Spirit of Inquiry
This summer, the Bard Music Festival celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, with two weekends devoted to "Schubert and His World" at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. BRIAN KELLOW speaks with Leon Botstein, Bard College president and co-artistic director of the Festival, about his pioneering work in thematic programming.
Bard's president and baton: Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra
OPERA NEWS: To prepare for each year's Bard Festival, you have to do an enormous amount of reading and canvassing of other scholars in a many fields. What are some of the qualities you look for in the scholars that you rely on in planning the festival?
LEON BOTSTEIN: In creating the festival, the question was: what can we do that isn't already done? There's Saratoga, Blossom Music Festival, Tanglewood — thousands of festivals. And if an academic institution is going to go forward, can we do something that is different? The word "academic" is a double-edged sword. You can use it to denigrate something: "The music is academic." You have to reach a public, and concerts have to be engaging and enjoyable, and you can't give people a castor-oil history lesson — that doesn't work. So I had an ambition to combine performance and scholarship. I realized that the music public was not a public that had a modicum of amateur musical training. They took piano lessons and someone in the household loved music and stuff like that. And I had experienced the replacement of that kind of music education with record collecting. The problem with listening to a lot of records is that people get a little confused about the work of music, the text of music, and the actual performance that they got used to. So in the first LP generation, people got all invested in the definitive recording — and there is no such thing. For example, people got so used to Leonard Bernstein's view of Mahler, or the "tradition" that he established, that when someone did it differently, people didn't realize that was a plausible reading of the symphony. They just didn't like it. You got used to music being promoted by the record companies. And so it went. That's sort of a diagnostic background, if you will, of how I wanted to frame the festival.
The team that we have — Christopher Gibbs and myself — have varying kinds of expertise as scholars, and you can't know everything, so as we choose the subjects of the festival, who the scholars are shift a little bit. It's not always the case in music history that the person who does excellent scholarship and is analytically smart might actually have good judgment about the music itself. There are standouts: Byron Adams from University of California, Riverside, really knows repertoire, but he trained as a composer as well. He knows an immense amount of repertory. Because of this interest from adolescence, I began to haunt the Performing Arts Library in New York and then antiquarian bookstores in Europe, as well as libraries.
The scholars we have chosen are people who are doing pathbreaking work in a particular field and have something to contribute, or have great promise. Often we choose younger people at the beginning or middle of their careers, someone collaborative in their attitudes, instead of someone who says, "I own the field." We're looking for someone who has something new to be said in a scholarly way, and someone who is not a rigid formalist, but understands things about what the audience would be interested in. My feeling was that the audience had real interest in politics, art and literature. We do attract a portion of the audience of people who are fanatical lovers of Elgar or Stravinsky or Shostakovich. We definitely have that subset, but we have a lot of first time concertgoers, too, people who say they don't know anything about classical music. So with the pre-concert talks and lectures, you want the person to immerse himself or herself in the experience — if they go to the first concert and stay for most of it, they will come out learning a lot about how music functions and they'll realize there isn't a "right" way to listen. People come here to learn new things.
ON: What about composer biographies? How much merit do you attach to the biographer's effort of mining personal events from the composer's life and trying to determine how much light it sheds on the music? It can so easily become reductive.
LB: I think, in general, biography is a starting point, but it has been wildly overvalued in our understanding of music history. Both in painting and literature, our ability to connect ordinary language with the language of the imagination, whether it's prose or poetry or art — our ability to do that is more cultivated than it is in music. The aesthetic choices or formal choices that composers make to have careers have more complex variables driving them than biographical. There are cases where biography becomes inevitably a central factor — Charles Ives, for example — a biography is inscribed in the music unmistakably. But in this case of this year's festival, Schubert raises extremely complicated questions about work and life. Also, biography is contingent on the literary basis. You have the letters of Mozart or the tremendous correspondence of Brahms as two examples. There are composers where that evidence is extremely flimsy — Schubert being a good case, and Mahler being a good case. I am reluctant to rely on biographical "witnessing" as a way of understanding the music. Wagner's autobiography is like many autobiographies — it is a mendacious document designed to throw you off, to control one's own life. Biography is a beginning. We organized the festival not by biography but by chronology. World War I came before World War II. There's no way of getting around those frameworks. History is a framework much more than biography.
ON: In the course of planning the Bard Festival, have you ever changed your mind about a work that was a cornerstone of your research?
