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March 11, 2005

Monumental Compositions and Boyhood Dalliances

New York Times (NY):

For a composer whose music is so accessible, varied and inherently likable, Samuel Barber isn't performed a lot. For a time, his accessibility worked against him: listeners who were interested in the cutting edge of modernism found his lyricism and his rich, Neo-Romantic harmonies suspect. Those prejudices faded long ago, yet Barber's great works - those aside from the "Adagio for Strings," that is, like the high-energy Piano Sonata or the rich-hued Cello Concerto - still don't have a place in the canon.

Harold Rosenbaum and his New York Virtuoso Singers made a case for Barber's music for chamber chorus at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday evening. Mr. Rosenbaum took pains to make his presentation comprehensive: childhood works and unpublished scores were included, as well as arrangements of pieces originally composed for other forces, like Barber's transformation of the "Adagio for Strings" into a sumptuous Agnus Dei. (The New Grove lists one work that Mr. Rosenbaum skipped, the unpublished "Peggy Mitchell," as well as two more, "The Lovers" and "Prayers of Kierkegaard," for larger ensembles that fell outside the chamber chorus description.)

Not surprisingly, the youthful works were mainly curiosities, worth hearing only to see where Barber began. "Gypsy Song," from "The Rose Tree," an opera he wrote when he was 10, suggests a fascination with Gilbert and Sullivan, tempered with a hint of Vaughan Williams. A touch of Victorian influence remains in "Christmas Eve," composed when Barber was 14, but by the time he turned 20, in 1930, he was finding his voice. "Let Down the Bars, O Death" (1936) and "God's Grandeur" (1938) have an irresistible intensity, created at least partly by Barber's use of dissonances that appear in surprising places and have equally unpredictable resolutions.

Relatively few of these works are well known. "Anthony O'Daly," the haunting central panel of "Reincarnations" (1937-40), has found a life of its own. So has the exquisite "Sure on This Shining Night" (1938, arranged in 1941), although it is best known as a solo vocal work. And then, of course, there are the slowly climbing lines of the Agnus Dei (1936 in its string version; arranged for chorus in 1967). But some of the lesser-known works - particularly "Twelfth Night" (1968), an emotional Christmas piece, and "A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map" (1940) - are certainly their equal.

The choir was not always at its most polished; there were occasional ragged entrances and some slippery intonation (on the final "pacem" of the Agnus Dei, for example). But most of the time, Mr. Rosenbaum's singers produced the warm, rounded sound that this music invites, and at their best in "Twelfth Night" and "On the Death of Cleopatra" (1966-74) they sang with beauty and passion.

Posted by acapnews at March 11, 2005 12:02 AM