Samuel Barber's centennial provides a reminder of the composer's communicative power
There was a period when American music of a decidedly lyrical nature was looked down upon by academics and, of course, some critics. Composers were suspect if they fell for ear-catching melodies or lush harmonies, or kept even a toe in 19th-century waters. The gold standard was supposed to be music that was thorny, gritty, abstract, aggressively atonal.
Samuel Barber, born 100 years ago March 9, ignored all of that thinking, fortunately for us, and became one of America's most communicative composers. (Not that I have anything against gritty, dissonant music, mind you; I just like there to be room for all styles and forms of sincere musical expression.) If Barber had written nothing more than the Adagio that he transformed from string quartet to string orchestra in 1936, he would still have left a substantial mark.
That Adagio, which has become an aural icon thanks to its use in movies and on solemn national occasions, works on every level, from the technical (the construction is masterful) to the emotional. It resonates, it speaks, it connects to listeners in a way that is at once personal and universal, the hallmark of great art.
Barber's centennial may help drive attention to more of his works. There is a lot of quality there, from songs and chamber pieces to
symphonic and opera scores. There's much to be said for the often-maligned "Antony and Cleopatra" and even more to be said for "Vanessa." I'm glad to see that Marin Alsop programmed "A Hand of Bridge" with the Baltimore Symphony this month; that certainly doesn't come around often. She'll also lead the BSO in performances of the Second Essay for Orchestra next season (including at Carnegie Hall). Her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov, conducted the BSO in vivid accounts of the First Essay and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" (one of my favorites, such an affecting exploration of nostalgia without a hint of sentimentality). Barber's concertos are always worth hearing; they're remarkably skillful and eventful, propelled by rich thematic ideas.
I have a particular fondness for the slow movement of the early 1960s Piano Concerto, with its poignant, bittersweet aura. It may not be as familiar as the Adagio for Strings, but it is cut from the same expressive cloth. I think that concerto movement is an apt choice to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth, and I hope you enjoy this (audio-only) performance, which seems to me very effective at conveying the distinctive beauty of Barber's unabashedly neo-romantic world: