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Curtis Institute of Music celebrates Samuel Barber’s centenary

PHILADELPHIA – 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 played by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski.  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.

Called “an orchestra that any city would be lucky to have as its professional ensemble” (Philadelphia Inquirer) and praised for its “professional level of sophistication” (New York Times), the Curtis Symphony Orchestra performs Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 under conductor Giancarlo Guerrero on April 24 at Verizon Hall.  Barber wrote his first symphony – a one-movement work in three sections – in Rome in 1936 after winning the Rome Prize.  In his program note for the New York premiere the following year, the composer described its form as “a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony”; the New York Times reports that “warm applause…greeted the world premiere,” and the work has since been praised for the “compositional mastery and sincerity of feeling [Barber] commanded” in it (London’s Independent, 1992).  Rounding out the April program will be Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, featuring soloist John Relyea (’96); Ligeti’s Atmosphères; and Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

January 17 sees the first of two Curtis alumni events in the school’s Field Concert Hall celebrating the centennial.  The Dolce Suono Ensemble offers a performance titled “Samuel Barber at 100 – The Composer and His World”.  Founded by flutist and artistic director Mimi Stillman (’99), the Dolce Suono Ensemble includes many Curtis alumni.  The group will perform music by Barber and his contemporaries and successors, all of whom have connections to Curtis, from emeritus faculty member Ned Rorem (’44) to current faculty member Jennifer Higdon (’88).  Soon after the centenary itself, on March 16, Leon McCawley (’95) performs a piano recital juxtaposing Barber’s works with those of Chopin.  McCawley, whose extensive discography includes Barber’s complete works for piano on the EMI/Virgin Classics label, is a leading member of England’s new generation of pianists.  The New York Times described his New York debut as a “lyrical, heartfelt performance.”

A chronological listing of Curtis’s Barber centenary performances follows.

About the Curtis Institute of Music 

Described by the New York Times as “one of America’s elite conservatories” and recently highlighted in U.S. News and World Report’s 2010 college survey as the most selective institution in the United States for students seeking a bachelor’s degree, the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music presents an exciting season with more than 130 concerts, operas, and recitals.  With an enrollment of 160, Curtis provides an intimate environment in which students receive personalized attention from a celebrated faculty.  A busy schedule of performances is at the heart of Curtis’s distinctive “learn by doing” approach.  Since the school’s founding in 1924, this philosophy has produced an impressive number of notable artists, from such legends as Barber and Leonard Bernstein to current stars Juan Diego Flórez, Alan Gilbert, Hilary Hahn, Jennifer Higdon, Lang Lang, and Time for Three.


Samuel Barber Centenary

2009-10 Season

Sunday, January 17 at 3pm
Guest recital: Dolce Suono Ensemble’s “Samuel Barber at 100 – The Composer and His World”
Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust Street, Philadelphia
Barber            Summer Music; Capricorn Concerto
Rorem            Trio
Higdon           Autumn Music
Ludwig           Haiku Catharsis
February 26 – March 26
Curtis On Tour (venues and dates below)
Barber                        String Quartet No. 1, Op.11
Rogerson            Lullaby: no bad dreams
Shapiro                        Sonata for Viola and Piano
Dvorák                        Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81
Ida Kavafian and Benjamin Beilman, violins; Hyo Bi Sim, viola; Peter Wiley, cello (’74); Yekwon Sunwoo, piano

Philadelphia – Friday, February 26 at 8pm
Detroit – Sunday, February 28 at 7pm
Seattle – Tuesday, March 2 at 7:30pm
Davis, CA – Saturday, March 6 at 8pm and Sunday, March 7 at 2pm
New York – Wednesday, March 10 at 8pm
Kennett Square, PA – Saturday, March 13 at 8pm
Orono, ME – Friday, March 19 at 8pm
Rockport, ME – Saturday, March 20 at 7pm
Highland Park, IL – Friday, March 26 at 8pm

For ticket and venue information, visit

Tuesday, March 9 at 8pm
Curtis 20/21: Samuel Barber Centenary Celebration
Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust Street, Philadelphia
Barber                         Hermit Songs; Dover Beach; Sonata in E-flat minor; Summer Music
Rogerson            Lullaby: no bad dreams
Holland                        commissioned work TBA
This program will also be performed on March 7 at 3pm at First Presbyterian Church, West Chester, PA; and on March 15 at 12pm at Coolidge Auditorium of Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Tuesday, March 16 at 8pm
Guest recital: Leon McCawley, piano (’95)
Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust Street, Philadelphia
Chopin            Four Mazurkas, Op. 6; Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35;
                        Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1
Barber            Excursions; Nocturne: Homage to John Field; Sonata in E-flat minor
Wednesday, March 17 at 7:30pm
Friday, March 19 at 8pm
Sunday, March 21 at 2:30pm
Barber: Antony and Cleopatra
Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
Curtis Opera Theatre
George Manahan, conductor
Chas Rader-Shieber, stage director
Presented by Kimmel Center Presents in association with the Opera Company of Philadelphia

Saturday, April 24, 2010 at 8pm
Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
Curtis Symphony Orchestra
Jack Wolgin Orchestral Concerts
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
John Relyea, bass-baritone (’96)

Barber                        Symphony No. 1
Mussorgsky            Songs and Dances of Death
Ligeti                                    Atmosphères
R. Strauss            Also sprach Zarathustra

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© 21C Media Group, December 2009

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