Swans Commentary » swans.com November 19, 2012  



Saint-Saëns At Bard
Noah's ark floats and Henry VIII threatens the axe again


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - November 19, 2012)   I recently returned from three inspiring weekends at Bard College's 2012 Summerscape Music Festival. And what a festival! As Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, the festival's resident orchestra, put it, as he addressed his audience during the opening festivities at this year's events: "Other colleges have a football team; we have a music festival." In 23 years of working at it Botstein and his team have created the greatest music festival in the world.

All right, I know about the Salzburgs, the Edinburghs, the Aldeburghs, the Drottningholms, the Scheveningens, the Aspens, the Tanglewoods, the Marlboros, the Santa Fes, the Angel Fires, and the two Chautauquas; and in the operatic field the Glimmerglasses, the Santa Fes, the San Franciscos, and even the Metropolitan itself also do on many an occasion produce things for us that certainly get our attention and our musical tourist dollars, especially when they are performed, sung, and conducted by those highly-publicized international superstars with whom they like to strut their stuff. So what makes Bard's Summerscape so special? As I browsed through the Internet last winter trying to decide how to fill in those weekdays between the Bard weekends I came across the Web site of another famous festival not all that far from Bard where I might have spent some time. But as I browsed through their programs I found them filled with "SOS Music" = Same Old Stuff. So I decided to go to New York City instead. Plenty of interesting things to do there!

Every year Botstein sits down with his board of advisors: musicologists, teachers, and performers like Christopher Gibbs, Robert Martin, Richard Wilson, Byron Adams, Irene Zedlacher, and perhaps a few others. Between them they choose a single composer around whom to structure the next summer's festival or two. And that composer becomes "X and His World." Works by Mr. X are carefully selected to mix evergreens combined with historical nuggets that haven't been heard in years. It's a free-for-all of genres, styles, and performance lineups that whiz by in at least seven concerts per weekend for two August weekends in a row. Along with X's music goes music by his contemporaries, teachers, students, opponents, rivals, and anyone else who might give the audience a feeling for the musical world of Mr. X. The team invites a visiting scholarly expert or two on the chosen Mr. X and between them they create a thick book published by the Princeton University Press filled with essays related to Mr. X and the theme of his surrounding world. And one of the bonuses of the entire festival are the pre-concert lectures given by resident and visiting scholars alike, including Botstein himself, each one more witty and entertaining than the last, and which make a visit to the festival worth it for these events alone.

And who performs all this wonderful and revelatory music for us? Perhaps not the usual members of the international musical publicity circuit, but instead spectacular young artists, though perhaps just as international in their activities, whom not everyone has had the chance to hear yet. And boy, do they deliver the goods! Every instrumental and vocal category: violinists, pianists, cellists, and every range of vocal artist: sopranos, tenors, and baritones (I haven't seen any basses there yet) are peopled by at least three members, since the repertoire goes by so fast that no individual could be responsible for it all. This gives every artist plenty of time and energy to prepare his or her particular repertoire very carefully and to perform it with the highest vitality. And the audience is the beneficiary of all this musical inspiration. Not to mention the excellent ad hoc groups that are formed from the ranks of the ASO itself.

And for what sort of audience is all this being created? Having spent 65 years of my life in the music profession performing on various orchestral and chamber music stages and in innumerable operatic pits I am loath to pack my bags and get into my car (or airplane as the case may be) and travel anywhere in excited anticipation unless it be to something I've never heard or seen before. And I get the feeling that Bard's sophisticated audiences are very much like that. After all, they are largely New York City centered where they are constantly exposed to all the concert, operatic, and dance possibilities that city has to offer. But if Bard, Botstein, and Summerscape can offer them something stimulating and unusual they don't mind driving the 130 miles it takes to get there.

As a sample of the sophistication one finds in the Bard audiences, I met a gentleman from Connecticut who informed me that he had been a record dealer there and had had his own radio show every Tuesday on which he would play unusual operas for his radio listeners. He usually had to explain to them what exactly they were listening to. And he had a record library of 100,000 opera recordings to back him up. He was even more of an opera nut than I was.

Then I met a gentleman from Washington state but who had for some years served on the management team of the Detroit Symphony, the very orchestra in which I had begun my orchestral career at age 17. So we had a lot to talk about.

Then I met two unexpected old friends in the audience for Henry VIII, this year's featured concert opera. These friends were highly prominent in the vocal field and they in turn introduced me to their friend, none other than the iconic John Kander of Kander and Ebb! (Cabaret, Chicago, etc.) So that's a brief snapshot of Bard's and Botstein's audiences.

Who have been some of the "Mr. X"s of recent years? I've attended Summerscapes devoted to Wagner, Elgar, Prokofieff, and now Saint-Saëns; and other recent festivals have featured Copland, Berg, and Sibelius. The next two summers will feature Stravinsky and Schubert. The Summerscape also features a rarely revived staged opera, several large choral works with the orchestra, an offbeat dance group, a classical play, a film series related to the theme of the festival, and a miscellany of other musical, acrobatic, and gastronomic treats in a facility known as the "Spiegeltent." The operatic rarities I've enjoyed at Bard have included Blitztein's Regina, Schumann's Genoveva, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Shreker's Der Ferne Klang, and this year's Le roi malgré lui of Chabrier, about which I've reported elsewhere.

Typical of Bard's approach is to throw upon even the chestnuts a revealing light. What could be more mainstream than Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals (1886)? But at Bard the various movements of the Carnival were preceded by other historic examples from the French and other repertoires by composers who were also enjoying themselves by imitating members of the animal kingdom or simply serving as launching points for Saint-Saëns's satiric parodies. Before the Saint-Saëns we heard works by Poulenc, Faure, Ravel, Satie, Chabrier, and even Saint-Saëns himself inspired by the characters of different animals. And during the Carnival of the Animals itself Saint-Saëns's chicken got preceded by Rameau's La Poule (1760) with Orion Weiss very cluckingly at the piano (the very piece Respighi chose to incorporate into his bow to the animal kingdom, The Birds [1927]). The theme of Offenbach's Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld as well as Berlioz's "Dance of the Sylphs" from The Damnation of Faust got performed just before Saint-Saëns's parody versions for the tortoise and the elephant, respectively; and various other selections by Hanon, Mozart, and Rossini also were previewed before their use by Saint-Saëns in his animalistic jeu d'esprit.

It did Saint-Saëns's reputation no good to have suppressed the Carnival of the Animals from public performance (except for "The Swan") during his lifetime. After his death, when finally heard by the public, it has become probably his most famous and popular work. But when it was written it was during a period when Saint-Saëns and other French composers had dedicated themselves to raising the level of seriousness in French music; exploring symphonic and chamber music and not just the frivolities of Offenbachian light opera and satiric reviews. These sorts of musical carryings-on were now associated with the decadence in French society of the Napoleon III era that had led to the French defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Thus it would have ill-served those aims to have had performed such a light-hearted and satirical work as the Carnival of the Animals during this time. And yet, if that work had become known at the right time it would have been Saint-Saëns and not Satie and Poulenc, popular decades later for just such ironic frivolities among the younger generation, who would have been in the vanguard of a new spirit in music; just as he had been the leader in his youth in promoting the vanguard music of his earlier days: Liszt, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.

And what about Saint-Saëns's own compositions from his earlier days? We heard his First Symphony, written at age 15 (1850). But by that time the young prodigy had long been a veteran of the concert stage. He used to announce (at age 12) that his audience could choose as an encore any of the 32 Beethoven sonatas and he would play that one for them. (Something like Daniel Barenboim closer to our own time.) The youngster showed his love of the music of W. A. Mozart, his own prodigious antecedent, by incorporating as the very first notes of the introduction and as the main theme of the Allegro of his own symphony Mozart's theme from the finale of the Jupiter Symphony (C-D-F-E), thus consciously carrying on his precocious predecessor's tradition; and Saint-Saëns continued to feature this theme in many of his subsequent works, even in the finale of his last, the Third ("Organ") Symphony at age 51 (1886). The cello passage launching the movement begins with those very notes; and the slow movement's theme has but one interpolated note, the fourth note, which prevents it too from being identical. A triumphant performance of this marvelous work, Kent Tritle at the organ, was another highlight of the festival.

Another of Saint-Saëns works, which did tend to lift the spirits of his countrymen in the 1870s, was his oratorio The Deluge (1875), the saga of Noah and his ark. It told the story of another people who had likewise undergone a great trial but who had emerged triumphantly, complete with a chorus to God's pledged rainbow to lift everyone's hopes. This oratorio must be unique in music history by beginning with an extended violin solo which, beautiful enough as it is, serves as thematic Leitmotiv-ic underpinning to much of the subsequent musical proceedings. (The solo was played very beautifully by Festival concertmaster Eric Wyrick.) When it finally got over to England I'm sure the young Elgar must have admired this solo a great deal, for much of his own solo violin music, like the Salut d'Amour of 1888, owes much to it in its mellifluous sweetness.

