at Orchestra Hall

October 26 and November 3

Samuel Barber had the misfortune to peak early. In 1933, when he was barely 23 and fresh out of the Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia Orchestra introduced his very first orchestral score. Other premieres and honors soon followed, including a prestigious Prix de Rome that started his love affair with Italy. Throughout the 40s and 50s the likes of Toscanini, Horowitz, and Leontyne Price sought him out for commissions.

It’s not hard to understand why Barber was popular in the postwar Eisenhower years; with his patrician looks, reserve, and impressive pedigree he embodied what passed for highbrow culture in America. Moreover, his meticulous, largely tonal style–used most expressively in the Adagio for Strings and Knoxville: Summer of 1915–gently reassured listeners jarred by modernism’s dissonance. By the early 60s he was the winner of a pair of Pulitzers (for the opera Vanessa and his piano concerto) and numerous other official accolades. Then the tide turned. His most important commission–the opera Antony and Cleopatra for the Met in 1966–was panned by critics and left the audience cold. Disheartened and disillusioned, he spent most of his remaining years in seclusion and composed very little before his death in 1981.

The conventional wisdom about Barber is that he was an anachronism, a musical conservative who started out brilliantly but slipped out of sync with the intellectual and social trends around him. There’s some truth to this assessment. Certainly the famous adagio–appropriated by directors David Lynch (in The Elephant Man) and Oliver Stone (Platoon) for an instant evocation of pathos–was already dated when it came out. The same can be said of Knoxville, a lyrical homage to a simpler, picket-fenced America that would have pleased Stephen Foster. Yet as the recent retrospective concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra revealed, Barber remained suprisingly true to his own creative and emotional urges. Even during his supposed decline, he was a more complicated and probing artist than he’s given credit for being.

The concert, programmed and conducted by Barber specialist Andrew Schenck, included pivotal works from Barber’s early, middle, and late years. Performed back-to-back, the First Symphony (1936), Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954), and The Lovers (1971) neatly summarize his long trek from self-advertisement to self- acceptance, from youthful passion to autumnal grace. In the 30s and 40s Barber, like many of his American peers, was taken with the majestic sweep and long-breathed lyricism of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. The influences are unmistakable in the one-movement symphony–a resume piece if there ever was one. The compression of the traditional four movements into one was cleverly done, and the music displays Barber’s strength as a fastidious craftsman adept at assimilating established styles. Especially striking is the final march in passacaglia form, which moves from solemnity to euphoric resolution–as if echoing the composer’s own growing confidence. The CSO’s performance was engaging, making the most of the extroverted moments.

Barber tended to dabble in other genres, usually contributing one entry to each. Vocal writing was the exception–and his forte. He had been brought up in a song-loving household–his aunt was Louise Homer, the great Met contralto, and he was trained as a baritone. Prayers of Kierkegaard, a large-scale work for soprano and chorus, is an almost seamless and effortless fusion of music and words. The text consists of selected prayers on salvation and redemption by the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. The music opens with somber quasi-Gregorian chants sung by the men of the chorus–affirmations of spiritual faith from monks untested by life. An edginess creeps into the music, which becomes more and more driven until it crests in a pagan fury similar to that in Orff’s Carmina Burana. In the next prayer the entire chorus murmurs as if in a trance, while a trio of voices led by a clarion soprano wafts above, asking forgiveness for past sins. Then the brass goes into an animalistic frenzy. Suddenly everything quiets down. Church bells peal. And the trio offers a devout thanksgiving that’s accompanied by the chorus in an uplifting chorale. Order and serenity have returned, but the naive monks are gone. Anyone who cares to examine a work in the context of its creator’s life might interpret Prayers of Kierkegaard as the 44-year-old Barber’s way of coming to terms with a mid-life crisis. And we can guess that religion was his way of coping, even if that choice seemed passe on the eve of the rise of French existentialism.

This work, on a double bill with Carmina Burana, was first performed by the CSO and its chorus in 1955 under the baton of Fritz Reiner. In fact, Margaret Hillis, who’s retiring after this season, began her illustrious CSO tenure preparing the chorus for this work. Her touch is as assured as ever: the chorus went to the heart of Barber’s music with genuine feeling. Its cries and whispers were matched by fervent playing from the orchestra. Schenck was particularly good at cranking up the volume of the more clamorous passages, but I wish he had been subtle with the soulful ones. Soprano Sarah Reese, the main soloist, had the bearing and zeal of a veteran gospel singer.

