A Look Back to the Summer of 2017: The  26th Annual Bard  Music Festival: Chopin and his World

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Henryk Siemiradzki, Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829. Oil on canvas, 1887

Henryk Siemiradzki, Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829. Oil on canvas, 1887

The  26th Annual Bard  Music Festival: Chopin and his World

Full program and book of essays available here.

I have already given a detailed account of what was (then to be) heard during the Bard Music Festival 2017, Chopin and His World, but it always seems different after one has actually experienced it all, and there were a few changes. The panel discussions were both enlightening and brilliantly organized. With some exceptions the music-making was on the customary high level, if in places more uneven than usual. What stood out was the basic experience of hearing a representative survey of Chopin’s work played by a variety of pianists—superbly, for the most part, especially by the Bard regulars, notably Piers Lane, Danny Driver, Orion Weiss, and Anna Polonsky, as well as the newcomer, Hélène Tysman, who earned long and loud ovations from the audience with her brilliant performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21 (1829), and Nimrod David Pfeffer, a conductor as well as an excellent pianist. It was also especially enlightening to hear a series of excellent piano concertos: in addition to the Chopin, Ries’s in C# Minor, played by Nimrod David Pfeffer, Hummel’s in A Minor, played by Danny Driver; Moscheles’s in G Minor, played by Orion Weiss, and Kalkbrenner’s in D Minor, played by Piers Lane. Chopin heard or played all of them himself. These fine works gave us a perspective on the genre that was quite different from what we know from the concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann, and they are well-made and enjoyable in themselves. We would be better off hearing these on mainstream concert programs, than yet another of the ten or twelve we hear all the time in mediocre performances.

These two aspects set the tone for the festival, although I should note the presence of Hector Berlioz as a sort of anti-Chopin. His Roméo et Juliette was chosen to conclude the festival, following Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 (1830–35). Chopin wrote nothing which did not include a piano part; Berlioz, except for some songs, wrote virtually nothing for piano, which he had never learned to play. They were in contact (we can’t say how friendly it was) for about a year. Then, Chopin dropped Berlioz after he failed to attend one of his concerts as a reviewer, and he is not known to have attended any more of Berlioz’s concerts. Their contrast brought home the extremes of musical activity in Paris in the first half of the 19th century. Actually neither of them were central presences in the Parisian music world. Chopin detested playing in public and confined himself largely to the salons, above all in the world of his companion, George Sand, and Polish émigré circles, while Berlioz had to struggle with the difficulties of making his grand public projects and operas happen. Both, each in his own way, were on the margins of musical life in Paris.

Among the younger pianists, Hélène Tysman struck me most as a fully-formed musician of the highest caliber, possessing both an impeccable technique an  adventurous but tasteful brilliance in displaying it before an audience, as well as a sensitive insight into the harmonic fabric of Chopin’s F Minor Concerto, never failing to bring out his most daring harmonies. There was meaning in every note she played; she encompassed everything Chopin had to say in this early work—which is great deal, using the incisive articulation and discreet pedaling of the great Chopin players. I only wish we could have heard more of her playing. Nimrod David Pfeffer also showed brilliance and understanding in his performance of Hummel’s A Minor Concerto. On an expressive level, Hummel, more a Classicist than a Romantic, gave him less to work with, but there does seem to be a certain coolness in his playing—and I don’t mean that as a fault. He struck me as a poised, outstanding pianist, and I was surprised to read on his site that he stresses his work as a conductor. He is at present mainly a house conductor and assistant choral conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, but he was also appointed Music Director of the Lyric Opera Company of Guatemala at its foundation in 2016. In Israel, where he was born, in February 2018 Mr. Pfeffer made his conducting debut with the Israeli Opera, in a new production of Don Giovanni by Kasper Holten. A pupil of Alan Gilbert at Juilliard, he is clearly on his way to an important career.

Nimrod David Pfeffer playing with the Warsaw Philharmonic

Nimrod David Pfeffer playing with the Warsaw Philharmonic

The mature Bard regulars Danny Driver, Orion Weiss, and Piers Lane addressed Ries, Moscheles, and Kalkbrenner with their familiar masterly technique and a sincere dedication to serving the composers and their music, steadily concentrating on what is best in the score. In general these virtuoso-composers combined passagework of extreme virtuosity with ingratiating tunes. They tended to spin out their final rondos to a generous parade of catchy melodies and opportunities for pianistic brilliance—unlike their fellow virtuoso-composer Beethoven, whose finales are models of concision. Hummel’s concerto is a case in point, with a third movement which is almost as long as the first two. One can imagine them lingering with a delighted audience in this way after an evening of impressive display. And for me that’s a comfortable thought. Maestro Botstein expressed his gratitude to the pianists for laboring so hard to learn these difficult scores, which they are unlikely to find an opportunity to perform more than once. That’s unfortunate, but probably true. Only at Bard… These composers really should  get an airing in mainstream concerts every now and then.

One of the special joys of introducing Chopin into the Bard programming system (Think more of the solar system than of some dry categorizing procedure.) is that we get to hear a representative survey of his short career (not all at once of course) divided up among the superb pianists who have been returning to the Festival year after year. I have mentioned some of them already. To Piers Lane, Danny Driver, and Orion Weiss, I must add Anna Polonsky (Mr. Weiss’s wife).  Nimrod David Pfeffer played some solo works along with some other young pianists, Fei-Fei Dong, Michael Brown, and Charlie Albright. Benjamin Hochman is a more mature pianist who has played at the Bard Festival in the past. This year he appeared both as a pianist and as a conductor. He was originally scheduled to play the twenty-four Opus 28 Preludes in the first concert (Program One: The Genius of Chopin), but a physical incapacity made it necessary to replace him with Ke Ma, a young Chinese pianist who is still in her last years as a student. This was the most unfortunate curcumstance at the festival, because she played the Preludes both mechanically and brutally, with no sense of what Chopin put behind the notes except for routines she had learned from her teachers. She also produced an especially unpleasant sound from the Sosnoff Hall Steinway, clangorous, harsh, and muddy. The other pianists did better with the instrument, but clearly it needed the attentions of a technician. The piano was its old self again on the second weekend, presumably because it did get the necessary ministrations. Hochman himself seemed a bit stiff in his playing, and, at a conceptual level, he seemed to approach the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61 as if it were Schubert. Far from seeming misguided, it made his work with it all the more interesting.

Before commenting on the other performances, I should list what was actually played at the festival. I counted 55 pieces from 24 opus numbers (excluding the six songs that were performed), and they covered Chopin’s development rather well, although one might quibble with this or that omission. The largest block of Chopin’s own works were assembled in Program Seven: Chopin and the Piano. Judging from a list I compiled mostly from Jim Samson’s astute and solid selection of the points de repère in his development in The Music of Chopin, one more all-Chopin program might have filled the gaps, more in genre than in chronology. However, I did hear a remark from the dais that genre studies in Chopin have been exhausted and are therefore passé. But they are basic as well. Since the Bard Festival is intended to include the general public, the question of genre might have provided the structure for another concert or lecture-concert—and very usefully. And if scholars no longer have much to say about the topic, it can still provide a valid framework for listening. Perhaps I’m being too much of a stickler, as well as greedy. One thing I learned at the festival is that one can listen to Chopin’s music almost endlessly without getting bored or irritable.

Here is a list of what was played and by whom in order of opus number and, for the most part, chronology. I have prepared a playlist on YouTube of performances of the works Professor Samson regards as key landmarks of Chopin’s development. I have chosen the performances with care. There are multiple performances for some of the pieces. They range from a piano roll of Saint-Saëns to George Li, and include the three young stars of the Bard Festival, Hélène Tysman, Fei-Fei Dong, and Nimrod David Pfeffer. If the program were reduced to a single performance per work, it would still be a very long concert. As it is, it’s more of a Chopin orgy.


Wojak (The Warrior) (1831) (Witwicki)
Narzeczony (The Bridegroom) (1831) (Witwicki)
Smutna rzeka (Troubled Waters) (1831) (Witwicki)
Moja pieszczotka (My Darling) (1837) (Mickiewicz)
Katarzyna Sądej, mezzo-soprano
Erika Switzer, piano

Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op. 2 (1827)
Orion Weiss, piano
The Orchestra Now
Leon Botstein, conductor

Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3 (1830)
Nicholas Canellakis, cello
Michael Brown, piano

Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in G Minor, Op. 8 (1828)
Horszowski Trio

From Études, Op. 10 (1829–32)
No. 1 in C Major
No. 3 in E Major
No. 4 in C-sharp Minor
No. 12 in C Minor, “Revolutionary”
Danny Driver, piano

Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13 (1828)
Fei-Fei Dong, piano

Variations in A Major,“Souvenir de Paganini”(1829)
Fei-Fei Dong, piano

Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21 (1829)
Hélène Tysman, piano
The Orchestra Now
Leon Botstein, conductor

Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 (1830–35)
Danny Driver, piano

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 (1835)
Anna Polonsky, piano

From Études, Op. 25 (1832–36)
No. 1 in A-flat Major
No. 7 in C-sharp Minor
No. 12 in C Minor
Charlie Albright, piano

Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2 (1835)
Anna Polonsky, piano

