Wednesday, November 28, 2007

From Bach to Barber and Elgar to Sculthorpe

The 155-CD Brilliant Classics set of Johann Sebastian Bach's complete music has turned out to be one of the great impulsive purchases of my life, and I've only just begun with the cantatas, which take up 60 CDs on their own.

The Bach cantatas are rather like Haydn's great symphonies. As James Keller wrote in the San Francisco Symphony's program book last week in relation to a performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 67, "The problem is not that his one hundred and four symphonies lack brilliance or individuality, but rather that there are a hundred and four of them. Who can keep track?"

Leonard Slatkin was the masterful guest conductor at the San Francisco Symphony last week and his rendition of the Haydn 67 was my favorite music of the evening, conducted with the necessary wit and propulsion that Haydn's music requires.

This was followed by the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto from 1962, played by local pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and though the performance was a bang-up job by soloist and orchestra, the music left me utterly cold. Except for his "Adagio for Strings" and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," I don't think Barber's music is aging very well.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is a fascinating historical character in terms of American classical music politics of the twentieth century, since he was so well connected in many senses of the term. Plus, he's a pivotal figure in gay history, though he lived his public life in the closet. His lover for 40 years was the recently deceased opera composer Gian-Carlo Menotti. The two of them met romantically while attending the Curtis Institute as teenagers in Philadelphia in the 1920s, and then lived together and collaborated on each other's projects for the next 40 years. That latter story, however, still hasn't been written about because Barber's biographer Barbara Heyman and other contemporary music writers are still tiptoeing around the homosexual subject matter for some reason.

The second half of the concert was a wonderful traversal of Elgar's "Enigma Variations" in front of a half-empty house because so many subscribers seemed to be out of town.

If you happen to be in town this Friday evening, November 30th, be sure to catch the Del Sol String Quartet at an Old First Church concert where they will be playing the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's String Quartet #16 with Didjeridu along with music by Golijov and other contemporary musicians. This piece was the highlight for me at last year's Other Minds Music Festival (didjeridu player Stephen Kent and composer Sculthorpe are pictured above) and I can't recommend the concert highly enough. Plus, it's only $15. Click here for more details.


Nancy Ewart said...

What a shame that biographies of gay musicians are still tip-toeing around the subject. I had NO idea that Benjamin Britten was gay but once I found out, some of the more obscure parts of his operas began to make sense. Sometimes I wonder what century biographers think we are living in - 2007 or 1907?
Jeeze Lousie!

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: You didn't know Britten was gay? Wow. All those song cycles and star tenor parts from Peter Grimes to Captain Vere to Aschenbach were written for his live-in lover, Peter Pears, who is on all the recordings where Britten is conducting.

Britten was also a pedophile, I'm afraid, though it seems he didn't act out on his impulses so much as he was tormented by them. One happy offshoot of the latter condition, however, is that he wrote the greatest boys chorus music of the twentieth century which children are going to be growing up on forever, rather like Lewis Carroll and his "Alice in Wonderland."

Nancy Ewart said...

I didn't know he was gay when I was younger; I'm 60 now so have known for some time. Earlier written bios just left that part out. We are much more used to honesty these days but think of how it used to be pre-1980's.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: Thanks for the clarification on your Britten gay knowledge. What's weird is that current journalists writing about Samuel Barber sound like they're writing about Benjamin Britten in the 1950s, it's that weirdly closeted.

Personally, I'm waiting for the movie about the teenage Menotti and Barber in 1920s Philadelphia and Italy, which would be a sweet tale. It didn't get ugly for them until the 1960s, when it seemed to get very ugly indeed if I read between the lines of Heyman's biography correctly.