Samuel Barber: American Romantic
Conspirare revealed how this composer does go gentle into that good night
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 30, 2011
Samuel Barber: American RomanticSt. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th
Beginning a concert with the end of the world may sound like a downer, but when the apocalypse is signaled by Samuel Barber, it's anything but. The pronouncement that the world "will flame out" – delivered two lines into the first work on Conspirare's program of Barber's choral music – rang from the ensemble's three dozen singers with the righteous force of an Old Testament prophet, and its gathering volume and insistence thrilled. If it was the end of the world as we know it, I felt fine.
This talk of doomsday, though, is just to establish, as the title says, "God's Grandeur," and ultimately, the song abandons it in favor of praising nature and the ministrations of the Holy Ghost – a tonal shift from Jeremiah to psalmist, with a gentility matching the narrator's expression of admiration. By song's end, the chorus' sensitive rendition hadn't erased the opening's grave power, but it had tempered and informed it with warmth and grace.
So it was throughout the program. The material selected by Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson abounded in darkness – the bleak blackness of a midwinter night, the despair of lost love, and death, death, death – yet there was little gloom. In his compositions, Barber does go gentle into that good night. With passages that are almost whispered, that move at the pace of deep consideration, that resolve in heartbreakingly rich harmonies, the composer softens the edge of loss. Within his expressions of grief lie a profound acceptance of endings that infuse sorrow with great beauty – as in "The Virgin Martyrs," a piece for a female chorus eulogizing female saints. Singing it, Conspirare's women seemed to be hovering above our heads in the sanctuary. They landed only upon reaching the final word, "love," which they held in a long, moving fade to silence.
The grim reaper may have received the most tribute in the concert, but life was not ignored. "Mary Hynes" jubilantly praised a woman's beauty, and "The Coolin (The Fair Haired One)" cast a romantic liaison on a hillside as a dreamy repose, with Conspirare's voices like a sigh. The program's second half mostly featured The Lovers, a choral setting of poems by Pablo Neruda originally written for a large chorus and orchestra but newly – and most impressively – revised into a chamber version by regular Conspirare collaborator Robert Kyr (A Time for Life, Songs of the Soul). From its ardent description of the feminine form to a languid depiction of a summer's day, the work throbs with sensuality, and Johnson guided his singers through it with a heat and vigor that was hypnotic. The song cycle loosely tracks a romance from passion's first flames to the ashes after it fades, with a solo baritone voicing one of the lovers. David Farwig filled that role with fire, most notably in "Tonight I Can Write," where his attempt to bleed himself of his lost love seethed with tortured feeling.
Conspirare will record this material for its next CD. As its exquisite voices are wonderfully well-suited to the lushness and beauty of this "American romantic," that's good news for the ensemble's fans. But given the care they showed toward the music in this program, that's also good news for Barber.