Bard Music Festival’s In-Depth Survey of Music by Camille Saint-Saëns and His Contemporaries (August 10–19) Is Centerpiece of 2012 Bard SummerScape Festival
23 Apr 2012
Interchanging Idioms

Described by the New York Times as “part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit,” the world-renowned Bard Music Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, returns for its 23rd annual season, filling the last two weekends of Bard SummerScape 2012 with a compelling and enlightening investigation of “Saint-Saëns and His World.” Twelve concert programs over the two mid-August weekends, complemented by pre-concert lectures, panel discussions, and expert commentary, make up Bard’s examination of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), whose long and remarkable career spanned and helped shape the course of French music from Gounod to Ravel. The twelve concerts offer an immersion in the music of Belle Époque France, with its trademark opulence and emotional richness, presenting masterpieces from all genres of Saint-Saëns’s prodigious oeuvre, including a rare concert performance of his grand opera Henry VIII, alongside a wealth of music from contemporaries and compatriots. Weekend 1 – “Paris and the Culture of Cosmopolitanism” (August 10–12) – situates Saint-Saëns within his native city, which, as the new musical capital of Europe, was attracting a young generation of composers from abroad. Weekend 2 – “Confronting Modernism” (August 17–19) – explores the ways the French late-Romantics set the stage for modernism’s subsequent upheavals. Together, Bard’s offerings present a vivid portrait of a dazzlingly creative and colorful era in European history: a Golden Age of promise and possibility that came to an end with the tragedy of World War I.

As the New York Times observes, “Over two decades, the Bard Music Festival has managed more than its fair share of ambitious feats in its immersive annual examinations of classical music’s major composers,” offering a “rich web of context” for a full appreciation of that composer’s inspirations and significance. The resident American Symphony Orchestra, integral to the Bard Music Festival from the first, celebrates its half-centenary in the coming season, with the 2012 music festival taking place on the eve of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Leon Botstein, co-artistic director of the festival and soon to begin his 20th season as music director of the American Symphony, will conduct all three orchestral programs at the beautiful Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on Bard’s glorious Hudson Valley campus. As in previous seasons, choral programs will feature the Bard Festival Chorale directed by James Bagwell, while this year’s impressive roster of performers includes cellists Edward Arron, Zuill Bailey, and Sophie Shao; violinists Miranda Cuckson, Eugene Drucker, and Giora Schmidt; sopranos Ellie Dehn and Lori Guilbeau; the Horszowski Trio; pianists Anna Polonsky, Gilles Vonsattel, and Orion Weiss; and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringel.

With its recognized gift for thematic programming, Bard achieves a unique depth and breadth of musical and cultural discovery. A wide range of Saint-Saëns’s own music will be performed, from popular and canonical works like the Carnival of the Animals and the “Organ Symphony” to such bona fide rarities as Henry VIII, the late solo sonatas for oboe and bassoon, and his finest choral work: the biblical oratorio Le déluge (“The Flood”). Bard also presents a rich and illuminating array of music by Saint-Saëns’s contemporaries, who range from luminaries like his close friend and most famous student, Gabriel Fauré, to lesser-known figures like Cécile Chaminade. Works by foreign-born composers, including Franz Liszt, Pablo de Sarasate, and Igor Stravinsky, reflect Paris’s eclipse of Vienna as Europe’s musical center by the late 1800s.


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THE PERILS OF ROMANCE Music review by Kevin T. McEneaney Sun Jun 17th, 2018 An unusual faculty recital was held at Vassar College’s Skinner Hall this past Saturday. While not well-publicized this concert was of enormous interest for those who love music. Cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Thomas Sauer offered both an unusual program as well superb musicianship. They opened with the ever-popular Rondo, Op. 94 by Dvorák, famously composed on Christmas Day by Antonín Dvorák who wanted a worthy showpiece for his esteemed cellist playing in the quartet they were touring in. This piece often appears in cello competitions because it demands a blend of rigorous technique and soulful emotion—qualities that shone in Shao’s resonant, buoyant sound. Shao performs on the cello that Pablo Casals once played. Dvorák’s Silent Woods, Op. 68, evoked an atmosphere of meditative contemplation. The stage was set for the World Première of Robert Cuckson’s 2016 Sonata for Cello and Piano. Cuckson (who was present in the audience), born in the U.S., was raised in Australia and educated in England. His sonata was in three movements: it began with the slow development of infatuation between piano and cello; a romance between the instruments developed; a march, which became sarcastic and satiric ensued, then the instruments argued about the direction of each digression, each musical idea, ever more furiously, until they ironically echoed with bitterness their very first notes from the opening movement. This comic portrayal of the arc of infatuation, romance, and divorce was adroitly played by both performers with the exasperated lower register of Shao’s fiercely sawing cello evoking mirthful laughter in me and smiles in other audience members too timid to laugh. Despite the obvious literalism of the program, this was quite an amusing outing worthy of a second hearing. After a brief intermission, Sauer played Scherzo No. 4 in E major for piano by Frédéric Chopin. Many commentators declare the recording Stanislav Richter to be definitive, yet Benjamin Grosvenor has recently challenged the Richter legend with a light, lyrical, cleanly gossamer version that has been much acclaimed. Yet Sauer delivered a different interpretation rooted in Chopin’s life. On May 28, 1842, Chopin’s lover George Sand wrote a letter acclaiming two new mazurkas by Chopin to be “worth more than twenty novels.” Yet six weeks later the lovers were both ill. George was afflicted with an infected optic nerve and had to wear eyeshades to block sunlight which bestowed baleful headaches as she rushed to complete her latest novel set in Venice and the Czech Republic under the duress of a preposterous deadline. Chopin was bedridden for nearly two months in the hot summer heat with what may have been strep-throat, his neck swollen bulbously with mucus. He composed the Scherzo, his last and the only one in a major key, in fits-and-starts during this debilitating illness, thinking he was at death’s door. Sauer captured the manic desperation of Chopin’s struggle highlighting the alternation of hope and despair, imbuing his performance with desperate improvisational edge. Sauer’s interpretation and performance was extraordinary; he brought out the passionate interior of the artist defying defeat through dramatic suspension, hopeful glissando runs, and surprise asymmetry that emphasized episodic construction. This was the aspiration, agony, and ecstasy of Chopin at work despite debility. Sauer revealed the process of composition as a struggle of incremental organic growth, stripping away the imaginary setting of the polite social salon by focusing on the isolated crisis of creation: the Polish folk tune of romance, upon which the Scherzo was based, became a living monument of Chopin’s inspirational love for music itself under Sauer’s fingers. Will there be a recording? I don’t want to listen to anyone else’s interpretation. Alluding to the difficulties of love, Shao re-appeared and they performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 102, no.1. In four movements, piano and cello conducted a civilized conversation arriving at flirtation. Each instrument had civilized things to say, yet their conversation never achieved anything—as they appeared to politely “talk” at cross-purposes without understanding each other. No solution to this quandary was achieved: the composition merely ended. What had recently occurred in Beethoven’s tumultuous life was this: Countess Marie Erdödy, to whom Beethoven had dedicated several of his chamber works, admired Beethoven’s music, and had invited him to live at her home as a lodger. Beethoven discovered that the Countess had been paying his manservant for sexual favors. In a rage, Beethoven moved out and rented a room in a brothel. This rarely performed Sonata is a satiric exercise about good music that goes nowhere. While the evening’s program had begun with convention, it had suddenly veered off into the perilous terrain of love and art. I’ve always admired the subtle connections of Sauer’s recital programs, yet this seemingly modest concert was a giant event.

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