Monday, December 31, 2018

The Blue Hours

A few months back, I published my fourth novel as an ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  I'm very excited about it and honestly think this is my best work yet.

The book is intended as a tribute to Cornell Woolrich, who more or less invented the noir genre, and at the same time an attempt to explore the very meaning of the term.  After all, noir is, by definition, dark.  A number of authors, however, lighten their narratives in order to achieve better sales and attract more readers.  Their protagonists, no matter how tough they initially appear, usually prove to be decent law abiding citizens caught in circumstances beyond their control.  In contrast, I've chosen to tell my story from the point of view of a violent drug user with few, if any, redeeming features.  My intent was not to make the character sympathetic but compelling.  If a monster, he is not a cardboard villain but rather a living breathing human being tormented by his failings while unable to break free of them.

The Blue Hours is set in New York City in 1970, long before gentrification, when the town was still gritty and crime ridden.  It tells of a violent junkie, just released from jail, who wakes one morning in an East Village tenement to find himself holding a smoking gun and sitting beside a corpse.  With the police relentlessly pursuing him, he desperately tries to find the one witness who can tell him what really happened.

In addition to writing the text, I shot the cover photo on infrared film and then printed the negative in a wet darkroom.  I also designed the book's cover in Photoshop.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Met Opera: Diana Damrau Sings in La traviata

Last Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to see Verdi's La traviata for the first time since 2013.  The new production by Michael Mayer had received a great deal of attention in the media and I was hopeful it would prove for me one of the highlights of the season, especially as it would give me my first opportunity to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium after having officially taken on his new position as the company's Music Director.

The opera, now one of the mainstays of the operatic repertoire, originally caused Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave no small amount of trouble when staging its 1853 premiere in Venice.  Based, of course, on the play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (who also penned the eponymous novel on which the play was based) that Verdi had recently seen performed in Paris, the opera was originally intended as a contemporary love story or, in Verdi's words, "A subject for our own age."  But Verdi had not reckoned with the intransigent Venetian censors of whom he had run afoul when staging Rigoletto two years earlier.  They were adamant that the production should be backdated to the eighteenth century.  Apparently, Violetta's occupation as a courtesan so offended their morality that the plot must needs be relegated to the distant past.  Verdi was furious but there was nothing he could do, all the more so as the production was plagued with other serious problems including a Violetta whose age and weight were totally inappropriate to the part.  (Before condemning the Venetian censors too harshly, it should be remembered that the opera also encountered problems of the same sort when it premiered in England where it was considered so morally questionable that Queen Victoria refused to attend any public performances.)  At any rate, the Venetian premiere was a disaster that caused Verdi to write: "La traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers'? Time will tell."  It was not until the following year that the opera (cast with a new Violetta) achieved success, but even so it was not until decades later that stagings of La traviata could be set in nineteenth century Paris as Verdi had first envisioned.

The star of this particular performance, and one of my principal reasons for attending, was soprano Diana Damrau who excelled as Violetta. I had seen her play the part at the Met in 2013 and was just as impressed on this occasion as on the last.  In an online interview published on the Met's website during that previous run and since deleted, Ms. Damrau had stated:
"People say you need three different voices for Traviata. You need to have the flexibility and brilliance for the first act. Then the centerpiece of the opera is the duet with Germont—that’s a big lyric soprano. And for the last act you want to have a dramatic soprano. Everything has to come together really, the colors, the emotions… In terms of difficulty, it’s a five-star role."
This was a homecoming of sorts for tenor Juan Diego Flórez in the role of Alfredo, his first Met appearance since 2015 even though he has costarred at the house with Ms. Damrau in almost thirty appearances since 2006.  Baritone Quinn Kelsey had previously appeared at the Met as Amonasro in Aida; but here, in the crucial role of Alfredo's father, he was a disappointment to anyone who remembered Plácido Domingo's standout turn several seasons ago.  (Mr. Domingo is scheduled to reprise his role in the second half of the season.)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's conducting was excellent overall.  I've seen him several times over the past few years and have always found him quite capable if occasionally lacking in inspiration.

I did not find Michael Mayer’s production, described on the Met's website as a "dazzling 19th-century setting that changes with the seasons," particularly impressive.  Instead of changing with the seasons, it would have done far better to have changed with the radically different settings of the first two acts.  Has the Met's budget crisis grown so acute that a single set (the work of Tony Award winner Christine Jones) must suffice for all three acts?

Showing Violetta on her deathbed during the overture was a departure from traditional stagings   As Mr. Mayer himself explained it:
"We frame the opera as a kind of fever dream in which Violetta re-lives the events that brought her to her final moments on earth.  When the curtain rises, we are at her deathbed in that last flickering moment of consciousness."
That's all well and good, but I thought it a stetch and in the end entirely unnecessary.

