Piano Music from fascist Italy

Maria Lucia Costa, piano

Ney York, Columbia's Casa Italiana

The Fascist regime appears to have taken little interest in the contemporary music scene; and if the sentimental neo-romantic works on this program are adequately representative, it is no wonder that compendiums on Italian music scarsely touch on this era. Nevertheless, the opportunity to gain more appreciation of Italian musical culture of the period between the two world wars went unexploited as was the interesting fact that the pieces on the program were coeval with the site of the concert, the Casa Italiana. The soloist was Maria Lucia Costa of the Lecce Conservatory. The following incorporates a few biographical details about the three featured composers.

A student of Ottorino Respighi, Ennio Porrino (1910-1959) held academic positions in Rome, Naples and his native Cagliari. His Sonata Drammatica, Op.35, might be characterized as post-Wagner filtered through Debussy. Augmented chords and tasteful dissonances evoke moods without requiring specific emotional involvement on the part of listeners. Extremes of pitch and dynamics barely mask what to today's ears sounds like a superficial sentimentalism.

An Italian of Czech origin, Riccardo Park-Mangiagalli (1882-1949) authored operas, orchestral piecdes and piano works. A noted concert pianist, he directed the Milan conservatory in his later years. His evocative Deux lunaires, Op. 33, was marred by a noisy pedal on the Casa's six-foot New-York-built Steinway. Although she failed to exploit adequately the full dynamic range of this piece, nevertheless it was refreshing that Ms. Costa does not also have the full range of mannerisms that today's typical big-circuit concert pianists flaunt. The most technically demanding selection turned out to be an unidentified encore, possibly by the same Park-Mangiagalli, which rumbled with faint echoes of jazz.

The second half of the program was devoted to music by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). A student of Ildebrando Pizzetti, he is best known for his concertos for guitar and orchestra, but he also wrote many chamber works in addition to a few operas. Above all he produced supremely "cultured" music which is high on the comfortability and predictability scale, much like the more successful Spanish music of this period. Ms. Costa selected I cipressi e le stelle and Pedigrotto 1924: Neapolitan Rhapsody for this program. In these pieces Castelnuovo-Tedesco demonstrates a melodic bent and a love for local color possibly with nationalistic underpinnings-all factors that were in significant decline elsewhere in Europe. At one moment a Bellini melody for tenor from La Sonnambula is interspliced, but here Ms. Costa needed more "grand manner" to make the required impact.

The absence of even minimal data about the composers and works in this program should be seen in light of Casa Italiana's revised mission. (See "Columbia University's Performing Spaces" below.) If this concert is typical of the programs there, neither the current Director--with a background in ancient art and archaeology--nor the Italian government evidence much interest in the potential educational role for Casa Italiana, preferring to emphasize their new Advanced Studies mandate

Columbia University's Performing Spaces

In the basement of one of Columbia's many late-nineteenth-century "Beaux-arts Renaissance" buildings, Miller Theater possesses a wide but comparatively shallow performing space. Florentine losenges and ovals decorate steel wall and ceiling beams concealed under layers of white plaster, while a large volute worthy of the Laurentian Library is perched at the center of the proscenium arch. Bright red steel cage-like structures form curious additions on either side of the hall. Miller Theater is noted as the site for the world premieres of Paul Bunyan (Britten/Auden) and The Mother of Us All (Thompson/Stein). This year's season at Miller includes ten concerts of contemporary music in October alone, often with the composers present, a series of little-played early- and mid-twentieth-century chamber works plus dance and drama offerings.

Inaugurated in 1927, Columbia's Casa Italiana was built through the generosity of Italian-Americans and Italians. Casa Italiana was then donated to Coilumbia to house the Italian Department and a library endowed by the Paterno family. Columbia sold the building to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about ten years ago and began renovations for the new Italian Academy of Advanced Studies, co-operated by Columbia and the Italian government. The resulting dispersal of the Italian faculty, classrooms and specialized library to elsewhere on campus in contravention of original donors' intent has caused considerable bitterness within and outside the University.

Sandwiched between the Law School and the School for International Studies, the Casa has the appearance of an overly-tall Florentine neo-Renaissance palazzo. The high-ceilinged, rectangular Teatro Piccolo on the second floor continues to function as a lecture and concert hall. The programming there has objectives which might vary from those of a University center, but it has the potential to be better financed. The theater itself retains its orignal appearance as a large gray salone but with reduced capacity due to replacingclosely-set fixed seating with larger pseudo-modernist armchairs in the style of Breuer. There is a small stage at one end from which Florentine Renaissance chairs straight from La Cena delle Beffe keep watch, but at the event reviewed above, the piano was placed on the level of the audience in an anti-elitist gesture. A new garishly-lit staircase leading up to the Teatro is of polished gray marble and decorated with an inscrutable wall carving designed by Italo Rota.

Other performing venues include the sizeable Byzantine-inspired St. Paul's Chapel and Low Library, the original university library building with cavernous acoustics.

David Lipfert

Associazione culturale Orfeo nella rete
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