The Portland Phoenix
March 1 - 8, 2001

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Pretty tales of woe

The PSO plays Comolli’s Icarus and more

By Doug Hubley

Portland Symphony Orchestra Classical Series Concert, works by Comolli, Richard Strauss, Verdi, at 7:30 p.m. March 6, in Merrill Auditorium.

GIA COMMOLI: writing music about winged kids and rampaging elephants.
You’ve got to respect the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s nerve for letting a theme of existential frustration dominate next Tuesday’s Classical Series concert, at Merrill Auditorium. Two works on the program, arguably all three, deal with the notion of striving for the unattainable – and don’t we get enough of that outside the concert hall? Isn’t it gratuitous that even our diversions, in the hours between a long day of meaningless work and a night that brings us that much closer to the Big Sleep, remind us that we toil in vain?

Yeah, bourgeois life’s a bear, huh? At least these are tuneful reminders. Composer Gia Comolli, of Bath, gives us The Flight of Icarus, interpreting the old cautionary tale: boy seeks to get up close and personal with sun, encounters terra firma instead. Then there’s Don Juan, seen by Richard Strauss as more of an idealistic seeker, doomed to frustration, rather than a rampant playboy doomed by behavior. Finally, the PSO and the Choral Art Society offer Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri (“Four Sacred Pieces”), settings of ancient Christian texts. How exactly they relate to the futility of human endeavor, I’m not sure. But you can bet they do.

Written at the end of the 19th century, the Quattro Pezzi Sacri include Verdi’s last compositions. Two are arranged for orchestra and chorus, and the other two for voices alone. One of the latter, the “Ave Maria,” is further distinguished by the scale Verdi built it from – a so-called “enigmatic scale” (read: weird) that he saw in a music magazine. The other three pieces are more deeply felt, less in the nature of exercises. Composers over the centuries have frequently resorted to these same texts, but Verdi’s particular contribution was the dramatic sense that made him opera’s greatest composer. That’s especially true in the “Te Deum,” whose praise for God gives way to what Verdi called sadness “to the point of terror.” (Robert Russell, director of the Choral Art Society, further dissects Verdi in a “Concert Conversation” in Merrill at 6:15 p.m., Tuesday. The concert starts at 7:30.)

The Comolli and Strauss works are tone poems, also known as symphonic poems. The idea is to create a musical analog to some non-musical idea, such as a story. Almost by definition these works are forthright and colorful, since the point is to create images in sound.

The images Strauss made will grab you by the shirtfronts, starting with a big flourish and proceeding to track Juan’s affairs with a fevered Wagnerian disdain for key signature. Perceiving his hero as less a Casanova than a man in search of the womanly ideal, the composer ramps up to a ferocious, um, climax – and then has Juan, disappointed in every conquest, kill himself with a rapier, portrayed by a trumpet.

The story of Icarus examines cosmic futility as applied to the curious innocent rather than an ennobled Hugh Hefner. If your Greek mythology is rusty, here’s what happens: Daedalus, an inventor, and his son Icarus are imprisoned in a labyrinth. The only escape is by air, so Daedalus makes wings from wax and bird feathers. They get away, but Icarus ignores his Dad’s advice and flies too near the sun, which melts the wax holding his wings together. Next thing you know, it’s “going down, please.”

Comolli, whose take on the contemporary art music idiom falls on the melodious side, follows the action closely. She paints the labyrinth with pizzicato strings, depicts the flight with an insistent lofty theme, and uses a bit of piano to mark the start of Icarus’s troubles. “Finally he falls,” Comolli says, “and you’ll hear that for sure.”

(The back story here, by the way, is juicy. Who built the labyrinth? Daedalus, to confine the monstrous, human-eating Minotaur. Who was the Minotaur? The half-bull, half human child of the queen of Crete, impregnated by the object of her lust, a wooden bull – invented by Daedalus! Who imprisoned Daedalus? The king, and who could blame him?)

Comolli’s Icarus was premiered in Philadelphia in 1989. Now 35, she grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, studied in New York and Baltimore, and came to Maine in 1996. Comolli and her husband, Dino Liva, moved north with the DaPonte String Quartet, for which Liva plays violin.

Comolli, who also teaches piano and composition, has won a stack of honors for her music, including two ASCAP Meet the Composer Grants and the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Icarus is her PSO debut, but not her first narrative-driven composition. “A lot of great music is based on stories,” she says.

In fact, she’s currently writing another tone poem based on a dreadful occurrence that has intrigued her since she saw it in People magazine in the 1990s. It was one of those all-too-common episodes when a circus elephant, this one carrying a mother and two children, went berserk and terrorized spectators and circus staff. The passengers were rescued, but the poor animal had to be killed. Talk about your existential futility.

“That made me very sad,” says Comolli. “Maybe she just hated working for the circus anymore.”

Doug Hubley can be reched at doug.hubley@worldnet.att.net

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