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At the TSO, Samuel Barber is no longer edgy, but full of life

Gil Shaham
Globe and Mail

By Ken Winters

The Best of Barber
•    Toronto Symphony Orchestra
•    Jon Kimura Parker, piano
•    Gil Shaham, violin
•    Peter Oundjian, conductor
•    At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

An evening of the music of that gentle American Samuel Barber may not, in prospect, set your blood pumping. But in reality, with the right program and the right people to bring it all to life, as we heard Wednesday night, it can provide some distinctive and touching musical satisfactions, and even some robust excitements.

True, the only relative novelty was the Symphony in One Movement, which dates from 1935, but which never quite caught on during his lifetime, muscled aside by the tougher vanguard of Stravinsky, Bartok and Schoenberg and the catchier things of Prokofiev, Poulenc and Britten. But now that “vanguard” and “chic” are no longer dominant, we can listen to Barber from a different perspective. In Wednesday’s revival by Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Barber’s serious, compact, youthful symphony fell freshly on the ears.

Oundjian and the orchestra opened the second half of their concert with it in an assured, elegant reading that did it proud. Especially memorable were the third section’s haunting oboe solo, so beautifully managed by associate principal Keith Atkinson, and the superb passacaglia (increasingly elaborate variations above a persistent repeated bass) that Barber invented to inhabit the final section.

The rest of the program was tried and true Barber. The famous Adagio for Strings, adapted from the second movement of the 25-year-old composer’s 1935 string quartet opened the concert, followed by the 1962 Piano Concerto, Op. 38, with Jon Kimura Parker as the soloist. The concert ended with the 1940 Violin Concerto, Op. 14, with Gil Shaham as soloist.

Both concertos are repertoire staples by now, but both choices of soloist were inspired. The music benefited enormously.

A newly svelte but still ebullient Kimura Parker rode the bristling bravura of the piano concerto’s outer movement like a true champion, matching panache with high clarity. He approached the lovely central slow movement with an appropriately simple and sensitive singing style. The final notes of the propulsive last movement catapulted him straight off the piano bench into embraces with Oundjian and the evening’s concertmaster, Jonathan Carney, and his exuberance and joy encompassed the whole cheering audience.

The Violin Concerto is a considerably less brazen and bossy work than the Piano Concerto. Its appeal lies in its touching and elegant lyricism – a lyricism that underlies even the dazzling glitter of its finale. In the performance of Gil Shaham (pictured at the top of this story), it seemed to have found its very soul.

I hadn’t heard Shaham in several years, and I was astounded at how his art has been refined and deepened. His exquisitely tuned and delicate sound merged with the orchestra and floated above it with the rhythmic élan and grace of a swallow, fleet and fine and inseparable from the interior musical impulse.

Among other exceptional refinements were some thrilling pianissimi such as I have seldom heard. Each of the three movements emerged with an individual aura, a distinction I would not have thought the work possessed after hearing it in other performances. Shaham revealed the essence of this music, and Oundjian and the orchestra rose to his revelation. So did the audience.