Yellow Barn mounts illuminating residency

Thursday, July 28, 2016

David Weininger writes for The Boston Globe:

To a degree unusual among high-caliber gatherings, Vermont’s Yellow Barn festival insists on the centrality of the contemporary in the summer music landscape. Of crucial significance is its annual composer residency, a part of the Yellow Barn tradition that has, in recent years, included Philippe Hersant, Brett Dean, and, most recently, Jörg Widmann.

The idea extends beyond simply programming a large fraction of one composer’s oeuvre. As important is the opportunity created to put more familiar repertoire in dialogue with something seemingly alien, thus throwing new light on both.

This year’s festival has upped the ante by bringing to Yellow Barn’s idyllic environs a composer both distinguished and largely unknown in this country. Stefano Gervasoni, 54, studied with several masters of European modernism, among them Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and György Ligeti. Yet though he holds academic positions at the prestigious Paris Conservatory and in his native Bergamo, Italy, his music is largely a cipher in the US. Yellow Barn’s Composer Portrait concert (Aug. 2) offers a rare opportunity to hear a full evening of his works. Further compositions will be distributed through the concerts that follow, in the company of pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Schoenberg, and Fauré, among others.

Knopp, speaking from the festival’s home in Putney, said that he’d heard about Gervasoni’s music from percussionist Eduardo Leandro, a Yellow Barn faculty member since 2010. Listening to a selection of his works piqued Knopp’s curiosity, though he wondered if it was just personal interest rather than something on which to base an entire residency. Then he discovered that while Gervasoni may not have established a huge profile in America, “many of the young participants revere him.”

How to begin talking about such unfamiliar fare? One could start with Gervasoni’s relationship to the traditions that he sees himself standing both within and outside of. Two works to be performed at Yellow Barn give some indication of this complex interaction: “descdesesasf,” a 1995 string trio, and “Luce ignota della sera,” a short piece for piano and electronics composed in 2015.

Both are homages to Schumann, bringing his music into a creative counterpoint with other artists. Material for the trio is derived from a motif in one of Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke.” At one point the music stops so that the three musicians can quietly recite “Aschenglorie,” a grimly un-nerving late poem by Paul Celan. “Luce ignota” integrates a four-hand piece by Schumann with an excerpt from Gervasoni’s “Prédicatif,” itself a homage to Nono. The electronics confer on this strange meeting a halo both enticing and unsettling, as if the encounter were recalibrating the internal vibrations of Gervasoni’s musical sources, producing what note the composer in a program note calls “scraps of sound that unite and become confused, in a world heard microscopically, ideally beyond reality.”

Those words, though intended to describe “Luce ignota,” could also describe the artistic permeation that occurs in “descdesesasf.” They also point, albeit in an indirect way, to an important characteristic of Gervasoni’s work more generally. The sounds he uses bear at least a family resemblance to those of other composers, especially Lachenmann. Yet his works also have an airiness, a sense of breath and even light, that sets them apart from his mentors’ more frictional creations.

“There’s a kind of density to Gervasoni’s music,” Knopp put it. “Not so much texturally, but it gives me the feeling of very dense music that has experienced the big bang. You have things that are floating away from each other that once belonged together. And he has a way about writing where you feel there’s a cohesion, always, in spite of that.

“There is a lyricism that’s there, even in a single sound,” he said elsewhere. “The difficulty in realizing what he wants is the separation, the space between things, and you have to be able to hear from very high up. It’s like looking at the earth from outer space.”

At one point during the conversation Knopp mentioned that he had been “talking around” Gervasoni’s music, and that he looked forward to his residency in large part because that, and that alone, would be his chance to truly know it.

“I wish I could tell you more about it,” he said. “But I kind of feel like to know him, you have to hear more of it in person. There are other composers where you can tell about the piece through a performance that may or may not be doing it justice. But his music is very much performance dependent. It’s so refined and difficult enough that it really depends on us to do well by it.”