Dallas — You couldn't hear it in his voice, but when we talked on the phone, Alessio Bax was recovering from a cold. He had just returned from a long tour in South America and it appeared near the end.
“I was actually bragging that I haven’t had a cold in years,” he jokes.
He was touring as collaborative pianist with superstar violinist Joshua Bell. “We played 10 concerts in 12 days in five countries,” he says. “Most were repeated twice. But it was wonderful stuff, The Mozart G major, Debussy's Sonata, Beethoven's Kreutzer (No. 9, Op. 47) and Grieg's third sonata (Op. 45).”
He will tackle an ignored American masterpiece on the concert series opening on Thursday with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra—Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto. It will be paired with Mahler's Symphony No. 4.
“I played [the Barber] this summer at Grant Park for the first time, playing it twice before 12,000 people each night," Bax says. "Eugene Tzigane conducted, he is a young conductor who I greatly admire.”
Eugene Tzigane is indeed an up and coming conductor who is currently the principal conductor for the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie Deutsches Symphonie Orchester in Berlin. He took a couple of grand prizes in conduction competitions, but all in Europe. His schedule is also mostly in Europe, although there are some American dates interspersed.
“This is such a great piece, “Bax says. “but not played anymore. In that weekend [in Grant Park], more people heard it than in the rest of the country for the whole year.”
Barber wrote the concerto in 1960, specifically for the pianist John Browning and to honor the publishing house of G. Schirmer on its centenary. It was premiered in 1962 for the opening of Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall in Lincoln Center. It was very well received and won Barber his second Pulitzer in 1963 and the Music Critics Circle Award in 1964.
“It is the Real American Concerto,” says Bax, vocally adding the capital letters. “The form is a standard concerto, just like Brahms and Beethoven wrote. There is great writing throughout, but it is incredibly difficult for everyone: pianist, orchestra and conductor. The piano part is amazingly difficult, which is why it isn't played as often, I guess. The last movement is in 5/8 you are on edge the whole time.”
In fact, that last movement might have even been harder—unplayable—if John Browning had not intervened. Reportedly, he told Barber that it was impossible at the tempo he wanted. When Barber balked, Browning went to none other than Vladimir Horowitz for back up. Horowitz agreed with Browning and Barber relented, making substantial rewrites. He reportedly only finished them two weeks before the premiere.
“There are two recordings with Browning,” says Bax. “One is with George Szell, made right after the premiere (1964). There is a more recent on with Leonard Slatkin [1991 with the St. Louis Symphony] that is more relaxed.”
Bax adds that concerti programs are always a discussion between pianist and conductor and takes place long before the performance. The soloist offers pieces that are currently in the repertoire and actively being toured, but the conductor can make a suggestion. “Jaap [van Zweden] wanted to play it [the Barber concerto] so I accepted, and then the people from Grant Park saw I was learning it, so that also asked me to play it for them,” Bax says.
“It's a big standard romantic concerto,” Bax adds.
And this has been its problem.
The 1960s were a period of experimentation in classical music and Barber, and his “big romantic” pieces were out of step with the hierarchy. The devastatingly negative reviews of his opera Antony and Cleopatra, written for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in1966, sent the composer into a tailspin from which he never really recovered. Subsequent revivals of his reworked score have proven the worth of this magnificently beautiful opera, but that is too little too late.
No matter how fresh his approach to tonality, it was not “modern” or “atonal” or “experimental” or (my personal favorite) “filled with new sounds,” and thus it was shunned as hopelessly old-fashioned. There is an entire list of fine composers who met this fate. We can only hope that, in this era of acceptance of multiple musical languages, these composers will receive their due. Encouraging signs are all around.
Kevin Puts, a Pulitzer Laureate himself, said that that he writes in a neo-romantic style at the recent Cliburn at the Modern Concert. He said that there are still some holdouts that tut-tut (mostly critics, I fear) but that the entire picture of musical composition has changed and opened—finally.
This performance of the Barber concerto is a welcome indication.
» See Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' review of a recent concert with Alessio Bax and his wife, Lucille Chung, in a showcase of piano four hands music for SMU's Meadows School of the Arts, here