In our 21st century barrage of high-profile concerts at major venues, streaming services, CDs, and now, with the COVID-19 Pandemic, Zoom, it takes some small effort to recover the occasional origins of the works we hear regularly as part of our diet of classical music. Historically the original context of the music is replaced by some other, contemporary event or circumstance deemed worthy of celebration by the organizers, whether it is a symbolic political event like the demolition of the Berlin Wall or some European Union event, the demise or commemoration of a musician or donor especially connected to the sponsoring program, or, once upon a time, Hitler’s birthday. We all know that there was a lot to celebrate in the season opener, even if Tanglewood had dispatched its most elaborate celebratory event the previous week in a July 4 event with the Boston Pops—and fireworks—usually held on the Esplanade in Boston.
Let’s now return to more hopeful times during the summer with further—and concluding—reports on PS21’s Modern Music Fest by Larry Wallach on concerts by violinist Miranda Cuckson and composer-piano virtuoso Conrad Tao and myself on a recital by another, no less virtuosic composer-pianist, Timo Andres. I am unaware of any other organization to have offered professionally presented, socially-distanced live music in the Hudson Valley or Berkshires during the summer season, and that in itself was most welcome. But, beyond that, the Modern Music Fest, organized by PS 21’s Artistic Director, Elena Siyanko, only weeks before it opened, to replace an ambitious program of visitors from abroad which was planned last year, long before anyone thought of Covid-19. Most impressive were the coherence and focus of the programming, as well as the level of musicianship among the performing artists, all of whom hailed from New York City. As we all know, New Yorkers were not entirely occupied with surviving a readily spread and often lethal microbial threat, but hostility from the federal executive, an equally dangerous disease threatening the basic rights of not just themselves but of all American citizens. Mr. Andres and Mr. Tao, as well as the leadership of PS21 were energetically participating in movements which, have, from this retrospective point in time, have preserved the right to vote and have reminded Americans of their duty to vote, so far. These urgent concerns brought them together while they were pursuing their daily lives under these radically altered circumstances, including the planning and rehearsal of the music that brought us all together in Chatham.
Elena Siyanko, Executive Director of PS21, in her introductory comments preceding Alarm Will Sound‘s performance of John Luther Adams‘ Ten Thousand Birds, said that this event has been in the works for a year. Its purpose, conceived months before there was any hint in people’s minds that the performance would occur under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic which continues without an end in sight, at least in the United States. The particular features of the new performance structure and the determination and resourcefulness of Ms. Siyanko and her staff have made PS21 a pioneer in offering live performances under safe conditions. The performance of Ten Thousand Birds was intended to showcase the new PS21 and its new semi-open performance space to the public. The beautiful grounds surrounding it are in integral part of its design and function in a way quite different from Tanglewood and SPAC, where lawns simply provide expanded seating for those who prefer to be out in the open.
PS21 was founded by the late Judy Grunberg in 1999 with the mission of presenting advanced and diverse performances of music, dance, and theater, as well as some film screenings. Under her leadership as President of the Board, local residents and some from further away enjoyed lively summer programs performed in an ingenious plastic stage-cum-shelter in the middle of a field. Before her passing in 2019, she initiated the construction of an equally ingenious and certainly more elegant permanent structure which could be used from autumn through spring. A 300-seat theater open on three sides functions as the summer venue. Its stage house can be converted into a black box theater seating 99, providing a more intimate space for performances that need it. It was designed by a local architect, Evan Stoller, son of the legendary architectural photographer, Ezra Stoller.
In considering how to approach this review of Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams, directed by Omar Sangare, Professor of Theatre, I came to the conclusion that it was imperative to concentrate not only on the title of the production, which seems neutral enough at first glance, but how it was described in the official announcement. As a co-production of the Williams Theatre Department and “Sondheim@90@Williams,” to honor the 90th birthday of Stephen Sondheim as an illustrious member of Williams Class of 1950[1. for which the Williams Music Department also organized a day-and-a-half symposium about the composer and his work], Our Time was presented “in celebration” of this birthday. That final phrase might lead us to expect a revue of Mr. Sondheim’s most-loved tunes with a new, student-generated book encasing them, but Our Time was nothing of the sort.
Stephen Sondheim turns 90 today. His alma mater, Williams College, chose to honor her renowned alumnus with a musical production entitled Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams, which brings life at the college between 1946-1950 (when Sondheim was a student there) back to life. This compilation of stories, devised Ilya Khodosh, ’08, and Omar Sangare, has been chosen by current students; who, by research, selected stories to share from the stage. At the end of the show, there is also a story delivered by a video message by Stephen Sondheim, himself.
Only two of the five scheduled performances took place before the spread of the Corona virus necessitated the cancellation of further performances. Happily, they were recorded on video, and Williams can now honor its son and audiences can enjoy this musical reminiscence.
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.