: "I do not believe the concerto has any future. Nowhere has it the warmth and freshness which are so often to be found in his works."  In light of such a negative reaction, Brahms abandoned plans for a second concerto with the same instrumentation and, as already observed, never composed any further orchestral works.

After having heard the concerto (and I also own a recording featuring Isaac Stern and Yo Yo Ma) I'd have to agree that this is not one of Brahms's most successful works.  Even though both soloists - Julia Fischer, violin, and Daniel Müller-Schott, cello - did a fine job, the music failed to affect me even if I could appreciate the complexity of its design.  It seemed heavy handed and too self conscious in its search for effects that would please its listeners.

After the piece had concluded, the soloists performed Halvorsen's Passacaglia as an encore.  Based on Handel's Passacaille No.6 from the Suite in G minor, HWV 432, Halvorsen had transcribed the work for violin and viola while here of course it was arranged for violin and cello.  It was a lively work, a bit long for an encore, but a definite crowd pleaser.

After intermission, the program concluded with the second and final work, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58 (1885).  Although written only two years before the Brahms concerto, the Tchaikovsky symphony is a far different work even if both composers were, each in his own way, committed Romantics. While Byron's 1817 poem Manfred has largely been forgotten, it was an enormously popular work in the nineteenth century due in large part to its gothic and supernatural elements and had already inspired an 1852 adapatation by Schumann and even in 1872 a piano "meditation" by Nietzsche.  It was the poem's supernatural character that had most impressed Balakirev, a charter member of the "Five," and led him to suggest it as a subject to Tchaikovsky who was not initially enthusiastic.   As much tone poem as symphony, the work's most obvious musical antecedent is Berlioz's impassioned Symphonie fantastiqueManfred is certainly unique in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, his only attempt at a programmatic symphony, and has always elicited mixed reactions from audiences and critics alike.  Even the composer was of two minds concerning it, first considering it among his best works and later expressing a desire to destroy the score.  My own opinion, after having heard Wednesday evening's performance, was initially quite positive even if in form it seemed much closer to Tchaikovsky's ballet scores than to his symphonies.  As such, it gave free rein to the composer's fervent Russian Romanticism, a good match for Byron's own unbridled emotionalism.

My greatest interest in attending this concert, aside from the music itself, was to hear Kirill Petrenko's work on the podium.  He will be succeeding Simon Rattle next year as artistic director and chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to judge how well he worked with another venerable German orchestra.  In the event, he did a masterful job in leading a fine ensemble.  I thought him particularly effective on the Tchaikovsky symphony that calls for unusually large orchestral forces.  I only wish conductor and orchestra had chosen a less idiosyncratic program for their Carnegie Hall debut.

The concert was broadcast live on WQXR and the archived performance is now available for listening on the station's website.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Hans P. Kraus Jr.: Facing the Camera - Selected Portraits

Those with an interest in early photography and what are now referred to "alternative processes" cannot do better than to view the selection of portraits currently on view at the Hans P. Kraus Jr. Gallery at Park Avenue and 82nd Street.  One has here an opportunity to study the manner in which the earliest photographers apporached the venerable tradition of portraiture and employed the new medium not only to build on that tradition but also to create innovative effects quite distinct from those acheieved by painters.

First there are prints by the famous names from the very dawn of photography.  Henry Fox Talbot is represented by Bust of Patroclus (1842), a salt print from a calotype negative.  In choosing an immobile sculpture as his subject, Talbot found a means of dealing with the inordinately long exposures required by the early processes. Thus Talbot was able to achieve a degree of sharpness that is highly unusual in a salt print and is testament to his emerging skill with a camera.  That he photographed the sculpture from different angles (this one is more full face than the better known profile in the collection of the Met Museum) demonstrates that he was making a conscious effort to master the intricacies of portraiture.

