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Sequenza X comes full circle: a performance and masterclass in Los Angeles 17 February, 2008
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Gabriele Cassone (L) and Thomas Stevens
Gabriele Cassone (L) and Thomas Stevens
Rory Cowal, piano; Gabriele Cassone, trumpet
Rory Cowal, piano; Gabriele Cassone, trumpet

On January 10 and 11, 2008, Italian trumpet virtuoso Gabriele Cassone performed Luciano Berio’s Sequenza X for trumpet and resonating piano on the second concert of the Concrete Frequency series by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On January 12, Thomas Stevens and Cassone met at CalArts to present a masterclass on the Sequenza, closing a loop on the performance history of this important piece in the contemporary trumpet repertoire.

Sequenza X was originally written for Thomas Stevens, principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1972-1999, who premiered the piece (with Zita Carno assisting on piano) on an LA Philharmonic program in 1984. More than ten years later, Berio wrote Kol-Od, which adds orchestral accompaniment to the solo trumpet part of the Sequenza. Gabriele Cassone premiered Kol-Od with the Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez conducting, in 1996.

Stevens and Cassone first met in 2006 at the Chosen Vale Trumpet Seminar, where they are both on the faculty. Cassone opened the inaugural concert of the seminar with a performance of Sequenza X, with Stevens in the audience.

The concert

Programmed and conducted by David Robertson, the Concrete Frequency concert took as its theme “Urban Layers,” exploring metaphors for city landscapes and urban activity in music. In addition to the Sequenza, the program included Central Park in the Dark (1906) by Charles Ives, The Turfan Fragments (1980) by Morton Feldman, Palimpsests (2002) by George Benjamin, and the Trumpet Concerto ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I See’ (1954) by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (performed by Alison Balsom).

The Sequenza opened the program, starting in total darkness. A single spotlight illuminated Cassone as he began the piece, assisted by Robertson on piano. At the conclusion of the Sequenza, the Ives began without pause, with the orchestra strings onstage (using only stand lights), and various groups of winds and percussion playing from different locations around the hall.

This uniquely theatrical opening placed the Sequenza in an unusual context. The piece is often heard either as part of a trumpet recital (juxtaposed with compositions from other eras), or in a chamber music concert, alongside other contemporary works for solo instrument or small ensemble—with both settings inevitably calling attention to its technical demands on the soloist. Here, as part of a thematic orchestra concert, and performed by one of its most eloquent exponents, the piece actually told a story. In fact, the Sequenza set the stage for the rest of the program: start with a soliloquy, suggesting a lone, perhaps even neurotic voice, heard in the cityscape at night; follow it immediately with the multi-layered vignettes of Central Park in the Dark, and you have the aural equivalent of a cinematic backward zoom shot from a single rooftop to a nighttime skyline.

Cassone’s performance of the Sequenza (from memory) was dynamic, incisive, and nothing short of inspired. His thoughtful interpretation conveyed the full range of moods and colors available in the work; his deft navigation of the various articulations, dynamics, and gestures in the score squeezed every last bit of music from the page.

The masterclass

The following day, Gabriele Cassone and Thomas Stevens gave a masterclass on Sequenza X at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. Host Edward Carroll observed that this meeting of Cassone and Stevens in Los Angeles brought together the very first and the very last (at that moment) performers of the Sequenza.

Stevens related the story of the work’s commission, preparation and premiere. He recalled that, in spite of many requests over the years, Berio expressed absolutely no interest in writing a Sequenza for trumpet. It wasn’t until Ernest Fleischmann, then managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, set out to procure a Sequenza that the composer agreed to write one. Stevens learned of the plan in June of 1984, and sent a package of written and recorded examples of extended techniques for the instrument to Berio. (Later, Berio admitted that he had never consulted the examples Stevens sent him.)

Stevens then told of the waiting game that ensued: repeated attempts to contact Berio yielded no response. After a few months, he noticed that the Sequenza had been placed on a Philharmonic program in November, so he asked the orchestra manager to contact Berio and request a progress report. The music finally started to appear, one faxed page at a time, just a few weeks before the scheduled premiere. Stevens only had nine days with the finished score before the first performance!

In the course of rehearsals, Stevens discussed a couple of technical issues with Berio: a pedal C that occurred twice in the piece, and some doodle-tonguing passages that were marked staccato.

Stevens stated he was unable to produce a strong enough pedal C to accommodate the composer’s intended effect, but was able to accomplish it with a pedal C-sharp; the note was changed so he could play it more aggressively. He further pointed out to the class that, in terms of the architecture of the piece, pedal C is the correct pitch. Berio and Stevens agreed it should be notated as such in the final printed version, but it was not.

