A principal theme of the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music’s performance season is the 100th birthday of composer Samuel Barber (’34), one of the school’s most illustrious alumni. Events center around the Barber anniversary in March 2010, with Curtis 20/21, the school’s contemporary music ensemble, performing an all-Barber program on the composer’s 100th birthday, March 9. Later that month, the Curtis Opera Theatre presents Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Perelman Theater in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, in a new production directed by Chas Rader-Shieber and conducted by George Manahan. Curtis On Tour marks the centenary with performances of Barber’s String Quartet No. 1, the source of the famous Adagio for Strings, in New York and nationwide in February and March.
The Curtis Symphony Orchestra performs Barber’s Symphony No. 1 under conductor Giancarlo Guerrero at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall on April 24. Curtis alumni will also join the centennial celebrations, giving two special recitals at the school’s Field Concert Hall in January and March; and Curtis student recitals from January through May also feature works by the celebrated alumnus.
One of the most important American composers of the last century, Samuel Barber (1910-81) made distinguished contributions to the orchestral, choral, operatic, piano and chamber music repertories. His Adagio for Strings is widely considered a modern masterpiece. Barber came from a musical family, and was among the first students to enter the Curtis Institute of Music when it opened in 1924. Studying composition with Rosario Scalero and piano with the renowned Isabelle Vengerova, he added a third major, voice, in 1926. It was while studying at Curtis that he met his future collaborator and life-partner, opera composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti (’33).
Even before his graduation from Curtis in 1934, Barber’s works were premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. The composer soon established himself within America’s classical community, winning the favor of such important artists as Koussevitzky and Horowitz.
While espousing no one school or style, Barber has sometimes been labeled “neo-Romantic.” His work is essentially tonal, and yet too dissonant and experimental to be considered anything but modern. His numerous honors include two Pulitzer Prizes, the Rome Prize, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
On the 100th anniversary of Barber’s birth, March 9, 2010, Curtis 20/21 – the school’s contemporary music ensemble, dedicated to the music of the 20th and 21st centuries – presents a celebratory program in Field Concert Hall. Curtis 20/21 will perform vocal and chamber works by Barber, and Barber-inspired works by Curtis alumnus Jonathan Holland (’96) and current student Christopher Rogerson. Two days earlier, the same concert will be performed in Barber’s hometown, West Chester, PA, at his family church, the First Presbyterian Church; and on March 15, Curtis 20/21 takes the celebratory program to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Also in March, the Curtis Opera Theatre will present Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Perelman Theater at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. This new production is directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, described as “a force to be reckoned with in the opera world” (Toronto’s Classical 96.3 FM). Presented in association with Kimmel Center Presents and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the production features a cast of Curtis opera and voice students with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under George Manahan. The opera was first performed in New York City in 1966, at the grand opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House, and then substantially revised eight years later, with the help of Menotti. Writing in the New York Times in 1984, Tim Page reported that “Barber always felt that Antony and Cleopatra was his finest work.” After Manahan conducted a performance of the opera at Carnegie Hall this past January, the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini praised “the fervent and sensitive performance that Mr. Manahan presided over,” and described the work itself:
“Barber’s score is rich with restless chromatic harmony, arching melodic outpourings, lush orchestration, percussive flourishes to evoke the conquering Romans, and reedy, harmonically astringent writing to conjure up Egyptian exotica. …[I]n recent decades plenty of safely conventional, neo-Romantic new operas have been produced that showed nothing like the intelligence and ingenuity of this Barber work.”
Curtis On Tour, which continues to bring the extraordinary artistry of the Curtis Institute to audiences nationwide and abroad, marks the centenary with performances of Barber’s String Quartet No. 1 (1936), whose slow movement is the source of his popular Adagio for Strings. Violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Peter Wiley (’74), both Curtis faculty members, appear with Curtis students on the 2009-10 tour, which includes a special New York appearance on March 10 at the Allen Room in Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. One of New York’s most spectacular venues, this lovely setting overlooks Central Park South. Its superb acoustic will beautifully complement a program that presents the Barber quartet alongside Dvorák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 and world premieres of new works commissioned from two current composition students at Curtis: Christopher Rogerson and Daniel Shapiro. In addition to the New York performance, stops on the tour include Detroit, MI; Davis, CA; Seattle, WA; Rockport, ME; and Highland Park, IL.