Vanessa is indeed a masterpiece. It's libretto is no less satisfying than
many a "foreign" opera which is not in our native tongue, so easier to
accept. It has been believed in and championed by far greater people than
me and that. I've seen it a number of times and it never fails to both
move me and make me think.
Chris mentioned Barber's Violin Concerto and how it alone secures his place
in American Music history. I'll agree but while I adore the concerto there
is much, much more Barber to learn, admire and love. Sadly one of
America's great composers doesn't get nearly as much play – air or live –
as his older, deader European counterparts.
I've been lucky to hear Antony and Cleopatra a few times and wow does that
work have some of Barber's most exciting music – the choruses alone are
powerful, but the solo music is amazing and ingeniously scored. The way
Antony's powerful heartbreaking scene scored with almost nothing but stark
percussion leads into the enormity preceding Cleopatra's lament is one of
the greatest special effects in all of opera. It is immediate and
devastating and no matter how many times I listen to it, it's impact is
never less than from the first.
Then there's that Adagio from his B minor String Quartet which has become
one of the most singularly recognizable pieces in music history, American
Oh yeah, there's that "Knoxville: Summer of 1915.
The large scale choral works "The Lovers" and "The Prayers of Kierkegaard"
were recorded by Andrew Schenck, the brilliant young conductor taken away
too quickly, who was beginning to resurrect many neglected American works,
including composers we're too soon forgetting about such as Randall
Thompson and some of the orchestral scores of Menotti.
Some of the greatest songs in the American literature are by Mr. Barber,
and fortunately, these seem to still show up with some frequency. (If one
doesn't already have it, everyone owes it to themselves to get the complete
songs recorded by Thomas Hampson and Cheryl Studer with John Browning at
the piano and the Emerson String quartet for "Dover Beach." This is one of
my all time favorite recordings of anything by anybody.)
Sticking with American Music:
I lately have been consumed by John Adams "symphony" (he doesn't call it
that . . . but it is) "Naive and Sentimental Music" in an outstanding
Nonesuch recording by Esa Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic.
This is one of the most impressive symphonic compositions by an American
composer in years. This is Adams on a genuine massive scale - similar to
his Harmonielehre, and it is equally as impressive. In many ways, this -
for me - is a more stunning achievement. The first movement builds to as
thrilling and exciting a finale as one is likely to hear - everything going
at "full tilt boogie".
The second movement, "Mother of the Man" is breathtaking, reminiscent in
feeling, if not necessarily ound, of Mahler. Various solo instruments enter
playing a simple, but heartrending melody - most noticeably the electric
guitar. Adams use of the guitar here is masterful, neither provocative nor
shocking the instrument achieves an instantly haunting sonority that almost
The final movement "Chain to the Rhythm" sounds more like vintage Adams -
indeed brings on a return of the work's intensity - a propulsion in rhythm
that elicits the feeling of "no turning back." It is exhilarating, new and
yet somehow familiar. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that in its first
year "Naïve and Sentimental" music received performances in LA, Chicago and
Boston. Since then a number of major orchestras have taken it up. May this
lead into a healthy performance life and may this masterful recording by
Esa Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic sell like hotcakes!
I can't wait to see what Mr. Adams cooks up for Bobby Oppenheimer and his
God Bless Barber, John Adams - and Nonesuch!
If anyone's still reading, sorry for the length here - carried away by
thinking of such great music - operatic and otherwise!
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