Monday, October 29, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Czech Philharmonic Performs Dvořák

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Czech Philharmonic, led by its Music Director and Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov, perform a program consisting of only two works, both of them by the most famous of all Czech composers, Antonin Dvořák.  This was especially appropriate as the following day, October 28th, marked the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic's independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The concert opened with a performance of the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (19894-1895)  that featured Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.  If the works Dvořák composed while visiting the United States aren't his greatest - though I for one strongly feel that they are - they are certainly his most popular, notably the Symphony No. 9 and the String Quartet No. 12.  There was something about the Native American and Afro-American music he heard while in this country that brought out the best in the composer.  The Cello Concerto, however, the last work Dvořák wrote before returning to Europe, does not show these influences as strongly.  Instead, the most compelling influence on the concerto was the music of fellow European Victor Herbert who was on the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music during the period when Dvořák served as its Director.  Herbert, who at the time he met Dvořák was on the cusp of beginning his career as the most famous composer of American operettas, was himself a superb cellist.  His own Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor greatly affected Dvořák when he heard it performed in New York City and determined him to write his own.

Another influence on the composition of the Cello Concerto was far more personal.  Dvořák intended the work as a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefina who was then suffering her final illness.  He went so far as to quote in the melancholy second movement Kéž duch můj sám, Josefina's favorite among his four Op. 82 songs.  It was this deep personal significance that led Dvořák to reject any changes to the piece as he had written it.  This led to conflict with his friend Hanuš Wihan, the cellist for whom he had originally written the work, who had composed two cadenzas that Dvořák ultimately refused to accept.

After intermission came the final work on the program and another in a minor key, the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885).  Though long overshadowed by the enormously popular No. 9, it is really the No. 7, written some eight years earlier, that is generally considered the composer's finest symphony.  It also carries with it more baggage than any other of Dvořák's works.  Proposed sources of inspiration range from the death of Dvořák's mother two years earlier to the arrival of a trainload of Czech political activists at the Prague railway station.  It seems far more likely, however, that Dvořák, enjoying a growing international repuation ever since having won the Austrian Prize in 1876 and 1877, wanted to come up with a powerful work that would cement his position as a leading European composer.  This would account for the absence of the Czech folk sources that had previously characterized Dvořák's work and in their place a far greater attention to classical structure.  Dvořák had been greatly impressed by the symphonies of his mentor Brahms and no doubt wanted to compose an orchestral work of comparable stature even if different in style.

The No. 7 is filled with somber moments, most particularly in the opening and closing movements, and Dvořák himself wrote on the score the inscription "From the sad years."  And then there is the funeral march in the final movement.  Nevertheless, it is usually a mistake to confuse an artist's creations with his or her biography.  Any sense of tragedy would more likely be due to the serious intentions Dvořák brought to this project than to any events in his personal life.

The Czech Philharmonic, though it doesn't receive as much attention as some other European orchestras, is an excellent ensemble and its leader, Semyon Bychkov, whom I had not seen in several years, a top-notch conductor.  The Cello Concerto, played beautifully by Alisa Weilerstein, was especially moving at this performance.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mrt Opera: Elīna Garanča Sings in Samson et Dalila

On Saturday afternoon I paid my first visit to the Met Opera this season to see the new production of Samson et Dalila, the three act opera composed between 1867 and 1876 by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Though Saint-Saëns was already a well known composer by the time he commenced work on Samson et Dalila - this was his Op. 47 - neither he nor his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire had had much actual experience with opera.  (Lemaire was, in fact, an amateur poet who had come to Saint-Saëns attention only through his marriage to the composer's cousin.)   Saint-Saëns had originally thought to compose an oratorio along the lines Voltaire had suggested in his own libretto for Rameau's opera Samson.  In the event, it was Lemaire who convinced Saint-Saëns that the subject would be better treated as an opera.  Astonishingly, even though Rameau's eighteenth century work had never been staged due to troubles with the French censors, or so at least Voltaire claimed, Saint-Saëns was unaware that his own opera would face the exact same problem.  He should certainly have realized that even in worldly nineteenth century Paris Biblical stories were not considered proper fare for the stage.  When at length Saint-Saëns learned of the dilemma he very nearly gave up the project and even went so far as to stop work on it for two years.

If anyone is to be credited with the eventual success of Samson et Dalila it is Franz Liszt.  After having played through the score of the opera as it then stood, the former Weimar Kapellmeister promised Saint-Saëns he would arrange for a performance once the work had been completed and proved as good as his word.  The libretto having been translated into German for the occasion, the opera premiered in December 1877 and was a resounding success even though several more years elapsed before the work found a permanent place in the repertoire.

