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Summerscape Bard Music Festival

Carlos Chávez, Mexican Modernist

The New York Times

By William Robin

July 30, 2015

“European musicians are of the worst kind,” the composer Carlos Chávez declared in a 1931 letter. “Conductors, pianists, violinists, singers and so on are ‘prima donna’ minded people — they are very important to themselves. We must change the situation, Aaron.” In a reply to his close friend, the young Aaron Copland concurred: “All you wrote about music in America awoke a responsive echo in my heart. I am through with Europe, Carlos, and I believe as you do, that our salvation must come from ourselves and that we must fight the foreign element in American music.”

The battle for American music was won on two fronts. Just as Mr. Copland’s populist style transformed music in the United States, so too did Mr. Chávez exert enormous influence in his home of Mexico as composer, conductor and bureaucrat. Beginning on Aug. 7 at Bard College, “Chávez and His World” will commemorate that legacy with concerts and panels spread across two weekends.

This summer represents the Bard Music Festival’s first examination of a Latin American composer, focusing on one who, though little known today, may have shaped American music more than any other. Along with building an impressive oeuvre couched in an acerbic modernist idiom, Mr. Chávez almost single-handedly remolded Mexican culture through his official roles in national arts institutions after the Mexican Revolution.

“It seemed to be the best framework in which to introduce an audience to the musical riches of the 20th century, primarily, in Mexico and Latin America,” Leon Botstein, the festival’s co-director and the president of Bard College, said in a recent interview. “For the concert audience in the United States, this is a thrilling opportunity, because most of the music they’re going to hear over these 12, 13 concerts is unknown to them.” Performances of chamber and orchestral music will situate the pluralist Mr. Chávez in his myriad contexts, from Mexico City to Greenwich Village.

Perhaps no other composer of the past century exerted such a strong pull on his national culture as Mr. Chávez (1899-1978), whose activities included leading the Orquesta Sinfónica de México (which maintained an astonishing dedication to the new, giving hundreds of premieres), directing the Conservatorio Nacional de Música (where he created an eclectic composition program and advanced research into Mexican music) and founding the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (which officially established state support of art). “Chávez is also organizationally the key linchpin of the infrastructure of 20th-century Mexican musical education and institutions,” Mr. Botstein said.

Mr. Chávez came of age just as a self-consciously nationalist art music first emerged in Mexico, epitomized by the leading composer Manuel Ponce. Mr. Chávez studied piano with Mr. Ponce, who later fretted that his former pupil was too quickly embracing the new sounds of the European avant-garde. “Will he renounce Romanticism to steadfastly follow the banner of the modernists?” Mr. Ponce wrote after Mr. Chávez made his debut in 1921.

A cleareyed Mr. Chávez followed that banner to the West Village, where he arrived broke in 1923 and met Edgard Varèse, dean of the New York ultra-modernists. In a later visit, Mr. Chávez befriended Mr. Copland, who recognized him as an ally in the war against the excesses of German Romanticism, describing Mr. Chávez as “one of the few American musicians about whom we can say that he is more than a reflection of Europe.”

In creating an image of Mr. Chávez as an essentially non-European composer, Mr. Copland also misconstrued him as an essentially Mexican one. According to Mr. Copland, Mr. Chávez “caught the spirit of Mexico — its sun-filled, naïve, Latin soul.” Critics similarly interpreted the arid intensity of Mr. Chávez’s music through Indian stereotypes. “If he did not scalp he tomahawked the keyboard,” Olin Downes wrote of Mr. Chávez’s performance of his own piano sonata in a 1928 review in The New York Times.

“The idea that he was a quintessential ‘Mexican composer’ and that in his case it was not a picturesque, postcard folklore, but some sort of really internal, almost racial essence, marked him forever,” the musicologist Leonora Saavedra said recently. An associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, Ms. Saavedra serves as the Bard festival’s scholar in residence and has edited an insightful volume of accompanying essayspublished by Princeton University Press.

