As I return to the Bard Music Festival year after year, I notice that the spaces of Olin Hall and the Fisher Center, become more crowded and sold-out notices appear ever more frequently. I also notice that I’ve seen a good many of the attendees before. There is certainly a minority who are passionately interested in one composer or his historical and cultural context and not in the others, but I am confident in saying that the core of the Bard audience consists of recidivists. Lately the choice of focal composers has shifted from the undisputed pantheon to composers who are interesting because of their cultural position in their own time. Saint-Saëns, Chávez, and Rimsky Korsakov fall into this category. The audience keeps on growing. It’s obvious that we share a broad interest in western art music, but the way in which the individual composers are presented is exploratory, and, given the presence of musicians and musicologists, bound to take a controversial course. I always leave not only knowing something I didn’t know before, but with a profound new insight, and, most important of all, questions to mull over during the months that separate us from the next Bard Festival.
In preparing a review of last year’s Bard Music Festival, Chopin and his World, I was especially struck by the ability of a festival to present his oeuvre in such a way that the audience could clearly perceive the course of his development as a composer. Jim Samson, one of the preeminent Chopin scholars, I found, had an especially convincing view of his development, which he published in his The Music of Chopin (London, Boston, 1985). The organizers of the Board Festival presented a rather different selection of Chopin’s works, which was nonetheless valid. I still thought it worthwhile to put together musical illustrations to Professor Samson’s outline of the points de repère, the landmarks of Chopin’s development. In my review I suggest that an extra concert devoted to Chopin might fill some gaps. This offering, with multiple performances of some of the works, is more of a Chopin orgy than a concert, but you can listen anywhere and pick and choose.
I have already given a detailed account of what was (then to be) heard during the Bard Music Festival 2017, Chopin and His World, but it always seems different after one has actually experienced it all, and there were a few changes. The panel discussions were both enlightening and brilliantly organized. With some exceptions the music-making was on the customary high level, if in places more uneven than usual. What stood out was the basic experience of hearing a representative survey of Chopin’s work played by a variety of pianists—superbly, for the most part, especially by the Bard regulars, notably Piers Lane, Danny Driver, Orion Weiss, and Anna Polonsky, as well as the newcomer, Hélène Tysman, who earned long and loud ovations from the audience with her brilliant performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21 (1829), and Nimrod David Pfeffer, a conductor as well as an excellent pianist.
Many of us who attend the Bard Music Festival look forward to it with the same warm anticipation we once looked forward to Christmas. Two weekends are packed with music, much of it we’ve never heard before, some of it great, some good, some interesting. There are panel discussions and lectures to help tie it all together, usually pitched at a general educated audience, but always with surprises and things one didn’t know before. And there is a feast of discussion, with the musicians, with the speakers, and with each other. It’s not so much that there is music to be enjoyed and a historical context to learn: through the immersion in immediate, live concerts and contact with knowledgeable humans a unique experience emerges in which we can live this whole of sensual and intellectual pleasure, analysis, and a direct understand of the cultural and social whole in which the music was created. The difference between this and the traditional sources of background information available to concertgoers—i.e. program notes—is like a month in Paris against a travel brochure.
Musically, this summer in the Berkshires, there was one event that was truly exciting, in the sense of something important that was entirely new…or almost, as the people behind it made entirely clear. Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the two impressive and engaging founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, who promised to “bring fully-staged opera back to the Berkshires.” And this they have just fulfilled with a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, that was in a way as perfect as an opera performance can get, considering that opera is the quintessence of imperfection among art forms—or perhaps that should be said of art itself. Musical and theatrical ability that was both solid and brilliant, imagination, good taste, and deep knowledge and understanding of the work and its authors flowed together with all the concentration and energy aroused by a new, make-or-break enterprise to create a performance that can only be described as an object lesson in how to perform opera—and a thrilling and moving one newcomers, casual opera-goers, and opera-makers alike can appreciate. The Berkshire Opera Festival has, within less than a week, made itself indispensible.
Two seasoned, enterprising professionals in the opera world has recognized this serious gap in our cultural life and have set in motion an ambitious plan to fill it: The Berkshire Opera Festival, which will present its first season in late August and early Spetember of this year. Jonathon Loy, General Director and Co-Founder is a Guest Director on the staging staff at The Metropolitan Opera and a 2002 OPERA America Fellowship winner. Brian Garman, Artistic Director and Co-Founder, is a distinguished conductor, who worked at the Seattle Opera between 2009 and 2014 in the pit and as Music Director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program. As you will learn in this podcast, both know the aesthetics, mechanics, and business of opera from top to bottom, and show every sign of creating and institution that will endure and be highly appreciated in the Berkshires.
The Bard Music Festival, every year since 1990, offers music-lovers a splendid gift in its weekends of immersion in the music of some major composer and others related to him, the intellectual and artistic life of his time, and the legacy that connects us to it all. It equally presents us with a powerful challenge—a challenge to overcome our preconceptions about this partly familiar, partly unfamiliar music, chiefly the product of famous composers. In some cases we discover that a composer’s most popular music is not in fact his best, and our estimation of him rises significantly, as in the case of Sibelius and Prokofiev, or in others, like Schubert, we can become acquainted with genres like the part song, which have fallen out of the repertory because the social context for their performance has become obsolete. Many music-lovers divide Franz Liszt’s output between serious music of high quality and shallow, flashy display pieces. Again, the Bard Festival challenged its audiences to reconsider.