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Italian Choral & Symphonic Sampler at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Aug 14th, 2016

From left: Marnie Breckenridge, Leon Botstein at podium, James Bagwell

Under direction of Leon Botstein a program of Italian symphonic and choral music, part of Bard College’s Puccini Summerscape, presented five composers who in 1922 (the year Mussolini took control) were prominent at that time. Alfredo Casella’s Elegia eroica (1916) was aptly discordant, angry, and somberly grieving as it mourned the senseless deaths of the WW I. It appears to have been too shocking in its day, but it remains a suitable memorial for fallen soldiers. Casella’s biggest success lay with the ballet La Giara (The Jar), set to a scenario by Pirandello, whom Mussolini financially supported, despite Pirandello’s scathing satires on Mussolini. Curzio Malaparte was not so lucky (he was imprisoned for mocking Mussolini), but Malaparte ended up writing the greatest work of Italian literature and history in that century, Kaput. (Although Mussolini loved music that was tamely conservative, he hated Journalists, Jews, and Justice.)

Luigi Dallapiccola (depicted in teaser photo) is commonly claimed to be the greatest Italian composer of the twentieth century. Born of Italian parents in what is now Croatia, his family was interned when he was ten because his father was considered a subversive school headmaster by the Germans. His father was permitted to take him to German opera a few times during internment and Luigi fell in love with music. When he heard Mussolini proclaim new laws of racial discrimination on the radio, Dallapiccola immediately married his Jewish girlfriend. Partita (1932), his most successful early composition, was performed. Three symphonic passages were followed by an operatic solo about the birth of Yeshua of Nazareth. The libretto was sung by Marnie Breckenridge who proved to be an audience favorite. The symphonic passages were intriguing and well-orchestrated. I’m guessing they were program pieces about Moses, David, and Ezekiel. I would like to hear more of Dallapiccola’s later twelve-note music or his serialism.

After an entertaining intermission during which the overcast heavens featured tree-forked lightning and glowing cloud illuminations, Puccini’s brief and trite Inno a Roma (1919), a circus-like anthem was performed to illustrate popular currents of nationalism. Later in life Puccini praised his urban hymn as “beautiful garbage.”

The Prelude to Ildebrando Pizzetti’s opera The Stranger (1925) was performed. Tightly wound harmonies rose to Germanic climax, yet any preliminary subtle wind-up was omitted. A supporter of Mussolini, Pizzetti presented himself as the heir to Puccini, yet his music remained far more conservative than Puccini. After the war, he admired greatly the reformed anti-Semite T. S. Eliot, and his last opera offered a version of Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral.”

The program concluded with Goffredo Petrassi’s Magnificat (1930). This slightly medieval conservative choral piece based upon Luke’s mythologizing (from a couple of lines concerning Poseidon in Homer) illustrated Italy’s predicament: modernists were dissonant atheists who embraced technology, speed, and efficiency, while traditionalists embraced church myths like virgin birth, ritual festivals, and semi-medieval music. Both sides claimed to be nationalistic. There was no Protestant Reformation to introduce rational thinking, tolerance, or especially any sense of independence from either ancient church or recently formed state. James Bagwell ably directed a chorus of over a hundred. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge performed so well she was accorded two bows.

Like most excellent samplers, the program offered more tempting leads than spectacular results.