by Walter Simmons
LINER NOTES – NICOLAS FLAGELLO. Piano Concerto No. 1 Tatjana Rankovich (pn). Dante’s Farewell (orchestrated by Anthony Sbordoni) Susan Gonzalez (sop). Concerto Sinfonico New Hudson Saxophone Quartet. Rutgers Symphony Orchestra Kynan Johns (cond.) National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
John McLaughlin Williams, conductor. World Premiere Recordings NAXOS 8.559296
Walter Simmons, executive producer
Recorded: Mason Gross Performing Arts Center, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, New Jersey), November 6, 2004.
Large Concert Studio, National Radio Company of Ukraine (Kiev), June 22-26, 2005
Publishers: Piano Concerto No. 1, Dante’s Farewell (Maelos Music, Inc., P.O. Box 363, New Rochelle, NY 10805); Concerto Sinfonico (To the Fore Publishers, 82 Copley Ave., Teaneck, NJ 07666)
Nicolas Flagello was one of the last American composers to pursue traditional romantic musical values, intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For him music was a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression, a view not at all fashionable during the post-World War II years when Flagello’s creative personality was crystallizing, especially in the New York metropolitan area where he was located. Composers at that time were judged according to their “originality;” the pursuit of “experimental” techniques was given great importance. In such a milieu Flagello’s music gained little attention. Yet he held fast to his ideals throughout his life, producing a large and varied body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works, much of it still unperformed at the time of his death. However, with the greater tolerance of stylistic diversity that appeared during the latter decades of the 20th century, Flagello’s music began finding an increasingly sympathetic audience.
Flagello was born in New York City in 1928 to a family that had been musically active for generations. He studied both piano and violin as a child, and began composing on his own before the age of ten. He was soon brought to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, a highly esteemed composer and teacher known for his adherence to traditional musical values. Giannini became Flagello’s mentor, and the two developed a close professional and personal friendship that lasted until the older man’s death in 1966. In 1945 Flagello entered the Manhattan School of Music, where Giannini served on the faculty. Earning both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) degrees there, he joined the faculty himself upon graduating, and remained there for more than 25 years. (For a time during the 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.) Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955, he took a leave to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, working under the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti, and earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori.
In 1964, when a group of recordings first introduced Flagello’s music to the broader listening public, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.” In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The work was subsequently recorded, and has since been performed throughout the United States and Canada. And in 1982, his opera The Judgment of St. Francis was produced in Assisi, Italy.
In addition to composing, Flagello was active as a pianist and conductor, and made dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a degenerative illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.
During the years since his death, Flagello’s music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, attracting the attention of a new generation of listeners. Violinists Elmar Oliveira and Midori, and conductors Semyon Bychkov and James DePreist are just a few of today’s leading performers who have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.
The three works presented on this recording span a period of 35 years, and encompass Flagello’s entire compositional career. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is his first large-scale work, Dante’s Farewell was written at the height of his career, during a period of intensely productive creative activity, and the Concerto Sinfonico was his last work. Each exemplifies what was perhaps Flagello’s favorite compositional medium: the concerted work, featuring a soloist (or soloists) against the backdrop of a symphony orchestra. As treated by Flagello, such works suggest an individual bearing witness to life’s spiritual and emotional torments, with the orchestra as empathic Greek chorus. Viewed autobiographically, the three works might be said to reflect his emotional life at the beginning, middle, and end of his creative life.
Flagello’s Piano Concerto No. 1—the first of three—was composed in 1950, as part of the requirements for his Master’s Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, where it received its first performance that year. The soloist was Joseph Seiger, and the composer conducted the Manhattan Orchestra. The work has never been performed since then. Upon encountering the concerto, one is struck by two observations: One is the confidence with which Flagello addresses every convention of the romantic piano concerto, and in the process demonstrates a thorough mastery of traditional compositional technique. Several motifs are introduced at the outset, and these generate most of the work’s thematic material. This material is developed with a consistent logic: most of the thematic ideas appear in counterpoint with one another; the elaborate first movement displays an extensive cadenza, which leads directly into a brilliant fugato. Although tonal centers are not always clear and unambiguous, a general sense of tonality is always maintained. The second—and perhaps more remarkable—observation is the boldness with which the 22-year-old composer asserts his own forceful personality. Listeners familiar with Flagello’s other works will immediately recognize the vehement articulation, emotional turbulence, and surging passions that continued to characterize his work throughout his career.
The first movement, Allegro maestoso, introduces two main thematic ideas: the first, emphatic and defiant, containing an insistent ostinato motif; the second, characterized by a plaintive lyricism and irregular rhythmic phraseology. These ideas are developed with remarkable thoroughness throughout the course of this imposing movement—longer than the other two movements combined.
The second movement, Andante, is a melancholy nocturne, which rises to an impassioned climax before receding to a poignant conclusion.
The third movement, Allegro con brio, is scherzo-like in character, but, like the first movement, in sonata allegro form. At times this movement calls to mind the music of Bernard Herrmann, which Flagello greatly admired. The main theme, derived from the principal theme of the first movement, toys with hemiola patterns, while the secondary theme is characterized by an ascending series of fourths. Both ideas are developed energetically, until the secondary theme from the first movement joins the finale theme in what is in effect a recapitulation of the entire concerto.
In 1959, Flagello’s musical language reached a new level of maturity: more intense emotionally, more dissonant harmonically, more irregular rhythmically, formally tighter, and less obviously tonal. The works that followed proved to be among his most powerful and deeply expressive creations. The year 1962 in particular was the most productive of Flagello’s career. In that one year he completed his Piano Sonata, Third Piano Concerto, the Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra, and the first version of a Te Deum. He also composed a work he termed a “dramatic monologue:” Dante’s Farewell, a setting for soprano and orchestra of portions of an unpublished text entitled Gemma Donati, by the prolific Italian-American poet and Latin scholar Joseph Tusiani (b. 1924).
Dante’s Farewell presents an episode in the life of the great Italian poet and statesman, through the words of his devoted wife, Gemma. In what soprano Susan Gonzalez describes as “somewhat like a mad scene,” Gemma tells of a nightmarish vision that came to Dante, warning him of danger to Florence, and his painful decision to leave her and their children, and depart for Rome on behalf of his city-state, never to return. The piece is unified by a motif built around the interval of a third, introduced near the beginning by the solo violin. (Flagello’s composition was completed several months before Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, a work of remarkably similar style and scope.)
During Flagello’s most productive years, when his music was rarely performed, he developed the habit of leaving his works—including those intended for orchestra—in short score, planning to orchestrate them when a performance appeared imminent. Unfortunately, many of these works—complete in every other respect—remained in short score at the time of his death. One of these was Dante’s Farewell. In 2003, at the request of the Flagello estate, composer and music editor Anthony Sbordoni completed an orchestration for the work. Sbordoni’s scoring displays an acute sensitivity to Flagello’s approach to the orchestra, along with remarkable skill in bringing to life the sonorities implicit in the manuscript. The orchestral premiere of Dante’s Farewell took place at Hunter College (CUNY), in October, 2004. Nicholas Ross conducted the Hunter College Orchestra, and Susan Gonzalez, heard here, was the soprano soloist.
The Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra was Flagello’s last completed work. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in November, 1985, with the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. Although the character of much of Flagello’s music is dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation, and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his terminal illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge or awareness in order to understand and appreciate. Its title indicates the composer’s conception of the work as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the composite voice of a hypothetical protagonist. The Concerto Sinfonico has had numerous performances in the United States and in Europe, and has been transcribed for symphonic band as well.
The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme—a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme—is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows, beginning with a fugato played over an irregular rhythmic ostinato. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and hope, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, which bring the movement to a defiant conclusion.
The second movement, Lento movendo, is a darkly mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This section gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central portion that culminates in a chilling explosion, which Flagello likened to “the voice of God.” The passage ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement.
The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with a variant of the three-note motif, played by the timpani, cellos and basses. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque “trio” section, before the scherzo idea returns, now subjected to a thorough development. This eventually builds to another stark proclamation from “the voice of God,” followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work’s main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.
Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)
For further information, visit www.Flagello.com
(Text taken from the monologue Gemma Donati, by Joseph Tusiani)
Years, many years ago, I heard him moan in his sleep. When he woke, he said but this: “I have been through a forest dark with doom, and hell was in me, and no one, no one was saved.” Then he walked to the palace, pale and worn. Now I know that his dream was more than a dream and his fear more than death.
The meaning of that vision–that far vision in which he saw soft-veiled tears and stars, that woman of his spirit, Beatrice. She was God’s dream made visible to eyes in love with never setting light.
