by Walter Simmons
EZIO FLAGELLO SINGS THE MUSIC OF NICOLAS FLAGELLO
IN PERFORMANCES CONDUCTED BY THE COMPOSER
Passion of Martin Luther King(1968)
Ezio Flagello: bass baritone; Ambrosian Singers, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Nicolas Flagello, conductor
The Land (1954)
Ezio Flagello: bass baritone; I Musici di Firenze, Nicolas Flagello, conductor
The brothers Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) and Ezio Flagello (1931-2009) were born in New York City to a family that had been musically active for generations. Their father, a successful dress designer, was an amateur oboist, and their mother had been a singer whose father (conductor and composer Domenico Casiello) was said to have studied with Verdi. Both boys became immersed in music at an early age, although their parents did not encourage them to pursue it professionally. Nicolas began playing the piano at 3, and started to compose before the age of 10. After high school he resisted his parents’ wish that he pursue a career in engineering. Ezio was more amenable to their plan for him to become a dentist. Nicolas, who had already begun studying composition with Vittorio Giannini, entered the Manhattan School of Music in 1945, earning both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) degrees there. Upon graduation he joined the Manhattan School faculty, where he remained for 25 years. Meanwhile, as Ezio’s voice began to mature, its rich quality began to attract attention, and he entered the Manhattan School as well, studying with Friedrich Schorr. Upon graduating in 1953, he joined the Army, where his extraordinary talent was recognized when he won first prize in an Army talent search. This led to auspicious appearances on the TV shows of Arlene Francis and Ed Sullivan. Both brothers won Fulbright Fellowships in 1955, enabling them to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
In 1957 Ezio was persuaded to enter the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air and won First Prize. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Tosca that year, and two weeks later with little notice was asked to substitute for an ailing colleague as Leporello in Don Giovanni. Thus began an illustrious career that included 528 performances with the Metropolitan, as well as appearances with the San Francisco Opera, Philadelphia Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Connecticut Opera, Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera, and other companies throughout the country. His European tours included performances at La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper and Berlin Deutsche Opera, as well as London’s Covent Garden. He was widely acclaimed in the title roles of Falstaff and Gianni Schichi, in addition to Dr. Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’Amore, Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Klingsor in Parsifal, Pogner in Die Meistersinger, and many others. In 1966 he created the role of Enobarbus in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. In addition he appeared on the concert stage with many of the world’s leading orchestras. Later in his career, Ezio won a Grammy Award and a Grand Prix du Disque for his recordings of Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni respectively. In addition he played a cameo role in the film The Godfather II, and appeared several times on The Tonight Show.
During his years on the faculty of the Manhattan School, Nicolas continued to compose, eventually producing a large and distinguished body of work. His music embodied traditional romantic musical values, although his later works were intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For him music remained a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression. His works include six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works.
In the American Record Guide Mark Lehman wrote, “What [Nicolas] Flagello brings to his art is … an absolute conviction in the primacy of emotion: the music throbs with vitality. It can be exciting or turbulent, sweetly melancholy or tragic — but it is always openly and fiercely passionate.” And in Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002), Bret Johnson stated, “[Nicolas] Flagello was perhaps the most effective exponent of the American lyrical post-romantic ideal in the generation that followed Barber. His profound belief in the expressive power of music is manifest in every piece.”
In addition to composing, Nicolas 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. Although much of Nicolas’ music remained unheard at the time of his death, in recent years his work 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 Nicolas Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.
Nicolas Flagello had long admired Martin Luther King’s dedication to the ideals of human justice and brotherhood and was deeply moved by the influential black leader’s assassination in April 1968. The comment made by Pope Paul VI, upon learning of King’s sudden martyrdom, ‘‘I liken the life of this man to the life of our Lord,’’ immediately galvanized Nicolas’ creative energy. Seeking a suitable form of musical tribute, he recalled a work he had composed in 1953 for chorus and orchestra, called Pentaptych. This piece, which had never been performed, comprised settings of five sacred texts from the Latin liturgy: 1. Hosanna Filio David; 2. Cor Jesu; 3. Et Flagellis Subditum; 4. Stabat Mater; and 5. Jubilate Deo. Nicolas realized that restructuring the work around Martin Luther King would provide a human focus missing from the earlier composition. He decided to combine excerpts from the speeches of the slain civil rights leader in alternation with the Latin liturgical texts, so as to suggest King as a latter-day embodiment of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the selections he chose from King’s speeches concern the fundamental Christian values of brotherly love, faith in God’s omniscient goodness, and enduring hardship without succumbing to fear or vengeance, rather than more worldly social concerns. He set King’s words for bass-baritone, in an expressive arioso consistent stylistically with the choral portions, in such a way that the vernacular solo element continually reverberates against the timeless spirituality of the Latin choral sections in a deeply moving synergy. Nicolas ended the work with a heartfelt setting of a portion of the ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech, followed by the vigorous choral fugue ‘‘Jubilate Deo.’’
