Friday, July 29, 2011

Music Interview: Botstein Talks Bard Summerscape

Fisher Center at Bard College (photo by Peter Aaron/Esto)
Bard Summerscape and Bard Music Festival
July 7-August 21, 2011 Bard College
Annendale-on-Hudson, NY

You might justly wonder how Leon Botstein has enough time to juggle the many hats he wears. He’s conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO), conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, President of Bard College, two hours north of New York City on the east side of the Hudson River, and founder and director of Bard’s annual Summerscape and Music Festival.

Not only does he create the most original and illuminating programs for the ASO at Carnegie Hall--including rarely heard operas like Alberic Magnard’s Berenice, which was heard last season, and Franz Schmidt’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on this coming season’s schedule--he unearths less well-known works, chamber-music, symphonic and theatrical, for Bard Summerscape and Bard Music Festival.

Botstein found a few minutes in his always-busy schedule to talk about this summer at Bard, which focus on Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and other artists who were his contemporaries like Henrik Ibsen, Noel Coward and Richard Strauss, among many others.

Kevin Filipski: This summer at Bard, Jean Sibelius is the composer-in-residence, so to speak. How do you decide what other works will complement Sibelius’ music?
Leon Botstein: After choosing the summer’s composing subject, we try to connect everything else we do to that composer and his world. We’re doing Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, which keeps the Scandinavian focus. The light opera Bitter Sweet by Noel Coward was very popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s in America and England, and Sibelius was very much admired by Coward’s own generation. Bitter Sweet was a huge hit during the Depression, right after the period of Sibelius’ greatest public recognition, so that seemed to fit well.

KF: Which composers will be performed alongside Sibelius?
LB: During the Bard Music Festival, we do works by Samuel Barber and Ralph Vaughan Williams because we try to show the influence that Sibelius had on his contemporaries, whether a younger generation or the same generation that he was. Then there was the other great composer who was born a couple years apart from Sibelius and who became an important figure at the 20th century margins of modern musical development, an anti-Mahler, if you will: Richard Strauss. Megan Miller in Die Liebe der Danae by Richard Strauss (photo by Corey Weaver)
KF: You’ll be conducting Strauss’ opera, Die Liebe der Danae, during Summerscape. Talk about the connection between Strauss and Sibelius.
LB: Strauss and Sibelius were two grand old men who were relics from the past after World War II, or at least they were viewed that way by many people. But history has had a strange turn of fate for these old men who were thought no longer relevant: they now look to us like the most important figures from that period. So there has been a reversal starting in the late 20th century in the way their musical art is understood. We decided to choose an opera that showed some things in common with Sibelius: it’s unfairly rarely done, so it’s one of the great operas you’ve never heard. Strauss uses classical mythology in Danae; both composers were interested in how mythology is retold in modern times, how mythology can be reworked. Tolkien reworked Nordic mythology with The Lord of the Rings, and Strauss and Sibelius had the same notion.

KF: How do you decide which composer to select as the annual focus of the Bard Music Festival?
LB: We’ve been doing it for quite a long time, so a list of composers has been floating around. Sibelius has always been on that list, and he was finally chosen this summer. We try to bring in as many of the arts as we can. Musically, there’s Respighi from Italy, there are a younger generation of Finns like Merikanto and Madetoja, even contemporary Scandinavians like Carl Nielsen from Denmark. When Sibelius (below) was growing up, Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian empire, so there was a huge St. Petersburg influence to his music.

KF: There are a lot of current Finnish composers like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Aulis Sallinen and Einojuhani Rautavaara who count Sibelius as an influence. Was there any thought to including their music?
LB: No, we never exceed the boundaries of the composer’s lifetime, so we never get into any speculative notions. In this case, Sibelius’ rep deserves its worth as one of the fathers of modern Finnish music. But we never speculate about influence.

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