In the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Ms. Saavedra traces how Mr. Chávez, far from naïve, deployed national elements in his compositions. Once Mr. Copland and his cohort brought him to international attention by proclaiming him the archetypal Latin composer, the cosmopolitan Mr. Chávez played to that identity, writing a primitivist“Sinfonía India” that incorporates indigenous drums and echoes “The Rite of Spring.” For “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art”— a huge 1940 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that juxtaposed Diego Rivera’s murals with pre-Columbian artifacts — Mr. Chávez composed “Xochipilli,” a shrill and steely reimagining of Aztec music featuring replicas of antique instruments. These inventions of the “Mexican” allowed Mr. Chávez to capitalize on the vogue for Mexican culture in the United States and secured him a lasting relationship with New York, where he maintained an apartment across from Lincoln Center.

But Mr. Chávez was as invested in the technological as the national. “There are so many pieces that are not about being Mexican; they’re machine music,” Ms. Saavedra said. “Chávez was a young man in the 1920s: He loved modernity, he loved cars, going to the movies, Charlie Chaplin.” His 1925 “Energia,” a nonet for winds and strings, bustles with mechanical rhythms and quizzical instrumental lines.

A fascination with the contemporary culminated in Mr. Chávez’s absurdist ballet “Horsepower,” with sets and costumes designed by Mr. Rivera, in which the industrial North confronts the exotic South — complete with dancing fruit and a protagonist dressed as a giant machine. Despite glowing advance press and a strong champion in the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the ballet’s sold-out 1932 Philadelphia premiere was poorly received. Frida Kahlo wrote that “there was a crowd of insipid blonds pretending to be Indians from Tehuantepec and when they had to dance the zandunga they looked as if they had lead instead of blood.” But the score for “Horsepower” is a fascinating document of a composer panoramically surveying the Americas, with discordant harmonies, jagged melodies and a searing tango.

When Mr. Chávez first returned to Mexico in 1924, he began a local campaign for modern music that went unheeded. “I am alone and have to overcome a sea of resistance,” he wrote to Mr. Varèse. “Here people hardly know of the existence of Debussy; they do not know Moussorgsky and even less what followed after Debussy.” Alienated from a post-Revolutionary artistic renaissance steered by the education minister, José Vasconcelos — who subsidized Mr. Rivera’s murals but ignored the high-art compositions of Mr. Chávez’s colleagues — Mr. Chávez penned distortions of folk music that mocked the government’s populist revival of Mexican song. But by the end of that decade, Mr. Chávez had positioned himself at the helm of several state-backed institutions, ones that he fervently directed toward the new.

“He knew that there could be no important composition in Mexico if there wasn’t a very solid infrastructure,” Ms. Saavedra said. “Otherwise the composers compose and put it in a drawer.”

Mr. Chávez conducted an orchestra dedicated to introducing new music and revamped the national conservatory. He appointed as his assistant conductor Silvestre Revueltas, who would develop a glittering and heatedcompositional voice. Though he fell in and out of favor as governments changed, Mr. Chávez remained at the center of Mexican musical life, a position that benefited colleagues including Mr. Copland, whose “El Salon Mexico” represents the best-known document of this cultural exchange.

Despite his impressive legacy, Mr. Chávez remains a controversial figure in Mexico today. A long-lasting affiliation with the country’s dominant political party and his authoritarian personality — which eventually put him at odds with Mr. Revueltas — left many musicians and scholars resentful. But the wealth of his music and the cross-border connections on display at the Bard festival are reminders of how government support for the arts helped create not only an American sound but also a framework to sustain it. And from jarabes and foxtrots to Neo-Classical preludes andheaving symphonies, Mr. Chávez’s oeuvre represents a musician as vigilantly committed to the global as to the national.

“So much the better if our tradition is richer and multiple, deriving from native as well as Western culture,” he once said in a lecture. “We are just as much the owners of our ancestral Tlacuilos as we are of our Florentine Renaissance grandfathers. To circumscribe ourselves, to fix on one thing or the other, is to impoverish ourselves.”

