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Critic's Notebook

Under Wagner's spell, like it or not

After a marathon weekend at Bard College, the composer gets the last

August 25, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — The Bard Music Festival, an intense two-weekend immersion into the world of a major composer, operates on the principal that if you put forth enough information and play enough unfamiliar music, demystification might occur. Perhaps that works for Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and other explicable artists that Bard has explored in past years. But not that old wizard, Richard Wagner.

Everyone knows Wagner didn't necessarily improve the world, although he is often given far too much credit for inspiring the Nazi cause (Hitler appeared to like the idea of Wagner more than the composer's long music dramas themselves). What the final three days of the festival, which ended Sunday, did show, however, is that the world of music was, indeed, better for Wagner's influence.

Leon Botstein, Bard's ambitious president and venturesome music director of the American Symphony Orchestra in New York City, invited his usual raft of experts, his orchestra and quite a few soloists to the verdant campus along the Hudson River. The overstuffed second weekend this past Friday to Sunday included a daylong symposium looking at Wagner's effect on European culture, a panel on the inevitable Jewish question and talks before each of the weekend's six marathon concerts. Days began first thing in the morning and extended until late at night, leaving little time to read the 542-page companion book to the festival.

Wagner has, to understate, been investigated before. Since his death in 1883, this uniquely visionary creator of music theater -- who also happened to be a womanizer, scheming careerist and obnoxious bigot -- has provided employment for philosophers, psychologists, visual artists, cultural historians, musicologists, political scientists, biographers, novelists, poets, critics and university Jewish studies departments. For a century and a half, Wagnerites have fought anti-Wagnerites.

What cannot be disputed is that, as a musician and a man, Wagner cast a spell, and that was as palpable at Bard, if sometimes as oppressive, as the heavy rain clouds overhead. And however much the festival was designed to dispel the Wagnerian clouds and show you how he did it, revealing the mechanism was never enough. The better you know this master musician, the more mysterious he seems.

The symposium revealed the pervasiveness of Wagnerism in European thought outside of music, be it the work of Cezanne or nutty neurologists (Wagner fanaticism was studied in 19th century Paris as though a bacteria or mental aberration).

One member of the audience demanded to know why Wagner mattered as much as Darwin or Marx. Byron Adams, a musicologist at UC Riverside and one of the weekend's liveliest presences, put the issue to rest. Wagner inspired Henri Bergson's theory of time, he pointed out, and Bergson's theory influenced both Proust and Einstein.

The festival did not stage any Wagner opera. The idea, instead, was to show where Wagner came from and how he operated outside the lyric theater. Earlier at Bard's Summerscape (the larger festival umbrella under which the music festival resides), Botstein did stage Meyerbeer's French grand opera "Les Huguenots," as one of the pieces that gave Wagner his grounding. That theme continued through the first Wagner weekend.

The programs I heard on the second weekend, though, demonstrated the culture Wagner worked in during his prime, and the kind of impression he made on his contemporaries. Most people in Wagner's day learned his operas through excerpts in the concert hall, and Saturday night in the Fisher Center, the marvelously intimate concert hall Frank Gehry designed for Bard, Botstein played bits from the four operas of "The Ring of the Nibelung" just the way Wagner had once programmed them.

Another festival conceit was to pit Brahms against Wagner, as they were enemies. The "Ring" bits followed a long afternoon program of music by Brahms and Brahmsians. The discussion had been on how much gray area there was between the kind of historically minded instrumental music Brahms wrote and Wagner's narrative "music of the future." Brahms was a harmonic progressive in his own right, and whole scenes in the "Ring" have been shown to have hidden classical structures.

But what each composer wrought was something else entirely. After hearing two long, academic chamber pieces by such forgotten Brahmsians as Heinrich von Hezogenberg and Hermann Goetz, the harmonic sorcery and his uncanny musical psychology of the "Ring" seemed truly incredible. Botstein's conducting verged on the anti-Romantic, emphasizing rhythmic periodicity and clarity of textures. He stayed out of the way and let the music work its magic. The singing from soprano Catherine Foster, tenor Gary Lehman and bass-baritone James Johnson was not the highlight.

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