Fanfare Magazine, 3 Reviews of Italia, Issue 44:5 (May/June 2021)



By Peter Burwasser

This tribute to Curt Cacioppo’s Italian heritage, three distinct works grouped together simply as Italia, is collectively an excellent example of the composer’s ability to develop a singular voice that draws inspiration from centuries of musical traditions. Impressions of Venice, 11 miniatures for string quartet, are, as the title suggests, a kind of diary of different aspects, old and new, of a great city. It opens with a bright, upward swooping gesture, inspired by a sunrise over St. Mark’s, then settles into a more reflective mood, perhaps describing dappled shadows across the ancient stone walls. Other sections depict regal medieval marches, Hebraic dirges, popular Italian folksong, and even wet pavement (expressed in a beautiful pizzicato section). Cacioppo’s music is not programmatic in the manner of, say, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but rather impressionistic, as in a Debussy suite. This is truly a delightful work.

On the Road of the Seven Bridges is similarly reflective, but in a more abstract fashion. This eight-section work for solo piano, played with great delicacy and insight by Matthew Bengston, includes a few traditional formats (bagatelle, capriccio) as well as more overtly dramatic references, such as the appropriately mysterious Apparition and a playful Amusement. Elsewhere there are smartly incorporated snippets of Beethoven piano music, in which Cacioppo used the music of the master as respectful ornamentation rather than substantial quotation.

Italia concludes with the most retrospective music of the collection, Red Dove of Libya, a three-movement work sparsely scored for flute, harp, percussion, and celesta (the composer is at the keyboard), with a brief voice over. The solemnly paced music manages to exude, despite the limited instrumentation, a lush tonality, an effect achieved in large measure by the vibrant flute playing of David Cramer. It is a dreamy way to conclude this rich and varied ode to the magical allure of one of the most history drenched places on earth.


By Colin Clarke

I was previously very impressed by a disc of music by Curt Cacioppo on the Albany label (the program included his Symphony No. 3; Fanfare 44:2). Hopping over to the Navona label, now, we have a disc entitled Italia, comprising three works inspired by Venice and Sicily.

The positive impressions of that earlier disc are confirmed here. There is an underlying lyricism to Cacioppo’s music that could well stem from a love for Italy. We start in Venice, with the 2002 Impressione venexiane (Impressions of Venice); by writing 11 short movements, independent in feel yet linked on deeper levels, Cacioppo aims to mirror Venice itself, with its little islands and canals that all coalesce on a larger level to make up a larger unit, the city itself.

There is a program to the piece. It begins looking over St. Mark’s Square, and the views there of the Lion of Venice, Saint Theodore, the quadriga of the façade, reflected images in the rain, a wedding party, and the lagoon island of Torcello (which holds Venice’s oldest building and whose church holds relics of Saint Cecilia), through Moorish rhythms (referencing the turbaned statues at Campo dei Mori), to the Jewish Quarter and its Holocaust memorial. This last takes a piece by Mendelssohn (the Venetianisches Gondelied in G Minor, op. 19/6) and transforms it into a dirge before a finale introduced by references to Gregorian chant; we are walking along the Viale San Nicolò, a place where history and modern romance mingle. It takes a few listenings to appreciate the sheer variety of Cacioppo’s work, and the expertise required to integrate a popular song (in the sixth movement) so successfully into the work’s vocabulary with no sense of forcing. The performance is of perfect concentration and execution; the dialogues between the instruments in the 10th movement seem particularly poignant. This is, incidentally, the same quartet that records for Dynamic and who recorded the fascinating coupling of string quartets by Verdi, Puccini (Crisantemi) and, most fascinating of all, Zandonai (Fanfare 28:5).

While Impressione venexiane has just one year as its composition date (2002), Sulla via dei sette ponti (On the Road to the Seven Bridges) was composed between 1986 and 2007. Six of the eight movements come from a larger work, Ciclo metamorfico sul nome d’un maestro, a work dedicated to Cacioppo’s mentor, the great George Rochberg. The story behind the first movement, “Getreidegasse Nr. 9,” might sound playful—Cacioppo uses solfège to spell out Rochberg’s name and then sets it over an Alberti bass (the movement title is Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg) —but it actually makes an emotive statement in itself. “Lo studio,” the next movement, takes us in the direction of Beethoven as Cacioppo depicts Rochberg searching for a variation theme for his Partita Variations. What we have here is a similar case to the first piece, in which individual moments interact towards a whole, forging a counterpane of moments. Cacioppo’s use of “found” elements (here the famous song Santa Lucia, or the Beethovenisms) never seem “clever”; they just seem an integral part of the composer’s persona. There is delicacy and beauty here, too, not least in “Old Swedes (piccola fantasia su ‘Santa Lucia’).” All credit is due to pianist Matthew Bengtson’s performance, a reading not only of sensitivity but also of true understanding. (It was not too much of a surprise to learn of Bengtson’s standing as a Scriabin interpreter—see the interview with John Bell Young around Bengtson’s Roméo discs in Fanfare 38:6.) The sound of the Bösendorfer Imperial concert grand used on this recording is beautifully caught by the Navona engineers.

