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Restored Reputation

by B.A. Nilsson on August 16, 2012

Saint-Saens and His World
Bard Music Festival, Sosnoff Theater and Olin Hall, Bard College, Aug. 11

The panel discussion that opened the day’s events at this year’s Bard Music Festival was titled “Prodigy, Polymath, Globetrotter, and Reactionary.” When you consider that Saint-Saëns was the most famous French composer of the late 19th century, yet became consigned to the ranks of the second-rate a half-century later, there’s plenty of mystery to unravel—and the beginnings of it were revealed as scholars from America and France pieced through his early years.

The evening concluded with a rip-snorting performance of his “Organ” Symphony, a blow-the-roof off piece that pays to Berlioz—the “Dies Irae,” fulcrum of the finale of the Symphonie Fantastique, appears here in a much politer form—even as it shows how a late-romantic symphonic success can be achieved.

What caused this youthful prodigy, who could play all of the Beethoven sonatas before he’d reached his teens, who began composing mature-sounding symphonies not long after, to win such disdain? Lack of emotional affect, argued the BMF’s impresario, Leon Botstein. Saint-Saëns was not one to sing the extremes of, say, a Mahler, and he achieved a journeyman compositional technique without the trademark sounds that make many composers easy to identify.

Yet the Cello Sonata No. 1, which closed an afternoon program mimicking the kind of salon concert the composer enjoyed assembling, was as fine a work of its time for cello and piano as could be desired. Its three movements are classically crafted, yet it’s filled with unexpected touches of melody, rhythm and form. Cellist Edward Arron and pianist Gilles Vonsattel performed it with obvious affection.

Bookending the program was Saint-Saëns’s Caprice on Themes from Alceste, the opera by Gluck, reflecting the composer’s interest in Baroque music when such was hardly fashionable. Pianist Geoffrey Burleson, who is in the process of recording all of Saint-Saëns’s piano music, also provided an illuminating half-hour preconcert talk with musical illustrations, one of the facets of these events that keeps them fascinating.

And he played a Saint-Saëns arrangement of music (a popular scherzo) from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, and accompanied violinist Giora Schmidt in the finger-busting Carmen Fantasy by Saint-Saëns’s friend, Sarasate, a performance dazzling enough to win an uncharacteristic (from this audience) roar of approbation.

Among the other pleasant bits and pieces were Gottschalk’s ragtime-presaging “Bamboula,” played by Vonsattel, and the fantastically beautiful “Lakmé” duet by Delibes, sung with wrench-out-your-heart affection by soprano Lori Guilbeau and mezzo Jamie Van Eyck, with a total partner in pianist Pei-Yao Wang.

During the morning’s panel discussion, Botstein suggested that Saint-Saëns’s very first symphony, a work written when the composer was 15 but never published (and thus unnumbered) until 1974, could stand alongside Bizet’s Symphony in C or Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony as a concert opener. To prove it, he conducted it as a concert opened that evening. You’d never think a teenager could produce such a fine finished product, even with its liberal borrowings from Mozart and (in spirit) Beethoven and Mendelssohn. But nobody ever advanced in the craft of composition without assimilating what’s come before.

The three-hour concert (and I loved its length) continued with Omphale’s Spinning Wheel, a tone-poem that proved Saint-Saëns could write program music with the best of them—and which every commentator avoided pointing out contained the theme for radio’s The Shadow. But that’s what I’m here for.

And what a treat to hear the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 5 for a second time in as many weeks! I did a little score study of the work between concerts, but still was surprised by its inventiveness. Soloist Danny Driver took a more steely approach to the piece than did Jean-Yves Thibaudet the week before, and it worked just as well, calling special attention to the nonstop virtuosity of the solo part.

Only at the Bard Festival will you get soloists on the order of violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Sophie Shao to play the Poet and Muse, a double concerto written late in the composer’s life. It’s too brief to easily program, but it has an easygoing charm that ought to destroy the canard that its composer was emotion-free.

And then the gentle strains of the “Organ” Symphony, the quick, doubled notes of its eventual first theme almost derailing the strings—but they rallied and got into a groove that swept them triumphantly through the piece. Organist Kent Tritle colored the second movement with pastels, then rattled the rafters with his fourth-movement fanfare.

As was pointed out at the morning symposium, in Saint-Saëns’s day you had to go to the concert hall to hear loud music, and this piece certainly delivers. Botstein is never bashful about pulling out stops.

Saint-Saëns seemed an unusual choice for one of Bard’s composer-intensive festivals. At the end of the day, my image of him changed to reveal him as an inevitable choice, meriting much, much more discovery.

The Bard Music Festival continues Aug. 17-19. See the Calendar section for complete concert details.