Original story here.

One Feisty Victorian Woman's Opera Revived


By Tom Huizenga

July 23, 2015

Ethel Smyth was not your typical Victorian lady. She defied her father, a stern army general, to pursue a career in music. She loved women, played sports and played an important role in the women's suffrage movement in Britain in the early 20th century. Along the way she composed chamber and orchestral music, an acclaimed Mass and six operas.

Smyth's music was as dramatic as her life, but today both are largely forgotten. Leon Botstein is doing his best to correct that. He's head of Bard College in upstate New York, where he conducts the first full U.S. staging of Smyth's 1904 opera The WreckersFriday night.

"We are really in the reclamation business of neglected masterpieces and this is certainly one of them," Botstein says. "It's only helped by the fact that Ethel Smyth was a truly larger-than-life character, and a woman."

A woman — especially at the turn of the 20th century — who was not supposed to do the things that Smyth did. Like hunting, mountain climbing, falling in love with Virginia Woolf and of course composing. Sure, Botstein says, there were women composers back then, but the male music establishment had certain expectations.

"A woman composer might have been tolerated to write dance music or ethereal types of music that befit some kind of stereotype of the feminine," Botstein says. "So in a sense, people were offended not only that she was a composer but the kind of music she wrote in no way could have been, on a blindfold test so to speak, identified as have being written by a woman."

Smyth's music was considered manly and muscular. The Wreckers features boldWagnerian brass writing, pulsing crescendos and full-throated choruses.

"The score is fearless," Botstein says. "Maybe that's what they thought was masculine about it." And maybe that's why Smyth, with all of her in-your-face attitude, ran afoul of the group she called the "Male Machine."

"These were the men who ran the press, ran the Royal College, the professors, the heads of institutions who really were misogynist, homophobic and enjoyed turning her into a figure of fun and ridicule," says Elizabeth Wood, a musicologist who's written extensively on Smyth.

Partly, these men despised her politics. In 1910, Smyth took a detour from composing to activism, falling in love with Emmeline Pankhurst, the charismatic leader of the women's suffrage movement.

"And of course in her typical fashion she bullied her way into being very close to Mrs. Pankhurst, possibly lovers," Wood says. When Pankhurst called on suffragettes to smash the windows of politicians opposed to voting rights for women, Smyth was there.

"At exactly 5:30 one memorable evening in 1912," Smyth recalled on a 1937 BBC broadcast, "relays of women produced hammers from their muffs and handbags and proceeded to methodically smash up windows in all the big London thoroughfares. Nearly 200 women were arrested that evening."

Among the women were Smyth and Pankhurst. "The two were imprisoned together," Wood says. "And their famous story of course comes from that of Ethel conducting the prisoners in the yard below her, with her toothbrush, as they sang and marched to her famous song "The March of the Women."

The song, written by Smyth in 1911, became an anthem for the suffrage movement. Her passion for activism and politics also found its way into the plot of The Wreckers.

"She draws a sword on behalf of a variety of very hot political issues," Botstein says. "So the other thing about this opera which appealed to me especially today is the whole question of justice, the state and religion."

The story is no tender La bohème tear-jerker. It concerns an isolated coastal community in Cornwall which lures passing ships to crash on the rocks so villagers can plunder the goods and murder the crew. All in the name of God. At the end, a pair of illicit lovers tries to stop the gruesome practice and is condemned to death by the townsfolk.

"One of the things this opera does, which is so powerfully present, is that it shows that majority consensus — groupthink — is very dangerous," Botstein says. "The intolerance of individual dissent, that's what appeals to me. We in this country, for all our rhetoric, don't like dissent. We see it in many communities. It's not only on the right, it's also on the left. People who challenge orthodoxies are ostracized." Smyth must have, at some level, identified with the outsiders in her opera.

"She was fairly outrageous," Wood says. "When you think of it, Radclyffe Hall's sensational [lesbian] novel, The Well of Loneliness, didn't come out until 1928. Ethel was writing about why she found it very interesting that she was attracted to members of her own sex, rather than to the male sex, back in the 1890s."

