Samuel Barber: Toronto Symphony prepares sweet 100 party – American composer best known for his Adagio for Strings
It’s been 72 years since the world first heard the Adagio for Strings by American composer Samuel Barber. The slow, melancholy piece immediately became a musical icon, much like the opening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 or A Little Night Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
While the other two composers are cornerstones of the classical repertoire, much of Barber’s output is the purview of ardent fans, not the general public.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and music director Peter Oundjian are aiming to change that perception on Wednesday Oct. 6 and Thursday Oct. 7 at Roy Thomson Hall, in a program billed as The Best of Barber. It’s in honour of the composer’s 100th birthday, which falls this year (he died in 1981).
The big anniversary prompted Oundjian to invite two top soloists. Gil Shaham is tackling the gorgeously melodic Violin Concerto and Canada’s Jon Kimura Parker is playing the brash, angular Piano Concerto. Also on the bill is the Symphony No. 1, filled with lush, swelling string sounds and woodwind solos, and of course, the Adagio for Strings to open the program.
Together, the concerts promise to sketch the arc of Barber’s talent from the time he was in his 20s to 1962, when he wrote the Piano Concerto for John Browning (after getting some helpful advice from Vladimir Horowitz). Unlike most concertos, which are introduced by the orchestra, here ther instruments stay quiet as the piano comes crashing in from the very beginning, introducing the main musical idea with bluster and bravado. Audiences loved it so much that Browning not only recorded it right away, but was asked to play it over and over (he noted that he had played it in public about 150 times in the first six years). Barber was rewarded for his efforts with his second Pulitzer Prize, in 1963.
Oundjian admits that Barber’s anniversary has been overshadowed by the bicentenaries of Romantic icons Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. “I don’t even know of an American orchestra that’s spending an entire subscription concert on Barber’s music,”
As a former violinist, you would expect the maestro to wax most rhapsodic about the Violin Concerto, but Oundjian admits, “I’ve probably conducted it 50 times, but never played it.” Th conductor instead reserves highest praise for the Symphony, calling it a masterpiece. He shakes his head just to “imagine a composition student at 25 years of age being able to produce such a beautifully honed piece.”
When talking about the quality of Barber’s work, Oundjian eventually boils its magnetic attraction to “a sincere statement of human emotion.”
Those words don’t apply to much of mid-20th century classical music, which was dominated by atonal experiments. Perhaps one reason Barber so resolutely stuck to accessible sounds is that he had begun his musical life as a singer, where melody, breath and phrasing are integral components of the art.
He tried his creative luck at opera three times, with uneven results. Barber won resounding ovations — and his first Pulitzer Prize — for Vanessa, premiered in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The Met then gave him what it considered the ultimate commission, for something to open its new opera house in grand style, in 1966.
Instead of raising his stature even more, Anthony and Cleopatra was a massive flop — so much so that it took the creative wind out of Barber’s sails for the rest of his life.
In The Lives of the Great Composers, the late New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg dismissively described Barber as one of a group of “worthy and skillful musicians who lacked the individuality to create a lasting body of music.”
Oundjian believes part of the problem is that there aren’t enough Barber pieces in any one genre.
“It’s not like there are five great symphonies, sadly. There is a great output of music, but it is varied in scope. It’s like there’s one of everything.”
“I don’t know that we’ll ever see him as one of the giant names, but I’m sure that his will always be an important name.”
Important it is, as there is a lot of beautiful listening ahead.
Petter Oundjian’s favourite recordings of Samuel Barber:
• Violin and Piano Concertos: Jon Kimura Parker (piano) and Robert McDuffie (violin), with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and conductor Yoel Levi (Telarc).
• Symphony No. 1: Bruno Walter leading the New York Philharmonic, with music of Strauss and Dvorák (Sony Classical).
• Adagio for Strings in its original form, inside Barber’s String Quartet No. 1. On an album titled A Way A Lone by the Tokyo String Quartet (with Peter Oundjian on violin). Also includes string quartets by Benjamin Britten and Toru Takemitsu. (RCA).