You may not understand, yet I must tell my grief, and utter no lament for it. I never knew of politics. I called myself a White, for Dante was a White.* To be the mother of his children, and the shadow of his light–it was my glory.
One night I heard him say: “Tomorrow dawn, I’ll leave for Rome.” I looked at him dismayed, for I knew he was feverish and weak; but Florence was in danger. I looked at him again as if to warn him against the perils of the road, the cold of nights, when, bursting in a rage of fire he cried to me: “Your holiness, how long shall we keep Christ a-bleeding on the cross? How shall we save our souls if yours is dead? Let Christ descend again, and rid his temple of thieves and hypocrites! Is God dead too?”
I kissed his hand with tenderness, and said: “O my good lord, you are so tired and ill.” He looked at me, his bride, and he was sad. “Gemma,” he said, “Take care of our children, as you have always done; birds with no more nest. Poor Gemma, go, and promise not to see me when I leave.” His kiss kept me awake and weeping.
Through the night I heard him pace–a wraith of war and death…!! Up and down, down and up, … I heard him pace.…And as he paused in anguish and despair, the river roared, raucous beneath the stones of Ponte Vecchio! The river roared!!
That dawn rose grey as if no day would follow. I saw him kiss his children’s dreaming brows. He came then, furtively, to me and kissed me….
*refers to the political faction with which Dante aligned himself
Tatjana Rankovich (pianist)
Tatjana Rankovich was born in Belgrade, Serbia, graduating with highest honors from the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad. By age 18, she had already won three first prizes in national competitions in the former Yugoslavia. Immigrating to the United States the following year, she entered the Juilliard School, earning both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Ms. Rankovich has won numerous awards and prizes, among them the Gina Bachauer Scholarship, the Young Keyboard Artists International Piano Competition, and the Olga Koussevitzky Piano Competition. In addition to being a sensitive performer of a wide range of standard piano repertoire, she is also a persuasive advocate of American music, performing and recording little-known works by Vittorio Giannini and Paul Creston, in addition to Nicolas Flagello. Her recording of Flagello’s Second and Third Piano Concertos was enthusiastically received by the press, and chosen as a “best of the year” release by Fanfare in 1996 and again in 1999. Ms. Rankovich has featured both American and European repertoire on her many international concert tours. Sponsored by a Fulbright Grant and by the U. S. State Department, she presented recitals throughout Serbia and Montenegro, as well as master classes at the Belgrade Conservatory. She has been frequent guest soloist with the Belgrade Radio Symphony, the Nis Symphony, and the Zagreb Philharmonic. During a 2003 tour with the Novi Sad Chamber Orchestra, a film documentary on her life and work was produced and televised. Ms. Rankovich is currently on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music.
Susan Gonzalez (soprano)
In addition to a rich and varied career in both opera and concert performance, soprano Susan Gonzalez has been active as a stage director as well. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, she went on to earn Master’s and Doctoral degrees at the Eastman School of Music. She has appeared with the Chicago Lyric Opera, New Orleans Opera, and with the Bolshoi Opera in Russia, and with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, Annapolis Symphony, and the Mozart Players. She has been featured soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra, and as a soloist in the major oratorios of Fauré, Brahms, Schubert, and Mozart. Among her honors and prizes have been awards from the Metropolitan Opera, the George London, Leonard Warren, and Baltimore Opera Competitions, from the Liederkranz Foundation, and from the American Opera Association. She received an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Rosina in a televised production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and her recorded recital of songs by women composers has drawn considerable positive attention. Dr. Gonzalez is currently Director of Performance at Hunter College (CUNY), where she teaches vocal technique and stages musical theater productions.
New Hudson Saxophone Quartet
Formed in 1987, the NHQ is dedicated to serious concert presentations of the saxophone quartet repertoire. Tonal purity and refinement and intimate musical rapport are hallmarks of NHQ performances. In addition to Flagello’s Concerto Sinfonico, the quartet has recorded the Saxophone Concerto by Calvin Hampton, and has appeared with the Charleston Symphony, Long Island Philharmonic, and the Greenwich (CT) Symphony. The NHQ can be heard on recordings for the Sonari, Eclectic, and Arizona University labels.
