It is ironic that just as the death of the distinguished Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg is announced, the media here and abroad should broadcast news of the rediscovery of Hitler’s presumed “record collection.” Der Spiegel reported that the daughter of Lev Bezymensky (1920-2007), a World War II Soviet military intelligence officer, revealed some 100 records, which her father reportedly stole from the Berlin Reich chancellery in 1945, after the Red Army invasion. Readers may remember that the same Lev Bezymensky (his name transliterated as Bezymenski) authored the 1968 book The Death of Adolf Hitler: Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives, in which Bezymensky claimed to have been present at Hitler’s autopsy. Bezymensky himself later admitted the claim was a lie. Toeing the line of the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence organization SMERSH, Bezymensky’s memoir of the autopsy was persuasively exposed as fraud in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.
By-now familiar moans about “agonizing” visa delays for foreign musicians hired to perform in the U.S. inspired the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma to testify last year on Capitol Hill. Such plaints echoed again recently when Erik Schumann, a visa-less 25-year-old German violinist, forfeited a July engagement as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its summer season at Vail, Colorado. In May, Italian pianist Cristina Barbuti could not obtain a visa in time to perform in a scheduled duo concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Last year, the Manchester, England-based Hallé Orchestra scuppered a planned 2007 U.S. tour because of the extra cost of obtaining 100 U. S. work visas for its players.
Such delays and difficulties are widely attributed to a current backlog at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some nonetheless consider the delays to be (as Ma alleged in his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform) affronts to musicians’ “dignity.” But Ma raised an interesting question: should musicians (as inherently “dignified” beings) be given instant visas regardless of current security concerns?
Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.
On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.
Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)
Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.
Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.
New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.
The much-deserved tributes to the late cellist Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich (1927–2007) stopped short of examining the future of the instrument that he loved so well. Rostropovich was so determined that the cello should flourish as a solo instrument that he commissioned (and inspired) literally hundreds of new works, many of permanent value, by major composers like Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994), Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), among many others.
The cellist who will, for good or ill, inherit Rostropovich’s public mantle is Yo-Yo Ma, a technically adroit and charming artist and a fixture in the popular imagination. A young cellist pointed out to me recently that a cello soloist is required for about 120 symphony orchestra concerts per year in America; of these, almost 100 are performed by Ma. Although Ma is a highly accomplished musician, this situation is clearly inequitable.
The cost of high culture in music has long troubled audiences. High ticket prices can discourage a much-needed spirit of adventure in concert programming by inducing managers to restrict performers to familiar, crowd-pleasing work. Music lovers sometimes feel themselves doomed to hear the same Beethoven cycles by the same arthritic pianists and string quartets, or the same Dvořák concerto by a cellist who played it better a quarter-century ago.
Happily, there is a splendid alternative awaiting anyone with a bit of time and an appetite for the unexpected: the free recitals and performances offered by students at conservatories like Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of these performers are top-level talents who, because of the vagaries of the classical music business, may disappear into a regional or foreign orchestra and rarely be heard again in solo recitals here; very few will have major recording careers. Failing to hear them now, at the peak of their training and youthful ambition, means possibly never hearing them again. So here are a choice few of these upcoming events, all free:
• On May 17 at Juilliard’s Morse Hall a concert will be given by the Manitoba-born cellist Victoria Bass, who specializes in music by modern masters such as György Ligeti and Witold Lutosławski, but also performs her own arrangements of Handel and Bach. She is a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, whose website announces that as a girl in Manitoba, Bass would “go out into the fields and tip over sleeping cows.” (Thanks to Juilliard, Bass’s concert is as free as her spirit.)
Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.
Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.
When the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently purchased The Gross Clinic (1875), Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, they had less than half the $68 million price in hand. There was apprehension over how the financially strapped institutions would raise the rest—with good reason, it now turns out. The Academy has just sold another work of Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), to a private purchaser for an undisclosed sum to help raise the rest of the purchase price. It is a striking portrait of Rudolph Henning, the cellist who introduced Dvořák to American audiences. The Academy bought the painting from Eakins in 1897, one of the few he sold in his lifetime.
The sale of items from a museum collection is called “deaccessioning,” an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.
From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.
On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder.