Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Conductor Leon Botstein

Bard Summerscape and Bard Music Festival
July 4—August 17, 2008
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

Leon Botstein
(photo: Steve J. Sherman)
Leon Botstein is known to New York music fans as the conductor of the city’s best-programmed concerts, which he leads every season with the American Symphony Orchestra. And, since 1990, he has transformed the Bard Music Festival at Bard College (located about two hours north of Manhattan) into the all-encompassing Bard Summerscape. Featured each year are concerts, symposia, discussions and other events related to a particular composer, plus many other theater, music, film and other arts programs related to that composer’s life and times. Botstein recently spoke about the 2008 Summerscape and Music Festival, which focuses on the Russian master Sergei Prokofiev and which will begin on July 4 with the world premiere of Mark Morris’s choreography for the original version of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet.


Kevin Filipski: How did you choose Prokofiev as the focus of this summer’s festival?
Leon Botstein: There are many reasons why we choose a composer for reconsideration of his music and influence. The impetus in this case was that the Prokofiev archives were opened in 2003. They were essentially sealed for a half-century – and, after the fall of the Communism, there was a whole new treasure trove of material on Prokofiev, including the diaries he kept until the mid-1930s when he moved back to USSR from spending time in Europe and America. This made possible a fresh look at his biography. For example, when he was in America in 1919-20, he appears to have had an intense love affair with Stella Adler, and he was much more engaged in Christian Science than was previously understood. Also, new compositional material -- including a first version of the ballet Romeo & Juliet -- came out, so we suddenly had a more complicated and fuller picture of the composer. He had written about his early life, and some short essays, but Prokofiev was not a composer about whom one could be very certain concerning facets of his personality, especially since his life was defined by an incomprehensible act: his return to Russia and Stalin in the 1930s.

KF: Why did you choose to stage an opera by Karol Szymanowski, rather than one of the many operas that Prokofiev composed?
LB: There has been a revival of certain Prokofiev operas, aside from The Love for Three Oranges, which has long been in the standard repertory. War and Peace and The Gambler have made a comeback recently. When you take those off the table, you’re left with The Fiery Angel, which is an extremely complicated work. We’re performing the symphony that derives from it [on August 9]. The comedy Betrothal in a Monastery has gained some traction, and we thought of doing Diary of a Real Man, his last opera; but in the context of the Iraq War, doing a Soviet propaganda piece about a soldier who continues fighting for the motherland after being seriously wounded was too much of a non-ironic glorification of war. And Semyon Kotko is too heavily Soviet to be plausible. The question became, “What kind of operatic achievement in Prokofiev’s lifetime -- not by him. but by someone he knew -- can we present?” Then we thought of Karol Szymanowski. What America needs is a first-class production of his opera King Roger and the U.S. stage premiere of his ballet-pantomime Harnasie. Like Prokofiev, Szymanowski came of age before the revolution in Russian Poland, spent time in Paris, and had some success in America as well -- though not as much as Prokofiev. Both of his works are masterpieces. So, instead of doing a lesser Prokofiev opera, we decided to do two works that deserve operatic audiences’ attention.

KF: There’s been a lot of buzz about Romeo & Juliet (July 4-9). How is original version different from the one we're used to hearing?
LB: Enough of the music is different to make it a worthwhile addition. It’s a win-win situation for us, I believe: You have brand-new choreography by Mark Morris and the music we all know and love, but organized differently and with an altered ending. I think it’s appropriate that we have such an innovative choreographer to rethink the whole ballet.

KF: Also part of the Summerscape schedule is a new production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, starring Peter Dinklage (July 9—20), plus the Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing (August 1—10).
LB: Chekhov was, in a way, the most powerful social conscience in the society in which Prokofiev came of age. He represents the turn-of-the-century Russian self-image in literature and theater that really is most relevant, and so we thought producing Vanya was appropriate. When Prokofiev was in the United States, he had a young protégé named Vladimir Dukelsky -- who later became Vernon Duke -- and he also became aware of music for American films and theater, meeting Gershwin as well as Gloria Swanson. Of Thee I Sing is not only appropriate for this election year, but it also shows off an explosion of American popular music of the time, which Duke was also composing. On the last Music Festival program [August 17], we'll do a piece by Dukelsky alongside Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution.

KF: With so much music to choose from, are you regretting anything you omitted?
LB: There’s a lot we couldn’t fit in, of course. I would have liked to program music by Prokofiev's closest musical friend, Nikolai Myaskovsky, or the music Prokofiev did for Eugene Onegin, which is not well known. But I think that there is a lot to chew on here. It’s a unique opportunity to look at his career and his real achievements. Prokofiev was a very complicated individual, even more so than Shostakovich, so we’re looking at the many sides of him as an artist and a human being.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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