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Apocalypse Wow -- "Berg and His World" at Bard SummerScape

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The Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard College

Our company has worked with the Bard SummerScape Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson (two hours north of New York City) since 2004. This seven-week festival grew out of the Bard Music Festival, which debuted in 1990. Under the visionary leadership of Leon Botstein -- who is an artistic director for the Bard Music Festival, the music director of the resident American Symphony Orchestra and the President of Bard College -- an arts complex designed by Frank Gehry -- the Richard B. Fisher Center, with its gleaming foil facade -- was added to the mix in 2003, along with dance, theater and a host of other genres (some presented in an authentic Belgian Spiegeltent that sits nearby). The Bard Music Festival now makes up the last two weekends of the seven-week SummerScape festival, and is SummerScape's centerpiece and guiding spirit.

The New York Times has called the Bard Music Festival "part bootcamp for the brain, and part spa for the spirit." Few boot camps benefit from such a splendid natural setting -- the Fisher Center stands at the edge of a forest, amidst the lush, rolling hills of the Hudson Valley -- but the analogy does effectively convey the intensity of the experience of visiting Bard in the summer. Lectures, panel discussions, program after program stuffed with rare musical delicacies -- all of these make a visit to the Bard Music Festival one of the most stimulating and occasionally exhausting cultural events of the year.

Botstein has been widely praised as a programming genius and champion for neglected works, but this year's Bard Music Festival -- indeed the whole SummerScape festival -- demonstrated the unique boldness of his vision. While so many summer festivals across the country are lightening up their repertoire and carting in the pops, Botstein and his Bard colleagues rolled out a rich and extensive menu of early 20th-century Viennese modernism, inspired by the focus of this year's Bard Music Festival, "Berg and His World." That's Alban Berg, as in the protege of Arnold Schoenberg and one of the three (along with Schoenberg and Webern) in the triumvirate of Second Viennese School composers that are known to send comfort-seeking audience members running for the doors. But over and over again, Bard audiences have embraced the supposedly embraceable, resulting this season in some sold-out performances of Franz Schreker's hauntingly beautiful opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound), which received its first North American production at Bard beginning in late July, and, on Saturday evening, a packed house for a massive 1935-37 oratorio about nothing less than the end of time! More on that in a moment.

Bard is a gorgeous half hour drive from a weekend home I share with my partner in Columbia County, and I hit the road late Saturday morning for a full day on and around the campus. The first concert I attended began in the early afternoon and featured chamber music and a few solo piano works. The program, called "Composers Select: New Music in the 1920s," was designed to show the enormous variety of musical styles that were spreading across Europe after the First World War. It began with a movement from Berg's Kammerkonzert, arranged by the composer for clarinet, violin and piano, and continued with works by both rarely performed composers (such as Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch and Alois Haba) and a few more familiar names (including George Gershwin, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Manuel de Falla).

Overall, the program was a scintillating and enormously satisfying smorgasbord, but there were standout courses. For me, the no-holds barred performance by the FLUX Quartet of Toch's Quartet for Strings No. 11 was a revelation. The group played the work with the same attention to detail and intensity that most ensembles seem to reserve only for "established" masterpieces (when it was over, the second violinist's shirt was soaked through). Quoting notes I scribbled on my program, I found the performance, "riveting, crisply-inflected, gritty and sharply-etched." Above all it was thoroughly musical and richly expressive.

An errant hearing aid brought some humor to the proceedings when the FLUX returned in the second half for Haba's Quartet for Strings No. 2, an experimental work written using quarter tones (please submit technical questions to your local musicologist). Before the playing began, two of FLUX members attempted to recreate the pitch of the offending hearing aid with their instruments, eliciting a few hearty chuckles from the audience. Orion Weiss's lively performances of Gershwin's Three Preludes for Piano added some swing to the affair, as did de Falla's jaunty, neo-classical Concerto for harpsichord, which ended the program.

I took a break before the evening concert with a short drive to neighboring Red Hook, where I feasted at the Flatiron restaurant on one of the most succulent ducks I've ever tasted (Spanish almonds and cherries flavored the sauce -- beyond delicious). While making small talk with the bartender and some other patrons, I was also tweeting about the imminent Apocalypse. That came in the form of Franz Schmidt's Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (Book of the Seven Seals), which was on the evening program featuring Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Festival Chorale. This Austrian composer is still relegated to the fringes of 20th century music history -- his support of the Nazi regime is obviously a cloud that darkens his posthumous reputation -- but this oratorio inspired by the New Testament's Book of the Revelation is clearly a major (though flawed) work that deserves to be heard.

At first, the conservative musical language seems to clash with the utter strangeness of St. John's biblical narrative. But as the work builds inexorably towards its massive final climaxes, Schmidt gives listeners a good enough shake to suggest the terror and splendor of the final judgment. Music critics Alex Ross of the New Yorker and Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe were sitting directly behind me, and just before we exited the theater I turned and said, "Remember, you experienced the end of the world at Bard."

On the way to my car I walked by the Spiegeltent in search of ice cream, which I was unable to procure. The place was packed. Some hard-thumping dance music was emanating from the building, and over the outdoor speakers, and there was a fairly long line to buy tickets to get in. It might have been the end of the world over at the Fisher Center, but the party was just getting started at the Spiegeltent.