Bard Music Festival, Weekend One, at Bard College, August 10-12, 2012
The New York Times, August 14, 2012
For an unrepentent music geek like me, the Bard Music Festival is simply irresistible: a fabulous wealth of music by a major composer from the classical tradition, surrounded and contextualized with works by forebears, peers, colleagues, friends, enemies, students, followers—you name it. This year's festival, focusing on the music of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, admittedly was not one I greatly looked forward to, I'll freely admit; I know and admire some works by Saint-Saëns—what percussionist doesn't love Danse Macabre?—but on the whole, my opinion going in was probably not so far removed from the quotation I borrowed from an earlier New York Times critic, Richard Aldrich:
“His music has invention, skill, ingenuity, taste, a great feeling for form and rhythm, mastery of resource for all the mediums in which he wrote – and they were about all the mediums that exist. But there is rarely in it a true creative force, passion, warmth and vivifying power, or even spontaneity. There is always the impression of craftsmanship, expertness, as the underlying source of it all; and they are not enough.”
Which just makes me even more eager to admit that the BMF, with its dependably outstanding array of musicians and scholars, convinced me exactly why I should care about Saint-Saëns, who was capable of real greatness more often than I suspected. The masterpieces—the "Organ" Symphony and The Carnival of the Animals foremost during my visit—were confirmed as such. But delights equally great came in works I'd never paid close-enough attention to: the first piano trio and quartet, for example, and the Piano Concerto No. 5, "Egyptian," which in Danny Driver's hands proved a neglected gem that could easily replace yet another Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff performance in a standard orchestral program.
What I enjoy most of all about the BMF, and I've said this many times before, is the sensation of being isolated somewhere gentle and just distant enough, and surrounded by people who, like me, want to listen closely, ponder deeply and discuss intently. It's not altogether easy to take in so much music—Bard president and BMF artistic director Leon Botstein seems incapable of programming a concert that lasts for less than two-and-a-half hours, and there are usually six concerts each weekend. Nor is it easy to distill what I've heard on deadline without lapsing into merely recounting favorite performances—which would be oh-so-easy to do.
But it's always deeply enriching, and worth whatever effort it demands. That press quote they like to trot out—"part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit"? Mine.
You can still attend the festival's second weekend this Friday through Sunday; the primary highlight is a performance on Sunday afternoon of Saint-Saëns's virtually forgotten historical opera, Henry VIII. Next year's Bard Music Festival will focus on Stravinsky, with Taneyev's opera Oresteia as a prologue during the broader SummerScape series; the year after, Schubert, operatic intrigue TBD.
A final thought: When I was up at Bard a few weeks ago to cover Chabrier's opera Le roi malgré lui, Leon Botstein was asked in a Q&A session following his pre-performance talk about rare American operas he might be interested in taking on. Unsurprisingly, and bravely, Botstein cited Montezuma, an uneven but noble work by Roger Sessions. With that in mind, here are five words I urgently wish to impart:
Carlos Chávez and His World.
I'll be here if you need me, Mr. Botstein.
Past Bard Music Festival reviews:
In a dictionary, “exhilaration” and “exhaustion” appear in close proximity. The second weekend of the Bard Music Festival…brought them even closer together.
Two evening concerts by the American Symphony Orchestra offered works so powerful and vital as to render their current neglect inexplicable.
The piece, it almost goes without saying, is absurd.
…nothing among Wagner’s early works indicated that he was a likely candidate for changing the world.
2010: Alban Berg and His World
“My job tonight is to allay any residual fears you might have,” the conductor Leon Botstein said from the stage…
“I believe that ‘pure’ and ‘purity’ are dangerous words, best reserved only for food and water,” the musicologist Byron Adams said…