Fanfare Magazine, Reviews of Armed and Dangerous, Women of Ancient Greek Myth, and Symphony No. 3, “Tuscan Folio” on Metamorphoses, Issue 44:2 (Nov/Dec 2020)


By Peter Burwasser

Curt Cacioppo is a composer who honors the long arc of musical history without compromising his contemporary sensibility. It is certainly a quality that he shares with his principal teacher, Leon Kirchner, and an important mentor, George Rochberg. It is a theme that runs through all of the music on this release, suggestively titled Metamorphoses. The first work, Armed and Dangerous, is a set of variations on a French Renaissance melody (although it has a distinctly British sound to my ears, with snippets of phrases from Scarborough Fair and Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair). Cacioppo’s variations grow in complexity and energy as they proceed, reflecting the original intent of the music (the text of the French song speaks of the need to defend one’s self from marauding men in armor) and also signaling a reflection of the conflicts and arms proliferation of our day.

The a cappella choral work Women of Ancient Greek Myth consists of seven motets, each inspired by a mythical female, in the following order: Circe, Europa, Galatea, Arianna, Danae, Dafne, and Atropo. The words are from the poetry of Luigi Cerantola. This is work of subtle power, evoking ancient but timeless human expressions, featuring an especially well-meshed marriage of words and music. Cacioppo deftly uses sonic symbolism to reflect the poetry, such as the use of upwardly spiraling triplets representing smoke drifting out of Circe’s chimneys, or harmonic dissonance reflecting the discord between Dafne and Apollo.

With the “Tuscan Folio,” which is the third of Cacioppo’s seven symphonies, the listener is swept into a contemporary sound with cinematic brio. The symphony is in three movements, describing a kind of autobiographical journey, including a rich and somber reflection of the America story, warts and all, an elegiac ode to old Italy, and finally, a loving but unvarnished portrait of Sicily, the land of the composer’s relatives. This is a bold and highly accessible symphony that makes me want to hear more of Cacioppo’s orchestral output.

Curt Cacioppo is a daring and vividly imaginative composer. I have had the pleasure of hearing much of his music over the years (he was a long-time member of the Haverford College music faculty, now emeritus) and occasionally of corresponding with him. In addition to his work reflecting his love of ancient art and his Italian heritage, he has also created fascinating music inspired by Native American culture. This bold collection of works is an excellent introduction to his artistry. Performances are consistently excellent. 


By Colin Clarke

It’s always nice to meet a new voice in music, and the music of Curt Cacioppo was new to me. Cacioppo’s lineage includes Leon Kirchner and George Rochberg, plus Ivan Tcherepnin and jazz musicians Bill Dobbins, Chuck Israels (of the Bill Evans Trio), and Pat Pace.

The title of the first piece, Armed and Dangerous, makes a lot more sense when its explicatory subtitle is taken into account: “Fantasy-Variations on L’Homme Armé.” It is performed by the man who commissioned it, the pianist Emanuele Arciuli. It’s fascinating to hear Renaissance music meet jazz through a set of variations that reference the forms of waltz (Variation I, “Valse noble”), March, Ricercar, Chorale, and Toccata (in that order). The performance by Arciuli is exemplary. Cacioppo explores the nature of fear (“The armed man is to be feared”) in a variety of means. The formal constituents are but one element; the flexibility of Cacioppo’s musical language is another, moving effortlessly from dissonance to consonance. Towards the end of the piece we hear the theme as if in an echo, a half-remembrance.

A cycle of seven a cappella motets on the poetry of Luigi Cerantola, Women of Ancient Greek Myth, introduces seven very strong women: Circe, Europa, Galatea, Arianna, Danae, Dafne, and Atropos. The enchantress Circe is the first we meet: she has cast a spell on Odysseus and his crew. I remain unsure that the translation in the booklet echoes the subtleties and metric strengths of Cerantola’s text (the translation feels clunky) but Cacioppo’s writing is effective, complex at times, and challenging. The choir here, the Viva Voce Chamber Singers, manages atmosphere as well as accuracy—no mean feat, and a testament to the skills of conductor Nathan Zullinger, who clearly has as fine an ear as he does communicative skills. The melodic lines of the second motet, “Europa,” seem particularly tortuous, especially when the sopranos move into their upper reaches, so all credit is due them for the cleanliness of those lines, and the perfect slurs. The third motet, “Galatea,” is more tranquil, as she offers respite to war-weary warriors. The wide-ranging “Arianna” is a response not only to the poem but specifically to a marble sculpture held in the Vatican, while a pervasive drooping gesture depicts golden drops of rain in “Danae”; strong bass contributions here come from chorus members Daniel Schwartz and Les Anders. I like the expressiveness of tenor James Reese in “Dafne,” too; the antipathy between Daphne and Apollo is musically depicted by utilizing two areas a tritone apart. The idea of the perhaps lesser-known Goddess Atropos (“Atropo,” in the title) fuels the final motet, its lonely textures reflecting the process of the diffusion of being into natural phenomena such as breezes.

The performance of the Third Symphony (of seven, so far) by the Yale Symphony is ardent and powerful. This is an undergraduate orchestra of Yale College captured live in 1991, but the members play like a seasoned professional group, except with an extra layer of enthusiasm scooped on top. Although entitled “Tuscan Folio,” the piece also records impressions of an America encountered with new eyes after a vacation to Tuscany. So it is that it begins with “America: a prayer,” with its conflicted view of a history of slavery and atomic bombs against a commitment to freedom. The quieter moments reveal careful analysis of instrumental strands; the balancing is expertly done. There is a defined duality to the second movement, too, “Capriccio leggendario/Suoni del Palio,” where a Puccini-indebted capriccio sits next to a musical depiction of a horse race in Siena. Once more it is the more delicate moments that really impress, particularly here how the upper strings can negotiate Cacioppo’s high lines without sounding shrill. The finale, “Sarbaggiu,” Sicilan dialect for “selvatico” (savage), bursts with energy and complexity; the (retained) applause is well deserved.

Curt Cacioppo has a distinctive voice and all the technique he needs to express his wide-ranging ideas fully. 


By Henry Fogel

This collection of music by American composer Curt Cacioppo is entitled Metamorphoses, which is a particularly apt label for music that seems to undergo many changes as its progresses. In Fanfare 22:3 and 27:6, Peter Burwasser describes Cacioppo by saying that he “belongs to the post-serial, eclectic tonalist generation of composers…. To put it another way, Cacioppo and many of his contemporaries do not have to worry about labels (and maybe music reviewers shouldn’t either).” In 38:2, Paul Orgel placed a disc of Cacioppo’s chamber music on his 2014 Want List. This new collection was my first exposure to his music, and I assure you that it will not be my last.

Burwasser’s comment helped me feel comfortable with my inability to find a handful of adjectives or labels to describe the music. The three works here are in some basic ways very different from each other. Armed and Dangerous is a piece for solo piano; Women of Ancient Greek Myth is an a cappella choral work; and “Tuscan Folio” is an orchestral symphony. What unifies them is the composer’s way of stitching together a wide range of musical styles and techniques into whole works that flow naturally.

Armed and Dangerous was composed in 2013, and written for the Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, who performs it here. It is a set of fantasy-variations on L’homme armé, a Renaissance Burgundian song whose words translate as “Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared.” Cacioppo is a composer who is deeply concerned with the issues of violence and social justice ever-present in our world, and who reacts to those issues with his music. Armed and Dangerous begins as a quiet statement of the tune, the variations varying in sparseness or density, simplicity, or complexity, that express the fear at the root of the decision to arm oneself against attack. But as the work goes on, it becomes more frenetic and insistent. The culminating measures abruptly end in a gesture of stark violence that is very effective, as indeed is the entire work.

Women of Ancient Greek Myth is the major work on the program with a duration of 37 minutes. It is a cycle of seven a cappella motets on Italian poems by Luigi Cerantola. The poems were written expressly for Cacioppo. Cerantola has written opera librettos, so working directly with a composer was not a new experience for him. The motets depict Circe, Europa, Galatea, Ariadne, Danae, Daphne, and Atropos. Cacioppo’s music expresses the drama and psychology of the women with astuteness, variety, and beauty, along with a quiet sense of reflection when such a mood is suitable. His own program notes, along with the texts and translations, are very helpful in bringing the listener closer to the music. The excellent Viva Voce Chamber Singers led by Nathan Zullinger exhibit pinpoint rhythmic precision, pure tone, and accurate intonation throughout.

The Third Symphony, “Tuscan Folio,” was composed after the American-born Cacioppo spent a month in Tuscany, getting closer to his heritage and also thinking about the United States. Because of his concern with societal issues, he was confounded, as many have been, by the duality of a country founded on the ideals of liberty and justice for all building itself on the backs of slaves and the suffering of Native Americans. The three-movement symphony, lasting just over 21 minutes, is filled with contrasting rhythms and harmonies, juxtaposing those opposites.

According to the booklet note, Cacioppo has composed seven symphonies, and No. 3 is a powerful, moving work. It demands the listener’s full attention, which is rewarded by the composer’s skill at orchestration and his unique ability to weave diverse material into a score that seems all of a piece, for all the contrasts in melody, dramatic tension, and mood. There is as much a suggestion of Americana as of Italy, and the symphony’s idiom, to my ears, belongs in the genre of neo-Romantic for its full, heartfelt emotions.

All of the instrumental performances on the disc are excellent. The recording of the symphony was made at a concert in 1991 at Yale University but not released until now. The Yale Symphony under James Ross is remarkably skilled and professional-sounding. Armed and Dangerous was recorded in Italy in 2019, and Women of Ancient Greek Myth was recorded at the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in January 2020. Despite the variety of recording sites and dates, the sound is consistently fine.

This is not a recording to put on when your mind is occupied with other issues. It is music that demands 100 percent of your attention. But if you give it that, the rewards are plentiful.