Italian Futurism Today

by Byron Au Yong

"Their programming is always a surprise. Must be something in Seattle's water."

A paraphrase of a quote I remember while speaking with David Schotzko, Promotion Director at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. We talked about American contemporary music ensembles and he explained why the Seattle Chamber Players were unique. Funny how that works, how in New York, I come to appreciate a local musical group and how in a different city, I long to drink from Seattle's tap.

Now in its 20th year, the Seattle Chamber Players continue their reputation for presenting an eclectic array of contemporary classical music from around the world with Icebreaker V: Love and War. The festival featured music from Holland, Italy, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, and Iceland with soloists and ensembles from those countries as well as Japan, Poland, Germany, and elsewhere (whew!). On the Boards played host with a half dozen performances as well as composer seminars.

The full line-up reminded me of being at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt in 1994. As I was fond of the Italian concerts at Darmstadt, I chose to attend Music from Modern Italy: Life, Color, and Movement on February 27, 5:30pm. The music was performed by the Xenia Ensemble, founded in Turin in 1996 by four foreign musicians. Three of them performed: Irish violinist Eilis Cranitch, British cellist Elizabeth Wilson, and German pianist Caroline Weichert. While the mood at On the Boards on a Saturday afternoon was more subdued than the seething energy of hearing music in the summer heat at Darmstadt, the performance offered an intriguing sampler of Italian new music for piano trio.

The extensive program included works from nearly 100 years ago. Wilson explained the inclusion of works by Futurist composers Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880-1955) and Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) to contextualize the more contemporary music to follow. Italian music in the early 20th century was dominated by the tune-laden operas of Puccini and Giordano. Out of his frustration, Pratella wrote a Manifesto of Futurist Musicians (1910), where he stomped on "well-made" music to liberate individual Italian musical sensibilities from bel canto.

For all his pontificating (Pratella also wrote the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music and The Destruction of Quadrature), the Finale (1928) sounded like a tribute to his late-romantic idols Wagner and Strauss without the overly-gushing development of motifs, but rather evocative harmonies that appear suddenly. Similarly Casella's Sicilienne (1914) and Foxtrot (1920), both for piano trio, showed the influence of French colleagues Debussy and Stravinsky, without the expertise. In the Foxtrot, I kept hoping that Casella's duple meter would switch to three or five to give the music rhythmic vitality.

Favorites on the program included the piano solo Looking Up (2008) by Lucio Gregoretti (b. 1961). Weichert's controlled touch and ability to differentiate between the three voices gave a quiet intensity to the steadily moving bass line. The audience was so focused on the trance-like polyphonic music, that when the pianist turned the page there was a mild shock. The other solo Weichert performed, Anamorfosi (1980) by Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947), started like a music box on steroids and ended so abruptly with a quote from Ravel that the audience didn't have time to laugh.

The two string solos included Canto Antico (2009) by Giulio Castagnoli (b. 1958) where extended violin techniques included a number of jeté played expertly by Cranitch as well as Lame (1982) by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) where the peculiarly crafted cello gestures sounded smoothed out, rather than enjoyed by Wilson.

Other piano trio works on the program included My Blues (1982) by Lorenzo Ferrero (b. 1951), Notturno (1980) by Gilberto Bosco (b. 1945), and 1916: forze di megalopoli in fronte (scultura architettonicao - futurista) by Alberto Colla (b. 1968). The Notturno was an audience favorite beginning with one note, developing into trills, then into mini-cadenzas for piano, violin, then cello. The final work 1916, included string glissandi at the end that upset my friend so much that Alex Ross should include this work on his recent list of Top Ten Glissandos.

My friend also commented that he wanted to watch the Xenia Ensemble play bridge -- the card game -- because they worked so well as an ensemble. Whether bridge or Italian Futurist music and it's inheritance, Icebreaker V at On the Boards was an event that reminded me that there are intriguing strains of new classical music performed by skilled ex-pats all over the world. The late afternoon audience of about 65 was clearly appreciative. Thanks Seattle Chamber Players and On the Boards for continuing to introduce eclectic, rather than trendy, music performed at a high level to Pacific Northwest audiences. Listening to the concert reminded me that composing is about possibilities.
Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

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