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.
After attending the fully staged performance of Korngold’s opera Das Wunder des Heliane and the concerts of the second weekend of the Bard Korngold Festival, I arrived a distinct sense of the shape of the composer’s career trajectory and of the development of his unique musical sensibility, one which I suspect the festival programmers might not have hoped to suggest. To the extent that Korngold’s name is familiar, it is owing to his powerful, compelling, and influential Hollywood film scores. The unique, invaluable Bard Music Festivals usually aim to take us beyond and behind the headlines associated with its central figures and to give us a means to re-evaluate them in a more nuanced way, in the context of their less familiar works as well as those of their contemporaries. In the case of my encounter with Korngold, however, the result was a strengthening of the general view that this composer was born to compose film scores.Up to now, Korngold’s non-film music has not been completely neglected.
Permit me to indulge in a one-sided argument…or a rant, as I believe it’s called in the blogging world—which is not ours at New York Arts and The Berkshire Review!
Opera in the United States is particularly unsettled at the moment, if not in trouble. Both audiences and sources of funding are on a downward curve, although the better-managed companies seem to be coping. The biggest beast of all, The Metropolitan Opera, compromised by the bad judgement of its General Director, Peter Gelb, is the most worrisome of all.
If I were one of those opera aficionados who thrives on adding unusual operas to a list, I’d be in heaven. I saw two opera productions this summer — not by Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart, but by Friedrich von Flotow and Edith Smyth — and I’d never seen either of them before. One of them was typical summer entertainment, a light and charming comedy, in a modest, stripped down production; the other just the opposite — a grim tragedy that looked as if a lot of money had been thrown at it.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
Leon Botstein’s performance of Beethoven’s Eroica was one of transcendent clarity, color, and musical balance. I believe the members of the American Symphony Orchestra were aware of how well they played, and how convincingly Mr. Botstein’s interpretation was executed.
For some reason that escapes me 2009 has become a “Beethoven year,” or at least a “Beethoven symphony year.” James Levine,* Leon Botstein, and Gerard Schwarz, to name only the conductors who immediately come to mind, have seen fit to begin Beethoven symphony cycles this year. 1809, however, was almost a fallow year for the composer. On the positive side of the ledger, he was able to parlay a job offer in Kassel into a secure contract from his chief patrons in Vienna. On the other, he was trapped in the city during the French siege and two-month occupation, cut off from his friends. The previous year he had finished both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy (and much else) and seen those works performed at a long concert held for his benefit on December 22, just five days after his thirty-eighth birthday. In 1809 he worked on only a few, but important works: the fifth piano concerto, the string quartet Op. 74, and the great “Farewell” sonata for piano. It is especially interesting that he composed quite a few cadenzas for all his piano concerti, from the very earliest, the second, Op. 19, which he had begun twenty years earlier, as well as the violin concerto. Was he looking back at his concerti as a finished body of work, codifying the group with cadenzas in his latest style? Was he looking forward to a busy concert schedule? In any case there’s not much to commemorate Beethoven-wise in 2009, other than his misguided proposal of marriage to his physician’s daughter, then nineteen, who was the last woman in Vienna to see Beethoven as anything other than a cranky, quite unhealthy fellow twenty years older than herself.
The fare tonight was not merely Beethoven as meat and potatoes: a twentieth-century work, Harold Farberman’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, was presented, as well as the U.S. premiere of Shulamit Ran’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (2008). The anchoring of each contemporary work to a Beethoven symphony was an ingenious touch. In each half of the program, after experiencing the colorful and exotic palette of new works, the Beethoven works were heard in the refreshing context as reference, foundation, ancestral, or even genetic code adumbrating the new works, and, indeed, all symphonic works to come.