On a more positive note, the production is certainly a great improvement over the unfortunate 2010 Willy Decker production whose random stabs at contemporary relevance were completely at odds with Verdi's intentions and at times almost unbearably inappropriate.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dvořák, Schumann and Mendelssohn

The second chamber music recital I attended last Sunday at Morse Hall was the 2:30 p.m. I might not have stayed if the program had not been so intriguing. It not only included another major work by Schumann but also masterpieces by Dvořák and Mendelssohn.

The recital commenced with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87 (1889). The piece was written fourteen years after the Quartet in D major and might never have been completed at all if the composer had not been constantly goaded by his publisher Simrock. Surprisingly, it's not one of Dvořák's more popular chamber works even though it's a wonderful statement of the Romantic ethos he had acquired from Brahms. The second movement lento has a sweet haunting character while the third movement contains elements of the East European folk tunes Dvořák would soon develop more fully in his much better known "Dumky" Trio. In contrast, the final movement, almost symphonic in its sound, is so powerful it fairly sweeps the listener along to the work's conclusion. 

The musicians were Yue Qian, violin, Ao Peng, viola, Songhee Lee, cello, and Yijia Wang, piano; their coach was Timothy Eddy.

The next work was Schumann's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 105 (1851). After having heard Schumann's two violin sonatas performed many years ago at Carnegie Hall by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, I gained a new appreciation of these pieces and have since come to consider them among the most underrated of the composer's chamber works. One reason they may not be held in greater esteem is that they were written in a period of turmoil in Schumann's life as he began to experience the first symptoms of the mental breakdown that would lead him to attempt suicide in 1854. At the time the sonata was written, Schumann was music director of the Düsseldorf Orchestra. This proved to be one of the more frustrating episodes of his career. No matter how skilled a composer he may have been, he was utterly lacking in ability as a conductor. As a result, he retreated as much as possible from his orchestral duties and concentrated instead on forming chamber ensembles with the best of the orchestra's musicians. He himself did not care very much for the A-minor sonata and later claimed: "I did not like the first Sonata for Violin and Piano; so I wrote a second one [the Op. 121], which I hope has turned out better." Musicologists took him at his word and paid little attention to the piece, seeing in it only evidence of Schumann's impending mental collapse. But the Op. 105 is actually an extremely absorbing and innovative work that deserves to be heard more often.

The sonata was performed by violinist Kyung Ji Min and pianist Kate Liu; they were coached by Earl Carlyss and Jonathan Feldman.

After a short intermission, the program closed with a performance of Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847). I had just heard this work a few weeks ago at a Wednesdays at One recital at Alice Tully and had posted the following thoughts on the music: 
To me, this [the quartet] is the most fascinating of Mendelssohn's works in any genre. For the most part, his compositions are the refined and accomplished pieces, filled with light and engaging touches, one would expect of so cultured and cerebral a composer. While undoubtedly works of genius, they are so utterly proper and carefully thought out that one sometimes feels the composer is wearing a mask behind which he hides his real feelings and emotions. Not so, however, in the present work. Titled "A Requiem for Fanny," the quartet was written immediately aftet the death of Mendelssohn's beloved sister, a tragedy that left the composer devastated. It is nothing less than the final testament - Mendelssohn himself would be dead within two months after having completed it - of a highly cultivated man who has suddenly seen his carefully constructed world come crashing down around him. Not only is it written in the dark F minor key, but its accentuations and tempos (some of which were later adapted by Shostakovich in his own F minor quartet, the No. 11) are filled with a sense of anxiety and dread that makes the work sound curiously modern. One can hear the furious racing of the composer's heart as he confronts his own mortality. Properly performed, the Op. 80 is a truly harrowing piece, a glimpse of a soul robbed of all its certainties and staring death in the face. 
The performers were Mitsuru Yonezaki and Sophia Steger, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, and Emily Mantone, cello; their coach was Carol Rodland.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Happy Holidays!!

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season and great health and happiness in 2019.

(I shot the above photo in 2016.  It's unfortunate I didn't have a more recent photo, bit there hasn't been any snow yet in New York City this December.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schumann and Schubert

Last Sunday afternoon I attended the final performances this season of Juilliard's Morse Hall chamber music marathons.  As on the previous weekend, I attended both the noontime and 2:30 p.m. sessions.  It was extremely rainy weather outside, and I couldn't think of any better way to spend the afternoon than listening to masterworks played by extraordinarily talented Juilliard musicians.

Schumann's music has always been a mainstay of the chamber repertoire but lately it seems to be played more often than ever.  That was definitely the case at this performance where the entire first half was devoted to Schumann's compositions.  This allowed me to hear one of his lesser known string quartets while at the same time it offered another opportunity to hear his beloved Piano Quartet that vies with the Piano Quintet for precedence as his most popular piece.  While the Quintet currently receives the most attention, it's actually the Quartet that I prefer. 

And it was with Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47 (1842) that the recital in fact opened.  This is a work that must be understood in the context of Schumann's approach to writing music. So obsessed did he become in exhausting the possibilities of a particular genre that he typically immersed himself in creating works exclusively for that one form before eventually moving on to the next. 1842 was no exception; it was the year in which Schumann wrote many of his most important chamber works.  Aside from the present quartet, these included the great Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also in E-flat major, as well as the three string quartets that comprise the Op. 41, and finally the Fantasiestücke for piano trio published posthumously in 1887 as Op. 88. 

The Quartet was completed immediately after the Quintet and it may have been that Schumann was attempting to further develop the musical ideas he had conceived in the earlier work. Certainly there were more precedents for the piano quartet, a genre that had more or less been invented by Mozart in the preceding century. Not surprisingly then the four movement Quartet is a bit more traditional than the Quintet. The final movement is an exercise in counterpoint, but the heart of the work is the andante, placed somewhat unusually as the third movement following the scherzo. It is so filled with yearning that one is reminded irresistibly of Schubert's great chamber works, particularly the piano trios. Certainly, in listening to this piece one can better understand the influence that Schubert had on the later Romantics who followed him.

The musicians, coached by Roger Tapping, were Yeri Roh, violin, Jacob Van Der Sloot, viola, Isabella Palacpac, cello, and Chaeyoung Park, piano.

The following work was Schumann's Sting Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 (1842).  Like the two other quartets included in the Op. 41, i.e., the No. 2 in F major and the No. 3 in A major, it was completed during the period of Schumann's absorption with chamber music and was a product of his intense study of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  Significantly, after Schumann had completed the last of the three he never again returned to the genre.

Schumann was above all else a pianist, never mind that his playing failed to achieve virtuoso level after he had injured his hand, and was comparatively ignorant of string instruments.  This is at once the three quartets' greatest weakness and paradoxically their greatest strength.  If in them Schumann appeared more often than not to be writing for the piano and if he failed at times to differentiate among the four string voices this allowed him to create works of greater originality than if he had simply been imitating the tenchniques of the great masters.  Indeed, some musicologists are of the opinion that the three quartets were conceived by Schumann as a single work.  That would explain why in the opening movement of the No. 1 the first theme, immediately following the A minor introduction, is in the key of F major.

The quartet was performed by Mitsuru Yonezaki and Hikaru Yonezaki, violins, Taylor Shea, viola, and Sterling Elliott, cello; they were coached by Astrid Schween.

After a ten-minute intermission, the program closed with one of the greatest works in the chamber repertoire, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (1824), nicknamed "Death and the Maiden" after the eponymous Schubert lied whose music appears in the quartet's second movement.  This work, of course, transcends mere holiday entertainment.  For one thing, the concept of death, always a theme of deep interest to the Romantics, was much more personal to this composer than to his peers.  He had only four more years to live when he wrote it, and the notion of Death coming to carry him off was very real indeed.  Nowhere else is the repertoire is the farewell to life rendered in so heartbreaking fashion as it is here.  We can clearly hear in it Schubert's despair at having to die at so young an age as the quartet gives voice to the words of his own song.
"Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!"
Death here is not some idle fancy with which to frighten the children but an inevitability from which there is no escape, not for Schubert, not for any of us. It's this that gives the music the awful power that moves us so deeply.

The performers were Sophia Stoyanovich and Isabella Geis, violins, Hannah Burnett, viola, and Emily Mantone, cello; Astrid Schween was once again the coach.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Brahms, Kodály and Stravinsky

Last week I attended yet another Wednesdays at One performance at Alice Tully Hall.  On this occasion, the Juilliard Lab Orchestra performed an hour-long concert featuring works by Brahms, Zoltán Kodály and Stravinsky. Each of the three works showcased the skills of a different conductor.

The program opened with Brahms's Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) as conducted by Kyle Ritenauer.  It should be noted at the outset that the overture was not intended to preface any musical or dramatic work, though critics have endlessly debated tragic literary works to which it might be linked.  Certainly there were no devastating events in Brahms's humdrum personal life that might have called such music forth from his imagination.  Rather the piece seems to represent in the abstract the melancholic aspect of the composer's personality in contrast to its much more upbeat companion piece, the ebullient Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 which despite its lower opus number was the actually the second to be written.  Brahms himself commented to Carl Reinecke that "one of them weeps, the other one laughs," a possible allusion to the comic and tragic masks employed in classical Greek theater.  The Op. 81 was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Hans Richter on December 26, 1880.  Due to its dark content, however, the work was not well received.  It did not fare much better when, conducted by Brahms himself, it was performed together with the Op. 80 (that work's premiere) at the University of Breslau several days later.  Again it cast a pall over its audience.  Even today, the Op. 80 is performed not nearly so often as its lighthearted companion.

The next conductor to take the podium was Sasha Scolnik-Brower for a performance of Kodály's Dances of Galánta (1933), a piece commissioned for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society.  Although Kodály, together with fellow composer Béla Bartók, was famous for the field research he had conducted in Hungarian folk music at the turn of the twentieth century, he claimed to have found his inspiration for the Dances in book form.
"The author spent the most beautiful seven years of his childhood in Galánta.  The town band, led by the fiddler Mihók, was famous.  But it must have been even more famous a hundred years earlier.  Several volumes of Hungarian dances were published in Vienna around the year 1800.  One of them lists its source this way: 'from several Gypsies in Galánta.'''
Be that as it may, Kodály must certainly have come in contact with this type of folk music, known as verbunkos, long before he set out to compose the Dances. Described as "a pair of sections, slow (lassú), with a characteristic dotted rhythm, and fast (friss), with virtuosic running-note passages," the underlying folk idiom is clearly recognizable in Kodály's work.

