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.
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.
After days of wonderful song recitals, chamber works, choral works either by Wagner’s adversaries, or his own jejune works, nothing prepared us for the Dropping of the Ring on August 22. A mere week before, we were blown away by Schumann’s great piano quintet; the utter grandeur of Brahms’s F-Minor Sonata for Two Pianos was still vivid from the night before. But when the nuclear event occurred, none of us were the same; nothing was the same.
However ideologically opposed he might have been to the idea of choral music, and, in spite of his own injunction against the unnaturalness of simultaneous voices, in practice Wagner outfitted his operas with exceptional choral writing. Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are unimaginable without their famous choruses. While such writing eludes Rheingold, Walküre, and Siegfried, in dogmatic adherence to his pre-Schopenhauerian views at the time, Wagner relented and laced his later operas with sumptuous and varied choral passages. Throughout Parsifal, Wagner balanced differing choral idioms: the antiquated and sacred in Acts I and III, the romantic and sensual in Act II. Meistersinger, albeit partly a platform for purposeful anachronistic caricature, has his most varied and imaginative choral writing.
Of all the events in the year, I can’t think of anything I anticipate quite as keenly as the Bard Music Festival, which is dedicated to exploring the life and works of major composers in the broad context of the culture in which they lived. The organizers accomplish this through the most diverse concert programs, as well as a series of symposia and colloquia involving prominent specialists not only in the composer in question, but in whatever tangential subjects are thought to be relevant. The Music Festival, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year, has been part of a larger enterprise, Bard Summerscape, for some years, which brings in dance, theater, film, and cabaret performances, the latter in the Festival’s popular Spiegeltent.
It seems particularly felicitous that this first concert review in The Berkshire Review for the Arts celebrates the very fine performances of two young musicians, who are not far from the very beginning of their careers. Pianist Shun-Yang Lee from Taipei, Taiwan, is a student of Melvin Chen and Peter Serkin at the Bard Conservatory of Music, and Korean baritone Yohan Yi is also a Bard Conservatory student. Lee performed this weekend as winner of the Second Annual Bard Conservatory Concerto Competition, and Yi recently performed at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in the Golijov/Upshaw Young Artists concert. This was a great evening for seasoned musicians as well. Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a thoroughly Brahmsian performance of the Academic Festival Overture and a truly revelatory reading of Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World.”