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,
Tag Archive: Leon Botstein
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.
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.
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.