Elinor Rufeizen conducted the final work, the 1919 suite taken from Stravinsky's The Firebird (1910).  The ballet is most significant for having been the then unknown composer's first commission from the Ballets Russes.  The story had already been developed by Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine by the time Stravinsky commenced work on the score.  This was in fact the company's first original score and its success led directly to Stravinsky's later engagements on Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913).  As an early work, The Firebird represents an intermediate period in Stravinsky's career when he had not yet completely freed himself from the Russian Romantic tradition - the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov can easily be distinguished throughout - but was already moving forward in the modernist vein that would be much more apparent in the works immediately following it.

The suite chosen for performance, the 1919, is the best known of the three the composer extracted from his ballet. To my mind, however, none of the three really does justice to the original work. Of them all, I prefer the first, the 1910, which is the most faithful to its source. The full ballet score, which I heard performed several seasons ago by the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, is a magical work. Stravinsky, who after its premiere became an overnight sensation throughout Europe, well deserved the acclaim he received for it..

Monday, December 17, 2018

Juilliard415 Performs Vivaldi, Mozart, Boccherini, Haydn and C.P.E. Bach

Last Tuesday afternoon I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West for the first time this season to hear a noontime recital given by the Juilliard415, the school's period instrument ensemble.  The program, entitled The Evolution of Chamber Music, was more eclectic than usual as it started with the seventeenth century Italian Baroque and moved from there to the Classical music of Boccherini, Haydn. Mozart, and C.P.E. Bach.

The recital began with sets of Baroque dance movements - arranged for two violins, viola da gamba, harpsichord and guitar - by Italian composers active in the first half of the seventeenth century.  The works were L'Eroica by Andrea Falconieri, Ballo detto Eccardo - Ballo detto Pollico by Tarquinio Merula, and Aria Quinta, sopra la Bergamasca by Marco Uccellini.  What I found interesting in the instrumentation was that the printed program had called for a theorbo rather than a guitar.  For the most part, the guitar appeared part of the continuo, though it was obviously a higher register than the theorbo, but then was given a brief solo as it introduced the final piece by Uccellini.

The next ensemble - consisting of two violins, cello, and harpsichord - remained with the Italian (here Venetian) Baroque as the musicians performed the Sonata da Chiesa, Op. 4, No. 3, La Benaglia (1656) by Giovanni Legrenzi and the Trio Sonata, Op. 1, No. 12, La Follia, RV 63 (1705) by Antonio Vivaldi.  La Follia is perhaps the oldest known European musical theme and can be found as early as 1672, though it was most probably in use well before then, in the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.  It was taken up at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Corelli, Scarlatti and Vivaldi.  So enduring was La Follia's popularity that even Rachmaninoff made use of it in his 1931 Variations on a theme by Corelli. 

The music then moved forward to the Classical period with selections from two string quartets, the first movement, marked adagio-allegro, of the String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465 ("Dissonance") (1785) by W.A. Mozart, and the second and third movements, marked respectively largo and allegro, of the String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 2 (G. 159) (1761) by Luigi Boccherini.  Somehow the Mozart adagio that gave the K. 465 its name sounded even more dissonant when played here on period instruments.  One wonders what staid Viennese audiences made of this music that was so far in advance of its time.  Mozart composed the quartet, along with five others, after having heard Haydn's Op. 33 quartets that, along with those comprising the Op. 20, are generally considered the first true examples of the Classical string quartet.  It's amazing that Mozart in his first attempt at writing for the genre should not only have mastered it but in fact moved beyond his mentor in expanding the possibilities of this musical form.

The next ensemble to take the stage then played Mozart's Flute Quartet No. 1 in D major, K. 285 (Christmas Day, 1777).   The story of Mozart's commission to compose the flute quartets for Ferdinand de Jean is well known just as is his petulant comment, in a letter to his father dated September 14, 1778, "You know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear."  Be that as it may, this a work of rare grace, never more so than in the opening of the second movement adagio when the strings are played pizzicatto in their accompaniment of the flute. 

Following the Mozart came Joseph Haydn's "London" Trio No. 1 in C major, Hob. IV.1 (1794) for two oboes and cello.  Though the solo instruments used at this recital were oboes, the work was originally composed for two flutes and cello and were published as such in January 1799, by Teobaldo Monzani, himself an accomplished flute-player.  The trios were largely forgotten in the nineteenth century and it was really only in the second half of the twentieth century that their charm was again recognized and the works returned to their rightful place in the chamber repertoire.

