Thursday, March 31, 2016

Allegory on the Fate of Art, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1770)

Here is a stunning painting by an artist we have not looked at before, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796), Allegory on the Fate of Art, painted in 1770, currently in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna.

Maulbertsch was Austrian, working as both a painter and engraver.  Although he has been recognized in the Central European regions where he worked, Maulbertsch has remained outside the general canon of art history. His fame rests as one of the most famous rococo painters in and around Germany.  He was born in Langenargen, and studied in the Academy of Vienna.  His major influences were the Venetian painters Piazzetta and Giovanni Battista Pittoni (1682-1754 and 1687-1767, respectively). He also made a study of the frescoes by Sebastiano Ricci in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and frequented Giambattista Tiepolo, who was active in Würzburg starting from 1750.

Maulbertsch was especially adept at frescoes.  He painted frescoes for multiple churches in Bicske, Kalocsa, Vienna’s Michaelerkirche and Piaristenkirche Maria Treu. He also decorated the Porta Coeli in Moravia, the Kroměříž Archbishop's Palace and the villa of Halbturn.  He died in Vienna in 1796.

There is a champion book about Maulbertsch, Painterly Enlightenment, by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann.  It’s the only comprehensive overview of the artist in English, and essential reading for anyone interested in this neglected master.

What is most striking about Maulbertsch is his bold, striking use of color.  Maulbertsch was a fresco painter at a time of transition to easel painting, a colorist at a time when color was not fully appreciated by contemporary observers, and an interpreter of religious themes at a time when secular subjects were becoming more popular. It was because of these conflicting forces -- caught between the intellectual forces of the Enlightenment and the waning power of the traditional church – that Maulbertsch is perhaps historically neglected.  However, Kaufmann believes that he is one of the great painters of eighteenth-century Europe, and he may not be far wrong.

Which brings us to this work, which was Maulbertsch's reception piece in 1770 for the Engravers' Academy in Vienna, founded in 1766 by his eventual father-in-law Jacob Schmutzer (1733-1811). The Engravers' Academy would later be united with the Academy of Fine Arts in 1772, and remained an incredibly important guild until the 19th Century.  The picture is oil on wood, 105 x 72 cm, and highlights all the delirious wonder of Maulbertsch’s work. 

Like most Rococo masters, Maulbertsch’s intent was the not the meticulous life-like rendering found in Renaissance or Mannerist paintings.  The Rococo is more a study in style than anything else, and the style of this picture is infinitely more important than its substance.

The sweeping upward progression of the picture is what gives this picture is drama and emotional heft.  In the lower regions of the picture an artist, on the left, huddles bereft over the broken pieces of decorative urn he has created, to the right of the picture, bathed in a reddish light that is probably a glaze of vermillion over the body color, reaches an artist whose creation slowly floats away from him.  His creation, the woman rising upward with help of a putti, is emerging from her clothes (the art of the artist) to ascend into a nude purity on a loftier plane.

Behind that figure is yet another artist.  Note the expression of his face – loss, longing and disbelief.  He looks on as his creation, shed of her garments, join celestial figures bathed in a heavenly light.  Another work of art has been completed, only to escape the control (and ownership) of its creator.

Note the dramatic coloration of the figures and the spotlight quality of the lighting (the key figures move in-and-out of a hot white glare), and see how Maulbertsch uses these techniques to tell his story.  The broken-urn artist (beautifully drawn and painted) is in partial shadow, the white cloth by him and his leg and torso lit to move the eye upward.  Our other two artists, key to the composition but not the story, are lit in muted reds and grays.  The upper most figures enter the heavenly light of artistic excellence, spectacularly illuminating the female figure, the head and shoulders of her guiding angel and the putti hovering above.

