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Stefano Gervasoni: Modern Icarus

Not so high, Stefano

Not so high, Stefano

After muddling though Missy Mazzoli’s repertoire two weeks ago, acolyte of the avant-garde Henry Litwhiler explores the depths of masochism at the Miller Theatre’s latest Composer Portrait, Italian composer Stefano Gervasoni.

Stefano Gervasoni was classically trained under Luca Lombardi, Niccolò Castiglioni, and Azio Corghi at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and, after a career that brought him to every corner of Europe, has settled down to teach and compose at the legendary Paris Conservatoire. His work, however, seems specially crafted to assure us that he holds on to none of the prestige of any of those great names. Once a bastion of musical conservatism, the Conservatoire now evidently plays host to what we might neutrally call radicals and generously call progressives. Gervasoni has thrown in his lot with the atonal, as much as he avoids the leap when describing his own work, and for that I don’t fault him—it wouldn’t do for a middle-aged composer to surrender to the past.

And so, accepting the premise that brings Gervasoni to his genre, I entered Miller Theatre with a willing mind. The turnout was better than one would expect from a concert as cutting-edge as this (others professed the same surprise during intermission) and, trusting in the wisdom of the crowd, I took my seat eagerly. As the lights dimmed, the woman sitting to my left slipped a large mint into her mouth, a fact that echoed urgently in my mind as she nodded off—how big is a trachea, anyway? Surely she’d wake up if the monstrosity slipped down the wrong path.

The concert began with vocal ensemble Ekmeles performing Gervasoni’s In dir, a twenty-three-minute conglomeration of half-syllables and pseudo-philosophical German. It was during this piece that I first began to suspect that Gervasoni, for all his rebellion, does best when under certain constraints. It isn’t that the piece is lazily composed or that it requires anything less than virtuosic vocalists, but it is a pointed reminder that effort doesn’t always bring quality and that Gervasoni’s struggle to move beyond the innovation of his mentor can bring him to lands too contrived to enjoy.

To endure the unendearing In dir is to glimpse Gervasoni’s desperation to differentiate; to read his description of the same is to glimpse his desperation to justify. My impression by the end was that the limits imposed by the human voice and by Gervasoni’s appropriation of the words of Angelus Silesius were the only things keeping the piece from descending into undecipherable chaos. The description Gervasoni provides for the piece offers a meaningful explanation for his structural choices, but his idea that “using symbolic signification offered by serialism…as a substitute for the tonal system” offers an attractive path to expression strikes me as wrongheaded.

I concede that Gervasoni has found interesting ways of expressing his—or a—view of God musically, that he has put both thought and effort into the work, and that he has created something that at times seems to toy with being pleasant. However, being neither an expert in music theory nor a gullible masochist, I found his six-paragraph apology pretentious, superficial, and ultimately inadequate.

There are limits to an audience’s willingness to suspend humor and to humor suspense. Gervasoni habitually abused the former with his absurd physical directions and the latter with his habit of cranking up tension to no resolution or to an abrupt collapse. It’s hard to imagine that having the performers cover their mouths while already silent or step back a few inches mid-gasp could so enhance the experience as to justify the spectacle. A sincere work about the mysteries of God should not elicit contemptuous chuckles from any but the most uninitiated.

But maybe that’s precisely what I am. Maybe all the open-mindedness in the world couldn’t deliver me from my pedestrian ignorance. Maybe Stefano Gervasoni is a man so ahead of his time that he can distill the essence of God from the thoughts of a 17th century German theologian and rework it into a masterpiece.

Or maybe music critics and classical tastemakers have grown so fearful of their record of panning future luminaries that they’ve switched to a culture wherein a flowery defense, however hollow, is preferable to self-evident greatness. Few would argue that there is no value in the “hard listen,” that a piece that expresses something needs to be as catchy as something from the Top 40. But the message needs to be coherent, the artistic decisions deliberate and well-supported. Gervasoni is a musician playing philosopher; he may well be a great composer, but he seems to imagine that his every indulgence is excused by the brilliance of his musings.

All of this came to a head in the painful Sviete tihi, an unholy combination of dispassionate piano and directionless percussion. Gervasoni explains that the piece has its roots in a report by Italian journalist Paolo Rumiz about the troubles of Kosovo and that the “slow, almost stationary” notes are representative of “points and beams of light,” which are themselves representative of the hope of the region.

After fourteen minutes of sporadic wind chimes and the odd burst of discordant piano, the house lights went up and I threw in the towel.

I don’t know if Gervonsi’s personality could’ve won me over, if he was prepared to offer some stunning insight that would make sense of the pain I’d endured, if his interview could’ve given me something to love about the evening. But in that moment of weakness, when I picked up my bag and hurried out of the theatre, all I could think was that I could bear no more from the man who wrote, apparently without a hint of irony:

“Mystical suspension, involving an inner emptiness, may not revoke the psychologically determined self that conceives a god who is the projection of that self, and so is just as determined.”

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