The 28th annual Bard Music Festival [in New York State] – an exploration of “Chopin and His World” – opens next Friday, August 11 with Weekend One: Chopin, the Piano, and Musical Culture of the 19th Century. The first of the weekend’s six themed concerts, Program 1: “The Genius of Chopin,” provides an overview of the composer’s all-too-brief career through works including the beloved F-minor Piano Concerto, a teenage masterpiece; his rarely heard songs set to Polish texts; and his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni (in the original version for piano and orchestra), the work that prompted the young Schumann to proclaim him a genius. The New York Times has praised Bard’s “track record of presenting fine young performers and some good veterans,” and the opening event features award-winning Canadian mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sadej and several outstanding pianists, among them Gilmore Young Artist Award-winner Orion Weiss, Wigmore Hall International Song Competition “Best Pianist” Erika Switzer, and Benjamin Hochman, of whom the New York Times marvels, “classical music doesn’t get better than this.” They will be joined by The Orchestra Now – Bard’s unique graduate training orchestra, now in its sophomore season – under the leadership of music director and festival co-artistic director Leon Botstein, a distinguished scholar recognized as “one of the most remarkable figures in the worlds of arts and culture” (THIRTEEN/WNET), who also presents an illuminating pre-concert talk.
Botstein explains: “Chopin … showed that the piano was an instrument of the voice. It was a poetic instrument. It was an instrument that could sing. It was an instrument that could tell a story. … He is the key Romantic figure from the early 19th century that showed how our conventions of music – melody, harmony, rhythm, dance – can be converted from simply background or entertainment into the language of our inner feelings.”
One of Bard’s two Scholars-in-Residence is Halina Goldberg, author of Music in Chopin’s Warsaw. She adds: “Chopin’s genius is ‘of the future.’ Some critics have allowed themselves to be fooled by his preference for the piano and frequent use of ‘pedestrian’ small genres, such as the mazurka or prelude, into rejecting his compositional mastery. But therein lies the crux of his ingenuity. He took up an instrument that for most composers was a vehicle for didactic or virtuosic pieces and, following in Beethoven’s footsteps, gave it the ability to sing of poetry and tragedy. Likewise, he took up middlebrow genres, disdained by the cognoscenti, and imbued them with unheard-of profundity.”
Drawing on recent scholarship, the Bard Music Festival’s signature thematic programming, multidisciplinary approach, and emphasis on context and reception history provide the perfect platform for a reexamination of these contradictions. All of Weekend One’s programs are augmented with pre-concert talks by eminent experts, with the exception of Program Four, which sees returning festival favorite Piers Lane present one of his signature performances with commentary, offering from the keyboard a guided tour of the Romantic piano. A pianist for whom “no praise could be high enough” (Gramophone), Lane is a leading expert on his instrument who wrote and presented BBC Radio 3’s 54-part series The Piano.
The American Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the season is Program Three, which investigates the relationship between operatic and instrumental writing, with rarely heard instrumental works by operatic masters Spohr, Bellini, Weber, and Meyerbeer, crowned by the superb third act from Rossini’s unjustly neglected take on Otello, starring 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Nicole Cabell as Desdemona and tenor Issachah Savage, winner of the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition, in the title role.
During this first weekend, additional events shed further light on Chopin, the Piano, and Musical Culture of the 19th Century. Program Two pairs some of Chopin’s early compositions – including his Piano Trio, as performed by the superlative Horszowski Trio – with music by those composers most prominent in the Warsaw of his youth. Program Five juxtaposes works that the Polish-born composer dedicated to Jewish patrons and students, like the masterful Ballade in F minor, with those by such Jewish acquaintances as Mendelssohn, Charles-Valentin Alkan, his close friend Ferdinand Hiller, and Ignaz Moscheles, a rare account of whose Third Piano Concerto concludes the concert.
Rounding out the opening weekend, Program Six explores “Virtuosity and Its Discontents.” Recently shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, young Bard graduate Dongfang Ouyang channels Paganini, while Van Cliburn finalist Fei-Fei Dong plays Chopin’s own Souvenir de Paganini. With the incomparable Brian Zeger at the keyboard, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra concertmaster David Chan interprets Schumann’s First Violin Sonata, and soprano Cecilia Violetta López, one of opera’s “25 Rising Stars” (Opera News), sings Adolphe Adam’s bravura variations on Mozart and excerpts from Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece Maria Stuarda. To complete the program, Piers Lane plays several of Liszt’s more serious works, besides joining Botstein and members of TON for the formidable First Piano Concerto of quintessential virtuoso Friedrich Kalkbrenner, dedicatee of Chopin’s own E-minor Concerto.
Complementing Weekend One’s offerings is a panel discussion on “Chopin: Real and Imagined” with guest speakers including James Parakilas, among whose publications is Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade. The festival’s two Scholars-in-Residence – Halina Goldberg and Jonathan Bellman, who recently published Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom – are editors of the forthcoming volume Chopin and His World.