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MUSIC : Eulogy to an Engaged Composer

November 29, 1990|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition

Luigi Nono, who died in May, was one of the most prominent and socially engaged composers of the Italian postwar avant-garde scene. Yet when it came time to grieve, Nono turned to the simple sounds he heard around him--the church bells of his native Venice--when he composed ". . . sofferte onde serene . . . " for piano and tape in 1976.

The work will be played at 8 tonight as part of a program by the Southwest Chamber Music Society at Chapman College in Orange.

"The title means 'Sorrowful Yet Serene Waves,' " said Jeff von der Schmidt, artistic director of the music society. "The piece was composed amid a series of deaths in both his family and his wife's family. It became a funeral piece, even back in 1976.

"The piece is a description of the various bells ringing in different ways throughout the city of Venice--bells coming from different sounds and different registers, sometimes very high and sometimes very low. The effect of the piece is of one large bell."

The work, which lasts about 15 minutes, was commissioned by pianist Maurizio Pollini and dedicated to Pollini and his wife, Marilisa Pollini.

The taped part "elaborates and enlarges" the live piano part, and "the two parts are not in opposition, nor are they in counterpoint," von der Schmidt said.

Gloria Cheng will be the live pianist in the program today. "She will be playing with Pollini," said von der Schmidt. "He is the taped pianist. It's not as if a computer made the sound."

Von der Schmidt described the work as "a very virtuosic piece."

"It's notated on four staves--sometimes two fingers on one stave and two fingers on another," he said. "That's very difficult. For rhythmic clarity, it's notated that way.

"It's a very slow piece. The dynamic range is pretty subdued. From time to time, there comes the clanging of the bells, but basically they're in the distance. It's very haunting.

"The texture sometimes is very dense. If you hit a lot of bells at once, you get a lot of clanging at once. That's where the electronic part keeps the ringing going.

"The piano is well-suited to this because a string once struck will vibrate until the damper falls on it. He uses both of those sounds against each other as if the piano has been turned into the city of Venice."

A member of the Italian Resistance during World War II, Nono envisioned music from the point of view of an "engaged" or politically committed artist.

Most of his works reflect his political beliefs. (He joined the Italian Communist party and was elected to the Central Committee in 1975.)

For instance, his 1955 work, "Il Canto Sospeso" (the Suspended Chant), sets excerpts from the last letters written by European Resistance fighters before their execution. His 1960 opera "Intolleranza" (revised a decade later as "Intolleranza 1970") is an attack on capitalism.

"The aesthetic of Nono comes from the 12-tone works of Schoenberg," von der Schmidt said.

In fact, Nono married Schoenberg's daughter, Nuria, in 1955. (She has recently moved to Los Angeles to be with her brother and sister-in-law, according to von der Schmidt, but is not likely to be at the concert in Orange.)

"Nono developed his thinking through the serial thinking of the '60s, and as every composer of the period did, relaxed his tensions and became an extremely vibrant political composer. He was a member of the Italian Communist Party and was viscously opposed to American involvement in Vietnam."

Von der Schmidt has programmed the work as "a fitting tribute" to Nono, who died May 5 at the age of 66.

Framing the Nono piece will be two works by Beethoven--the Sonata for Cello, Opus 102, and the Piano Trio, Opus 70, No. 1, the "Ghost."

"We think that Beethoven's aesthetic (in the Cello Sonata), with its first big fugue, the first fugue of the late period, is the best preparation for the type of concentration needed to listen to Nono," von der Schmidt said.

"Then the 'Ghost' Trio: Of all the trios to do, we thought it might be nice to have the 'Ghost' show up. Any musician is saddened by the passing of a musician of the stature of Nono. They don't make a lot of them like that. They're not a dime-a-dozen people.

"This is the first Nono we've ever played, but it won't be the last," von der Schmidt added. "The music is wrapped up, as with any Italian composer, with something dramatic, which makes it very accessible. All you need to do with this work is imagine bells going off in Venice. You'll have quite a good time."

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