Though certainly not to every taste, this is a spectacular picture.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

1776, Encores! at City Center

Once again, Encores! pulls a musical gem from out of the ether, this time 1776, last seen in revival in 1997 with Brent Spiner (born 1949) as John Adams.  1776 features music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards (1919-1981) and a book by Peter Stone (1930-2003). The original production opened on March 16, 1969, at the 46th Street Theatre and played for 1,217 performances, winning the Tony for Best Musical, trouncing Hair and Zorba in the process.  (Inexplicably, time has looked favorably on both Hair and Zorba, but here the Tony committee made the right decision.)

The show was invited to perform at the White House, Courtesy of then-President Richard Nixon (1913-1994).  This caused concern for some in the show, most notably Howard Da Silva (1909-1986), who played Ben Franklin.  The last time Da Silva had received an invitation from Nixon, it was to testify before 1947's House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the anti-communist purge Nixon enabled during his time in Congress. Da Silva refused to talk and was subsequently blacklisted from Hollywood for many years.  Amazingly, the show decided to play for the President, and did so uncut.

Many are familiar with the movie version, released in 1972 and retaining the entire, original Broadway cast – a rarity at the time.  The film is a record of the show as it was originally, save for the excision of a song critical of a conservative Congress, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” which was cut by Jack Warner at the request of Nixon – a cut the Broadway producers would not allow when the show played live in the White House.  The film was a commercial disappointment, but it has had a continual afterlife on television, where it plays every July 4th.

In an election year, when it seems that the nation is moving further and further away from the democratic ideals of the Founding Fathers, it’s only natural that Encores! revive the show now.  Despite that impetus, though, it is a choice more interesting than artistically sound, for no matter how much I immoderately love 1776, I must admit that it is an uneven, and ultimately unsuccessful, show.  While it has always remained a great favorite of Your Correspondent, I cannot dismiss its many flaws.

What’s good:  Peter Stone’s book, which is amusing, compelling and historically accurate.  Rather than render the Founders as a bunch of plaster saints, he creates real human beings who have their private agendas, rivalries and petty complaints.  What’s not-so-good: much of the score by Edwards.  It’s not surprising that there are no songs from the show that have emerged as standards, because none of them work outside of the context of the action of the show.  And even with that in mind, most of the songs are ponderous, heavy-handed and unsingable.  What’s bad: even a musical with indifferent songs should sing, and so much of 1776 concentrates on the book, that the distantly-placed songs often seem like an after-thought.

The original Broadway and film cast were able to surmount many of these complaints through sheer charm and magnetism.  The Encores! cast includes Santino Fontana as John Adams, John Behlmann as Thomas Jefferson, and John Larroquette as Ben Franklin, with Nikki Renée Daniels as Martha Jefferson and Christiane Noll as Abigail Adams.  With the surprising exception of Larroquette, each performer brings a great deal to the table.

We have admired Fontana in the past (notably in Cinderella and Zorba), but he is perhaps too soft and likeable a player for the obnoxious and disliked Adams; he is, however, top notch in his romantic duets with the incandescent Noll, who glistens as Abigail.

Daniels has only one number as Martha Jefferson, but she and it are spectacular.  Her voice is clear and dulcet, shimmering with a vibrancy that is palpable.  One day she will be a big star.  Behlmann, as Jefferson, is Americana personified.  Tall, lanky and impossibly handsome, Behlmann brings Gary Cooper more to mind than Jefferson, but his grace and charm radiate from the stage.

Larroquette would initially seem to be inspired casting, but his performance is disappointing.  As written, Franklin serves more as a Greek chorus to the action, making wry asides and winking at the audience.  Larroquette – under-rehearsed and under-prepared – seems so peripheral as to be absent.  Franklin has the best lines in the show, but you wouldn’t know it from Larroquette’s lazy performance.

Director Garry Hynes stages 1776 in contemporary times, and it’s not surprising that much of the cast struggled with their lines in such a book-heavy show.  But the Congressmen who do not carry their weight (how some things never change!) are more than complimented by those who shine.  Particular praise should go to Jacob Keith Watson as Robert Livingston of New York, Macintyre Dixon as the Custodian (handily stealing every scene he is in), and the fabulous Robert Sella as Secretary Charles Thomson.  Thomson is a thankless role, but Sella brings so much wry humor, understatement and weight to the part that the impression is undeniable – more of Mr. Sella, please.

