The Music Director of Maverick Concerts, Alexander Platt, introduced one of his concerts this weekend of August 14/15 by complaining about the lack of attention by many prominent musical organizations to the 100th birthday anniversary of Samuel Barber. Maverick was certainly not one of them. Barber’s music is sprinkled throughout the summer season, and last weekend included a major dose of this composer.
I was intrigued by the opportunity to get in touch with this music. Barber has always been a blind spot for me. I recognize his mastery in many elements, and that he may even be the great composer his admirers claim that he is. But the music seldom touches me and usually leaves me unaffected.
The first half of soprano Maria Jette’s program on Saturday, August 14, was devoted to Barber. She sang two complete sets of his songs, Op. 13 (to various poets) and Op. 10 (all James Joyce), both distinguished by Barber’s melodic gifts. In between, the excellent pianist Alan Murchie played Barber’s Nocturne (Homage to John Field). Jette is a fine artist. Her singing was consistently expressive and technically sound. But I soon realized the pattern which all of these songs follow, building up to big dramatic climaxes whether the text justifies them or not. Mostly it doesn’t, leaving me wincing in anticipation of the next big outburst. The Nocturne (which sound more like Chopin to me than Field) follows the same pattern, although in its case the climax seems earned by its context.
The second half of this program was itself divided in half. The first continued with the program’s title of “Gay Life: Barber, Schumann, and the New York Art-Song Tradition.” (I’m not sure why Robert Schumann belongs in that title, except that he was on the program.) I enjoyed all but one of the songs by Copland (a quirky and fascinating Vocalise), Menotti (a funny cabaret-style song), Russell Platt (a very amusing unaccompanied song), Griffes (gorgeous!), and Virgil Thomson (very amusing, with hot piano). But Ned Rorem’s songs, much admired elsewhere, still don’t get to me, and this one seemed even more melodramatic than Barber’s.
Murchie gave us another piano interlude, Schumann’s well known Romance, Op. 28, No. 2, which he played with relaxed mastery and a lovely singing tone. Then the two launched into a rarely heard Schumann song cycle, Six Lenau Songs and a Requiem, Op. 90. This is superb music, extremely expressive and imaginatively conceived. In this fervently sung performance, with the piano an equal partner, it left me feeling uplifted. It was a classy touch for Maverick to provide the complete texts for the songs on this concert.
Sunday afternoon, August 15, Maverick presented “A Salute to Samuel Barber at 100.” The Amernet String Quartet, sounding better than ever, devoted the first half of its program to the composer. I’ve known Barber’s only String Quartet (Op. 11) for many years. I still find it made up of interesting, provocative materials with which the composer doesn’t do very much. The famous Adagio does work better for me in this context than as a separate work. With a big throbbing string orchestra I find it unpleasantly sentimental. The Amernets’ performance was extremely well played, with plenty of drama, but I did think there was still too much throb in the Adagio. The emotionalism of this music would be better served if it were downplayed, not accentuated.
Baritone Andrew Garland joined the ensemble for Barber’s early Dover Beach, apparently his only early work which he remained fond of. It’s very expressive music, to a text that seems to invite suicide among its readers. Garland sang very convincingly, with extraordinary diction. Platt was so pleased with the performance that he asked for it to be repeated after the intermission.
I often complain that Dvorák is the most under-appreciated composer in music. Sure, everyone knows him from a few pieces, but too much of his work is ignored. The Amernets made my case for me with a fine performance of Dvorák’s last quartet, the Quartet in A Flat, Op. 105. If this music is sometimes discursive in structure, like Schubert’s, that is not a flaw, just a style. This performance had a quality of driving energy that held the first movement in particular together, yet there was still plenty of tenderness. I liked the peasanty feel of the second movement, and the Lento e molto cantabile had glorious warmth. Violist Michael Klotz was a very strong presence, a welcome change from the lack of viola sound I sometimes hear in string quartets. Maverick’s savvy audience greeted the performance with stamping and whoops, which it deserved.