Perhaps the finest photography to have been created in the medium's first decade was that of the Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.  Though their photographs of Edinburgh citizens going about their business appear quite spontaneous, the poses were carefully orchestrated and then frozen for the length of the exposure. Hill's knowledge of painting was indispensable in allowing the pair to imbue everyday scenes with a sense of authenticity. At this exhibit they are represented by two works, one of women fishsellers hawking fresh herring and the other of young women gathered by a bird cage (the latter is a modern carbon print made from an original calotype negative).

Though long unrecognized, Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the greatest portraitists of the Victorian era.  This can clearly be seen in her study of her niece Julia Duckworth, mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and a favorite model of the pre-Raphaelite painters.  The photo has an otherworldly quality as the sitter's eyes seem to stare heavenward at some vision only visible to her.

Lewis Carroll (the pen name of Charles Dodgson), best known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, was also an accomplished photographer whose finest works, not surprisingly, were depictions of children.  This can easily be seen in his 1873 Xie Kitchin as a "Dane," an albumen print from a collodion negative.  In contrast to this portrait of a young girl in costume a nearby profile of a seated man, also by Carroll, seems lifeless even if technically correct.

The most fashionable portraitist in nineteenth century Paris was inarguably Nadar (pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) who in the course of his long career photographed virtually every important French writer, painter, and composer.  The reason for his success can easily be seen in his portrait of Alexandre Dumas, père.  Although the novelist stands motionless, the sitter's volcanic personality blazes forth in this 1865 photograph and brings him vividly to life.

Edgar Degas was not a professional photographer and worked with the medium for only a relatively short period late in his career.  As described in Edgar Degas, Photographer, a Met Museum catalog that accompanied its 1998 exhibit of the artist's photographs, Degas's methods were totally unorthodox and yet the knowledge he had gleaned from his years as a painter allowed him to achieve some stunning effects with only minimal lighting.  At this exhibit he is represented by a portrait of one of the Halévy family.  Degas was close to the Halévys during the time he worked at photography, and much of the information we have concerning his technique is derived from the correspondence of Daniel Halévy.  The Halévys, however, were Jewish and Degas a virulent anti-Dreyfusard so that a rift between them was inevitable.

The surprise at this exhibit was something of an anachronism - a 1929 portrait of an old man in Taos by Ansel Adams.  Taken long before Adams cofounded the f64 School, the portrait, printed on warm tone matte paper, is almost soft focus - or at least shot with the lens aperture wide open - and all the more engaging for that.  I've never cared for Adams's supersharp Yosemite landscapes printed on glossy paper that in my opinion aren't anything more than well crafted calendar art, but this atypical portrait is engaging and conveys very well the sitter's personality as well as giving a strong sense of wisdom acquired through age.  It's a shame Adams didn't create more work in this vein; he would have been a much more interesting photographer.

The exhibit continues through April 11, 2018.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Japanese Art Dealers Assciation at the Ukrainian Center

On both Sunday and Monday afternoons I walked across the Park to view the 2018 Japanese Art Dealers Assciation exhibit at the Ukrainian Center on 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, an annual three-day event, now unfortunately ended, at which one had a rare opportunity to see classic Japanese artworks outside the confines of a museum. Although the show was relatively small compared to the Edo Painting exhibit currently on view at the Met, it more than mde up in quality what it lacked in quantity.

The largest works at the exhibit were the six-panel folding screens that extended the entire length of a gallery.  Most impressive of these was Hawk and Geese by Soga Chokuan from the Momoyama Period.  The painter was known for his realistic renderings of hawks; but it struck a Western viewer, accustomed to more naturalistic effects in art, as strange that the geese should have shown no alarm at the predator's close proximity.  The other three screens - Birds and Flowers by Maruyama Oryū, Cranes by a Meandering Stream from the Kano School, and Flowers of the Four Seasons from the Rinpa School - were all from the Edo Period and so well displayed the Japanese love of nature that one felt one was outdoors when looking at them.

