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.
Bard Music Festival
After attending the fully staged performance of Korngold’s opera Das Wunder des Heliane and the concerts of the second weekend of the Bard Korngold Festival, I arrived a distinct sense of the shape of the composer’s career trajectory and of the development of his unique musical sensibility, one which I suspect the festival programmers might not have hoped to suggest. To the extent that Korngold’s name is familiar, it is owing to his powerful, compelling, and influential Hollywood film scores. The unique, invaluable Bard Music Festivals usually aim to take us beyond and behind the headlines associated with its central figures and to give us a means to re-evaluate them in a more nuanced way, in the context of their less familiar works as well as those of their contemporaries. In the case of my encounter with Korngold, however, the result was a strengthening of the general view that this composer was born to compose film scores.Up to now, Korngold’s non-film music has not been completely neglected.
As I return to the Bard Music Festival year after year, I notice that the spaces of Olin Hall and the Fisher Center, become more crowded and sold-out notices appear ever more frequently. I also notice that I’ve seen a good many of the attendees before. There is certainly a minority who are passionately interested in one composer or his historical and cultural context and not in the others, but I am confident in saying that the core of the Bard audience consists of recidivists. Lately the choice of focal composers has shifted from the undisputed pantheon to composers who are interesting because of their cultural position in their own time. Saint-Saëns, Chávez, and Rimsky Korsakov fall into this category. The audience keeps on growing. It’s obvious that we share a broad interest in western art music, but the way in which the individual composers are presented is exploratory, and, given the presence of musicians and musicologists, bound to take a controversial course. I always leave not only knowing something I didn’t know before, but with a profound new insight, and, most important of all, questions to mull over during the months that separate us from the next Bard Festival.
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.
The word has been that Antonin Dvořák’s grand Opera, Dimitrij is a lost and rediscovered masterpiece. Whatever one thinks of it musically, dramatically, or politically, it is clear that the reasons for its neglect arise from its faulty transmission. Dvořák had great hopes for it. He thought it might be his ticket to international fame as an opera composer. Unfortunately—it turns out—the influential music critic, Eduard Hanslick attended the premiere in Prague...and liked it very much—both score and libretto—and wrote a highly positive, intelligent review. He made certain criticisms, however, which Dvořák took very seriously, especially because of Hanslick’s praise and his position as the most influential critic in Vienna, the Hauptstadt of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Dvořák Vienna was the first step to international recognition, and he desperately wanted a production there.
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.
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,