As the Met's program notes point out, the key to the opera's success is a series of contrasts juxtaposed one against the other.  Thus, at the very opening, the austerity of the Hebrew chorus immediately precedes the more lightweight and exotic music of the Philistines.  This helps reinforce the religious nature of Samson's story as one in which love of God is set against shallow worldliness.  The conflict between these is developed inexorably through the three acts until it at last finds resolution in Samson's destruction of the pagan temple.

The cast was excellent but unfortunately Samson et Dalila, filled as it is with beautiful music, does not contain that many noteworthy arias.  As it was, Elīna Garanča, as Dalila, was superb when singing Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix in Act II, and Roberto Alagna was truly affecting when voicing his repentance while toiling at the grist mill in Act III, Scene 1.  One only wishes Saint-Saëns had given these two more opportunities to display their talents.  On the podium, Mark Elder's conducting was adequate if undistinguished.

As for the production by Darko Tresnjak, it was obvious the Met was ready yet again to sacrifice dramatic integrity to special effects.  The sets for Act II as well as Act III, Scene 1 were more appropriate to a low budget sci fi movie than French grand opera.  The flash-bang finale itself could have come from a Star Wars film.  The costumes for the famous Act III Bacchanale ballet were also a disappointment though I thought the choreography itself very accomplished.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Paintings and Lithographs

After having seen in September the Met Museum's exhibit of Delacroix drawings (see my October 1 post) entitled Devotion to Drawing, I returned to last week to see the even larger exhibit of paintings and lithographs entitled simply Delacroix.  To call the show immense is an understatement; it stretches through multiple galleries and contains representative masterpieces from all phases of the artist's long career.  Only the large mural paintings, such as the iconic Liberty Leading the People, are missing as these were too fragile to travel from the Louvre.  The show was obviously intended to be the blockbuster exhibit of 2018, and it succeeds admirably in its aim.

There are over 150 works on view at the exhibit and their very abundance in so many different genres can bewilder the viewer.  As one proceeds through the galleries, however, certain themes and motifs become apparent.  The first and most apparent of these is of course Romanticism, the movement that had begun in the artist's youth and was still a powerful force in the arts at the time of his death in 1863.  One has only to look at Delcroix's youthful self-portrait as the character Ravenswood, from the Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermoor, to see the influence Romanticism had upon him and how closely he identified with it.  It informed not only his choice of subjects, many of them taken from the works of legendary Romantic writers, but also his manner of painting in which he rejected Classical academic formulae in favor of broad sweeping brushstrokes and a dazzling array of colors.

A large number of works at the exhibit were inspired by Delacroix's journey to Morocco in 1832 as part of the official French diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Abd er-Rahman.  Though the mission itself was a failure and could not prevent the outbreak of the Franco-Moroccan War several years later, the locale did provide Delacroix with a wealth of imagery that was to form the basis of some of his most satisfying paintings.  Viewing works such as Street in Meknes and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, it can readily be seen that it was Delacroix rather than his rival Ingres or the academician Gérôme, who was the true father of Orientalism in the early nineteenth century.

So much attention has been given to Delacroix's Romanticism that the utter naturalism of his technique has often been overlooked.  The artist's absolute fidelity to nature can be seen most clearly in his depictions of animals.  There are several studies of tigers at this exhibit, and it's obvious the artist spent quite a bit of time observing these powerful animals.  The best is the 1830 Young Tiger Playing with its Mother in which the playfulness of the young cub is in sharp contrast to the stately bearing of the adult female.  Much more dramatic is the 1828 lithograph Wild Horse Felled by a Tiger that is absolutely devoid of sentimentality as it depicts the ruthless struggle of animals in the wild to survive.  Horses themselves were another favorite subject of Delacroix, and were often shown in battle scenes such as the action filled 1826 oil on canvas Combat of the Giaour and Hassan whose subject was taken from an 1813 poem by Byron.  It is an indoor scene of two horses alone, however, that is most stirring in its compact rendering of a life and death struggle.  The late 1860 oil on canvas Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable must certainly represent a scene Delacroix had actually witnessed almost thirty years before in Morocco and had never been able to put from his mind.