There were also a sizeable number of ukiyo-e prints on display at the exhibit.  These vividly colored woodblock prints have always been the most accessible form of Japanese art for Westerners, and it was their sudden appearance in Europe in the nineteenth century that gave rise to japonisme and an early appreciation of Asian art in general.  Two of the best known ukiyo-e artists were each represented by several prints.  Not only was a particularly fine example of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katushika Hokusai on display but so too were two of his lesser known works, Mishima Pass in Kai Province and Suspension Bridge between Hida and Etchū.  Among the works by the equally illustrious Utagawa Hiroshige were White Rain, Shōno (from The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō) and Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo), the latter of which inspired van Gogh's 1887 Bridge in the rain.  In both of these images by Hiroshige the falling rain was described by slanting straight lines that ran through the entire image.  Also by Hiroshige were A Fine Evening on the Coast, Tsushima Province with its wonderful depiction of a gigantic rainbow and Naruto Whirlpools, Awa Province that showed the artist could stylize the movement of waves equally as well as his rival Hokusai.

Most of the paintings on display were in the form of hanging scrolls from the Edo Period.  One of the largest examples was Waterfall by Yokoyama Seiki in which the raging water at the base of the falls is portrayed simply by an expanse of empty space.  The great majority of the scrolls, however, were figurative works, many of them depicting courtesans, by artists who were equally well known for their ukiyo-e prints.  These included Beauty Writing a Poem by Tsukioka Sessai, Beauty Holding a Poetry Card while Gazing at the Moon by Utagawa Toyokuni, the monochromatic ink wash Courtesan Parading by Chōbunsai Eishi, whose work I had also seen last week at the Met Muesum's Edo Painting exhibit, and Courtesan with a Fan by Nakamura Eiryū.  But the star of the show as far as I was concerned, and for that matter the primary reason I visited the exhibit a second time, was Seated Beauty Inscribing a Poem on a Tanzaku by Kitagawa Utamaro.   Suffice it to say that no other Japanese artist captured the essence of feminine beauty in his work so well as Utamaro.  So prized are his paintings and prints that it's highly unusual to see examples outside museum walls.

Quite different from the Edo Period paintings was a modern abstract work by Dōmoto Inshō.  The representative of Kyoto's Shibunkaku Gallery with whom I spoke explained that the artist had originally painted in a more traditional style prior to a visit to Europe in the 1950's after which he began experimenting with abstraction but while still using traditional Japanese art materials.  This particular painting made abundant use of gold leaf and was brightly colored in swirling patterns.  

In addition to the paintings and prints, there were also ceramics and lacquerware on display.  Of the former, a round pot with a flared rim was definitely the oldest work at the exhibit as it dated from the Yayoi Period (c. 300 BCE - 250 CE).  The lacquer pieces I found most intriguing were two writing boxes (suzuribako), one from the Edo Period inscribed with scenes from Genji monogatari and the other from the Taisho era showing a boat in a stormy sea.  The workmanship on each was exquisite.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Met Opera: Christine Goerke Sings Elektra

On Saturday afteroon I went to the Met to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct a performance of Strauss's one-act opera Elektra, the first opportunity I've had to hear the new Music Director this season.  To be honest, however, it was not the conducting of Nézet-Séguin that drew me there but the singing of the great soprano Christine Goerke in the title role.

Elektra, which premiered at the Dresden State Opera, in 1909 was the first collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, author of the 1903 play from which the libretto was adapted.  As one would expect of a work written in Freud's fin de siècle Vienna, the libretto emphasized the dark psychological elements that underlay the drama.  As Elektra descends into madness and as the story approaches its bloodsoaked climax, both play and opera grow ever more disturbing.  No doubt it was precisely this lurid aspect that attracted Strauss in the first place.  He wanted to shock listeners just as he had done in his recent Salome, the notorious work that had earned him his greatest renown.   He may have succeeded better than he intended.  As one critic wrote:
"The whole thing impresses one as a sexual aberration.  The blood mania appears as a terrible deformation of sexual perversity. This applies all the more because not only Elektra, but all the women are sexually tainted."
Others have suggested that Strauss abruptly ceased work on Elektra's composition in 1907 not because, as is usually claimed, he was worried that the plot too closely resembled that of Salome but because it raised in the composer's mind unpleasant associations from his childhood when he had been in constant conflict with his father.  Whether this is true or not, the opera probed far more deeply into the protagonist's psyche than audiences were at that time accustomed to hearing.  In so doing, it anticipated many of the trends, particularly those pioneered by Antonin Artaud, that were later to dominate twentieth century theater.