Later in her life Smyth even made a play for writer Virginia Woolf.

"It is clear from her correspondence with Woolf, and from her memoirs and diaries, that she was deeply in love with Woolf, but found Woolf a little untouchable," Wood says. "Woolf was fascinated by her and I think was also deeply moved by the resilience of this old woman who she met when Ethel was in her 70s and very deaf. But gallant as ever."

Smyth began losing her hearing before she turned 50. She noticed problems in World War I when she worked as an X-ray nurse in a French military hospital in Vichy. Later, in 1934, when the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham led a 75th birthday concert of her music, Smyth, ensconced in the royal box at Royal Albert Hall, couldn't hear a note.

The hearing loss, Wood says, triggered a long depression. But Woolf and others encouraged her to return to music, and to writing, which she continued until she died in 1944 at age 86.

As her hearing worsened, Smyth ramped up her writing, eventually producing 10 books about her extraordinary life and times. She had stories galore. Like the time she pitched a rock through a cabinet minister's window, her golfing escapades in the deserts of Egypt and her various love affairs. She wrote a piano piece called Variations on an Original Theme (of an Exceedingly Dismal Nature). Plus there were meetings and friendships with BrahmsTchaikovsky and a host of European potentates.

In 1922, Smyth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the arts. Even with a few accolades along the way, it seems Smyth was always fighting for her music — a fight that, Wood says, extends to today. "Right up until the New York premiere of The Wreckers in concert performance that Leon Botstein did in 2007," Wood says. "We were appalled to read a very offensive review in the New York Times. So it's not over yet."

And it's certainly not over for Botstein, who says that The Wreckers is "ever so much more impressive than many of the second tier Bellini and Donizetti operas we tolerate." He knew there was something special about the opera the first time he saw the score. "I could see immediately this is a hit, this has real legs, as they say. This is an opera that should be on the stage of Covent Garden, on the stage of the Vienna State Opera, at the Mariinsky Theater, at the Met."

It was another opera by Ethel Smyth, Der Wald, that to date has been the only opera composed by a woman to have been produced at the Metropolitan Opera.

Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers runs through August 2 at The Bard Music Festival.

Original story here.

Staging ‘The Wreckers’ Opera at Bard College

The New York Times

By Phillip Lutz

July 23, 2015

Leon Botstein, the Zurich-born polymath and president of Bard College, has the bald pate and imperious bearing of an Old World movie director. And he has the rhetorical style to match.

Little wonder, then, that he had an immediate impact this month when, addressing 52 singers midway through an early rehearsal of the Ethel Smyth opera “The Wreckers,” he let the rhetoric fly, warning of an impending “musical disaster.”

“This thing doesn’t play itself,” Mr. Botstein, the production’s musical director, declared. “The tempo, sound and pace need to be radically altered.”

As if to prove the point, he swept the singers into a detailed deconstruction of the libretto, coaxing them to extract meaning from every syllable. Ultimately, the strategy worked: Singers lent both shape and substance to their developing characterizations, and praise supplanted scolding in Mr. Botstein’s oratory.

“The Wreckers,” which is having its first fully staged performances in the United States in Bard’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts through Aug. 2, is, Mr. Botstein said, one of the least known in a line of lesser-known operas the college has produced.

Its score has been heard only once in the United States, in a 2007 concert version Mr. Botstein presented at Avery Fisher Hall. That kind of obscurity, he said, put an added premium on the dynamism of the cast, a handpicked group with experience in leading opera houses around the world.

“When someone goes to see the ‘The Wreckers,’ ”he said during a break in the rehearsal, “there’s no filter of memory, of comfort, of familiarity. So the burden on us is for people not to walk out and say, ‘Now I know why we’ve never heard of this piece.’ “

Mr. Botstein said the qualities that originally attracted him to the work — its potential for drama and its timely subject matter among them — argued for the full staging. The dramatic potential, in particular, also seems well suited to the broadly theatrical personal aesthetic he brings to the project, which draws on the legend of 18th-century Cornwall peasants who salvaged valuables from ships they lured onto the rocks, along the way using religious faith to justify murder.

