Bard Music Festival Explores Life and Times of One of the Last Great Romantics in “Rachmaninoff and His World” (August 5–14)
“An edifying mix of academic and aesthetic delights.”
– New Yorker
– New Yorker
The Bard Music Festival returns for its 32nd season this August, with an intensive two-week exploration of “Rachmaninoff and His World.” In twelve themed concert programs, Bard examines Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), perhaps the last great exponent of Russian Romanticism, who nevertheless embodied many contradictions. Through the prism of his life and career, Weekend One traces the complex course the composer navigated between Russia and Modernity (Aug 5–7), and Weekend Two investigates his relationship with the New Worlds he went on to conquer (Aug 12–14). Enriched by a wealth of compositions by Rachmaninoff’s compatriots, contemporaries, fellow pianist-composers, American influences and more, all events take place in the stunning Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and other venues on Bard College’s idyllic Hudson River campus. Anchoring Bard SummerScape as in previous seasons, the Bard Music Festival once again promises to be “the summer’s most stimulating music festival” (Los Angeles Times).
Since its inception in 1990, the Bard Music Festival has enriched the standard concert repertory with a wealth of important rediscoveries. This is in no small part thanks to its founder and co-artistic director, Leon Botstein. “One of the most remarkable figures in the worlds of arts and culture” (NYC Arts, THIRTEEN/WNET), Botstein serves as music director of both the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and The Orchestra Now (TŌN), Bard’s unique graduate training orchestra. Both ensembles perform in the festival, as does the Bard Festival Chorale, which takes part in all choral works under the direction of James Bagwell. As always, this year’s chamber and vocal programs will boast a comparably impressive lineup of guest artists, including pianists Zlata Chochieva, Danny Driver and Piers Lane; soprano Mané Galoyan, tenor Viktor Antipenko, bass-baritone Nathan Berg, and bass Patrick Guetti; and the Viano String Quartet.
Rachmaninoff and His World
For all his fame and popularity, Sergei Rachmaninoff remains one of classical music’s most contradictory figures. Born into Imperial Russia, he spent more than half his life in Western exile; best remembered as a composer, he made his living primarily as a pianist and conductor; and all too often dismissed by critics as a middle-brow reactionary, he continues to be adored by audiences for his soaring “big tunes.” Though many of his solo piano pieces, concertos and symphonic works are still central to the repertory, he also wrote three operas, a profusion of songs and numerous works in other genres that are seldom programmed at all.
To explore Rachmaninoff’s worlds and complex life in all their multifaceted polyphony, the festival will present a broad sampling of his oeuvre, from his early songs to his choral masterpieces Vespers and The Bells, and from his beloved Second Piano Concerto to his seldom programmed Fourth. These will be heard alongside music by his teachers, including Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky; those who influenced his style, from Pyotr Tchaikovsky to George Gershwin and Duke Ellington; his Russian friends and colleagues, including Aleksandr Scriabin, Nikolai Medtner and Igor Stravinsky; his fellow pianist-composers, including Anton Rubinstein, Ferruccio Busoni, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky; his Soviet contemporaries, including Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich; his European ones, including Ottorino Respighi; and two of the Baroque masters whose music he transcribed and recorded, namely J. S. Bach and George Frideric Handel. Finally, two thought-provoking panel discussions, a commentary and a series of informative pre-concert talks will illuminate each concert’s themes.
Weekend One: Russia and Modernity (Aug 5–7)
The festival launches with Program One, “The Virtuoso as Composer.” Harnessing Bard’s unusual ability to integrate orchestral, vocal, piano and chamber works within a single event, this offers an overview of Rachmaninoff’s long career, from two masterful teenage works – his little-known Second String Quartet and perennially popular C-sharp minor Prelude – to his hugely successful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written at the height of his powers. Together with Isle of the Dead, a symphonic poem inspired by Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, the program also features examples of the 100-plus songs Rachmaninoff wrote for his close friend Feodor Chaliapin, the legendary Russian bass, and of the composer’s numerous piano transcriptions, including, by way of a tribute to his adopted home, The Star-Spangled Banner.
Program Two, “Mentors, Rivals, Patrons,” helps contextualize Rachmaninoff within the Russia of his youth, pairing selections from his evocative Six moments musicaux with chamber works by members of his early acquaintance. These include his model and mentor Tchaikovsky, whose Pezzo capriccioso was written for Anatoliy Brandukov, the dedicatee of Rachmaninoff’s own Cello Sonata; his teachers Anatoly Liadov, Arensky and Taneyev, whose profile Botstein, Bard and the ASO have already done so much to raise; Aleksandr Glazunov, who led the first performance of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony; and César Cui, whose scathing review of that disastrous premiere would haunt Rachmaninoff for the rest of his life. Also featured are works by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, a major influence on Cui and other members of “The Five,” and Mykola Lysenko, widely considered the father of Ukrainian music.
