Friday, September 21, 2018

Art Book Review: Picasso and Dora

Despite its title, Picasso and Dora is not a dual biography of the two artists, nor even a chronicle of their relationship, but rather author James Lord's memoir of his expatriate youth in France during which time he became acquainted with both Picasso and Maar.  Picasso himself makes only a few cameo appearances, but his presence hangs over the narrative and has a profound effect upon Maar's and Lord's somewhat confused relationship.  

It is Lord's portrayal of Maar that is most problematical.  Lord himself was never more than a minor figure on the fringes of the European art scene in the 1950's, and it is doubtful he would ever have been invited to all the lunches and dinners he so lovingly describes - he is constantly dropping names, the more famous the better - if he had not been Maar's companion.  Despite his best efforts to present himself as a highly likable if somewhat naïve connoisseur of the arts, he is a devious and ultimately untrustworthy narrator.  For example, though he is forever reminding the reader how highly he idealizes Maar, he never misses an opportunity to portray her in a bad light as a miserly, grasping middle-aged woman, eccentric to the point of neurosis.  While Maar was one of the most important and highly respected photographers of the Surrealist period, Lord glosses over her involvement with the medium in a paragraph or two as if it were some minor phase through which she passed before finally finding fulfillment as the lover of Picasso.  Lord also downplays the art Maar created after her split from Picasso and strongly suggests it was never more than mediocre.  (Perhaps it was at that, but there is no way of knowing from what little analysis is presented here.)

The book contains some interesting anecdotes regarding the artists and collectors Lord met during his time abroad, but it should be read with caution.  It is a highly biased account and sometimes seems little more than an excuse for literary revenge on all those, particularly Maar, the author felt had slighted him.

Monday, September 17, 2018

NYC's 2018 - 2019 Classical Music Season

When I first began this blog several years ago I was very intent on giving myself an education in classical music appreciation.  I had never had an opportunity to study the subject when in college but hoped that by attending as many performances as I could manage that I would learn at least a little about this wonderful art form.  It certainly helped that I live within walking distance of both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall where the world's greatest musicians regularly appear.  This allowed me not only to hear some spectacular performances but also to substantially enlarge my knowledge of the repertoire.

I feel now that my self appointed task has largely ended, at least for the time being.  Though painfully aware of the limits of my knowledge, I feel I the need to concentrate my attention on other areas of interest, particularly my photography and my fiction writing.  Accordingly, while the classical music season will soon begin again in earnest here in New York City, I will be attending far less performances than last season and will therefore be posting here less often.  Nonetheless, I will still be hearing many fine performances over the coming months.

My Saturday matinee subscription to the Met shrank this season from eight operas to only seven, though I didn't notice any reduction in the cost of the subscription itself.  Of the seven, the performance that should prove most interesting is Verdi's Otello.  Not only is it the composer's greatest opera, at least as far as I'm concerned, but on this occasion it will be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel who will here be making his Met debut. I will also be attending three new productions - Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila, starring Elina Garanča and Roberto Alagna; Verdi's La Traviata, starring Diana Damrau; and Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, starring Anna Netrebko.  In addition, Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena will star in La fille du régiment while Sondra Radvanovsky will sing the title role in Tosca.

I subscribed to the same four series at Carnegie Hall this season as last, but once again the number of performances has lessened, this time from fourteen to twelve.  Still, there are several performances that should be well worth hearing.  Of the orchestral concerts, the one I'm most eagerly anticipating is an all-Bartók program, including The Miraculous Mandarin suite, given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra.  Bartók was one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, and I don't know any other ensemble that performs his music as well as the BFO under the baton of its Music Director Iván Fischer.  They are in a class by themselves.  Another conductor I very much admire is Andris Nelsons, and in November I will hear him lead the Boston Symphony in a performance of Mahler No. 5.

The instrument whose music I've always most enjoyed is the piano, and this coming season I will be lucky enough to hear two of the greatest pianists now active.  First will be the wonderful Mitsuko Uchida who will actually be appearing twice, first in an all-Schubert solo recital that will include his final sonata in B-flat major, arguably the greatest work ever written for solo piano, and secondly with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a performance of two late Mozart concerti.  Next, András Schiff will perform an eclectic program at his solo recital that will include the Bartók well as Janáček's In the Mists.  As for the younger generation of pianists, Yuja Wang will perform the Prokofiev Concerto No. 5 with the New World Symphony and Daniil Trifonov will take on the Schumann Concerto with the Met Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev in a program that will also include Schubert's No. 9.

In addition to these concerts and recitals, I will be attending roughly a dozen of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One lunchtime performances at Alice Tully Hall that include works for orchestra, solo piano, voice, and chamber ensembles.

All in all, it should be an excellent season even if a bit less crowded than in prior years.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Oliver Hilmes's Biography of Franz Liszt

After having read the glowing editorial reviews Oliver Hilmes's biography of Franz Liszt received, I was extremely disappointed after I had finished reading it.  Though the book is well written, extremely readable and contains some genuine insights into Liszt's personality, there's too much that's missing.  For one thing, I've always felt a good biography should bring to life not only the subject but the times in which he or she lived.  In other words, there should be some form of context.  That's entirely absent here.  While Liszt lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, those events are never fully discussed.  The Revolution of 1848 is barely mentioned and then only for the inconvenience it caused Wagner, who was forced to flee from Dresden to Switzerland.  Likewise, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is passed over in a single paragraph.  The composer did not live in a vacuum, and it's really impossible to evaluate his life without some understanding of the momentous events occurring about him.

The book's most glaring deficiency is in its treatment of nineteenth century music.  On page 113 Brahms's name is included in a long list of composers who visited Liszt at Weimar.  That's the only mention of Brahms in the entire book.  One does not have to be a musicologist to know that the controversy that dominated classical music in the mid-nineteenth century was that between the progressive elements represented by Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz and the conservative Classical Romanticism of Brahms.  One need only read an article in The Independent by Jan Swafford, Brahms's biographer:
"Liszt was another matter. Early in his career, Brahms and a friend wrote a manifesto condemning the Music of the Future. Directed at Liszt, the manifesto was leaked before it was ready and served mainly to embarrass the authors and touch off the war."
It's incomprehensible that there should be no reference to any of this when in reality the conflict that ensued constituted one of the most salient features of Liszt's career.  Beyond that, there's no in depth analysis of his own music nor of his development as a composer.

What author Hilmes does discuss in depth are the more salacious aspects of Liszt's career.  The excesses of Lisztomania and the composer's numerous love affairs are described in detail.  Fifteen pages are devoted to one Olga Janina, a dysfunctional stalker who once threatened Liszt with a revolver and poison but otherwise played no significant role in his life.

In the end the reader is left with the uncomfortable impression that Hilmes has sacrificed scholarship for sensationalism.