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Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty
Samuel Barber [musical excerpts]: Symphony in One Movement, opus 9 – Vanessa, opus 32 (arr. F. Hudson) – Antony and Cleopatra, opus 40 – Adagio for Strings, opus 11 – Capricorn Concerto, opus 21 – Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, opus 23a – To be Sung on the Water, opus 42, n° 2 – Knoxville: Summer of 1915, opus 24
Jordan Kuspa: [musical excerpt]: Fantastic Stuff: A Suite for Viola

H. Paul Moon (DVD director/editor), Terry Teachout, Barbara Heyman, Pierre Brévignon, Thomas Larson (authors), Oral History audio recordings by Peter Dickinson, Isabelle Guillaud-Kalvar (vocal teacher), Margaret Chalfant (Barber family neighbor), Rosa Lamoreaux, Melissa Fogarty (soprano), Marie Charpentier-Leroy (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hampson, William Sharp (baritone), John Corigliano, Calvin Bowman (composers), Elizabeth Pridgen, Jean-Pierre Marty, James Tocco, Michael Adcock, Andrew Simpson, Frédéric Rubay, Marc Peloquin (piano), Elisabeth Adkins, Rebecca Racusin (violin), Abigail Evans (viola), Christopher Rex, Stephen Framil (cello), Cathedral Choral Society, Cantate Chamber Singers, 21st Century Consort, Quatuor Rosamonde, Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, IBIS Chamber Music Society, Philadelphia Wind Quintet, Washington Bach Consort, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, United States Air Force Tactical Air Command Band, Spoleto Festival Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, J. Reilly Lewis, Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, Kim Allen Kluge, Gisèle Becker, Ulysses S. James, Major Lowell E. Graham, Christian Badea (conductors)
Recording: The United States of America (various locations) (2017) – 130’
Zen Violence Films LLC: DVD – Dolby Digital 5.1 – Picture format: 16:9 – Region 0 – No booklet – Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish and Russian

H. Paul Moon spent seven years making “Absolute Beauty”, a stylish documentary about composer Samuel Barber. An obvious labor of love for Moon, the filmmaker avoids staid conventions of many arts docs, and he essays a stirring portrait of Barber’s life and insightful analysis of his music. It comes as no surprise that the film picked up several international film festival awards in its release last year.

M. Moon revisits the creative circumstances of Barber’s most celebrated works, and the film bursts with large swaths of his music, most of which are performed live in well-curated rehearsal settings and concert performances. There are, of course, interviews with musicians, conductors and composers who talk about Barber’s indelible musical legacy, including such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop and Gian Carlo Menotti.

M. Moon details Barber’s life growing up in West Chester, Pennsylvania: a young pianist being taught by his mother and his early success at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There is fascinating audio (from a radio broadcast) of Barber describing his early success on the concert stage. Photos and films present his life with Gian Carlo Menotti and their days falling in love at Curtis ahead of their storied life together at Capricorn, the country house they bought together as the composers’ studio and retreat for colleagues and friends from all of the allied arts.

Barber had a beautiful speaking voice, and his charm and wit come over even on radio broadcast. The premiere of his Symphony n° 1 in Italy was approached with applause and hisses in equal measure during his bow. Moments later, however, he contemplated taking another bow when a stagehand told him, “better not, the hisses had it.”

In a filmed interview, pianist James Tocco asks the composer about the complexities of own Piano Sonata, and Barber jokes about having difficulties with the fugue and one that he couldn’t play himself. There is a clip of Tocco performing, then Moon cuts to Washington Conservatory of Music’s Michael Adcock completing the piece in an altogether electrifying performance.

Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for Music © for his opera, Vanessa (co-composed with Menotti), and for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1962. The film details the creative circumstances of his most defining orchestral works and his forays into ballet working with choreographer Martha Graham on Medea and seminal vocal compositions including Knoxville: Summer 1915, set to text by James Agee, and such virtuosic masterpieces as his Piano Sonata.

Barber’s disastrous premiere of the opera, Antony and Cleopatra also paved way for the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York. Franco Zeffirelli’s production was so overblown that it vaporized the music, and there were several mishaps concerning the physical production that stole the show. The critical response was so negative that Barber had a near breakdown, drinking heavily and all but giving up composing. M. Moon fills in the largely forgotten rest of the story that includes a later scaled down production at Juilliard that fully realized its musical merits and was widely praised. Leonard Slatkin also recalls being mesmerized by the music, yet later horrified to learn how the critics savaged it.

Moon admirably delves into Barber’s and Menotti’s private life to make visible the often ignored “gay underground of classical musicians and composers whose sexuality could never attach to their public identities.” Among Barber’s peers, everyone respected his relationship with Menotti as the marriage it was. Even though they had an open relationship later in life, it is doubly poignant to hear Menotti’s talking about the day that Barber died “in my arms.” And most eloquently, Moon contextualizes Barber’s most famous work, the Adagio for Strings. In the film the auteur revisits Barber’s life at the Curtis Institute when he and conductor Gian-Carlo Menotti first fell in love and then went to Europe for a romantic summer in 1936 and rented the chalet where Barber composed his String Quartet from which the Adagio was extracted as a standalone work.

Then flash forward to archival footage of Manhattan on July 4, 1976 with a voiceover of tenor Robert White reminiscing about drinking champagne with Barber in the observation tower of the World Trade Center in 1976 as they watched the armada of tall ships sail into New York Harbor to celebrate the US Bicentennial. Then Moon cuts from that glorious day into a panoramic view of the New York skyline (post 9/11) then panning over to Leonard Slatkin conducting the Adagio at Proms in London’s Albert Hall four days after the attack, next to images of the British people holding a vigil in Hyde Park. This is, in itself, a historic documentation of the enduring power of Barber’s music.

Lewis J. Whittington




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