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Review: Duo Alterno in adventurous musical form at REDCAT

The high theatrics of soprano Tiziana Scandaletti and pianist Riccardo Piacentini, who perform as Duo Alterno, captivate at a Redcat performance.

October 03, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Soprano Tiziana Scandaletti and pianist Riccardo Piacentini -- a.k.a. as Duo Alterno -- in their REDCAT performance.
Soprano Tiziana Scandaletti and pianist Riccardo Piacentini -- a.k.a.… (Steven Gunther, Steven…)

When singers are accompanied by pianists, they tend to be just that: singers … and their second bananas. No matter how much importance a composer puts into the piano part, no matter how significant the pianist, the voice feels primary.

By its name, the Duo Alterno, which specializes in modern Italian music and which appeared at REDCAT on Tuesday night, makes an effort toward parity. Soprano Tiziana Scandaletti and pianist Riccardo Piacentini have been in partnership since 1997, made 18 CDs and taken their act to five continents (including to such unlikely places as Mongolia, India, Malta and Ethiopia). Italian composers from Abbado to Zago have written for them, exploiting the adventurousness and theatricality of this "alternating" duo.

Scandaletti has a strong personality. She can seem a little on the strident side vocally, but she is an avid actress. She wore three outfits for this recital and took on different personae for different pieces. She had no hesitation kicking off her high heels and coquettishly lying on the piano, displaying some leg and flirting with the pianist and audience in a crazy piece by Ennio Morricone.

She proved equally game at alternating the role playing. For another number, she took out a dog leash, yanked her accompanist off his piano bench and walked him about on the stage on all fours. That was an avant-garde Italian take on Betty Boop by Ada Gentile.

But, in fact, Scandaletti turned out to be no attention-getting match for Piacentini. He is a pianist, composer, collector of environmental sounds, music theorist and professore. And ham.

A flashy dresser himself — tight, shiny suit, burgundy shirt, glitzy bow tie and shoes — he offered lengthy, good-natured philosophical introductions in heavily accented English to every piece, two of which were solos for piano and electronics. He hogged maybe double the stage time as Scandaletti, whom he would call on stage when it was time for her to sing.

The title of the program, "I Suoni della Cose" (The Sound of Things), is also the title of Piacentini's book, which was on sale in the lobby. We are merged in sounds in this world of ours, he told us, but we are not attentive to them. We need a music in context. He quoted philosophers Paul Feyerabend and Richard Rorty. He considered John Cage's notions of all sounds being music, of which he said he was not sure.

The concert opened with Cage's "A Flower" and "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" for voice and pianist tapping percussively on a closed keyboard. Tapping here became foreground rather than background, as Piacentini practically danced with his Yamaha grand.

Piacentini's saving grace is that he happens to be a terrific pianist and, once you get past the impossible ego, a lot of fun to watch. But his own compositions — "Rataplánplanplan" and "Jazz Motetus VI (Cricket Play)" — were surprisingly without excessive flair. They included a rather tame piano part and mixtures of the sounds Piacentini likes to collect on the duo's travels and which he calls "foto-suoni" (photographic sounds). In the bluesy jazz piece, crickets recorded in Baltimore chirped behind traditional Chinese instruments heard in Beijing.

The Modernist Italian works came from the past three decades. Luca Lombardi's 1982 "Ophelia-Fragmente" is a setting of a violent German text by Heiner Müller, translated into English. The aggressive piano part doled out abuse. The soprano conveyed powerful angst.

Excerpts from Morricone's "Epitaffi Sparsi" (Scattered Epitaphs) from the early '90s, trucked in absurdity. The text by Sergio Miceli begins with the line "I couldn't give a damn about Spoon River."

The style of Morricone's many concert works can be considerably more avant-garde than that of his film scores, and for all the seductive playfulness he afforded Scandaletti, he paid just as much mind to Piacentini. The last scattered epitaph was a parody of a pianist playing his scales, flamboyantly attempting to master the "pianoforte," but struck down before he could become a "mezzofortist."

Introducing Gentile's "La Giornata di Betty Boop," written six years ago for the duo, Piacentini described the piece as an imagined day in the life of the cartoon character. And also as a joke on him. He then went off stage and returned without his suit coat and with a tail pasted onto his trousers.

Sandro Cappelletto's text is full of nonsense. Betty studies and takes Boby for a walk. Her pouty lesson in solfeggio is a parody of musician names — "A-a-abbado!" "Mu-u-ti-iiiii!" "Zu-u-bi-bin!" No-no-nono!" A waltz turns into rock music. And Piacentini/Boby prances, no second banana but proud pooch.


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