Bard’s Stravinsky Festival

by Sedgwick Clark

A long weekend of festival gluttony left me exhausted but happily so: the first weekend of Bard’s Stravinsky deluge (8/9-11), Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival’s U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s ecstatically received opera Written on Skin (8/12), and back home for David Lang’s the whisper opera at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival (8/13).

We drive up the Taconic Parkway along the Hudson River through some of the most beautiful country in the Northeast, in passionate anticipation of what Bard’s omni-proselytizer Leon Botstein has to share with us. He and his artistic co-directors, Christopher H. Gibbs and Robert Martin, invariably concoct illuminating musical menus by the primary composer and complementary works by various colleagues. Preconcert talks and panels of experts dot the schedule, reminding us that Bard is a school. Superbly produced, unfailingly literate, and perfectly proofread programs are available to all attendees. One never fails to learn and even be surprised. (Ever hear any music by Mikhail Gnesin, Maximilian Steinberg, or André Souris? I hadn’t even heard of the latter.) Two programs this year featured ten composers, and they sometimes run close to three hours counting setups between works. Bard audiences are notable for their sitzfleisch.

Tempo is the principal problem in the performance of his music, Stravinsky tells Robert Craft in Conversations with Igor Stravinsky: “A piece of mine can survive almost anything but wrong or uncertain tempo.” Botstein’s presentational approach to conducting is more in tune with Stravinsky, who claimed to loathe interpreters, than, say, Mahler, whose music is open to a variety of approaches. I’m hopeful. In his introductory preconcert talk on opening night, Botstein says that, with few exceptions, Stravinsky’s music is no longer difficult for contemporary audiences. But, he warns ominously about one of the works on the program, “I assure you that Abraham and Isaac does sound ‘modern.’ ” (Actually, it doesn’t, being a 60-year-old serialist relic whose time has long passed in our current, neo-tonal era.) Interestingly, Botstein’s easygoing performance of this ungrateful piece with members of the American Symphony Orchestra was quite the most digestible I’ve ever heard, abetted by baritone John Hancock’s mellow rendering of the Hebrew text. The most popular work on the program, Symphony of Psalms, was unerringly paced but compromised by mushy choral articulation. Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss, two young pianists who would shine in other performances throughout the weekend, brought the unaccountably neglected Concerto for Two Pianos to life. And Botstein led a taut Les Noces that featured an engaging vocal quartet—soprano Kiera Duffy, mezzo-soprano Melis Jaatinen, tenor Mikhail Vekua, and bass-baritone Andrey Borisenko—to end the concert.

The second program, called “The Russian Context,” was one of those point-making Bard concerts performed largely by workmanlike festival regulars. Three Tchaikovsky works, for instance, Feuillet d’album, Op. 19, No. 3, and Humoreske, Op. 10, No. 2, both for piano, and the song None but the Lonely Heart, Op. 6, No. 6, were all adapted by Stravinsky for his 1928 ballet Le Baiser de la fée. The pianist in these, and several other works throughout the first weekend, Gustav Djupsjöbacka, was discouragingly half-hearted, whether as soloist or accompanist. Fortunately, contributions by pianists Orion Weiss in works by Glinka and Stravinsky and Piers Lane in works by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Stravinsky compensated. Most impressive, however, was the young, Curtis-trained Dover Quartet in Glazunov’s Five Novelettes, Op. 15, which had everyone marveling over the foursome’s warm, full-bodied sonority and gracious Romantic style.

A teacher (Rimsky-Korsakov), and two students (Steinberg and Stravinsky) in works from 1913, dominated the third program, with the full American Symphony under Botstein reveling in the shimmering sensuousness of a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1907) and Maximilian Steinberg’s ballet suite from Les métamorphoses. The music might have been from the same pen. What a contrast with the savage Le Sacre du printemps, however, conducted pretty much in one well-chosen tempo throughout, as the work’s first conductor, Pierre Monteux, said was possible. There were no serious mishaps, and the Danse sacrale—the burial ground for innumerable past performances—went perfectly. Unfortunately, the brass were nearly always too loud, overwhelming the strings, and rasping and ugly besides.

Many performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) strike people as “modern” because they are so unattractively sung. What a revelation in the fourth program, then, to hear Kiera Duffy tackle the composer’s Sprechstimme with utmost security and beauty, matched by the character and musicality of the excellent instrumentalists. Her accuracy in honoring the composer’s frequent p and pp indications imparted a surprisingly delicate character to a work that 101 years later can still be daunting, although I wondered if listeners farther back than my row F could distinguish the text without difficulty. Four fine performances of vocal works with instrumentation inspired by Pierrot followed: Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913), Melis Jaatinen, mezzo-soprano; Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous (1912-13), Lei Xu, soprano; Stravinsky’s Trois poésies de la lyrique Japonaise (1913) and Pribaoutki (1914), Lei Xu, soprano, and John Hancock, baritone, respectively. Short pieces by Falla, Ravel, Bartók, and Satie composed in homage to Debussy soon after his death followed, and the concert ended with a performance of Debussy’s always welcome two-piano En blanc et noir (1915) by Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung.

Les Six, a group of post-World War I Parisian composers who adopted avant-garde artistic trends as a backlash against Debussy and impressionism, dominated the sixth program. Looking to the eccentric composer Erik Satie as a mentor, The Six—Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey, and Arthur Honegger—injected café music, ragtime, and jazz into the concert hall. Typically for Bard, the most famous of these pieces, Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit (The Bull on the Roof; 1920) was not performed, and Satie’s signature piece, the ballet Parade (1916-17), was played in the composer’s four-hand piano arrangement. Missing, therefore, were such surrealistic aspects of Jean Cocteau’s scenario as sirens, whistles, gunshots, and a typewriter, but pianists Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky made the best case possible for the black-and-white version. Polonsky accompanied John Hancock in a first-rate performance of Poulenc’s last song cycle Le travail du peintre (1956). Conductor Geoffrey McDonald conjured a delectable blend of sass and refinement from the Bard Festival Chamber Players in Stravinsky’s Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918) and Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921)— a collaboration between all The Six except Durey. The final work on the concert, Stravinsky’s 25-minute opéra bouffe Mavra (1921-22), was one of Botstein’s most successful performances, undoubtedly helped by the work’s chamber forces, which prevented him from inflating dynamic values, and absence of the ASO’s brass. The impressive vocalists were soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (Parasha), mezzo-sopranos MelisJaatinen (The Neighbor) and Ann McMahon Quintero (The Mother), and tenor Nicholas Phan (The Hussar).

A fine conclusion to Bard’s first weekend of Stravinsky and His World.

I had intended upon hearing Bard’s second weekend as well, but attending to an ailing pet took precedence. So my upstate festival hopping ended the next day with Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Festival for the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s acclaimed opera Written on Skin, about which I blogged last week. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the Bard Festival with Tanglewood’s Festival. Their missions are different. If nothing else, the Bard performers are all professionals and Tanglewood’s are all students. I have no idea what the respective budgets are, but professionals must be paid, and students do not. My recollection is that Bard used to have more “name” soloists (Peter Serkin was the only one this year, although some Bard musicians may reach that status eventually). I noted many American Symphony players in chamber performances this year, which cannot help but lead to exhaustion in the rehearsal and performance of concerts. Perhaps shorter programs, Maestro Botstein, would level the playing field. One wants to be encouraging about Bard because there are so many positive aspects about it—and I did enjoy many performances this year—but the inescapable conclusion, as I sat enthralled in Ozawa Hall, was that Tanglewood’s student orchestra and vocalists were so vastly superior that the Bard performers were thrown totally in the shade.

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