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Modern Italian Sprezzatura

April 24, 2007

Last Wednesday, violinist Graeme Jennings treated a Berkeley audience to a thrilling performance of unaccompanied violin music from three of the towering figures of Italian music of the second half of the 20th century — Luciano Berio, Franco Donatoni, and Salvatore Sciarrino. Presented as part of the UC Berkeley Department of Music's Noon Concert series at Hertz Hall on campus, the 45-minute recital was supported by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco and was an installment in its wonderful series currently taking place around the Bay Area, "Primavera Italiana: The Spring Festival of Italian New Music."
I must confess, I approached the event hesitantly, since a recital consisting of nothing but unaccompanied music for a single instrument struck me as poor programming. Happily, Jennings proved me wrong. The three works making up the program were expertly selected, and made for an eminently diverse and always fascinating listening experience. Moreover, I left with a sense of rejoicing discovery: While I knew the first piece on the program, Berio’s Sequenza VIII (1976), I had not heard the other two, Donatoni’s Ciglio (1989) or Sciarrino’s 6 Capricci (1976). By the end, I was eager for more.

Best known to Bay Area audiences for his decade-long tenure with the legendary Arditti String Quartet, Jennings is a champion of new music for the violin, and works closely with composers in developing works for the instrument, while also teaching masterclasses on extended violin technique. The recital provided the perfect forum for his rare artistry. Throughout its length, his experience and expertise as a new music practitioner came to the fore. All three selections were remarkably difficult, both technically and expressively, but he handled the virtuosic passages with ease.
Difficult Music Made Intelligible
Yet his greatest accomplishment was the way in which he imbued every note with expressive significance. He clearly grouped the notes together into meaningful and communicative gestures, phrases, and passages. In the hands of a lesser performer, the music on Wednesday's recital might easily sound difficult, esoteric, or impenetrable. Jennings made the music come alive as a highly evocative, endlessly interesting field for interaction and interpretation. His descriptive performing style brings with it the welcome consequence that — precisely because he is so able to highlight the music’s expressively significant gestures — he provides his audience solid ground for evaluating his performance.

How often I’ve heard fellow concertgoers lament performances of new music, “I guess it was all right, but who can tell what’s right and wrong?” This is never the problem with Jennings. By loading his performance with meaningful and readily perceptible gestures, he not only communicates a work’s significance, but makes its novel aspects less disturbing by establishing a frame of reference.

This quality was especially clear in his reading of Berio's Sequenza VIII. Like so many of the composer's works, the piece plays with history, invoking earlier works from the repertoire as well as listeners' associations with them. Sequenza VIII is most clearly modeled on the great chaconne from Bach's D-minor Partita. Yet the linking technique that Berio uses throughout is not a chaconnelike ostinato, but rather a drawn-out, pulsing gesture that recurs consistently.

Jennings laid into the passage whenever it recurred, drawing a clear map of the piece's structure. Moreover, the weighty, pulsing ritornello demarcated an intriguing kaleidoscope of colorful episodes, each masterfully presented. To my ears, the most interesting was the extended muted passage near the end and its haunting, alien timbre. It sounded as if the ghosts of history were speaking through both Berio and Jennings.
Sounds and Shadows
The final two pieces on the program, Donatoni's Ciglio and Sciarrino's 6 Capricci, complemented one another perfectly. The first work is almost mannerist in its juxtaposition of styles and great exaggeration of technique. The latter work, by contrast, is a study in understatement: Nearly the entire work is played in soft harmonics at the weird edges of the instrument's timbral range, with lengthy passages played at the bridge or over the fingerboard.

Jennings approached the Donatoni with an almost aggressive resolve, complete with heavy articulations and determined attacks. While his style was thoroughly convincing throughout the piece's louder sections, I often wished that he might dampen the articulations during the softer sections.

His reading of the Sciarrino, though, was masterful. The work is less a study in sounds than in their traces — their halos and shadows. The Andante second caprice was one of the most fascinating listening experiences I've had in some time. The movement is a miniature study in the relationship between sound and silence, in which silence assumes a spatial or architectural dimension. The result is a soundscape evocative of the interior of a prism: crystalline and ordered, yet with a disorienting refraction of sound and space.The performance hit its target, cultivating a strong interest in new Italian music, at least in this listener.

William Quillen is a Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.
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