There’s something about Buffalo that is forever and wonderfully 1940. The city admittedly went through a difficult patch in the last decades of the century, before emerging today prosperous and half the size it was. From an artistic perspective, though, this may not be all bad. Buffalo escaped most of the Pizza Hut architecture and cereal box skyscrapers which typically afflict American cities. Today, great colonnaded turn-of-the-century hotels, banks and office buildings still reflect iconic dignity and Dreiserian business energy upon a downtown more formal and stylistically unified than most. When it comes to its resident orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic similarly avoided an onslaught of concrete, continuing to perform in Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by the Saarinens (father Eliel and son Eero) in 1940 and declared a national landmark in 1989.
Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony, surely unbeknownst, gave me a Valentine’s Day card masquerading as a pair of tickets! I don’t honestly recall a concert in recent years I’ve enjoyed more than this one. I’ve known and loved Paul Dukas’ ballet score La Peri for more than fifty years without ever hearing it live, and as a dedicated Francophile in music, I am always delighted to hear again Camille Saint-Saëns’ iconic and fascinatingly structured Organ Symphony. Add to this the fact that I grew up in the wilds of Latin America and learned to tango just about when couples abandoned cutting a rug with each other on the dance floor in favor of wriggling in place, and you can imagine how a piano concerto based on Tango would evoke a special warmth and affection in someone like me. So I am writing more as a fan than as a critic this time.
Ever wanted to hear a Wagner opera performed with smooth singing: little or no barking, effortful huffing, or slow wobbling? Sure, there have been individual singers who have managed the trick, such as Plácido Domingo in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s famous Tannhäuser recording. But I mean the whole cast, from the biggest roles right down to the smallest. Well, here’s your chance: a complete Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that is a near-constant pleasure to the ears. The only problem is that it’s sung in Italian: hence I maestri cantori di Norimbega. But don’t let that you put you off. Opera houses in many countries have developed their own national traditions of Wagner singing in the vernacular. Opera enthusiasts cherish certain recorded Wagner excerpts sung magnificently in French by soprano Germaine Lubin or tenor Georges Thill.
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.
Lovers of opera, decadence, and general excess, had reason this year to rejoice. This past summer, Bard Summerscape staged, as its centerpiece, complementary to the Bard Music Festival, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which is possibly the single most important work by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). And the work has now appeared in a sumptuous new recording (reviewed here) as well as in a much-praised DVD version from the renowned Deutsche Opera (Berlin), which indeed looks wonderful in this trailer.
Delving into the music of Alberic Magnard is to reach deep into the heart of French culture. Magnard was a subtle, aristocratic composer, trading in understatement. If you enjoy the delicate chromaticism of Gabriel Fauré, or Albert Roussel’s early works, such as his First Symphony, Poème de la forêt, you will love Magnard. If you are looking for the more obvious charms of Berlioz, Dukas, Franck or Saint-Saëns, you may be disappointed. Magnard is like Franck, but turned inward and away from Franck’s saccharine religiosity. Despite all the forte moments one could want, this is music best heard with the lights low and a log in the fireplace.