In Elektra Strauss built upon the modernist techniques he had previously employed in Salome.  Just as he went beyond the conventions of nineteenth century opera in his psychological approach to dramatic characterization, so he also moved beyond convention in his use of dissonance and in his individualization of characters through the assignment to each of a distinctive chord, most notably in the case of the protagonist the Elektra chord.   This is as far as Strauss would go.  Following the premiere of this work, he would once again return to the harmonic traditions to which he had previously adhered.  In much the same way, Wagner took a step back after having finished Tristan and Mahler after having completed his Seventh Symphony.

For a singer, the role of Elektra is one of the most demanding in the repertoire.  The soprano is onstage for over 90 minutes, almost the entire length of the one-act opera.  For much of that time her voice has to compete with the sound of a huge orchestra in order to be plainly heard. On Saturday afternoon Christine Goerke gave a solid performance that showed sympathy for Elektra and her plight while doing nothing to diminish the madness and vengeful bloodlust that welled up within her.  She had steady backing at this performance from Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra and Mikhail Petrenko as Orest.

This season was the first that Christine Goerke sang the role of Elektra at the Met (she also performed it this season at the San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Opera), but I had previously seen her in the role in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 2015 that featured the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons.  It was inevitable that I should draw a comparison between the two performances, and I decided I much preferred that given by the BSO.  Nevertheless, Nézet-Séguin's work on the podium on Saturday afternoon was excellent, and he showed consummate skill in handling so large an orchestra.

The monochromatic Patrice Chéreau production that debuted in 2015 was austere and unattractive, but it at least left the singers plenty of open space in which to move about. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Met Museum: Joseph Cornell's Homage to Juan Gris

The current exhibit at the Met, Birds of a Feather, is one of those small idiosyncratic shows, usually limited to a single gallery, that the museum stages from time to time.  A visitor wanders in from a larger exhibit only to find himself or herself immersed in a self-contained and offbeat universe that offers unexpected delights.  In spite of the exhibit's subtitle, this is not so much a homage to Gris as it is an obsession on the part of Cornell, an artist who never managed to show restraint in his enthusiasms.

The backstory to the exhibit, as noted on the museum's website, is as follows:
"...on one of his frequent trips to the gallery district in midtown Manhattan, Cornell visited the Sidney Janis Gallery on East 57th Street. Among a presentation of approximately 30 works by modern artists, one alone captivated Cornell—Juan Gris's celebrated collage The Man at the Café (1914)...  This shadowy profile of a fedora-topped man immediately inspired Cornell to begin a new series: some 18 boxes, two collages, and one sand tray created in homage to Juan Gris, whom he called a 'warm fraternal spirit.'"
That pretty well sums up the essence of the show.  On one wall hangs The Man at the Café itself, and it's immediately apparent why any viewer would feel a strong attraction to it.  This is one of the masterpieces of synthetic cubism and a key component of Leonard Lauder's seminal collection.  Although I had known of the work's link to the fictional arch-criminal Fantômas, a recurrent character in Gris's pasted paper collages including the 1915 Pipe and Newspaper, I had been unaware of the hidden reference in the present painting to the work of Alphonse Bertillon.  No matter that Bertillon, who died just about the time the painting was completed, had invented the photographic mugshot and the modern technique of fingerprinting, his spurious testimony at the two Dreyfus trials in the late nineteenth century had long made him a figure of scorn and ridicule among French intellecturals.  The idea of Fantômas outwitting Bertillon would have delighted Gris.