The next work was listed in the program as a quartet - C.P.E. Bach's Quartet in A minor, Wq. 93 (1788) - even though it consisted of only three instruments, i.e., flute, viola, and fortepiano.  If one wonders why this accomplished piece, written in the composer's last year of life, is referred to as a quartet when there are only three instruments in performance it is because the piano right and left hands are considered here two separate instruments.  Even if an optional cello is added to the mix it only doubles the piano left hand. 

The recital, which by then had lasted a good hour and a half with no intermission, came to a close with Mozart's Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K. 452 (1784).  This is the piece of which the composer famously wrote to his father, "I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life."  Mozart had good reason to be proud, not only for the music itself but for his originality in combining a traditional Viennese wind band serenade and piano chamber work with the happy result of creating an entirely new genre, one that Beethoven was to emulate twelve years later in his Op. 16.  I noticed at this performance that as the fortepiano has a much softer sound than the modern piano that part blended more seamlessly with the winds than when played on a modern instrument. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich

I recently posted about the first chamber music recital I saw at Juilliard's Morse Hall this past Sunday. The second, at 2:30 p.m., was just as exciting as it featured works by Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich.

The program opened with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (1808).  Written ten years after the Op. 12 sonatas, the Op. 69 was composed well into Beethoven's middle period at roughly the same time as the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and the Choral Fantasy.  The composer was long past his apprenticeship to Haydn by this point and yet the sonata retains the classical three movement structure and is far more genial than the bulk of Beethoven's output during this period.  The adagio cantabile that opens the final movement is among the loveliest passages Beethoven would compose.  The work is revolutionary, however, in the importance given the cello itself.  From the opening bars that are played by the cello without accompaniment, it is apparent that the instrument has come into its own with this work.  Long relegated to the role of continuo in the Baroque era, the cello is here treated for the first time as a solo instrument.

The performers were cellist Tomsen Su and pianist Johanna Bufler; they were coached by Julian Martin

The next work was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major Op. 44 (1842). In an earlier post, I compared this piece to the Piano Quartet, Op. 47 and wrote as follows:
"In general, and to oversimplify, the Quintet has a bigger sound that is at times almost symphonic while the Quartet is a more intimate work. The Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, is designed to impress the listener while the funeral march that follows is the very essence of Romanticism. And at the end is the vibrant finale that is among the finest chamber movements Schumann composed during his short career. In addition, this is the first major piece to pair the piano with string quartet, and Schumann deserves credit for having established with it a new musical genre. It was Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann, who premiered the work at a private gathering and his suggestions led Schumann to make a number of revisions before the public premiere (at which Clara did play), but the honors are all due to Schumann himself."
Schumann himself succumbed to madness in 1854 after first having attempted to drown himself in the Rhine.  He died two years later while still institutionalized.

The quintet was performed by Ariel Seung Hyun Lee and Sophia Steger, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, Sanae Kodaira, cello, and Salome Jordania, piano; their coaches were Astrid Schween and Joseph Kalichstein

After intermission, the program resumed with Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940). This is without doubt one of the greatest chamber works of the twentieth century and a high point in Soviet musical history. Shostakovich, whose work was so often charged with "formalism," was even awarded a Stalin Prize for his effort. Listening to the piece, it's easy to understand why it was so successful. This a sophisticated modernist work composed in an unusual five-movement format that drives relentlessly forward. At the same time, though, it possesses an emotional range that renders it easily accessible to its audience.

The musicians were Elaine Qianru He and Ariel Seung Hyun Lee, violins, Ao Peng, viola, Jenny Bahk, cello, and Jeong-Min David Kim, piano; they were coached by Joseph Kalichstein and Joel Smirnoff.

It was by now close to 4:30 p.m. and though one work still remained on the program, Elliot Carter's Woodwind Quintet, I felt I had heard enough for one afternoon.  I had reached the point where I was no longer able to appreciate the subtleties of the music and so took early leave.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert, Strauss, Weinberg and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon I went again to Juilliard's Morse Hall to hear chamber music.  On this occasion I found the programs so interesting that I actually stayed for the second recital as well as the first and ended up spending almost four and a half hours at the school before finally calling it a day.  In this post I'll describe the first event I attended, the noontime recital, that featured works by Schubert, Strauss, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and Brahms.

The program opened with Schubert's Fantasie in C major, D. 934 (1828).  Written near the end of the composer's brief life, and only published posthumously in 1850, the piece is something of an orphan among Schubert's late works.  Even today this piece is not often played and is not generally held in high esteem.  Certainly, it was a resounding failure when premiered by violinist Josef Slavík and pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet.  As one critic unhappily reported:
"The Fantasie occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece."
This despite the fact that the fantasie is built around a theme and variations taken from one of Schubert's most popular songs, the 1822 Sei mir gegrüβt, that set to music verses by the influential Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert. Part of the problem may have been that Schubert was too self-consciously attempting to create a virtuoso showcase for Slavik whom the composer, rightly or wrongly, regarded as highly accomplished a violinist as Paganini. Whatever the cause, the piece cannot be ranked among Schubert's successes. Even if it did not merit the harsh reception it received at its premiere, it still remains a slight work and somewhat insipid. I personally found it less than engaging.

