FLAGELLO: Concerto for String Orchestra

Concerto for String Orchestra by Nicolas Flagello

Nicolas Flagello was born in New York City in 1928, to a family in which music has played a central role for several generations. (His grandfather, composer-conductor Domenico Casiello, was said to have studied with Verdi, while his brother Ezio was a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera.) Deeply immersed in the Late-Romantic European musical heritage from birth, he became a child prodigy, performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten.  During this time he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with the composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values and principles of the grand European tradition.  His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977.  During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello wrote music at a prodigious rate.  In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to great acclaim, and has been performed subsequently throughout the United States and Canada. (The work has been recorded by the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of James DePreist, on Koch International Classics.) In 1982, his opera, The Judgment of Saint Francis, was produced in Assisi, Italy. In addition, Flagello continued to appear publicly as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings with the Orchestra de Camera di Roma and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, featuring a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque to the twentieth century.  In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely.  He died in March, 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Nicolas Flagello vehemently rejected the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, although his defiance of prevailing dogmas prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years.  Nevertheless, despite such pressure, he maintained his view of music as a personal vehicle for emotional and spiritual expression with unswerving conviction.  Today, as increased attention is turned to America’s traditionalist composers, Flagello’s music is finding a growing number of admirers who are discovering his varied catalogue of some 75 works, including six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works.

The New Grove describes Flagello’s music as:

 . . . marked by brooding despair and violent agitation, which find release in massive climaxes of shattering impact.  Despite its emotional effusiveness, the music is closely argued and remarkably skillful and imaginative in its handling of subtle instrumental colours.  Flagello’s later compositions [post-1958] are highly chromatic and dissonant, while retaining the earlier propensity for heartfelt melody and harmonic richness, and showing a clear anchoring in tonality at structural peaks.

The Concerto for String Orchestra, composed in 1959, is a transitional work, occupying a position between Flagello’s early and later style-periods. A motoric regularity of pattern in the outer movements gives the work an uncharacteristic neo-Baroque flavor.  The opening Allegro misurato presents a mood of grim determination that is maintained throughout the movement.  After a rather orthodox exposition of the two main themes, they become intertwined in such an elaborate development that the final recapitulatory statement is delayed until the coda.

The second movement, Andante languido, is a favorite among admirers of Flagello’s music–a lament of despair in which the composer’s most intimate, personal voice comes to the fore.  In a characteristic fashion, it begins almost tentatively, until successively more elaborate phrases build in intensity to an eloquent climax.

The third movement, Allegro vivace, returns to the vigorous rhythmic character of the opening movement.  It is essentially a five-part rondo, built around an insistent, almost skittish, refrain.  The main presentation of this refrain is followed by a contrasting episode in which a slightly melancholy tune appears over continuous running figures. (This tune gradually reveals an affinity to the secondary theme of the first movement.) After a restatement of the refrain, a second episode features an extensive fugal treatment of a fragment from the main theme, with the melancholy tune appearing as a countersubject.  After a final restatement of the refrain, the work comes to a spirited and decisive conclusion.