Then we come to Cornell's series of boxes dedicated to the artist.  They are neatly arranged side by side on several tables placed at right angles to the Gris painting.  Prominently displayed in each is a representation of a white cockatoo.  The birds are backed by black silhouettes intended as their shadows (although in at least one of the boxes the silhouette has been laid on the bottom of the box) and pieces of newsprint.  While the presence of the newsprint is a clear reference to the copy of Le Matin displayed so prominently in the painting, I failed to understand what the cockatoo had to do with Gris, let alone Fantômas and Bertillon.  Rather surprisingly, the connection is nowhere explained in the documentation accompanying the exhibit, unless in the 1.5 hour video on the museum's website that I admit I hadn't had the patience to watch.

As it turns out, it's unlikely that Cornell was aware of the references contained in Gris's paintings.  According to Deborah Solomon's excellent biography, Utopia Parkway:
"From the evidence of notes he [Cornell] made in his diary, we know that he associated the Gris boxes with the nineteenth-century diva Maria Malibran.  This link has confounded art historians intent on decoding Cornell's symbolism.  Yet if we accept that the white cockatoos - like so many of Cornell's birds - are literally stand-ins for Malibran, a 'bird of song,' the intended meaning of the Gris boxes becomes clear.  They are mute arias all, bringing the sublime pleasures of music into Gris's studio.  Malibran and Gris were both Spaniards who died young; Cornell sought to unite them."
This at least provides an explanation, even if it does not appear entirely rational on Cornell's part, for the cockatoo's presence in the boxes.

The exhibit continues through April 15, 2018.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Met Opera: Rossini's Semiramide

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Rossini's rarely performed Semiramide, the final work he composed in Italy.  He was then at the peak of his career and idolized throughout Europe.  After a successful sojourn in London where he received the equivalent of over half a million dollars for five months residence, Rossini accepted a lucrative offer to become Musical Director of the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, and it was there that he composed the final operas of his abbreviated career.

Like Tancredi, one of Rossini's earliest successes, Semiramide was based on a tragedy by Voltaire, the eighteenth century Enlightenment author who displayed a positive flair for melodrama in such works as Semiramis and Candide.  Also like TancrediSemiramide had a libretto written by the highly prolific Gaetano Rossi.  None of this made the convoluted plot, one that can only be termed "historical" in the loosest sense, any less incomprehensible.  By the middle of the first act, I'd given up trying to follow the action onstage.  Better to sit back and simply enjoy the wonderful singing.   

Whatever the merits of the story, Semiramide contains some of Rossini's finest music.  When writing the arias for Semiramide, the composer returned to an earlier style than that which he had employed in the majority of his Neapolitan operas.  As the Met's program notes point out:
"Aside from the expansive first scene and the two finales - which are of truly massive proportions - Semiramide is built around six arias and four duets. The arias are all of the older style, beginning with a slow cantabile section and ending with a fast cabaletta, specifically designed to show off the singer’s voice and technique."
The change in Rossini's style was influenced by his mistress, soprano Isabella Colbran, who sang the title role in the original production.  It was also Ms. Colbran who had urged Rossini to move away from the comic operas that had made him famous and to take up more serious subjects better suited to her acting style.  In retrospect, opera lovers owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Colbran for the pressure she exerted on the composer.  She must have been an magnificent singer in her own right.  No better testament exists to the quality of her voice than the incredibly difficult Act I aria Bel raggio lusinghier.

Saturday afternoon's performance featured an excellent cast, one of the best to appear in any Met production this season, all of them fully up to the demands placed on them by Rossini's music.  Angela Meade, in the title role, showed absolute mastery of her material as well as a great deal of endurance over the course of two very long acts.  She was ably supported on Saturday afternoon by Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace, Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur, and Ryan Speedo Green as Oroe.  Javier Camarena was so good as Idreno that one wished the character had been given a larger role.  Maurizio Benini conducted.

