Barber: A Timeless Snapshot of Americana

by Tucson Symphony
Barber: A Timeless Snapshot of Americana

If you have ever bought tickets from your Tucson Symphony Orchestra box office, you may have had the pleasure of speaking to Ticketing Service Representative Courtney Bryson. She wants to tell you about Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which she is looking forward to next season:

When I found out that our Tucson Symphony Orchestra would be performing Knoxville: Summer of 1915, I was thrilled. It is one of my most favorite of Barber’s work-a true, enduring gem of American vocal work. I never tire of hearing this piece; the vocal line is endearingly beautiful, idyllic and bright and sorrowful all at different points, requiring an agile voice, spot-on diction, musicality—one doesn’t need a loud voice, but a powerful voice in a different way, the power to breathe life into the words of the child that narrates this piece.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a slice of the past, an idyllic night in Knoxville, Tennessee from the memory of James Agee. An excerpt from his Pulitzer Prize winning work A Death in the Family, the narrator describes their night, nestled amongst family and neighbors, relaxing on their lawn and porches, conversing as a streetcar and a horse and buggy go by; not much is happening at all, and yet the very soul of the street block itself comes alive. I believe that is the point; so much happens when we allow a pause, and observe, and give ourselves a chance for reflection.

My most favorite part of this piece is the word painting. In the introduction, the voice moves with the text, rising and falling, so warm you can feel the Tennessee air. It never feels slow-just unhurried. In the middle, more lively section, Barber treats the soprano to multitudes of word painting; This is my favorite section-it requires a nimble voice, moving through the tessitura with accuracy, while also requiring spectacular diction; “bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit” is not an easy task, but it’s thrilling the hear. My most favorite word painting, as the melody lifts on “lifts” then fades, both melodically downward and dynamically, leads us forward to a high B-flat, describing the night, “one blue dew” that rings clear and true, especially with the bright, brilliant timbre of a voice like Upshaw, (whom I have attached a recording of).

What moves me most, though, about this piece, is that while it speaks of a very specific moment in time, and has the voice of a young narrator, there is a timeless quality. While listening to this piece again, this stuck, “One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth.” In these unprecedented times, this resonates soundly in my heart. I take heart that some feelings are timeless; that the great joys and sorrows of human existence we share, today, as much as when this text was written in 1938 or set by Barber and performed in 1948. Voice and orchestra combine, support, intertwine to capture what words or music alone could not-and I am grateful, especially in times like these, for such beautiful work to express timeless emotion. I look forward to our brilliant TSO, joined by the superb soprano Erin Wall, performing this work next season. I leave you with this, one of my other favorite moments of this piece— “May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble.”

My most favorite recording:

Of course, Renée Fleming:

This work will be performed in January 2021, on a concert in the Classic Series.

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Courtney Bryson has worked for the Symphony in the box office for almost two years. A native of Tucson, she started singing at an early age. A classically trained mezzo-soprano who started in (and maintains a love of) musical theatre, Courtney was working and performing in Los Angeles under the tutelage of Lilian Sengpiehl when she realized she loved her work at various non-profits equally; wanting to merge her love of vocal music and community activism for social good, she came to the UA to pursue a degree that could combine the two. Studying with Susan Futral and Dr. Kristin Dauphinais, she obtained a B.A. in Music–Vocal Studies with a minor in Government and Public Policy; she plans to go to law school. Favorite repertoire includes works by composers such as Weill, Fauré, and Bernstein. If you hear Sondheim being sung in the halls of the Symphony Center, it’s probably her.