Call it the story of Samuel Barber’s rise and fall and rise again. Any top 10 of America’s most important composers has to include Barber (1910-1981), a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who stood at the pinnacle of this country’s classical-music scene for more than three decades. But tastes change, and just a few of his works continued to be programmed in the years after his death. Chief among of those enduring stalwarts is Barber’s moving Adagio for Strings (1938), which is played as a kind of emotional balm at times of tragedy.
In recent years, however, Barber has steadily made a comeback. Vanessa, his gothic-tinged opera, for example, received its first-ever performance in 2016 at the Santa Fe Opera. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present two of Barber’s concertos as part of its 2017-18 season, starting with soloist James Ehnes joining guest conductor James Gaffigan on Oct. 26-27 for a program featuring the Violin Concerto, Op. 14. On Dec. 7-9 and 12, esteemed cellist Alisa Weilerstein will take on the Cello Concerto in A Minor under guest conductor Neeme Järvi in the CSO’s first performances of the work since 1952.
“Barber is beginning to open up to the public now in an almost Copland-like way — [though he’s] not quite there yet,” said famed conductor Leonard Slatkin, who has championed Barber’s works for virtually his entire career.
There is no simple answer about why Barber’s work fell out of favor, but it can be attributed in part to his refusal to subscribe to serialism and the academic formalism that dominated composition in the 1950s. At the other end of the spectrum, he also did not embrace the folk-tinged Americana of some Aaron Copland’s music or the jazzy spirit of George Gershwin’s works. Instead, while not wholly ignoring innovators like Igor Stravinsky and some of the harmonic advances of the 20th century, he largely pursued a style that looked back at European Romanticism.
Another setback was the critical rejection of his third opera, Antony and Cleopatra, written for the opening of New York’s new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. “Barber was so out of favor, especially with the failure of Antony and Cleopatra, that people thought the music was too old-fashioned, too passé, whatever,” Slatkin said. “He was bucking all kinds of trends.”
But in the 21th century, when eclecticism is the norm and no one style rules, the classical-music world has brought a more open-minded attitude to Barber’s works. In particular, many of today’s emerging soloists are eager to step away from the same handful of regularly performed concertos and instead embrace high-quality, lesser-known works in the form. Few fit the bill better than those of Barber. While his music might have been out of step with 20th-century compositional trends, many of his works are nonetheless well-crafted and compelling.
That is certainly true of his Violin Concerto, which he completed in 1940. It was commissioned by soap industrialist Samuel Fels for Iso Briselli, his adopted son, but there was a much-disputed falling out between Briselli and Barber over the work’s third movement. In a letter to Fels, Barber wrote, “[I am] sorry not to have given Iso what he had hoped for, but I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself. So we decided to abandon the project, with no hard feelings on either side.”
The piece finally received its premiere in 1941, followed by a definitive, revised version performed by soloist Ruth Posselt and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949. But the work was never associated with a major violinist, as Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto was with Jascha Heifetz; by the 1970s, it had fallen into virtual obscurity. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, it began to make a comeback via a series of recordings, including ones featuring soloist Elmar Oliveira, Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony in 1986, and soloist Gil Shaham, conductor André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1994. The work is now solidly ensconced in the standard repertory, at least in the United States.
“It’s very lyric,” Slatkin said. “It sings. It has this dazzling three-minute or so finale. It’s not a question of technical difficulties. It just has that wonderful balance of great melodic invention with fairly non-complex harmonic structure, so people can really draw into it.”
The Cello Concerto is not as frequently performed, but it, too, is on an upward trajectory. Cellists have a smaller number of regularly programmed concertos than violinists, and a younger generation of cellists is eager to expand that list. “So they need a good, solid cello concerto, and this is a wonderful piece — a little more neo-classical than the outright romanticism of the Violin Concerto,” Slatkin said. Because it does not boast the kind of memorable passages that light up the Violin Concerto, it requires a committed interpreter who can really bring it to life. “I did it last [in 2010] with Sol Gabetta [and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra], and she was just amazing,” Slatkin said. “She really sold the piece. We did it on a tour of Florida, and audiences loved it.”
Barber’s other work in the form for full orchestra, the Piano Concerto, Op. 38, was premiered in 1962 by conductor Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra as part of the opening festivities for Philharmonic Hall, now David Geffen Hall, at Lincoln Center. Featured as soloist was pianist John Browning, who went on to be an ardent champion of the work. Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will open the ensemble’s 2017-18 season on Oct. 12-14 with a program that includes the Barber Piano Concerto with Olga Kern as soloist.