baltimoresun.com

« Opera Vivente presents adaptation of Debussy's 'Pelleas et Melisande' | Main | To clap or not clap; Alex Ross looks at the concert-going experience »

March 9, 2010

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:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:58 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

Thanks for sharing this music. A truly lovely interlude.

I'm glad you enjoyed it. TIM

Heard the violin concerto on WBJC this morning. Always have to stop what I'm doing when that beautiful 2nd movement starts.

That movement gets me every time, too. TIM

It would be nice if some bright young (or other age) thing, someone like Alisa Weilerstein or maybe Natalie Clein, championed Barber's Cello Concerto, which is very much in the vein of his Violin Concerto and deserves to be as popular. If nothing else, it would make a welcome alternative to the Dvorak Cello Concerto for orchestra programmers.

Amen. TIM

Wendy Warner, an outstanding young cellist, HAS championed the Barber Cello Cto, and recorded it with M. Alsop on Naxos (probably the best of her Barber series).

'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.'

THis is exactly how it was with art as well only reversed. The gold standards of today is to be thorny gritty, abstract, aggressive and atonal (non-harmonious). This covers such art spans as contemporary, anstract, abstract textural, and other modern styles.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
PHOTO GALLERY
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with baltimoresun.com's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected