Fedele: Scena

Ivan Fedele was born Rocco Fedele in Lecce, Italy, on May 6, 1953. He was educated at Milan’s Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, and he currently teaches composition there as well as at the Strasbourg Conservatory, after previous appointments to the conservatories of Bologna, Turin, and Como. Scena was written for and commissioned by the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala in 1997-98 and is dedicated to Riccardo Muti. The premiere was given at La Scala under Muti’s direction on June 14, 1998. Scena is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns in F, four trumpets (two in C and two in B-flat), three trombones, bass tuba; five percussionists playing marimba, suspended cymbals, ‘cello bow, woodblocks, tubular bells, tom-toms, vibraphone, crotales, temple blocks, log drums, glockenspiel, boobam, timpani, temple bells, gongs, and bass drum; harp, piano, and strings with eight double basses (four specified as five-string). The work receives its United States premiere at these performances. Performance time: about seventeen minutes.

By all rights Italy should overflow with magnificent symphony orchestras. The very names of the dominant instrumental genres bear witness to Italian origins—sinfonia, concerto, sonata. String instruments by Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri have been the gold standard for centuries. Italy has produced a succession of renowned conductors: Arturo Toscanini, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Riccardo Muti, just to name a few. History would seem to have destined Italy as not only the cradle, but also the nexus of all things orchestral.

Furthermore, Italian composers have made significant contributions to modern orchestral music. Consider the superheated late Romanticism of Ferruccio Busoni, the popular multihued tapestries of Ottorino Respighi, and the evocative works of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alfredo Casella, and Gian Francesco Malipiero. Add to that the post-war contributions to avant-garde and modernist music from Bruno Maderna, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Franco Donatoni, and the fecundity of the Italian orchestral muse becomes all the more evident.

The orchestras themselves, however, have been in short supply. That came about more through accident than design. During the nineteeth century, while many European capitals such as Vienna, Berlin, and Amsterdam were establishing the civic orchestras that remain at the top tier to this very day, Italian music turned resolutely towards opera, where the orchestra plays a subsidiary, albeit important, role. That accounts for not only the superb conductors—there is no finer conducting academy than an opera house—but also for the relative paucity of Italian symphony orchestras. Everybody’s playing for the opera. But change has been in the air of late, as the multiple concert halls of Rome’s spectacular new Parco della Musica bear witness. Modern-day Italy is cultivating orchestras.

In 1982 the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado established the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala, its members drawn from the orchestra of Milan’s lordly Teatro alla Scala, its mandate symphonic rather than theatrical. Since its inception, the Filarmonica della Scala has made a practice of encouraging Italian orchestral music via yearly commissions to promising young composers, mostly but not exclusively Italian: Azio Corghi, Luis de Pablo, Peter Eštvšs, Salvatore Sciarrino, Pascal Dusapin, Fabio Vacchi, and Giovanni Sollima, among others.

In 1997 it was Ivan Fedele’s turn for a Filarmonica commission. Fedele, a southerner from the heel of the Italian peninsula, had made his way north to Milan for his education at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, and before he was thirty had won the prestigious Gaudeamus Prize for his first string quartet and the orchestral Chiari. It was the 1989 Epos for orchestra, awarded Parma’s Goffredo Petrassi prize, that put him firmly on the international map. Fedele, son of a mathematician who encouraged an interest in matters scientific and technological, was—and is—committed to exploring the union of music and electronics with works such as Richiamo (1993), which takes a spatial approach to electronic sounds, and Capt-Actions of 2005, which applies the motion-capture techniques of film animation to controlling digital sound processors. Fedele’s substantial catalog is filled with works that blend the electronic with the acoustic: Elettra (1999) for viola and live electronics; Two Moons (2000) for two pianos and live electronics; Canone infinito (2002) for tape.

Scena, however, is resolutely all-acoustic, written for a traditional, if very large, orchestra. Fedele designed it both as a showcase for the musicians of the Filarmonica della Scala and in honor of the orchestra’s origin in one of the world’s oldest and grandest opera houses.

As the title implies, Scena can be thought of as an operatic scene performed entirely by the musicians of the orchestra, without text or singing (or stage movement, for that matter.) Fedele tells us that

the musical figures making up the piece are conceived as “characters” who can be easily identified in terms of structure, orchestration, and emotional content. The composition follows a plot where there are “characters” coming on, going off and possibly returning in much the same way that they would in a play staged in a theater. And since there are no real characters, voices or text with words, everything obviously takes place in the world of memory, meaning the memory of the listener.

Scena opens with an introverted piano solo marked Calmo e meditativo;it may sound like a random improvisation but it’s actually a formal twelve-tone row, played with the damper pedal depressed throughout. But peacefulness is short-lived; shortly we hear a peremptory downwards slash in the strings and winds, sounding for all the world like the brusque downbeat of a conductor (La Scala’s legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini, perhaps?) summoning his cast to order. The onstage company gathers, shepherded by occasional nudges (or downright barked orders) from those conductorial winds and strings.

At about the two-minute mark, a hint: piano and vibraphone play a quick upward scale, a premonition of a critically important thematic element to come. For now, however, the scale is forgotten in an onrush of energy; vibraphones, piano, and harp support a series of loud accents in the brass, almost as though our impatient maestro were shouting out downbeats to a mostly oblivious cast. But that all comes to an abrupt halt with the full appearance of the rising “scale” figure, which is not only a play on La Scala but also a big-as-a-house “fate” motive that will pop up, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, at critical moments in the drama. The “scale” begins slowly in the piano, harp, and winds then accelerates gradually as it ascends, acquiring in its final octave the metallic tings of crotales (small tuned cymbals) and glockenspiel.

