Bard Music Festival Explores Life and Times of Rimsky-Korsakov
This summer, 20 years since its celebration of Tchaikovsky, the 29th annual Bard Music Festival once again trains its focus on one of Russian Romanticism's most seminal composers, with a two-week, in-depth exploration of "Rimsky-Korsakov and His World." In twelve themed concert programs, complemented by pre-concert lectures, panel discussions, and expert commentary, Bard examines Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and sets out to solve the Rimsky-Korsakov riddle: Why does the composer remain so woefully underappreciated outside his homeland, despite the paramount part he played in defining the style we now recognize as Russian? Offering an immersion in the great musical flourishing of Tsarist Russia's final decades, Weekend One considers the matter of Inventing Russian Music: The Mighty Five (August 10-12), while Weekend Two investigates Rimsky-Korsakov and His Followers (August 17-19). Enriched by a wealth of compositions from Rimsky-Korsakov's predecessors, contemporaries, and successors, all events take place in the striking Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and other venues on Bard College's glorious Hudson River campus. There, as in previous seasons, the Bard Music Festival is set not only to help provide creative inspiration for Bard SummerScape 2018, but also to prove itself once again "the summer's most stimulating music festival" (Los Angeles Times).
As the New York Times observes, since its inception nearly three decades ago, "the Bard Music Festival has managed more than its fair share of ambitious feats in its immersive annual examinations of classical music's major composers," offering a "rich web of context" for a full appreciation of their inspirations and significance. This is in large part thanks to festival co-founder and co-artistic director Leon Botstein, "one of the most remarkable figures in the worlds of arts and culture" (THIRTEEN/WNET). And while the Bard Music Festival's pioneering approach to thematic programming has been increasingly emulated, "Nothing quite compares to the fascinating summer programs popping out of Leon Botstein's brain" (Bloomberg News).
Now in his 25th year as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Botstein will lead the ensemble in both its Bard Music Festival appearances. He also helms The Orchestra Now (T?N); currently in its third season, this unique graduate training orchestra - designed to help a new generation of musicians break down barriers between modern audiences and great orchestral music of past and present - will perform on three programs, including the festival's opening concert. As in previous seasons, the Bard Festival Chorale will take part in all choral works under the leadership of James Bagwell, and this year's chamber and vocal programs boast an impressive roster of guest artists.
The Rimsky-Korsakov Riddle
The subject of this season's festival is a composer whose vast contribution contrasts starkly with the slightness of his reputation in the West. A member of the Kuchka, or Mighty Five, Rimsky-Korsakov played a pivotal part in shaping the now-familiar Russian musical style, using folk and fairytale elements, innovative sonorities, and orientalism to create a carefully crafted sound. His radical tonal language and mastery of orchestral color exerted a profound influence at home and abroad, not only on subsequent generations of his compatriots, but also on French symbolists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. He was a prolific orchestrator, without whose vivid version of Modest Musorgsky's Boris Godunov the opera might never have won its exalted place in the repertoire. A leading pedagogue for whom the St. Petersburg Conservatory is now named, his students included such eminent figures as Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, subjects of the 2013 and 2008 festivals, respectively. His illuminating and endearing autobiography has been recognized as "one of the best source-books on the history of Russian 19th-century music" (New York Times).
Yet neither this autobiography nor Rimsky-Korsakov's books on harmony and orchestration are currently in print in English. Furthermore, there is no scholarly biography of the composer available - even in translation - in any Western European language. And although his extensive output includes some 15 operas and a wealth of choral, orchestral, vocal, piano, and chamber music, in the West he is known almost exclusively for just three beloved orchestral staples - the Capriccio Espagñol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and Scheherazade - as well as for such brief operatic excerpts as the "Flight of the Bumblebee" (from The Tale of Tsar Saltan) and "Song of India" (from Sadko). Indeed, as Russian music specialist Richard Taruskin notes, beyond his homeland Rimsky-Korsakov remains "perhaps the most underrated composer of all time."
