by Walter Simmons
Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra by Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994), [orchestrated by A. Sbordoni],World Premiere Performance
- Lento quasi adagio; allegro vivace ma giusto
- Lento andante
- Allegro molto
Nicolas Flagello was one of the 20th century’s leading exponents of traditional late romantic musical values. Without ever repudiating this aesthetic outlook, he succeeded in forging a personal musical language and a distinctive body of work shaped by his own temperament and embodying his own unique perspective on life. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values 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 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.
During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.
As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years. However, gradually Flagello’s works began to win enthusiastic advocacy.
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.” (More than a decade later, Fanfareselected these same recordings for its “Classical Hall of Fame.”) 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.
During the years since his death, Flagello’s music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, introducing his work to a new generation of listeners. Violinist Midori is just one of the leading performers of today who have embraced the deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner, characteristic of Flagello’s work.
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.
Flagello composed his Third Piano Concerto in 1962, during his most fertile period of creative activity. This same year also saw the appearance of his Piano Sonata, a dramatic scene called Dante’s Farewell, the Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra, and the first version of a Te Deum — all among his finest and most deeply searching creations. However, also at this time, Flagello developed the habit of leaving completed works in short score, intending to orchestrate them at a later time. Unfortunately, many such works remained in this state at the time of his death. The Piano Concerto No. 3 was one of these. It was scored in 1994 by Anthony Sbordoni, an American composer who made a thorough study of Flagello’s orchestration technique before undertaking the task.
The Third Concerto is a deeply personal work — dark, brooding, restless, and agitated, frequently erupting into cataclysmic explosions. It is based almost entirely on a single motif, a four-note descending-scale pattern heard first in the violas at the opening of the introduction, marked Lento quasi adagio. A short cadenza, which recurs at key points during the movement, leads into the Allegro vivace ma giusto, based on material derived from the opening motif. These ideas are developed and elaborated in a series of intensely charged episodes in various tempos. The tone is turbulent and aggressive, until a return of the opening cadenza leads directly into the second movement.
The Lento andante opens as the horn introduces a somber statement of the main motif by the brasses. The piano develops this into a gloomy nocturne whose dolorous tone is relieved by moments of bittersweet tenderness. This leads directly into a lugubrious “ghost-march,” whose tortured mood culminates in a climax that seems to convey both triumph and despair.
The finale, Allegro molto, follows without pause. Its character might be described as a demonic “tarantella from hell,” in which the concerto’s basic motif predominates in clearly recognizable form. The movement pursues its alternately grotesque and tempestuous course, finally leading to a coda marked Con piú entusiasmo, in which the intensity reaches a febrile pitch as the concentrated development of thematic material is focused toward a decisive conclusion.