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The 21st Annual Bard Music Festival: Berg and His World

“Part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit” – New York Times

For full details of the program, see the Festival website.

Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. – Described by the Los Angeles Times as “uniquely stimulating,” the world-renowned Bard Music Festival returns for its 21st annual season, to fill the last two weekends of Bard SummerScape 2010 with a compelling and enlightening exploration of “Berg and His World.” Twelve concert programs over the two mid-August weekends, complemented by pre-concert lectures, panel discussions, expert commentaries, and a symposium, make up Bard’s examination of Alban Berg, the composer whose enduring impact on the hearts and minds of post-war audiences is unique among the modernists of his generation. The twelve concerts present Berg’s complete orchestral oeuvre, all of his published chamber, instrumental, and vocal works, and Berg’s own suites from his operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, alongside a wealth of music from more than 40 of his contemporaries. Weekend One—“Berg and Vienna” (August 13–15)—contextualizes Berg within the cultural melting pot he shared with Schoenberg, Mahler, and Freud, while Weekend Two—“Berg the European” (August 20–22)—takes stock of the diversity of music between the wars, including the backlash against modernism.

The Bard Music Festival has won international acclaim for its unrivaled, in-depth exploration of the life and works of a single composer and his contemporaries, offering, in the words of the New York Times, a “rich web of context” for a full appreciation of that composer’s inspirations and significance. Leon Botstein, co-artistic director of the festival and music director of the resident American Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the orchestral programs; these, like many of the other concerts and special events, will take place in 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 the Daedalus and FLUX Quartets, pianist Jeremy Denk, violinist Soovin Kim, and soprano Christiane Libor.

Through the prism of Berg’s life and career, the 2010 festival will explore the origins, varieties, and fate of modernism in music. Listeners will encounter music ranging from the familiar Viennese waltzes of Berg’s youth to the most avant-garde experiments of the 1920s and ’30s, by way of serialism, the conservative reaction against it, neo-classicism, and jazz. Usually hailed as a pioneer of the modernist movement along with his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, and fellow student Anton Webern, here Berg will be considered in a richer and more nuanced context as a contemporary of Mahler, Zemlinsky, Pfitzner, Reger, Busoni, and Karl Weigl, and as one who engaged the new music of Bartók, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin, Casella, and Szymanowski.

Christopher H. Gibbs, one of the three Artistic Directors for the Bard Music Festival – along with Leon Botstein and Robert Martin – observes, “Berg’s genius rested in his capacity to integrate into modernism – with its rigorous insistence on aesthetic integrity – the emotional intensity associated with late Romanticism, the expressionist will to break with the past, and an abiding affection for the Classical tradition. Berg’s music, from the start – its disciplined and complex modernity notwithstanding – evoked an intense truthfulness, communicating, as one of his contemporaries put it, ‘summer, the depth of the night, loneliness, pain and happiness.’ He lived only half a century, yet no other modernist composer of the time still affects as many present-day listeners so profoundly.”

The twelve musical programs, built thematically and spaced over the two weekends, open with a pair of chamber concerts. “Alban Berg: The Path of Expressive Intensity” traces Berg’s stylistic development from early works like the Seven Early Songs (1905-08), composed while under Schoenberg’s tutelage, to the maturity of his Lyric Suite (1925-26), a twelve-tone string quartet dedicated to Zemlinsky, from whose Lyric Symphony it quotes. Also featured is Berg’s 1921 arrangement of Wein, Weib, und Gesang (“Wine, Women, and Song”) by Johann Strauss II, Vienna’s “waltz king,” whose music was highly regarded by the Schoenberg circle. Program Two presents “The Vienna of Berg’s Youth,” coupling selections from Berg’s early piano pieces and songs with other works, also from the early 1900s, which share the same preoccupation with extending tonality without yet breaking the bounds of Romanticism. Webern’s Piano Quintet of 1907, for example, is predominantly Brahmsian, despite the extremity of its chromaticism. Like Berg, Webern was at the time taking lessons from Schoenberg, who in turn studied counterpoint with Zemlinsky, two of whose works are featured.

There follows “Mahler and Beyond,” first of the orchestral programs, which addresses the legendary symphonist’s legacy. The Adagio from Mahler’s own unfinished Tenth Symphony (1910) is paired with comparably lush, large-scale works, including “Abend” and “Nacht” from Pfitzner’s Von deutscher Seele (1921) and Berg’s elegiac Violin Concerto (1935), his most frequently-performed work. Although based on a tone row, the concerto’s sonorities are often more tonal than serial in effect, for the row itself is built of major and minor thirds. Moreover, both its movements close with passages reminiscent of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde. Berg composed the concerto in the year of his death, interrupting work on his seminal opera Lulu to do so, to commemorate the death of Alma Mahler’s teenage daughter. Yet despite his dedicating it “to the memory of an angel,” the Violin Concerto is said to be a “piece with a double life,” containing encrypted references to Berg’s mistress at the time.

Love and death are inextricably entwined in the fourth program, entitled “Eros and Thanatos,” after the conflicting drives – the libido, or life-drive, and the death-drive – that Freud identified as governing human nature. Since Schopenhauer’s study of the Buddhist notion of Nirvana, which inspired Wagner’s treatment of love and death in Tristan und Isolde, such themes had come to preoccupy the modernists greatly. Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg were all personally acquainted with Freud, and his theories struck a chord, both with them and with such contemporaries as Alma Mahler and Franz Schreker.

The figure of Schoenberg presides over the next concert, “Teachers and Apostles,” a program of chamber works by the composer, his students (Berg included), and those who studied with Berg. Representing the older generation are the three composers of the Second Viennese School and Egon Wellesz, with Berg’s String Quartet of 1910 as centerpiece. Schoenberg’s younger students include Viktor Ullmann, who would later die in Auschwitz, while Berg’s two pupils are Theodor Adorno, eminent philosopher and sociologist of the Frankfurt School, and the aptly-named Hans Erich Apostel. The selection offers a rare opportunity to trace the genealogy of influence between them.

The opening weekend concludes with a second orchestral concert, “The Orchestra Reimagined.” This time the featured works are scaled down and, far from taking Mahler’s opulence as their inspiration, are modeled on Classical lines. Programmed alongside Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, and the ambiguous harmonies of Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque (1909, arr. 1920) is Berg’s Kammerkonzert of 1923-25, his first work to use a tone row. Such pared-down orchestration appealed to Berg, who valued being able “to hear and judge modern orchestral scores stripped of all sound effects that an orchestra produces and all of its sensory aids.”

After the First World War and in the wake of Wozzeck’s success, Berg’s relationship with Schoenberg underwent changes. Nevertheless, they worked together to run the Society for Private Musical Performances, which sought to create an ideal environment for the exploration of unappreciated and unfamiliar new music by means of open rehearsals, repeated performances, and the exclusion of all critics. Weekend Two of the Festival, “Berg the European,” opens with a sampling of some of the more important works that were featured at the Society, including Ravel’s La valse (1919-20), arranged for two pianos, and works by Bartók, Szymanowski, and Stravinsky, as well as a chamber version of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-94, arr. 1921), in “‘No Critics Allowed’: The Society for Private Performances.”

By contrast, “You Can’t Be Serious! Viennese Operetta and Popular Music” provides some light relief, with extracts from chamber operas and cabaret songs by Johann Strauss II, Arthur Sullivan, Franz Léhar, Emmerich Kálmán, and Berg himself. Popular music is also evoked in Program Nine’s survey of contemporary composition, “Composers Select: New Music in the 1920s,” since Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano (1923-26) take their inspiration from blues and jazz. Testifying to the fragmented nature of musical modernism in the ’20s, the Preludes share the program with a heterogeneous group of works, including quarter-tone experiments from Czech Alois Hába, Falla’s masterful Harpsichord Concerto of 1923-26, and works by Casella (an enthusiastic Fascist), Korngold, Eisler, Ernst Toch, and Berg himself.

Der Wein (1929), Berg’s concerto aria for soprano and orchestra, is ostensibly dodecaphonic, although based on a tone row that lends itself to diatonic sonorities. Program Ten, “Modernism and Its Discontent,” couples the aria with a very different work: Franz Schmidt’s powerful biblical oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (“The Book of the Seven Seals,” 1935-37). With this choral epic, Schmidt rejected expressionism and serialism wholesale, espousing instead a Brucknerian sound world that sometimes harks back to the Baroque. The oratorio received its Vienna premiere just after the 1938 Anschluss, by which Austria came under Nazi rule, and the work’s reputation suffered as a result.