Leon Botstein explains:
"He is a much more substantial and interesting composer than most American audiences realize. He also had an unbelievable influence on Russian musical life. He was one of a group called the Mighty Handful. These are composers who decided they were going to create a particularly Russian sensibility in music. It was a kind of national agenda that went along with the visibility and growth and significance of the Russian Empire, turning more to the East than to the West to make sure that Russia was not a backwater of Europe but an independent source of culture and of an aesthetic. ...
"And then later in his life he became a master of the great tradition, so he merges an appreciation for the western tradition with an impulse to create an autonomous, independent Russian musical voice. And that led him to be, for a large part of his career, one of the great teachers in all of music history. His pupils include Igor Stravinsky, Ottorino Respighi, Anton Arensky, Sergei Prokofiev, a kind of who's who of music at the turn of the century."
Click here to see Botstein talk about Rimsky-Korsakov.
Rimsky-Korsakov and His World (Aug 10-19)
Drawing on recent scholarship, the Bard Music Festival's signature thematic programming, multidisciplinary approach, and emphasis on context and reception history provide the perfect platform for a reexamination of the Rimsky-Korsakov riddle. Through the prism of Rimsky-Korsakov's life and career, the Bard Music Festival investigates a century of Russian music and culture from Mikhail Glinka to Stravinsky. Twelve concert programs spaced over the two weekends explore such themes as music under Tsarist autocracy; the legacy of Pushkin; nationalism, classicism, and exoticism; and the folk traditions of the Russian Empire.
The festival will feature a broad sampling of Rimsky-Korsakov's own music, including rare vocal and chamber works, his one-act opera Mozart and Salieri, and a semi-staged production of his seldom-seen opera The Tsar's Bride, with which the entire seven weeks of Bard SummerScape will draw to a close. Music by many of his countrymen will also be heard, including his immediate predecessors Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky; his mentor Mily Balakirev and their fellow members of the Mighty Five (Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Musorgsky); other contemporaries, from Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Serov, and Sergei Taneyev to the great Pyotr Tchaikovsky; Rimsky-Korsakov's illustrious students Anton Arensky, Alexander Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky; and other members of the next generation, like Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The world beyond Russia will be represented by composers including Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov's Italian student Ottorino Respighi. Two thought-provoking panel discussions will be supplemented by informative pre-concert talks and commentaries, illuminating each concert's themes; these are free to ticket holders.
The festival opens with Program 1, "Fashioning the Russian Sound." Anchored by T?N, this exploits Bard's unusual ability to vary the traditional concert format, integrating orchestral, solo, and chamber works within a single event to introduce the work of the Mighty Five and their musical godfather, Glinka. It was the latter's Kamarinskaya, not only Russia's first important orchestral work but also the first to draw extensively on Russian folk music, that Tchaikovsky so eloquently described as "the acorn from which the oak of Russian symphonic music grew." Balakirev was similarly influential in his use of melodies from the Caucasus to signify the orient in his virtuosic piano fantasy, Islamey. Borodin and Cui are represented by chamber rarities, while Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death is one of his few completed masterpieces. As for Rimsky-Korsakov, Bard's opening concert offers an overview of his long and prolific career, from the early Overture to May Night, the opera that first demonstrated his interest in folk customs, through the pagan-infused Christianity of his beloved Russian Easter Festival Overture, to two late works that reveal his political sympathies: Dubinushka, his defiant orchestral response to the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905, and the posthumously created Suite from his final opera, Le coq d'or, which offers a razor-sharp satire of Russian autocracy.
Russian music was traditionally an amateur affair, confined to aristocrats like Dargomyzhsky, whose incomplete final opera, The Stone Guest, was regarded as a model of progressivism by the Five. It was only during their lifetimes that this would change, and at first, dilettantism continued to predominate. Borodin was first and foremost an eminent chemist, despite the mastery of such works as his Second String Quartet. Likewise Rimsky-Korsakov started out as a naval officer who only composed as a hobby until his appointment at the newly created St. Petersburg Conservatory, which so humbled him that he embarked on a rigorous course of training there, becoming, as he put it, "possibly its very best pupil." It was Tchaikovsky, a consummate professional, who helped him master such challenging European forms as the fugue, and whose First String Quartet - together with Glinka's Grand Sextet - is one of the little-programmed chamber works that highlight Program 2, "Amateurs and Professionals."