One cannot discuss the corrent show without mentioning Delacroix's seventeen lithograph illustrations for a new edition of Goethe's Faust.  Seen here together for the first time, they provide an illustrated narrative as compelling as Goethe's own.  In fact, upon seeing Plate No. 16 in which Faust and Mephistopheles gallop past the scaffolds on Walpurgis Night, Goethe is said to have remarked that Delacroix had thought out the scene better than had the poet himself.  There's more than a touch of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique here, though the musical work was not composed until several years after Delacroix had completed his series.  And Plate No. 15, in which Marguerite's ghost appears to Faust, is a truly Gothic vision whose macabre elements reveal Romanticism taken to its ultimate extent.  This plate, like the others displayed here, is not in its final state and has doodles to the side of the frame that were later removed in the final version.  The offhand drawings provide a fascinating insight into the artist's creative process.

The exhibit continues thtough January 6, 2019.

Monday, October 15, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Performs Berlioz

Yesterday afternoon, WQXR broadcast a live concert from Carnegie Hall that featured the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by its Artistic Director Sir John Eliot Gardiner, performing the first of two all-Berlioz programs, the second of which takes place this evening.

Berlioz is remembered today primarily for his youthful Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830).  It's an extraordinary achievement, of course, but its very success has had the unfortunate consequence not only of overshadowing the major works that followed but also of handing down to posterity the garish image of Berlioz as a love-besotted opium addict pounding furiously on the drums at the work's premiere.  He himself was aware of the problem he had so thoughtlessly created and later in life tried to distance himself as much as possible from the Symphonie's lurid program, writing on the score in 1855, a quarter century after the fact:
"If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece... one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author [Berlioz] hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention."
If nothing else, the ORR's two-night stand at Carnegie Hall should hopefully give the audience a better appreciation of Berlioz's accomplishments, especially as the second concert will feature a performance not only of Symphonie but also of its far calmer "sequel" Lélio, Op. 14b (1831).  

Sunday afternoon's program opened with Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21 (1844). Though Berlioz's source of inspiration for this rousing piece has been attributed to both Byron's The Corsair and James Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover, both of which would have appealed to Berlioz's Romantic imagination, the music is certainly original enough that there's no need to strain to make it fit a literary program.  Since the overture was actually composed in a tower in Nice where Berlioz was recovering from an illness, its original title La tour de Nice is probably as appropriate as any.

In addition to his orchestral writing, Berlioz composed extensively for voice, though much of this music is not often heard.  At this concert, mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot first performed the ill-fated La mort de Cléopâtre (1829), the third of four cantatas submitted by Berlioz to the Paris Conservatoire over four successive years in hopes of winning the prestigious Prix de Rome.  (He finally achieved his goal with the fourth, the 1830 Sardanapale, which he subsequently destroyed.)  It's not difficult to understand why Cléopâtre failed to win an award.  The conservative judges must have been shocked to hear this morbid music so well suited to the death throes of a suicidal queen.  So subversive was the piece - one can actually hear the slowing of Cleopatra's heart after she's been bitten by the asp - that no award at all was given that year.  Berlioz himself was unrepentant, writing:
“It’s a bit difficult to write soothing music for an Egyptian queen bitten by a poisonous snake and dying a painful death in an agony of remorse.”
Following the cantata came an orchestral selection from Part II of Les Troyens (1856-1858), the only one of Berlioz's operas to have attained anything like a permanent place in the repertoire.  Chasse Royale et Orage, which makes rare use of "sax-horns" among the brass, also allowed Ms. Richardot's voice a needed rest before she began singing the aria Je vais mourir ... Adieu, fière cité, the death scene of Queen Dido also from Part II of Les Troyens.  I thought this an excellent choice as it allowed the audience to judge for themselves the different manner in which Berlioz treated the deaths of two legendary queens after an interval of so many years between the composition of the respective works.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834) that featured violist Antoine Tamestit as soloist.  Although subtitled a "Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato," the work is neither a traditional symphony nor a viola concerto but could more properly be termed a tone poem (very) loosely based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  In a sense, Niccolò Paganini, for whom the work was originally composed, was quite right to reject it as the piece is much more an inward journey in which Berlioz revisits his memories of Abruzzi than it is a virtuoso showpiece.  And yet the viola, Harold's voice, is at the same time an integral part of the music.  Berlioz himself provided a brilliant analysis of the instrument's role:
"As in the Symphonie fantastique, a principal theme (the viola’s opening melody) is reproduced throughout the work. The difference is that whereas in the Symphonie fantastique, the idée fixe keeps obtruding like an impassioned obsession on scenes that are alien to it and deflects their course, Harold’s melody is superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development."
Along with Liszt and Wagner, Berlioz was one of the three great proponents of the "new music" and extremely innovative in developing what then purported to be a revolutionary musical idiom.  The ORR deserves a great deal of praise for bringing his music to a wider audience in such exemplary fashion.  The conductor, orchestra members and soloists all contributed to an outstanding performance.

