Blurring the Line Between Romanticism and Modernism: a review of the first weekend of “Berg and His World” at Bard College, August 13—15: Berg and Vienna

The theme of Bard’s retrospective “Berg and His World” was clearly stated and restated: Berg needs to be liberated from the so-called “Second Viennese School” and seen in a wider context of Vienna and beyond. Too long has he been seen primarily as a student of Schoenberg along with Webern; this perspective masks his individuality as well as his stature, which, if anything, is as great or greater than that of his beloved “master.” The gauntlet was laid down right away by Leon Botstein, who gave the first pre-concert talk: Berg gives us the best of both worlds, the expressive, content-oriented approach to composition as communication, and the formally strict, self-contained structural world of the music for its own sake. Implication no. 1: Schoenberg and Webern over-emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Implication no. 2: other composers and artists than Schoenberg had powerful influences on Berg’s urge to compose expressively (read “romantically”). Implication no. 3: Berg was as much a romantic as a modernist. Result: Berg became by far the most popular (hence, successful) composer of the three.

Schreker’s Der ferne Klang at Bard’s Summerscape

This year Bard College’s Summerscape program is focussing on the composer Alban Berg “and his world,” which means the inclusion of an opera sometime prior to the retrospective itself. As has happened several times since the Fisher Center with its state-of-the-art operatic facilities opened in 2003, Leon Botstein and the ASO this year have chosen to perform a relatively unfamiliar opera which has a significant relationship to the main subject, but by another composer. (In festivals devoted to Janacek and Shostakovich, it was possible to find less well-known works within the composers’ own oeuvre, while for the Prokofiev festival, an unfamiliar version of a familiar ballet, Romeo and Juliet, filled this role.)

Preview of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music

This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the TMC Orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony at Tanglewood

The French philosophe Fontanelle famously asked “Sonate, que veux-tu?” in response to the new popularity of a purely instrumental form that asked that the audience do nothing more than sit and listen: “Sonata, what do you want from me?” Hearing Mahler’s extraordinary, gargantuan Third Symphony, one is tempted to repeat the question. What indeed is demanded from the listener by this veritable barrage, this unprecedented outpouring of the full spectra of sounds and noises, human emotional conditions, evocations of life forms from flowers to angels, plumbed philosophical depths, musical allusions encompassing inchoate mutterings, crude military assaults, the most naïve and artless melodies, state-of-the-art sophisticated harmonies, an off-stage post horn, a marriage of a poem by Nietzsche and German folk lyrics, a chorus of boys and women that sings for less than four out of the ninety minutes of the work, pre-echoes of Sousa marches and pop tunes (Sammy Fein’s “I’ll be seeing you…”; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; the Beatles “Yesterday”), deliberate references to Beethoven, Wagner, and for all I know, even Brahms? Judging from the enthusiasm of its response last Saturday night, whatever it was that the audience was actually imagining or experiencing provided it with a full measure of gratification. But the question remains, what was the composer after: “Mahler, que veux-tu?”

Emerson String Quartet with guest clarinetist David Shifrin, Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Tuesday July 6 at 8 pm

For many reasons, Mozart is one of the most difficult composers for today’s performers to encounter. Historically, he occupies an intermediate zone between Early Music and mainstream performance practices, and today’s musicians have a wide range of performing styles from which to choose, from those passed on by traditional conservatory teachers and established mainstream performers, to the spectrum of historically informed practices exemplified by Dutch, German, English, and even American ‘schools,’ and extending to hybrids of the two. This counts enormously in Mozart, whose sensitive, vocal-based melodies and elegantly complex textures reveal every strength and weakness of a chosen performing style with spectacular clarity. This is not to say that anyone can claim a ‘correct’ choice; writers have long ago established that the notion of ‘authenticity’ is a chimera. The real issue is how effectively and convincingly a performing style can convey the heart and soul of the music to a modern audience.

Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen from Glyndebourne: Semi-Opera Made Whole, at Last

The life and career of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the colossal figure who dominates the history of English music, occurred at the chronological mid-point of the Baroque, a period whose leading and most distinguishing genre is opera. And yet, opera never took root as a native product in English cultural soil. For that it had to wait until Purcell’s distant successor, Benjamin Britten, appeared on the scene two hundred and fifty years later. Twenty years after Purcell’s death, Handel arrived with his succession of exotic opera singers: Italian divas and castrati who swooped in like birds of paradise warbling their outlandish roulades and then vanished. The taste for such entertainment lasted at the most 25 years. Meanwhile, Purcell wrote only one true opera, a tiny gem that was held to be the only crown jewel for centuries, the miniature Dido and Aeneas of 1689. (John Blow’s fine companion piece, Venus and Adonis of 1701, still has not established itself in the canon.) And it was written for a girls’ school run by a dancing master, or at least its first documented performance occurred in this context.

Letter from Holland: Organ Concert at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam – Saskia Roures plays works of Byrd, Caroso, Bach, and Buxtehude

Holland is known as an incubator of the movement to restore the use of historically authentic instruments in the performance of early music, particularly in its most recent phase of the past half-century. While this owes much to the personalities and examples of such notable figures as Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, and the (Belgian) Kuijken brothers, there are two other compelling factors: a knowledgeable and receptive public, and the presence of a treasured collection of historically important baroque-period organs housed in magnificent acoustical settings.

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