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Cello Concerto, Op. 22

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Samuel Barber
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin conductor/Lynn Harrell, cello Feb. 10 - 12, 2005
© Richard Freed
Samuel Barber completed his Cello Concerto on November 22, 1945; the first performance was given on April 5 of the following year, by Raya Garbousova, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to Garbousova, calls for 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, snare drum, and strings. Duration, 28 minutes.
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In common with most composers of concertos before him, Samuel Barber composed all three of his big solo concertos for specific soloists. The Violin Concerto, the earliest of the three, was not introduced by the soloist for whom it had been commissioned, but was eventually given its premiere by Albert Spalding, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, a month before Barber's 31st birthday. The Piano Concerto was composed for John Browning and specifically for the celebratory opening week of New York's Lincoln Center in September 1962, on which occasion Browning performed it with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Cello Concerto, which shares with those works Barber's characteristic lyricism, vigor and directness, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the Russian-born Raya Garbousova, who was at the height of her career in the 1940s.

In composing both the Cello Concerto and the Piano Concerto, Barber sought to tailor the music to the personality of the respective dedicatees; to this end he asked Garbousova to play almost her entire repertory for him, so that he might acquaint himself with her performing style and her natural affinities. The Concerto proved to be especially well suited to her, and even reflects her personality with a few subtle Russianisms here and there. The work brought Barber the New York Music Critics' Circle Award in 1947, and Garbousova continued to be its enthusiastic and effective champion until her retirement. Until fairly recently, this "middle concerto" of Barber's, although superbly tailored to the character of the cello itself, has had few such dedicated advocates, and it is only now beginning to catch up with the popularity of this earlier one for the violin and his later one for the piano.

The Concerto is conventional in its three-movement styructure and its romantic content. In the Violin Concerto he compoased five years earlier, Barber showed an abrupt contrast between the outgoing lyric expressiveness that had characterized much of his earlier work, in the first two movements, and a pithy, more driving and even acerbic style in the perpetuum mobile finale: in this respect the Cello Concerto is more "all of a piece," for both styles are present in all three movements, in a beautifully calculated balance. For many listeners, the slow movement, with its muted orchestral strings and siciliana rhythm, is the crown of the work, but the outer movements are far more than a mere frame for it. The opening movement is notable for its solidity and proportion, while the finale--with its dramatic dialogues between soloist and orchestra, its poignant pauses, and the recitative manner in which the second theme is introduced--can hardly fail to remind us that Barber, like Bernstein, was frequently moved by a theatrical impulse.