Paul Cohen (soprano)
Paul Cohen (soprano) has appeared as soloist with the Group for Contemporary Music, and with many of America’s leading orchestras. He has recorded with such diverse groups as the Cleveland Symphonic Winds, Quintet of the Americas, the Philharmonia Virtuosi, Paul Winter Consort, and North-South Consonance, and is currently on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU, Montclair State, and Rutgers University.
Avi Goldrosen (alto)
Avi Goldrosen (alto) has been featured soloist with a variety of orchestras in the New York metropolitan area. He has also performed with the New Juilliard Ensemble, the New Jersey Saxophone Ensemble, and tours with the New York Theater Ballet.
David Demsey (tenor)
David Demsey (tenor) has performed with leading classical ensembles, as well as appearing with some of the leading jazz artists of our time. His essay “Improvisation and Concepts of Virtuosity” appears in the Oxford Companion to Jazz, and he has written two books on composer Alec Wilder. He is Professor of Music and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University.
Tim Ruedeman (baritone) has appeared with both symphony orchestras and new music ensembles. He is a founding member of the contemporary chamber ensemble Flexible Music, and is currently on the faculties of NYU, William Paterson University, and C.W. Post/Long Island University.
Anthony Sbordoni (Composer, orchestrator, and music editor)
Anthony Sbordoni was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1947. He attended Hunter College (CUNY), where he studied with Louise Talma, Ruth Anderson, and Myron Fink. He is currently Ensembles Manager at Hunter College and Associate Orchestra Librarian for the American Ballet Theatre. As a composer, Sbordoni has concentrated on vocal and choral music, but he has also written incidental music for theatre and film, all of which display his dedication to the Neo-Romantic aesthetic. When it became apparent that Flagello had left many works in short score that he would never be able to orchestrate, the Flagello estate invited Sbordoni to provide the necessary orchestrations. In addition to Dante’s Farewell, Sbordoni has completed orchestrations for the short comic opera The Wig (1954), the Violin Concerto (1956), the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1962), and the full-length opera Beyond the Horizon (1983), along with several shorter pieces. As a result of his efforts, these valuable works have been brought to life and made viable for performance and recording.
Australian conductor Kynan Johns is currently Director of Orchestral Activities at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is also Associate Conductor of both the Chinese National Symphony and the Israel Symphony, Haifa. A graduate of the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide, Johns has studied with Kurt Masur, Eri Klas, Peter Eotvos, Ton Koopman, and others. He made his professional debut in 1997 with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and has since conducted all of Australia’s state symphony orchestras, and is a regular guest conductor throughout Australia and New Zealand. He made his debut as an opera conductor in 1999, with Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Opera Australia. This was followed in 2000 by Tales of Hoffman and Madame Butterfly (Australia) and Peter Grimes for the New Israeli Opera. He made his European debut in 2000, conducting the Netherlands Radio Symphony at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. To date Johns has conducted more than sixty orchestras and opera companies throughout the world, and was recently awarded second prize in the prestigious Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition. He made his Carnegie Hall debut as one of eight finalists in the Maazel/Vilar conducting competition, chosen by Lorin Maazel from more than 400 applicants worldwide.
John McLaughlin Williams
American conductor John McLaughlin Williams has been highly praised for his outstanding interpretive abilities and engaging podium presence. Beginning violin study in Washington, DC, at the age of ten, he was chosen just four years later by the Cabinet wives of the Nixon Administration to appear as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in its first Kennedy Center concert series for Washington, DC, school children. He continued his violin studies at Boston University and the New England Conservatory, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music. There he pursued violin study with Martin Chalifour, composition with Donald Erb and Margaret Brouwer, and conducting with Carl Topilow. He was a member of the Houston Symphony, concertmaster of the Virginia Symphony, and has appeared as violin soloist with such orchestras as the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, South Carolina Philharmonic, Portland Symphony, and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. As soloist, he gave the American premieres of the violin concertos by Arnold Bax and Joseph Jongen, and, in 1998, performed the violin concerto of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose chamber music he has also recorded. His first four recordings as conductor for Naxos, featuring works by American composers John Alden Carpenter, George Frederick McKay, and Henry Hadley, have brought him international attention and praise from such publications as Fanfare, Gramophone, Classic FM, International Record Review, American Record Guide and France’s Diapason. His conducting engagements have taken him throughout the United States, where he has focused on contemporary music and music by African-American and minority composers.