Alexander Gemignani nearly stops the show with his powerful number “Molasses to Rum,” a song virtually impossible to sing, and Bryce Pinkham, as Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, shows very strong.  Ben Whiteley is the guest music director, and he acquits himself smartly.

Much like the original, Viet Nam-era production, director Hynes uses the story of the Founding Fathers to comment on contemporary, dysfunctional politics.  Where the original emphasis may have been on a Congress and American leadership disassociated from the public actually fighting the war, Hynes uses the opportunity to attack our Congress which is so mired in party politics as to be paralyzed.  The song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” has been slightly tweaked to Conservative men, and while we here at The Jade Sphinx think there is more than enough opprobrium to spread on both sides of the political divide, the choice works well. 

1776 also stars Terence Archie (Dr. Josiah Bartlett), Larry Bull (Col. Thomas McKean), André De Shields (Stephen Hopkins), John Hickok (Dr. Lyman Hall), John Hillner (Lewis Morris), Kevin Ligon (George Read), John-Michael Lyles (A Courier), Laird Mackintosh (Judge James Wilson), Michael McCormick (John Hancock), Michael Medeiros (Caesar Rodney), Wayne Pretlow (Roger Sherman), Tom Alan Robbins (Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon), Ric Stoneback (Samuel Chase), Jubilant Sykes (Richard Henry Lee), Vishal Vaidya (A Leather Apron), and Nicholas Ward (Joseph Hewes). The show will run from March 30-April 3, 2016.

Though never a perfect show, 1776 is a stunning reflection of American ideals, grounded in debate, high-minded moralism and Enlightenment era independent thinking. We could use a little more of all of that right now.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio (1602)

We are closing the week (and marking Good Friday) with this stunning picture by Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, commissioned by nobleman Ciraco Mattei in 1602, and currently found in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Caravaggio was the original ‘bad boy’ of art.  His remarkable body of work, with its heightened drama and use of differing levels of dark paint, created the bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque school of painting.

There is a compelling quality of Caravaggio’s art that makes him entirely modern.  He took his models for saints and angels from the Italian streets; he was a painter of the people, dressing the most heightened figures of religious myth in the clothes of the everyday, so that the public would recognize themselves on a spiritual plane.

His intense focus on human interaction also isolates him from his High Renaissance brethren – never one to be fussy or painterly in his effects, he shines the hot light of focus on the interplay between dramatically lit figures and ignores backgrounds.

Caravaggio studied in Milan under a master who had trained with Titian.  He moved to Rome while still a young man in his 20s and quickly set up a reputation as a painter of considerable skill.  He also established his reputation as a wild man – drinking, brawling and having a string of affairs with young boys.  He killed a man in 1606 during an argument, and fled Rome with a price on his head.  He was involved in serious fights in 1608 and 1609 (in Malta and Naples, respectively), and died at 38 from a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.  (Even then, it paid to have friends in official places.)

The stunning The Taking of Christ presents seven figures: John, Jesus, Judas, three soldiers and Peter, holding a lantern (from left to right).  We cannot fully see their bodies, but clearly Judas has just kissed Jesus as a means to betray him to the soldiers.  As with much of Caravaggio's work, the background is dark and indistinct, drawing complete attention to the human drama.  Also, the light source is unclear – it would seem to come from the upper left, though the lantern light does not seem to be significant.  St. Peter holds the lamp; he also betrayed Christ, and spent the remainder of his life repenting and spreading his gospel to the world.

