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.)

Renée Fleming, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony in Berg, Richard Strauss, and Mahler

Before getting into the program in detail, it’s worth noting that here again the BSO and New York Philharmonic programs overlap. While Levine in the Berg Three Pieces is returning to repertoire with which he has been closely associated for many years—music inspired by the composer of the main work, Gustav Mahler—Gilbert approached the same work as part of his ongoing exploration of the Second Vienna School, which has enriched his programming throughout the year, and, I’m sure, will continue throughout his career.

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