Berg himself did not live to see the Anschluss, meeting an untimely death from sepsis in 1935, but in the preceding years he, like his contemporaries, had already confronted difficult political decisions. In the face of Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, those who were not forced to flee could either emigrate of their own accord or stay, and those who stayed had to choose: “Between Accommodation and Inner Emigration: The Composer’s Predicament.” It was writer Frank Thiess who coined the phrase “Inner Emigration” to describe those artists who chose to stay in Nazi Germany and publish. It was their duty, Thiess claimed, to remain in the country they loved and continue to write for their public. Program Eleven features Berg’s song Schliesse mir die Augen beide (1925) alongside works by composers representing a range of different responses to this dilemma. Ernst Krenek was especially vulnerable because of his brief marriage to Anna Mahler and his jazz-influenced music – he emigrated to America in 1938, his music already banned in Germany; lyrical serialist Luigi Dallapiccola took a courageous stand against the Third Reich, which forced him on several occasions into hiding; Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a passionate anti-Nazi, was nonetheless too poor to leave Germany; and Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, though harboring no especial Nazi sympathies, attended the Berlin premiere of his opera Das Schloss Dürande in 1943.

No Berg retrospective could be complete without hearing from his operas. The twelfth and final program of the Bard Music Festival, “Crimes and Passions,” redresses this balance with an orchestral concert featuring both the Three Fragments from Wozzeck (1924) and the Lulu Suite (1934). The operas themselves differ musically: Wozzeck dates from Berg’s atonal period, while Lulu, one of his last works, is dodecaphonic. Thematically, however, they are linked, both addressing the social predicament of women. Berg’s orchestral suites, which functioned like film trailers at the time and generated interest in the works, are coupled with two operas-in-concert that also embrace “crimes and passions.” Hindemith’s one-act expressionist opera Sancta Susanna (1921) is about celibacy, lust, and the church. Royal Palace (1925-26), Kurt Weill’s rarely-programmed one-act opera, boasts a jazz-inflected score and incorporates such contemporary dance forms as fox-trot and tango. It is the story of a beautiful woman who is asked to choose between three men: her husband, her former lover, and a new admirer, but eventually wearies of their egotism and their attempts to possess her, and decides instead to drown herself. The full score and orchestral parts of Royal Palace were lost after a 1929 production, and the opera was not reconstructed until 1971. Bard’s revival of this exciting and innovative work by one of the 20th century’s great entertainers is a fitting way to bring audiences together for the close of another captivating festival.

Two programs – “Eros and Thanatos” and “You can’t be serious! Viennese Operetta and Popular Music” – will be accompanied by commentaries from experts in the field, Byron Adams and Derek B. Scott respectively. Two free panel discussions, entitled “Berg: His Life and Career” and “Music and Morality,” and a free symposium moderated by Garry Hagberg on “Rethinking the Modern” will be supplemented by informative discussions before each performance that illuminate the concert’s themes and are free to ticket holders. As has become traditional, the first of these pre-concert talks will be given by Maestro Botstein himself, with further talks by Antony Beaumont, Mark DeVoto, Christopher H. Gibbs, Bryan Gilliam, Christopher Hailey, Sherry D. Lee, Tamara Levitz, Marilyn McCoy, and Richard Wilson.

Special Coach Transportation: Round-trip coach transportation from Columbus Circle in New York City to Bard’s Fisher Center will be provided for Program Six on Sunday, August 15. To make a reservation on the round-trip coach provided exclusively to ticket holders for specific performances indicated by + in the calendar of events that follows below, call the box office at (845) 758-7900. The fare is $20 round-trip, and reservations are required. The coach departs from Columbus Circle four hours before scheduled curtain time to allow for dining in the Spiegeltent or a pre-performance visit to Bard’s Hessel Museum.

Bard’s delightful destination spot, the Spiegeltent, will be open for lunch and dinner throughout “Berg and His World,” and there will be special opening and closing parties in the tent on August 13 and 22 respectively.

Since the founding of the Bard Music Festival with “Brahms and His World” in 1990, each season Princeton University Press has published a companion volume of new scholarship and interpretation, with essays, translations, and correspondence relating to the featured composer and his world. Dr. Christopher Hailey, editor of The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence: Selected Letters, is editor of the 2010 volume, Alban Berg and His World.

The Wall Street Journal has observed that the Bard Music Festival “has long been one of the most intellectually stimulating of all American summer festivals and frequently is one of the most musically satisfying.” Reviewing a previous season of the festival, a critic for the New York Times reported, “As impressive as many of the festival performances were, they were matched by the audience’s engagement: strangers met and conversed, analyzing the music they’d heard with sophistication, and a Sunday-morning panel discussion of gender issues in 19th-century culture drew a nearly full house. All told, it was a model for an enlightened society.”

 

Press release by Louise Barder
© 21C Media Group, April 2010

 


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