Let’s contrast the two figures at opposite ends of the painting.  St. Peter, holding the lamp, is said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio.  The man running away (his cloak held by a restraining soldier) is said to be St. John.  If Peter is indeed a self-portrait of the artist, what is Caravaggio trying to tell us?  That he, a sinner (and what a sinner!), is better equipped to shed light on the divine than a saint?  That his clear vision is aligned with that of God Himself?

Equally striking is the stark, white light on the foreheads of Christ, Judas and Peter.   There are two lines on Christ’s brow, but the forehead of Judas is a network of lines.  Peter, in contrast, is nearly clear-browed.  Even in these little details, Caravaggio speaks to us from across the centuries.  The lines on Christ’s head clearly indicate suffering, or, perhaps, the full realization of the suffering to come.  The clear-head of St. Peter is clearly the clear-head of the artist; he sees and records, but does not necessarily judge.

But Judas – his forehead is a complex pattern of lines, befitting one of the most complex figures in New Testament mythology.  Judas is key to the story of Christ, because without the him, there is no crucifixion, and no resurrection.  There is an argument to be made that Judas was the most courageous of all the apostles, for he willingly took on the role of betrayer to ensure the death and resurrection of Christ, making the entire Christian tradition possible.  If that is the case, then Judas is indeed the most misunderstood figure in the Christian mythos.

Even more interesting, look at the hands in this picture.  The soldier restraining Christ wears a gauntlet and is invisible; the hands of the solider holding St. John’s cloak are in shadow (probably by Caravaggio using a glaze of burnt umber or some other transparent brown paint) – so we can eliminate those hands.  But, look at the hands of St. Peter, St. John, Judas and Christ.  Compositionally, good pictures ‘read,’ drawing the eye in a consistent pattern.  We follow Peter’s hand to John’s, down to the hand of Judas, and finally to those of Christ.  According to myth, Christ was praying when identified by Judas, and his clasped hands look as if they are already under police restraint.  Not only do these hands help the ‘flow’ of the viewer’s eye, but notice that the hands of Peter, John and Judas indicate one direction, while those of Christ indicate another.  This going against the tidal flow of humanity also helps underscore the look on pain on the face of Jesus.

Finally, let’s look at the dramatic, white-hot reflection off of the soldier’s armor that runs through the center of the picture.  The face of that solider is undefined in the picture, but the reflected bar of light is fully depicted.  There are some scholars who believe that Caravaggio’s intention is to replicate a mirror, and that those gazing at the solider should feel as if they are gazing into a mirror, seeing their own faces.  It is a compelling argument, as the biggest patch of reflection is dead-center in the picture.

Whatever the interpretation, though, this is a stunning picture rewarding prolonged examination.  There is something mysterious, uncanny even, in Caravaggio’s best work, and this picture is no exception.  I don’t think I have fully exhausted everything it has to say.

(More on Caravaggio’s works can be found on this blog on links to the right.)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann (2009)

There are poorly written books, and then there is The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann (born 1978).

We have admitted in the past our admiration for well-written science fiction.  (Apologia coming.)  Many of the finest adventure novels of the past hundred or so years fall into that category of fiction, and there are several important contemporary novels that inhabit the genre as well -- consider Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, for example. The science fiction genre is plagued by myriad problems, including a rabid and largely unintelligent fan-base, a surfeit of series novels and/or novelized movies and television shows, and an uneasy alliance with comic books.  Add to that list of ills a slew of subgenres within science fiction that do little to help elevate the field to literature, and you have a pretty mess.

One of these subgenres is steampunk, which is one of those concepts that sound delicious on paper, but always fall flat in execution.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is the reimagining of a historical period (almost always the Victorian era), altered by a different strain of scientific progress.  In steampunk it’s not impossible to find steam powered robots attending the Queen, for instance, or airships robbed by the James gang.  The major problem with the subgenre is that it is almost always … silly.  More damning, steampunk seems to always be written by people who learned all they know about the Victorian era or European history from comic books, bad television shows, or other, silly steampunk novels.  Those who are familiar with an actual historical era are more than happy to swallow any number of 007-type gadgets if the small historical details are observed.  Otherwise, the whole subgenre is just thrillers in bad fancy dress.