The archived performance is available for listening on WQXR's website.

Friday, October 12, 2018

WQXR Young Artists: Bachauer Competition Awards

I had actually had a ticket last month to hear the winners of this year's Gina Bachauer Piano Compeitionat in recital at Juilliard.  I had eagerly been anticipating this event which for me customarily marks the beginning of another season of classical music in New York City.  Unfortunately, the press of other matters made it impossible for me to be there.  Luckily, the recital was recorded for a broadcast marking the commencement of the forty-first season of WQXR's Young Artists Showcase, one of the longest running classical music series on radio.  This was entirely appropriate as the Bachauer Competition Recitals always reward their audiences with outstanding performances by  exceptionally talented pianists.  This year's winners, Huan Li and Zhu Wang, both of whom are studying for bachelor degrees at Juilliard, were no exception.

After a word of welcome from Damian Woetzel, Juilliard's new President, the program opened with Huan Li performing two selections from Maurice Ravel's five-movement Miroirs (1904-1905).  These were respectively the third and fourth movements - Une barque sur l’océan and Alborada del gracioso.  The period during which Miroirs was composed marked a turning point in Ravel's career.  Though he had failed in 1905 in his final attempt to win the Prix de Rome - he was scandalously ousted in the first round - the composer, perhaps as a result of this rejection by the Conservatoire establishment, at this time began to write some of the most innovative piano compositions of the early twentieth century, beginning in 1902 with Jeux d'eau and culminating in 1908 with Gaspard de la nuit.  According to a story told by his friend Ricardo Viñes, Ravel during this period met with Debussy and expressed to the latter his intention of writing piano music so free in form that it would sound like an improvisation, or something taken from a sketch book.  Although Ravel, like Debussy before him, strongly objected to being labeled an "Impressionist," his new piano music could hardly escape being categorized as such.  This is especially true of Une barque sur l’océan, the only movement of the five without metronome markings, whose arpeggios so brilliantly recreate the sound  of waves.  Ravel later orchestrated this movement but was dissatisfied with it because he found himself unable to duplicate the shimmering sound evoked by the solo piano.  The composer also later orchestrated Alborada del gracioso, another piece that could be considered Impressionist for its incorporation of Spanish musical themes.  Both movements are technically challenging and demand virtuosic skill on the part of the pianist.

Following Huan Li's performance came a brief ceremony in which an award for music education and community outreach was presented to violinists Jocelyn Zhu and Mariella Haubs for their selfless work in playing for refugee children throughout Europe.  Only Mariella was present, and she accepted the award on behalf of both musicians.

After the presentation, the second pianist, Zhu Wang, performed the final two movements from Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 (1844), the Largo and the Presto, non tanto.  While the sonata is longer than most of Chopin's works for solo piano, it is somewhat lacking in cohesion and each of the movements seems independent of the others.  This is especially true of the the third movement largo in B major around which the sonata is built and which is in reality a nocturne, one of the most beautiful and moving that Chopin composed.  The finale, in contrast, provides a pounding and intensely dramatic finish to the work with ample opportunites for virtuoso flourishes on the part of the pianist.

Finally, the two musicians returned together to the stage to perform selections from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892), here arranged for two pianos by the Cypriot composer Nicolas Economou.  These consisted of the opening Overture, the Danse Russe Trepak from the second section, and the closing Valse des fleurs, one of the composer's best known pieces of music.  I have to admit Tchaikovsky's ballet has never been among my favorite pieces of music, but the selections played here certainly ended the recital on an upbeat note.

The archived performance, hosted by radio personality Robert Sherman, is now available for listening on WQXR's website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Music among Friends" Performs Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went to St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear an all-Brahms program performed by a group of musicians who refer to their performances as "Music among Friends."  The talented ensemble consisted on this occasion of Ji Soo Choi, violin, Grace Takeda, viola, Issei Herr, cello, and James Rosen, piano.