That scale portends a momentous event indeed: the entry of the prima donna assoluta, here portrayed by the first violin in a solo that explores extremes of range, including very high notes—think coloratura soprano—accompanied by discreet punctuations in crotales, glockenspiel, harp, and piano. Our prima donna’s entrance aria is of the melancholy stripe, ˆ la Countess Almaviva’s wistful “Porgi amor”in The Marriage of Figaro,its sadly falling phrases closed off by sighed cadences in the winds and strings. Even as the orchestra begins to rouse itself, the aria sails on serenely, but before too long all is swept up into a whirring transitional section marked Improvviso! (“Sudden!”—and that’s Fedele’s exclamation point.) The maestro’s previous slashed downbeats become upwards swoops, and soon enough tremolo strings hover over glowering rumbles in the trombones, tubas, and piano in its lowest register. Bit by bit a fight scene develops; the brass instruments thrust, feint, and parry while the strings scurry about, the whole bustling with nonstop action and excitement.

Theatrical fights are of necessity short, and at Scena’sfive-minute mark the music grows increasingly quiet and unsettled, although fragments of the scuffle continue to erupt, albeit with progressively diminishing vigor. Then the “scale” returns, in identical garb to its previous incarnation, once again making an appearance at a critical juncture. As it did before, the scale precedes the prima donna (i.e. first violin) in a reprise of the solo aria, together with the same discreet accompaniment in the tuned percussion and the same sighed cadences in the strings and winds. Almost as though the clock were running backwards, the piano solo of the opening returns, still retaining its original wandering, uncertain quality.

A slash of the maestro’s baton puts an end to the confusion. At the eight-minute mark comes a night scene, its mood ghostly and its colors dark. Piano and harp set the stage with soft tone clusters, soon joined by the percussion battery producing an assortment of fascinating effects—bowed cymbals, timpani glissandos, pulsating vibraphones, exotic bells, and the like. Out of the foggy wash of sound emerges a new soloist: the English horn, playing a mournful tune that savors more of a midnight jazz club than an opera stage. The orchestral accompaniment becomes vaguely but unmistakably tonal, made up of shifting chords that partake equally of impressionism and blues; think La Mer shading off towards Mood Indigo. Its melancholia persists even through some weary-sounding “downbeats” from the maestro, and finally the whole subsides into a clear F Major cadence—an exotic effect itself given the mostly atonal environment.

From this point on (about minute twelve) the mostly reserved Scena becomes a virtuoso display piece for full orchestra. The festivities begin with light, rushing figures in the clarinets, alternating with full-bodied whoops from the flutes, harp, strings, glockenspiel, and crotales. Before long the trumpets begin measuring out steady accents, as the energy levels rise and the tempo increases. Increasingly insistent blares from the brass add to the mounting excitement, helped along by incessant busyness in the strings. Our previously meditative, even bluesy, opera scene is rapidly morphing into a Hollywood action movie, zooming hither and yon, its nonstop dynamism streaked through with flashes of violence and scintillating orchestral effects.

That sort of thing wears out its listeners before long—to say nothing of the players—and presently signs of imminent détente begin to appear. At around the sixteen-minute mark, high winds state a sustained, almost chorale-like melody, sometimes submerged by the onrushing orchestra beneath but usually managing to stay afloat above the overall fracas. As the hubbub subsides, intense combative moments flash out then fade. One particularly athletic surge culminates in a breathless moment of near-stasis; an insouciant flick from the strings, and it’s all over with the crisp finality of a full blackout.

That Scena would be such an intensely theatrical piece could have been anticipated by anyone familiar with Fedele’s conception of music that is both, and simultaneously, programmatic and abstract:

The premise of composition, to me an inescapable prerequisite, is the consideration of music as the “poetic portrayal of the subject,” in which my sensitivities and my world view are expressed . . . . The two chief modalities whereby I think the music and I compose it are diametrically opposed: one modality is speculative, while the other is sensual. From this point of view, in all my compositions you can find the “story” of a psychological journey, constantly oscillating between a physical and a mental pole, between a dynamic and a contemplative aspect.

Surely those “dynamic” and “contemplative” aspects of Fedele’s art are on full display in Scena;not only in the contrast between the introverted first section and the subsequent extroversion of the finale, but also in the work’s skillful combination of tonality and atonality, in its juxtaposition of solo arias with crowd scenes, and most of all, in its harnessing of sophisticated contemporary techniques for the purpose of evoking the traditional and colorful world of Italian opera.

Scott Foglesong

More About the Music
Recordings: Pascal Rophé conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai (Stradivarius). The Stradivarius label has released several other CDs of Fedele’s music, including his string quartets performed by the Arditti Quartet.

Reading: no full-length books as of yet, but a number of articles have been published in Italian; see also Lidia Bramani’s article on Fedele in Contemporary Composers (ed. Brian Morton and Pamela Collins, St. James Press). The IRCAM Center Pompidou web site contains an excellent presentation on Fedele and his works, in French at http://brahms.ircam.fr/composers/composer/1269/.