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*+-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.
*+-For its annual opera, Bard Summerscape has chosen Carl Maria von Weber’s seldom performed masterpiece, Euryanthe. Der Freischütz had been a great success at the Kärtnerthortheater in Vienna at its premiere in 1821, and the impresario Domenico Barbala lost no time in asking Weber for another opera of the sort. Weber, however, wanted to compose something different. He wanted to grow beyond the popular Singspiel alternation of spoke dialogue and sung numbers in favor of a freer flow of recitative, sung dialogue, and arias. Weber had considerable difficulty in deciding on a libretto, and he eventually persuaded Helmine von Chezy to take on the job—against her protests. She wrote the libretto for Schubert’s even more unsuccessful Rosamunde at the same time. Both premiered in 1823.) Euryanthe‘s failure in spite of Weber’s splendid music is generally blamed on the poor quality of Chezy’s verse and the involved, hard-to-follow plotline. Over the years, Euryanthe receives only occasional performances, but it has also aquired a passionate cult following, mainly on the basis of the excellent 1975 recording with the Dresdner Staatskapelle playing under Marek Janowski, and Jessye Norman and Nicolai Gedda, among the cast. Director Kevin Newbury and his team have worked hard to overcome Euryanthe‘s challenges, as Mr. Newbury likes to call them, and his discussion of them in this interview gives us every reason to be optimistic.
*+-Every year, the Bard Summer Music Festival enjoys excellent attendance, including some, like Saint-Saëns, in 2012, that even surprised the organizers. I think it also came a something of a surprise that this year’s Stravinsky Festival was a sell-out for most events, to the point that the lobby of Olin Hall was filled with long lines of nervous visitors, hoping to get their hands on a return. Why did Stravinsky, the forbidding dandy, who had no interest whatsoever in providing comfort for his audiences, turn out to be such a draw? Was it the popular film about his love life? Robert Craft’s recent, highly dubious “outing” of him, which created a flurry in the newspapers? The hit play, Nikolai and the Others, at Lincoln Center? Or is it simply hip to like Stravinsky these days?
*+-In his introductory lectures, Leon Botstein is almost always engaging and enthusiastic, except when, to make an instructive point, he discusses music he knows to be inferior , and then he is at least amusing. However, before the Sunday matinee of Taneyev’s Oresteia, he conveyed a certain Cheshire Cat-like excitement, as if he had something really exceptional in store for us. The air in and around the Fisher Center was charged, and one could feel it. We were not disappointed.
*+-The Bard Music Festival, “Saint-Saëns and his World,” August 10-12 and 17-19, 2012 At first, Saint-Saëns was ahead of his time. Then, following his decade at the apex of French music, he was old-fashioned. We remember him today as if he were a composer of ‘light’ music, suitable for Pops concerts and to be excerpted. […]
*+-One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.
*+-This year Bard Summerscape’s annual opera and operetta are fused into one in Emmanuel Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, a true opéra comique, written for the homonymous theater in Paris. In this genre, with which Leon Botstein indulged New York audiences with Bizet’s Djamileh this past spring, the effervescent humor we associate with operetta meets the more careful writing and construction of opera. As delightful as Djamileh was—and it did offer something more substantial than the Strausses, Offenbach, and Gilbert and Sullivan—Le roi malgré lui is in a different league. Chabrier painstakingly worked over a worse than mediocre play of the 1830’s, transforming it into a psychologically convincing and witty libretto and setting it to original, even daring music, such as only he could write, to create a sophisticated, forward-looking operatic work. As I go through what has been written about the opera and its composer, everyone who knows it exudes a warm affection and intellectual respect for both.
*+-See also: “Orientalism in France: Leon Botstein and the ASO play Saint-Saëns, Franck, Ravel, Delage, and Bizet’s one-act opera, Djamileh at Carnegie Hall” 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 […]