ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — During a period when classical music institutions fret over how to entice audiences, the conductor and music historian Leon Botstein has asserted that the worst thing we can do is dumb down the programming. The longtime president of Bard College, Mr. Botstein has put this credo into practice with the annual music festivals he presents on the Bard campus, offering two jampacked weekends of concerts and lectures exploring the life and times of a particular composer. Friday night, the first weekend of the 25th anniversary Bard Music Festival, “Schubert and His World,” opened with an engaging lecture by Mr. Botstein, presenting an overview of Schubert, followed by a three-hour concert touching on several realms of his output.
The festival is sold out, Mr. Botstein said. So he can claim insight into what many audience members want, namely, to learn something and be challenged.
But on Saturday morning at Olin Hall at the college, during a free panel discussion, “Invention and Reinvention: Who Was Schubert?,” Mr. Botstein lost the good will of an audience and drew cries of “no” and even some muttered hissing, as he tried to take apart some observations by a fellow panelist: the eminent fortepianist Malcolm Bilson, a proud Bard alumnus, class of 1957, though his experience this weekend may alter his feelings about his alma mater.
While there were fascinating performances and talks all weekend, this first installment of the festival may be remembered for the moment when the seething Mr. Bilson said to Mr. Botstein, “What you said to me is absolutely insulting!”
In his presentation, Mr. Bilson had focused on one of Schubert’s many incomplete works, the wistful opening movement of a Sonata in F sharp minor that the composer abandoned. Mr. Bilson, who adores this haunting piece, composed his own completion (basically the recapitulation section). He graciously explained that this was just his best guess. Who knows what flights of inspiration the composer might have had?
He also explained the differences between the fortepiano of Schubert’s day and a modern grand piano: He had one of each at his disposal. He made a fair assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of both the period and modern instruments.
He did, perhaps, exaggerate when he said that, with its thick strings and lingering sound, the modern piano makes it almost impossible for a performer to play separate voices evenly. To make his point, he played an excerpt from a Mozart sonata. Switching to the mellow-sounding old piano, he performed his completion of the Schubert movement, and charmingly nodded to the audience at the place where Bilson takes over, lest anyone be confused or offended.
When it was Mr. Botstein’s turn, he said that he was tossing out his prepared remarks to comment on Mr. Bilson’s presentation. His role here, Mr. Botstein said, is to generate controversy in the spirit of academic debate. After paying tribute to Mr. Bilson as a pioneer of the early-music movement, he attacked some of its precepts. He was justified in leaping on Mr. Bilson’s comment that playing Schubert on a modern Steinway is like using another language for the music. Language itself is not static, Mr. Botstein said. Goethe’s German is not our German today. The greatness of this music is that it transcends instrument technology and eras.
All true. But he went too far. At one point, he said that when Mr. Bilson played the Mozart on the problematic modern piano, he “intentionally screwed it up.” Whew. It would have been more reasonable to say that some pianists are indeed able to keep the voices even on a Steinway. But Mr. Botstein questioned Mr. Bilson’s intentions. Sounding indignant and hurt, Mr. Bilson said that he had tried to play the Mozart on the modern piano as “beautifully as I could.” The audience was on his side.
So what else happened during this weekend?
Quite a lot, including seven lengthy concerts. Several speakers emphasized that though the romantic image of Schubert as a starving bohemian has been hard to shake, he had some success during his short life (he died in 1828, at 31), especially with works for amateur music making: songs for male quartet, marches and dances for piano, four-hand piano music.
Another running theme was that Schubert’s life was profoundly altered when, in 1822, at 25, he learned he had syphilis. Even in his late teenage years, when he was full of promise and had many loyal friends, Schubert wrote many bleak works, like the song “Erlkönig,” which became a mini-sensation in Vienna. But there is nothing like a fatal illness to focus your mind, and after his diagnosis, Schubert entered an almost mystical musical realm and began writing his most ambitious scores, including the late piano sonatas, symphonies and chamber works inspired by the model of his idol, Beethoven. He also wrote “Winterreise,” which was performed late on Saturday afternoon by the hardy young baritone Tyler Duncan and the sensitive pianist Erika Switzer.
The question of Schubert’s sexuality was also a recurring topic. For all the many indications that he may have been gay, we simply do not have conclusive evidence.
Saturday night’s program at the college’s spacious main concert hall, Sosnoff Theater, opened with the first two movements of Felix Weingartner’s 1934 orchestration of Schubert’s Seventh Symphony, which the composer sketched out in 1821 but never fully orchestrated. I found this scoring thick and Mahlerian, though the problem may have been the unfocused, droopy performance Mr. Botstein drew from the American Symphony Orchestra. The performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, while better, was also indistinct and listless, though the sound of the orchestra, which has excellent players, was full and rich.
This program ended with a curiosity: the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim’s 1855 orchestration of Schubert’s “Grand Duo,” the Sonata in C for piano four-hands. The original piece is already a curiosity. What was Schubert up to, writing such a long, complex work for piano four-hands? This is not music for amateurs enjoying themselves at home. Still, this orchestration, rather than amplifying the music, just inflated it. Again, the slack performance did not help.
There were standout artists, including the baritone Andrew Garland, who, among many fine performances, gave a chilling account of “Erlkönig” with the impressive pianist Orion Weiss playing the accompaniment part, with its repeated right-hand octaves, a sure path to carpal tunnel syndrome. The pianist Danny Driver earned a standing ovation for a bracing account of Schubert’s virtuosic “Wanderer” Fantasy. The Dover Quartet won new fans for its sublime playing of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, with the cellist Peter Myers.
Sunday evening, Mr. Botstein, the orchestra, the Bard Festival Chorale and an impressive roster of singers gave a vibrant concert performance of Schubert’s “Die Verschworenen” (“The Conspirators”), a lightweight yet beguiling one-act singspiel, composed in 1823 and, like most of Schubert’s projects for the stage, never produced in his lifetime.
And the mid-19th-century fixation on Schubert as the emblem of the hearty, old, happy Vienna of the 1820s (a fantasy) was brought to life here with Franz von Suppé’s little-known 1864 operetta, “Franz Schubert,” with the appealing tenor Paul Appleby in the title role. The music is like a pastiche of Schubert tunes. The story shows us young Schubert, nursing wounds from a romance, hanging out in a mill town, where he sees a miller’s daughter pursued by a young apprentice at her father’s mill. Inspired, he writes his cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin.” In reality, Schubert worked on this cycle partly while being treated for syphilis at a hospital in Vienna in 1823.