Which brings us to The Affinity Bridge.  In Mann’s novel, consulting detectives Newbury (interested in the occult, takes drugs, ripped off from Sherlock Homes) and his sidekick, Hobbes (Mrs. Emma Peel in a bustle) investigate a crashed airship, a series of ghost-policemen murders, and a plague of zombies.  (Yes, you read that right.)  Now, there is nothing at all wrong with puffery like this … when it’s well written.  When it’s poorly written, the results are excruciating.

Mann’s grip of both dialog and prose is loose at best.  Characters speak in the most stilted manner imaginable (thank heavens for ‘he said/she said,” or we would never know who is speaking), and the prose has a studied artificiality, as if that is somehow “Victorian.”  One wonders if Mann has actually read the great popular writers of the era, who are as fresh and exciting today as they were in fin de siècle Britain.  There is nothing in the prose of such writers as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or H. Rider Haggard that does not read easy and contemporary – creating layers of faux artifice is not “Victorian,” it’s simply bad writing.

This bad faux Victoriana is largely the fault of comic book scribe Alan Moore (born 1953), whose stories about The League of Extraordinary Gentleman read more like parody of bad Victorian women’s books rather than a pastiche of more accomplished thrillers.  Steampunk has followed Moore's lead with dire results.  He has much to answer for.

Opening the book at random, here is Mann at his ham-fisted best:

Newbury glanced at Veronica, a sardonic expression on his face, and then turned his attention to Inspector Foulkes.  “Do you know if Sir Charles will be attending the scene?”

“Not initially, sir.  He has ceded responsibility for the case to me for the time being.  He’s still caught up in this damnable Whitechapel situation.  They found another body this morning.”

“Indeed.  Miss Hobbes and I were present at the scene.”  He glanced back at Stokes, who was attempting to clean the dirt from his shoes by rubbing them on the grass.  “Do you know how long it’s been since the vessel came down?”

The other man didn’t look up from his ministrations.  “Witnesses are reporting seeing the vessel come down between ten and ten thirty this morning.”  He emitted a tutting sound as he continued to rub the side of his shoe on the wet grass, to no avail.

Newbury flushed red.  “Damn it, man!  Fifty people are dead!  Show some decency, and pay attention to the issue at hand.”

All of the pointless stage-managing goes on for page after page (including a servant who is sitting in his master’s home – harder to believe than zombies! – with his hands behind his back; try that at home), and none of it ever crackles.  From an eighth grader with literary aspirations, it would be promising.  From a published author, it’s simply sad.

Here is the truly amazing thing about it all – Mann worked as an editor for Outland Magazine.  Yes, a man who writes likes this edited the work of other people for a living … A development more astounding than anything to be found in The Affinity Bridge.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Finding a Voice: the Evolution of the American Sound, Walden Chamber Players (2016)

We have written before of the Walden Chamber Players, the Boston-based chamber group that has been garnering so much attention of late in the musical press.  The Players were founded in 1997, and it is composed of 12 artists in various combinations of string, piano and wind ensembles.  This provides great versatility in both approach and musical genre, and the Players happily mix both classical and contemporary composers.  The Players are currently under the artistic direction of Ashima Scripp

The Walden Chamber Players have just released a new CD, Finding a Voice: the Evolution of the American Sound, and it is an important event for enthusiasts of American music.  It brings together composers as disparate as Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Marion Bauer (1882-1955), and encompasses many musical moods and approaches.  It is essential listening for any serious student of American classical music.

