Samuel Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Violinist – Rachel Barton Pine

Valerie Tung performing the Barber Violin Concerto

I’m pleased to introduce Valerie Tung to readers of this blog.  I’ve known Valerie for many years, and in 2008 she introduced me to Samuel Barber’s violin concerto through her own dazzling performance with the Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra, led by Alan Shen.

I’ve thought about that performance many times since then, and always imagined that, if I were ever to feature that piece on this blog, Valerie would be the ideal person to write about it.  Earlier this month, I asked her if she would be willing to write an introduction, and to my great delight, she agreed.

My thanks to Val, not only for her thoughtful notes to this glorious concerto, but also for introducing me to Rachel Barton Pine, who plays this daunting work to a fare-thee-well.


I was honored to be asked to be a guest blogger for Derrick for this entry – and it’s particularly apropos, as the Barber Concerto is often put in the same category as the Korngold concerto featured last month: both American, cinematic-styled concert works.

The Barber Violin Concerto is one of ‘my’ pieces – I love it so much, it’s personal.  First introduced to it by a dear friend and violinist in the 8th grade, who championed Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s recording whenever she had the opportunity, I remember my reaction: “Pretty… What on earth is going on in that 3rd movement?”  It took me about 7 years to come to love this piece – and still longer for that elusive final movement.  Now it’s arguably my favorite concerto both to listen to and play.

The Barber concerto is legend – commissioned and then rejected, forcing Barber and a violinist friend to prove it ‘playable’.  The 3rd movement is arguably one of the longest ‘moto perpetuo’ (perpetual motion, never-ending fast passages made up of tiny notes) in the literature, certainly in the concerto literature, where the soloist has the added challenge to project above the sound of the orchestra (which is mercifully lightly orchestrated by Barber).

Only once I was studying the concerto did I realize that 1939 was the year it was written.  (The Barber is often listed as being written in 1941, the year the work received its Philadelphia Orchestra premiere.)  1939 is often hailed as the most glorious year of American cinema, where adjusted for today’s dollars, the runaway Oscar hit, Gone with the Wind, still trumps even Star Wars for box-office glory.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, The Women, among many others, were all released in this year.  Can’t you hear the sweep and grandeur of these movie scores?

I hear the late 30’s cultural ideals around grace and beauty simmer, evoking images of Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, Katherine Hepburn, and the thousands of elegant and passionate emerging women of the 30’s.  Only two years later, as men were being called to war, this generation of women held the home front.  Simpering beauties they are not – they have depth, passion, and resilience, all the things I hear in this concerto and the first movement’s crystalline elegance.

The pain of the Depression, of the difficulties of life and love, pull still harder during the second movement.  They spin down into the thick, tearful stepwise melody that is so lovely and tunefully pained.  When the soloist retakes the theme, it progressively disintegrates, stopping just short of annihilation and emerges with a thin shred of dignity.  Survival.  A shred of hope.

The 3rd movement is a city movement, evoking the energy, the optimism, and sure sense that we will go on.  Most of all, after study and performance of this, the movement is a dance.  For many years, I (and others – I know I am not alone) have heard it as a splintering, a disintegration – it was only when I learned to listen past the anomalies that I realized the explosive joy in this piece.  4/4 time cannot hold this movement and energy!  The movement ends with the trumpet and violin in canon, the orchestra building to the awesome finale – and the soloist’s fingers streaming towards the final notes.

There are many recordings of this piece, which is likely the most popular of all the 20th century violin concertos.  Hilary Hahn’s recording taken at the most breakneck speed and with such incredible precision and rock-steady tempo – is my favorite final movement.  One can actually hear the section violins in the orchestra fall apart in attempting to meet her tempo for a few lines of music – that she sustained this for several minutes.  To see the breakneck speed and how little guidance the soloist gets without the benefit of the score, see this YouTube video which pairs the soloist sheet music with Hilary’s performance.  You’ll be amazed at how different this 3rd movement can sound from one soloist to the next – it’s amazing the amount of variety that is achieved by a seemingly ‘boring’ moto perpetuo movement as each violinist grapples with making the offset rhythms comprehensible.

One of the things I love about Derrick’s Blog is the chance to highlight more than just the best-known performer on any instrument.  The violinist that I’d love to highlight with an excellent video of the piece is the American violinist Rachel Barton Pine, whose talents on the violin have led her to also develop an immense gift for education, and passion for championing the works of female and African-American composers.  She also is a ton of fun – if you check out Barton-Pine’s YouTube channel, you can find humorous and awe-inspiring rearrangements of recognizable tunes and concert works.  I love her passion for music.  I only wish she came to my home state more often.  Enjoy!

Notes by Valerie Tung

Published in: on March 21, 2015 at 5:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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