Taonga pūoro specialist Rob Thorne is Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music‘s 2017 Creative NZ/Jack C. Richards Composer-in-Residence.
This concerto was Barber’s last major work, and earned him a Pulitzer Prize as well as rave reviews from the critics when it was premiered during the opening celebrations for the Lincoln Centre. “This is a real virtuoso concerto, with some staggeringly difficult writing. It also has a strong sense of melodic profile, a lyric slow movement and a sense of confidence in the entire conception,” said the New York Times critic at the time, Harold Schonberg.
This symphony deserves the title “epic” as much as anything in the Orchestra’s 2019 season. Written during WWII, it is a testament to the tragedies overtaking Shostakovich’s homeland. Under the external layer of meanings one might put to this symphony — the horrors of war — there lies perhaps a more personal meaning, “the horrors of life, the life of an intellectual in his day”. This is the conductor Kurt Sanderling’s understanding of the symphony, based on his personal acquaintance with Shostakovich during those years. The massive first movement begins slowly and builds unhurriedly, apparently in search of something. The tension escalates into a savage allegro section. There are two wild scherzos to follow; dances for monsters. But the centrepiece is a deeply grieving slow movement which pivots on a C-major chord to sound an unexpected measure of hope. The hope in this symphony is not triumphant, but it is stoic and persistent, and endures past the violence and mockery of the music’s most extreme passages.