The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Violinist Frank Almond puts Samuel Barber with Copland and Bernstein as America’s modern Big Three composers. Hear him in Barber’s gorgeous Violin Concerto Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

November 18, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Milwaukee-based Frank Almond (below) is one of The Ear’s favorite violinists.

The concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra returns to Madison (where he also performs with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society)  this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater with the MSO and its new music director Edo de Waart. (The world-renowned De Waart, below, lives in nearby Middleton, Wis., but is also the director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and has conducted numerous times at the Met in New York City.)

The program includes Almond in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Also featured are Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. A free pre-concert lecture by Perry Allaire is at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are general admission is $20, $42 and $46, $10 for UW students. Youth tickets are only $14 with purchase of adult ticket – limit 2 youth tickets per adult ticket. Youth tickets must be purchased at the same time as the adult tickets and are valid for youths 6-18 years old. Age is verified at the door. Call 608 262-2201 or visit:

Almond – see the YouTube interview below — who has won the prestigious Paganini Competition, recently gave an e-mail Q&A to The Ear in advance of his performance:

How would you place or rank the Barber Violin Concerto among other major violin concertos for musicality, difficulty and effectiveness? What is its place in your repertoire?

In comparison to most of the 19th century standard repertory like Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky or Brahms, it’s entirely different. Barber’s concerto — he originally called it a Concertino — isn’t a large-scale vehicle for virtuosity or some grand statement.

That’s not to suggest those elements are absent, but I don’t believe they were the primary focus. This piece is a snapshot of Barber at the age of 29, with many of his compositional hallmarks evident already. The perpetual motion third movement is certainly challenging, and really unlike anything else he ever wrote.

I think the Concerto is in a class by itself, kind of like Bernstein’s “Serenade.” It has a highly individual and accessible musical language and seems to have finally found broad audience appeal.

What do you think of it and what are your thoughts about interpreting it?

I love this piece, and it’s always a pleasure to perform it with a great orchestra. Barber’s sense of melody and lyricism really dominate the concerto — with the exception of the last movement — and that’s always been an appealing factor to me, along with his gifts at orchestration. And it’s a powerful piece of music, after all.

It was clearly underrated for decades, pretty much since its composition in 1939. So it’s nice to have it firmly in the soloist repertory these days.

What explains Barber’s popularity with the general public and the growing popularity of this concerto?

I’m not exactly sure how popular Barber (below) is, relative to his importance in the pantheon of great American composers. His reputation has certainly blossomed over the decades since his death, and of course there’s a great deal of attention during this centenary anniversary.

But it’s important to remember that during his lifetime Barber was often dismissed as a lightweight by most of the “establishment,” for many reasons – mostly, I believe, because his work and musical language were not easily classifiable or stereotyped.

He lived in a period in which labels like “neo-Romantic” or “serialist” were of great importance to others, but didn’t seem to appeal to him much. His very personal sense of lyricism, harmony (or dissonance), unique orchestrations and instrumentation all became dominant characteristics of his music, but for many people it was hard to define him artistically. In a sense, it still is.

This concerto was widely dismissed as second-rate, or at best trivial, until probably just after his death. Part of this was due to the complex genesis of the piece (see below), but also because of the general attitude towards Barber (1910-1981) as a composer in the later part of his life.

Posterity has shown how truly remarkable an artist he was — in my opinion probably one of the three great American composers of the 20th century, along with Copland and Bernstein.

There has been some new research into Barber and especially his violin works that you have been involved in. Can you elaborate on what we now know and what you have found out?

I recently completed a project with the Hal Leonard Corporation that is a new publication and CD of Barber’s works for violin and piano.

One of the major revelations was the discovery of a previously “lost” sonata movement for violin and piano, composed when Barber was 18 years old. It’s not a student work at all, and is really quite substantial with a bold, almost Brahmsian feel to it. A holograph of it was discovered in 2006, and this is the first edition and recording.

There are also some arrangements of various art songs, and other works we thought would be convincing with violin and piano. The songs really blew me away; they are absolute masterpieces. There are also some curiosities like a couple of very early works from when he was about 11.

Regarding the concerto, there has been a lot of new research pertaining to the original commission and subsequent drama that followed.

For decades, the party line has been propagated, namely that the piece was dismissed as insufficient in some form by the original dedicatee, a young violinist named Iso Briselli. Given Briselli’s substantial abilities, this tale always seemed unusual to me, and finally the evidence seems to rebut the story entirely.

Anyone interested can go to; it’s a significant and very detailed read, but very interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.

Although you won’t be playing them in Madison, as the MSO concertmaster can you say anything about the Grieg “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra? What should the public pay attention to or know about them?

Most people will recognize the Grieg (below) from various cartoons they may have seen, so it may be surprising to discover that this music was what made Grieg really famous during his lifetime. The success of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” was in large measure due to Grieg’s incidental music, and the suites have become standard orchestral repertory.

The piece by Bartok (below) title speaks for itself. It’s a showcase for the orchestra, and one of Bartok’s absolute masterpieces.

I think the Milwaukee Symphony is at its apex artistically under Edo de Waart (both below), and the Bartok is a great opportunity for the Madison audience to experience what’s been regularly happening for a couple of years now.

Posted in Classical music

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