Bauer is represented with a spirited performance of the Trio Sonata No. 1, Op. 40.  Copland is in evidence with his thrilling Threnody 1: In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky, and also with Threnody 2: In Memoriam Beatrice Cunningham.  These are simply the best recordings of the Copland pieces I have ever heard, clear and emotionally exacting in their clarity and color.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is on hand with the Serenade for Flute and Violin.  This is beautifully rendered by the Players, as are two pieces by composer Ned Rorem (born 1923), the Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1960), and the absolutely unique The Unquestioned Answer (2002).  We at The Jade Sphinx played The Unquestioned Answer several times in order to fully appreciate Rorem’s musical argument, and came away delighted with the dynamic playing that made it so come to life.

Also on hand are Canzone for Flute and Piano, by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Sonata for Flute and Piano, by Paul Bowles (1910-1999).  In short, this recording creates a generous mix of musical moods and types of composition, and all of them are fully realized by the Walden Chamber Players.

For this recording, the players included Marianne Gedigian (flute), Curtis Macomber (violin), Tatiana Dimitriades (violin), Christof Huebner (viola), Ashima Scripp (cello), and Jonathan Bass, (piano).  It was recorded in the Players own backyard, at the WGBH studios in Boston, and Huebner and Bass also served as producers.  You can find it on

This wonderful recording gives lie to several misconceptions about classical music currently in favor.  To those who think that there are no younger people in the field of note, I refer them to the Walden Chamber Players.  To those who think America has no significant classical music tradition, I refer them to this champion album.  And to those who think that serious music is no longer relevant, I argue that the success of groups like the Players are a stunning refutation of that notion.  As more and more people hunger for substantive music, for works that challenge the mind and the heart, groups like The Walden Chamber Players will become increasingly important.  And for those who want to hear music infrequently played by their classical music radio station, look no farther than Finding a Voice: the Evolution of the American Sound.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar Warehouse, Broadcast by National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live screenings have brought several treasures from the UK to American shores though splendid high definition screenings available around the country.  We have seen several excellent productions through this series, so it was with considerable anticipation that we attended a screening of the new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses on March 6th.  Sadly, we might have found more drama (and comedy) in the Democratic debates also televised that evening.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is playwright Christopher Hampton’s (born 1946) adaptation of the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803).  The play caused a furor upon its original West End and Broadway debuts, spawning two film versions and several revivals. This production was staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s Covent Garden.  It is the home of edgy re-imaginings of Shakespeare and other classics, as well producing newer plays.  Artistic Director Josie Rourke (born 1976) directed this production, and she must take the blame for much of its ultimate failure.

To be sure, this is not a play for the faint hearted.  In it, aristocratic schemers and libertines La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont plot to bring romantic and social ruin on various rivals, ostensibly for revenge for various slights, but also through sheer love of intrigue and villainy.  Valmont seduces young girl Cecile Volanges, while de Merteuil seduces the young girl’s admirer, Le Chevalier Danceny. 

All of this is something of side dish to the main seduction, Valmont’s bedding of Madame de Tourvel, a staunchly religious and happily married woman whose very existence is an affront to de Merteuil and Valmont.  In short, it is a play of Iagos and their victims, and things end poorly for everyone involved.

The problems with the production are many.  Initially, reading about such callous and cynical seductions are one thing in an epistolary novel and quite another watching the near-rape of a 15 year old by our ostensible hero.  In addition, since our cast is made up of wolves or sheep, it is nearly impossible to find a point-of-view character with which to relate.

The performances are uniformly dire.  As de Merteuil, Janet McTeer (born 1961) has all the subtly of Carol Burnett channeling Norma Desmond.  (In fact, that would’ve been an improvement.)  With her throaty delivery, sucked-in cheeks and silent screen vamping, McTeer is more risible than menacing.  Worse still is Dominic West (1969) as Valmont.  Here is a role that requires a silken touch; a gentleman as well as a scoundrel.  Valmont must be our idealized darker images of ourselves – the devil we want to be.  West plays the role like a bouncer in a Manchester gay bar.  It is drearily ill-conceived.

As de Tourvel, Elaine Cassidy is quite sweaty, seeping through a series of gauzy pink dresses.  Fortunately for Edward Holcroft, he makes little impression as Danceny and will emerge unscathed; the one break-out performance is Morfydd Clark as Cecile, who manages to be touching and engaging.