The program opened with the Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-1865).  In contrast to the viola sonata that was performed next, the Op. 38 shows Brahms at the beginning of his career when he was still struggling to achieve recognition and success, not to mention the wherewithal to pay his living expenses.  It may have been the latter consideration that led him to indulge in a bit of deception when submitting the work to the publisher Simrock.  Certainly he could not himself have believed that "as far as both instruments are concerned, [the sonata] is certainly not difficult to play" when in fact it clearly requirea the skills of a virtuoso for successful performance.  One can see in this early piece that Brahms was still working to master his craft and carefully studying the works of earlier composers.  This can most clearly be seen in the third movement allegro that contains a number of fugal passages and is actually based on the Contrapunctus 13 from J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge.

The next work was the Viola Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1 (1894).  The two Op. 120 sonatas, originally scored for clarinet and piano, are Brahms's last chamber works and for that reason alone will always hold a prominent place in the repertoire.  But in addition to any sentimental value the sonatas, both in the original arrangement for clarinet and in the transcription for viola completed by the composer in 1895, have become cornerstones of the repertoires for their respective instruments.  In their original form, in fact, the Op. 120 sonatas more or less established a new genre for the clarinet.  Brahms certainly was aware of the extent of his accomplishment.  The fact that he took such care with the extensive alterations he made when preparing the viola transcription - in contrast to the Op. 114 transcription in which very few changes were made to the viola part - is indicative of the importance he placed upon them.  The two sonatas have vastly different characters.  The F minor, that played at this recital, is filled with a passion that demonstrates Brahms had lost none of his Romantic temperament.  The heart of the piece is the lyrical second movement, marked andante un poco adagio, whose autumnal mood well reflects the spirit of the elderly composer as he neared the end of his career.

After a short intermisson the recital concluded with a performance of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (1854, rev. 1889).  The trio was originally composed in 1854 when Brahms was 21 years old and only a year after he had first become acquainted with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, without question the most significant encounter of his musical career.   Brahms wrote the greater portion of the trio in Hanover, where he had been visiting the famed violinist Joseph Joachim in the company of the Schumanns, and then completed it shortly after the couple had returned to Düsseldorf.  Unfortunately, almost immediately upon his return home, Robert, who had suffered from severe depression for most of his life, attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Rhine.  Brahms rushed to Clara's side and helped her place Robert in an asylum in Bonn where he remained until his death at age 46 only two years later.  Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to know if either Joachim or the Schumanns had any direct influence on the composition of the work.  Certainly, there were some evident connections.  For example, Brahms had inscribed at the top of the score the words "Kreisler junior."  This was a reference to a fictional character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a widely read critic and author of fantastic stories.  Schumann had found inspiration from this same character in his 1838 piano cycle Kreisleriana, Op. 16.

On the recommendation of Clara to Breitkopf und Härtel, the trio was the first of Brahms's chamber works to be published.  (For that matter, it was his first piece to be played in the U.S. when in November 1855 it was given its American premiere in New York by the pianist William Mason.)  When Simrock took over the publication of Brahms's works in 1889 the firm gave the composer the opportunity to revise any he so chose.  Brahms took advantage of the offer to extensively revise the Op. 8 trio in spite of his famous remark that his intention had been "not to stick a wig on it but merely to comb its hair a little."  The thrust of the revisions was to tone down Brahms's youthful Romanticism in favor of the more restrained style of his mature works.  What's most remarkable about the revision, however, is that Brahms did not withdraw the earlier version from publication but instead left both available.  Considering what a perfectionist Brahms was (he is reported to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published and then only after having made extensive revisions following a private performance), it is astonishing that he would allow continued publication of an earlier version of whose deficiencies he felt so strongly that he took the time after the lapse of so many years to correct them.  One can only assume that the older Brahms felt a strong degree of nostalgia for the passionate Romantic he had once been.  Perhaps too the fact that the work's initial composition had been so intimately connected with Brahms's first meeting with his beloved Clara that it had created an emotional attachment in his mind that he was unwilling to let go.

This was an excellent recital by highly talented musicians.  I particularly enjoyed the performance of the Op. 8 that was much more lively and exhilarating than many others I've heard.

Monday, October 8, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Andriessen, Stravinsky and Debussy

On Friday afternoon I went to David Geffen Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic perform for the first time this season.  Jaap van Zweden has now taken over as Music Director, and I was pleased to see that, perhaps as a result, the programming was much more imaginative than in prior years.  Rather than the usual array of overfamiliar crowdpleasers, this concert actually featured at least some lesser known works by an intriguing array of composers - Louis Andriessen, Stravinsky and Debussy.

