The Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra and the American soprano Maria Valdes perform Samuel Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op.24. The concert was recorded at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, on November 6, 2016.
Samuel Barber's evocative masterpiece was premiered on April 9, 1948 – we mark the anniversary with a look back through its recorded history. How a nostalgic depiction of early 20th-century Tennessee was transformed into a halcyon evocation of childhood.
"We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child", begins James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (the prose-poem which was posthumously added as a kind of prologue to his novel A Death in the Family). Samuel Barber said that when he first read Agee's lyrical reminiscence in 1946, it evoked an immediate and deep response. As the composer explained, "the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home".
In fact, the two men were exact contemporaries, and though Agee was a Southerner and Barber a Yankee (born and bred in West Chester, Pennsylvania), Agee's vivid evocation of small-town America seems not to have been limited to any specific geographical location. Eleanor Steber, who premiered Barber's work with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in April 1948, said that Knoxville reflected her own upbringing in West Virginia, while Mississippian Leontyne Price claimed that "you can smell the South in it".
Agee said he wrote Knoxville in some 90 minutes as an improvisatory exercise, and that once down on paper it required very little revision – an astonishing feat considering the luxuriant precision of its language. With rhythms that lilt and a texture rich in alliteration ("Low on the length of lawn, a frailing of fire who breathes..."), Knoxville is a joy to read aloud – the words make their own music. And the miracle of Barber's setting is that the limpidity of the vocal line allows the text to maintain its integrity, while complementing and enhancing the images and feelings it evokes.
It is also important to note that Barber's Knoxville, like Agee's prose-poem, is nostalgic but unsentimental. The darker aspects of the narrative are given their full due in the score. Agee "expresses a child's feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep", to use Barber's own words. So, although the voice we hear is that of a child, it seems to be the child that lives on in an adult's memory – innocent and wide-eyed, but also rapturous and haunted by melancholy.
Source: Andrew Farach-Colton (Gramophone, August 2002)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
♪ Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op.24 (1947)
Maria Valdes, soprano
Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra
First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, November 6, 2016
American soprano Maria Valdes was recently described as a "first-rate singing actress and a perfectly charming Gilda" (New York Times). Highlights of the 2018-2019 season include a debut with Atlanta Opera as Doris Parker in Charlie Parker's Yardbird, a company debut with Washington Concert Opera for their Opera Outside series and a return to Phoenix Symphony for performances of Handel's Messiah. Ms. Valdes will also make her company and role debut as Violetta in La traviata at Gulfshore Opera, her Rochester Philharmonic debut, reprising the role of Despina in Così fan tutte and will debut with West Edge Opera as Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice. In the fall of 2019, Ms. Valdes will make her debut with the Brooklyn Art Song Society singing Chants d'Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube. She will also debut with Virginia Symphony singing Handel's Messiah. Next season she will make her debut with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra singing Bach's Cantata No.29 and Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music and return to Atlanta Opera to sing Young Alyce in Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied.
In the 2017-2018 season, Ms. Valdes made her debut with New York City Opera, in cooperation with Houston Grand Opera as Diana in the mariachi opera, Cruzar la cara de la luna, and made a role and company debut with Opera San José as Despina in Così fan tutte. In the summer of 2018, Ms. Valdes made her company debuts with The Berkshire Opera Festival as Gilda in Rigoletto and with Opera Theatre of St Louis as Amore in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. On the concert stage, Ms. Valdes has performed Mahler's Symphony No.4 and Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with the California Symphony, in Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem with the Phoenix Symphony and Poulenc's Gloria with the Bellingham Festival of Music.
During the 2016-2017 season, Ms. Valdes returned to San Francisco Opera to cover the role of Gilda and went on in-role during a performance after a colleague fell ill. A distinguished alumna of the SongFest program in Los Angeles, she was heard in a solo recital of Nordic, Spanish and Latin American music. Other season highlights included performing Mahler's Symphony No.4 and Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate with both the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Chattanooga Symphony, and with Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra singing Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the West Coast premiere of Scott Ordway's "Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World". Ms. Valdes also joined the Concert Royal at St Thomas Church in New York City for their Messiah, where The New York Times exclaimed that she performed "beautifully, growing stronger as the evening progressed".
In the 2015-2016 season, Ms. Valdes joined the roster of the Lyric Opera of Chicago debut covering Juliette in Roméo et Juliette. Ms. Valdes also completed her time as an Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera. During her time as an Adler, Ms. Valdes performed the roles of Musetta in La Bohème, Papagena in Die Zauberflöte, Clorinda in La Cenerentola, and Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro. Covers included Johanna in Sweeney Todd, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, Magnolia in Showboat and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, which she also performed in 2013 as member of the Merola Opera Program.
Also an accomplished recitalist, Ms. Valdes has appeared in concert with Martin Katz, and made her New York recital debut with NYFOS performing with Steven Blier and Michael Barrett in Compositora, a recital of female Latin American composers. She also attended the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival which included several concert appearances and Ms. Valdes can be heard singing Mendelssohn's "Hear my prayer" on the album Evening Hymn released by Gothic Records and acclaimed in the American Record Guide.
An award-winner in the regional Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, Ms. Valdes is also the winner of the top prize at the Corbett Opera Scholarship Competition at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and is the recipient of a Shoshana Foundation Grant.
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