Partly because he produced so little in his later years, Barber was seen to be racked by self-doubt, and it was assumed that he was depressed over the public’s perception of him as a relic. However, he may simply have been struggling to incorporate a new bold sensuality into his style. There are strong hints of lust in his arias for Cleopatra, possibly the best thing one can say about that ill-fated opera (which was recently given its Chicago premiere by Lyric Opera). However, it took him until he was 60 to finish a score that deals directly and frankly with eroticism and physical love.

The text for The Lovers–which is scored for baritone, mixed chorus, and orchestra–is taken from Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Sadness by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda. The nine songs, in English translations of Neruda’s earthy language and erotic imagery, chart the course of love from infatuation to final parting: the first song is titled “Body of a Woman,” the last “Cemetery of Kisses.” Barber’s music–achingly lyrical and largely tonal, as it should be–directs the flow of the alternately passionate and despondent words. The orchestral prelude is full of eddies and whirls. Then the baritone (Barber’s alter ago) reveals his desires, caressing each syllable and lingering over the phrase “the final ache.” The second song is livened up by a sharp jungle rhythm, a rarity for Barber; the third number, sung by women, is all hothouse languor. The eighth song, “Tonight I Can Write,” is really a Puccini-esque aria sung by a love-stricken, forlorn hero (Barber again?). Though the center of Neruda’s poetic attention is undoubtably a young woman, Barber’s is more ambiguous. In this, his last important musical statement, Barber is looking back at his own life and career. He seems to come to accept both the stimulus and the fickleness of his lover (Gian Carlo Menotti), his muse, his fame, and his public. In the final song there is no pathos, only brave acceptance. As in the First Symphony, it ends in a stately march–but the cadence of youthful swagger has been replaced by an older man’s calm walk.

This honest passion and graciousness, old-fashioned though it may be, ennobles The Lovers. And the performance by the CSO and chorus–marking the work’s belated Chicago debut–was flawless in conveying the music’s essential sensuality and in negotiating the myriad mood shifts. Baritone Dale Duesing was also quite convincing in his fervor and desolation. The performance was recorded as part of conductor Schenck’s ongoing CD series of Barber’s complete orchestral output. I’m looking forward to owning it.

Two more American composers were featured in the CSO’s subscription concerts the following week, but the star of the show was a teenage cellist from Wilmette. Even as a child, Wendy Warner, who started cello lessons at age six, was a prodigy with nimble fingers and an uncanny grasp of her instrument’s emotional potential. She’s won a string of contests, including the CSO’s Illinois Young Performers Competition twice. Now 19, she’s studying at the Curtis Institute and being coached privately by Mstislav Rostropovich. In the last year she took the coveted first place in the International Rostropovich Competition and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

For her official CSO debut Warner and conductor Michael Morgan picked Schelomo by Ernest Bloch. Hard to play and even harder to interpret well, this rhapsody for cello and orchestra is basically a grand and impassioned soliloquy by the solo instrument. Though born and raised in Switzerland, Bloch emigrated to the U.S. in 1916 (one year after composing Schelomo) and spent much of the rest of his life here teaching and conducting. He became an American composer, but one with deep Jewish roots. He didn’t care to join the dry Episcopalian company of Elliott Carter and Samuel Barber; his music evokes the sensuality of the desert sands and the solemnity of the synagogue. (The older Barber might have envied Bloch’s voluptuous melodies.)

In Schelomo, Yiddish for Solomon, the cello is a self-absorbed spiritual wanderer, its assertiveness and insouciance slowly giving way to doubts and broodiness. For a while the music has the faux grandeur of the sound track of a Hollywood Roman epic, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that movie composers of the 40s and 50s cribbed from this work. For a longer stretch the music for the solo cello is all sinuous arabesques. The piece ends on a lingering note of melancholy, as if resigned to the ephemerality of earthly delights.

Warner, looking prim and proper–like her role model, the late Jacqueline Du Pre–played almost flawlessly under Morgan’s watchful eye. She showed an excellent command of technique, but fell short of conveying the deep sensuality that’s a vital part of the music. It’s reassuring to know that at least certain emotions still require the test of experience.

Roy Harris’s Third Symphony–a mess, albeit an appealing mess, compared to Barber’s First Symphony–was also on the program, and the orchestra got a lot of mileage out of the work’s mock monumentality. A pair of Dvorak works made up the first half of the concert–this being the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. His Carnival overture was given a zesty account. Then the CSO’s string sections got a rare solo workout in the Serenade for Strings, Op. 22. It was a loud, rather ungraceful performance conducted by an overly animated Morgan. Dvorak should have been better served.