Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Orchestra Now Performs Lyadov, Stravinsky, Ravel and Mussorgsky

On Sunday afternoon I went to Symphony Space on upper Broadway to hear the Orchestra Now, led by its resident conductor Zachary Schwartzman, perform a program of works that all had some relationship, no matter how tenuous, to the Ballets Russes

The concert opened with Anatoly Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 (1909).  Oddly enough, Lyadov is most famous for what he did not compose.  Based on the testimony of his colleagues, he had to have been the laziest and least productive of all the major Russian composers; eventually he became something of a legend for his inability to see through to completion the majority of the musical projects on which he had embarked.  The most famous example, of course, was his fiasco with the Ballets Russes.  Commissioned by Diaghilev to write the original score for The Firebird, Lyadov so endlessly procrastinated that finally Diaghilev, in exasperation, fired him and handed the commission to Stravinsky for whom it proved a breakthrough success.  Though there's no evidence Lyadov ever actually accepted Diaghilev's commission, the story well illustrates the composer's character.  He never managed to complete a full length work (the present piece is only about 7 minutes long) and his complete oeuvre is astonishingly limited.  As for The Enchanted Lake itself, it is an abbreviated tone poem, described by the composer as a "fairy tale scene," that is almost somnolent in character.  That's not to suggest, however, that it's at all unpleasant to hear.  Actually, its gentleness and hushed sense of unreality place it firmly in the tradition of Russian Romanticism.

The next work was a suite taken from Stravinsky's Firebird itself.  As mentioned above, the ballet was 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 become much more apparent in the works immediately following it.

The suite chosen for performance, the 1945, was the last of the three the composer extracted from his ballet.  Of them all, I much prefer the first, the 1910, which is the most faithful to its source. In contrast, the 1945 suite contains orchestral revisions that alter the character of the piece.  To my mind, however, none of the three really does justice to the original work from which they are drawn.

After intermission, the program continued with Ravel's La valse (1919-1920).  Though the piece was originally conceived as a tribute to Johann Strauss and the gaiety of pre-war Vienna, it took on another meaning - no matter how vehemently Ravel may have denied it - when the work finally came to be written in 1919 at a time when Europe was still reeling from the cataclysmic effects of four years of war.  The halcyon days of the Belle Époque that had initially inspired the work seemed impossibly distant from this new vantage point and were looked back upon not so much with nostalgia as with a sense that they had all along been unreal, a veneer thinly covering the strife and discontent that were eventually to rise to the surface and plunge the continent into four years of madness.  Though the piece, which in actuality contains a series of waltzes, begins pleasantly enough, a sense of something not quite right soon makes itself felt, and the work ends with a death-like coda that sounds as if a music box had burst a spring and ended on a false note.  Nevertheless, Ravel himself described the piece as follows:
"Flashes of lightning in turbulent clouds reveal a couple waltzing.  One by one the clouds vanish; a huge ballroom filled by a circling mass is revealed.  The scene gradually becomes illuminated.  The light of chandeliers bursts forth.  An imperial court about 1855."
It was La Valse that ended Ravel's association with the Ballets Russes.  Although Diaghiliev admitted the work was a masterpiece, he then went on to claim that it was not a ballet but "a portrait of ballet."  Ravel was understandably insulted and broke off all contact with the impresario.  So upset was the composer that when he met Diaghilev again years later he wouldn't even shake his hand, an act that led the latter to challenge him to a duel.  One can't blame Ravel for his indignation.  This was one of his finest creations and even today one of his most popular works.

The concert ended with a performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb 1922 orchestration (that performed at this concert), but Mussorgsky originally composed it as a virtuoso piano piece.  As such, it was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and the other composers who made up "the Five," Hartmann had been an strong advocate of promoting nationalist themes in Russian art and this had formed the basis of the pair's close friendship.  Upon Hartmann's death, an exhibit of his artwork was staged in Saint Petersburg as a memorial to him.  It was while viewing the exhibit that Mussorgsky hit upon the concept of a musical representation of a viewer passing through the exhibit and pausing to look at one Hartmann picture after another.  Ironically, most of the original artwork has since been lost and it is only through Mussorgsky's music that these paintings now exist.  The music itself is much more powerful in the original piano version; it has a rawness and a hard edge that has been subsumed in Ravel's elegant transcription.