“It’s a tremendously germane story,” he said.

Telling the story presents challenges, not least the language. The opera was written in French and translated to German for its 1906 premiere in Leipzig. Its English retranslation yielded what are now archaic words and phrases, among them “barque” (a deep-water cargo ship), which sent Mr. Botstein to the dictionary, and “beetling crags” (hanging-rock formations), which did the same to the baritone Louis Otey, who plays the fiery preacher, Pascoe.

Mr. Botstein said he and Thaddeus Strassberger, the director, had turned to replacement words sparingly, in each instance weighing their clarity of meaning against their rhythmic fit.

“We’ve done some very slight fiddling, but you have limited options,” he said, adding that the libretto would appear in supertitles projected over the stage.

Mr. Otey, one of six principals in the cast and a veteran of the 2007 concert, said the libretto had occasionally come across as stilted during that concert, detracting from the dramatic impact. But he said that placing the narrative in the context of a full stage production allowed him to speak the words “in a certain way, color them to give them meaning in whatever the scene is about.”

Compared with performing the work at the concert hall, he said, “taking it to the stage is much easier. I’m used to living a character, with sets and costumes and movement.”

As this month’s rehearsal unfolded, Mr. Otey, whose dark image dominates the stock poster for the opera, began to refine his character by varying his delivery and at the behest of Mr. Botstein, making greater use of sprechstimme, the singing technique combining elements of speech and pitch. Beyond the language, the terrain onstage held some hazard for the players as they moved on, over and around props that served as plundered crates. The movements were mapped by Mr. Strassberger, who, in a single day with the chorus and several more with the principals, had laid the groundwork for Mr. Botstein’s appearance.

Mr. Strassberger and Mr. Botstein, who have worked together previously on four operas — “Le Roi Malgré Lui,” “Les Huguenots,” “Der Ferne Klang” and Sergei Taneyev’s “Oresteia” — appeared to have developed a communication shorthand, helping release Mr. Botstein from having to micromanage the process.

“Leon is a charismatic character,” Mr. Strassberger said during a break. “Once he knows what he wants, he can sort of lightning-rod around. There’s a sort of freedom.”

At the rehearsal, Mr. Botstein, who at age 68 is nearly 40 years older than Mr. Strassberger, assumed the dominant role, though his younger counterpart in one instance sought the superior vantage point by standing on a wide ledge and surveying the cast spread across the rehearsal room.

Mr. Strassberger said he sometimes found it helpful simply to observe. “Some of the conductors, especially in Germany, let you run the rehearsal the entire time,” he said. “But then you’re always in output mode and it’s difficult to sit back and listen to what somebody else is saying.”

For Mr. Strassberger, hearing what Mr. Botstein is saying is especially critical on “The Wreckers” because Mr. Botstein is that rarity in America — a conductor who has performance experience with the piece, albeit in the concert hall.

Whatever the dynamics of Mr. Botstein’s working relationships, the results have shown some success in raising the profiles of the projects at hand. Notably, Shostakovich’s neglected early opera “The Nose” gained currency with a Bard production in 2004, and in 2010 it was staged by the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Botstein was making no such prediction for “The Wreckers.” But he is hoping that Smyth, a London native who remains the only woman to have composed an opera produced at the Met and whose views on sexuality, art and politics were unusually open for her day — she died in 1944 — will attract fresh interest.

“That’s the point of the production,” he said. “In a way, Ethel Smyth’s time has come.”

Bard Music Festival's Artistic Director Leon Botstein Talks About Showcasing Carlos Chavez

By Francisco Salazar ( May 03, 2015

In August, Bard College will hold the annual Bard Music Festival, one that was founded in 1990 to promote new ways of understanding and presenting the history of music to a contemporary audience. This year the festival will turn to Latin America as it will showcase the work of Carlos Chavez, a composer who was a central figure in Mexico in the 20th Century.

