For some time I have had a Sony CD compilation of music by this American composer and have often enjoyed the lyricism and superb craftsmanship of his music. It was therefore a particular pleasure to be at one of the Promenade Concerts this week and to listen to a delicately poised performance of his Violin Concerto played by the Canadian violinist James Ehnes. It is a really lovely work and the little tune of the first movement – sometimes almost a duet between the violin and the flute – has remained with me ever since. There is a passionate second movement and then the unexpected sparky little last movement which runs away like a feckless filly, testing the virtuosity of the soloist – so much so that the original dedicatee said it was too difficult to play.
Barber was influenced as much by European 19th. Century tradition as by his American roots, and was unencumbered by the trends of his day. Italy was his second country and he spent some of his years living there with his partner and fellow composer, Gian Carlo Menotti.
He once said of himself ‘when I’m writing music for words, then I immerse myself in those words, and I let music flow out of them. When I write an abstract piano sonata or concerto, I write what I feel. I’m not a self-conscious composer…it is said that I have no style at all but that doesn’t matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.’ He was a romantic, which is quite an achievement during a period when the avant garde often dictated the form of contemporary music.
The concert which also included another American work, the formidable third Symphony of Aaron Copland, was conducted by Marin Alsop, the orchestra her own Bournemouth Symphony. I was there as sort of elderly groupie, for the B.S.O. is the nearest we have to a local symphony orchestra.
They played with great spirit, the brass and woodwind surpassing themselves in the Copland which demands a very large orchestra. Copland’s last movement uses his stentorian ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’as a theme with variations, the finale delaying its climactic end as it seemed for ever, but then superbly engineered by conductor and orchestra and much applauded by the audience. A review in today’s ‘Guardian’ comments that the performance ‘was remarkable for its humanity…an epic sentimental journey undertaken with a sense of awe and wonder’. I agree.