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.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music …
In a happy coincidence this delightful evening of French orientalist music occurred just as I was coming to the end of Ralph P. Locke’s stimulating book, Musical Exoticism, Images and Reflections (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Without repeating much that I’ll say in my review, I think I should say here that reading it most definitely added to my enjoyment of the concert, and that is serious praise for a book about music. Professor Locke goaded me into looking at the rhetoric of exoticism as a multifaceted historical phenomenon, which carried as many different connotations for the members of Bizet’s or Ravel’s own audiences as they do for us. This is not by any means the thesis of the book, but it is a salutary corollary lesson. Ultimately, however, neither that, nor Leon Botstein’s witty, balanced, and impressively perceptive pre-concert lecture, nor his and Jann Pasler’s excellent essays can quite put us back into those audiences’ top hat, tails, and spats. Perhaps champagne is in order. What was most palpably present in Carnegie Hall that night was some supremely imaginative and enjoyable music, much of it more substantial than one might have expected.
San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.