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Violinist tunes up a rarity for Barber concerto

We all know Samuel Barber through his famous Adagio for Strings, arguably the most-performed piece of music by an American composer. But Barber, who died in 1981, rued its pervasiveness in concert and on radio and television, in part because so many of his other scores took back seat.

One worthy of more hearing awakens this weekend when The Florida Orchestra performs Barber’s Violin Concerto with guest soloist Stella Chen, recently named Gramophone’s 2023 Young Artist of the Year. The program rounds out with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and Valentin Silvestrov’s Prayer for Ukraine. If the concerto wears an unfair stereotype of being difficult for listeners, it’s anything but.

Its three movements are delicately wrought and resolve in a pyrotechnic coda, and any test for listeners translates into digestible nuggets, without excess, the music unfolding in the neo-Romantic vein.

“It should absolutely be played more,’’ Chen says in an interview. “I find nothing ‘difficult’ about this work, as it’s full of lyricism and melodic allure, and the perpetual motion finale would perk up anyone’s ears. And it includes one of the most stunning second movements that exists in the repertoire.’’

The opening allegro in G major is so lush that it could stand on its own as a concert piece, and the central andante is a soft lament in E major that seems to float on air, transported by oboe and clarinet solos. The lyricism of these two movements is void of virtuosic displays from the soloist, which Barber saved for last.

The finale takes us on a wild ride at breakneck speed. In fact, Iso Briella, a violinist to whom Barber dedicated the concerto, declared the last movement unplayable, but was proven wrong by a student violinist at the Curtis Institute who performed it for the composer without breaking a sweat. It launches in a flash – an A minor presto in perpetual motion − the violin bursting with triplet semiquavers, and the movement resolves in less than four minutes.

“The tenderness, whimsy and love, that exude through the first two movements are spectacular, followed by the fireworks in the third movement,’’ adds Chen.

Her affinity for the concerto grew and became more personal during a recent time of stress, and she found comfort in playing it while alone.

“I had a moment of utter exhaustion this past summer. Between lost luggage, missed airline connections, juggling a huge amount of repertoire, and accumulated sleep deprivation − I was feeling rather down,’’ she says. “I opened the score and played a phrase on the G string in the middle of the second movement, and tears just started falling from my eyes. It was an indescribable feeling, the music being so vulnerable, so true, and so beautiful.’’

When Chen teams up with the musicians for two performances this weekend − wielding a 1720 Stradivarius − she won’t view the concerto so much as a big work for fiddle and orchestra. Instead, she wants it to unfold as an intimate conversation.

“I like to treat all of my performances as chamber music, no matter how many partners I have on the stage,’’ she says. “Yes, there are moments that I step out and there are moments that members of the orchestra do, so the interplay throughout this concerto is just fantastic. I don’t know if I’d use the word subdued, but certainly, when I play it, I have to wear my heart on my sleeve.’’

When her job is done, and the audience applauds, what does Chen hope for as we leave the hall?

“When I’m on stage and feel the energy of my fellow performers, of the audience, everything else melts away,’’ she says. “In this world, which is so loud and fast-paced, I hope that for a moment, listeners are moved, touched, remembering something beautiful, or have just forgotten about everything else, even just for a moment.’’

Kurt Loft is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer and former classical music critic for The Tampa Tribune.

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