The lectures are habitually illustrated with visual aids and audio clips. Those in attendance received a special treat when Kevin Bartig shared scenes from the film Lieutenant Kijé, which, despite being hard to make out in the half-lit hall, proved extremely compelling. Kijé is seldom screened, and it is currently hard to find even in Russia. Prokofiev’s first wife appears on the soundtrack, and the composer himself, dissatisfied with a certain baritone, sings the Troika, the bawdy sleigh-ride music. Thanks to moderator Simon Morrison, I now have it on good authority that Kijé might be released on DVD by Criterion (in the meantime, Bartig suggests viewing excerpts on YouTube).
While the festival as a whole is a monumental undertaking on a grandiose scale, there is an intimacy to the afternoon talks and concerts (held in the 400-seat Olin Hall) that promotes solidarity between music lovers of all stripes; I was able to converse casually with a number of panellists both in the hall and in the lobby. David Nice was in quintessential Brit-scholar mode, witty and at times scathing, enthusiastic about the Glyndebourne production of Betrothal in a Monastery, but rather less so about one of the performances he’d heard the previous night.
The evening concerts are held across campus at the Sosnoff Theater, inside the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, which resembles nothing if not a giant, rambling armadillo. Acoustically the Sosnoff delivers, which I found surprising since it seems to consist mostly of concrete walls, a dark-stained stage, and black risers (there is also a fair amount of blonde wood that takes on an orange hue in soft lighting). Whatever the mystery, I was pleased with the results. Instruments blend, yet there is no lack of immediacy or punch. Bard’s resident orchestra, the American Symphony, played like a dream – or in the case of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, a nightmare. The venue also flatters soloists and chamber ensembles.
Friday night’s inaugural concert (“From Russia and Back: The Career of Sergey Prokofiev”) presented an overview of the composer’s output, cherry-picking from various stages of his development. Pianist Jeremy Denk appeared twice, leading off with the March from Love for Three Oranges, and returning after the intermission with the early Suggestion diabolique. The Chiara String Quartet (minus its regular first violinist, who had gone into labour!) essayed the First String Quartet with enough competence to make me think I should be paying more attention to Prokofiev’s chamber music. Irina Mishura, a mezzo-soprano, sang the Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova gloriously. And Michael Abramovich rounded off the first half with an eccentric performance of the mighty Seventh Piano Sonata. The second half featured (after Suggestion diabolique) two songs from Kijé, tossed off with élan by baritone John Hancock, the Five Melodies for Violin and Piano, warmly rendered by Soovin Kim and Jeremy Denk, and the Overture on Hebrew Themes and Classical Symphony, playfully executed by artistic director Leon Botstein and the American Symphony.
Saturday morning began with an engaging panel, presented under the fairly arid title “Prokofiev: The Man and His Music”. That was followed after lunch by a pre-concert lecture by David Nice, who incorporated some of Prokofiev’s scathingly hilarious assessments of his teachers and contemporaries. Then the concert proper, “Before Emigration: Teachers and Influences”, an intriguing assortment including Six Quartets for Four French Horns by Nikolai Tcherepnin, the Ballad for Cello and Piano by Reinhold Glière, piano miniatures of Sergei Taneyev and Nikolai Medtner (lovely performances by Ieva Jokubaviciute, who was also the sensitive accompanist in several of the other works), and a beautifully nuanced interpretation of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, again with Jeremy Denk. The second half consisted of Prokofiev’s Two Poems of A. Apukhtin and K. Balmont Op. 9, sung by Dina Kuznetsova, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petroushka, in another mercurial reading by Michael Abramovich. The concert concluded with Glazunov’s String Quintet in A Major, with the Chiara String Quartet and cellist Sophie Shao. Joyous music, lovingly performed – arguably the highlight of the entire programme.
Botstein’s second concert, titled “The Silver Age: Mystic Symbols”, played like a deranged record collector’s dream, demonstrating the kind of mad free-association one usually only indulges in the privacy of one’s listening room. Beginning with Rimsky-Korsakov’s tone poem Sadko and progressing through Skriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, and a real rarity, Joseph Achron’s Epitaph, to the Memory of Aleksandr Scriabin (in which Achron sought to out-ecstasy the master), the concert steadily increased in caloric content. The intermission was followed by Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake (a comparatively tame work) and a no-holds-barred rendition of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, which is constructed on episodes of his seething opera The Fiery Angel. I thought the inclusion of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, which followed the Achron and concluded the first half of the concert, a puzzling one, interpreting it as a slap in the face after so many ecstasies. Its coda, however, resonated with the Skriabin score, and it was beautifully played by Blair McMillen, who serves on the piano faculty at Bard.
