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Barber takes center stage at Philharmonic

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Up until fairly recently the music of Samuel Barber, though long beloved of the public, was considered reactionary in academic music circles. Pejoratives were freely tossed about against any music with a definite, let alone likable, melody.

Well, guess what? All those “important” works so esteemed by the self-proclaimed “avant-garde” are now long forgotten by all except diehards, and Barber’s music has taken its place firmly in the repertory. His Violin Concerto is one of the most often-played 20th-century works of that genre.

Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint and Norwegian conductor Rune Bergmann both easily live up to all their publicity would proclaim them to be. And both seemed to bring the New Mexico Philharmonic to a new level of inspiration last Saturday night, Nov. 7, at Popejoy Hall.

Quint plays the 1708 “Ruby” Stradivari violin and the sound was truly thrilling to hear, even in a melodic style the instrument’s maker could never have possibly envisioned. Yet a violin is no more than a wooden box until it reaches the hands of a master player, and Quint is all that.

Beginning with the jaunty, shanty-like tune of the opening Allegro, the Barber Concerto brought out not only beautiful playing from Quint but masterful direction, clearly informed by a thorough understanding of the work’s musical architecture. With its theme given first in the oboe (Kevin Vigneau), the Andante unfolded with both grace and passion.

The two guests proved a superb match for the Philharmonic. At Bergmann’s hands (literally) one could feel an intimate collaboration between orchestra and soloist resulting in the most outstanding performance yet this season.

Mahler felt perfectly entitled to draw freely, some have said too freely, upon naïve folk sources punctuated with wildly dramatic climaxes. Nowhere is this more true than in his Symphony No. 1. The trick is not to let the latter overwhelm the former and not to let the former sap the power of the latter.

Again, Bergmann led the orchestra masterfully, drawing forth all both the music and the orchestra have to offer. While firmly in control, he allowed the players to sing with their instruments. The opening Langsam/Schleppend movement with its quacking cuckoos and woody pizzicatos set the overall tone. The two offstage trumpets added to the stereophonic effect.

The second movement conjured a rustic, having been to the big city and anxious to tell about it. The Scherzo, an intended joke if there ever was one, had the taste of root vegetables seasoned with the tang of garlic. As has often been remarked, Mahler is never in any great hurry to get to his destination.

The final movement in its portrayal of Paradise, rang out with an overwhelming sonority, enough to wake the dead. With bright brass fanfares throughout the movement, the players at last stood to achieve maximum volume. Mahler always knew how to end with a bang (Saleri’s very advice to Mozart — at least in the play “Amadeus.”)

Bring back Rune Bergmann to conduct here anytime!

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