The 1990 production by John Copley was excellent in every respect, handsome without being ostentatious, and fluid enough that no long pauses were required between scenes.  Gratitude is certainly due any producer who shows restraint in designing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

There's a shocking backstory to the production in Copley's Wikipedia biography:
"During choir rehearsals for a revival of Copley's 1990 production of Rossini's Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Copley coached the singers to show reactions to the appearance of Nino's ghost at the end of act 1. He suggested that he would 'imagine the character naked' which prompted a complaint from a chorister. The Met's manager Peter Gelb then fired Copley, citing a different account of the complaint. Gelb's action has been described as a 'witch hunt' and been widely criticised by other cast members, opera singers and managers."
It should be noted that such scandal, even if as egregious as claimed by Mr. Gelb, did not stop the UK from appointing Copley Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2014.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ensemble Connect Performs Stravinsky and Messiaen

On Tuesday evening, I went to Paul Hall to hear the Ensemble Connect give one of its four annual recitals at that venue.  This was the first time I'd heard the Ensemble this year, however, as its January recital had been indefinitely postponed due to a heavy snowfall.  The group was luckier on this occasion, and the nor'easter that had threatened the East Coast with heavy snow did not in fact arrive until the following day.

The program opened with Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914, rev. 1918) as performed by Mari Lee and Adelya Nartadjieva, violins, Maren Rothfritz, viola, and Julia Yang, cello.  The three short pieces to which the title refers - Danse, Excentrique and Cantique - were composed only a year after the notorious premiere of Le Sacre du printemps and were in their own way just as revolutionary and iconoclastic as the ballet.  As critic Paul Griffiths has stated:
"Stravinsky’s work, for the first time in the history of the genre, is determinedly not a 'string quartet' but a set of pieces to be played by four strings."
It's obvious from the opening of the first movement that Stravinsky is playing with the expectations of the audience.  Rather than complying with Goethe's description of a string quartet as "four intelligent people conversing among themselves," Danse instead resembles four voices talking inanely to themselves while paying no attention whatsoever to those about them.  Excentrique, whose inspriation Stravinsky is said to have found in the vaudeville routines of an English clown named Little Tich, fully lives up to its name with a series of bizarre musical effects.  Cantique, on the other hand, progresses more smoothly but, its title notwithstanding, it is hardly liturgical in character.  It's worth noting that the titles of the three movements were not given them until 1928 when Stravinsky rearranged them for orchestra in his Quatre études, at which time he also added a fourth movement entitled Madrid.

The next piece was Triskelion (1996), a brass quintet by Bruce Adolphe; it was performed by Nicolee Kuester, French horn, Brian Olson and Brandon Ridenour, trumpets, Oliver Barrett, trombone, and Daniel Schwalbach, bass trombone.  The title of the work is taken from a Greek term defined by Wikipedia as "a motif consisting of a triple spiral exhibiting rotational symmetry."  Though no explanation was provided in the program notes, I would assume the title refers to the symmety of the three movements that make up the piece.  Of these, the second marked "Andante (with a ghostly quality)" is the most interesting and does manage to project, if one listens hard enough, a sense of mystery and otherworldliness.

After intermission, the program concluded with Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940-1941) for piano (Lee Dionne), clarinet (Yoonah Kim), violin (Rebecca Anderson) and cello (Julia Yang).  Without doubt, few pieces of music have so dramatic an origin as this can boast.  Briefly, Messiaen was captured while serving France during World War II and sent to a POW camp in Poland where he became acquainted with three other prisoners who were also musicians.  The composer then wrote a piece in eight movements that the four could perform together.  Messiaen was obviously limited in his choice of available instruments, but Paul Hindemith had previously composed in 1938 a work for the same combination.  The quartet was actually premiered at the camp - outdoors and in the rain - with both prisoners and guards in attendance, all of whom gave it an enthusiastic reception.  There was, unfortunately, a disappointing sequel to this feel-good story.  The guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, who had contrived to give the musicians rehearsal time and later forged documents for their release, traveled to Paris and attempted to meet with Messiaen after the war had ended but was rebuffed and sent away without even having had an opportunity to see the man for whom he had done so much.  Why Messiaen displayed such ingratitude has never been satisfactorily explained.  Whatever the cause, the composer's boorish behavior has always tainted my appreciation of the piece.