One striking feature of the Bard Music Festival is the manner in which music and biography combine within their specific historic context. After Saturday’s overwhelming “Mystic” concert, Sunday afternoon’s “The Paris Years” felt like a splash of cold water. The Trapeze quintet rubbed shoulders with irreverent trios by Poulenc and Auric, coquettish songs by Germaine Tailleferre, and some alternately languid and violent ones by Maurice Ravel (the Chansons madécasses). Soprano Amy Burton rendered them all elegantly. Pianist Anna Polonsky’s interpretation of Satie’s Sports et divertissements was as adorable as her recitations of the composer’s witty preambles. Polonsky also offered Milhaud’s Le train bleu, consciously slight music evocative of tourists on holiday, and Honegger’s Le cahier romand. The concert concluded with a confident performance of Stravinsky’s Octet. As delightful as I find much of the output of the composers of Les Six, I expected two-and-a-half hours of rather thin brew, but the concert proved more charming than spare. On a side note, I was sorry to have missed most of Byron Adams’s pre-concert talk, due to a ticket mix-up, as he was a flamboyant speaker. He had the audience in stitches.
Sunday night’s concert bore the title “The Cult of the Child,” and featured children’s pieces by Satie and Ravel, including the original 4-hand piano version of Mother Goose, in a hypnotic performance by Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung. The concern also featured the ballet score Krazy Kat by American composer John Carpenter, whom Prokofiev met in Chicago at the rehearsals for Love for Three Oranges. Prokofiev was notoriously stingy with praise, but he wrote positively of Carpenter’s snazzy, jazzy orchestration. Eckert Preu led the American Symphony in as fine a performance of the work as one might expect. There was a witty song called “The Chatterbox” from Prokofiev’s Three Children’s Songs, its malaprops elucidated in footnotes at the bottom of a supplementary handout of the text. Soprano Dina Kuznetsova captured the spirit of the piece, absorbing herself in Prokofiev’s humorously frenetic treatment. Michael York youthfully (as always) narrated both Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar, le petit élephant (The Tale of Babar, the Little Elephant) and Peter and the Wolf. It was an agreeable conclusion to a splendidly overloaded weekend.
In his introductory talk to Friday night’s concert (“From Russia and Back: The Career of Sergey Prokofiev”), Botstein touched on an element of the composer’s existence I had never really considered: his adherence to the tenets of Christian Science, an interesting subject taken up by several of the panellists in a question and answer session the next day. Botstein posits that Prokofiev’s spiritual beliefs allowed him to live in denial of evil and the material world. His faith also helped him to survive under Stalin, even after his first wife was removed to the Gulag. Prokofiev had a close artistic relationship with Nikolai Miaskovsky (two of whose symphonies were featured in the festival), which similarly bolstered this imposition of the spirit over the “illusory” physical world.
Botstein addresses the Christian Science question more fully in a book published in conjunction with the festival, Sergey Prokofiev and His World, edited by Simon Morrison (Princeton University Press, 2008). Other essays include an analysis of Prokofiev’s Eugene Onegin by Caryl Emerson, complete with a translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s playscript; a discussion of the conception and reception of Lieutenant Kijé by Kevin Bartig; an examination of Prokofiev’s experiences in America by Stephen D. Press; and observations on Prokofiev’s sketchbooks by Mark Aranovsky. Marina Frolova-Walker offers a thoughtful comparison of the evolution of two contemporaneous Soviet works: Boris Pilniak’s novella “Krasnoe derevo” (Mahogany), which was absorbed into his novel “Volga vpadaet v Kaspiiskoe more” (The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea), and Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony, which expanded from a compact example of neoclassicism (the 1930 original version) into a Socialist Realist epic (the 1947 revision). Also featured are contributions by Leonid Maximenkov (“Prokofiev’s Immortalization”), Elizabeth Bergman (“Prokofiev on the Los Angeles Limited”), and Peter J. Schmelz (“After Prokofiev”).
The souvenir programme alone (free with any concert) is mind-blowing both in its opulence and abundance of information. Lavishly illustrated with paintings, photographs, and poster art, there is more than enough text within its 88 pages to guarantee complete sensory overload – an appropriate microcosm of the festival itself.
The Bard Music Festival was not the only cultural activity of interest at Bard College this summer. July brought Mark Morris’s production of the newly reconstituted original version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There were stagings of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing, and a double-bill of Szymanowski’s Harnasie and Król Roger. Films of the 1930s dominated the schedule at the Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center, to further illuminate Prokofiev (who was a fan of musicals and screwball comedies) and his world. Alongside Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street were three films by Jean Renoir, two by the Russian expatriate Dmitri Kirsanov, and of course the Eisenstein staples Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, for which Prokofiev provided the music. This first leg of the Prokofiev marathon transpired concurrently with the New Albion Festival, featuring works by John Cage, Frederic Rzewski, Ingram Marshall, John Adams, and Paul Dresher, among others; works for prepared, toy, and bowed piano; and at least one six-hour electronic music concert. I was not able to attend these events, for obvious reasons. And they were just the tip of the iceberg!
Weekend Two of the Festival, 15-17 August, was highlighted by a jamboree-like realisation of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution and a convincing treatment of the neglected Seven, they are Seven. The third weekend, 24-25 October, involved Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and John Carpenter’s Violin Concerto. – Ed.