The tone poem with which as the central part of the oratorio Saint-Saëns depicts the stormy rising of the flood waters, while nowhere near as violent as the similar scenes in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony or Rossini's William Tell Overture, nevertheless with its portentous and inexorable slowly rising scale, gives us a vivid suggestion of the waters rising above the mountain tops.

After Chabrier's Le roi, Saint-Saëns's Henry VIII (1882) (or "awn-ree weet" as he was being called all weekend) became Bard's second operatic offering of the festival, but only in concert version and which closed this year's season in glory. In lieu of an actual set there were projected onto the back of the stage, behind soloists, orchestra, and chorus onto a series of panels of varying shapes and sizes, a constantly changing show of faces, crosses, jewelry, parts of costumes, and a fuzzy abstract substance whose identity was difficult to determine, all for the purpose of evoking the Tudor time of the plot that had been concocted by librettists Detroyat and Silvestre. To the actual historic events the two authors had invented a love affair between Anne Boleyn, mezzo soprano, being wooed by Henry, and the Spanish representative Don Gomez de Feria, tenor. Anne had to keep this absolutely quiet while she was being wooed by Henry, an aggressive baritone, and while Henry was petitioning a synod to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, soprano, who after some 15 years had yet to bear him a son and heir.

The most engaging parts of the opera were the ballet music (exuberantly performed by Botstein and the ASO but not danced to and suggestive of Scottish highlanders having their fling), the chorus's vehement endorsement of Henry as he establishes his new Church of England in defiance of the Pope, and Catherine's touching appeal to the synod not to forget her love for, and her loyalty to Henry -- a vain plea, as it turned out. Soprano Ellie Dehn won the hearts of the audience for this special moment in the opera.

Henry VIII had been supplied by its composer with much lovely music but it has a weakness that might explain its disappearance from the repertoire for about a century. (It was actually quite popular during Saint-Saëns's lifetime.) Having been spoiled by Wagner (not to mention Bizet) to expect any dramatic action in an opera to be propelled by a series of Leitmotive, those pregnant musical fragments which in their repetition and emphasis outline to the audience the progress and highest moments of the action (think of the "Fate" Motive in Carmen) we feel disappointed that here the composer, except for a few lovely exceptions like the springtime love music in the second act, which vivifies for us the love between Anne and Don Gomez, has chosen to underlay each developing point in the action with entirely new music. To modern ears this is a weakness.

While the depth of my knowledge in this field of French opera might use deepening, and perhaps others have noted this before, to my mind there is an astonishing plot parallel between this opera and the one that was going to be written 10 years later by Saint-Saëns's younger contemporary, Claude Debussy, whose music was also much featured on the festival's programs. At the end of Henry VIII Henry comes to the bedside of the dying Catherine because he suspects she has evidence of the secret love affair between his new wife and the Spanish representative. Actually she does have in her possession a letter that would prove disastrous to Anne if its contents were known. But despite her anger with Anne for having displaced her she keeps Anne's secret and dies without revealing it to Henry. But Henry vows that if Anne is ever unfaithful his axe will fall, as indeed it historically did.

Now imagine the ending of Pelleas et Melisande, which, though having premiered in 1902, was actually largely finished by 1892-95. In Pelleas, Golaud, the betrayed husband, also goes to the bedside of a similarly dying Melisande in order to extract from her a confession of guilt because of her affair with Pelleas. But Melisande too, like Catherine, goes to her death without giving Golaud the satisfaction he seeks. To me this is more than coincidence. I feel quite positive that Maeterlinck must have attended a performance of the popular Henry VIII, (though he did confess to Debussy his complete ignorance of music) and struck by its ending, incorporated that ending into his own yet-to-be-written play (1892) that Debussy then later appropriated for his opera.

