Bard Music Festival
Bard Summerscape, Bard College, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Not everyone agreed about the merits of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music, but he was the occasion of one of the most provocative Bard Music Festivals ever. Four of us have deliberated on either that or important new recordings, which add to our understanding of this sympathetic composer.
Lovers of opera, decadence, and general excess, had reason this year to rejoice. This past summer, Bard Summerscape staged, as its centerpiece, complementary to the Bard Music Festival, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which is possibly the single most important work by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). And the work has now appeared in a sumptuous new recording (reviewed here) as well as in a much-praised DVD version from the renowned Deutsche Opera (Berlin), which indeed looks wonderful in this trailer.
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.
In preparing a review of last year's Bard Music Festival, Chopin and his World, I was especially struck by the ability of a festival to present his oeuvre in such a way that the audience could clearly perceive the course of his development as a composer. Jim Samson, one of the preeminent Chopin scholars, I found, had an especially convincing view of his development, which he published in his The Music of Chopin (London, Boston, 1985). The organizers of the Board Festival presented a rather different, but not irrelevant, selection of Chopin's works. I still thought it worthwhile to put together musical illustrations to Professor Samson's outline of the points de repère, the landmarks of Chopin's development. In my review I suggest that an extra concert devoted to Chopin might fill some gaps. This offering, with multiple performances of some of the works, is more of a Chopin orgy than a concert, but you can listen anywhere and pick and choose.
Many of us who attend the Bard Music Festival look forward to it with the same warm anticipation we once looked forward to Christmas. Two weekends are packed with music, much of it we've never heard before, some of it great, some good, some interesting. There are panel discussions and lectures to help tie it all together, usually pitched at a general educated audience, but always with surprises and things one didn't know before. And there is a feast of discussion, with the musicians, with the speakers, and with each other. It's not so much that there is music to be enjoyed and a historical context to learn: through the immersion in immediate, live concerts and contact with knowledgeable humans a unique experience emerges in which we can live this whole of sensual and intellectual pleasure, analysis, and a direct understand of the cultural and social whole in which the music was created. The difference between this and the traditional sources of background information available to concertgoers—i.e. program notes—is like a month in Paris against a travel brochure.
Bard Summerscape visitors have much to look forward to in this year's fully-staged production of Dvořák's rarely performed grand opera, Dimitrij. For this ambitious work Dvořák set a Russian subject, the unhappy fate of the false pretender, Dimitrij, who appeared after the death of Boris Godunov, presenting himself as the son of Ivan the Terrible. The libretto was by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, one of the preeminent Czech librettists of the time, the deeply educated daughter of leading Czech politician František Ladislav Rieger, and a granddaughter of the famous historian František Palacký. In her libretto, which advisedly took liberties with historical accuracy, Dimitrij was a young Russian serf who was taken up by Poles and brought up to believe that he was in fact the son of Ivan. Hence in this opera, he is the innocent victim of ruthless Poles, eager to destabilize Russia. He is unhappily married the the Polish Princess Marina, who is merely interested in using him for her own national and personal ends.
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, 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.