If the Berkshire Review appears to have been rather quiet lately, that is because New York Arts, as of the beginning of 2013, has taken over the international coverage that formerly occupied The Berkshire Review, which has returned to its roots as a local arts journal devoted on the great summer festivals of The Berkshires. While some of these—Aston Magna and Tannery Pond—have begun to simmer already in June, they will spring into full life with the American national holiday on July 4th—and so will the Berkshire Review!
At first, Saint-Saëns was ahead of his time. Then, following his decade at the apex of French music, he was old-fashioned. We remember him today as if he were a composer of ‘light’ music, suitable for Pops concerts and to be excerpted. His most well-known work was a private joke that he hesitated to publish. And yet, as demonstrated by the Bard Festival, he was considerably more than that, a figure through whose music and career a new light is cast on the art and culture of the second half of the nineteenth century.
One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
The theme of Bard’s retrospective “Berg and His World” was clearly stated and restated: Berg needs to be liberated from the so-called “Second Viennese School” and seen in a wider context of Vienna and beyond. Too long has he been seen primarily as a student of Schoenberg along with Webern; this perspective masks his individuality as well as his stature, which, if anything, is as great or greater than that of his beloved “master.” The gauntlet was laid down right away by Leon Botstein, who gave the first pre-concert talk: Berg gives us the best of both worlds, the expressive, content-oriented approach to composition as communication, and the formally strict, self-contained structural world of the music for its own sake. Implication no. 1: Schoenberg and Webern over-emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Implication no. 2: other composers and artists than Schoenberg had powerful influences on Berg’s urge to compose expressively (read “romantically”). Implication no. 3: Berg was as much a romantic as a modernist. Result: Berg became by far the most popular (hence, successful) composer of the three.
The fare tonight was not merely Beethoven as meat and potatoes: a twentieth-century work, Harold Farberman’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, was presented, as well as the U.S. premiere of Shulamit Ran’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (2008). The anchoring of each contemporary work to a Beethoven symphony was an ingenious touch. In each half of the program, after experiencing the colorful and exotic palette of new works, the Beethoven works were heard in the refreshing context as reference, foundation, ancestral, or even genetic code adumbrating the new works, and, indeed, all symphonic works to come.
After days of wonderful song recitals, chamber works, choral works either by Wagner’s adversaries, or his own jejune works, nothing prepared us for the Dropping of the Ring on August 22. A mere week before, we were blown away by Schumann’s great piano quintet; the utter grandeur of Brahms’s F-Minor Sonata for Two Pianos was still vivid from the night before. But when the nuclear event occurred, none of us were the same; nothing was the same.
However ideologically opposed he might have been to the idea of choral music, and, in spite of his own injunction against the unnaturalness of simultaneous voices, in practice Wagner outfitted his operas with exceptional choral writing. Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are unimaginable without their famous choruses. While such writing eludes Rheingold, Walküre, and Siegfried, in dogmatic adherence to his pre-Schopenhauerian views at the time, Wagner relented and laced his later operas with sumptuous and varied choral passages. Throughout Parsifal, Wagner balanced differing choral idioms: the antiquated and sacred in Acts I and III, the romantic and sensual in Act II. Meistersinger, albeit partly a platform for purposeful anachronistic caricature, has his most varied and imaginative choral writing.