Samuel Barber Turns 100!
Tuesday is the centenary of the birth of the great American composer Samuel Barber (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981). I have heard a few music industry friends wondering aloud if enough attention has been paid to Barber this season, and my gut feeling is that it hasn’t. Though I’ve seen a few high-profile feature stories about Barber (such as Johanna Keller’s tracing of the fame of the composer’s mega-hit “Adagio” in today’s New York Times), I can’t say that there’s been anything approaching a real buzz in terms of overall visibility.
Among the clients we work with at 21C, the Curtis Institute of Music – Barber’s alma mater – has been a standout in terms of their Barber planning. Among their Barber events are a centenary concert at Curtis in Philadelphia on Tuesday, March 9, a performance of his String Quartet No 1 (which contains the original version of the famous “Adagio”) at the Allen Room in New York City on March 10, and performances in Philadelphia on March 17, 19 and 21 of the opera Antony and Cleopatra, the failure of which caused Barber a tremendous amount of psychological and artistic pain. Gil Shaham recently played Barber’s Violin Concerto – splendidly, I might add – with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of David Robertson – part of Gil’s multi-year exploration of the numerous first-rate violin concertos written during the 1930s. It was Gil’s 1994 recording of the work – paired with the Korngold Concerto – during my days at Deutsche Grammophon in New York back that introduced me to both composers, a love affair that has continued mostly unabated to this day.
Reading Johanna Keller’s piece made me realize that I couldn’t really remember the first time I heard the “Adagio,” but my memories are clear of stumbling out of the movie theater at the end of the film Platoon and feeling that director Oliver Stone had, by utilizing the “Adagio” to such powerful effect, forever seared those horrifying images of the Vietnam War into my mind. When Charlie Sheen’s character is sobbing in the helicopter that is carrying him away from the carnage, and Barber’s music is soaring to its piercing and radiant climax, I wondered how anyone could have possibly survived a tour of duty in such hell – or any war for that matter.
My favorite pieces by Barber are his Violin Concerto, his Essays for Orchestra (particularly the first two of the three he wrote), the School for Scandal Overture, and the First Symphony. It’s sacrilege to mention, I suppose, but I still haven’t fallen in love with Knoxville, and don’t really know Vanessa (what kind of Barber fan does that make me?).
I don’t really understand why more conductors don’t program the Essays as concert openers (I don’t think I’ve heard a single live performance of one of the Essays in my 25 years going to concerts). They say a lot in a short time frame (10 minutes apiece) and it seems like they would make a big impact in a live performance. For me the first two Essays are so perfectly chiseled, conveying a sense of monumentality and timelessness, that they remind me of massive Greek statues.
In many ways, Barber reminds me a bit of the British composer William Walton: both composers avoided fitting neatly into a stylistic “school;” both had powerful melodic gifts; and both were capable of bold flashes of grand orchestral rhetoric. Beyond these similarities, both just happened to write cello and violin concertos, as well as two symphonies apiece. Not really sure, though, that Walton ever scored the kind of hit Barber achieved with the “Adagio” (though that could be said of most other 20th-century composers).
Hearing Gil’s performance of the Violin Concerto last week made me feel anew a profound respect for Barber’s expressive gifts. It’s amazing how deeply Barber pulls you in with that first movement alone, from the innocence of that tender opening melody, to the full-throated intensity of some of its anguished climaxes. The middle movement has a sincere, confessional quality – heightened by that truly ravishing oboe solo – that is overwhelming: it’s as though the composer is literally pouring his heart out to you. Gli told me that it was conductor Hugh Wolff who told him that the perpetual motion finale reminded him of skyscrapers being erected in fast motion.
I can’t really fully explain why, but Barber’s music – particularly the Essays and the First Symphony – gives me the same feeling in sound that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s prose gives me. I made this connection before I learned that Barber, like Exupéry, had been a pilot during World War II. Exupéry, a pioneer in the early days of the commercial aviation industry, famously disappeared over the Mediterranean during a mail run in 1944. In his writings, especially his philosophical novel Wind, Sand and Stars – one of the defining books in my life (with such lines of wisdom such as “Love lies not in gazing into each other’s eyes, but in looking out together at the world.”) – I’m sure that being alone in the night-sky high above the toil of men was what fueled Exupéry’s breath-taking flights of rhapsodic idealism. Similarly, Barber’s music has a soaring quality that seems to be reaching for the noble places that earth-bound man so rarely reaches (I suppose I should also mention here that the jagged, daredevil finale of Barber’s First Symphony reminds me of a combat jet darting about in a sky full of exploding rocket shells and enemy fire, though it was written in 1936, years before the outbreak of World War II).
American conductors David Zinman, Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop deserve special praise for their advocacy of Barber’s music over the years. David Zinman’s all-Barber recording with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for Argo remains my single favorite Barber album: all of my favorite pieces (except the Violin Concerto) are here, the sonics are spectacular (at the right volume, the bass drums shake your furniture), and the performances are impassioned. Alsop’s superb Barber series for Naxos surveys both familiar and lesser-known works with idiomatic authority. And Slatkin’s recording of Barber’s Piano Concerto with soloist John Browning is now tops on my playlist for this week. A critic friend who I saw at Gil’s Barber concert said the Piano Concerto (which won a Pulitzer prize) wasn’t nearly as good a piece as the Violin Concerto. “In fact,” he told me matter of factly, “it’s not a very good piece at all.” Being the Barber fan that I am, I’m hoping a few more listens will prove him wrong.