The 20th Annual Bard Music Festival: Wagner and His World

Richard Wagner Is Focus of 2009 Bard Music Festival Over Two Weekends: August 14–16 and August 21–23

Excerpts From All 13 Wagner Operas Are Scheduled, Alongside Works by Nearly 50 Composers Associated With “Wagner and His World”
“Part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit” – New York Times

Described by the Los Angeles Times as “uniquely stimulating,” the world-renowned Bard Music Festival, returning for its 20th annual season, fills the last two weekends of Bard SummerScape 2009 with a thrilling and illuminating exploration of “Wagner and His World.” Twelve concert programs over the two mid-August weekends, complemented by preconcert lectures, panel discussions, and a symposium, make up Bard’s examination of the composer more discussed and disputed than any other in history. The programs of Weekend One—“The Fruits of Ambition” (August 14–16)—delve into Wagner’s beginnings, the musical world he set out to conquer, and his crowning musical achievements. Weekend Two—“Engineering the Triumph of Wagnerism” (August 21–23)—takes stock of Wagner’s outstanding self-marketing ability as well as of the more disturbing aspects of his character, including his well-documented obsessiveness, competitiveness, and venomous anti-Semitism.

Leon Botstein, co-artistic director of the Bard Music Festival and music director of the resident American Symphony Orchestra, leads the ASO and a select group of singers in four concerts of operatic and orchestral works by Wagner. Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner, and such lesser-known figures as Hermann Goetz, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and Heinrich Marschner are only a few of the many composers whose works have been selected to illuminate the context of Wagner’s achievements and the impact he had on the musical culture of his day. Love him or hate him, it was difficult for any composer of the time not to fall under his influence.

Many of the 19th century’s preeminent composers are represented in the Festival. Some names are all but forgotten, but others still grace European street signs or are engraved on the walls of the opera houses, conservatories, and concert halls of the world.. The composers are: Auber, Bellini, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruch, Bruckner, Chabrier, Chausson, Cherubini, Chopin, Czerny, Debussy, Duparc, Dvořák, Flotow, Robert Franz, Goldmark, Hermann Goetz, Granados, Griffes, Halévy, Hérold, Hiller, Herzogenberg, Humperdinck, Joachim, Liszt, Loewe, Marschner, Mendelssohn, Messager, Meyerbeer, Nietzsche, Offenbach, Palestrina, Alexander Ritter, Rossini, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Spohr, Spontini, Johann Strauss Jr., Richard Strauss, Arthur Sullivan, Suppé, Weber, and Wolf.

Creative programming

During the festival, Leon Botstein leads the American Symphony Orchestra and guest artists in excerpts from each of the 13 operas Richard Wagner completed. The concept behind most of the selections chosen is to present those parts of his operas that the composer himself excerpted in concert, often well in advance of the premiere of the complete work. This offers an unusual opportunity to appreciate Wagner’s own self-representation and understand the way he so effectively marketed his music. The opening concert on August 14 (one of the Festival’s three all-Wagner programs) demonstrates aspects of the composer’s remarkable artistic development: Botstein has programmed parts of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi (Wagner’s first three operas), alongside selections from his later masterpieces Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. This first concert will also feature a performance of Wagner’s lone completed symphony, which he wrote at age 19. It was lost for decades, and then performed one final time shortly before the composer’s death—the last time he conducted his music. The first version of Wagner’s Faust Overture, originally envisioned as a symphony, rounds out the program.

