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Sam, Gil, Bela, David, Maurice
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By Howard Kissel
This year marks the centenary of Samuel Barber, and it's hard to imagine a more thrilling celebration than Gil Shaham's performance of the Barber violin concerto with the New York Philharmonic, which continues through Saturday.
The celebration itself seems rather muted, but it was my impression that last year's centenary of Abraham Lincoln was also not as grand as it should have been. I guess those of us who care about the past have to get used to the fact that in a world where only the present matters everything beyond last Tuesday seems an irrelevance.
Even in his lifetime Barber was never accorded all he deserved. He was one of a handful of composers -- like Aaron Copland, Morton Gould and Virgil Thompson -- who were carving out a genuinely American sound for serious music. After the war their efforts were overwhelmed by the musical highbrows' embrace of the twelve-tone row, the music of the future.
The unabashed romanticism of much of Barber's music -- like the first two movements of the violin concerto -- made him particularly out of fashion for much of his career. What might have restored him to favor was his score for the opera that opened The New Met in 1966, "Antony and Cleopatra," sung magnificently by the young soprano he had "discovered" a few decades earlier, Leontyne Price. But the circus that surrounded the opening.overshadowed the score.
The beauty -- and power -- of his music were brilliantly displayed last night by Shaham and the Philharmonic, under the direction of David Robertson. Shaham's passion for the music was evident in the extraordinary range of sounds he drew from the violin, especially the hushed soft passages. He was equally impressive when the music soared.
Robertson and the orchestra partnered him with breathtaking precision.
Before that we heard an incandescent performance of Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite," one of those pieces we often take for granted but not when performed as sensitively as it was last night, from the ethereal opening to the grand finale.
The second part of the program was devoted to Bartok's score for the ballet "The Wooden Prince." Subtitltes helpfully provided the plot of this ballet, which, to my knowledge, has not been performed here. I was reminded of George Balanchine's dictum that there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. Nor should there be stupid princesses, one of which is at the core of this ballet, which also has a careless Fairy and a not very bright Prince.
The music is full of the rich sounds and textures we associate with Bartok. Robertson obviously cares about this music and the Philharmonic brought all its virtuosic skills to bear but it remains largely a curiosity, an early example of the sounds Bartok would refine and sharpen. When it was over I felt, Duty Done. It was instructive, the price to pay for the sheer, ravishing pleasure of the Ravel and Barber.