Post-“Post-Puccini” post

There were intriguing and unfamiliar pieces, beautifully performed this past Wednesday at Penn’s Rose Recital Hall when Stacey Mastrian offered a program called “Post-Puccini: Modern Italian Vocal Music”. The first half of the concert featured liriche for voice and piano by Alfredo Casella, Roberto Lupi, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Bruno Maderna.  Casella is a name one finds more in history books than on concert programs; a playful excerpt from his Quattro favole romanesche had a healthy dollop of early Stravinsky’s harmonic flavor. I had never come across Lupi before. (He is apparently best known for RAI’s sign-off music.) The excerpts from Sette favole e allegorie struck me as sober and a bit melancholy. The Machado settings of Dallapiccola were my favorite group of the evening for their sharply drawn moods and economical means. Maderna’s early songs on texts by Verlaine were very different from his later work; I rather doubt he often returned to the tango rhythms of this set’s “Sérénade”.

The second half of the concert turned to the post-war avant-garde with a well-known piece by Berio and a little known one by Nono. The rapid-fire shifts of Berio’s Sequenza – maniacal muttering, hysterical laughter, lyrical singing and more, all abruptly juxtaposed – mask an essentially poignant piece about the nature of expression and about what it means to have a voice. While the broken discourse of the music depicts both inner and outer chaos, the piece’s text (by Markus Kutter) yet suggests that the voice can become a refuge from that chaos as well: “give me a few words for a woman to sing a truth allowing us to build a house without worrying before night comes”. It was a special treat to hear the Berio in the intimate space of Rose Hall – Stacey could be as quiet as she wanted, but every musical gesture still registered.

Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata was new to me, an example of his explicitly politically committed work, with an electronic component that drew on the sounds of workers shouting amid factory noises. The electronic technique in this 1964 work – only six years after Poéme Electronique – draws on the basic devices of the analog studio, and uses broad swaths of sound rather than more finely honed gestures. But the early technology could still create magical effects – as when a high pass filter gradually dessicated the shouts of a crowd, compressing them into a thin filament of fragile sound. Passionate declamation from the live soprano is counterpointed with dense textures that not only suggest a political context, but recall the intricate micropolyphonic orchestral textures that fascinated composers of the time.

In addition to the sheer beauty of her instrument, Stacey brought uncommon versatility to this smartly planned program – not only with respect to the varied styles of the composers, but to the range of affect of the pieces, and the general shift of performance mode from the liriche of the first half to the avant-garde edginess of the second. It’s not every soprano who is ready to perform an entire half of a program alone on stage – utterly alone in the Berio, and later with only the invisible support of Nono’s pre-recorded sound. Scott Crowne provided piano accompaniments in the first half that were sensitively shaped and colored, and Stephen Lilly ably assisted as sound engineer for the Nono. Here is a picture of the three of them after the show (l to r: Stephen F. Lilly, Stacey Mastrian, Scott Crowne):

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(Sorry about the heading, couldn’t resist.)

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