Adjoa Andoh, as Madame de Volanges, has the most curious speech impediment, rendering most of her line readings as something out of Elmer Fudd.  One wonders what she is doing there.  Ditto Jennifer Saayeng, who seems to rest her entire performance on the size of her ample bosom and derriere.

Ultimate responsibility, again, rests with director Rourke, who clearly had no idea of what she wanted or how to get it.  Interviewed during intermission, Rourke continually used the word ‘riff,’ saying that the stage set was a riff on the space at the Donmar (‘it’s like a warehouse, then it’s like a loft, and then, we riff on it’s being like a gallery….”), and that the performances were a riff on current sexual politics, and that … well, you get the idea.  Everything was a riff on something, but the foundations underlying these riffs seemed nonexistent.

There is a wonderfully nasty piece of work at the bottom of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but this curiously flaccid production can’t seem to lift it up.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ray Chen and Zhang Zuo at People’s Symphony Concerts

This weekend, Your Correspondent dutifully went to Town Hall in New York for another in what has proven to be a stellar season of People’s Symphony Concerts.  Originally scheduled was violinist Augustin Hadelich (born 1984), whom we have covered previously in these pages.  Hadelich is one of the up-and-coming stars of the classical music world, and we were initially disappointed when we learned a scheduling conflict prevented his appearance.

However, we were more than delighted when the incomparable violinist Ray Chen (born 1989) took his place, with pianist Zhang Zuo (born 1988) accompanying him.  The result was magic – one of the finest concerts we have seen in some time.  It is rare that the seen-it-all crowd at PSC applauds between movements, but the demonstrative audience this past Sunday could not contain itself.  Chen played with such charm and insouciance, and his bowmanship was so exciting and sure-handed, that anything short of adulation would be unworthy.

The concert opened with the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 12, No. 1 by Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).  The playing was robust and passionate, and the sound of Chen’s violin – he was playing the 1715 Joachim Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation – has a clarity that was uncanny. 

Both players were transcendent in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75 by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921).  The interval between movements was interrupted by unprecedented applause and, I’m sure if roses were on hand, they would’ve been happily tossed at the players.  The first act ended with the crowd on its feet and waiting for more.

Following the intermission, Chen and Zuo (nick-named “Zee Zee”) played a medley of songs by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946).  Though sprightly and fun, they were a step down in complexity and interest from Beethoven and Saint-Saens.  The duo returned to Saint-Saens for the Havanaise in E Major, Op. 83, which had a delicious Cuban feel.  The concert ended with Tzigane by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), which had a wonderful, Romanie feel. 

The audience would not let them leave without an encore, and Chen and Zuo served up a wrenchingly beautiful Thais by Massenet

Zuo has recently been chosen to join the BBC’s flagship Young Artist program in the UK for the next two seasons.  She has played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Orchestra of Belgium.  Dressed in a stunning evening gown of fuchsia, Zuo is a striking presence and gifted accompanist.

The performance, though, rested confidently in the assured palm of violinist Ray Chen.  Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, Chen was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music at age 15,  where he studied with Aaron Rosand and was supported by Young Concerts Artists.  An emerging social media star, Chen is the first-ever classical musician to be invited to write a regular blog about his life as a touring soloist for the largest Italian publishing house, RCS Rizzoli.  He cut a striking figure in a sheer dark suit with cream-colored lining, so it's no surprise that he is supported by Giorgio Armani and was recently featured in Vogue.  More, please.

One parting word about People’s Symphony.  There are still some tickets let for their three, concurrent series, but numbers are limited.  PSC has also created unlimited student passes, where full-time students age 35 or younger can enjoy unlimited access to all remaining concerts for one flat fee of $25.

PSC remains the best deal for New Yorkers passionate about music that I have ever come across, and subscriptions will not be regretted.  The can be found at: