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Sarah Cahill

May 5, 2006

Sarah Cahill

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Contemporary Cantabile

By Jerry Kuderna

If there was a unifying factor in Sarah Cahill's recital Friday Night at Old First, it can be summed up in a word: cantabile. With her characteristic light touch and impeccable pianism, Cahill convinced us once again that Italians do love to sing and that all paths musical lead to Rome. In a wide-ranging program cosponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute, featuring works from the last decade and a half, several of which were composed for her, she made it clear that their avant-garde is in good hands as well.

Riccardo Piacentini's Madrileno, the oldest piece on the program, began and ended with strummed triads and seemed an homage to Henry Cowell. Its melody, outlining simple tonal harmonies, seemed to float from another world and another instrument. Then, a sudden declamatory outburst, molto appassionato, brought the "real" piano into view. It was the first demonstration of Cahill's ability to conjure the many different sounds needed to give each piece its unique character.

Ada Gentile's Piccolo studio da concerto per pianoforte presents fluid passagework à la Ravel, articulated by bits of melody that gradually evolve into an unaccompanied recitative. Like an Ondine divested of her watery environment, she sings a beautiful expressive line, only to be shouted down by drums and percussion, which Cahill played with savage, rhythmic drive.

Brevity and loneliness

It is rare that a performer succeeds in giving a convincing performance despite a confessed perplexity at deciphering the composer's notation. As a student at Juilliard during the 1960s, I participated in Sylvano Bussotti's hour-long Passion selon Sade, in which he appeared on stage wearing blood-spattered Levis and brandishing a whip. Fascinating as this was, I had considered him more a gifted theatrical and visual artist who encouraged (or dared) performers to take part in the creative process by presenting them with what seemed some rather whimsical doodles.

I was relieved when Cahill held up the single page of Bussotti's recent Studio di Luc Signorelli (2002) and smiled sweetly at the audience. She seemed to be reassuring us that the composer was serious when he said, "The audience tolerates you only when you are brief." He needn't have worried. I was amazed by how dolce the music sounded, despite its chaotic spattering of notes. Apparently it, too, had a singing line begging to come to life under Cahill's sympathetic fingers.

There was no mistaking the intent of Luciano Chessa's striking (in all senses of the word) Le Miniere, a poetic evocation of the silver mines around and under Virginia City, Nev., and the insatiable quest of the miners for the fabulous wealth trapped in those mountains. In this piece, you hear incessant picking with ax and shovel in the upper registers of the piano (the ceilings of the mines?). The Old West was an improbable outpost of culture, which to the miners meant Italian opera, and this is represented by cantando music set above a drone in the bass (a Caruso aria?). Cahill's performance evokes a haunting loneliness existing between these two aspirations — for literal riches, and for the riches of art.

I had heard Andrea Morricone's Etude No. 1 before and found its "variations" all on the white keys to be monotonous. It seemed to be passionate about something that was just around the corner but never seemed to arrive. This time, the piano and acoustic space helped sort out the pedal effects, and Cahill managed to find some crucial moments of delicacy amidst the surging washes of sound.

Tempestuous climax and charming conclusion

The emotional climax of the program came with Fabrizio de Rossi Re's Hurucane, a kind of concert aria-duet. Cahill supplied a tsunami of sound on the piano (with vocal obbligato), combined with a prerecorded tape performed by the composer. Whatever else it might have been, as an ensemble performance and sonic experience it was very impressive. Congratulations to Cahill and the sound man.

The next work was a charming and completely fun bit of fluff called Passacaglia italoamerican, by Tonino Tesei. The dazzling runs in the right hand were tossed of with a leggerezia that was a captivating complement to the mock seriousness of the ground bass in the minor mode. The pianist and composer seemed to have found real delight in their virtuosity. The concert ended, appropriately, with a newly composed Ballade by Andrea Morricone, who seems to have found his true voice in as enchanting a tune as I have recently heard anywhere.

(Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who teaches at Diablo Valley College.)

©2006 Jerry Kuderna, all rights reserved