Samuel Barber, Gustav Mahler’s Fourth, and Soprano Barbara Shirvis

If one were to take the combination of Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) “Adagio for Strings” and “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” for Soprano and Orchestra, op. 24, and Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Symphony no. 4 in G major for Soprano and Orchestra at face value, one might think the theme is centered on death. But add Soprano Barbara Shirvis to the mix, and she makes the concert appear as an entire lullaby.

Soprano Barbara Shirvis

She achieved this during the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s concert this past weekend. She has had frequent appearances with the JSO, including the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in 2010, and as a featured soloist in Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 2006.

And her presence on their stage doesn’t leave one to wonder why.

Barbara’s voice is like the scent of gardenias wafting through the evening air—sweet and distinct.

Knoxville” is similar to a casual conversation among friends sitting on a front porch. As the summer passes, they reminisce about their childhood memories and all the great things about summer—ice cream, unhurried couples, a horse and buggy. When Barber composed this piece about his evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, he had dedicated it to his terminally ill father. He chose the text for soprano from a collection of prose by James Agee. As the piece moves beyond memories, it is interwoven with talk of a death in the family. Yet Barbara’s delicate, soothing voice formulates a serene vision.

Mahler’s fourth symphony is an interesting and amazing mix of themes and emotion, and has been described as a child’s view of heaven. The first three movements are intended to lead up to the final fourth, so it’s like an extended overture. The first movement is compared to the sounds one would find in a child’s nursery with the use of sleigh bells and flutes. The second movement had a little action when Concertmaster Philip Pan switched his violin with another tuned a full step higher to sound more like a fiddle. Mahler adapted this idea from a character of German legend who lured travelers to “the Great Beyond” with his fiddle. In the third movement, the music picks up in a roller-coaster technique so that the mood is one of exhilaration and excitement before there is a calm toward the end. In the final movement the story is pieced together with the help of the soprano as she sings Das Himmlische Leben (“The Heavenly Life”).

The concert opened with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” a piece considered the saddest music ever written. Barber based it on a poem, Georgies, by Virgil, and intended it to be joyful and place the listener in a blissful disposition. But it has never been used in such a way, and instead, has been played at famous funerals (including Franklin D. Roosevelt), used as background music for 9/11 memorials, and identified more with tragedy and mourning. Since its November 5, 1938 premiere by the NBC Symphony on the radio, it has become one of the most well-known pieces of music in the world. And it is the brilliant Barber’s greatest enduring legacy. It is a piece that forces all to stop and listen.

(Check out this vocal clip of Barbara Shirvis. For more, visit her Web site)

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra performances:
April 14-16, 2011

The Planets
Josef Strauss: Music of the Spheres
Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region
Holst: The Planets
in partnership with the opening of the new Bryan Gooding
Planetarium at MOSH

(for more information on this fabulous composition, check out this post)

May 12-14, 2011
Schumann: Manfred: Overture
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Leon Fleisher
Strauss: Don Juan
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier: Suite

Upcoming performances with Soprano Barbara Shirvis:
April 16, 2011

Mahler: Symphony no. 2
Anchorage Symphony Orchestra

July 15 & 16, 2011
Jukka Linkola: Rockland (U.S. Premiere)
Pinewood Mountain Music Festival

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One Response to Samuel Barber, Gustav Mahler’s Fourth, and Soprano Barbara Shirvis

  1. Nick says:

    The San Francisco Symphony debuts its acclaimed Keeping Score series about Gustav Mahler this Spring. Watch the trailer here:

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