A Look at the Whole Strauss
Bard College's festival, under Leon Botstein, tackles weighty issues surrounding composers
`WE don't do these Bard Music Festivals just to praise a particular composer," says Leon Botstein, "but to throw open controversies when necessary, con- troversies that are not only musical, but political and ethical and historical."Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, since its debut three years ago, the Bard Festival, held on the picturesque Bard College campus 90 miles north of New York City, has not only presented dozens of concerts but also covered some unusual topics, such as: the sexuality of Johannes Brahms; the anti-Semitism that plagued the career of Felix Mendelssohn, and the sexism that derailed the career of his sister Fanny; and the implications of Richard Strauss's connection with the Nazi regime.
Next August, it will be Antonin Dvorak's turn. The festival's two-week event will focus on this Czech composer and his times.
Much of the success of the Bard Festival must be laid at the door of its dynamic director, Leon Botstein. He is one of the most active, versatile, visible - and occasionally volatile - figures on the national arts scene. He is a triple-threat player - a media star (he is in constant demand on national television and radio), a prominent educator and administrator (he is the president of Bard College, one of the fastest growing and attractive campuses in the country), and a musician (he conducts the Bard F estival Orchestra and is the conductor of the American Symphony in New York City).
Unquestionably, the Bard Festival is Mr. Botstein's pet project; it provides him an opportunity to demonstrate ideas in musical education and performance that he has pursued all his life.
"In this country, musical education is virtually nonexistent," Botstein says in an interview at his home on the Bard campus. He has a deliberate but intense way of speaking. His brow seems perpetually furrowed, although a sly humor is never far away. He continues: "It's just a question of combining educational, interdisciplinary forums with the pleasure of the music itself. The composers we choose for our `Rediscoveries' - Brahms, the Mendelssohns, Strauss, next year Dvorak - are artists who were at the center of their worlds, who were intersections of the important issues in art, philosophy, social change, and world events of their time."
The festival on Richard Strauss was a case in point. "He lived a long time," says historian Bryan Gilliam of Duke University, who had been invited by Botstein to edit the festival's anthology of essays on Strauss. "Consider his dates - 1864 to 1949. He saw an Emperor come and go. He went through the trials and tribulations of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. He endured the period of National Socialism in the 1930s. He survived the Second World War. And he died during the time of a newly divided Germany. "
But finding the "real" Richard Strauss can be difficult. In his lifetime he was described as a "genius" by his friends and as a "decadent" and "leg-puller" by his enemies. He lived long enough to see the critics who, in his ardent youth, pronounced him an artistic visionary, condemn him in his stodgy middle age as a commercial sellout.
TODAY'S audiences know him primarily for a handful of the waltzes from his popular opera, "Der Rosenkavalier;" and for his late 19th-century orchestral tone poems, like "Also sprach Zarathustra" and "Death and Transfiguration," which have been adapted to movie soundtracks, respectively, "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Superman."