The Wizard of Bard | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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The Wizard of Bard 

Leon Botstein

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He didn't know much about Bard College when he signed on as its new president in 1975. "I knew it was a progressive liberal arts institution, but not much more than that," admits Botstein, whose work at Franconia caught the attention of the Annandale-on-Hudson administrators. Immediately upon his appointment, he set to work on rebuilding the 1860-founded college's curriculum in line with his brazenly pluralist vision, which places the creative and performing arts on equal footing with standard university studies. One of his more radical and most talked-about recent actions has been to attract, alongside Bard's respected conventional accredited professors, well-spoken famous figures from across various artistic disciplines to teach at the college. This includes the poet John Ashbery; the authors Neil Gaiman, Luc Sante, and Chinua Achebe; and the musician and performance artist Amanda Palmer (the latter was profiled in the November 2014 issue of Chronogram). "In some cases public intellectuals make better teachers than so-called 'experts,'" he explains. "Any individual who can actually make what he or she knows interesting and compelling to people has a very strong basis to be a great teacher."

When talking about Bard and music, several moves of Botstein's ongoing reboot spring to mind. The first is the creation of the internationally acclaimed Bard Music Festival. Founded in 1990 and held in August, the two-week affair focuses on a single composer and encompasses concerts interspersed with talks, panel discussions, and other special events and the publication of a book of scholarly writings. This year's festival, titled "Chávez and His World," celebrates Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. The success of the festival set the scene for the construction of the campus's architecturally and acoustically stunning, Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Called "a big risk that's worked out really well, thankfully," by Botstein and "[possibly] the best small concert hall in the United States" by The New Yorker, the breathtaking venue took $62 million in donations and three years to build, opening in 2003. The young president's next brainchild, the six-week, pan-artistic Bard SummerScape festival, was inspired by the advent of the Fisher Center. SummerScape expands on the theme of the overlapping Bard Music Festival's highlighted composer, putting their music in a broader cultural context with opera, dance performances, films, lectures, cabaret, and other events, all relating to the core figure and demonstrating the interconnectedness of art and society. "It's a cornucopia of wonderful things," says composer, conductor, and musicologist Byron Adams, who served as scholar-in-residence for 2007's "Elgar and His World" series. "What Leon and Bard have created with these festivals is absolutely unique, and in many cases they include works that have never been performed in America before."

And then there's Botstein the conductor. In 1992, after leading the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, he was selected as the music director and principal conductor the American Symphony Orchestra, an appointment he still holds. The ASO was established in 1962 by conductor Leopold Stokowski with the mission of making orchestral music affordable and accessible to the masses. Since taking over, Botstein, ever the maverick, has honed this undertaking further still by presenting historically ignored works alongside recognized masterpieces in thematically organized programs, to provide greater understanding of the music. "For too long, orchestras have operated on the idea that people only go to see what they know," says Botstein. "[Orchestras] play the same repertoire pieces over and over again. It's like going to an art museum that has 30 rooms full of treasures from 1700 to 2000 and finding out they only have two rooms open to the public. To me, that's a crime against history." Besides heading the ASO, Botstein led the Jerusalem Sympony Orchestra from 2003 to 2011 and currently leads the Bard College Conservatory of Music Orchestra, which regularly tours in the U.S. and abroad. "Working with [Botstein] is very inspiring," says violinist and orchestra member Reina Murooka, a fourth-year German studies major. "The stories he tells about the music we're playing and what was happening at the time it was composed are always amazing."

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