While Colomba scarlatta della Libia (Red Dove of Libya, 2007) might imply intercontinental relocation, it in fact refers to Erice in Sicily, where the Cult of Venus practiced a rite of sacred prostitution in Roman times. At the start of the ritual, white doves were released in the direction of Libya, there to retrieve Venus and bring her back in the form of a red dove. Like all good rituals, Cacioppo’s begins with an invocation (solo flute). At one point, players are instructed to recite lines from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale that describe the same general area of Sicily. Again, Cacioppo is able graphically to relate his take in sound while creating a work of cohesion and beauty. One has to credit David Cramer, the flutist here (and also a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra) for his excellence in creating such an atmosphere. But we should also mention double bassist Robert Kasselman, percussionist Angela Zator Nelson, and harpist Kimberley Rowe for the beauty of the first part of “Melodrama and Ayre,” the work’s central panel.

The way Cacioppo’s mind works is consistently illuminating. His ability to take music we know, or to reference familiar tropes, and to integrate them into his own homespun tapestry is unique. He writes about places that have touched him, places that have made his heart and soul sing, and it is that song we hear in his music, music that is uncompromising yet still manages to speak directly to the heart.


By Huntley Dent

Under the title Italia, the widely admired American composer Curt Cacioppo has fulfilled the implicit promise of giving a musical tour of a place close to his heart—he comes from Sicilian lineage on his father’s side—but he has also created at least one work here, Impressions of Venice for string quartet, that to my mind deserves to be absorbed into the standard repertoire of modern chamber music. It demonstrates remarkable imagination, variety, use of compelling materials, and complete confidence in calling upon an eclectic range of tonal and atonal gestures. Moreover, the music has great audience appeal.

I don’t mean to sound surprised, even though this is my first encounter with Cacioppo’s work. Included in his biographical sketch are commissions from elite ensembles like the Chicago Symphony and the Emerson Quartet; he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honor Cacioppo shares with Leonard Bernstein, William Schuman, and a handful of others. His musical education includes prestigious teachers at Harvard, in particular Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim.

The title, Impressions of Venice, is a theme suggested by the Venice String Quartet, who perform it here. The work is divided into 11 lively pictorial sketches played without pause, each lasting around two minutes, although the range is between 22 seconds (“Simbolo”) and 6:39 minutes (“Napping on Attila’s Throne”). The composer’s program notes guide us through the city, some of the sights being familiar to the millions of travelers who have viewed the Piazza San Marco, Torcello, and the Lido ever since the advent of the Grand Tour. We get impressions of Venice’s fickle weather, from sunlight sparkling off the dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral (“Sunrise over St. Mark’s”) to the pitter-patter of a passing shower (“Reflections of Flames on Wet Pavement”). To give the work unity of time, everything takes place in a day, from sunrise to sunset, followed by a coda (“Reprise”).

Within this scheme Cacioppo lays out his wares. Because he freely uses melody, motif, atonality, and diatonic harmonies, some sections sound conservative, including two instrumental songs, “Song of the Serenissima” and “Canzone popolare,” while the stomping and clapping by the performers in “Campo dei Mori” are out of the contemporary playbook à la Jörg Widmann. The whole piece, despite all its kaleidoscopic facets, hangs together thanks to Cacioppo’s imagination, which is swift, deft, and catchy. This is music that leaps out at the listener, and the Venice String Quartet give an energized, vibrant reading.

The solo piano work, Sulla via delle sette ponti (On the Road of Seven Bridges), is as spare and disciplined as the string quartet was rich and varied. The work, which is in eight short movements or variations, had its origins in relation to another of Cacioppo’s teachers, George Rochberg. Citing the title of the first movement, Cacioppo writes, “Getreidegasse Nr. 9 is, of course, the address of Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg. While visiting there, the idea came to me to spell out Rochberg’s name using solfége syllables and note names, and set the melody over an Alberti bass somewhat in Mozartean style.”

The result was a larger work from which six variations are lifted for Sulla via. An Italian connection is made first by the fact that the piece was written when Cacioppo spent much of a sabbatical year in Tuscany, and second by a series of interwoven associations (recounted in detail in the composer’s notes) involving an Italian piece by Rochberg and its roots in Dallapiccola. As personal as all of this sounds, Sulla via fits into a familiar genre of narrowly focused, abstract piano music that doesn’t employ the instrument for any virtuosic possibilities but instead to work out a specified musical scheme in the composer’s mind. As such the music is quite adroit, and is expertly rendered by pianist Matthew Bengtson.

Ritual and myth figure into Red Dove of Libya, inspired by a visit to an ancient temple site on the western coast of Sicily. A cult of Venus flourished there, and Cacioppo learned of festivities to the goddess that began by releasing white doves in the direction of Libya, their mission being to search out Venus in the guise of a red dove and bring her back to Sicily. The work is delicately scored for flute, harp, double bass, and percussion, taking off in timbre from Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. There are three sections—a prelude for solo flute, a long central movement describing the search for Venus, and a concluding “Processional Dance” that marks the start of festivities.

Much of the music is light and shimmering, first from the instrumentation (including the tones of mallet percussion like the vibraphone) but just as much from the use of solo melodic lines that interweave rather than clustering into harmonies. As a thumbnail sketch, the effect of Red Dove falls somewhere between the two preceding works, being at once spare in texture and imaginatively colorful. Rhythmic punctuations from a drum evoke ritual movement within a framework that feels improvisatory and free. The sympathetic performance by the Network for New Music, Philadelphia, is all it could be.

For me, Cacioppo is at his most impressive when his music is rich, quick-witted, allusive, and imaginatively surprising, which is why I got so much out of Impressions of Venice. There were moments when I found myself making favorable comparisons with Berg’s Lyric Suite and Schnittke’s polystylistic techniques. Every contemporary composer faces a vast toolbox of techniques and idioms to draw from. The result is often so eclectic as to verge on anonymity. All the more reason to congratulate Curt Cacioppo for finding a memorable personal voice.