Bard Music Festival

Bard Summerscape, Bard College, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts

2016 in retrospect — The Bard Music Festival: Giacomo Puccini and his World

Giacomo Puccini. © Frank C. Bangs, Library of Congress.

If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.

The Bard Music Festival and SummerScape Opera 2016: Puccini and his World, with Pietro Mascagni’s Iris

Giacomo Puccini. © Frank C. Bangs, Library of Congress.

The Bard Music Festival, every year since 1990, offers music-lovers a splendid gift in its weekends of immersion in the music of some major composer and others related to him, the intellectual and artistic life of his time, and the legacy that connects us to it all. It equally presents us with a powerful challenge—a challenge to overcome our preconceptions about this partly familiar, partly unfamiliar music, chiefly the product of famous composers. In some cases we discover that a composer’s most popular music is not in fact his best, and our estimation of him rises significantly, as in the case of Sibelius and Prokofiev, or in others, like Schubert, we can become acquainted with genres like the part song, which have fallen out of the repertory because the social context for their performance has become obsolete. Many music-lovers divide Franz Liszt’s output between serious music of high quality and shallow, flashy display pieces. Again, the Bard Festival challenged its audiences to reconsider.

Bard Music Festival 2015: Carlos Chávez and his World, Weekend I

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Retrato del maestro Carlos Chávez, oil on canvas, 1948

As the Bard Music Festival has sailed through the great names in European and American music over the past twenty-five years—although there are some people who don’t like Elgar, Liszt, or Wagner, and some who doubt Saint-Saëns’ or Sibelius’ importance (if they attended the Festival they left with their minds changed)—the focal points of the festival have been generally unchallenged. This year, with Carlos Chávez, the first composer from south of the border, there has been more debate. Many attendees—and especially non-attendees—questioned the worthiness of Carlos Chávez as a subject. He is largely forgotten, and many of those who do remember him, do not think of him kindly. Even Leon Botstein himself expressed a critical attitude towards Chávez,

From Summer Opera…an Answer to the Opera Houses’ Predicament?

Euryanthe From left, Peter Volpe, Ryan Kuster, William Burden and Ellie Dehn, at Bard SummerScape . Photo Cory Weaver.

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.

Summer Operas: Opposite Poles at Bard SummerScape and Boston Midsummer Opera

Neal Cooper (Mark) in the Bard SummerScape production of Ethel Smyth’s 'The Wreckers.' Photo by Cory Weaver.

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.

The Bard Music Festival 2015: Carlos Chávez and His World, a Preview

Carlos Chávez by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, ca, 1930-40. © Colette Urbajtel/Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo

This is the first Bard Music Festival, Carlos Chávez and his World, to be devoted to music from south of the border. Up here, Central and South Americans were much more prominent in the classical music world in Chávez’s time (1899-1978) than they are in the present. Today most concert-goers see this music through the window of Gustavo Dudamel and all his good works, and El Sistéma from which he emerged, is all the rage among music educators, possibly destined to become something like a Suzuki method of the twenty-first century.

The Bard Music Festival at 25: Franz Schubert and his World

A Schubertiade at Josef von Spaun's, by Moritz von Schwind, ca. 1870. Oil on canvas.

My leading thought goes against much of what the Bard Music Festival and my own values, for that matter, stand for. And just read Keith Francis’ provocative series, The Great Composers?, the latest installment of which has just been published. I’ve missed only one Bard Festival since 2006, and I’ve heard great music by Elgar, Prokofiev, and Sibelius. And, well, Saint-Saëns was too gifted to be great, and that really didn’t interest him in any case. Of the composers included in the festival, only Wagner and Stravinsky turn up on common lists of the greatest—not that those stupid lists do anything but harm. Still, during the two weekends devoted to Franz Schubert I felt I was living with the gods, and the lingering impression of those weekends swelled accordingly.

John Banville’s Love in the Wars after Kleist’s Penthesilea at Bard Summerscape

Chris Stack (Achilles) and Birgit Huppuch (Penthesilea) in Love in the Wars. Photo Cory Weaver.

If one has read one’s Classics, or has acquired a passion for ancient literature later in life and has read, say, Homer and the tragic poets with some attention, or, perhaps I should say, is older than fifty, one, in some human situation, whether intimate, passionate, urgent, or trivial, will occasionally get an uncanny feeling that one is living out Greek myth—that under one’s skin Achilles, Hermes, or Thetis are making us act and speak from within, as if we twenty-first century humans were nothing more than costumes for some drama of great antiquity that plays itself out continuously over millennia in strands intertwined with other narratives. Is this fate, or archetype, or merely common or garden human nature, observed as keenly by Homer, Pindar, and Euripides as by Dickens, Nietzsche, or Proust?

A tip for our readers: How to get the most out of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review for the Arts.
What if I hate reading on computer screens, even tablets?
We get occasional inquiries from readers about whether we plan to launch a print edition of our arts journals. The answer is that we've given it some thought, and we're still thinking about it.
It is not only our older readers who object to reading them online. There are even some millennials who would rather read from paper. One of our readers got the simple idea of using the sites as sophisticated tables of contents. She prints out each article on three-hole paper and files them in a loose-leaf album. I've devoted a lot of time to finding the very best print and pdf facility there is. Just click on one of the icons at the top right of the article and print!
Click here to make your tax-deductible donation to The Arts Press, publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review. Or click on the notice in the sidebar. The Arts Press is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Arts Press must be made payable to“Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.