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

First Posted: May 03, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Leon Botstein spoke to Latin Post about organizing the Bard Festival around the music of Carlos Chavez and Latin American Composers in 2015.

Leon Botstein spoke to Latin Post about organizing the Bard Festival around the music of Carlos Chavez and Latin American Composers in 2015. (Photo : Steve J Sherman)

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. ... [W]e are only showing 500 of them [in Classical Music].

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

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

LB: 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 '20s, '30s and '40s. 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.

FS: What was your first encounter with his music?

LB: 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.

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

LB: 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.

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

LB: 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 U.S. 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.

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

LB: 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.

FS: Are the musicians performing specialists in this music?

LB: 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

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