The Orchestra Now is a "training orchestra" made up of graduate students working toward an advanced degree at Bard College. The group was founded by Bard President Leon Botstein who is also Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Juilliard Wind Orchestra Performs Raff and Schoenberg

This week's entry in Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series was a one-hour concert given by the school's Wind Orchestra.  It was an interesting program that featured symphonic works for chamber orchestra by two strkingly different German composers - Joachim Raff and Arnold Schoenberg.

The concert opened with Raff's Sinfonietta in F major, Op. 188 (1873), scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns.  As a composer, Raff is a perfect example of how capriciously tastes change.  Promoted by Mendelssohn, praised by Schumann, and befriended by von Bulow, Raff was by the time of his death in 1882 one of Germany's best known composers.  In contrast, he has today been almost entirely forgotten.  Judging at least by the present piece, that present lack of recognition is unjust.  The four-movement Sinfonietta is, despite its spare instrumentation, a full fledged symphony requiring the direction of a conductor.  Lasting roughly twenty minutes, the Sinfonietta is most often, particularly in the brief final movement, very lively and spritely; even the third movement larghetto in C major does not have the extremely slow tempo one would expect from such a marking but was instead more reminiscent of a Mozartian andante.

The next and final work was Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9 (1906), for which the winds were joined onstage by a string quartet and double bass.  It's impossible to mention this piece without noting that it was made forever famous by the riot that broke out when it was conducted by the composer at the 1913 Skandalkonzert held in Vienna's venerable Musikverein.  Whether or not the melee was as intense as shown in the above newspaper illustration from the April 6, 1913 edition of Die Zeit, the commotion certainly indicated well enough the difficulties faced by the Second Viennese School in having its music accepted by the city's conservative audiences.  (Apparently, this particular audience was even more incensed by Alban Berg's Orchestral Songs than it was by Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie.)

The Chamber Symphony, a single movement work divided into five sections, was composed before Schoenberg had fully developed his twelve-tone system; but the work nevertheless marked an important step forward in the evolution of his music as it made use of both quartal harmony and the technique of developing variation.

This was an excellent concert that allowed me to hear fine renditions of two infrequently performed pieces, here expertly conducted by Juilliard faculty member Alan Kay.  The performance of the Kammersymphonie, in particular, was better than that which I would have expected of a far more experienced professional ensemble.  Thankfully, Wednesday's audience was much more appreciative of the high level of musicianship than that which attended the infamous Skandalkonzert.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Juilliard Chamber Music: Schubert

Earlier this week, I attended a chamber music recital, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, at Alice Tully Hall.  The program featured only one work, but what a work!  Schubert's  String Quintet in C major, D. 956 (1828) was one of the last pieces the composer completed before his untimely death at age 31; it is considered not only his finest chamber composition but one of the great masterpieces of the entire chamber repertoire.

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

Having said all the above, however, there's no denying the pathos that pervades virtually ever bar of the Quintet. Working on it even as he lay on his deathbed, Schubert must have known that this was his valediction, his final opportunity to establish himself as a major composer and Beethoven's heir. He poured into it all the heartbroken genius of a virtuoso artist destined to perish before he had entirely fulfilled his promise. The work stands not so much as the capstone of a brilliant career as an intimation of what might have been achieved if Schubert had lived only a few years longer. As it was, the Quintet lay forgotten for a full quarter century after the composer's death and was only published in 1853.

The Quintet was masterfully performed by Harriet Langley and Amelia Dietrich, violins, Emily Liu, viola, and Matthew Chen, cello. Faculty member Natasha Brofsky, who coached the performance, played the second cello part.

The same musicians who performed on Wednesday afternoon can also be heard playing the Quintet's first movement on an archived recital originally broadcast live from the Greene Space on WQXR as part of the station's Midday Masterpieces series. The remainder of that program is also well worth hearing as it features Mozart's String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat major, K. 614 (with faculty member Joseph Lin taking the second viola part) and Haydn's String Quartet in G major, Op. 76, No. 1.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Met Opera: Anna Netrebko Sings Adriana Lecouvreur

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera for the second time this month, on this occasion to  see the new production of the rarely performed Adriana Lecouvreur, an early twentieth century work by Francesco Cilea.  This was actually the first time I'd seen the opera in all the years I've been going to the Met and I found myself looking forward to the performance with great curiosity, even if more for the cast and production than for the music itself.