It was not only in the nature of their careers that Russian composers differed from their Western counterparts; where Europeans like Wagner actively supported the revolutions of 1848, the Russians remained largely subservient to the Romanovs. The American Symphony Orchestra's first concert of the Bard Music Festival season, Program 3, "Music Under Tsarist Autocracy" offers an orchestral snapshot of their world. It was in his tone poem Sadko that Rimsky-Korsakov first used the distinctive octatonic scale, later named for him and soon a vital component of the Russian sound, while his Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, though seldom programmed, anticipates the chromaticism and drama of Rachmaninoff. Other works include Tchaikovsky's Festival Coronation March, which he composed for the accession of Tsar Alexander III and later conducted at the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891; Balakirev's symphonic poem Tamara, a forerunner of Scheherazade; and the overture to Serov's first opera, Judith. The program concludes with a rare live account of the Fourth Symphony of Taneyev, a Tchaikovsky protégé known as the "Russian Brahms"; when Taneyev's opera Oresteia received its overdue U.S. premiere under Botstein's baton at SummerScape 2013, the production was nominated for an International Opera Award.
The founding father of modern Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin enjoys the status of Shakespeare in his homeland. In the West, however, his works are best known for the operas they inspired, and indeed his writings provided fertile ground for Russian composers. A performance with commentary, Program 4, "The Legacy of Pushkin," offers a broad and thoughtfully curated range of musical settings of his work, by composers from Glinka to those of the Soviet era. In addition to operatic excerpts, featured works will include Rimsky-Korsakov's arioso "The Prophet," which was dedicated to Stravinsky's father, a prominent bass.
It was Anton Rubinstein, composer of SummerScape 2018's opera, The Demon, who founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, and his younger brother Nikolai who founded the Moscow Conservatory four years later. Today the schools are named for Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky respectively, reflecting the division of musical life by which St. Petersburg came to be associated with nationalism and the Five, and Moscow with the cosmopolitanism of Tchaikovsky. Songs by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky are juxtaposed in Program 5, "Moscow/St. Petersburg," which is also highlighted by three unjustly neglected chamber works. These are the First String Quartet by leading Rimsky-Korsakov protégé Glazunov, who went on to direct the St. Petersburg Conservatory; the unusually scored Second String Quartet (with two cellos) - one of many Russian works to incorporate the famous "Slava" melody - by Arensky, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov but nevertheless straddled both musical worlds; and the masterfully Brahmsian Piano Trio of Rimsky-Korsakov himself, which was completed by his student and son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.
As Program 6, "The Piano in Russia" demonstrates, Russia boasts one of the world's great keyboard traditions. Anton Rubinstein, a preeminent 19th-century virtuoso, was the first in a long line of composer-pianists that would include Prokofiev, Nikolai Medtner, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff, one of the most influential pianists of the 20th. Alongside works by such largely forgotten figures as Alexei Stanchinsky and lyrical miniaturist Vladimir Rebikov, Bard presents Scriabin's early, Chopinesque Second Piano Sonata; Prokofiev's prickly and percussive modernist showpiece, the Toccata; Rachmaninoff's great Suite No. 2 for two pianos; and, in the original version for solo piano, Musorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition. One of the composer's few completed works, this monumental masterpiece illustrates the Five's characteristic practice of contrasting diatonic harmonies to represent the human world with chromatic ones for the fantastic.
Weekend Two: Rimsky-Korsakov and His Followers (August 17-19)
In 1790, the Enlightenment polymath Nikolay Lvov published a collection of Russian folksongs in arrangements by the Czech composer Johann Pratsch. Though not authentic by today's ethnographic standards, the collection was the first to classify songs by genre, and proved hugely influential. To launch Weekend Two, Bard's Scholar-in-Residence, Marina Frolova-Walker, presents Program 7, "Russian Folk in the Mirror of Art Music," with help from the Virtual Village, an ensemble comprising musicians and musicologists from Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Offering a one-of-a-kind opportunity to trace the genealogy of influence between Russia's folk and concert music, they intersperse authentic folk songs with related examples from the Lvov-Pratsch collection and excerpts from the many classical compositions that these inspired, from Beethoven's Second "Razumovsky" Quartet to Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden and Stravinsky's Petrushka.
