Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Samuel Barber at 100

By - Nov 18th, 2010 12:39 am
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Samuel Barber. Library of Congress image via Wikipedia Commons.

Frank Almond and I were talking about Samuel Barber this week, because Friday and Saturday, Almond will play Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Milwaukee Symphony, with Edo de Waart conducting in Milwaukee. On Sunday, they’ll all go to Madison, to play the program at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Even those who know nothing of Samuel Barber know Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Barber’s Piano Sonata gets played quite a bit, as does his Piano Concerto. Connoisseurs know his art songs, particularly the magical cycle called Knoxville, Summer of 1915. But beyond that, Barber’s work is not in the forefront of musical consciousness.

“He’s more irrelevant than he ought to be,” Almond remarked. “His music is well thought out and convincing, and he had his own sort of dissonance and tonality. As I’m reassessing the concerto, I’m realizing how hard he is to peg. He’s really kind of hard to describe.”

Barber’s impeccable craft and great melodic gift have not lifted him onto the same plane as, say, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, or even Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Barber was not that prolific, and he spent almost as much effort adapting his best works for assorted ensembles as he did making music from scratch. (He even made a choral version, on the Agnus Dei from the Latin Mass, of the Adagio.) He had no disciples and started no movement, and Barber was not a public figure in the manner of Bernstein. He wrote tonal music with gorgeous melodies at a time when that seemed intellectually indefensible. Graduate composition students do not parse out Barber’s scores in analysis class.

Barber composed the first two movements of the Violin Concerto in 1939, on a commission on behalf of Iso Briselli, a young virtuoso. The old story was that Briselli rejected the work as too difficult to perform. But recent scholarship, which Almond has followed, indicates that Briselli’s teacher talked him into rejecting the piece. Briselli, after requesting a flashy finale that Barber eventually provided — after he had completed what he’d conceived as a two-movement work — never did play the piece. (Side note: Briselli’s son, Michael, lives in Milwaukee and is on the MSO board. Read the whole Briselli/Barber story here.)

Frank Almond. Photo courtesy of website.

Barber revised the concerto in the late 1940s, but it languished until the 1980s, when a number of players took an interest. Today, it is approaching standard-repertoire status. (Almond performed it with the MSO in 2005.) A new edition, which will solve correct some errors in the long-published G. Schirmer core, is almost ready for publication. Wauwatosa-based Hal Leonard Publications is involved and has given Almond a sneak preview of the new violin part.

“I’m using my old part, but I have made a few small changes in articulation and such,” Almond said. “It’s interesting in a violin jock sort of way.”

Hal Leonard and Almond are also involved in a bigger Barber project. Hal Leonard will soon publish a Barber Piano and Violin album. Barber wrote so little music for that combination that they’ve had to transcribe songs, piano music and a piece originally for oboe and piano. The big prize, though, is a movement from a violin sonata Barber composed at age 18 for a scholarship competition, which he won. Hal Leonard will include a demonstration CD with each book. Almond recorded all the violin parts on the CD.

“The songs were a real revelation to me,” he said. “I didn’t know how amazing they are, even without the texts. What I’ve learned from them I’m applying to the way I play the concerto. I’m thinking of it less as a virtuoso vehicle and emphasizing the idea of lyricism and melody — except in the last movement. He composed the last movement later and it’s not really in the same world. But I think it works.”

The Sonata turned up just a few years ago in manuscript form, had never been published and was believed to be lost. The second movement is still missing and presumed destroyed. So Almond has his hands on a Barber piece that has never been played in public — but might be played, and soon.

Almond has a Frankly Music series program coming up at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29 and 30 at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He’s celebrating Schumann and Chopin, who are also in anniversary years. Will he add Barber to the mix?

“Well, if they clap long enough, maybe we’ll bring out the Barber sonata for an encore,” he said.

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19-20, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart conducting and Frank Almond as violin soloist, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $25-$95; call the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605; the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206; or visit the MSO website. The program: Barber’s Violin Concerto, Suite No. 1 from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Categories: Classical

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