Nevertheless, no matter what its history, the Quatuor is an incredible achievement, especially when one takes into account the conditions in which it was conceived.  In it, Messiaen paid his fellow captives the huge compliment of writing for each of them solo parts that would test the skills of any musician.  The entire work revolves around the three movements that feature these solos (with piano accompaniment) - the Abîme des oiseaux for clarinet, the Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus for cello, and the final moving Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus for violin that is really the soul of the work.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Schubert

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida perform the first of two all-Schubert recitals she'll be giving this season.  It was a full evening that featured one early sonata followed by two from a later period.

The program began with Schubert's Piano Sonata in B Major, D. 575 (1817).  Like many of Schubert's works, this piece, written when the composser was only 20 years old, was published posthumously.  Indeed, it might not have been published at all if Schubert's friend Alben Stadler had not made a copy of the autograph, now lost, so that it could be performed by a young Austrian pianist named Josephine von Koller to whom Schubert later dedicated the Piano Sonata in A major, D. 664.  The D. 575 is often regarded as the composer's first "mature" sonata, but what's interesting is that when one looks at the Wikipedia list of Schubert's works for solo piano it becomes immediately apparent that the genre itself was one that he had only recently taken up.  According to this source, the Sonata in E major, D. 157, listed there as No. 1, had been completed only two years earlier in 1815.  Significantly, that work is considered unfinished, leading one to conjecture that the composer had been dissatisfied with it and put it aside.  Over the next two years Schubert then composed no fewer than ten more piano sonatas with the D. 575 listed as No. 11.  It's apparent that Schubert was struggling mightily with the very concept of the sonata, a form that could not very well be ignored by any aspiring composer after Beethoven had carried it to such masterful heights.  While the D. 575 may be considered a turning point, if only because this was the first to be cast in four movements, it still appears awkward in places, particularly in the opening allegro that skips from key to key as if Schubert were unable to make up his mind where he intended to go.  In the end, it is most significant for the glimpse it provides the listener of a great composer at the start of his career struggling to attain the  mastery he displayed in the later sonatas.

The next work was the Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 845 (1825).  Composed eight years after the D. 575, the D. 845 is a world away in terms of accomplishment.  Here Schubert reveals his mastery of the same form with which he had earlier struggled.  This was the first of the composer's sonatas to be published during his lifetime, an event that led to a reevaluation of his abilities among his contemporaries.  Previously considered only a composer (albeit a great one) of lieder, Schubert was now seen to be an important composer of instrumental music as well.  Although it's always tempting to see in Schubert's late works intimations of his own mortality - he had only three more years to live - there is some basis for it in the present composition.  As in many works from this period, there is a strong sense of melancholy in the theme and variations that make up the second movement.  Even more to the point, the sonata's opening theme quotes Schubert's D. 842, Totengräbers Heimweh ("The Gravedigger's Lament"), whose mournful text by Craigher de Jachelutta would have been depressing enough to anyone, let alone a young man who knew already that his time was limited.

After intermission, the recital concluded with the Piano Sonata in D Major, D. 850 (1825).  This sonata, the second to be published during Schubert's lifetime, was composed while on summer holiday in the spa resort of Gastein, in the company of the well known singer Johann Michael Vogl (which raises the question why Schubert was composing a sonata at all rather than more lieder for his friend to sing).  In contrast to the more introspective D. 845, the D. 850 is so exuberant a work that on hearing it one is easily able to imagine the Alpine splendor surrounding Schubert when he wrote it.  The work was dedicated not to Vogl but to Karl Maria von Bocklet, a close friend and virtuoso pianist who would later premiere both Schubert's piano trios.  No doubt it was the expectation of having his work performed by so talented a musician that led Schubert to make the D. 850 so technically demanding.

I've always thought Ms. Uchida's forte to be the works of Mozart and Schubert, and I was only reinforced in this belief by Friday evening's recital.  She showed complete mastery at the keyboard throughtout her performance, and it's doubtful the audience will soon hear again such impressive interpretations of Schubert's piano works as they encountered here.