The violinist on the fantasie was Chener Yuan; his accompanist on the extremely demanding piano part was Jiaxin Min. They were coached by Jerome Lowenthal and Joel Smirnoff.

The next work was Strauss's Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18 (1887-1888).  This was one of the composer's youthful efforts and his last real attempt at chamber music before coming fully under the spell of Liszt and Wagner and embarking on his series of tone poems.  Already in 1884 he had met the composer Alexander Ritter who was related to Wagner by marriage and who proved a decisive influence on Strauss.  It was thanks to Ritter's guidance that Strauss began composing Don Juan in 1888 almost immediately after having finished work on the violin sonata.  Indeed, there are already intimations of the tone poems' heroic stance in the sonata's rousing conclusion.  There are other innovative touches in the music, particularly in the second movement "Improvisation" that is anything but.  Here the tender andante cantabile displays a restrained passion that may have had something to do with Strauss's infatuation with Pauline de Ahna, the soprano whom he was later to marry.

Violinist Wei Zhu and pianist Yilun Xu gave a particularly strong performance of the sonata; they had been coached by Daniel Phillips and Matti Raekallio.

After a brief intermission, the program resumed with a performance of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 24 (1945). This was a true masterpiece of startling originality by a composer whose works deserve to be heard more often. It was for me the highlight of the two recitals I attended.

This was not the first time I had heard the piece. Last year, I attended a Juilliard faculty recital at which the trio was performed by violinist Laurie Smukler, cellist Joel Krosnick and pianist Qing Jiang. On that occasion, Mr. Krosnick briefly addressed the audience regarding the composer's life and work. Although Weinberg is now considered a major Soviet composer, his life was far from easy - his parents and sister were killed in the Holocaust, his father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, and he himself was arrested for his alleged involvement in the "Doctors' plot." Even though Weinberg spent most of his career laboring in obscurity, a victim of Stalin's anti-Semitism, he was a prolific composer whose works were championed by his close friend Shostakovich, a mentor who exerted a great deal of influence on the development of Weinberg's style.

The present four-movement trio was a highly dramatic work. It veered without pause from the mournful larghetto that closed the first movement to the pounding rhythms of the tocatta that opened the second. Perhaps the finest passage was the third movement Poem in which was distilled, or so at least it seemed, all the suffering Weinberg had experienced during his lifetime. Throughout the work, great weight was given to the strings while the piano remained silent for comparatively long intervals.

The trio was performed by Christine Wu, violin, Drake Driscoll, cello, and Tomoni Sato, piano; their coach was Darrett Adkins.

The final work on the program was another trio, Brahms's Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101 (1886).  This is a late piece invariably described by critics as "terse" or "compact," but that's actually an understatment.  It is, in fact, so brusque that, despite a few charming touches here and there, it is overall almost completely lacking in charm.  Instead, it pushes relentlessly forward as if Brahms were determined to thrust his musical ideas upon the listener.  And this was not a peculiarity of Sunday's performance.  I have a 1986 recording by the Beaux Arts Trio, and the same qualities are present there as well, if not more so.  The second movement scherzo that so delighted Clara Schumann is over almost before it begins (the critic Donald Francis Tovey aptly described the movement as a piece that "hurries by, like a frightened child"), and even the third movment andante grazioso seems rushed rather than expansive as one would normally expect.  Brevity has its merits, of course, but the trio nevertheless struck me as unnaturally forced, a dry exposition rather than a pleasant Romantic interlude.

The musicians were Xingyu Li, violin, Drake Driscoll, cello, and Carmen Knoll, piano; they were coached by Daniel Phillips and Noam Sivan.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Met Opera: Plácido Domingo Sings Gianni Schicchi

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear a performance of Il Trittico, Puccini's trio of one-act operas consisting of Il TabarroSuor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi.  The performance was a near anniversary of sorts - it took place almost exactly 100 years after the work's world premiere at the old Met opera house on December 14, 1918 when Geraldine Farrar sang the title role in Suor Angelica and Claudia Muzio the part of Giorgetta in Il Tabarro.

Puccini was always quick to note new developments in opera.  Eighteen years before, having witnessed the success Leoncavallo and Mascagni had enjoyed with their verismo operas, Puccini had followed suit with Tosca.  But this was not enough.  Feeling his two rivals' success may also have been due in part to the brevity of their compositions, Puccini resolved to write his own set of one-act operas.  In this, he was strongly opposed by his publisher Giulio Ricordi, and it was not until after his death in 1912 that Puccini was able to move forward with his project.  Italian that he was, he first envisioned three pieces that would correspond with the three sections of Dante Alighieri's immortal poem.  In the end, however, only Gianni Schicchi had any association with the Divina Commedia and only a peripheral one at that.

