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Bard Summerscape 2021: Chausson Opera, Boulanger Concert

Bard Music Festival/Summerscape 2021
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
July 8-August 15, 2021
DVD: Women Composers (Film Movement)
After its COVID cancellation last summer, Bard College’s annual Summerscape returned to the bucolic campus two-plus hours north of New York City for live performances, both indoors and outside, in front of real audiences—along with the livestreaming that all of us have gotten used to over the past 18 months.
French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger—an important teacher to countless prominent European and American composers—was the centerpiece of this year’s Bard Music Festival, after having been the one to be feted last summer. 
Although “Nadia Boulanger and Her World” included a few pieces by Nadia, it was mainly filled by dozens of works by composers in her orbit for decades, including her talented sister, Lili Boulanger, an accomplished composer in her own right who died at age 25 in 1918. (Nadia died at age 92 in 1979.)
Ernest Chausson's opera King Arthur (photo: Maria Baranova)

Summerscape’s centerpiece was King Arthur, a grand lyric opera by Frenchman Ernest Chausson, another tragic case of a composer dying young (he was 44 when he crashed his bike into a brick wall in 1899). Since I was unable to attend live performances of the opera, I did the next best thing, which was watch the livestream—professionally shot, edited and subtitled for maximum viewer enjoyment—at home.
Chausson’s gorgeous opera unashamedly bows to the temple of Wagner—in sound and story there are hints of Tristan and Parsifal, for starters—but its decidedly French delicacy tempers the weightiness of subject and music. 
Louisa Proske’s illuminating production was realistic and mystical by turns, the leads—Norman Garrett (Arthur), Sasha Cooke (Genièvre), Matthew White (Lancelot) and Troy Cook (Merlin)—were in magnificent voice, and Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Festival Chorale (director, James Bagwell) in a transcendent musical performance, highlighted by the opera’s magisterial finale.
Nadia Boulanger
I attended one of the Bard Music Festival concerts. As usual, it was a superbly curated program, nearly three hours long—almost too much despite the rich music and performances we heard. 
Titled Remembering Ethyl Smyth and Boulanger’s Circle at Home and Abroad, it was just that—beginning with a concert version of Smyth’s delightful one-act opera Fête galante, followed by a 90-minute second half. (In fact, the evening could have been shorn of the Smyth opera and still would have been musically fulfilling.)
First there was a lovely reading of Lili Boulanger’s elegant Theme and Variations, newly arranged for orchestra by Richard Wilson. Then came a propulsive performance of Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 4 and a scintillating solo turn by Luosha Fang in underrated Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicż’ Violin Concerto No. 5. Finally, Aaron Copland’s patriotic Lincoln Portrait provided a rousing finale, with Patrick Gaspard intoning the 16th president’s immortal words and sending everyone home sated.
Lili Boulanger—along with Fanny Mendlessohn-Hensel and the previously unknown to me Mel Bonis—is profiled in Women Composers (Film Movement DVD), an informative if too short documentary by pianist Kyra Steckeweh and Tim van Beveren. Steckeweh started researching female composers when she was looking for new and different repertoire to perform in a classical world dominated by dead European males. 
The film briefly examines these women’s personal and musical histories, which provides opportunities for Steckeweh to perform their works without stigmatizing them. Bonus features on the DVD are a Q&A with the directors and a performance of Bonis’ piano work “Ophelie” by Steckeweh.

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