Bard Music Festival—and Its World

Thirty Years of Rediscoveries

Written for The Bardian (Bard College magazine), Winter 2019.

The Bard Music Festival shares its late-summer setting with the arrival of the first-year class in Annandale, but it offers a point of entry to an entirely different time and place through the eyes of a composer from the past. This might seem far removed from the concerns of a 21st-century college, but this is Bard, and the festival, which just marked its 30th year, is very much like the College: it values artistry and scholarship in equal measure, it provokes questions without simple answers, and it is, as the New York Times memorably wrote, “part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit.”

This past August, the festival presented Korngold and His World, including 12 concerts across two weekends in the Fisher Center and Olin Hall. Erik Korngold (1897–1957) was an Austrian Jew and child prodigy who became a sensation as an opera composer in the Weimar Republic, and then worked in Los Angeles, where he remained after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. He set the standard for film music in old Hollywood, bringing over the late Romantic sound that still rings in today’s blockbusters. Festival highlights included his Cello Concerto (adapted from the 1946 noir Deception), excerpts from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, starring Errol Flynn) performed with film clips, and a rare semistaged concert performance of his opera Die tote Stadt (1920).

Past festivals have focused on some of history’s most famous composers, as well as lesser-known names: a sampling includes Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Janáček, Berg, Schubert, Puccini, and Carlos Chávez. The 2020 festival will focus on Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979), a pioneering French composer and enormously influential teacher. The very first Bard Music Festival, upon its founding in 1990 by Leon Botstein and pianist Sarah Rothenberg, was Brahms. Long before the construction of the Fisher Center, orchestral concerts were held in a 600-seat tent behind Ward Manor, and a summer downpour struck the very first performance, flooding the audience. 

Botstein calls the Bard Music Festival “Bard’s football team,” a metaphor that seems apt given the enthusiastic attention it receives from the press and the connection it creates with the public. Loyal audiences and critics return year after year, and along with Tanglewood in the Berkshires, it is an essential part of the Northeast’s cultural summer landscape.

Programming the festival is Christopher H. Gibbs, artistic codirector and James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard. They are joined by a rotating cast of scholars in residence, chosen for their special expertise in each festival’s subject, who also edit a volume of essays on the year’s composer. Byron Adams, a musicologist from UC Riverside, advised on the festival devoted to Edward Elgar in 2007 and remains involved. Composers are chosen to offer a variety of historical periods, nationalities, and styles within the multiyear sequence of festivals. Obvious musical anniversaries, like centennials, are purposely avoided. Sometimes the choice is timely, or even prescient: with Carlos Chávez in 2015, the festival explored an important Mexican composer, and U.S.–Mexico relations more generally, a year before the 2016 election. And with Rimsky-Korsakov in 2018, the festival looked at a Russian composer at a moment when many Americans viewed Russia with paranoia and hostility.

The second part of each title, “and His World” (or “Her World” for the first time in 2020), is as important as the headline name. The idea is not to paint a composer’s portrait, but to look into a time and place, including what Gibbs calls “friends and enemies, teachers and students.” The list of composers who have appeared as supporting characters numbers in the hundreds and includes names as wide-ranging as Mozart, Scott Joplin, Benjamin Britten, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Ethel Smyth, William Grant Still, Domenico Zipoli, and Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg.

Artistry, including plain old musicality, remains as essential to the Bard Music Festival as to any concert series, and gets the final say in what gets performed. “Sometimes academics make academic suggestions,” Gibbs says. “‘It would be interesting to do this,’ but sometimes interesting doesn’t make the best music. Empathizing from an audience point of view rather than a more narrow scholarly view is important.”

Another issue is finding musicians willing to perform pieces outside the standard repertoire. The classical canon is relatively narrow, selected not only by greatness, but also by pedagogical and business concerns, prejudices, and probably a greater degree of historical accident than most would like to admit. Learning a new piece is a commitment, and one that doesn’t always pay off in the long term. Irene Zedlacher, Bard Music Festival’s executive director, is responsible for booking musicians willing to take that risk. Over the last decade she has built up a roster of players: “I have a group of performers up for anything,” she says. “They are adventuresome.”

The hope is that the Bard Music Festival ethos will continue to spread, and that those adventuresome musicians will take the pieces they learn beyond the Hudson Valley, enlivening the concert repertoire at large. In fact, the festival has sprouted vibrant offshoots: the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra took programs on tour to China and Europe in 2012 and 2014, respectively; Allegra Chapman ’10 and Laura Gaynon founded Bard Music West in San Francisco in 2017; and Leonardo Pineda ’15 TŌN ’19 and Chris Beroes-Haigis ’16 founded Bard Music Colombia, which had its first season in South America in 2018. The largest program to come out of the Bard Music Festival is The Orchestra Now (TŌN), founded in 2015, a preprofessional training orchestra based at the Fisher Center which offers a three-year master degree or a two-year advanced certificate in orchestra studies. The ensemble performs year-round with Botstein as its music director, appearing at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During the summer, TŌN participates in several Bard Music Festival Programs, and closed the most recent festival in the pit for Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

“TŌN is basically an opportunity to see what life in an orchestra is like,” says Adam Romey, a bassoonist in the program. “This summer I was fortunate to have my first opportunity to sub with a major orchestra. TŌN, even more than I realized, is an accurate depiction of what this looks like.”

There is an interesting tension between practicality and idealism at the heart of TŌN. On the one hand, it strives to prepare young musicians on the verge of orchestral careers for the reality that lies ahead. (And that reality does not generally look like a Bard Music Festival.) On the other hand, it hopes to equip them to change that reality, enriching the field with greater curiosity and thoughtfulness.

“I think that the Bard Music Festival is the perfect example of a festival that knows and understands its audience,” Romey says. “The programs all have a theme, and make a point, but they do so in a way that allows the audience to connect more deeply with the music. To me that’s something all musical organizations can strive for.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.