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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chopin and His World

THE THEME OF THE FESTIVAL was Chopin; it could as easily been termed “love,” provided we were warned that there would be pairings as unusual as human passion provokes. Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grand polonaise brilliant,” for example, pairs disparate works, written at different times, in different keys, and for different instrumental forces – but Chopin sensed an overarching unity and/or ignorable differences, which describes many a human couple I know.

Painting by Maria Wodzinska
It was performed as the opening work on a concert that featured Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a massive symphonic poem written as a sort of anti-opera, with the vocal forces subordinate to the orchestra’s emotionally charged coloring. And this was the final concert in this year’s Bard Summerscape program, “Chopin and His World,” which ran Aug. 11-20 and gave us two weekends’ worth of lectures, concerts, and other events.

“Chopin’s Influence” was discussed and charted the afternoon of the festival’s final day. Is the resemblance of Wagner’s famous “Tristan” chord to a chord from Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 a coincidence? asked composer Richard Wilson during his witty, engaging pre-concert talk. His evidence was convincing: a Chopin chord progression build on the steps of a diminished seventh turns up in Debussy and Brahms, among others; and his suppositions were charming, such as the notion that Chopin built up the ornamentation in repeated passages (such as a Nocturne that Wilson demonstrated) because the composer grew bored.

The performance that followed led us throughout Europe with a sampling of late 19th- and early 20th-century miniatures, beginning with an affectionate pastiche by Schumann, written while Chopin was still alive (and thus could dislike the piece) and including piano solos by Moszkowski, Paderewski, Grieg, Brahms, Fauré, and Scriabin, the musical language dissolving into the new century’s grittiness with works by Debussy and Szymanowski that still, especially in this context, revealed their heritage. Szymanowski in particular combined Chopin-esque ornamentation and pentatonic harmony in his Mazurka No. 1.

We witnessed a superb array of talent, as is always the case with the chamber-music concerts here. Violinist Juliette Kang ripped through Wieniawski’s fiendish Polonaise, Op. 4, with charming aplomb. It’s a piece intended both to sound and look impressively difficult, but with unfailing tunefulness – a good Chopin legacy right there. If pianist Rieko Aizawa seemed a little subordinate here, she returned to play a solo that emphasized her ability: Debussy’s Étude No. 12. Other pianists included Ko-Eun Yi and Piers Lane, the latter a skilled hand at such works as a pair of Szymanowski mazurkas and four Scriabin preludes.

Although the history of instrumental miniatures long predates Chopin’s work, he moved them from the dance floor to the salon listening-couch, both as virtuoso displays and emotionally charged melodic (and harmonic) experiences.

But we also enjoyed a vocal interlude. Rachmaninoff spun out many an affecting melody, and the most poignant of them are in his songs. Mezzo-soprano Monika Krajewska and pianist David Sytkoski delivered three of the most colorful: “Spring Waters,” “Lilacs,” and “Loneliness.”

Capping the afternoon’s programming was one of Chopin’s final (and least understood) works: his Cello Sonata, Op. 65, a piece that sounds 50 years ahead of its time through its harmonic and structural innovations. Cellist Nicholas Canellakis gave it an appropriately romantic performance, adding his own interpretive zest that pianist Michael Brown (who, not surprisingly, is given plenty to do) matched excellently.

Christopher Gibbs introduced the afternoon concert – “Shared Passions, Different Paths” – with a look at the relationship between Chopin and Berlioz when both were resident in Paris, a city whose musical life was dominated by the likes of Liszt, Cherubini, and Rossini. They were friends – for a while, at least – but they shared little in the way of values and aesthetics. A few words of history sufficed to introduce the fifteen-minute-long Chopin work; for the hour and a half of Berlioz, Gibbs dug into the composer’s reverence of Shakespeare (and infatuation with the Shakespearean actress who would become Mrs. Berlioz) and took us through the unusual structure of the massive work.

Pianist Danny Driver, always a welcome participant at Summerscape events, played the Chopin with his usual easygoing virtuosity as Leon Botstein conducted the Orchestra Now, an ensemble he founded two years ago to offer young musicians a master’s degree program at Bard College.

Leon Botstein conducting
The Orchestra Now
They’re a tight, responsive orchestra, as the fast, fugal opening of Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” demonstrated, first featuring the strings and then bringing in a chorale of brilliant brass. Such narrative as the piece contains is choral, and about twenty members of the Bard Festival Chorale sang the introduction. They would be augmented, by the end of the piece, with about twenty more, all nicely prepared by choral director James Bagwell.

Although three vocal soloists are involved, none sings Romeo or Juliet. The composer’s purpose was to depict their passion through music alone. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor Miles Mykkanen sang with the chorus for the opening, then Mumford had a beautiful solo with harp describing the moment when the young couple fell in love. Mykkanen became Mercutio for the Queen Mab speech, a moment that would come back at the finish of Part 2 as the work’s most famous instrumental section.

Where the Orchestra Now showed its youth was in the Love Scene, the emotional heart of the symphony, with its writing for slow, sustained strings. They lack the integrated, burnished sound of a section that works together constantly, or at least, as in the case of the American Symphony Orchestra, comprises players for whom the extra attention needed for section work is second nature. But the American Symphony, which has been the longtime orchestral ensemble for these events, did perform two of them.

Following Juliet’s Funeral, which the enlarged chorus solemnly intoned over another orchestral fugue, there’s a rich orchestral invocation as the lovers die. Then Friar Laurence enters and steals the show. Bass-baritone Önay Köse was superbly compelling in this, the most theatrical section of the work, condemning the feuding families and then leading their reconciliation. Berlioz was highly influenced by Beethoven’s symphonies, and took that legacy much farther – so far, in fact, that this piece still struggles to be heard. It’s huge, it’s long, it requires a massive performing force – but this performance certainly reinforces its worth.

The Summerscape Festival also ran a film series on the theme “Chopin and the Image of Romanticism,” with eight programs of biographies and classics that used his music, including Cornel Wilde in “A Song to Remember,” Polanski's “The Pianist,” Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” and three films by Ingmar Bergman – one of which, “Cries and Whispers,” we hurried across campus to catch. The fate of Romeo and Juliet was, in Berlioz’s hands, inspiring; the fate of Harriet Andersson in Bergman’s 1972 masterpiece was simply devastating, and the hints of a Chopin mazurka that played throughout added a layer of ironic possibility of old-world pleasure to the tragic relationships of the family come to keep watch over a dying sister.

Chopin’s music has supplied more than concert fare and film scores. It’s been the stuff of pop songs, it’s crept into our consciousness through TV ads, it’s what every beginning pianist aspires to perform. Once again, this festival – represented by the piece of it I was able to enjoy – helped to contextualize that music and explain why it’s so pervasive and important. Which makes a long day of concert activity seem very short indeed.

Chopin and His World
Bard Summerscape Festival
Bard College
August 20, 2017

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