Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Italy’s Disappointing Modernist Journey

Yesterday afternoon the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco hosted its latest musical event. Italian pianist Marino Nahon and South Korean soprano Joo Cho presented a program entitled Il cammino della voce (the journey of the voice). This amounted to a survey of modernism as practiced by twentieth-century Italian composers. The earliest piece was Gian Francesco Malipiero’s settings of two sonnets by the sixteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Berni, which were first published in 1922; and the program spilled over into the almost-immediate present with the piano movement from Gabriele Cosmi’s cycle So ancora che visse (I still know he lived) and Corrado Rojac’s “quando suona l’acqua” (when the water plays), both of which were completed last year.

Malipiero was one of those “retrospective” modernists, who rejected nineteenth-century practices by looking back to pre-Classical practices, hence his interest in sixteenth-century sonnets. Nevertheless, while Giacomo Puccini is never mentioned on Malipiero’s Wikipedia page, the second of his two sonnet settings comes across almost like a love letter to “Gianni Schicchi.” More significantly, Malipiero was the only composer on the program who set words in such a way that both their perception and their semantics would be readily apprehended by the listener. These were the only selections that allowed Cho to demonstrate vocal sensitivity to the text, and she executed them admirably.

All of the other works performed had texts that seem to have been approached as if phonemes were another source of sonority to be worked into fabrics taking in a wide range of pitches, an equally wide range of dynamics, and irregular rhythms. There was no questioning the impressive skill of both Cho and Nahon in negotiating the complexity of the scores they had selected to present. However, the very idea that those phonemes contributed to a hierarchy of words, phrases, and concepts seems to have gotten lost in the “dark wood” (selva oscura) of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

To be fair, quite a few composers (and not all of them Italian) got lost in that “dark wood,” particularly in the decades following the conclusion of the Second World War. It took a walloping blow to get that pendulum to swing back in the opposite direction; but composers such as Philip Glass (singled out because of the current anniversary celebrations) eventually managed to reverse the pendulum swing. These days we are more likely to recall all of those complex legacies not through concert performances but through the parodies that Humphrey Searle composed for the Hoffnung Music Festival concerts under the pseudonym of Bruno Heinz Jaja. (His The Barber of Darmstadt included a setting of the “Who was that lady I saw you with last night” joke declaimed in German Sprechgesang.)

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