Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Beethoven and Barber at the Philharmonic

Last night I attended the New York Philharmonic's "Modern Beethoven" concert featuring the composer's 4th and 8th symphonies.

What was modern about it? I don't really know. The 4th and the 8th (unlike the 5th, 6th, and 7th) are relatively unfamiliar to me but the orchestra under David Zinman did perform these works with incisiveness and vivacity.

The concert also featured Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto (1945; revised 1948). From the program notes:

“The Barber Cello Concerto will be to the twentieth century what the Brahms Violin Concerto was to the nineteenth”; so predicted Serge Koussevitzky, a known champion of contemporary music. Samuel Barber composed the concerto after his discharge from the Army Air Force, in which he served during World War II (and where his duties included composing a symphony). The work was commissioned for the Russian-born cellist Raya Garbousova (1909-1997) by John Nicholas Brown, a prominent Rhode Islander, and she premiered it in November 1945 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky. Though the piece enjoyed critical success and won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award of 1947, Barber was not entirely satisfied with it. He made several revisions before the concerto was finally published. In preparation for writing the concerto Barber invited Garbousova to play her repertoire for him so that he might tailor his composition to her style and musical personality (a practice he followed for his violin and piano concertos as well). The present work makes huge technical demands on the soloist (explaining, perhaps, why it has been so rarely performed) and displays a marvelous balance of energy and lyricism, expressiveness and boldness. The movement begins assertively with orchestral chords, and soon the cello enters with a sort of cadenza. It also encompasses pizzicato cello passages embroidered with a lovely accompaniment from the winds. The lyrical second movement seems perfectly suited to the rich voice of the cello, letting it soar and sing unfettered. Barber declined comment about his Cello Concerto at its premiere, preferring to have it stand on “its own musical terms, which do not call for verbal description or analysis.” These performances are a rare opportunity to experience a work that is heard all too infrequently on concert programs.
Alisa Weilerstein was the virtuosic soloist and she played the darker passages (particularly the second movement) with lyricism and mystery. It was a nice contrast to the Beethoven pieces.

(photo courtesy of the New York Times)

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