Barber And The B

July 07, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,A MATTER OF RECORDSun Music Critic

After years of neglect, the music of Samuel Barber will be all-pervasive in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Summerfest. His relatively little-known Essay No. 2 will appear on a program with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, his still more obscure "Music for a Scene from Shelley" will be juxtaposed to Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto and his lush Rachmaninovlike Symphony No. 1 will be heard alongside the concise drypoint of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.

An idealist might assume that BSO music director David Zinman has suddenly discovered the romantic virtues of one of America's most unfairly maligned composers; but a realist might come closer to the truth: Zinman and the orchestra have a contract to record these pieces for the Argo label this fall. Summerfest, which starts Thursday, is when they begin to get them into shape.

Because records reach wider audiences than concerts, what audiences hear in concert halls is increasingly determined by the recording schedules of orchestras. This is not a matter of greed. The record royalties of the Chicago Symphony, perhaps the most celebrated and most frequently recorded of America's orchestras, are only $25O,000, a tiny fraction of the orchestra's $32 million budget.

Records mean prestige, which in the competitive world of orchestras is even more important than money. (The Pittsburgh Symphony has a much larger endowment than Chicago's, but when was the last time the Pittsburgh Symphony sold out Carnegie Hall?) And the prestige of many well-received records means that an up-and-coming orchestra See JUMP TO COME, 00, Col. 0JUMP TO COME, from 1Xcan get better guest conductors as well as bigger audiences; it also means that it can get better tours. All of this adds up to -- in all likelihood -- becoming a better orchestra.

"Records are what put this orchestra on the map," says Robert H. Wilkins, who directs broadcasting and recording for the St. Louis Symphony. Fifteen years ago when the St. Louis Symphony began making records for the budget Vox label, reviews were admiring but condescending, Wilkins says. "The tone was, 'There appear to be some good things coming out of Missouri.' We don't hear that any more." Wilkins' orchestra now has an exclusive contract with the prestigious RCA Victor Red Seal label for 30 records over five years.

The BSO has not yet attained such success, but its activity in the recording studio in the recent past has increased its prestige that it is now possible to engage the most prominent guest conductors in the orchestra's history, says BSO executive director John Gidwitz. When the orchestra announces its guest conductors for the 1992-'93 season next spring, Gidwitz promises, the orchestra's increase in stature will be "very manifest."

But if records can spread the message that an orchestra is good, there is also the danger that the medium may become the message.

Some orchestra officials privately worry that public performances sometimes threaten -- in the words of one manager -- to become "little more than a way to fine-tune recording sessions." In Chicago, adds Chicago Symphony publicity director Joyce Idema, "we have inserts in the program that tell the audience 'Please be quiet' and 'Don't cough' because we do a lot of live recording. Some of the reaction has been, 'Why do we come to concerts? They're not supposed to be recording sessions.' "

And there have been programs that have come close to abusing audiences. Several years ago, when Lorin Maazel, then music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, prepared to record Prokofiev's complete music for "Romeo and Juliet" -- not the boiled-down, concertworthy suites -- he subjected three successive audiences to one act each of the music. (The piece may be wonderful when dancers are on the stage, but is a bore to hear in its entirety without them.)

Last season Montreal Symphony Orchestra audiences had to endure the stultifying longueurs of Debussy's opera "Pelleas et Melisande" so that London Records could add it to its operatic catalog. Back in his Rochester Philharmonic days, Zinman subjected audiences to Beethoven's less-than-scintillating music for the ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus."

And only a few years ago Deutsche Grammophon asked Leonard Bernstein to record filler with the New York Philharmonic for a disc devoted to Ives' Symphony No. 2. The irrepressible Bernstein leaned back just before he was to conduct one of the Ives potboilers and, in a stage whisper loud enough for all of Avery Fisher Hall to hear, announced: "This really is one of my least favorite pieces!"

The music of Barber, which has of late become very popular [see accompanying article], does not fit such a category. But recording it can scarcely be called a prestigious assignment. There is a pecking order among American orchestras; while the BSO makes records of standard repertory items such as Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" or Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique"

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