The concert's opening piece turned out to be the most interesting on the program.  This was Andriessen's Agamemnon, a work that had had its world premiere only the evening before at this same venue. The only work I had prevously encountered by Andriessen was a 1991 piece titled Hout that I had heard several years ago at a Juilliard Chamberfest performance.  A canon displaced by a sixteenth note, it was a fusion between jazz and progressive classical music and, as such, fit in very well with the description of Andriessen's late style as set forth in his Wikipedia biography:
"Since the early 1970s he [Andriessen] has refused to write for conventional symphony orchestras and has instead opted to write for his own idiosyncratic instrumental combinations...  His harmonic writing eschews the consonant modality of much minimalism, preferring post war European dissonance, often crystallised into large blocks of sound...  Andriessen's music is thus anti-Germanic and anti-Romantic..."
What then to make of Agamemnon?  Not only is this a full scale orchestral work, but in its programmatic setting it is nothing if not a tone poem squarely in the Romantic tradition.  As Andriessen himself states:
"It's not a literal drama depicting specific scenes in the narrative... You might hear Achilles running around the battlefield one moment and then perhaps Iphigenia in a few quieter bars in B minor.  And Kalachas is there arguing in declamatory music about the will of the gods."
Not surprisingly, considering its subject, much of the music has a thoroughly martial air, with heavy use of percussion, that in spirit (but not sound) is somewhat reminiscent of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.  At the end, a female speaker who had been seated in the orchestra rises with microphone in hand to recite Cassandra's speech from Aeschylus's Agamemnon.  As one would imagine, the piece is highly enjoyable and accessible in a manner few contemporary works can claim.  Following the twenty minute performance the composer appeared onstage to accept a well deserved ovation.

The next work was Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D major (1931).  After having complained in my last post how infrequently I had heard this work performed, I now heard it for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, on this occasion with soloist Leila Josefowicz.  Attending two performances back to back gave me an opportunity to compare the different approaches of the respective orchestras and soloists.  In general, I found the Philharmonic's and Ms. Josefowicz's interpretation much more energetic.  The fact that there were no pauses between movements - in contrast to the SFS performance where there had been distinct pauses between each of the four movements - made the work appear much faster paced when performed by the Philharmonic.  And though the work does not encourage virtuosic flourishes, Ms. Josefowicz added to the drama by playing her part with much more vivacity than had Leonidas Kavakos on Thursday evening.

After intermission, the concert resumed with another Stravinsky piece, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1945-1947).  This was much more the type of Stravinsky work I wish the SFS had performed the previous evening, one that displays some of the composer's earliest thoughts on modernism.  For better or worse, following the end of World War I in 1918, the Europe for which Stravinsky had composed his Ballets Russes spectacles no longer existed.  The war's cataclysmic upheavals, epitomized for the composer by the Russian Revolution, had a profound influence on his life and career and forced upon him the realization that a new form of music was needed for a new social order.  Hence the move to modernism, nowhere so well exemplified as in the present piece.  Not only did the work employ a minimalist approach in which discrete motifs, described by Stravinsky as "tonal masses," were placed side by side but also called for a new choice of instruments.  In a January post in which I discussed Stravinsky's 1923 Octet, I quoted the composer's thoughts on wind instruments:
"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."
It was this same striving for objectivity that had earlier infused Symphonies and had determined the choice of wind instruments for this work as well.  That Stravinsky was consciously attempting to rid the piece of all emotional elements can be inferred from his dissatisfaction with the disastrous 1921 premiere conducted by Serge Koussevitsky that was met with hisses and gales of laughter from an unappreciative British audience.  Stravinsky wrote:
"The audience did not hiss enough.  They should have been much angrier...  The radical misunderstanding was that an attempt was made to impose an external pathos on the music."
The program concluded with one of Debussy's best known works, La Mer (1903-1905, rev. 1910). Although when listening to this piece one always imagines sunlight glinting off Mediterranean waters, Debussy actually composed it while staying in East Sussex in England. It was the composer's skill at creating impressions of calm vistas and gentle breezes that imbued the work with its magical character. So popular has this piece become over the years that it's difficult to believe now that when the work premiered it was not well received, perhaps because it did not fit the standard symphonic form to which audiences had by then grown accustomed. It's also of interest that Debussy finally decided to title the first movement "From dawn to noon on the sea" when in a 1903 letter to his publisher he had originally referred to it as "Beautiful sea by the bloodthirsty islands."

