Luigi Nono: Out of the Shadows

Although many consider him one of the most significant musical figures of the 20th century, American audiences still haven’t caught up to Luigi Nono. The Italian composer — a leader in the postwar avant-garde, and a contemporary of Boulez and Stockhausen — remains something of an enigma in the West.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players venture where others fear to tread. The ensemble’s March 1 program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, which features Nono’s late-life masterwork, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, may represent the sole opportunity to hear the composer’s music performed in the Bay Area this season.

Nono, who was born in Venice in 1924 and died there in 1990, was often at the forefront of the 20th century’s musical developments. Beginning in the 1950s, his early works blazed a trail through pointillism and serialism; his first major work, The Canonic Variations, is based on a tone row from Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon (in 1955, Nono married Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria). Nono’s overt preoccupation with politics contributed to anti-Fascist works such as Il canto sospeso in the 1950s and ’60s and a pioneering use of electronica in the ’70s. The 1980s saw the composer creating mature works, including the string quartet Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima and Caminates … Ayacucho for contralto, flute, choirs, orchestra, and live electronics. The opera Prometo, the finest expression of his “theatre of consciousness,” is Nono’s masterwork.

Read the full article in San Francisco Classical Voice here.

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The Darmstadt school's British invasion

In many ways, Darmstadt is a typical German city. It has a local beer, an opera house, parks and museums and an efficient tram network, and one night in September 1944 it was devastated by an Allied bombing raid. When people emerged from the shelters, they discovered a city in which four out of every five buildings was ruined. A year later, with the second world war over, reconstruction began. The fabric of the city was slowly restored – buildings, jobs, a political structure – and in the process, more or less by accident, something remarkable happened.

Casting around for ways to regenerate cultural life in the city, its new mayor, Ludwig Metzger, was persuaded by a local musicologist, Wolfgang Steinecke, to consider the possibility of establishing an institute for contemporary music. Because Darmstadt was in the American- controlled zone of occupied Germany, Metzger and Steinecke needed the approval of the American forces to develop their ideas and by happy coincidence the officer in charge of such initiatives was a former Harvard University music student, Everett Helms. The permissions were granted, and in the summer of 1946, American army trucks delivered grand pianos to a hunting lodge on the outskirts of Darmstadt, the temporary home for the first “courses for international new music”.

The courses were initially intended to denazify German musicians by introducing them to the modern music of the 1930s and 40s, music by Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, all of which had been outlawed as “degenerate” under Hitler. But soon new music by the next generation of composers became part of the courses too and by the early 1950s, the summer school, now subtly redesignated as the “international courses for new music”, was acquiring a reputation as the meeting place for aspiring avantgardistes not only from Germany but across Europe and beyond.

Read the full article in The Guardian here.

Wolfgang Rihm: Quid Est Deus

Since he composed his St Luke Passion for Stuttgart 10 years ago, choral works seem to have figured more and more prominently in Wolfgang Rihm’s output. The Hänssler disc includes one of the most substantial of them, the “cantata hermetica”, Quid Est Deus, composed in 2007. It sets 24 Latin definitions of God as a series of choral statements, often with minimal orchestral accompaniment. There’s an austere, hieratic quality about the writing, and a Stravinsky-like feel to some of the harmony (deliberately or not, a recurring progression almost directly quotes from the Symphony of Psalms), though the orchestral outbursts that ­occasionally punctuate the sequence have a highly wrought expressionist edge. It’s a compellingly concentrated piece, very different from the sparer, earlier works on the disc, which belong to the period in the late 1980s and early 90s when Rihm was influenced by Luigi Nono’s late works. These use spatial effects, dispersing the orchestra around the performing space: Ungemaltes Bild (Unpainted Picture) attempts to convey in sound the spirit of a watercolour series by Nolde, while Frau/Stimme sets a Heiner Müller text for two sopranos, embedding it in fractured, halting orchestral textures from which it emerges piecemeal.

[via The Guardian]