In specifying staccato doodle-tonguing, Berio was asking for something of a contradiction, as the technique is inevitably more legato than regular double tonguing. Berio mentioned that his use of the doodle-tongue in the piece was inspired by the jazz great Clark Terry, whose distinctive style includes very facile articulation. Stevens told him that even Clark Terry’s doodle tongue wasn’t the staccato Berio was asking for. The composer finally acquiesced on this point, allowing the more legato sound to stand.

Stevens said that he performed the work a few more times after the premiere (with his final performance in 1998), but was content to allow others to assume the mantle, noting with pleasure that the piece has taken a significant place in the repertoire and is now studied by young players all over the world.

Gabriele Cassone told how he first discovered Sequenza X while browsing in a music store in Milan in 1986. The music captured his interest, but he decided to set it aside and work on it only after retiring from his orchestra position (Cassone was principal trumpet with I Pomeriggi Musicali in Milan from 1976 to 1989). 

Cassone began to work on the piece in 1989, without any plans to perform it. Without the pressure of a performance deadline, he was able to learn the music by carefully mastering one line at a time, over the period of about a year. After this process, he said, the work was indelibly committed to memory.

In 1991, Cassone contacted Berio through a colleague, and arranged to play the piece for him at the composer’s studio in Florence. He played the Sequenza straight through; then Berio called an assistant to the studio, and asked Cassone to play it again. Evidently Berio was pleased with what he heard, as he asked Cassone to perform the piece many times afterward, and three years later arranged for him to record it for a box set of the Sequenzas, released on Deutsche Grammophon. Later in 1994, Berio sent Cassone a letter, asking him to premiere Kol-Od, a slightly modified version of the Sequenza with orchestral accompaniment. Cassone recorded Kol-Od live in concert at the Donaueschingen Festival in April 1996.

In discussing the Sequenza with Cassone, the composer invoked the metaphor of the speaking voice—the subtle differences in articulation and dynamic shading of the piece are like the nuances of speech, where small changes in sound can convey entirely different meanings. Cassone acknowledged his experience playing the natural trumpet as the source of his ability to produce many different articulations and execute ‘micro-dynamic’ changes within phrases.

Berio offered only a couple of technical suggestions for the piece. As he did with Stevens, he asked for greater definition in the doodle tonguing passages. Cassone observed that doodle tonguing might be a little more difficult for performers whose first language is not English, and demonstrated an alternative pronunciation to achieve the desired effect. Berio also asked for pitch correction in the hand stopped passages. Because hand stopping lowers the pitch of the instrument by about a half step, the performer should compensate by playing the stopped notes a half-step higher, thereby sounding the written pitch. This affects several passages in the Sequenza with rapidly alternating closed and open indications.

Cassone and Stevens both remarked with some amusement at how much attention Berio paid to the piano during rehearsal—the pianist silently presses keys and pedals on the piano without playing any notes—and how he had relatively little to say about the details of the trumpet part.

When asked about how to practice a new piece like the Sequenza, Cassone stressed that when confronting a work with unfamiliar vocabulary, it’s important to work slowly and strive for clarity right away, rather than gloss over difficulties and end up with an indistinct sense of the piece. He noted that it was important to clearly distinguish the different articulations in the Sequenza, and prevent them from sounding like one another.

Another problem in the performance of Sequenza X is simply that of making sense of the work as a whole, of sustaining interest for the duration of the piece. It’s interesting to note that Cassone’s recorded performance of the Sequenza is one of the shortest, at just over 14 minutes. This is a testament to Cassone’s remarkable facility, which allows him to keep the musical line moving and construct a coherent narrative for the piece.

Cassone concluded by performing the entire Sequenza X for the class (with Rory Cowal assisting on piano), giving those attending a chance to hear the details of his interpretation, as well as the resonance of the piano, up close. The contrast between the recital hall at CalArts and Disney Hall the previous evening was striking—all in attendance agreed that for the piece to be effective in a large space, the piano must be very carefully amplified.

In bringing Sequenza X back home to LA, this performance and masterclass provided a unique opportunity to hear the inside story of the Sequenza from two trumpet masters who have personal connections to the piece, and offered some fresh perspectives on this important work. Many thanks to Edward Carroll and CalArts for hosting the class!

Berio: Sequenzas
Ensemble InterContemporain
Deutsche Grammophon 457 0382 (3 CDs)

Berio: Kol-Od (Chemins VI)
Donaueschinger Musiktage
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Col Legno 20008 (3 CDs)

Los Angeles Philharmonic Program Notes on Sequenza X
Universal Edition Publisher's Notes on Kol-Od

Gabriele Cassone
Thomas Stevens
Chosen Vale
Music at Calarts
LA Philharmonic

Source: Tom Dambly
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