The Barber you don't know at Austin Symphony Orchestra show
It's not that composer Samuel Barber has gotten a bum rap.
After all, the American composer whose centenary is being celebrated this year by the classical music world was something of a golden boy of American composers during his lifetime (1910-1981). Barber won the Pulitzer Prize twice (1958 and 1963). He received dozens of commissions.
And the Austin Symphony Orchestra is devoting its entire program to Barber next weekend.
He had even had a hit, so to speak.
Barber's flowing, heartbreakingly melancholic Adagio for Strings is one of the most well-recognized classical tunes. It's been played at the funerals of such noted people as Princess Grace of Monaco, excerpted for the Oscar-winning film "Platoon," used in the video game Homeworld and even sampled by rapper P. Diddy. A London Symphony Orchestra recording of the Adagio was reportedly the highest-selling classical piece on iTunes for a time in 2006.
The Pennsylvania-born composer was an uninhibited melodist, happily making gorgeously tuneful music that was out-of-sync with many of his more boundary-pushing peers. And that commitment to tonality made him something of a reactionary or at best something of a relic in his own times.
But combine the shadow of the one-hit wonder status with a repertoire that's often confused critics and historians and you have a composer who's ripe for re-understanding.
Austin Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Bay hopes the all-Barber program will offer a reassessment of the composer's music. Acclaimed violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will be the featured guest playing Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14.
"Barber's music has always appealed to me because it's so unabashedly romantic in many ways and it's tuneful and there's something nostalgic but it's not sad," says Bay.
No atonality, no experimentation, no odd rhythms.
Old-fashioned? Not necessarily. More like going his own way.
"Barber simply wrote what he felt was true regardless of what was going on around him, and I've always admired him for that," says Bay, who wonders in passing if "maybe I'm an old-fashioned guy, too."
Though it's a complete coincidence, Bay is chatting about Barber by cell phone from used record store Cheapo Discs where he's unloading two boxes of records. It's a necessary but small purge, considering Bay counts more than 8,000 vinyl LP records in his collection.
"I love vinyl," Bay says. "And, who knows, maybe I'll find something more to buy here. Lots of times I find recordings that haven't been digitized yet."
Barber doesn't suffer from lack of digitized recordings. Though the odd man out of 20th-century atonality, his music was widely played during his lifetime and is finding a new set of admirers in some post-baby boom performers such as Salerno-Sonnenberg, 48, who has made Barber's Violin Concerto one of her signature pieces.
Born in 1910 in West Chester, Pa., Barber came from a financially and culturally comfortable family, and his early interest in music was encouraged when he enrolled in the noted Curtis Institute of Music at 14.
In 1938, when Barber was only 28, the famed — and finicky — conductor Arturo Toscanini chose Barber's Adagio for Strings for a live radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, catapulting the Adagio into popularity. By the mid-1940s, Barber had settled down in New York's Hudson River Valley with his longtime companion, Italian American composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
Bay is including the Adago on next weekend's program.
"It would seem a little strange not to since everyone knows that piece," says Bay. "But it would be a major disservice to play only Barber's Adagio. What I hope is that it's a framework to get people to understand all of the other great music Barber wrote."
Music such as the "Toccata Festiva," something of a one-movement concerto for organ and orchestra. A virtuosic piece that starts in a flurry coming from the organ, it nevertheless contains Barber's signature melodic flow and gentle warmth. Still, the Toccata has its dramatic moments with a few cadenzas that are written for the feet alone. Bay has positioned the organ front and center in front of the orchestra so that the audience can see soloist Stephen Hamilton, and his feet, fly.
Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance," a ballet score commissioned by modern dance legend Martha Graham, moves from tender to tragic as it musically charts the Greek myth.
But again, there's that luscious, cinematic sweep of Barber's relentless love of melody.
"Barber's music has great heart," says Bay. "He was hopelessly melodic, and I've always really liked that."
'A Samuel Barber Centennial Celebration'
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 15 and Jan. 16
Where: Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive.