Feature article reprinted from Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2005, p.14-15

by Lucy Miller

Curt Cacioppo: Man of Many Places

Curt Cacioppo’s music reaches far beyond Philadelphia and Haverford College where he is Ruth Marshall Magill Professor of Music. There is, first of all, his connection to European traditions, particularly Italian forms, as reflected in much of his piano music such as his recently recorded Sonata trasfigurata inspired by a trip in the Tuscan hills. His earlier Fantasy Works for Organ includes “di cibo celeste,” based on themes from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and Visione delle Crociate (Vision of the Crusades) written while traveling in Sicily. It also resounds in his chamber and orchestral works such as the Concerto for Oboe and String Chamber Orchestra (2000) impressively recorded by the ensemble Solarium under the direction of Heidi Jacob, a fellow Haverford music professor, and oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

We should be clear, however, that these works are no mere “musical journeys” of a programmatic nature. Serious themes, often violence and war, underscore much of Cacioppo’s music both in the works reflecting his Sicilian heritage and those stemming from his other major influence, Native American culture. It was this latter interest that inspired him, in addition to his music studies, to teach a social justice course at Haverford dealing with Native American musical and belief practices and the history of suppression and genocide that has beset the indigenous people of North America.

If these two major influences, the Italian and the Native American, seem dichotomous, Cacioppo would disagree. “Both cultures,” he says, “are steeped in imagery and provide the fuel for creativity. Nor are they mutually exclusive,” he emphasizes. Curt Cacioppo sees the lure of the Tuscan Hills as not so different from the Native American’s attachment to the land. Both influences, he says, are “ expressions of different elements of my identity through my aural experiences.” The “aural experiences” he sees as everything from his teacher who disliked any music later than Brahms (and even questioned him at times) to jazz, rock and roll, singing in a Methodist choir, and teaching at Harvard. At Harvard he was more “analytical.” Now, he says, “I just let it flow.”

His fascination with Native American culture “grew in stages,” and, he says, “moved to the front of my curiosity” with the publication of such works as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This long-time interest in Native American culture pervades much of his work including his monumental Wolf for soprano, cello, and piano. While the work stands on its own musically, Cacioppo himself explains its programmatic content. Set to a text by Native American poet Peter Blue Cloud, the work portrays the gruesome violence of the hunt. To the piano, Cacioppo assigns the role of the hunter and to the cello the role of victim, the wounded wolf, in this case, digging a grave with “the stump of a leg” while the she-wolf keens over their “stiffened, frozen cubs.” The soprano narrates the harrowing tale of violence. In addition to explaining this heavy meaning, Cacioppo also comments on his compositional technique in the work: “I used concerto form for the piece, a modified sonata-allegro structure, with double exposition and development, and a recapitulation in which the secondary material returns first and the principal material comes afterward, expanded into a long coda.” Such complexity of form and content marks Cacioppo’s work.

Another example of this complexity is Nayénezgani (Slayer of Monsters), a string quartet inspired by Navajo legends, commissioned by the Emerson Quartet through the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and the Pew Charitable Trusts. As in Wolf, characters of the tale are represented by the instruments of the quartet. The work was premiered by the Emerson Quartet in Philadelphia in 1996.

Curt Cacioppo is as impressive as a pianist as he is as a composer. He performs on the Capstone recording of his piano pieces, the beautiful and difficult America: a prayer and Angelus, as well as the nine Pawnee Preludes each depicting an authentic Pawnee melody but conceived in complicated counterpoint. He gives a fine rendering of fantasy form and counterpoint on the 2001 Capstone recording of his three piano fantasies based on the traditional melodies “Amazing Grace,” “All Creatures of our God and King,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Furthermore, Cacioppo’s pianism is not limited to his work alone.

Curt Cacioppo’s current projects include four world-wide performances of his recent string quartet Impressions of Venice by the Quartetto d’Archi di Venezia, a tour of Italy stemming from his 2004 Capstone recording, Millennium Crossings, the composition of a song cycle using the poetry of contemporary German poet Friedrich Thiel, and a string quartet, Kinaaldá, based on Navajo themes. This fourth quartet will complete a cycle of quartets based on Navajo themes: A Distant Voice Calling written for the American Quartet, Coyoteway written for the Moscow Quartet, and the earlier mentioned Nayénezgani (Slayer of Monsters) composed for the Emerson Quartet.

His “really big” project Curt Cacioppo describes as a return to his piano concerto, a work based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, consisting of three twenty-minute movements portraying, of course, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Originally written under the auspices of the Harvard Foundation Fellowship, the work will find new heights when Cacioppo expands the last movement to include chorus, actor, dancer, and soprano solo set to a text by a contemporary Italian poet.

Curt Cacioppo’s training and experience reflect the breadth of his music. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University, a master’s degree in musicology from New York University, and a doctorate from Harvard where he studied with Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, and Ivan Tcherepnin. He counts George Rochberg of the University of Pennsylvania among his chief mentors. He has been commissioned by the Chicago and Milwaukee symphonies and was composer-in-residence at the Grand Teton Festival. In 1997 he received an award for exceptional achievement in composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. With all of this, Curt Cacioppo’s Philadelphia roots remain strong with performances of his work by the Network for New Music of Philadelphia and the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia (now the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra).

In a Merkin Concert Hall recital in 1985, New York Times critic Tim Page described Curt Cacioppo’s program of his own works as well as other 20th century pieces as “defiantly unusual” and, in particular Cacioppo’s Eclogue as “a massive, coloristic constructed work on a Lisztian scale” that “kept one’s full attention throughout…” Such as been the course of Curt Cacioppo’s music, both as composer and performer. One’s “full attention” is certainly kept my his riveting thematic material, variety of rhythmic patterns including jazz, carefully wrought form, a modern harmonic language all his own, and, perhaps most important of all, his emotional impact.