Taking the Pulse of Italian Music

Jeff Rosenfeld on November 6, 2007
At one time, Italian music meant throbbing voices soaring unashamedly through ornate melodies, propelled by the pulsating oom-pah-pah of an orchestra masquerading as a massive guitar. In its latest concert, last Monday at the Green Room of San Francisco’s Veterans War Memorial, the Left Coast Ensemble took stock of recent Italian music. The results could not have been further from the distinctively tuneful opulence of Bellini and Verdi. Yet somehow the pulse is still thriving. For example, Giacinto Scelsi’s Nuits for double bass is a 1972 avante-garde gimmick (read: tuneless tirade of mystifying sound) on an ever-evolving drone — basically one note played a dozen different ways, in octaves, in sawing repeated notes, and in sustained tones. The fascinating aspect is the rich subtlety, and the way the instrument responds to different fingerings and bow positions, ranging from ethereal harmonics to the groan of a dilapidated Fiat revving its engine. But frequently the fingerings of the octaves superimposed a wobble that you might associate with slight intonation discrepancies, but which actually gave this otherwise deceptively drab music an extra splash of color. It was, ultimately, a concentrated and revealing study of oscillations. Michel Taddei made a convincing case for the double bass as a solo instrument: The performance was a tour de force of showmanship, and the sound was mesmerizing.
Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Salvatore Sciarrino’s All’aure in una lontananza (1977) for solo flute approaches this basic premise of pulsation from a different angle. There actually isn’t all that much music to wring from an eight-minute series of unpitched blowing, with occasional microtonal bending, or tones that land somewhere in the nether realms between the standard 12 pitches in the chromatic scale. Thirty years after its conception, Sciarrino’s avant-garde treatment of the flute is still an abuse of an audience’s patience. Either you work hard to stay with it or you zone out, or meditate. While you can’t hum it, this music does have a satisfying, nearly imperceptible pulse of its own, which was made abundantly clear by Stacey Pelinka’s control of pacing. The result was revealing. The on/off alternations of the work became the salient characteristic, and the windy non-tones infused the gentle waves of sounds and silence with the breath of humanity. The pulse that emerged, though interminably slow, transcended the flute altogether and became a metaphor for life. The concert was something of a solo recital for Pelinka, who tamed Luciano Berio's more frantic mid-20th-century landmark for flute, Sequenza I, with the same poise and clarity that enriched the Sciarrino. Coolly unruffled scampering played off wafting flutters in perfect proportions in Berio's mock counterpoint — a throwback to the solo sonatas of the Baroque.

Youth Is Served

Luca Antignani is still in his early 30s, and, on evidence of the richly scored Il viaggio di Humbert (Humbert’s voyage), is a master of sound in the vein of Scelsi and Sciarrino. He uses every resource in a large ensemble (a string, wind, and piano octet, with flute doubling on piccolo and clarinet on bass clarinet) to great effect. Striking colors follow one another unabashedly in succession. The flute, oboe, and clarinet sing in unison in high registers, as the bass clarinet growls amid contrasting textures; the strings swoop or pluck, while the piano was modified internally to clang like a harpsichord. Il viaggio would not have beaten out hundreds of other applicants for the 2005 Barlow Endowment Composition Prize if it were only about varying sound, however. It is a confidently paced excursion that drives itself forward with both repetition and variety. While the piece is a meditation on “obsession” (Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita), the two-part, 17-minute work never dwells on one idea for long, always finding a new one just as the old one is beginning to wear out. On the other hand, there is not really much melodic content, just enough of a return to familiar notes and combinations to embrace the listener with thematic consistency and periodicity. The effect is highly dramatic, and the virtuosic performance by the Left Coast Ensemble was spellbinding to hear and to watch (with each member taking a turn conducting where necessary). Of all the pieces on the program, Bruno Ruviaro’s seven infinitely short periods of (winter) time was the most overtly emotional and picturesque, a vaguely operatic series of scenes. Ruviaro, a graduate student at Stanford, spoke before the performance about his difficulties dealing with winter in New Hampshire, where he wrote this trio for clarinet, violin, and (tampered) piano. A Brazilian new to the north, Ruviaro was apparently depressed or frightened by the weather. Ruviaro’s trio, winner of the 2007 Left Coast Ensemble Composition contest, is a chain of seven brief episodes of escalating despondency and desperation, mixed with enough humor to create an appealing ambiguity. Each movement has a distinctive characteristic and a menacing undertone. The first movement, “Musification,” begins moody and spare but evolves as the violin and clarinet scurry up and down together. The third movement “Basement,” (a reference to a gloomy music studio locale) features high registers in the piano and rough bow strokes from the violin. The seventh (“Final Basement”) shrieks like the shower scene in Bernard Hermann’s music for Hitchcock’s Psycho. In between there’s darkly comic relief, including a rumination from solo clarinet (“Snow Down”) and a brief, abruptly ended outburst of scurrying notes (called “What??”). Clarinetist Tom Nugent, violinist Phyllis Kamrin, and pianist Eric Zivian produced a thrilling sound in the Green Room. As if to remind us how far Italy has come from being the bastion of lyricism, the ensemble programmed two brief interludes of music from the 17th century, by Biagio Marini. They were lusciously played by Pelinka, Kamrin, violist Kurt Rohde, and cellist Leighton Fong in warm, gentle-toned hues. But this music came to life best in the dance movements, where the lilting pulse reminded us of what Italianate used to mean.

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