The first work to be completed, with libretto by Giuseppe Adami, was  Il Tabarro.  As with Tosca, it may have been the lurid subject matter that most tempted Puccini.  As early as 1912 he had become interested in the play La houppelande by Didier Gold and had described it as "an apache piece."  Later he wrote to his long time associate Luigi Illica:
"[La houppelande is] almost - and really - Grand Guignol.  But that doesn't make any difference.  I like it, and it seems very effective to me."
When it came time to work on the next two operas, Puccini chose as his librettist Giovacchino Forzano who provided original stories for both Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.  According to the Met's program notes, it was Forzano who convinced a reluctant Puccini to take on the story of Gianni Schicchi, a character who appears very briefly in the 30th canto of the Inferno.  The composer eventually grew more enthusiastic, perhaps because the story hearkened back to his original idea of an adaptation of the Divina Commedia, and Gianni Schicchi ultimately proved to be the most popular of the three operas.

The last time I saw Il Trittico in the 1980's, Teresa Stratas sang all three leads magnificently, but at this performance they were apportioned among three different mezzo-sopranos.  Of these Kristine Opolais stood out in title role of Suor Angelica.  Her rendition of Senza mamma, bimbo, tu sei morto was flawless, and she had strong support in her part from Stephanie Blythe as the Princess.  

The real star of the show, though, was Plácido Domingo in the title role of Gianni Schicchi, another of his late baritone roles.  Seemingly ageless, he fully commanded the audience's attention during his time onstage.  After all the great dramatic roles in which he has appeared, it was fascinating to watch him here masterfully take on a comedic part.

The conducting of Bertrand de Billy was a bit better than when I saw him conduct Verdi's Luisa Miller last season but it was still far from satisfactory.

Jack O’Brien’s production was extremely handsome and well thought out, one of the best I've seen at the Met recently.  The set for Suor Angelica was especially pleasing even if the vision of the sister's dead son at the conclusion was a bit trite.  And the use of an ascending stage at the end of Gianni Schicchi worked very well.  I didn't see the point, however, in randomly updating the settings.  After all, the interior of a Catholic convent couldn't have appeared much different in 1938 than it had in 1918.  This was a minor point, though, and didn't interfere with the audience's enjoyment.  In fact, if I hadn't read the program notes I probably wouldn't even have realized that the action had been updated.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Juilliard Vocal Arts: Schumann, Debussy, Gounod and Leoncavallo

I went earlier this week to Alice Tully Hall to hear another installment in Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series.  On this occasion the vocal arts were featured with a program that included works by Schumann, Debussy, Gounod and Leoncavallo.

The recital began with five selections from Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 39 (1840) - #1, In der Fremde; #3, Waldesgespräch; #6, Schöne Fremde; #9, Wehmut; and #12, Frühlingsnacht - that set to music poems by Joseph Eichendorff.  Schumann was compulsive in his compositional habits.  He would work exclusively on a particular genre for a year or so and then move on to another when he had exhausted the first.  Accordingly, 1840, in the course of which he composed no less than 138 songs, is known as his Liederjahr with the Op. 39 one of its outstanding successes.  Nowhere is Schumann's Romanticism so openly on display as here in his adaptations of one of the nineteenth century's premiere German writers.  And of course, there was a personal side to it as well, for 1840 was the year Schumann was finally able to wed his beloved Clara.  The selections were sung by bass-baritone James Rootring who was accompanied by pianist Chris Reynolds.

Next were the three songs - La flûte de Pan, La Chevelure, and Le Tombeau des naïades - that make up Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (1897-1898).  The songs take as their source an eponymous collection of prose poems by Pierre Louÿs that constitutes one of the most infamous hoaxes in French literary history.  The poet's accomplishment was to pass off as genuine antique Greek verses, all of them with explicit lesbian themes, poetry of his own invention.  The work was of such high quality that even after Louÿs's authorship had been revealed the poems continued to be admired as masterpieces of fin de siècle French literature.  Whether or not Debussy was aware of the hoax, he treated Louÿs's poems with absolute respect and even went so far as to use modal scales to give the songs a properly antique flavor.  The vocalist on these works was mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio; Chris Reynolds was once again the accompanist.

The next set of musicians to take the stage were Dashuai Chen, tenor, and Richard Fu, pianist.  Together they performed two songs by Gounod - L'absent (1876) and Où voulez-vous aller? (1839) - followed by Leoncavallo's Mattinatta (1904).  Of the two works by Gounod, L'absent was by far the more interesting, both for its sensuous melody and for its scandalous backstory.  The composer had fled the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War by traveling to England with his wife for a lengthy sojourn.  In point of fact, Gounod's stay proved much longer than that of his wife who returned to France as soon as hostilities had ended.  The composer, meanwhile, tarried in England with a newfound mistress, one Georgina Weldon, now remembered as much for her campaign against British lunacy laws as for her love of music (she was an amateur soprano).  When Gounod finally tired of Weldon and returned to France, he found himself not only the object of his wife's wrath but ostracized by Parisian society as well.  The composer wrote the lyrics and music to L'absent in an attempt to solve both dilemmas and was remarkably successful in each instance.  

