What’s that sound? Live serious music and fully staged opera colliding with exacting scholarship and multidisciplinary synthesis that incorporates film and critical discussion with more than a little late-night louche spectacle and partying? Must be Bard SummerScape, one of the world’s most intensive, integrated and lauded summer music festivals, distributed through Bard College’s unparalleled set of high-character venues, from the crashed Nabooian spacecraft that is Frank Gehry’s Fisher Center to the brilliant surreal nightmare of the Belgian Spiegeltent.
Each year, Bard trains its compound lens on the life, times and achievement of a single composer, and then finds a million-and-a-half ways of approaching, contextualizing and extending the subject. This summer, this thematically unified grand buffet of culture and inquiry turns to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold: not as recognizable a name as the Puccini and Chopin of recent years, but in some ways a man emblematic of the quandaries and opportunities of 20th-century art. It is often said that the best poets and novelists of the second half of the 20th century went to Madison Avenue to sell underwear. Korngold, in his way, represents the plight of the serious, prodigious composer drawn to Hollywood, money and sustainability when faced with both the diminishing returns of serious music and the blooming anti-Semitism of Europe. He was not alone. Some contemporaries, like the great Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa, maintained separate and parallel careers as film and concert music composers, using a pseudonym at first to ensure that the former did not taint the latter.
The festival will feature a broad sampling of Korngold’s own music, including childhood masterpieces, rare orchestral and chamber works, excerpts from iconic film scores, a special screening of The Constant Nymph and a semi-staged production of his best-loved opera, Die tote Stadt, to draw the entire seven weeks of SummerScape to a riveting close. Music by many of his compatriots and contemporaries will also be heard, including those who dominated the Viennese music scene in his early years, like Mahler, Strauss, Robert Fuchs, Joseph Marx and his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky; his fellow conservatives, like Ernst von Dohnányi and Franz Schmidt; those with whom he was unfavorably compared, like Franz Schreker, Ernst Krenek and Paul Hindemith; Broadway legends like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein; and some of the cinematic giants he influenced, like Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa, several of whom – together with Arnold Schoenberg, Hanns Eisler, Erich Zeisl and Korngold himself – were also Jewish émigrés in Hollywood.
The festival features themed concerts and panel discussions, together with a film series exploring “Korngold and the Poetry of Cinema,” and the long-overdue American premiere of the grand opera that the composer considered his masterpiece, The Miracle of Heliane (Das Wunder der Heliane), in a fully staged new production by German director Christian Räth. Daniel Fish’s acclaimed staging of Michael Gordon’s Acquanetta provides an alternative look at Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Evidence, A Dance Company makes its festival debut with the world premiere of Grace and Mercy, a new SummerScape commission from choreographer and company founder Ronald K. Brown, with live music from Meshell Ndegeocello, Peven Everett and others. Cabaret and jazz highlight a generous program of events in Bard’s authentic and sensationally popular Belgian Spiegeltent. You’ll need the website to make sense of it all and pick your spots, but please do. Musical and cultural programming of this caliber is rare anywhere on the globe.
Bard SummerScape, June 29-August 18, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson