Cher Public

Trial by Korngold

What is the best metaphor for this year’s Bard Music Festival, prepared under the caring, curatorial, and sometimes didactic gaze of co-Artistic Directors Leon Botstein (the College’s President of more than 40 years, as well as music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra) and Christopher H. Gibbs (the James Ottoway Professor of Music)?

Is it a table laden with caloric delights, which are probably best sampled in moderation? Is it being immersed in a pile of New Yorker magazines, where you know you’d be a better person if you read every word, but you just can’t focus that long? For myself, at both concerts I’ve attended so far, I’ve felt a bit like Tamino being tested for moral character and not quite making the grade.

But first, you should probably know exactly what it is. This year’s Bard SummerScape theme is “Korngold and His World,” where concerts, recitals, and two opera presentations celebrate the great composer born in Brno. The ongoing suggestion here is that Korngold could well have been the logical successor to Richard Strauss, had he not emigrated to the U. S. shortly before World War II, where he achieved his greatest fame as a composer of film music.

Korngold’s movie scores—The Seahawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Adventures of Robin Hood in particular—brought the composer lasting fame; the afterlife of his operas and concert-hall works is spottier.

Botstein and company aim to redress this imbalance over two weekends that present concerts of Korngold in dialogue with his more populist colleagues (Leo Fall, Robert Benatzky… also Cole Porter, Kay Swift and more), as well as a full-scale orchestral concert where Korngold is heard alongside two late 20th Centuries heavy-hitters: Paul Hindemith, and of course R. Strauss himself.

Attending the latter, rather pompously titled “Art After the Catastrophe” (all three works were composed within a few years after the end of WWII), I couldn’t help but feel the irony. In an evening devoted to resurrecting Korngold’s place at the table of history, his rarely heard Symphony in F-sharp proved the weakest offering.

It is to be sure a highly skillful peace, full of Korngold’s signature and often beguiling orchestral colors and textures. Unsurprisingly, a rather gloomy, militaristic tone pervades much of it, though interwoven throughout are more lyrical passages. Strangely,for a composer whose film scores are so immediately engaging, very few melodies here remain in memory.

Korngold’s symphony very notably aims for grandeur, with its four movements and Mahlerian length (and, some might also say, lugubriousness). But while sections of it are striking, the work as a whole is meandering and tedious. To be fair, Botstein and the orchestra certainly made the best case for it, with exceptionally pointed playing.

Still, I found myself longing to hear some corrective Hindemith (not a sentence I ever thought I’d write). Sure enough, his Symphonia Serena, which is at least as obscure as Korngold’s symphony, proved a far more compelling work.

I often hear Hindemith as a very academic kind of composer—someone to admire, but not easy to love. But Symphonia Serena surprises with some deft, lively, and actually quite witty touches.

Like the Korngold, it’s a work in four movements (virtually an archaic form by the mid-20th Century), but Hindemith manages to find sufficient variety and even charm to keep the piece moving. The tone and virtuosic orchestral playing (some fun touches with piccolos and a wood block) are more obviously in a Modernist mode than Korngold, and frankly—for me, at least—light years more interesting.

And then, finally, came absolute mastery with Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder. Once upon a time, this work too was a rarity, but over the last few decades, it has found its rightful place as a concert hall favorite.

As well it should have. In just under 20 minutes (just over half the length of the Hindemith, which was itself half the length of the Korngold), these four songs evoke a heartrending life journey from the freshness of Spring to acceptance of life’s eventual, inevitable twilight with breathtaking orchestral beauty—and the graceful if demanding vocal line delivers the texts (by Hesse and Eichendorff) gloriously.

Closing this concert, Vier Letzte Lieder unsurprisingly asserted itself as the genuine masterpiece of the evening, but the performance itself was a mixed bag. Botstein and the orchestra certainly mined Strauss’s rich orchestration, but tempos were often frustratingly slow (the least springlike “Fruehling” I’ve ever heard), and the internal rhythms insufficiently marked.

Soprano Marjorie Owens has a gorgeous, blue-chip soprano of rare density and sheen, and the voice indeed blooms at the top, as one wants in Strauss. But her tonal production is dark and throaty, and though the voice is large, she was often swamped in the mid-range. Her German was iffy, and few textual points really carried.

One appreciated her ability to navigate the long lines, and her general sense of mood (lots of lovely soft singing), but too much vibrato tended to obliterate some pitches, and to smudge the fiorature. I wished for her a more sympathetic conductor than Botstein, and perhaps an acoustically brighter hall than the Sosnoff Theater—Owens is clearly a talent to watch.

Still in all, the Vier Letzte Liederwere the crown jewel of this concert. If they failed to quite achieve their transfigurative potential, that was in part due to some limitations in the performance.

The bigger issue, I think, is a case of sensory overload. The concert lasted more than two-and-a-half hours, and the musical standard was certainly mixed. Had the evening stuck to two of three pieces—Hindemith and Strauss—it would have been quite a bit more compelling.  And of course, I recognize the problem of omitting Korngold in a program designed to celebrate him.

But there is a lesson here. Botstein and company, who tend to wear their erudition on their sleeves, could learn one valuable lesson themselves: less is often more.