Music review: Salvatore Sciarrino premiere at Monday Evening Concerts


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Though laudable, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast festival left out a lot. It told the story of California music from John Adams’ angle -- our pioneer spirit, our vital connection with Latin American and Asia, our remove from Europe’s high Modernism and its avant garde. Pierre Boulez, for instance, was viewed through the distorting lens of Frank Zappa rather than as an influential mother of invention who made his first big impact on America at the Monday Evening Concerts.

That crucial series, begun 70 years ago in a rooftop studio in Silver Lake, has had its ups and downs. Now it is up again and riding high, and the first concert of the season on Monday night did what the series has been doing especially well of late at the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall. It made us less provincial by presenting the U.S. premiere of a major work by Salvatore Sciarrino.


Since the death of Luciano Berio in 2003, Sciarrino has assumed the mantle of Italy’s most important living composer (ignoring, that is, the film work of Ennio Morricone), yet he is little performed in the U.S. That is not entirely surprising. He can be, in his own way, a sensualist and a lyricist, but he plays with sound at its edges, enjoying the extraneous noises a flutist might make – breathing or striking the keys – as much as the production of beautiful tone.

Sciarrino does have a flaw that doesn’t go over well here. The 62-year-old composer has his pretentious side, and boy could Zappa have skewered Sciarrino’s mesmerizing “La Perfezione di Uno Spirito Sottile” (“The Perfection of One Slender Spirit”), which ended the program Monday.

The 1985 piece for flute, soprano and percussion, is a ritual best performed outdoors against a dramatic cliff. Sciarrino calls it a “geological chaos for scenery” and his program notes conjure up kites, our “non-optimistic nature concerning the natural environment,” ancient spirits, “a lament echoing over desert plains” and Chernobyl. The text is a short inscription found engraved on gold plates in Crete.

Sciarrino instructs the players to play with backs to the audience. In a darkened auditorium, against a blue backdrop with a large projection of a large yellow orb, an extraordinary Italian flutist, Mario Caroli, stood sideways. Robed and barefoot, soprano Alice Teyssier sat on the stage facing the orb like a wolf howling to the moon. Jonathan Hepfer’s bells were above and invisible and didn’t begin tinkling like an ethereal Italian ice-cream truck (gelato bells?) until the last 10 minutes of the 46-minute work.

Pretentious, perhaps, but also riveting. Caroli created sonic poetry out of sharp, sudden whistling into the flute and his tap-tap-tapping of the keys, which he repeated over and over but never predictably. The soprano got stuck on words such as bevi (drink) and repeated its beautiful little melodic motif again and again as if an alluring siren conjuring a lost world.

There is one interesting West Coast sidelight to Sciarrino. “Perfezione” is dedicated to the late Italian modernist, Luigi Nono. Nono’s widow, Nuria, is the Schoenberg daughter who grew up in Los Angeles and added a touch of the Left Coast sensibility to the left-wing Italian music scene.


The European fascination with the acoustical elements of sound is also found in the spectral school of French composers. That developed at Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, begun in Paris by Boulez in the mid ‘70s. At the heart of the musical research institute was a computer music system developed at Stanford University and UC San Diego. A young spectral composer at the time, Tristan Murail, wrote “Territoires de l’Oubli” (“Lands of the Unknown”) for piano in 1977 as an early investigation of piano resonances, of the way vibrations work.

Murail asked for a player with a big technique able to produce Lisztian and Messiaen-like swirls that begin to assume an acoustical mind of their own. He has found just such a pianist in Marilyn Nonken, who is based in New York (as is Murail who now teaches at Columbia), and she created said swirls of sound for 26 ear-opening minutes, with the result of making a listener feel as though his cranium were an extension of the piano’s resonating chamber.

The U.S. premiere of Doina Rotaru’s “Tempio di Fumo” (“Temple of Smoke”), a 10-minute flute solo, opened the program. A Romanian composer all but unknown in this country, Rotaru has the kind of feeling for the flute that Murail has for the piano. She has written four flute concertos and a fifth (for Caroli) is on the way.

If “Tempio di Fumo,” with its enticing bent tones that were seductively played by Caroli, is anything to go on, the time has come to start recruiting flutists big time. Rotaru has a piece for an orchestra of 24 flutes.

-- Mark Swed

in the U.S. premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s ‘La Perfezione di Uno Spirito Sottile’ at Zipper Concert Hall on Monday night. (below) Marilyn Nonken performing Tristain Murail. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times