At the second orchestral concert, on August 15, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin—all from the composer’s “middle period”—are excerpted together with virtually unknown early Wagner compositions, including an 1840 chorus for “La descente de la courtille” —an obscure Parisian carnival parade— and a substitute aria written for Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. On August 22, scenes from the four “Ring” operas are represented in a single program. The final concert, under the heading “Music and German National Identity,” presents three large-scale patriotic choral works. Bruckner’s Germanenzug hails a multitude of Teutonic tribesmen “striding through the forest primeval, onward to holy battle.” Wagner’s grandiose and celebratory Kaisermarsch (Emperor March) celebrated German victory in the Franco-Prussian war. Johannes Brahms’s Triumphlied for eight-part chorus and full orchestra draws its texts from the Book of Revelation, and also commemorates German military triumph. The concert—and the Festival—will conclude with the grand final scene of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Besides the music of Wagner, some of the other popular works to be performed are Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Brahms’s Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor, Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie, Wolf’s Italian Serenade, and excerpts from Dvořák’s Cypresses. Songs and piano music by Wagner, rarely to be heard anywhere but Bard, appear on many of the chamber music programs. The Wagnerian aesthetic agenda is contrasted with opposing positions, the so-called “War of the Romantics” that pitted Wagner, Berlioz, Liszt, and their followers against Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and theirs.

Before the era of recordings and other electronic “home entertainment,” arrangements of operas and orchestral works disseminated music and made it available for domestic consumption. To make money as a struggling young composer in Paris , Wagner made many such arrangements of popular operas, of which a sample will be presented. In the hands of a virtuoso like Franz Liszt, arrangements could become spectacular showpieces. “Wagner in Paris,” a concert on August 16 at 5:30 pm, is devoted to several such blockbusters, including his dazzling transcription of Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from the Symphonie fantastique and, for those Festival visitors who also take in one of the Bard SummerScape performances of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots earlier in August, the pièce de résistance—Liszt’s Réminiscences des Huguenots.

Wagner’s position within the great German choral tradition is demonstrated in a program that includes works by Palestrina, Bruckner, Liszt, and Brahms (August 15). A notable program entitled “Bearable Lightness: The Comic Alternative” (August 22) offers some lighter fare to offset the Wagnerian gravitas. Excerpts from Johann Strauss Jr.’s Eine Nacht in Venedig, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, Offenbach ’s Le roi Carotte and Rheinnixen, and Suppé’s Lohengelb, among others, will show the humorous side of music theater in the latter half of the 19th century.

Talks, illustrated lectures, panel discussions, and films

The Bard Music Festival will open, as is the tradition, with a preconcert lecture by Leon Botstein, followed by an orchestral concert. The next day begins with an illustrated lecture by John Deathridge, on the subject of “Reality and Image: Wagner in Film,” before the midday concert. (Bard SummerScape is screening no fewer than ten films with links to Wagner, between July 16 and August 20). Further preconcert talks will be given by Byron Adams, Walter Frisch, Dana Gooley, Michael Musgrave, Jann Pasler, Alexander Rehding, R. Larry Todd, and Christopher H. Gibbs, co-artistic director of the Festival. The two panel discussions will be moderated by Thomas S. Grey (“Warring Aesthetics,” August 16) and Mr. Botstein (“Wagner and the Jewish Question,” August 23).

The final segments of the Bard Film Festival—“Politics, Theater, and Wagner”—will take place during “Wagner and His World.” The two parts of Fritz Lang’s NibelungenSiegfried’s Death and Kriemhild’s Revenge—will be screened with piano accompaniment by Ben Model on August 16 and August 20, respectively.

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 16. Reservations are required. Call the Box Office at (845) 758-7900 for more information.

Bard’s delightful destination-spot, the Spiegeltent, will be open for lunch and dinner throughout “Wagner and His World,” and there will be special opening and closing parties in the tent on August 14 and 23, respectively.

Bard Music Festival Books

Since the first Bard Music Festival—“Brahms and His World”—in 1990, Princeton University Press has published a companion book of scholarly essays written especially for the volume. This year’s Wagner and His World is edited by Thomas S. Grey and will be issued in time for Bard SummerScape. A new and expanded edition of Brahms and His World—edited by Walter Frisch and Kevin Karnes—will be published by Princeton this summer.

Ticket Information

For tickets and further information on all Bard SummerScape 2009 and Bard Music Festival events, call the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.

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