Risky Russians: Stravinsky & Company at Bard
By Robert Burke Warren
“We try to inform listening without guiding it,” says Bard president and resident Renaissance man Leon Botstein. Botstein’s Bard Music Festival, inaugurated in 1990, offers top-notch performances of a selected composer’s works — many conducted by Botstein — while also enticing audiences with lectures and films providing context for the music and biographical details of composers. “We talk about the politics of the period in which the piece was written,” Botstein says, “the relationship to literature, to art. Where does the piece come from in the composer’s lifetime? Why is it innovative?”
August brings the twenty-fourth annual festival — now folded into Bard’s SummerScape multi-arts event — and Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, is confident enough to present an artist whose work is revered yet still somewhat misunderstood and, he feels, under-appreciated: Igor Stravinsky. “He is arguably the most famous composer of the 20th century,” Botstein says, “in part because of The Rite of Spring.” Stravinsky’s most famous composition, unveiled when he was an obscure 28-year-old Russian exile in Paris, is a fiercely dramatic pageant of propulsive rhythms and defiant dissonance, buffeted by graceful lyricism; a century on, its audacity still astounds. (Botstein conducts The Rite of Spring and Stravinsky’s Firebird with his American Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, August 10, at 8 p.m.) When it debuted at the 1913 Ballet Russes in Paris, the stunned audience rioted, but they could not stop talking about this brazen affront to their unseasoned early-20th century sensibilities. Stravinsky rode it well. He became a celebrity and remained highly influential between the two World Wars and beyond, moving from Paris to Switzerland, and eventually Los Angeles, where, thanks in part to Fantasia (which uses The Rite of Spring as the soundtrack to a dinosaur battle and subsequent extinction) he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By the 1960s, Stravinsky himself said that people had accepted the work to the point that they now hummed it in the bathroom.
The festival will also present less renown Stravinsky compositions. Botstein says he’s looking forward most to conducting three works he’s never tackled: Le Noces (The Wedding) — “I adore it,” he says — Symphony in Three Movements, and the ballet The Card Game. “It’s not background music,” he says. “It arrests your attention. I think that’s very enjoyable. The music is unsentimental, intended to grab the audience and electrify them.”
In addition to Stravinsky, Bard will present several of his contemporaries and rivals. Russia, in particular, was a hotbed of musical development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers strove to create a “Russian” sound, distinctive from European tonal and harmonic influences, with librettos drawn from the country’s rich folk tradition (like The Rite of Spring). Into this breach stepped Sergey Taneyev whose Greek-inspired opera Oresteia went against the grain, and has languished on the fringes of the canon ever since. For Bard’s SummerScape, Botstein will mount its first complete U.S. production.
The conductor relishes rescuing great works from obscurity, and the Oresteia in particular excites him. “Since it was first performed in the 1890s, Oresteia developed a reputation of being somehow hard to produce,” Botstein says. “But the real reason [for its obscurity] is Taneyev had the courage to write an opera on a non-Russian theme.”
Not only is it non-Russian, the theme is also a less bloodthirsty and more thoughtful take on an ancient story. For Oresteia, Taneyev sourced fifth-century B.C. tragedian Aeschylus’ trilogy Agamemnon, Choephorae, and Eumenides; This trilogy tells Aeschylus’ version of the troubled House of Atreus myth. But Aeschylus — and, thus, Taneyev — transforms a traditional cycle of revenge into, as Botstein describes it, “a play with faith in human justice. This wasn’t fashionable in autocratic Russia.” That focus on justice resonates with Botstein, who has spoken at length with Charlie Rose on the subject of healing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (He’s also weighed in on education reform on The Colbert Report.)
For Oresteia, much of the cast has come from Russia, and Botstein is thrilled with rehearsals. Both the opera and the Stravinsky-focused festival promise even more stimulation than usual. As ever, Botstein has faith this summer’s Bard events will bring audiences closer than they thought possible to these unusual and highly influential artists.
July 25th – August 13th
Fisher Center Sosnoff Theater
July 26, and August 2, at 7 p.m.
July 28, 31, and August 4, at 3 p.m.
Opera Talk, July 28, at 1 p.m. Free
Bard Music Festival
Stravinsky and His World
August 9–11 and August 16–18