Barber's music is enjoying comeback

July 07, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic wDB

Confined to the doghouse throughout much of the 1960s, '70s and early '80s, the lushly romantic music of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) has come roaring back. Audiences can't seem to get enough of it and orchestras and record companies are competing with each other to record it.

The Barber revival seems to have started in 1986 with the Academy Award-winning movie "Platoon," which used the composer's always popular Adagio for Strings as its theme music. About a year later, an obscure but enterprising Baltimore-based conductor named Andrew Schenck (he was once associate conductor of the BSO) recorded the Adagio and the long-unheard Symphony No. 2 (Barber had suppressed the piece and burned the manuscript) with the New Zealand Symphony for a new budget label called Stradivari. Though most listeners didn't even know where New Zealand was -- much less that it had an orchestra -- the record shot to the top of best-seller lists. A second Barber disc by the same team made the same rapturous music at cash registers, and the deluge began.

St. Louis Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin, who always conducted a good deal of Barber's music, rushed into the fray with two best-selling Barber discs for Angel-EMI records. Last month he and the St. Louis released a new Barber disc for RCA Red Seal that is already on the best-seller list. Argo's all-Barber disc with David Zinman and the BSO, set for release sometime next season, was planned more than two years ago, but has already been beaten into production by a more recently planned Detroit Symphony disc on the Chandos label that was released less than two weeks ago. It had the largest advance sale in Chandos' history and made the best-seller list within days of its release.

Ironically, this is the second time around for Barber's music. In the 1930s and 1940s, the matinee-idol-handsome Barber was considered the most talented of America's younger composers, HTC and pianist Vladimir Horowitz and conductor Arturo Toscanini, among others, championed his music. His popularity peaked in the late '50s and early '60s when he won Pulitzer Prizes for the opera "Vanessa" (1958) and the Piano Concerto (1962).

But his reputation suffered a devastating blow in 1966 because of the controversy caused by his opera "Anthony and Cleopatra," which had been commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center. Barber's new piece was the most eagerly anticipated opera by any composer since the death of Puccini. But after its failure -- an utter debacle that subjected Barber to no end of ridicule -- the composer fled to the Italian Alps, where he lived in virtual seclusion for the next five years. Though opinion of "Anthony" has since been revised upward, Barber was to write little else of importance.

An interesting sidelight is that Barber's music, which Schenck helped to revive, has now in turn revived the conductor's career. Once all but unknown, he is now prominent enough to have been invited to guest conduct the Chicago Symphony next season and will make a recording of Barber's music with it.

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