When the Bard Music Festival began 25 years ago, few would have predicted its duration and expansion. But Bard’s president Leon Botstein had big ambitions for his school and its music programs. Today, Bard has a rapidly developing music conservatory. Its orchestra recently did a series of performances in Europe. The former home of the Bard Music Festival’s orchestra performances, a large tent, has been replaced by the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts: a space designed by Frank Gehry that seats nearly a thousand people. The pickup orchestra that began the Festival has been replaced by the American Symphony Orchestra, of which Botstein has been music director for two decades.
The Bard Music Festival, this year devoted to “Schubert and His World,” covers the next two weekends and includes 15 concerts, a film screening and two panel discussions, plus a variety of talks, which precede most concerts.
The Bard Music Festival is an effort to explore Franz Schubert (1797–1828) both as he was known in his own time and as he came to be understood by posterity. These are radically different viewpoints, as attendees will discover. During his brief career (he died in 1828 at age 31), Schubert was known in his hometown of Vienna, and around Austria, mostly as a song composer of local interest. He wrote more than 600 songs, transforming the entire field of German art song with his romantic approach to poets’ lyrics: an aspect of his work honored during the Festival. But his instrumental works – some of them written on a very large scale – were hardly known and mostly unperformed during his lifetime.
As later composers like Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms discovered and promoted Schubert’s work, Schubert became known as one of the great masters of the Romantic period. His “Unfinished” Symphony is now one of the most popular works in the symphonic repertoire. (It will be performed in Program Three on Saturday evening, August 9.) But it was unknown until 1865, when a friend who had kept the manuscript gave it to a visiting conductor. The String Quintet in C (Program One), completed two months before the composer’s death, was not heard until 1850.
The Bard Music Festival is designed to appeal to classical music fans. But even the most casual concertgoer can find programs to enjoy. The opening concert, “The Legacy of a Life Cut Short,” beginning at 8 p.m. at Sosnoff on Friday, August 8, includes one of Schubert’s great early songs, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”; orchestral performances of an opera overture and the Third Symphony; the masterpiece for piano four hands, Fantasy in F Minor; and the String Quintet in C, from the last year of Schubert’s short life. Typical of the Bard Music Festival, it will be a long program, likely to last three hours with intermission. It will convince even a novice listener of Schubert’s greatness.
Since the Bard Music Festival has Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at its disposal, orchestral works are a mainstay and usually fill the evening events (all at the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater). Program Six, on Sunday, August 10 at 5:30 p.m., uses members of the orchestra to accompany two short operas. One of them is Schubert’s Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators), a one-act “singspiel” (similar to our musical comedy form); the other is Suppé’s operetta Franz Schubert, based loosely on the composer’s life.
The concluding Program 12, on Sunday, August 17 at 4:30 p.m., is a complete performance of Schubert’s opera Fierrabras (the name of a Moorish knight): his attempt at a grand opera, although with spoken dialogue. In a long lifetime of concertgoing I have never encountered a performance of any Schubert opera. Critical opinion states that all of Schubert’s operas are too undramatic to be stageworthy, but here’s a chance to find out for ourselves. Expect supertitles at these performances so you can follow what’s going on.
In addition to the “Unfinished” Symphony, Program Three (August 9 at 8 p.m.) covers later orchestrations of Schubert works, including the Grand Duo for piano four hands transformed into a symphony by the conductor Felix Weingartner, and songs originally for voice and piano orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Jacques Offenbach, Brahms and Anton Webern, all great admirers of Schubert. Program Nine (Saturday, August 16 at 8 p.m.), titled “Late Ambitions,” presents choral works including the great Mass in E Flat (Schubert’s sixth mass setting).
Many Bard Music Festival programs offer unusual combinations of different composers and performers. For example, Program Eight, “The Music of Friendship” (Saturday, August 16 at 1:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Franklin Olin Humanities Building), begins with piano music and songs by Schubert, then adds music by various Schubert friends and admirers, including his younger brother Ferdinand and his close friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, the man who preserved the “Unfinished” Symphony. Program Seven, “Beethoven’s Successor?” (Friday, August 15 at 8 p.m.), presents late works of Schubert performed by three singers, pianist Brian Zeger, the Horszowski Trio, members of the Bard Festival Chorale conducted by James Bagwell “and others.” Program Four, “Goethe and Music: The German Lied” (Sunday, August 10 at 10 a.m. in Olin Hall), presents songs of Schubert and at least 11 other composers (“and others”), not all of them as well-known as Beethoven and Schumann.
It’s important to realize that this Festival has become a “go-to” event, bringing much of its audience from outside our area. Most of the concerts sell out. If you want to attend any of the BMF events, run, do not walk, to https://fishercenter.bard.edu/bmf, where you will find complete listings of all the programs, lots of background information and “Buy Tickets.”
Bard SummerScape/Bard Music Festival, August 8-10 and 15-17, Bard College, 60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu/bmf/.