Turning the concert experience on its ear

Classical music programming is increasingly becoming a vibrant world of experimentation. The familiar paradigm of large Classical and Romantic works concentrated together in a comfortable succession has been shifting for some time. Many performers interject modern works between the old warhorses, illustrating the connections and similarities that unite often disparate sounding musical styles. Some go even further as last Sunday’s performers, Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly, did. Their program interlaced the movements of Bach’s partita for solo violin, No. 2, between works by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and some of Muhly’s own chamber music. The effect created a musical thread, a journey for the listener in which each piece led naturally to the next with clarity of purpose and musical vision. Kuusisto and Muhly also spun their take on two traditional Finnish folk songs, music that felt entirely at home with that of Bach, creating the sense that all music shares a fundamental commonality. This simple, humble message was left to the audience to explore in any direction their imaginations chose to take them.

Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and American composer/pianist Nico Muhly perform at The Phillips Collection on Sunday, January 5. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and American composer/pianist Nico Muhly perform at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Read Anne Midgette’s review of the concert in the Washington Post.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist

Prelude to Fame: Emanuel Ax at the Phillips, 1967

Sunday Concerts, the Phillips’s time honored music series, began in 1941. Before then music had always been a part of life at the museum, but the formal inauguration of the series aimed to bring the same level of ambition and experimentation that Duncan Phillips had for the visual arts, to music. The charge was led by the inimitable Elmira Bier, Duncan Phillips’s secretary from 1924 onwards. Phillips could scarcely have found a stronger advocate in Bier, who although not formally trained in music, schooled herself out of necessity across a broad range of artistic areas. Her lack of musical preconceptions may have been her strongest suit, as it led her to take risks, especially in her encouragement of young artists. This remains a central tenet of the concert series today as we carry the torch into the current 73rd season and beyond.

This spirit of openness and support for young artists is wonderfully encapsulated by letters of correspondence from 1967 between Bier, Polish pianist and teacher Mieczyslaw Munz, and his pupil, an eighteen-year-old Emanuel Ax. Fast forward to today and Emanuel Ax is regarded as one of the finest pianist of his generation who has collaborated with many of the major orchestras and conductors. He has won several Grammy Awards for his recordings, and along with a slew of competition wins and honorary doctorates, also teach at the Julliard School in New York.  But in 1967, he was a virtually unknown young Polish émigré studying under Munz at Julliard. Munz wrote to Elmira Bier in March 1967 suggesting that she consider Ax for a performance that season, mentioning his extraordinary qualities, and that the late Arthur Rubinstein thought highly of him. Bier wrote back:

Letter from Elmira Bier to Mieczylaw Munz, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax responded and made a recording, sending it to Elmira with a short but revealing disclaimer:

Emanuel Ax to Elmira Bier, undated. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

One can imagine Elmira and her staff huddling around an early compact cassette player listening to Ax’s DIY recording. We do not know what he recorded, but clearly it was enough to make an impression on the discerning music director, who wrote back in May of that year offering Ax a Sunday afternoon performance.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, May 18, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax wrote back soon after with his ambitious program: two Scarlatti sonatas; the Sonata, Op. 57, Appasionata, by Beethoven; two Liszt transcriptions of songs by Schubert; the Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116 by Brahms; L’isle Joyeuse by Debussy; and Chopin’s Etude, Op. 10, No. 8 and  Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. It was certainly a brave and auspicious choice of works, and shows a musical maturity that belied his young age. He was still a student cutting his teeth on the circuit when he performed at the Phillips, and it is a mystery what the audience would have thought about this young man, who in just 7 years’ time would go on to win the first ever Arthur Rubinstein competition in 1975, catapulting him to international stardom. If they were anything like Elmira Bier, they would have welcomed his ambition and passion for music-making with open arms.

There was one last piece of motherly advice that the worldly wise Elmira had for the young aspiring concert pianist, advice that we are sure did not go unnoticed.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist

From Bach to Braque

Georges Braque, Lemons and Napkin Ring, 1928. Oil and graphite on canvas, 15 3/4 x 47 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1931 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Georges Braque, Lemons and Napkin Ring, 1928. Oil and graphite on canvas, 15 3/4 x 47 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1931 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

One of the intriguing aspects of investigating an artist and their practices is delving into the context of his or her time, understanding the historical and formative moments that helped shape their aesthetic and world view.  Confronting the maelstrom of social, political, and artistic upheaval of the 20th century can be an intimidating, if elucidating, obstacle in the consideration of an artist. Painters, writers, and musicians of this period were all tackling the same aesthetic questions and quandaries of expression and the human condition. The art and music of this period are often viewed as interweaving yet divided entities. A comparative look at both almost feels too big to confront, the possibilities too vast or too vague to be meaningful. In the case of George Braque, whose works are currently on view in the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 exhibition at the Phillips, we can learn much from looking further into history too.

In works that predate this exhibition, Braque had made explicit reference to his admiration of the Baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Between 1912 and 1913 he stenciled Bach’s initials on his Homage to J.S. Bach, as well as musical forms that Bach employed, like the Aria, as in the Aria de Bach of 1913. These explicit placements of Bach’s name yield more than mere admiration of his music and art historians have found an analogue between Bach’s polyphony and counterpoint and the angles and perspectives of Braque’s cubist works. If we think about the form that is most associated with Bach, the fugue, we find a careful balance of four distinct voices woven together. In listening to his many fugues it is possible to feel a parallel with the sense of line and architecture in Braque’s painting. Yet beyond this fairly abstract comparison there are similarities in terms of form and practice between the two men. The writer and art historian responsible for much of the early scholarship on Braque, Carl Eisenstein, speaks of Braque’s meticulous and tireless pursuit of perfection in his still life variations. By limiting himself to specific forms and motifs, Eisenstein says, Braque heightens his images to new levels of technical achievement. The same sense of economy of means applies to some of Bach’s music: in choosing a single theme and subjecting it to a series of variations, he evinces the endless possibilities that can be generated from a single musical idea.

The initials that Braque stenciled into his homage, B-A-C-H, actually form a four note musical motif in German (B-flat, A, C, B-natural), which many composers have used in their music, most notably Bach himself in his Art of Fugue. From this four note musical cell Bach’s weaves a thematic tapestry of ceaseless invention, in the same way that Braque’s paintings reimagine motifs with nuanced differences and variations. Perhaps the similarities extend further: by 1940, Braque had produced 24 variations of the napkin ring motif in his still life compositions, many of which are on view in this exhibition. In musical harmony there are 24 major and minor keys, for each of which Bach produced a prelude-fugue combination in one of his most beloved and iconic works: The Well-Tempered Clavier. As a trained musician and lover of Bach’s music, Braque would have known and heard these works, and doubtless he would have appreciated them for the artistic and technical practices that formed such an integral function in his own life and career. Certainly it is true that beyond the guitars, mandolins, and instruments that appear in his still life works, Braque was a musical painter beyond the canvas.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist