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Laurie Niles

2009 Starling-Delay, day five: Brian Lewis on the Barber Violin concerto

June 17, 2009 at 5:21 AM

I don't know about you, but the Barber Violin concerto had me at the opening note.

It's not a piece I studied in school; in fact I'd never even played it as an orchestra member when a friend gave me Gil Shaham's recording of the Barber. I fell in love with that first "D" – and every note thereafter.

When I did play it in orchestra, I had to giggle a little when the a soloist told us that the beginning needed to sound like "a pillow – of love." Of course!

So it was a treat to discover the topic of University of Texas Violin Professor and Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis's lecture at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School: the Barber Violin Concerto.

"It's one of the greatest American concertos ever written," Brian said.

Brian Lewis

Of course, not everyone has found the piece so lovable; many have faulted it for its very accessibility and its seeming lack of complexity.

As Brian explained, the Barber has one of those interesting stories, kind of like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, in which the original dedicatee took issue with the work and refused to play it. Barber's violin concerto was commissioned by the stepfather (Samuel Fels) of one of Barber's classmates, Iso Briselli , a fellow violinist in Curtis Institute's class of 1934. Barber took half the commission money, went to Switzerland, and composed the first two movements. When he returned and presented Briselli with lyrical and lush opening movements, Briselli apparently complained that they weren't flashy enough. In response, Barber made the third movement all spark – something that also failed to please his patron. According to most sources, Briselli dismissed the third movement as unplayable -- and unworthy. Briselli's family wanted the commission money back.

Ultimately, a Curtis student named Herbert Baumel was asked to read the third movement – to study it for several hours and then play it for Barber and a number of other Curtis faculty. Baumel apparently found it playable, and Barber was able to strike a deal with Briselli and his stepfather, foregoing the second half of the commission money in exchange for all performance rights. The student, Baumel, later performed the work with Fritz Reiner and the Curtis Institute symphony, in the 1939–1940 season. The violin concerto received its first official premiere in February 1941, with violinist Albert Spalding playing with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Of course, you can read this all on Wikipedia, as well as other program notes, including these by Rachel Barton Pine and these – and so can your students. (There's even an account of Briselli's version of the story.) And for more in-depth Samuel Barber scholarship, Brian recommended a book called Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music by Barbara B. Heyman.

Brian recommended having students write histories or program notes for the pieces they play. "It's a way we can help our students connect with history," said Brian, who will be recording the Barber violin concerto in the near future, along with a new work by composer Michael McLean. Brian said he hopes to record again on the Artot Stradivarius violin from 1728, the same instrument he used for his most recent recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and the instrument most likely played by Albert Spalding for the professional debut of the Barber Violin Concerto.

The Barber Concerto has three movements, the first one, with its beautiful opening, is written in sonata form. The second movement has an extended oboe solo, which is repeated by the violin, and as mentioned above, the third movement is virtuosic.

It's important to get the opening of the piece just right; "that opening should be warm," Brian said, "it's like taking a nice warm bath with lots of bubbles in it."

Barber, who definitely lived in the time of metronomes, marked the first movement quarter note=100. What did he mean by that? Here's what it sounds like, in strict tempo:

A little too fast, perhaps? The metronome marking indicates that "he wanted motion somewhere – not on the long, singing notes, but the 16th notes should compel us on," Brian said.

The solo part eventually arrives (on the fifth line of the first page, three before [2]) on a held "E," during which the orchestra is static. "That's where we get to find the greatest bit of individual expression," Brian said: when the orchestra is static or not doing anything, and the soloist can do what the soloist wants. "We could sit on this note for a day," he said. That is, as long as you cue the orchestra before actually arriving on the B at [2].

Some of the techniques a student might need in this piece include: excellent tone, scales, up-bow staccato, the ability to play in sevenths (which can be practiced in broken or double-stop scales, major or minor, all the way up). There's a little run of sevenths just before rehearsal number [13].

"I just love sevenths, because they're not resolved," Lewis said. "You can feel the beating going on, because it want to be an octave."

Brian, a student of and later assistant to the famous violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, said that he has six copies of the Barber, with six different fingerings from Ms. DeLay. Ultimately, it is important to decide which fingerings to use, and then stick to them, as every practice leads to getting those finger patterns ingrained.

Brian talked about getting a luscious, juicy vibrato on the last note of the first page. How? Flatten your finger tip, and put as much flesh into it as you can:

At the top of the second page, something that can help clear up the string crossings is to practice the passage (at [4]) on all open strings, to clarify the bow hand's duties here:

Brian described the rather amorphous solo violin entrance of the second movement (which follows the oboe solo) as "a color, but it's transparent, like stained glass."

Of course, not every student will relate to that image, Brian said. "Engaging the imagination of our students is the most important thing we do – we are training them to make their own decisions," Brian said. That doesn't mean to let them flail, though; it means helping them find a way that has meaning for them. "The Socratic method – asking questions of our students – is very good, but we also have to give them very good guidance about possibilities," Brian said. "Very rarely do I say, 'You have to do it this way.'"

The last movement – mostly triplets in perpetual motion – presents a number of problems, perhaps the biggest one being collaborating with orchestra or piano.

In this movement, if the orchestra loses its place, "all is lost," Brian said. Brian talked about playing the concerto as a soloist, early in his career, with an orchestra that was having difficulty. What did Dorothy DeLay recommend?

"She said, 'Honey, you're just going to have to play the tutti with them,'" Brian said, and so he did. If that's what it takes, then be prepared to play the orchestra's part when needed. "Our goal, when we go out in front of the orchestra, is to make the orchestra play better."

Counting is key in this tricky movement, and Brian had some great ideas for this. (Warning, I'm going to get very specific here, now, run and get your score if you haven't already...) For example, for the long descending run before [5], it's okay to count in pairs. At [6], a pattern begins. Establish it, but start counting in the 3/2 measure after [6]: count on the triplet C's , 1-2-3-4-5-6; then up an octave, count these C triplets 1-2-3; then when the pattern changes, count the upper C's, 1-2-3.

You mean you didn't follow that? Some of you did ;-)

Basically, find the patterns, and help your students find the patterns. When your students find the patterns, let your students write them in their own parts.

"We want to be careful not to write everything in the part for our students," Brian said, because many of us (tactile learners) learn by doing the writing ourselves. Lessons also can be reinforced by having the student speak and explain what they have just learned (auditory learners).

Some third-movement previews that can be worked on before a student starts the piece include two measures of noodly nastiness before [8], as well as the final run of the piece.

Brian said that the bariolage triplets at [9] "remind me of being in Kansas; I think of this as a hoedown," he said. (I must add: a hoedown that gets the hiccups!)

The last page of the concerto begins with a potential pitfall: the entrance of trumpets triplets, which build up to the entrance of the solo violin.

"If the trumpets don't come in, you can look at your conductor in a calm, panicked way – for a cue," Brian advised. And be prepared – it happens.

By this point, the train has run away; the elephant is at full stampede. "There is absolutely no way to slow an orchestra down here," Brian said. "He or she who hesitates, is lost!"

From Ray Randall
Posted on June 17, 2009 at 4:07 PM

An excellent post, superb information and suggestions.

Samuel Barber has been roundly criticized for the third movement since the day he wrote the concerto. Despite the horrific criticisms he refused to change the third movement away from what many people called an exercise. Others have said the third movement has nothing to do with the first two movement, that it's "just there." Regardless, it is still one of my all time favoritee concertos.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 21, 2009 at 2:13 AM

 Love the Barber VC and very much enjoyed reading this blog and the concerto's history, particularly that of the controversial 3rd movement. How interesting! I have the Gil Shaham CD that pairs it with the Korngold, and I much prefer the piquant nature of the Barber's 3rd movement over the Korngold's 3rd mvmt. But I love both concertos, actually. They really seem to embody their eras, in my mind.

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