The CSO Thursday played a last piece for the first time. Franco Donatoni composed Esa (In cauda V), the last piece of his life, while bed-written and dying, dictating it to his students. The then septuagenerian Italian dedicated it to Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of his former students, who also conducted its Chicago premiere.
CSO unveils Donatoni, sandwiched between Wagner and Bruckner
It sounds like this:
...a wash of strings, a cosmic background radiation; a slowly evolving melody in similar motion, clustered together in dissonant intervals that don't end up sounding dissonant but subverting the string's usual brilliance, giving them a matte finish over a somber color... punctuated by brass hits, sparsely and sporadically accentuating the pulse--a pulse which is almost even perceptible at times... contrasted by woodwind choirs also in tight, dissonant intervals--1/2 steps... from which emerges a scalar theme....
After the opening Wagner, Salonen gave a little introduction to the Donatoni, saying that it ends with downwards scale in the harpsichord, ending with something like a joke. So my brain was primed to notice scales, which first showed up in the upwards direction, then, later, downwards, then, even later, some down-then-up "V" shapes, finally ending with a scale in the harpsichord that started high and finished in the middle of the range.
The piece unfolded naturally, logically, for quite a while, but in the last few minutes, it broke its constant flow, like an ice berg breaking into smaller floes. Salonen warned us this would happen, but it seemed a little sudden: the music quickly devolved into short licks and effects; the pauses seemed unnaturally long. Maybe I wasn't ready for it to end and was just subconsciously bargaining for more time.
Some of the upwards scales, especially in the strings and the mallets, were scored in such a way, subtracting instruments as it got higher, that the scale seemed to disappear into the stratosphere. Could this be a metaphor for ascension? And downwards scales descension?
It had the affect of a total or post-serialist from the 1940s or 50s but with a polish and sophistication that sets it apart as more mature. It's easier to write thorny dissonance; it's harder to integrate the dissonance into the score at such a level that it doesn't even sound dissonant.
Preceding Esa (In causa V) was Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was also transcendent--of individualism. The Prelude contrasts the march-like communal music with the more expressive lyricism of individuality, setting up a dialectic that is at the crux of the opera.
Then the Bruckner: his 7th Symphony. [Listen]
The Wagner set up the dichotomy; the Donatoni was a personal expression of the individual; the Bruckner was an uplifting affirmation of community through both sentiment and bombast.
The pleasure of such a work makes us forget our differences and feel as one.
Like a lot of such music, it was relatively simplistic in its texture. Bruckner hadn't realized that diminished chords arpeggiated in tutti are not that original. And sequences around the circle of 5ths? Who do you think you are? Bach? In fact, I could hear a lot of Bach in the underlying melodies and accompaniments--in the first movement especially. And, at first, it was refreshing, after a lot of contemporary music, to hear a plain old suspended 4th. But that got old after a while too.
Though it could be about half as long--especially the interminable and overly repetitious 2nd movement--the piece pulls out all stops in the brass. And the CSO brass is the brass you want to hear in the earth-shaking moments: so much power! For the more sensitive moments, like in the 2nd movement, Bruckner employs Wagner Tubas, a rarely heard horn-related instrument.
The CSO was amazing throughout. I decided what is so beautiful about Mathieu Dufour's tone on the flute: his vibrato. So lovely.
And, finally, if you're that old man who yelled "Awesome" in the split second after the Bruckner: screw you. You turned the glory of the communal into something very individual. The brief moment of silence after a great piece of music is like the exhale after sex; learn to savor it.