What other composers would you have heard if you had attended this festival? Anton Rubinstein, Jules Massenet, Georges Bizet, Pablo de Sarasate, Franz Liszt, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, W.A. Mozart, Chopin, Louis Vierne, Gounod, Adolphe Adam, Charles-Marie Widor, Henri Duparc, Marie Jaell, Ernest Chausson, Alberic Magnard, Edouard Lalo, Augusta Holmes, Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Faure, Ravel, Erik Satie, Emmanuel Chabrier, Cesar Franck, Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Rameau, Dukas, d'Indy, Pauline Viardot, Cecile Chaminade, Lili Boulanger, Florent Schmitt, Berlioz, and Stravinsky. Name me one other festival that would present you with such a concentrated lineup of musical greatness in 14 concerts in two weeks? And several names you might probably have never heard of like Viardot, Jaell, and Holmes (all women, by the way, prominent on the French musical scene in the 19th century.) Not to mention the rarely heard Alberic Magnard, Lili Boulanger, and Florent Schmitt.

And what other musical curiosities did we discover by the festival's featured composer, Saint-Saëns himself? Did you know that besides its great familiarity as an orchestral piece, the composer's Danse macabre began life as a song with its own ghostly words (beautifully sung for us by baritone John Hancock with pianist Anna Polonsky)? And in these days of John Williams et al, guess which composer was the very first to be commissioned to write a background score for a film? You're right: it was Camille Saint-Saëns, who was called upon to supply the score for a 1908 film called The Assassination of the Duke of Guise about the French religious wars of the 16th century. (We saw the film while another ad hoc ASO ensemble played Saint-Saëns's music under the screen.) You've heard of Brahms's Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra. What other composer wrote another concerto for that same unusual lineup? Right again: Saint-Saëns wrote his "Duo" (renamed by the publisher into La muse et le poète) of 1910 composed for violinist Eugene Ysaye and cellist Joseph Hollmann.

While it would be impossible for me, much as I'd like to, to single out for detailed praise the dozens of outstanding artists who performed and sang at the festival, I would like, by way of sampling, to discuss two musicians whom I've known a bit better personally either through collaboration or association, cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Danny Driver. My observations about these two outstanding artists could easily be applied to all those other dozens as well. Both have an outstanding international career and can be easily Googled up if more detail is desired.

Bailey's deep and subtle sensitivity is matched only by his athletic extroversion at the appropriate moments. Bailey performed for us a little-known cello sonata from 1910 by Alberic Magnard, an untimely departed composer who was killed by the invading Germans as he tried to defend his estate against them in 1914. Bailey, though performing this work but for the first time at the festival's invitation, convinced us that we and he himself had known this work all our lives as he triumphantly savored all its adventurous and lyrical moments in turn.

I heard Danny Driver for the first time in 2011 in London as the pianist of the Linden Trio, a group that performed a spectacular recital in Conway Hall on the oldest continuing chamber music series in the world (since 1885), the South Place Concerts. Driver brought his uncanny musicianship to Summerscape in four brilliant moments: the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue of Cesar Franck, the Saint-Saëns First Sonata for Violin and Piano with outstanding collaborator Eugene Drucker, violin; and likewise in two of Saint-Saëns's very last works, the Bassoon Sonata, with Richard Ranti, and the Oboe Sonata, with Alexandra Knoll.

Driver's phrase building and sense of momentum and climax is matched only by the sensitivity of his keyboard touch, which never produces an ugly or overforced sound, as well as by his impeccable sense of balance with his collaborators. They are never overshadowed or overpowered despite the compelling musicianship Driver is producing at the keyboard. But perhaps at times what he is creating at the keyboard makes you want to follow him rather than them!

Someone once defined a child prodigy as an artist who was as good at 40 as he was at eight! In Saint-Saëns's case, as a composer he was as good at 85 as he was at 15. Saint-Saëns's reputation suffered from a lack of periods. Not those dots at the ends of sentences but those transformations in a career that lead from one phase to another and produce audibly different sorts of works. Musicologists are endlessly speculating on the quintessential Beethoven's three periods: early, middle, and late, and have traced out no fewer than eight such periods in Joseph Haydn's 65-year career. But they have yet to discover any such changes in Saint-Saëns's even longer career. As we listen to the ecstatically rising arpeggios in the finale of Saint-Saëns's Oboe Sonata written as part of an intended group of six for various soloists in 1921, in the 86th and last year of his life, (eerily, identical to a similarly incompleted plan by Debussy in his death year, 1918) we are grateful that he never changed but kept on writing the beautiful music he knew just how to do, whatever paths his younger colleagues might have been exploring.


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Published November 19, 2012