Cilea was one of those Italian composers, like Leoncavallo and Mascagni, who appeared at the very end of opera's heyday and who was doomed to be remembered for one work only.  The world was changing rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century and opera was no longer the vital cultural force it had once been.  The outbreak of World War I little more than a decade later would further erode opera's influence and sharply decrease the public's appetite for new works.  After 1900, the only major opera composer still active was Puccini.  Others, such as Riccardo Zandonai, composer of Francesca da Rimini, who might have picked up Puccini's mantle found the times suddenly inappropriate and their careers cut short.  Cilea, who lived to the ripe old age of 84 before dying in 1950, gave up opera entirely after 1906 and devoted the remainder of his life to musical education, first as director of the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini and then the Conservatorio San Pietro.

None of this could have been apparent to Cilea in 1902 when Adriana premiered at the Teatro Lirico in Milan.  With a libretto by Arturo Colautti that was based on an 1849 play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, Cilea must have congratulated himself on having found the perfect subject.  (In fact, three other operas, all of them based on the same play, had already been attempted.)  The real life Adrienne Lecouvreur was so a fascinating a figure that embellishment was largely unnecessary.  A spirited, free thinking French actress of the eighteenth century, she could well serve as a model for today's independent woman.  Her life largely paralleled that of her fictional counterpart even down to her death at the hands of a jealous rival.  Far less mannered in her acting style than her contemporaries, she starred in legendary works by Molière, Corneille and Racine and brought to them a new vitality.  Nevertheless, she still fit perfectly the part of the tragic operatic heroine who dies for love.

Cilea may not have been a truly great composer, but he certainly knew how to provide singers with wonderful material on which to exercise their voices.  Indeed, it is primarily these opportunites for vocal pyrotechnics as well as its highly dramatic plot that have allowed Adriana to keep its place in the repertoire.  With the excellent cast on hand Saturday afternoon, the sold out audience was treated to a wealth of riches.

Immediately upon appearing onstage, soprano Anna Netrebko seized the title role with a stunning rendition of Io son l'umile ancella that drew a huge round of applause.  That was only the beginning.  Throughout the performance she held the audience enraptured not only with her singing but also with her fine acting both in the dramatic recitation from Racine's Phèdre at the end of Act III and in the final death scene in Act IV.  She was well accompanied by tenor Piotr Beczała as Maurizio, the role originally performed by Enrico Caruso when the opera premiered at the Met in 1907.  Beczała handled masterfully the Act I aria La dolcissima effigie sorridente and then the duet between his character and Adriana that showed genuine chemistry between the two leads.  Another Met star, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, was thoroughly convincing as the villainous Princess of Bouillon, most notably in Act II when signs of the jealousy between the two women first appear.

Gianandrea Noseda is one of the better conductors on the Met's current roster.  In addition to hearing his work at the Met, I've also seen him conduct Verdi's Requiem at the Lincoln Center's Great Performers series and Mahler No. 5 with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  At this performance he did justice to the work's verismo style without ever getting in the way of the singers. 

Sir David McVicar appears to be the Met's preferred producer these days, and it's an excellent choice.  His productions are not only lavish but intelligently directed as well.  He did his customary fine job with Adriana whose period sets were designed by Charles Edwards.  The excellent production that premiered in 2010 at London's Royal Opera House before traveling to Vienna and from there to the Met had a great part in making this performance such a resounding success.  The only weak point was Andrew Georges's uninspired choreography that seemed to go on forever in Act III.  Other than that, Adriana Lecouvreur turned out to be for me one of the highlights of the season.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Met Opera: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Otello

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Otello, the first time I'd seen this masterpiece since 2015 when the current Bartlett Sher production premiered.  I've always considered this late work to have been Verdi's finest achievement and, along with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the greatest of all nineteenth century operas.  With a libretto written by Arrigo Boito, himself a major Italian composer, it has so much power and freshness that it seems more the work of a artist still in his twenties than that of a revered idol already in his seventies.