Shortly after its completion, Nicolas and Ezio decided to record the work in England, with the London Philharmonic and the Ambrosian Singers. However, a suitable company was not found to release the recording, and it lay dormant for a while. Several years later the distinguished conductor James DePreist became interested in the work, and agreed to lead the premiere with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Cathedral Choral Society at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in 1974, with Ezio as soloist. However, while preparing the work several months earlier, DePreist requested that Nicolas omit the ‘‘I Have a Dream’’/‘‘Jubilate Deo’’ sequence. In DePreist’s own words: “The music that accompanied the ‘I Have a Dream’ segment was so incredibly beautiful that it captured the spirit of the words, but in a crucial sense it did not capture the contrast of the context of those words—that it was necessary to have a march to the Capitol to make those words, that dream, a reality. I told Nicolas it needed to be more bittersweet to evoke the experience more fully…. So we talked about how I felt the spirit of the work would be better encapsulated in a new finale based upon a return to the theme of the third movement.”
Nicolas agreed to the change, and that was the version presented at the Washington, DC, premiere, and at the many performances the work has had since then, as well as on the recording conducted by DePreist, released in 1995. The 1969 recording of the original version of the work was never released—until now. In 2008, the American people elected Barack Obama, an African-American, to the Presidency of the United States. The Flagello Estate felt that this triumph was a significant milestone toward the realization of Dr. King’s “Dream,” and, perhaps, justified a revival of the original conception of the work. It was decided that a return to the original version of the Passion would be initiated by the first release of the 1969 recording, featuring Ezio Flagello’s towering performance as bass-baritone soloist.
During his period of study at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Nicolas enjoyed the tutelage of the distinguished Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968). Although Pizzetti’s influence left little impact on Flagello’s compositional style, which had already begun to reveal an individual voice of its own, the maestro, then 76, reinforced his student’s proud awareness of his place in the continuity of Italian musical tradition. One of the pieces that Nicolas composed during this sojourn was L’Infinito, a setting of a poem of precocious philosophical cast by the nineteen-year-old Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837). Pizzetti had asserted that the well-known poem was almost impossible to set, presenting an irresistible challenge to the young composer. A gloomy expression of humility and awe in the face of the Infinite, Leopardi’s poem reveals a lofty yet pessimistic perspective that Nicolas was coming increasingly to share, and his setting aptly captures its spirit. He set L’Infinito for bass-baritone and piano, with his brother in mind, although he later arranged the accompaniment for chamber orchestra.
Some years earlier, in 1954, also with his brother in mind, Nicolas had composed The Land, a song cycle comprising settings of six poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for bass-baritone and chamber orchestra. Ezio introduced the cycle in New York City the following year, under the composer’s direction. The cycle was recorded, together with L’Infinito, in Rome in 1962. Nicolas’ warm, luxuriant settings present a variety of contrasting moods, expanding Tennyson’s simple verses in praise of birds, flowers, and seasons into a grand pantheistic statement, innocent in its fervor, which becomes explicit in the final song, ‘‘Flower in the Cranny.’’ The entire cycle is unified by a single motif, first presented during an extended introduction, against an undulating instrumental backdrop suggesting waves of the sea. This motif, first heard in D minor, recurs in each song, often in altered form. At the end of ‘‘Flower in the Cranny,’’ which has something of the character of a chaconne, this motif achieves a rapturous resolution in E major during an extended epilogue. The other poems in the cycle are ‘‘The Eagle,’’ ‘‘The Owl,’’ ‘‘The Throstle,’’ ‘‘The Oak,’’ and ‘‘The Snowdrop.’’ The Land displays Nicolas Flagello’s mastery of orchestration in conveying, with only a small group of instruments, the effect of a full orchestra. The accompaniment of this song cycle achieves a remarkable richness and variety of instrumental color, although it calls for an ensemble consisting of only four winds and a group of strings, augmented by piano and celeste.
Notes by Walter Simmons
Author of Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2006)
For further information, see www.Flagello.com