Latin Post had a chance to speak with Leon Botstein, the artistic co-director and the president of Bard College. Botstein spoke of his work with the festival and discovering the work of Chavez.

Francisco Salazar: Can you talk a bit about what it was to create the festival? Where did the idea come from?

Leon Botstein: It was created 26 years ago to bring academic scholarship in music together with performance to broaden the audience and repertoire of Classical music. Classical music has experienced a shrinking of the historical repertoire. And, as it has struggled to sustain an audience, it has become conservative and has taken to repeating a small portion of the historical repertoire. So Beethoven Symphonies, Mahler, Mozart, Bach. If you compare it to a museum, a museum has 50,000 great paintings. It's as we are only showing 500 of them [in Classical Music].

So with the festival, we are looking to bring back the remaining 49,500 paintings.

Francisco Salazar: So where did Carlos Chavez's music come into play as the theme of this year's festival?

Leon Botstein: This is the first year where we turn to Latin American's history with Classic Music, leading with Mexico. Carlos Chavez was the leading composer and force in the development of Classical Music culture in Mexico. He made his appearance in the public in the 1920s and then became an official leader of the music through government sponsorship in the 20's, 30's and 40's. He was very interested in his Latin American colleagues and was essential the founder of El Sistema De Abreu, so he has a strong connection to the Venezuelan community, the Argentines and Cubans as well. He was not only a Mexican leader but a broader protagonist of Latin America.

Francisco Salazar: What was your first encounter with his music?

Leon Botstein: I had family in Mexico City so I studied with faculty of the Conservatorio Nacional. I heard Chavez conduct as a child. As a child I became familiar with Mexican Classical Music through [Manuel] Ponce, [Silvestre] Revueltas and Chavez. Ten years ago I did an all-Mexican program at Lincoln Center which had music by Chavez and Revueltas. I had a life-long interest in Mexican Classical music.

Francisco Salazar: What do you hope audiences take away from this festival, especially from the music on display?

Leon Botstein: I hope they discover the riches and beauties of Latin American classic music. And of course Chavez and his contemporaries. We will also represent music from [Jose Pablo] Moncayo, Revueltas, Julian Carrillo, Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. There will be a sampling of composers that worked between 1900 and 1980.

Francisco Salazar: What is the greatest challenge in putting together a festival like this?

Leon Botstein:This is the first summer festival where the audience will know none of the pieces performed very well. Most of the pieces we are doing are not in the active repertory. They won't find them in most concerts in the US and Europe. There are exceptions but very few.

Most of the time we have done a mix of well-known music with rarer works. Most of the names this time around, even Chavez, and their music are unfamiliar to North American and European audiences.

Francisco Salazar: When you are picking the repertoire, where do you start?

Leon Botstein: First of all we have the help from scholars such as Dr. Leonora Saavedra from the University of California. She is a Chavez expert and an expert on Latin American Classical Music. She is the outside scholarly adviser to us. We who organize the festival are not experts in this repertoire so we rely heavily on her. We also publish a book, which Leonora Saavedra is editing. It is published by Princeton University and is called "Carlos Chavez and his World." So we publish a scholarly book and the scholars involved help us find our way through a large repertoire.

Francisco Salazar: Are the musicians performing specialists in this music?

Leon Botstein: No. There are some that have repertoire that is connected to Latin American music, a guitarist and a couple of pianists. But aside from them, the other musicians, including the American Symphony Orchestra and Soloists are not specialists. Most of the time these musicians are playing this music for the very first time.

It is exciting that the focus of the festival is not European or North American. We have never done this before. It is a tremendously rich body of work and I think it is a travesty that so little of it is known. I have done some of it as a conductor and it has its champions such as Gustavo Dudamel, but it is relatively neglected and underrepresented.

Take the New York Philharmonic for example. The last time they played music was likely during the career of Leonard Bernstein. And he was a patron of Aaron Copland who was a tremendous advocate of Chavez and the Latin American compositional community.

Original story here.