That Otello was composed at all was a huge accomplishment considering Verdi's state of mind.  After having completed Aida in 1871 and the Requiem in 1874, he had decided to retire from any further musical composition.  Much of this had to do with the state of Italian music in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Though it is difficult to believe now, considering how venerated a figure in opera history Verdi has become, he and his work were actually quite controversial in Italy in the late 1800's, a situation referenced by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz in her biography of Puccini.  At the time, Verdi was seen as the leader of the "old guard" who stood in the way of progress.  A group of progressive artists, known as the scapigliati, sought to modernize Italian music by incorporating into it current trends from France and Germany and while so doing railed against the traditionalism represented by Verdi.  Ironically, it was Verdi's future librettist Boito who took the lead in this movement.  As Phillips-Patz writes:
"In 1863, though, Boito ripped a large hole in the fabric of Italian culture by insulting Manzoni and Verdi, Italy's revered 'Old Men.'  He delivered his outrageous slap at them during a banquet organized to honor Faccio and his new opera, I Profughi Fiamminghi, for which Ghislanzoni was the librettist.  Near the end of the evening Boito read a long ode to the health of Italian art.  In it he railed against the older generation and added an offensive line that Verdi never forgot.  The old men were, Boito said, 'scrofulous' and 'idiotic,' and they had left 'the altar of Italian art soiled like a whorehouse wall.'  Not surprisingly, after this event Verdi cut Boito out of his life for about twenty years."
Verdi, for his part, resented what he saw as the newcomers' lack of patriotism.  It was at least partially his disgust with the incessant bickering that determined him to give up writing music.  In any event, he had already composed so many timeless classics that he had nothing left to prove.  His reputation as the greatest Italian composer was secure.

It was only through the combined efforts of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, horrified at the thought of the money his firm that would lose if Verdi were to retire, and a repentant Boito, his arrogance curbed by the failure of Mefistofele, that the composer was convinced to set to work once again.  The enticement was the possibility of staging an opera based on a Shakespearean tragedy.  Verdi had always been a fervent admirer of the English playwright, though his earlier adaptation of Macbeth had not been a resounding success, and could not refuse the bait.  Not only did he compose Otello but afterwards returned once again to his Shakespearean sources when in 1893 he completed his final opera Falstaff.

As far as the cast was concerned, Stuart Skelton was a resounding success in the title role, though his performance still fell a bit short of those given by Plácido Domingo in the 1980's when the great tenor electrified audiences with his portrayal of the tragic Moor.

There were also two familiar faces from the 2015 performance I had previously attended - soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the role of Desdemona and baritone Željko Lučić as Iago.  When I posted on their 2015 performances I wrote as follows:
"Sonya Yoncheva was a big surprise as Desdemona.  I don't remember ever having heard her before, but she was magnificent here and I'll look forward to any future engagements in which she may appear.  Željko Lučić had the pivotal role of Iago.  The part requires not only great singing and acting but psychological insight as well.  The singer must be able to penetrate the depths of Iago's dark mind in order to make the character convincing to the audience.  Lučić managed to do this extraordinarily well.  He not only did full justice to the singing but also made Iago a totally believable presence rather than a merely two dimensional villain."
The real star of the afternoon, however, was conductor Gustavo Dudamel making his Met debut on the podium with these performances.  While attention is most commonly paid to singers, one cannot really appreciate how exciting an opera can be until one hears it interpreted by a truly great conductor.  Here Dudamel fully brought out the intense drama at the heart of Verdi's music.  The storm that opens Act I is a metaphor for that which rages in Otello's mind in the later acts, but the motif must be carefully developed throughout if it is to be brought home to the audience.  Dudamel accomplished this perfectly.  His success only empahasized more clearly the Met's greatest problem at present - the lack of skilled conductors at most productions.  

