Los Angeles Music Review: RICHARD VALITUTTO | NAKHT (Piano Spheres at REDCAT)

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by Daniel S. G. Wood on November 14, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


To those of you who don’t know (or think that everything hip is only happening now), Piano Spheres has for nearly twenty years been one of the country’s few serious and consistent concert series focusing on new piano repertoire. Its Satellite Series offers recitals by four emerging L.A. pianists, and each program includes a World Premiere. The inaugural concert at REDCAT last night proved that this city’s contemporary music horizons continue to expand. In his coming-out party entitled NAKHT, Richard Valitutto, heir apparent to be L.A.’s pianist-in-residence for new music, addressed perhaps the most romanticized solo piano concept ever: The Nocturne, a genre mostly know through the likes of Chopin and his twenty-odd purple masterpieces from the 19th century.

The breadth of Valitutto’s program matched his ambition for renewing the nocturne style. Diverse programming can be good, and world premieres are always exciting, but despite my attachment to much of the music I worried about the direction of the night. Selections from Poulenc’s charming Nocturnes paved the way for more demanding pieces: as above, so below (Valitutto’s world premiere composition); Richard Valitutto. Photo by Amaia Perta.Due Notturni crudeli (with its hyper-stylized brutality of the Italian avant-garde from Salvatore Sciarrino); La chouette hulotte (from Messiaen’s ornithological masterpiece Catalogue d’oiseaux), Poème-Nocturne (Scriabin’s late mystical gem); and NCTRN (a Piano Spheres commission by L.A. composer Nicholas Deyoe).

Though the room does a piano few acoustic favors, Valitutto’s craft and gumption spoke clearly. An understandable level of nerves was apparent from the onset—hands shaking a bit, sweating—but the Poulenc hardly suffered. Nor did his nerves detract from his focus and muted virtuosity during his own piece, which required him to bend over the piano strings. Meditative and sincere, as above, so below rocked between oblique piano licks and gamelan-like dongs echoing the approach of one Morton Feldman, a composer he has championed. Depending on taste, this brainy, academic work was either way too long or way too short and perhaps too austere to enrich the nocturne genre (my companion noted that Valitutto played the piano as if he were experimenting with a chemistry set).

Due Notturni crudeli and as above, so below demand extraordinary technique, but the flavor of both is a single-minded harshness and repetitiveness. In its straightforwardness, the Sciarrino, which closed the first half of the program, allowed him to relax somewhat, making me wonder whether he should have warmed up with the Sciarrino first and closed with the Poulenc.

Despite appearing warm and loose in the second half, Valitutto simply proceeded with Messiaen’s La chouette hulotte (The Tawny Owl)—interesting as a nature document—dispassionately painting the bird’s hoots and twitters through a prism of Messiaen’s ecstatic dissonance.

At this point of some forty excellent minutes, the direction of the concert seemed less clear. The Sciarrino (which I loved) explicitly has “night” in the title, and Messiaen’s owl definitely belongs to the mythology of night, but these pieces seem to qualify as nocturnes in an acerbic way—inadvertent nocturnes if you will. La chouette hulotte exhibits a bare minimum of real expression, so in this context it erred towards the scientific. Only Poulenc’s set tallied with my idea of a nocturne.

Richard Valitutto. Photo by Marianne Williams

However, Valitutto notes in the program that the concept of “night music” has a “panoply” of implications. This finally made sense to me with the last two pieces. The genial pianist totally turned the corner with the rich, orgasmic and ecstatic Scriabin, and the entire evening finally coalesced with Deyoe’s NCTRN, which exhibited a broad and hushed pathos.

The program was really more satisfying for the latent revelation; the recital was not some tribute to Chopin or some marketed attempt to update the nocturne, but an extensive musical consideration of everything nocturnal—scary night, natural night, a psychotic night, a night of the boulevardier. It is nice to know, definitively, that the nocturne isn’t doomed to the syrupy overblown purple stereotypes ascribed to it.

photos by Amaia Perta and Marianne Williams

Richard Valitutto, piano
Piano Spheres’ Satellite Series
REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street
played November 11, 2014
for future events, call 213.237.2800 or visit www.redcat.org
for more info,  visit www.pianospheres.org

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