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No, No Nono

New York
John C. Borden Auditorium
10/04/2001 -  
Bettina Ehrhardt/Wolfgang Schreiber: A Trail on the Water
Bettina Ehrhardt (spokesperson)

Back in the very early 1960’s, when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were just gleams in their member’s ears and psyches, the really rebellious music of youth was being written in the classical arena, specifically in the hothouse environment of Italy. Those of us who came of age during those turbulent times can remember thinking of Boulez and Stockhausen, in the way that Anton Webern referred to Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, as “the old masters”. The next wave was already crashing on the shore of the musical establishment and formed itself into a sort of “second Venetian school” with Bruno Maderna as the professorial father figure, Luciano Berio as the Bergian romantic and, in the iconoclastic Webern role, a young firebrand named Luigi Nono. Combining radical musicolinguistics and revolutionary politics, Nono quickly became a symbol for the newest version of the avant-garde and interacted with many of the young Turks of Italy who would shape the concert scene to come. Perhaps the most colorful of these artists was the recently departed Giuseppe Sinopoli and, although he obviously couldn’t be there, his two most esteemed comrades in arms, Maurizio Pollini and Claudio Abbado, were scheduled to be on hand last evening for a symposium at the Manhattan School of Music centering around a film about the life and work of this fiercely committed and influential composer. Set to join them in the discussion were one of the filmmakers herself and the Maestro’s extraordinary widow Nuria Schoenberg Nono.

To those of us from that certain generation, Nuria Nono holds roughly the same degree of celebrity as those deceptively vulnerable girls of pop music who are the daughters of cult heroes from the Age of Aquarius. Think of her as being an older version of Moon Unit Zappa or Mackenzie Phillips and you will have some idea of her mythic status. So inflamed with the cause of Italian communism that she named her own daughter Tai-yang Cheng in sympathy with the cultural revolution in China, Ms. Nono inherited at least one characteristic from her famous father. Her doggedness and determination, most recently apparent in her quixotic struggles (leading to eventual victory) with the University of California over the Schoenberg legacy, have shown her to be a force with which to be reckoned in the preservation of our most precious cultural heritage. In fact, she reminds me of the much maligned and misunderstood Wolfgang Wagner, himself now engaged in the fight of his life over his personal perception of musical ethics and filial piety. Like Wagner (father and grandfather), Nuria Nono is charged with the protection of the memory of two beloved personages (father and husband) and she comes to the job with the skill set of a lioness.

It is virtually impossible for me to be objective about a film which features shots of Venice, the one place on earth where even the most mawkish of travelogues could move me to tears. The conceit of the filmmakers is to make a visual and aural case for the close relationship between the sensual stimuli of this unique environment and the spatial and acoustical qualities of Nono’s music, which captures the sounds of the Italian experience better than anyone since Puccini wrote down the actual notes of the churchbells of Rome and transported them to the retelling of the story of La Tosca. The film is further a document asserting the friendship of Signors Nono (known as “Gigi” to his mates), Abbado and Pollini and how this Kameradschaft translates into the contemporary music making of the Berlin Philharmonic. Moving episodes such as Abbado breaking off a rehearsal of the finale of the Mahler 9 before its ending work well, but the emphasis on the gentle side of Nono’s musical output is so distorted as to relegate his storming of the musical and political battlements to the realm of the footnote (a little like making a film of the life of Nono’s beloved Fidel Castro and concentrating on his early years as a minor league baseball player). Cinematically, this Gigi is more tender than Leslie Caron, his notoriously antisocial behavior less that of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and more Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. This is revisionist history at its most destructive; if Nono had been in the audience last evening, he would have thrown eggs at the screen.

Alas, the ensuing discussion was a bust. Ms. Ehrhardt, endearingly uncomfortable as a public speaker, bravely faced the questioning of the audience alone as Ms. Nono (who seemed to be played in the movie by Peggy Wood) opted to remain at her home in Venice rather than travel in these troubled times and the composer’s two bosom buddies somewhat less understandably did not deign to make the trip uptown to honor their commitments (both Pollini and Abbado are in New York and will be appearing all weekend). Flanked by representatives of Carnegie Hall (the producer of the film) and the Manhattan School, Ms. Ehrhardt charmed us with her obviously gentle nature, but therein begs a question about “A Trail on the Water”. Is this film really about Luigi Nono at all, or is it rather a reflection of its own creator’s personality? One member of the audience, Robert Mann, the recently retired leader of the Juilliard String Quartet, told a personal story about the uncompromising and volatile nature of the subject of this biopic. What he seemed to be saying to this particular director was what some of us were already thinking: “No. I knew the man and that was no Luigi Nono”.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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