Friday, March 2, 2018

NYHS: The Vietnam War 1945-1975

How much impact the current exhibit at the New York Historical Society, The Vietnam War 1945-1975, has on attendees depends, I think, very much on the age of those viewing the display.  For those, like myself, who were in college in the late 1960's and early 1970's the exhibit is a powerful reminder of the tumult that gripped the nation during those years, one that cannot fail to rekindle the anger the war once evoked.

There are not a great many artifacts on view here, and those that are shown are of the simplest - among them a bicycle once used by the North Vietnamese to transport supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail and an American soldier's helmet pierced in several places by bullets from an AK-47.  For the most part, the viewer follows a series of large wall-mounted placards placed in chronological order that detail the history of the conflict (technically, it was never a war as Congress never declared it such) interspersed with archived clips from televised newscasts.  In contrast to the recent World War I exhibit at the Met Museum, there isn't a single major artwork to be found, although there are a few poignant pieces created by Vietnamese artists.  For this reason, the show may seem overly dry and even pedantic to those who weren't born when America became involved in Southeast Asia.  For those who saw the original broadcasts, however, the sight of Walter Cronkite, then the most authoritative figure in American journalism, calling the situation a hopeless stalemate or of Lyndon Johnson announcing the immediate escalation of American troop strength through a higher draft call will have the same chilling effect they possessed a half century ago.  Perhaps the most moving of these clips is that of a mother discussing the death of her son five weeks after he arrived in Vietnam to begin his tour of duty.  The woman is calm and collected, but that only makes it all the more obvious how hard she's struggling not to give way to her emotions.

It was, of course, the bugaboo of Communism that led to American involvement in Vietnam.  The war was actually begun, however, by the French as an attempt to reclaim the old colonies in Southeast Asia that had been occupied by the Japanese in World War II.  The amount of assistance rendered by the US, including the gift of two aircraft carriers, to aid the French in their bid to reintroduce colonialism is staggering.  It was all useless, though, and the French were decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  The rout of the French should have served as a warning to the US, but its lessons were blithely disregarded by successive administrations.  Instead, as relentlessly chronicled at the exhibit, the US made one disastrous decision after another as it became increasingly entangled in the Vietnamese politics until the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 became a pretext for outright military intervention.

The real turning point in Vietnam was the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in 1968.  Although a great deal of space is devoted to this campaign, the exhibit fails to indicate how blindsided and shocked the American public was by the surprise attack.  For years, Americans had been assured that Vietnam was a limited conflict, little more than a police action, in which the overwhelming power of American military might made it only a matter of time until the North Vietnamese were defeated and any lingering resistance mopped up.  The Tet Offensive gave the lie to this assessment and revealed it to be little more than crude propaganda.  As the American public learned they had been systematically lied to regarding North Vietnamese strength of purpose and military ability, the antiwar movement grew dramatically stronger, and the accompanying outrage brought down the Johnson presidency.  Although America would eventually claim several months later to have won the battle, this was where the war was finally lost.

To its credit, the exhibit does not shy away from examining the split in American public opinion engendered by the war.  The growth of the antiwar movement from May 12, 1964 when twelve men burned their draft cards in New York is carefully documented.  Posters, buttons and news articles trace the growing anger that led to the first march, organized by SDS, in Washington on April 17, 1964 to the nationwide October 15, 1969 moratorium.  Attention is given not only to such major political developments as Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 but also to manifestations in popular culture, such as Marvin Gaye's hit song "What's Going On" from that same year.  The backlash against protesters by the establishment and by middle class blue collar workers is also discussed.

In the end, the Vietnam War was a turning point for America.  Never again would its citizens implicitly trust the word of any elected official.  American ideals, accepted fervently for generations, were shown to be hollow promises based in racial inequality and in intolerance for the beliefs of others.  The country has never been the same again.  In a very real sense, the Vietnam War marked the end of America's greatness and the beginning of its decline.

The exhibit continues through April 22, 2018.