This was the second time I had heard Jaap van Zweden conduct the Philharmonic (see my February 19th post), and I was just as impressed this time as last.  Mr. van Zweden managed to elicit from his ensemle a far better performance than I had thought it capable of producing.  This was as auspicious a beginning to his tenure as one could have wished, and one can only hope it will continue in the same manner.  And it comes just in time.  In the last few years the Philharmonic had descended almost to the level of a "pops orchestra," a sad fate indeed for the venerable ensemble once led by Mahler and Bernstein.  Evidence of change can be seen not only in the level of performance but also, as I mentioned earlier, in the approach to programming.  That performed on Friday afternoon was coherent and well thought out and was not afraid to include less accessible works in its search for quality.  Judging by the enthusiastic response of the nearly sold out audience, the effort was well appreciated.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Carnegie Hall: San Francisco Symphony Performs Stravinsky

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear my first musical event of the new season as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Stravinsky program.  Only the evening before, the same ensemble and conductor had performed at the hall's Opening Night Gala, a more star studded event than this perhaps but with a more lightweight program.

The concert began with one of the composer's early successes, the ballet Pétrouchka (1910-1911, rev. 1947).  Of all he works Stravinsky composed for the Diaghiliev and the Ballets Russes I've always thought this the most successful.  The music, most especially the famous Pétrouchka Chord that introduces the title character, is among the most original Stravinsky ever composed.  And yet so perfectly does it fit the ballet storyline that one can easily imagine a fully staged puppet theater as one listens to the music.  According to Carnegie Hall's program notes, the work was initially conceived as a "quasi-concerto" for orchestra and piano - which explains the inclusion of this instrument whose presence throughout seems strangely out of place - before Stravinsky devised for it a definite program, one which Diaghilev immediately associated with the popular puppet character Petrushka.  The score, at this performance the revised 1947 version, is filled with a pathos one does not normally associate with Stravinsky, the arch-modernist.

The next work was the Violin Concerto in D major (1931) featuring Leonidas Kavakos as guest artist.  Compared to the other works on the program, the Concerto is performed much less frequently than it deserves.  The last time I can remember having heard it, in fact, was at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist.  The piece was written, at the suggestion of Stravinsky's German publisher Willie Strecker, for the violinist Samuel Dushkin.  Stravinsky, who lacked familiarity with the violin, entered into the collaboration with the understanding that Dushkin would assist him in the technical aspects of the composition.  If Stravinsky lacked confidence in his ability to write for the violin, however, it's nowhere apparent in any of the four movments, and the work is among the most innovative achievements of his neoclassical period.  In this respect it was typical of him to have conceived an opening chord that Dushkin originally considered unplayable.  The final movement, in particular, is as thrilling a piece of music as any Stravinsky composed.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of what is undoubtedly Stravinsky's best known work, the infamous Le sacre du printemps (1913), which I had last heard performed at Carnegie Hall on its 2016 Opening Night when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.

So fixed a place in the repertoire has Le Sacre du printemps now attained that it's difficult to believe it could once have been as controversial as its history suggests. Everyone knows the story of the infamous 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that ended in a riot, though there were those who claimed at the time that this was a response to Nijinsky's choreography rather than Stravinsky's music. (Years ago I saw a recreation of the original production staged by the Joffrey Ballet and thought it magnificent.) What can't be denied, however, is that this was one of the earliest triumphs of modernism no matter that it had its roots firmly in the Russian folk tradition. Even now, despite its familiarity, there is something deeply unsettling in the savage rhythms that burst out of nowhere and challenge the sensibilities of the audience. There are very few works so gripping as this. Ironically, the work's very intensity has transformed it from one of the most controversial pieces in the repertoire to a crowdpleaser that is dutifully trotted out at least once or twice a season while other important works by the composer languish in relative obscurity.

Under its long term music director, the SFS has long since become a top-tier ensemble, definitely one of the best American orchestras. If Thursday evening's performance was not a transcendent experience, it was nevertheless an excellent opportunity to hear a fine group of musicians perform works by one of the twentieth century's most important composers. I only wish the program had focused less on Stravinsky's works for the Ballets Russes, no matter how popular and accessible, and more on those later pieces that better defined his place as one of the three great modernists.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Drawings

There are currently two major exhibits at the Met Museum featuring the work of the nineteenth century French artist Eugène Delacroix.  The most recent to have opened, entitled simply Delacroix, features the paintings and has drawn all the attention; but it was the other, a display of the artist's drawings entitled Devotion to Drawing, that I decided to visit first.  Not only did many of the drawings serve as studies for the paintings, but the genre itself provides much better insight into the development of any artist's style as it's stripped it down to its essentials.