As I mentioned when I last saw this production, the sliding glass partitions reminded me of nothing so much as the chic facades that pop up one after the other on Columbus Avenue storefronts.  Also, I didn't find the images of waves shown on the projection screens to be particularly imaginative,  (At times, they reminded me more of drifting layers of cigarette smoke.)  Nevertheless, as long as nothing got in the way of the singers or the action there was no reason to complain, most especially as the current production was the first in Met history to abandon the odious use of "black face" in Otello's makeup.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Met Museum: Edo Paintings from the Fishbein-Bender Collection

The subtitle shown above from the current exhibit at the Met, The Poetry of Nature, is a bit misleading in that not all the works shown are from the Edo period and not all are paintings.  Nor, for that matter, are they all taken from the Fishbein-Bender Collection, magnificent as it is.  But this is only a small quibble.  The exhibit succeeds brilliantly in transporting the viewer to Japan at the time of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) whose sense of aesthetics was so vastly different from our own that it might as well have belonged to another world.

The large exhibit, which stretches through several galleries in the museum's Asian wing, contains too many items to properly discuss in so short a space; I'll limit myself to those that were of the greatest personal interest.

First, there are a large number of representations of Shinto and Buddhist iconography on view, many of these pieces pre-dating the Edo period by centuries.  Among them are two likenesses of Kannon Bodhisattva - Willow Kannon (hanging scroll, c. 1810) by Sakai Hōitsu and an anonymous lacquered wood sculpture from the 17th or 18th century - that suggest the profound influence of Mahayana Buddhism on the Japanese people.  These formal representations stand in marked contrast to a deliberately informal depiction of the Buddhist monks Kanzan and Jittoku (hanging scroll, late 18th century) by Itō Jakuchū, Hotei Pointing at the Moon (hanging scroll, c. 1650) and a portrait of Daruma (hanging scroll, early 17th century), both by Fūgai Ekun.

As the exhibit's title would indicate, most of the works on display are given over to depicting scenes of nature.  Of these there are two that that are especially noteworthy.  The first is an extremely simple, even austere, image -  Winter Scene with Ducks and Pine Trees (hanging scroll, late 1790's) by Matsumura Goshun - but I know of few other works that evoke so well the bleak emptiness of the winter landscape.  The other is Lions at the Stone Bridge of Mount Tiantai (hanging scroll, 1779) by Soga Shōhaku.  The scene of a mother lion tossing her cubs from the top of the mountain into a deep chasm may have been intended as an analogy of the Buddhist master who similarly shocks his students into sudden enlightenment (satori), but whatever its inner meaning the image is filled with dramatic tension set against the mountain's natural majesty. 

The Edo period was renowned for its elegant portrayals of women.  Something of their graceful manner can even be detected in the Willow Kannon mentioned above, but it is far more apparent in the hanging scrolls of Sakai Hōitsu and Hishikawa Moronobu and in the ukiyo-e prints of Chōbunsai Eishi and Ichirakutei Eisui.  The languid poses of these courtesans are in startling contrast to the ferocious vigor of the lengendary goddess Jingū in two hanging scrolls from the mid-19th century, one by Kōsai Hokushin and the other from the studio of the legendary ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai.

The two most dramatic works at the exhibit are not from the Edo period, but the Meiji.  These are The Fury of Monk Raigō (hanging scroll, 1900) by Kobayashi Kiyochika that depicts the monk raging against the Emporer Shirakawa over a perceived slight, and Fudō Myōō Threatening a Novice (polychrome woodblock print, 1885) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, whom I've always considered the greatest of all ukiyo-e artists, that depicts the Buddhist deity, one of the Five Wisdom Kings, attempting to force a novice to swallow a sword as a means of attaining enlightenment.  Although these works portray mythical rather than historical scenes, I don't think it's accidental that they both contain extremely violent imagery.  Instead, it could be argued that they reflect the turmoil Japan underwent in the Meiji era when centuries old tradition was cast aside in favor of a disastrous process of Westernization.

There are two other works from later periods, the Shōwa and Heisei respectively, that demonstrate strikingly the continuation of Edo period traditions in the work of contemporary Japanese artists.  These are Kegon Waterfall (lithograph from a gelatin silver print in the form of a hanging scroll, 1976) by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Shrine of the Water God (six-panel folding screen, 2015) by Hiroshi Senju.  Not only are both these works masterful in technique but they also display the same love of nature that has characterized Japanese art throughout its history.

The exhibit continues through January 21, 2019.