Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Barber songbook

Samuel Barber (near left, with his lover Gian Carlo Menotti) once described himself as "a living dead composer," and indeed, for most his life his commitment to romantic feeling in the modern age consigned him to the dustbin of critical opinion. But history has a way of upending that dustbin, and Barber's gift for lyrical simplicity, cemented in the popular mind by his Adagio for Strings, has enabled him to outlast his detractors. Today Barber's reputation seems secure as a minor, but wonderful, composer, and he's taken his place in the pantheon of 20th century music that people actually like - next to Copland, Sibelius and others who found personal ways to communicate tonally to their time.

Central to Barber's achievement were his songs, which showcase his strengths (a melodic gift supported by intelligent craft) while sidestepping his great weakness (the lack of large, original architecture). So last weekend's "Barberfest," produced by the Florestan Recital Project as part of the "Voice of America" Festival at Tufts (in conjunction with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) was a welcome chance to hear his entire catalogue. I attended Friday evening, and was struck by how well said catalogue held up; it's rare to hear a concert devoted entirely to one composer without sensing an eventual underlying repetition, but Barber's works (here both early and late), though certainly all sourced in one voice, steadily surprised in their subtle variety.

It helped that the composer, by all accounts a literary man, had terrific taste in texts. Sometimes I think more than half a song's success (or failure) can be traced to its lyrics, and so I was pleased to find Barber's selections ranged from Joyce to Rilke to Houseman to (yes) Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Actually, one of the Joyces didn't really work - Barber's attempt to set the sardonic romance of Finnegans Wake fell oddly flat. The other selections from Joyce (cameos, really) were far more successful. But then almost nothing on the program "failed," although my favorites were probably the brief, but hilarious "Dere Two Fella Joe," the po-faced "Monks and Raisins," (Villa) the exquisitely mournful "Of that so sweet imprisonment," (Joyce) the gently admonishing "Thy Love," (Browning) and the casually surreal "A Green Lowland of Pianos" (Milosz!). The central thread in the concert was a deep yet somehow luminous sense of melancholy - Barber struggled all his life with depression - and this registered perhaps with greatest force in the settings of five poems from Rilke, "Mélodies Passagères," which were meant as a tribute to the gay French master of modern art-song, Francis Poulenc and his partner, baritone Pierre Bernac (one, "Un cygne," is sung below by Thomas Hampson).

The evening's singers all acquitted themselves well, although the fulsomeness (and vibrato) of Sarah Pelletier's soprano sometimes seemed to overwhelm the material. Better matched to Barber were the more transparent Shadi Ebrahami, who delighted with "The Daisies" and "October Weather," and Joe Dan Harper (at left, with Anne Kissel), who worked wonders with "Of that so sweet imprisonment" and "Mélodies Passagères." Even Pelletier seemed to find the right level of attack with "La Nuit" and "O Boundless, Boundless Evening." But alas, at that moment the evening had to end; would it had indeed been boundless.

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