24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1831–38)
Ke Ma, piano

Waltz in F Major, Op. 34, No. 3 (1838)
Anna Polonsky, piano

Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 (1839)
Danny Driver

Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45 (1841)
Anna Polonsky, piano

Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49 (1842)
Piers Lane, piano

Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52 (1842)
Orion Weiss, piano

Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 (1842)
Danny Driver, piano

Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54 (1842)
Piers Lane, piano

Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3 (1845)
Anna Polonsky, piano

Barcarole in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 (1845-46)
Michael Brown, piano

Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 (1846)
Benjamin Hochman, piano

Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2 (1846–47)
Orion Weiss, piano

Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 (1846)
Nicholas Canellakis, cello Michael Brown, piano

Fantaisie-Impromptu No. 4 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 66 (1834)
Fei-Fei Dong, piano

Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 68, No. 2 (1827)
Nimrod David Pfeffer, piano

Waltz in G-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 1 (1832)
Anna Polonsky, piano


Anna Polonsky, Photo Steve Riskind

Anna Polonsky, Photo Steve Riskind

When I think back on these performances with admiration and gratitude, I cringe at the thought of ranking the performances, and that is by no means necessary or even appropriate. However, I and some others were deeply moved by Anna Polonsky’s performances. Her playing was large in scale, rich in tone, broad and flexible in tempo, and, above  all, profoundly heartfelt. She approached the pieces, especially the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, the Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, and the Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3, as if they were tone poems narrating human experiences as evolving emotional states. She had absorbed this music until she was able to identify with it as her own experience and psyche. This was a level of musicianship few of even the Chopin masters of past generations ever achieved.

Piers Lane also excelled in his playing and in his research into the piano writing of the 19th century—rather than the development of the instrument, since no historical instruments were in evidence. His commentary-performance was outstanding for its genial learning and superb pianism. He also made liberal use of alternate fioriture recorded in early editions or by Chopin’s pupils. This presentation was derived from a series of programs Mr. Lane presented on the BBC. I wish I could find them somewhere.

Danny Driver provided the British stiff upper lip in the proceedings with performances that were disciplined, virtuosic, and on the fast side. He was especially busy in the aforementioned Program Seven, in which he was billed to play the Op. 53 Polonaise and four Études from Op. 10. He seemed a bit tense early in the program. Maestro Botstein explained it all before the second half. Mr. Driver agreed at short notice to play the B-Flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35 in place of Ran Dank, who had to cancel. This he played magnificently, with great power and energy, and the audience was thrilled with it.

Orion Weiss’s virtuosity, brilliant tone, and subtlety of phrasing and texture were among the other great assets of the festival. He was a master of showing us the flow and shape of the works he played.

The younger players, Charlie Albright, Nimrod David Pfeffer, Michael Brown, and Fei-Fei Dong were all impressive in their different ways and showed fine insights into Chopin’s writing, all in their own individual way. I was also aware there was room for growth and consolidation, especially in the case of Michael Brown, who was excessively energetic and aggressive on occasion, especially in the Op. 65 Cello Sonata, a tendency shared by his cellist, Nicholas Canellakis.

Fei Fei Dong, as Medalist in the Van Cliburn Competition, 2013

Fei Fei Dong, as Medalist in the Van Cliburn Competition, 2013

Fei-Fei Dong proved to be one of the most delightful surprises of the festival. Her playing showed masterful technique, as well as sensitive musical understanding…and wit! Of all the musicians, except perhaps Hélène Tysman, she showed the most refined sense of lightness and humor in her playing.

Christopher Gibbs observed that in preparing the festival, there was some discussion as to whether Chopin should be called Fryderyk or Frédéric. His father was in fact French. Chopin never really became a Pole in his native land. He left Warsaw for Vienna at the age of twenty, then moved on to Paris the following year, which remained the center of his world until his death. Coming to musical (perhaps not personal) maturity in Paris he became a Pole as a Pole in exile, like the poets Adam Mickiewicz, whom he knew, and his friend Juliusz Słowacki. Chopin would not have been Chopin without this exported Polishness, this severed bond with his family above all, but also the folk music and traditions of his native land. Equally, he would not have been himself without his assimilation of Bel Canto opera, which he loved, having enjoyed as a youth rich experiences in the opera house in Warsaw, and, later, even richer exposure in Paris. The sung melody and ornament of Bel Canto lived in his marrow, and one can hear that in any of his compositions. The emotive and narrative aspects of his music came from Italian opera as well, although Polish folksong was also a strong current in this respect. Chopin was both a nationalist (perhaps even a provincial) and a cosmopolitan.

The Bard Festival did justice to the influence of Italian opera in a program of arias, as well as in the final act from Rossini’s Otello, which Chopin heard in Warsaw at the age of 18. The treatment of Rossini and his librettist, Berio di Salsa, is quite different from the Shakespearian version of Verdi and Boïto, lacking the psychological tangents and relying on a stark contrast of a murderous Othello and a defeated Desdemona—or perhaps not quite. Rossini’s Desdemona is able to counter Othello with a dare: “Well, go ahead and kill me, if that’s what you want.” There is some defiance in this. In this performance, thoughtfully played by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein’s committed direction, Issachah Savage sang Othello with almost Wagnerian power, while Nicole Cabell, singing with exceptional elegance, portrayed Desdemona as an exhausted and defeated wife, submitting herself to the ultimate crime at the hands of her husband. There is some resistance in the libretto, but Cabell chose to ignore it. Her singing was exquisite, almost to its detraction, but I felt she left out an important part of her character. Otello was a perfect, almost necessary choice to represent this aspect of Chopin’s development. If anything, there could have been more of it. Perhaps a first-rate and authentically sung performance of a complete Bel Canto opera might have been more instructive and enjoyable than Dvořák’s rather dismal Dimitrij. (Click here for our preview and our review of Bard’s excellent performance of this problematic work.)

Chopin’s relationship to Polish folksong was brilliantly explored in one of the panel discussions, not by an academic, but by Allen Evans, the founder and director of Arbiter Records, an invaluable source of historical recordings. He began with one of Bartók’s field recordings and made us listen to how the composer transformed it in his own compositions. With our ears well-conditioned by this, he demonstrated the folk origins of Chopin’s music, either directly, by free imitation of a folksong, or through referential invention. For me this was one of the high points of the Festival, equal in effectiveness to the appearance of Piia Kleemola, a fiddler specializing in Finnish folk  music at the Sibelius Festival in  2011.

Moniuszko’s Halka, performed complete at Bard in a semi-staged production, is regarded as the national opera of Poland. It appears regularly in Polish opera houses, but rarely anywhere else. This was apparently the first performance of the opera in the United States since one in Chicago in the 1930s. It continues to be popular in Poland and attracts audiences who might not attend any other opera, although it is fashionable among the intelligentsia to dismiss, if not despise it—not without some reason, I found. Not long ago I saw a video of Moniuszko’s other famous opera, Straszny Dwór, and enjoyed its wit, as a Lysistrata retelling, and its operetta-like tunefulness. (This was from an excellent, if Regieoperische, production at the National Theater in Warsaw.) Halka is rather more serious, and it touches on one of the traditional flaws in Polish society. The curtain rises on Janusz, a young nobleman, celebrating his engagement to Zofia, a young woman of his class. However, he has been having an affair with Halka, a peasant woman, and she is both devoted to “her eagle” (Janusz) and pregnant. After much ado, the marriage with Zofia takes place. Halka, who is ready to burn the church down, desists and jumps off a precipice to the destruction of both herself and her baby. The dramatic flaw in this lies in Halka’s obsessive infatuation with the nobleman. We hear that phrase, “moj orzeł” way too often, and that underlines the repetitiousness of the story. Nothing really changes in it. Halka, trapped in her social inferiority, plods to her destruction. Janusz goes about his business, doing the right thing for a member of the Szlachta. Bard gave Halka its best effort, with spirited playing by the ASO under Maestro Botstein and admirable singing from all. James Bagwell directed the superb Bard Festival Chorus in their extensive choral parts, and Teresa Bucholtz made a powerful impression in her psychologically nuanced portrayal of Zofia. Amanda Majeski sang magnificently as Halka. There are several big dance interludes, intended to be performed by troupe of dancers skilled in traditional Polish dances. This was vividly performed largely by a single lead dancer, who was by no means Polish—a trick that worked perfectly in the semi-staged context.

I have mentioned only one of the panels, but they were thoroughly prepared and enlightening, thanks to the efforts of scholars-in-residence Jonathan Bellman and Halina Goldberg, as well as Irene Zedlacher, Christopher Gibbs, Robert Martin, and Maestro Botstein himself. I have also omitted a discussion of the essential material from Chopin’s primary teacher, Józef Elsner (1769-1854), and their contemporaries. Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) is  especially interesting and important. (There is more discussion of them in my festival preview.) It suffices to look in the program (available here) and to rest assured that their music was played and played very well. I have made here a few criticisms in a constructive spirit, but these don’t diminish the pleasure, instruction, and stimulation of this festival, devoted to a composer who is not only the cultural hero of his nation, but the creator of music which is essential to every pianist. With a few exceptions, it is true that if you can’t play an affecting performance of some piece by Chopin (of your own choice, let it be), you can’t play the piano. In this way Chopin, in addition to being a patriotic Pole (which requires some measure of insularity and snobbery) and a cosmopolite, is universal.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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