It was the runaway success of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto that helped restore his confidence after the depression and writer’s block triggered by his First Symphony’s failure. Marking the ASO’s first concert of the 2022 festival, Program Three, “The Pianist-Composer,” juxtaposes the concerto – arguably the best-loved in the classical canon – with closely contemporaneous orchestral works by two of Rachmaninoff’s fellow pianist-composers. Famed Polish virtuoso and statesman Paderewski is represented by the prelude to Act III of his opera Manru, the only work by a Pole ever staged at the Metropolitan Opera, and Busoni by his Piano Concerto. A monumental rarity that draws on vast forces, including a choir, this was previously championed to acclaim by Botstein and the ASO at Carnegie Hall, where, as now, their soloist was Piers Lane, who brought “drive, athleticism and muscularity, certainly, but also lyricism and shapeliness” (New York Times) to Busoni’s fiendishly challenging score.
As Bard’s Scholar-in-Residence, Philip Ross Bullock, discovers in a concert with commentary – Program Four, “Rachmaninoff and the Female Muse” – many of the composer’s songs were inspired by women. He dedicated them variously to Vera Skalon, his teenage sweetheart; Anna Ladyzhenskaya, with whom he became infatuated; Natalya Satina, the cousin he would defy the church to marry; Mariya Olferyeva, his brother’s common-law wife; and Antonina Nezhdanova, the great soprano who not only premiered his famous Vocalise, but collaborated closely on its creation. Rachmaninoff also set songs to texts by distinguished Russian female poets, including Marietta Shaginyan, who likewise inspired songs by the composer’s lifelong friend and correspondent Nikolai Medtner.
Rachmaninoff considered Medtner “the greatest composer of our time,” and the latter’s little-known Piano Quintet features in Program Five, “Rachmaninoff’s Russian Contemporaries.” A collection of piano, vocal and chamber music from the early 1900s, this also presents Rachmaninoff’s superlative Cello Sonata and selections from his Thirteen Preludes and Études-tableaux; further piano selections by his brilliant friend and classmate Scriabin, their mutual friend Felix Blumenfeld and the short-lived Vasily Kalinnikov; and works by two Russians better known for their subsequent innovations: Stravinsky, represented by his settings of Two Poems of Paul Verlaine, and Prokofiev, whose single-movement Third Piano Sonata is perhaps the most carefully crafted of his early contributions to the genre.
The weekend concludes with the festival’s second all-Rachmaninoff event: Program Six, “Failure and Recovery.”Anchored by the ASO, this opens with the First Symphony, which the composer abandoned after its ill-starred premiere, and died without hearing a second time. Nevertheless, the work remained important to him – 45 years later, he quoted from it in the Symphonic Dances, his last major composition – and since its posthumous rediscovery, the symphony has been restored to the repertoire, celebrated for its melodic invention, thematic cohesion and rich orchestral color. By contrast, The Miserly Knight enjoys few revivals. A Pushkin adaptation with an all-male cast, Rachmaninoff’s last one-act opera is problematic in its stereotypical depiction of a Jewish moneylender. As a result, despite the work’s manifest musical merits, Bard’s semi-staged production, which will be directed by Jordan Fein, marks a bona fide rarity.
Weekend Two: New Worlds (Aug 12–14)
Once in America, Rachmaninoff soon established himself as a leading virtuoso, devoting so much time to touring and recording that his compositional output dramatically declined. However, as Program Seven, “From Bolshoi to Broadway: Rachmaninoff in America,” reveals, he took great interest in the nation’s music, not least its lighter side. He drew inspiration from both Ellington and Gershwin, attending the famous world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, and enjoyed the work of such fellow émigrés as songwriter Vernon Duke, who arranged the Vocalise, and violin legend Jascha Heifetz, with whom Rachmaninoff gave a hugely successful benefit concert at the Metropolitan Opera. Bard’s weekend-opening event concludes with the composer’s own little-known two-piano arrangement of his Symphonic Dances, which synthesizes nostalgia for his Russian roots with contemporary American rhythms, sonorities and styles.
