Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


March 26, 2011

Emanuele Arciuli

On Thursday night, REDCAT, CalArts' downtown home to the adventurous, welcomed Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, for a one night only solo piano recital. Arciuli is a champion of new music having worked with a variety of living composers on works commissioned for him. What’s more, he’s developed a reputation as a proponent of contemporary American piano works and has even written a book on the subject. That book is in Italian of course, his native language, but as Americans should know by now, we tend to learn more about ourselves from outside observers than anyone else. And if you want to put an even finer point on it, his interest in Native American culture has led to several commissions from Native American composers, a number of which he premiered at The Smithsonian Museum in 2008. One of these was included in Thursday's program in addition t the world premiere of segments of another new commission. Needless to say, this what not your everyday piano recital program.

But let’s start at the end. The show was anchored by Ives’ “Concord” Piano Sonata No.2. With its four movements dedicated to various figures associated with Transcendentalism including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. It’s a mammoth work with so much history and American culture stuffed into it that it’s easy to see how it paved the way for all sorts of 20th Century music. Ives takes a whirlwind tour of the end of the 19th Century in his scope quoting Beethoven and Wagner and the sonata can sound like almost anything at different points from Messiaen to ragtime and everything in between. Arciuli took a very direct and visceral approach to the piece giving some fleet and knuckle-busting attacks on the first and second movement. He could make the most of more reflective moments as well, but this was a performance focused on the nitty-gritty of holding together a sometimes large and unwieldy flurry of music into a cohesive, moving whole. His virtuosity was impressive throughout.

What preceded this was a concise summary of some of the music world spinning out form Ives' work. First on the program was James Tenney’s Essay which directly references the written essays Ives wrote to accompany the original publication of the “Concord” sonata. Tenney takes off from Ives by borrowing and then rearranging certain notes from the sonata which are then plucked by the player from the inside of the piano in this case. The exploration of the internal, and non-key production of sound continued with Raven Chacon’s Nichi’Shada’ji Nalaghali. Cahcon is interested in exploring the sounds of the piano in nature or the sound the piano makes in and of itself without actually being played. An electric amplifier is connected inside the closed piano as keys are silently depressed while Arciuli alters the tones and distortions coming from the amplifier. It was a jarring change from much of the other pieces of the program suggesting a very different way to think about music as a passive phenomenon of nature than one actively produced by a musician.

The other Native American composer on the program (the first being Chacon), Barbara Croall, followed with two movements from a new work in progress Gichi-Gamiing. Like Chacon, Croall is interested in the relationship between music and the natural world and these two movements, which were receiving their world premiere in this performance, take inspiration from Lake Superior. The impressionistic work is built on themes from tribal sources, but also invokes the land it comes from. It neatly paralleled the third “Alcotts” movement of Ives’ “Concord” sonata. The first half of the evening closed with Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues which is a tricky and skewed version of familiar American blues riffs on the piano with a touch of discordant and virtuosic flair thrown in for good measure. Rzewski incorporation of popular music themes also harkens to Ives' use of similar material in the "Concord" sonata as well as his demands on the virtuosity of the player. Arciuli kept up the energy and made incredibly difficult passages come off with ease. It was a memorable evening for those in attendance and a reminder about the richness of a uniquely American musical heritage, even if it did come by way of Italy.


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