An Ambitious Journey Through Italian Song

United StatesUnited States Scelsi, Landini, Sciarrino, Ciconia, Garau, Monteverdi, Rossi, Gesualdo: Trident Ensemble (Tim Keeler, Daniel Moody, countertenors; Owen McIntosh, Steven Soph, tenors; Edmund Milly, bass-baritone, Jonathan Woody, bass), The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City, 27.5.2017. (KG)

ScelsiWo Ma mvt. 1
Francesco LandiniMusica Son – Già Furon – Ciascun Vuol; Deh! dimmu tu
Sciarrino – Pulsar; Quasar; Responsorio delle tenebrae
Johannes Ciconia – Gloria Spiritus et alme
Lucio Garau – Sacrum
Monteverdi – Cruda Amarilli
Salomone Rossi – Odecha ki anitani
Gesualdo – In monte Oliveti

Trident Ensemble, the young New York vocal group, closed its second season with “Outliers,” a journey back and forth across Italian song. And it was an ambitious journey from the outset, opening with the resonant bass of Jonathan Woody intoning the first movement of Giacinto Scelsi’s 1960 Wo Ma, echoing through the midtown Manhattan Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

Beginning in the back of the room is an overplayed tactic but in the mysterious tone world of Scelsi, it was more than appropriate—a solitary voice with enough vibrato that it seemed about to break apart, as fragile as the composer himself. Scelsi famously spent a prolonged illness extensively examining the tonal qualities of each note on his piano one by one, and in his music for male voice in particular, the concentrated study shows.

The ensemble cross-faded quite effectively to the front of the room and backwards some 600 years for a peppy reading of Francesco Landini’s Musica Son – Già Furon – Ciascun Vuol, a 14th-century piece for three voices. With barely a pause, the singers launched into the first of three Sciarrino works, L’alibi della parola – Pulsar, using stark text from a 1975 “visual poem” (with the font and layout duplicated in the program) by Augusto de Campos: Where you are / On Mars or Eldorado / Open the window and see / The pulsar almost dumb / Embrace of light years / That no sun warms / And the dark hollow forgets.

Sciarrino’s magnificent scripted breathing emptied in the room like a child’s balloon in an airplane hangar, slowly growing to a discernable volume but even still so tenuous, so removed from the medieval concrete tonality of Landini. A few people applauded afterward – the only applause in the hour-long, uninterrupted presentation until enthusiastic rounds at the end.

Circling back to Landini in Deh! dimmu tu and a sprechgesang opening, the group offered what seemed like the first coherent language (even to a non-Italian speaker) and a return from the mysteries of madness that preceded it. The spell was soon broken again with another Sciarrino setting of a de Campos text, and the craftiness of the programming began to become clear. A chronological offering would have been senseless—or perhaps would have made too much sense. Instead, the pendulum swung across seven centuries of Italian a cappella composition, hearing more commonalities than differences. L’alibi della parola – Quasar came much closer to the rigorous, devotional polyphony of the early songs, but broken into fragments and then delivered in unison. It was achingly beautiful, with all the blood-rushing anticipatory buzz of waiting for Morton Feldman’s shoe to drop.

The only other living composer was Lucio Garau, 12 years Sciarrino’s junior. His Sacrum for six voices, an attempt to merge the Sardinian polyphonic folk-singing tradition with minimalist structure, was written as a study for a theatrical adaptation of Kafka’s “The Burrow.” With all of those influences simmering, it was an exercise in prolonged, throaty harmonies, the kind of Italian avant gardism you could take to your mother’s house for dinner—extended techniques made palatable, even appetizing. The longest piece, it gradually decelerated into being the slowest one as well, dipping into Arvo Pärt pace before a comparatively upbeat rejoinder.

To Garau’s great credit, his work stood up well against the richness of the Monteverdi that followed. Cruda Amarilli, for five voices, was almost a carol in its joyfulness, a respite before diving into his contemporary Salomone Rossi’s Odecha ki anitani, sung by all six members. The ensemble then swung back for a third Sciarrino selection, Responsorio delle tenebrae, a setting of Psalm 54 written in response to Gesualdo’s Tenebrae. The six voices gradually arrived at single, prolonged notes, harking back to the opening Scelsi and making great use again of the church’s natural reverberation, casting isolated voices against the sustained echoes of the group.

It only made sense to end with the brilliant madman, Carlo Gesualdo himself, and his In monte Oliveti—a chorale that worked like a security blanket in the lonesome night of Sciarrino. The text was about resisting temptation, which didn’t seem counter to accepting the satisfaction of vocal perfection.

Kurt Gottschalk

Leave a Comment