In the 1890s, Rimsky-Korsakov was one of several prominent musicians who took part in regular Friday night chamber evenings at the home of Mitrofan Belyayev, his publisher and patron. The gatherings inspired a number of new works, some of which were later collected and published together as Les Vendredis. Program 8, "Domestic Music Making in Russia," presents selections from the collection by Lyadov, Glazunov, Nicolay Sokolov, and Felix Blumenfeld, together with examples of some of the works first heard in Rimsky-Korsakov's own home. These include bass arias from Sadko, Prince Igor, and Boris Godunov, originally sung there by the great Feodor Chaliapin, and the Scherzo from Stravinsky's Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, an early work that served as the composer's calling card. The second half of the concert comprises a rare account of Rimsky-Korsakov's one-act opera Mozart and Salieri, a setting of the same Pushkin play that inspired the movie Amadeus. Originally performed to piano accompaniment in the composer's home, this will now be heard in an arrangement for reduced orchestral forces.
Both the St. Petersburg and Moscow composers considered themselves Europeans, by contrast with the exotic others of Asian Russia. This dichotomy was one to which they frequently returned in their music, as Program 9, "The Classical, the National, and the Exotic" - the second ASO event of the festival - investigates. Works like Dargomyzhsky's Bolero, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, and Lyadov's Eight Russian Folksongs for Orchestra drew clear distinctions between forthright diatonic "Russian" melodies and sensualized, modal "Eastern" ones, while in his consummate masterpiece Scheherazade Rimsky-Korsakov created what he called an entire "kaleidoscope of fairytale images and designs of oriental character." By contrast, while the secular cantata From Homer shares Scheherazade's maritime theme - one to which, as a former midshipman, the composer often turned - it draws on classical, rather than Russian, sources. And in the Suite from what was perhaps his favorite opera, The Snow Maiden - heard here alongside selected arias - Rimsky-Korsakov celebrated what he dubbed "the ancient Russian pagan world."
Russia's Orthodox Church has engendered one of the world's most distinctive choral traditions, one rooted in a rich repository of ancient chant. Anchored by the Bard Festival Chorale, Program 10, "The Russian Choral Traditions," explores the flowering of a cappella liturgical writing that took place among the late Romantics - Rimsky-Korsakov, despite his atheism, among them. Excerpted works include settings of texts from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Tchaikovsky and Alexander Gretchaninoff, who studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov, and Passion Week, a work completed just before the Communist ban on sacred music by Steinberg, who had converted from Judaism to marry the composer's daughter. The program concludes with selections from Rachmaninoff's magnificent Vespers (All-Night Vigil), including the affecting Nunc Dimittis, which the composer asked to have sung at his funeral.
As important a pedagogue as he was an innovator, Rimsky-Korsakov's musical influence has been far-reaching and profound. His students include such diverse figures as Lazare Saminsky and Mikhail Gnessin, co-founders of the Society for Jewish Folk Music; Italy's Respighi, who would also be known for his orchestral colors; classmates Prokofiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky, sometimes known as the "father of the Soviet symphony"; and Stravinsky, whose breakthrough masterpiece, The Firebird, is suffused with his teacher's influence and in many passages uses the octatonic scale. This is also prevalent in the work of Debussy, whose Symphony movement for piano four-hands, written as a teenager in Russia, was only rediscovered half a century later. Likewise the octatonic scale helped inspire Alexander Tcherepnin, the son of Rimsky-Korsakov's student Nikolai, who composed with his own synthetic tetrachordal modes, much as his father's teacher had done. Program 11, "The Spectacular Legacy of Rimsky-Korsakov," investigates this remarkable heritage in the final chamber concert of the festival.