Où voulez-vous aller? was a much earlier effort by Gounod, the first of his published songs and the only one to have been composed before he won the prestigious Prix de Rome.  Based on a poem by Théophile Gautier entitled Barcarole, this is a song of seduction in the final stanza of which la jeune belle has the last word when she confounds her would-be seducer, who has tempted her with voyages to exotic lands, by telling him she wishes to travel only so far as la rive fidèle, i.e. fidelity's shore.  The poem was later set by Berlioz in an entirely different manner as the concluding song of Les nuits d’été.

In contrast to Gounod's lyrical songs, Leoncavallo's Mattinatta was conceived as a bravura showpiece for tenor Enrico Caruso to whom it was dedicated and who first recorded it.  Since then it's been part of the repertoire of every major opera tenor (almost all of whose renditions can now be heard on You Tube) and for good reason.  When sung well, it's certain to bring down the house at any performance, just as it did on Wednesday afternoon.

For completeness sake, there were also included in the program works by two other composers that I did not stay to hear.  These were, respectively, three selections from Love After 1950 by Libby Larsen followed by three selections from Hair Emergency!, described in the program notes as "A cycle of songs inspired by online reviews of hairdressers," by Richard Pearson Thomas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms

On Sunday afternoon, much. to the delight of the Upper West Side's classical music lovers, Juilliard held at Morse Hall one of its chamber music marathons, a series of recitals that stretches from noon to 9:30 p.m.  Programs are never announced beforehand and are as a result something of a grab bag.  Since I only had time to attend one performance, I chose the first and was delighted to discover the program included performances of works by three of the nineteenth century's most prominent composers - Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms

The program opened with Schumann's Bilder aus Osten ("Pictures from the East"), Op. 66 (1848), a work consisting of six impromptus for piano four hands that was here performed by Jun Hwi Cho and Zhu Wang and coached by Jerome Lowenthal.  It's of course well known that Mahler was inspired by the poetry of Friedrich Rückert, but I was surprised to learn that Schumann too had been influenced by Rückert's work, though in this case the verses were not original but rather an 1826 translation from the Arabic, entitled Die Verwandlungen von Abu Serug, of the maqāmāt of Al-Hariri of Basra. Rückert was esteemed during his lifetime as an Orientalist, but even his skills must have been taxed in preserving something of the rhymes and wordplay of the Al-Hariri's fifty poems.  What attracted Schumann to the work was the resemblance he perceived between Al-Hariri's hero Abu Seid and the fourteenth century German prankster Till Eulenspiegel.  Schumann didn't attempt to set the verses themselves to music; his impromptus are better viewed as his impressions of these verses, but they do succeed in conveying to the listener a sense of eastern music.

The next work was Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806).  After having complained just last week of my disappointment at having heard only one movement of this piece performed at another Juilliard recital, I had an opportunity on Sunday to hear the entire work. Commissioned by the Russian ambassador Count Andreas Razumovsky, not only a wealthy patron but also a talented amateur violinist who maintained his own string quartet ensemble, the three quartets were the first written by Beethoven during his middle period and marked a sharp break from the staid Haydnesque classicism of the six Op. 18 quartets even if the composer did retain the Classical four movement structure.  Even on first hearing, it's evident that Beethoven was here attempting to break new ground.  In the C major, for example, he began the first movement with a stately introduction, marked andante con moto, that bore no relation to the fast paced allegro vivace that followed.  The breadth and complexity of all three quartets was such that critics compared them to the Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, completed only two years before. Connoisseur that he was, Count Razumovsky must have been astounded when the works were presented to him.  He had exclusive rights to the pieces for a year, and they were premiered privately by his own ensemble with the redoubtable Ignaz Schuppanzigh performing on first violin.

The quartet was performed by Heewon Koo and Ann Cho, violins, Sequoya Sugiyama, viola, and Mizuki Hayakawa, cello, and was coached by Timothy Eddy.

After a ten minute intermission, the program closed with Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26 (1861).  The work was published in the same year as its companion piece, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; but Brahms, that diehard perfectionist, had actually begun work on both several years earlier and had then constantly revised each before finally submitting them for publication.  In their final form, the two quartets are a study in contrasts.  While the G minor is passionate and fiery, not least in the final movement Rondo alla Zingarese, the A major is far more genial and unhurried to the extent that it constitutes, at roughly fifty minutes in performance time, Brahms's longest piece of instrumental music.  This refusal to be rushed is nowhere so evident as in the second movement adagio, the heart of the work, that Brahms referred to as a "Night Piece" and that is in fact a nocturne subtly flavored with "gypsy" accents.  The final movement also differs from that of the Op. 25 in that it is in sonata form rather than being a true rondo.

The musicians for this final piece were Eunsae Lee, violin, Sophia Sun, viola, Thapelo Masita, cello, and Jansen Ryser, piano; their coaches were Joseph Lin and Jerome Lowenthal.

This was a highly satisfying recital.  The program was excellent and all three works very skillfully performed by talented musicians.