Music of Samuel Barber resonates through Sheldon Hall

Todd Graber (center) and Juan La Manna pay homage to the music of Samuel Barber.  (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)
Todd Graber (center) and Juan La Manna pay homage to the music of Samuel Barber. (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)

To the casual music fan, the name Samuel Barber may not ring a bell. However, Barber is one of the most well-known and accomplished American composers of the 20th century, in both vocal and instrumental music. To celebrate his work, two members of Oswego State’s faculty, Music Department Chair and tenor Todd Graber and Orchestra Director and piano instructor Juan La Manna put together a concert five years in the making. In the words of Graber, “it was a long time coming.” The concert was well worth the wait.

“I started studying the music and scores in October,” La Manna said. “I’ve been studying, studying, studying, studying, studying, and the studying some more for this concert.”

As with many of the Ke-nekt Oswego Chamber Music Series, the concert began with a talk. Graber and featured soprano Julia Broxholm discussed Barber’s life and work. Graber and Broxholm are good friends and founding members of the vocal group SATB. They explained the three sections of the “brief program;” the vocal ten Hermit Songs, the instrumental “Summer Music for Wind Quintet, Op. 31,” three songs for voice & piano, “Op.10” and “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” followed a short intermission.

The “Hermit Songs” are short vocal pieces that are inspired by text, footnotes and poems in the margins of holy manuscript by Irish monks in the 9th through 13th centuries. After they were translated, Barber read them and decided to write melodies and accompaniment for them. Some titles include “At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory,” “The Heavenly Banquet,” “Promiscuity,” and “The Monk and His Cat.”

“They probably weren’t meant to be read by their superiors, as you will soon see,” Graber said in the pre-concert talk.
Graber and Broxholm, the latter complete with silver stilettos fitting for a star, traded off songs, as well as looks of admiration for each other during their performances. The two exchanged flirtatious looks and gestures in “Promiscuity,” and sang together in the final song, “The Desire for Hermitage.”

“The Hermit Songs” combined a mix of humor, religious themes and suggestive themes. They featured a variety of dissonance and moving melodies. Both artists impressed with their skillful execution.

La Manna accompanied the two on piano, showing his “lucky” pair of red, orange and pink.

For the instrumental “Summer Music for Wind Quintet, Op. 31,” two of Oswego State’s faculty members were in the quintet, Kris Jorgensen on flute and her husband, Trevor Jorgensen, on clarinet. The rest of the quintet included an oboe, French horn, and bassoon.

The piece explored the themes of summer. A river running, grassy fields and a village were all images that the piece conjured. The 15-minute work felt like stanzas of poetry; each stanza was followed by a short break and expressed something different. The piece had a quirky ending, which prompted a laugh from the audience and wry genuine smiles from                               the performers.

The next piece went back to vocals, now focusing on more pieces inspired by poetry. The next set, three songs for voice and piano, Op. 10 featured piano-accompanied melodies written to the words of three poems by James Joyce, an Irish novelist and poet famous for his technique of stream-of-consciousness writing. This was a landmark piece that uses that style “Ulysses.” All were sung by Graber, and featured the style of the melody and piano accompaniment of the Hermit Songs. The poetry was darker and more intense in “Rain has fallen all the day,” “Sleep now, O sleep now,” and “I hear an army charging upon the land.”

Following the intermission, the audience was treated to a full orchestra accompanying “Broxholm on Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” a piece set to the prose poem of the same name by John Agee. The orchestra was conducted by La Manna, and featured musicians from Syracuse’s Symphoria, as well as local musicians that play at Park Central Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, according to Dr. Julie Preztat, the Associate Dean of the College of Communication, Media and the Arts, who was in attendance.

“It’s wonderful to have such professionals and being able to feature our faculty,” said Pretzat.

The piece was stunning, moving through the prose poem, separating the poem into musical stanzas. Broxholm’s voice stayed on top of the orchestra, and she delivered the lines with superior diction and a silvery-soft sound. She took a tour of Knoxville through Agee’s eyes, and the orchestra was her vehicle.

The event was a wonderful opportunity for the audience to experience the work of Samuel Barber.