No 19th-century composer contributed more substantially to Russia's opera repertoire than Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote 15 examples of the genre. In many cases, like The Snow Maiden and Le coq d'or, he drew primarily on fantasy material. For his tenth opera, however, he combined the fantastic with the historical, turning to the so-called Time of Troubles, the same period of Russian history that inspired Boris Godunov and SummerScape 2017's Dimitrij. Based on a play by Lev Mey, The Tsar's Bride depicts Ivan the Terrible and merchant's daughter Marfa, whom he chooses from among thousands of pretty girls. However, she is already in love with another and subject to the unwanted attentions of a third, who attempts to give her a love potion. When poison is substituted, and the man she loves is blamed and executed, Marfa loses her mind, providing the opera with a bona fide mad scene. Although the familiar Slava anthem functions throughout as a leitmotif, Rimsky-Korsakov explained that he intended The Tsar's Bride as a reaction against Wagner's ideas, and aimed for "cantilena par excellence." This proved successful in his homeland, where the opera was warmly welcomed at its premiere, and has remained in regular rotation ever since. In the West, by contrast, revivals are rare. Yet The Tsar's Bride is "an upfront rumbustious melodrama, packed with big tunes and thrilling climaxes" (The Telegraph, UK), offers "a compelling study of power and powerlessness" (The Independent, UK), and has "one of the most lyrical of all Rimsky-Korsakov scores" (New York Times). Presenting the opera with a strong cast supported by the Bard Festival Chorale and The Orchestra Now, Program 12, "The Tsar's Bride," makes a riveting end to Bard's probing and far-reaching festival.
Supplementary events and forthcoming publication
Besides the twelve concert programs, there will be two free panel discussions, "From the Romanovs to the Revolution: Art and Politics in Russia" and "Russia Under Western Eyes." These will be supplemented by eight informative pre-concert talks, free to ticket-holders, to illuminate some of the individual programs' themes. Bard's highly popular European Spiegeltent will be open for lunch and dinner throughout "Rimsky-Korsakov and His World," besides playing host to cabaret performances by Angela Di Carlo and Billy Hough (August 11); the Hot Sardines (August 17); and returning host, Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (August 18).
Since the founding of the Bard Music Festival with 1990's "Brahms and His World," Princeton University Press has published a companion volume of new scholarship and interpretation each season, with essays and translated documents relating to the featured composer and his milieu. Scholar-in-Residence Marina Frolova-Walker, author of Russian Music and Nationalism: from Glinka to Stalin, is the editor of the forthcoming 2018 volume, Rimsky-Korsakov and His World.
Acclaim for the Bard Music Festival
"A highlight of the musical year" - Wall Street Journal
"Bard SummerScape and Bard Music Festival always unearth piles of buried treasure."
- New York
"One of the '10 Can't-Miss Classical Music Festivals'" - NPR
"Simply irresistible: a fabulous wealth of music by a major composer from the classical tradition, surrounded and contextualized with works by forebears, peers, colleagues, friends, enemies, students, followers - you name it." - Steve Smith
"The talks and panels are nearly as well attended as the concerts: this audience wants to think about the music, not merely bathe in it." - New Yorker
"One of the most intellectually stimulating of all American summer festivals and frequently ... one of the most musically satisfying." - Wall Street Journal
Getting to the Bard Music Festival: NYC round-trip bus transportation
Round-trip bus service is provided exclusively to ticket-holders for the performances marked with an asterisk below (Programs 1, 6, 9, and 12). A reservation is required, and may be made by calling the box office at 845-758-7900. The round-trip fare is $40 and reservations are required. The coach departs from behind Lincoln Center, on Amsterdam Avenue between 64th and 65th Streets. Further details are available at fishercenter.bard.edu/visit/transportation.
This season of the Bard Music Festival is made possible in part through the generous support of the Board of the Bard Music Festival and the Friends of the Fisher Center, as well as grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Additional underwriting has been provided by Jeanne Donovan Fisher, James H. Ottaway Jr., Felicitas S. Thorne, Helen and Roger Alcaly, Bettina Baruch Foundation, and the Jane W. Nuhn Charitable Trust. Special support has also been provided by the Mrs. Mortimer Levitt Endowment Fund for the Performing Arts and the donors to the BMF Mellon Challenge.