Rome to New York: Orpheus and Eurydiceby Alessandro Cassin
CARNEGIE HALL | OCTOBER 20 – 21
Great expectations awaited the return of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, not having performed in the US since 1969. The Rome-based orchestra, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, is the foremost Italian symphonic ensemble, and the world’s oldest musical institution, created by Pope Gregory XIII in 1585 and active ever since.
The program featured, for the first evening, Verdi’s Sinfonia from Aida, Respighi’s signature tone poems Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, and Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, played by the legendary Martha Argerich. The sold-out performance highlighted the new luster and intensity brought to the orchestra by Pappano (formerly music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) and its ability to support Argerich in her pianissimos and dazzling accelerations.
More than most major orchestras, Santa Cecilia has consistently performed and commissioned contemporary music. In 1969, Santa Cecilia brought to Carnegie Goffredo Petrassi’s Follia d’Orlando. For this visit, it was the US premiere of the entrancing “dramatic cantata,” The New Eurydice According to Rilke by the Sicilian born Salvatore Sciarrino.
Utilizing his own translations from the German of two poems by Rilke—Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes and To Music (An Die Musik)— Sciarrino entrusts his retelling of the Orpheus myth solely to the orchestra and a single voice (the magnificent soprano Barbara Hannigan).
Making no reference to the musical versions of Monteverdi, Telemann or Gluck (if anything, evoking his own 1982 Lohengrin), Sciarrino’s Orpheus is a tormented contemporary man, caught in the act of immersing and emerging in both a literal and existential sense, from silence to sound and back.
The orchestra on the stage awaited the conductor, who, after a few words with the audience welcomed Hannigan wearing a lavish, flowing gown. Then, from silence, the characteristic Sciarrino voyage began.
Barely perceptible sounds swiftly appeared and disappeared, creating a dense and disquieting soundscape in which Hannigan began with Rilke’s haunting opening line: “That was the strange mine of souls.” Her voice voice navigated with ease Sciarrino’s perilous constant shifts from dense broken speech to lyric coloratura. Less then two minutes into the piece, one knew this was high drama.
We entered a different time and space, transported by the flow of ever-changing sound. The woodwinds, flutes in particular, emitting more air than pitch, were the breath that carried the orchestra. The strings produced moans, wailings, and percussive chords, on which the vocal line built and built, as Rilke imagines Orpheus leading the way up the path from Hades followed by Hermes holding Eurydice by her hand: “Mute and impatient, gazing straight ahead. His steps swallowed up the path in huge bites, without chewing.”
The voice, preceded by bursts and sudden stops, was stretched to its anatomical limits. The abundant use of harmonics and reverberation gave life to mesmerizing sound effects. Imperceptibly, a word or sound that began as jarring, swiftly shifted into an almost melodic line.
Following Rilke, Sciarrino's Orpheus and Eurydice are our non-heroic contemporaries, defined by their fragility:
“And when, abruptly
The god (Hermes) put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He (Orpheus) has turned around—
she (Eurydice) could not understand and softly answered
In the program notes, the composer stated: “I didn’t quote the verses in full. During the composition, I adapted them as became dramaturgically necessary.” The poems’ correspondance to two seamless movements revealed in full Sciarrino’s elective affinity for Rilke. The second poem, To Music, sounds almost programmatic of his music: “Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps; silence of images. You, language where language ends.”
Just as the piece came to a close the throbbing and interrupted sounds gave way to longer held notes, as if to underscore the final lines.
A half-hour had passed, yet our sense of time had been challenged. It could have been ten minutes or two hours: the music and the drama had taken us far, far and away. The magic of this music is that it induced a different kind of listening, a form of heightened perception. The sound became a physical place to enter, observe with wonder, and inhabit. One felt as if this music had the power to enhance our neural circuits.
Sciarrino (an insightful reader of Kafka) enjoyed leaving the audience in doubt as to what they just heard. We were left, much like in Kafka’s short story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” where the unmusical mice Josephine speculate: “So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? [...] An immediate lasting feeling that from her throat something is sounding which we have never heard before”
Sciarrino’s music lingered on at least through the opening Allegro of a vigorous rendition of Mahler Sixth Symphony, which closed, with a standing ovation, the memorable evening.
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(From October 21 to December 3, the city of Milano will pay a tribute to Sciarrino with a series of concerts organized by Festival Milano Musica and Teatro alla Scala, culminating with the production of his new opera Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo ( I See You, I Hear You, I Get Lost).)
Now 70, Sciarrino is the most widely performed living Italian composer and has gained a cross-generational international cult following. He has younger fans who do not follow contemporary classical music and, with good reason, see him as outside any tradition. The New Eurydice was commissioned by Santa Cecilia and premiered in Rome in 2015. Since then, it has been performed by different orchestras (always with Hannigan as the soloist) and a new production in Vienna will soon follow. “Sciarrino has had a very long relationship with this institution” says Michele Dall’Ongaro, President of the Accademia Di Santa Cecilia Foundation, ”and today holds the title of Accademico. What sets Sciarrino apart is his uncanny ability to create with each composition a sound world that did not exist before, I think of his music as a sort of infrared vision of the world.”
An autodidact, Sciarrino began composing at age 13 and has since escaped categories and schools of influence. The scope of his music is tremendously ambitious. I recall him telling me, in 2010, when he presented his opera La Porta della Legge at Lincoln Center Festival: “musical theater is in a great crisis. My intention is to reinvent it from scratch as if there were no tradition.”
It is perhaps in the repertoire for the flute and for the voice that his sound is most recognizable. His scores modify the sounds of instruments, yet the nature of each one is respected and not altered. Thirty years ago, the technical difficulties for both instrumentalist and vocalist were foreboding. Today, a new generation of musicians who grew up with this music has allowed him to firmly enter the repertoire as one of the leading composers of our time. And with The New Eurydice According to Rilke, Sciarrino has engaged with the Greek myth as if there were no tradition
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.