Often a pop or classical artist is so closely linked to a particular composer that it is difficult to think of one without the other. Such is the case with Youngstown Symphony Orchestra guest artist John Browning.
Indelibly associated with Samuel Barber's "Piano Concerto Op. 38," Browning performs the Pulitzer-prize piece with the Orchestra and Music Director Isaiah Jackson at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at Powers Auditorium. Since premiering Barber's "Piano Concerto" to great acclaim in 1962, Browning has performed the fiercely virtuosic concerto more than 700 times.
While Barber's concerto is performed relatively often, Browning has raised its profile and convincingly demonstrated his command of the composer's musical idiom. Unlike other musicians who could not travel back to another century to visit with Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, Browning enjoyed conversations with his friend Samuel Barber.
First encounter: Pianist Browning came to composer Barber's attention during a 1956 concert of the New York Philharmonic where Browning made his debut and where Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance of the Vengeance premiered. Barber was impressed by the playing of the newcomer and when music publisher Schirmer commissioned Barber to write a piano concerto for Lincoln Center's opening week, the composer selected Browning to perform the new work.
Since Barber called Browning to do the piece before he started writing, Browning offered a few suggestions along the way, often visiting with the composer at his New York country home and getting the music a few pages at a time.
When it came time to work on the third movement, however, Barber was stymied by a creative block, Browning remembers. With only weeks before the scheduled performance, the movement remained unplanned and unwritten. Finally Browning recalls, Aaron Copland visited his friend Barber and roused him. Shortly after the Copland visit, Barber came up with a rhymatic pattern that would be the basis for the movement and the writing fell into place.
When Browning admitted to Barber that some spots in the fast and brilliant third movement were impossible to play, the composer suggested deferring to a neutral expert, Vladimir Horowitz.
After Browning's audition, Horowitz declared to Barber, "It can't be played at the tempo you want." Barber made some modifications, and the concerto had a successful premiere with Eric Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony.
Family history: The son of a violinist father and a pianist mother, Browning began his piano studies with his mother at age 5 in his hometown -- Denver, Colo. He made his debut with the Denver Symphony five years later playing Mozart's "Coronation Concerto No. 26" with his father John Browning Sr. on the podium.
After two years at Occidental College in California, Browning moved to New York and enrolled in Juilliard and came under the tutelage of Rosina Lhevinne, whose other pupils included pianists Van Cliburn and Misha Dichter, Metropolitan maestro James Levine, and movie composer John Williams.
Don Juan: The Orchestra opens the Masterworks program with Richard Strauss' Don Juan on Nov. 17. Few characters of fact or fiction have filled library shelves with as many poems, plays and stories as the legendary Spanish libertine Don Juan. First brought to literature in the 1630 play "El Burlador de Seville" by Tirso de Moline, the Don's exploits in love and dueling have gone through endless variations.
Out of the drama of George Bernard Shaw, the Byron poem and Mozart's Don Giovanni, grew a portrait of a swashbuckling sex icon. However, it was to the German poet Nicolaus Lenau that Strauss turned to for inspiration. For the German poet introduced a new "Don Juan." Not a hot-blooded man eternally pursuing women, but rather one pathetic and pitiful in his quest for the woman who would incarnate all womanhood.
Richard Strauss was only 24 when the Lenau verses struck him as excellent material for orchestration. "Don Juan" is one of six tone poems penned by the composer and is among his finest and most popular works, which when first heard, startled the world and placed the composer in the role of "bad boy of music."
Dvorak's "Symphony No. 8" concludes the evening. "Symphony No. 8" (formally "No. 4") has been identified as English because it was published in England. The London Times called it "Pastoral" because it suggested rural sights and sounds, but most often it is referred to as the "Bohemian" due to its national identity. Whatever the title, Dvorak has never been more engagingly lyrical, more spontaneous or more lovable.
Tickets for the Nov. 17 Masterworks concert are available by calling the Symphony box office at (330) 744-0264. For more information about the concert and the Orchestra, visit www.youngstownsymphony.com.
'My Fair Lady': While George Bernard Shaw's writings may not have been the inspiration for Richard Strauss' Don Juan, the author's 1914 play "Pygmalion" was the basis for Lerner and Loewe's Tony award-winning musical "My Fair Lady." The story of Henry Higgins, the short-tempered self-centered speech professor, who, on a bet, attempts to turn the sooty ragamuffin Eliza Doolittle into a well-bred lady, plays Powers Auditorium Nov. 12 and Nov. 13. Shows begin each evening at 8. At its opening, "My Fair Lady" was the hottest ticket on Broadway running for 61/2 years.
One of America's all-time favorite musicals, "My Fair Lady" boasts a thoroughly enchanting score including songs such as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "The Rain in Spain," "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
Tickets for "My Fair Lady," sponsored by First Place Community Foundation in conjunction with the Youngstown Symphony Society, are available by calling the Symphony Center box office at (330) 744-0264.
XPatricia C. Syak is executive director of the Youngstown Symphony Society.