Pictured: The Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard College in upstate New York. Photo Credit: Noah Sheldon.

This is the ninth full season of Bard Summerscape, a compendium of the Bard Music Festival (now in its 23rd year) and related theater, dance, and film festivities that take place on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a bucolic respite just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan’s oppressive summer heat.

People have described this festival as “part boot-camp for the brain and part spa for the spirit,” and, indeed, taking place on gorgeous college grounds with unusual but important selections, that description is on the mark. Much of the excitement generated by Summerscape is due to the enthusiasm of Bard’s indefatigable president, Leon Botstein (who is himself an accomplished conductor and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra in residence at Summerscape), an unrivalled advocate for lesser-known, but not less important, culture. This vital event, which runs from July 6 through August 19, is one of the great artistic treasure chests of the tri-state area and the country, and this year the offerings are more comprehensive and interesting than ever, with distinctly French flair.

Susana Meyer, the associate director of the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center, in whose two theaters the festival takes place, says Summerscape differs from other summer events in that it is “thematic in nature. The mothership is the Bard Music Festival and each year we take a look at a specific composer.” She stresses, however, that the festival is not so much about the new or known as about “rediscoveries. You will never hear the obvious pieces by a composer; and we spend time looking at the society in which they lived as well as their work.”

Music, which is the anchoring discipline, is focused this summer on a program called “Camille Saint-Saens and His World.” The composer, who is often referred to as “the French Mozart,” lived from 1835-1921 and was one of the great late Romantics. He was a virtuoso from childhood, and wrote no less than 10 concertos, five symphonies, 39 chamber works, 50 solo piano pieces, and 12 operas, choral works and numerous songs, many of which were for stage productions. There will be 12 performances ordered thematically over the weekends of August 10-12 and August 17-19, including not only work by the man himself, but work that either influenced or was influenced by him, plus some interesting pre-concert talks. Highlights include: the sublime Third Symphony (considered his greatest work), the Fifth Piano Concerto, and a generous helping of his lesser known chamber repertoire. His work will be showcased alongside his contemporaries including César Franck and the composer’s good friend and famous student, Gabriel Fauré. The second weekend will feature readings of work by author Marcel Proust, specifically a passage (The Vinteuil Sonata) that correlates directly to a Saint-Saens piece. There will be concerts both in the afternoon and evening and pre-concert talks on a variety of Saint-Saens and related cultural discourses, such as “Prodigy, Polymath, Globetrotter, and Reactionary” and “Ars Gallica and French National Sentiment.” This is a composer whose work should fit beautifully into a sultry summer afternoon or evening and who is getting a long-overdue and definitive turn at Bard.

Opera will be represented here not only by Saint-Saens but by his contemporary, Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), with a performance of his rarely seen comic opera The King in Spite of Himself. This is the story of Henri de Valois, a 16th century noble named King of Poland despite his pining for his native France. No less a musical eminence than French composer Joseph Ravel claimed, its premiere “changed the course of French harmony.” The opera will take place in the Sosnoff Theater; a 900-seat theater outfitted for productions with or without an orchestra, said Meyer. In terms of theater productions, there will be ten performances of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, first staged in 1673 as a three-act comedie ballet featuring incidental music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Molière was apparently a favorite of Saint-Saens, who actually reconstructed the lost music to the original ballet. This dramatic production includes one of the most scintillating actors on the planet, Peter Dinklage, of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in the role of Toinette. It is directed by Erika Schmidt (coincidentally Dinklage’s wife). The play runs from July 13-22 in the Theater Z, the Fisher Center’s black box theater that changes with each production. According to Meyer, they are doing something they “have never done before” with the theater for this play, something which should wow the audiences, although she wouldn’t talk specifics.

In film, the festival will address “France and the Colonial Imagination.” Saint-Saens was the first important composer to write an original score for a motion picture, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. A wide range of styles will be on view here, all on 35 mm film, works by European filmmakers that include romantic treatments of Europeans in the African/Muslim world, such as Pepe le Moko and Casablanca; works by European filmmakers that challenge Colonialism, such as The Battle of Algiers (1966), and two films by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007), considered the “father” of African film.

Summerscape opens on July 6 with the splendid French dance troupe, Compagnie Fêtes galantes, which was founded in 1993 by revered choreographer and Baroque specialist Béatrice Massin. Massin brings to Summerscape one of her most successful dances, 2002’s “Que ma joie demeure” (Let my Joy Remain)  with which the company has already toured most of Europe plus Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Set to music by J.S. Bach, it’s a big hit wherever it goes. Massin has adapted Baroque music and dance into decidedly modern presentations, and has a huge cult following. Seeing as dance has opened Summerscape every year since 2005, fans have already started entering the social networking universe with the news that Massin’s company will be at Bard. There will be three performances from July 6-8.

And you won’t go hungry up at Bard, either, as they are bringing back the much-beloved Spiegeltent, the first of these Belgian structures to appear in America and a mainstay at Summerscape since 2006. You can meet, greet, enjoy a burger and a beer beneath its airy tarp, either before or after programs which are going on all day. All of the performances take place in the soaring Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, which would be enough reason to visit here even without the events. People will be coming from all over the planet — one guest, according to the organizers, who bought tickets online from Brazil, was found minus a shuttle back to his hotel when schedules changed — he had bought a substantial number of tickets, so the festival is taking special measures to get him safely back to his rooms in nearby Poughkeepsie! Whether you live in New York or Newport Beach, CA do your best to get to Summerscape and experience the best and most dynamic aspects of East Coast intellectual exploration. Conveyed in the form of world-class performances in a beautiful setting, learning here does not hurt one bit.

 For information on tickets and transportations (there are shuttles and trains from Manhattan) call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.

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