The exhibit is contained in three galleries, the first of which is labeled "Formation Through Drawing."  The work here is generally from the earliest part of Delacroix's career when he was still learning technique.  Like any student of the École des Beaux-Arts, he began his studies by copying famous works and by drawing the live model.  In Delacroix's case, however, this basic approach did not end when he ceased to be a student.  All through his career he always made time to copy works he found of interest, perhaps because in so doing he gained insight into the vision of the artists who provided him inspiration.  It's worth noting that in his choice of sources Delacroix did not use models from classical antiquity as was the custom in the nineteenth century but instead favored those of Renaissance artists, even less famous painters such as Paolo Veronese from whose Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian Delacroix copied several figures in an 1820's pen and brown ink drawing, though not that of Saint Sebastian himself.  Another example would be a pen and brown ink drawing from the same period in which Delacroix faithfully copied Raphael's Combat of Nude Men.  But it was not only artists from the past who interested Delacroix.  He also copied figures intended as studies for The Raft of Medusa, itself derived from a work by Rubens, by his good friend and mentor Théodore Gericault.  So great was Gericault's influence on the younger artist that the authorship of one of the drawings on display at this exhibit cannot be definitively determined.

As for the "live" models that Delacroix sketched, the most interesting were actually cadavers.  While viewing these drawings, one is reminded irresistably of similar anatomical studies in Leonardo's notebooks.  The same precise delineation of musculature can also be seen in studies of living models in such pieces as The Backs of Two Seated Figures, a red and black chalk drawing that shows perfectly the play of muscles involved in the simple act of sitting.

The second gallery is labeled "The Application of Drawing" and demonstrates the manner in which Delacroix's original drawings were used as preparation for their appeanance in other media.  The most noteworthy examples are products of the artist's visit to Morocco in 1832 as part of the French diplomatic delegation.  It was the perfect destination for an artist whose work was so imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, and Delacroix's emostionally charged depictions of this exotic locale did much to promote the fashion of Orientalism in European art.  Still, Delacroix was meticulous in recording Near Eastern dress and manners in his quest for authenticity.  In spite of this, the artist did not hesitate to adapt his vision when it came time to prepare his work for reproduction in other media.  This can clearly be seen in a series of drawings depicting the Sultan Abd er-Rahman on horseback.  In the first, a rough brush and brown ink completed in situ in 1832, the sultan is seen surrounded by his advisors while meeting with the French envoy Charles-Edgar de Mornay.  There is almost no detail here, only the barest outlines of the figures.  In a much more studied 1845 graphite drawing Delacroix removed the figure of the French envoy, the failure of whose mission had led directly the Franco-Morrocan War twelve years later.  This drawing, a preparatory study for a large painting, is far more detailed than the 1832 version even if devoid of the original's political significance.  Finally, an 1856 graphite drawing of the same scene done in preparation for yet another painting again makes major changes, here replacing the sultan's advisors with a group of servants tending to his comfort.  The process of historical revision, here laid out so clearly before the viewer, is fascinating in itself.

Though one does not normally think of Delacroix as an illustrator, there were several literary works that had a profound influence on his Romantic nature.  A lithograph from the period 1836-1842  entitled The Wounded Goetz Taken in by the Gypsies is one of seven that illustrate scenes from Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen.  In style it constrasts sharply with a blue and brown wash over graphite from 1836 that depicts the same subject.  Another great literary influence was Shakespeare, and there are several drawings here illustrating various scenes from Hamlet.  For pure action, though, nothing can compare with The Giaour on Horseback, an 1824-1826 drawing that depicts a violent encounter taken from Byron's 1813 poem The Giaour whose Middle Eastern setting may have furnished the principal attraction for Delacroix.

The third and final gallery, labeled "Medium and Invention," contains some of the artist's finest drawings. While Delacroix usually worked with simple graphite, the drawings in this section demonstrate his mastery of other media including watercolor, not then in common use among French artists.  A splendid example, one that shows Delacroix's fine eye for color, is Three Arab Horsemen at an Encampment (1832-1837) in which watercolor has been applied over graphite to stunning effect.  Even more impressive are two nearly monochromatic washes from 1829-1831, A Tomb and Studies of Windows in the Church of Valmont Abbey and Interior of the Church of Valmont Abbey.  The command Delacroix here exhibits over the difficult wash process is extraordinary, and these are to me the finest works in the show.

The exhibit continues through November 12, 2018.