As we come to the end of the centennial year of the birth of Samuel Barber, I realize with some regret how sparse have been the opportunities to hear his music performed. Most of those opportunities have come from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was honored with a music history seminar in which eighteen singers and three pianists researched in depth, reported on, and performed the complete canon of the songs Barber had composed. The performance, which lasted slightly more than two hours, took place one day after the date of Barber’s birth. Since then I have attended a few “professional” vocal recitals that revisited some of these songs and experienced at least one performance of the “Adagio for Strings;” And Symphony Parnassus provided a much-needed focus on Barber in the first concert of their current season. Still, that makes for rather slim pickings in what should have been a more celebratory year.
Last night’s Woodwind and Brass Chamber Music recital at the Conservatory provided a bit of compensation (with only a few weeks remaining in the year) with a performance of Barber’s Opus 31 wind quintet, “Summer Music.” This work received more attention back in my student days (although not as much as the “Adagio”). However, it probably fell into neglect because Barber was not “intellectual” enough for the academic set of that time that was more intent in seeking out mathematical and philosophical profundities. This group saw Barber as simplistic, but one could just as easily spin those impressions in the opposite direction and recognize that music as reflective in an intensely personal way.
“Summer Music” was Barber’s only composition for wind quintet; but he had a consistently keen ear for the sonorities of the wind family. I first came to know his music through on old Mercury vinyl that had his Medea suite on one side and “Capricorn Concerto” (whose solo instruments were flute, oboe, and trumpet) on the other. To my young ears these sounds were a delightfully refreshing change from the traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I practically wore out the grooves on both sides of that record. Because the overall structure of “Summer Music” is episodic, one gets to hear the quintet instruments journey through a diversity of moods, each of which has its own “acoustic signature.” I am glad to see that the work still holds a secure place in the Conservatory repertoire for wind and brass students.