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S & H Festival Review

Salvatore Sciarrino: Chamber Music, New Juilliard Ensemble, Paul Hall, The Juilliard School, 15th July, 2003  (BH)

Artistic Director and Conductor: Joel Sachs
Mezzo-soprano: Bo Chang
Flutes: Andrea Fisher
Oboe, English Horn: Andrew Ripley (alumnus)
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet: Gilad Harel (alumnus)
Violin: Miranda Cuckson
Viola: Stephanie Griffin (alumna)
Cello: Jesús Castro-Balbi
Percussion: Eric Poland
Piano: Martin Kennedy
Piano Trio No. 2
Le Voci Sottovetro
Tre Notturni Brillanti
Infinito Nero

In Joel Sachs’ excellent notes for this program, he wrote: "The sound world of Salvatore Sciarrino dwells at the edge of silence", and here we became very well acquainted with the composer’s glittering cupboard of mostly small, quiet tools.  Listening to his music sometimes feels like finding a motionless wooden door, then opening it to discover the interior bustling with scurrying ideas.  The outstanding New Juilliard Ensemble, led by Mr. Sachs, made a vibrant partner to help portray Sciarrino’s explorations.  

This peculiarly absorbing concert actually grew quieter as the evening progressed. The opening trio began as a duo between the violin and cello, with each making liberal use of ethereal harmonics.  But this abruptly changed when the piano came crashing in with huge, arm-bending chords, in what would turn out to be the loudest sounds of the entire concert.  In the four settings of Gesualdo that followed, Le Voci Sottovetro, there was no mistaking Sciarrino’s influence as he reanimated these pieces by employing extremes of voicing, timbre, and ornamentation.  As a friend remarked, Gesualdo is strange enough even without any tinkering, but Sciarrino’s musings were refreshing nonetheless.  

After intermission the volume level continued to decrease, with three short, dazzling pieces for solo viola, Tre Notturni Brillanti, executed with nail-biting focus by Stephanie Griffin.  Again using harmonics almost exclusively, these furious pieces rushed past at a wickedly fast speed, with Ms. Griffin’s implacable facial expression in slightly amusing contrast.  

And then we came to the final work, an amazing little voyage I will recall again for years.  Infinito Nero ("Infinite Blackness") is scored for chamber ensemble with a singer (here the excellent and precise Bo Chang).  The text is based on the speech of St. Mary Magdelen of the Mad, an early 17th-century mystic, who blurted out phrases that were considered sacred, and then captured by a cadre of people charged with recording her utterances.  

The house lights were slowly extinguished to near-total darkness, and even the hall’s air conditioning was silenced for twenty minutes or so. Before a single note was played, one became aware of every minute sound anywhere in the room -- a chair seat shifting, the bottom of a plastic bag scraping on the floor, someone’s stomach faintly gurgling from delayed dinner.

We waited in silence.  Soon a low whoosh emerged, and then another, as Andrea Fisher, sitting virtually motionless and deploying superb control, breathed softly into her flute.  As the sound gradually coalesced into a subtle rhythm, the only sound anywhere was this hypnotic, rhythmic breathing.  I shifted slightly in my chair.  A man sitting a few seats down leaned forward.  After a few measures, the clarinet player joined in with a deliberate but almost imperceptible tapping on his keys -- oh so lightly and slowly, like the sound of water falling far in the distance, as if someone had forgotten to turn off a tap in another room.  I glanced around at the audience, some with heads bowed, others with eyes fixed on the stage.  The percussionist, using heavily padded sticks, began soft pulses, so faint, so delicate, that for a moment I thought it was the sound of my own heart beating.  And this is part of what Sciarrino’s extraordinary music is about.  

As we sat in the darkness, straining to hear, Ms. Chang would blurt out a few syllables, accompanied by a small clutch of notes from the ensemble, but each phrase was extinguished almost as quickly as it occurred. Despite the sense of near-stasis and just-this-side-of-audibility, the atmosphere nevertheless felt charged with a keenly felt tension and anticipation.  Few works have addressed this experience of "waiting".

Talking with the composer afterward, he said he truly wasn’t bothered with the mobile phone erupting in the middle of the performance.  He also wasn’t concerned with the occasional small crackling sounds from stray plastic bags, or the chairs creaking.  Similar to Cage, one of Sciarrino’s interests is the raw experience of listening, in its purest form.  He is concerned with sound -- planned, unplanned, desired or unwanted -- and with heightening our appreciation for, and ability to perceive, the gentlest of motions at the point sound is born (to paraphrase the beautiful program notes again).    

Some of this piece recalled the eloquence of the hushed, sombre
Macbeth last week, whose implied, stylized violence transported me far into the composer’s laboratory of hearing and perception.  In a world that has become filled with constant, extraneous noises, Sciarrino’s attention is focused on the precipice separating sound and silence. Like some other great artists, he creates a carefully judged context that gently nudges you to observe what you hear, whether in the concert hall or out, in an entirely new way.  

Bruce Hodges

Mr. Hodges has added the following note from Joel Sachs about Infinito Nero:

By the way, the popping sounds are not key clicks, which can be very imprecise and hard to control. Very un-Sciarrino to allow such a thing. What is going on is that the oboe and clarinet are popping their reeds with the tongue, and the flutists is doing a "tongue ram" into the head joint of an alto flute. In that way, Sciarrino can have them playing precise pitches which are, however, not heard as real pitches. But the oboe and clarinet are clearly playing the same "note," and the flute is a fifth higher.

Sciarrino spent ten minutes at the first rehearsal experimenting with the percussionist to get that bass drum sound right. That was when the players knew they were dealing with a real imagination.


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