LB: In the process of reversing directions, yes — we often started with an opening hypothesis and had to abandon it. An example — we take in the Stravinsky case. How many Stravinskys were there? Three? A Russian, a French and an American Stravinsky? Or just the one? Are you looking for consistency throughout the works? The most famous piece Schubert wrote — the "Unfinished Symphony" — wasn't known until 1865, after he had been gone almost forty years. What we think Schubert was now is quite different from what we think Schubert was when he was alive. Also, there is one's own aesthetic evaluation — preparing work in that context changes one's attitude toward the pieces. My interest in Zemlinsky or Reger is a way of engaging with the less well known ones — and it changes my own attitude toward a canonic composer like Mahler. One of the great achievements of the festival is discovering composers that we never paid attention to before. In the case of doing the festival on Dvořák, for example, we stumbled on Suk and Novák, and composers that have fallen out of ... one of the great discoveries was the discovery of the Suk "Asrael Symphony." In the Tchaikovsky year, the real revelation was Maid of Orleans. You stumble on things you thought you knew all about and you discover music that you really didn't know existed. Sometimes it's by the person you're featuring, and sometimes it's by someone else. With Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius — a fabulous work. And then you reconsider the Pomp and Circumstance marches by looking at all of the other ones no one ever plays.
ON: What was it about Maid of Orleans that was such a revelation?
LB: It's an opera I didn't know. I had never looked at a score. When the [Richard B.] Fisher Center was built in 2003, it was to do staged opera. Mr. Fisher, who was the chairman of our board, was a great opera lover. We could do concert opera, but not real opera. Since 2003 there has been opera in there. We also said, we're not going to move from the composer back to the librettist and you do opera that people just don't know. It's not just your take or someone's take on Zauberflöte or Meistersinger. You're doing opera that people have never seen staged — Huguenots is a good example. Ferne Klang. The Nose. Liebe Der Danae. We did stuff that people come far and wide to see. Next year, we're doing Dame Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers, in a fully staged production. This year it's Euryanthe. The conventional wisdom of these operas is that the librettos are no good and they're not stageworthy.
We are doing Carlos Chávez next year, and Puccini two years from now. In the case of Puccini there isn't much chamber music or non-operatic music but Puccini becomes a door to the late nineteenth century Italian musical culture — composers we haven't paid attention to for a long time. We don't stop when the composer dies, but we stop within a ten– or fifteen–year period of the composer's death, and that brings us in the Puccini possibly to Dallapiccola. It's a window on Italian music and Italian culture from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. We will probably do a Mascagni opera that is not Cavalleria Rusticana. Festivals are forums of curiosity, not forums of authority. We don't go in trying to make an argument or prove a point. We want the audience to make its own argument. We are laying out what we believe to be the essential pieces, but we are not trying to guide the audience to a particular conclusion.
ON: Of all your Bard seasons, which have riled audiences most in terms of overturning conventional notions about a composer?
LB: Last year we decided to play Stravinsky into his political context during the Second World War, so we framed it with the film score by Hans Eisler, Night and Fog. Eisler was in California at the same time as Stravinsky. I think people were a little on edge about the way Stravinsky was being characterized with regard to his politics. The discussion of Elgar's sexuality, and how it was treated in the festival, was controversial. Likewise, the relationship of music and dictatorship in Shostakovich.
ON: In the beginning, was it difficult to persuade audiences of the value of thematic programming?
LB: It was. I always believed that music is an essential form of life. It has the same status, in a metaphorical way, as the air we breathe. We are hard-wired for music in the same way we are hard-wired for language. Therefore, I thought that music suffered more than any other field from the belief that history was the ultimate judge. If we didn't know about it, it wasn't worth listening to, or worth playing. There was a lot of resistance at first. If an opera company wants to do something — you might want an opera worth doing and the first question is: who's going to come? I don't' have a Figaro or a Rosenkavalier. Who's going to go to Liebe der Danae? It was considered "academic."
I was also, to be frank, held in suspicion myself. Every conductor learns by experience, but I didn't come through the route of being someone's assistant in an opera house or orchestra or of being someone's protégé. I came out of left field. And people stepped back and wondered. People learn by experience — it's why so many great conductors do come out of being assistants. But I think the suspicion of the idea was rooted in a reflexive belief that history is a kind of objective judge, and that we already know all the great pieces of music. People really do think that! And so it was very hard, in that sense, to reach the aficionado public. And being poor, we could not build the festival by star names. We use young quartets, young singers, young up and coming groups. We don't pay the big fees. One person who was crucial to the festival was Rudolf Firkusny, a patron of mine, and a friend — he was an adviser on the Janáček year. Vinson Cole came to do the Elgar season. Every once in a while, we have had a couple of people who have been backers of the festival who have been famous artists. Very rarely we have had a situation where the name of the artist has drawn the public. And you need people who are willing to learn rare repertory. For them to learn something no one is ever going to ask them to play again is asking a lot.
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