Program Eight, “The Piano and Its Protagonists,” shines a light on the grueling touring careers of Rachmaninoff and other virtuoso pianists. Examples of the pieces he transcribed and recorded by past masters Bach and Handel rub shoulders with other of the works he continually felt compelled to learn and arrange to keep expanding his repertoire. These include selections by his teachers Taneyev and Alexander Siloti, as well as by German composer-pianist Adolf von Henselt, another key influence. Also featured are works from the performing repertoires of such prominent pianist-composers as Paderewski, Rubinstein and Godowsky, as well as Rachmaninoff’s own Variations on a Theme of Chopin, which honors the pianist-composer who inspired them all.
In Program Nine, “Whose 20th Century?,” Bard presents a sampling of the extraordinarily diverse array of musical styles and approaches on offer in 1930. These range from the experimentalism of Henry Cowell’s avant-garde theater piece Atlantis, which only received its New York premiere under Botstein’s leadership in 2010, to Grofé’s more accessible tone poem Grand Canyon Suite, a one-time audience favorite; the Suite from Shostakovich’s satirical, politically charged ballet, The Golden Age; Respighi’s orchestral transcriptions of Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux; and the Russian composer’s own accomplished but seldom-performed Fourth Piano Concerto, with celebrated Rachmaninoff interpreter Zlata Chochieva as soloist.
The choral traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church remained a profound musical influence on Rachmaninoff throughout his life and he wrote two major sacred works for unaccompanied choir. Program Ten, “Rachmaninoff’s Vespers,” showcases the Bard Festival Chorale’s interpretation of the second: the Vespers (All-Night Vigil). A spiritual work whose resonant a capella sonorities use the full range of the human voice, this comprises 15 movements, nine based on traditional Eastern Orthodox chants from Greece, Kyiv and Russia, and six on chant-like motifs of Rachmaninoff’s own invention. Considering the Vespers one of his two finest achievements, the composer requested that its fifth movement, the “Nunc dimittis,” be sung at his funeral.
Alongside the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (La folia), the sole solo piano piece of Rachmaninoff’s years in Western exile, Program Eleven, “In the Shadow of the Cold War,” considers his legacy on both sides of the Atlantic. In Russia, his influence could be heard in the work of both Nikolay Myaskovsky, the five-time Stalin Prize-winner dubbed the “Father of the Soviet Symphony,” and Dmitry Kabalevsky, who helped establish the Union of Soviet Composers. Similarly, elements of Rachmaninoff’s aesthetic were shared by the barrier-breaking Florence Price, several of whose songs are reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s own, and by little-remembered polymath Abram Chasins, a friend whose work he much admired, as well as by such architects of the American sound as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.
The decades before the Revolution saw a cultural flourishing in Russia, notable for its spiritual and intellectual currents in poetry, painting and music. Program 12, “Symphonic Poetry and Spirituality in the Silver Age,” revisits this fruitful period with grand-scale choral symphonies by two of its leading lights: former classmates Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. A visionary mystic who died at just 43, Scriabin believed in the transformative power of art, as expressed in his original text for his Wagnerian, six-movement First Symphony. By contrast, Rachmaninoff was notoriously satirized by Stravinsky as “six foot two inches of Russian gloom,” and The Bells offers a more apocalyptic vision. However, the work – Rachmaninoff’s favorite of his own compositions – concludes in the major mode, its warm string melody suggesting serenity and hope.
Supplementary events and publication
Besides the twelve concert programs, there will be two free panel discussions: “Rachmaninoff and the 20th Century”and “The Contested Legacy of Sergei Rachmaninoff.” These will be supplemented by informative pre-concert talks – all free to ticket-holders – to illuminate some of the individual programs’ themes. Bard SummerScape also presents The Silent Woman (“Die schweigsame Frau”), the only true comic opera by Rachmaninoff’s close contemporary Richard Strauss, in a rare new production from German director Christian Räth (July 22–31).
Since its founding, each Bard Music Festival has been accompanied by the publication of a companion volume of new scholarship and interpretation, with essays and translated documents relating to the featured composer and their world. Published by the University of Chicago Press, Rachmaninoff and His World is edited by Bard’s 2022 Scholar-in-Residence, Philip Ross Bullock, a Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford.
In a special collaboration on July 15, the Bard Music Festival and the ASO will present the U.S. premiere of At the Reading of a Psalm by Sergei Taneyev, Rachmaninoff’s revered teacher, at Carnegie Hall. Click here for more information.
Tickets for mainstage events are now on sale, starting at $25, and Spiegeltent tickets go on sale in May. For complete information regarding tickets, series discounts and more, visit fishercenter.bard.edu. or call Bard’s box office at (845) 758-7900.
Post Date: 04-27-2022