“Saint-Saëns and His World” at Bard Music Festival

Caricature of Camille Saint-Saëns by Cilla, circa 1875, Château Musee

Bard SummerScape has already been underway for a month. And if you managed to catch Erica Schmidt’s screamingly funny production of Molière’s farce The Imaginary Invalid featuring the great Peter Dinklage in drag, or if you’ve likewise enjoyed the evening of Baroque dance by Compagnie Fêtes Galantes that kicked off the festival or Chabrier’s opéra-comique The King in Spite of Himself, you may find it hard to believe that SummerScape’s raison d’etre is still to come. But it’s true: This annual groaning board of performing arts delights is always arrayed around the centerpiece of the Bard Music Festival, a two-week blowout of concerts, recitals, lectures and panel discussions focusing on the work of a single big-name composer.

This year the classical icon under the microscope is Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), whose long and remarkable career spanned and helped shape the course of French music from Gounod to Ravel. From his childhood as a prodigy dubbed the “French Mozart,” Saint-Saëns was a consummate and exceptionally versatile musician. His vast compositional output reflects his virtuosity on piano and organ, and, in its advanced chromaticism, his championship of Wagner and Liszt. Yet the clean, almost classical transparency of his music and the brilliancy of his orchestration are unmistakably French.

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For the next two weekends, you can dip into “Saint-Saëns and His World” on the Bard College campus, whether your interest is in scholarly analysis of the composer’s work, the historical milieu that shaped him and his influence upon others, or even if you just want a single evening of bathing your ears in blissful sounds, cultural context be damned. The 12 concerts scheduled offer an immersion in the music of Belle Époque France, with its trademark opulence and emotional richness, presenting masterpieces from all genres of Saint-Saëns’ prodigious oeuvre.

Weekend One, August 10 to 12, focuses on “Paris and the Culture of Cosmopolitanism,” and Weekend Two, August 17 to 19, on “Confronting Modernism.” Saturday mornings are set aside for panel discussions that are free and open to the public. Concerts on Sunday mornings and both afternoons typically feature vocal and/or chamber music; tickets go for $30 to $35. Evenings are reserved for the big extravaganzas, with a price range of $25 to $75. There will be an all-Saint-Saëns program this Saturday evening, August 11; but most other concerts in the series will also include works by the composer’s contemporaries, those who influenced him and/or those whose works were influenced in turn by his output. Leon Botstein, co-artistic director of the Festival and music director of Bard’s resident American Symphony Orchestra, will conduct all three orchestral programs at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Choral programs will feature the Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell.

The 2012 Bard Music Festival kicks off in the Sosnoff Theater this Friday, August 10 at 8 p.m. with Program 1: “Saint-Saëns and the Cultivation of Taste,” an intimate chamber evening offering fresh hearings of some of his best-loved works, including Danse macabre. Botstein will give a pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m.

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