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summer arts preview | Classical music

At Bard, a search for Berg and ‘The Distant Sound’

Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will focus on Alban Berg during the Bard SummerScape festival. Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will focus on Alban Berg during the Bard SummerScape festival. (Richard Termine)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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Lots of summer classical music festivals are all about, to borrow a phrase from Charles Ives, letting your ears lie back in an easy chair. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with easy chairs — it is summertime we’re talking about, after all.

But if by August you’re craving a shot of intellectual stimulation with your warm-weather listening, it’s worth considering a trip to Bard College in the mid-Hudson Valley, less than 90 minutes from most places in the Berkshires. For two weekends every August, Bard hosts a festival built around the music and broader cultural world of a single composer. This year it’s Alban Berg, which means you can expect a lot of that composer’s music but also excursions — via symposia, lectures, and intelligently curated concert programs — through various related themes: the birth of musical modernism, the aesthetic hothouse of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the plight of Central European composers in an era of two world wars, and plenty more along these lines.

At Bard, in short, the festival is always about music yet also about shifting the prism through which we view a particular composer. Berg (1885-1935) is typically grouped with Webern and Schoenberg as members of the Second Viennese School, but this festival will try to set him free from these reflexive historical associations.

“The point is to emancipate Berg,’’ said Leon Botstein in a recent phone interview. Botstein is Bard’s president and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, which serves each summer as the festival’s de facto house band. In his view, “we have to detach Berg from Schoenberg’’ — and from Webern as well.

Schoenberg receives his share of attention as the prophet of musical modernism, and for several decades after the second world war, avant-garde composers turned to Webern’s work as a primal text. But today, of all three composers, Berg is the lone modernist of the Second Viennese School whose music enjoys an actual public following. His operas “Wozzeck’’ and “Lulu’’ are well-established in the repertoire, and his Violin Concerto shows up frequently on orchestral programs.

The festival will probe the mystery of this unique reception. Most agree it has something to do with the way Berg used the modern 12-tone method while maintaining strong connections to music’s past. “What is fascinating,’’ said Botstein, “is that from the very beginning, Berg’s writing doesn’t impede the listener’s sense of music, emotion, meaning, significance. It’s adequate to the modernity of the moment, but it’s also comprehensible on first hearing. It’s graspable, it has an emotional arc.’’

At Bard, Berg will mingle with other composers whose music was in the air at the time, with concert programs organized by theme: “The Vienna of Berg’s Youth,’’ “Mahler and Beyond,’’ and “New Music in the 1920s’’ to name a few. One particularly intriguing program — “Between Accommodation and Inner Emigration’’ (on Aug. 22) — tackles the question of composers’ responses to Nazism, surveying music by three men who chose radically different paths: Ernst Krenek, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Othmar Schoeck.

The Berg offerings alone would make this summer’s festival enticing, but Bard is also presenting an operatic prelude that should in itself be a significant musical event. In late July and early August, Bard will present the first American staging of Franz Schreker’s bewitching yet almost entirely forgotten opera, “The Distant Sound.’’

Schreker’s 1910 work fits into the summer’s agenda organically enough because Berg created the piano reduction for its second and third acts, and the score is believed to have been very influential on Berg’s future operatic development. But Schreker (1878-1934) is also a fascinating figure in his own right, one of early modernism’s true originals and a composer whose work is overdue for reappraisal in this country. His operas were extremely popular in Central Europe in the 1920s but his music virtually disappeared thanks first to Nazi censorship and secondly to post-war musical politics that enforced a puritanically narrow definition of modern music, one with little room for Schreker’s progressive yet wonderfully opulent style.

The new production of “The Distant Sound’’ will be conducted by Botstein and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, who last summer directed Bard’s high-profile staging of Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots’’ and will direct Opera Boston’s “Fidelio’’ in the fall.

In recent years Schreker’s work has turned up with some frequency in houses across German-speaking Europe. Now American listeners can finally assess for themselves the contemporary resonance of a musical voice that in its day had a charisma and elusive power all its own.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BARD SUMMERSCAPE Presents Schreker’s “The Distant Sound’’ July 30-Aug. 6 and “Berg and His World’’ Aug. 13-15 and Aug. 20-22. Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. 845-758-7900 or www.fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape