To get to the Veneto town of Treviso, the choir trudged across Venice every day and caught a train to the North-West. At the other end of the half-hour train trip, one must navigate through the throng of the nightly passaggiata, or evening walk. The entire town of some 80,000 people seems to spill out onto the streets to stroll about, look in shops and talk. At this time the city centre becomes so congested that pedestrians completely take over the road. Compared to the seething crowds of Venice, the amiable throng of Treviso makes the streets seem particularly safe.
My favourite of Treviso’s claims to fame is that it is the home of radicchio, the red salad green. As one Trevisano proudly declared to me at dinner: “Radicchio from Treviso is the only radicchio”. The method of growing the bitter, dark-red chicory is perfectly suited to the region, with its many permanently-running springs. Once the plant has grown, it is picked and placed in running water to leech out the chlorophyll and bitterness. In fact, good radicchio is not supposed to be bitter at all, but slightly sweet (though my own Triestino father insists that they praised the bitterness of radicchio in Trieste because it was thought to reflect the vegetable’s iron content). Those less enamoured of salad may be surprised to know that Treviso is also the home of prosecco and tiramisù. Filippo Perocco, our host in Treviso, made an enormous batch of the dessert for a special dinner put on in Astra’s honour. As we learnt over dinner, local lore is divided as to who first came up with the name, which translates as “pick me up.” The G-rated story has it that a hotel owner made it for his ailing wife. Another story tells that the name originated (for obvious reasons) in a brothel.
Chiesa di Santa Caterina
Food aside, Treviso is home to a number of beautiful churches, including the deconsecrated church of Santa Caterina. The cavernous building with its wide cloisters is now a museum exhibiting a palimpsest of decoration from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Frescoes from different periods overlap on the walls, which were badly damaged when the church was used as a magazine during the Napoleonic occupation and from bombing during the Second World War. The church was restored after the Second World War and now houses a fifteenth-century cycle of frescoes by Tomaso da Modena that was salvaged from another church.
The frescoes tell the story of Saint Ursula who, according to legend, was killed by the Huns along with her entourage of eleven thousand peregrinating virgins. Astra programmes are themselves palimpsests of different musical periods, but never has one been so appropriately framed. The concert began with Hildegard von Bingen’s hymn Cum vox sanguinis. The hymn to Saint Ursula was sung by Matthew Thomson, whose pure voice was supported by drones from the choir. The addition of a sung dialogue between Thomson and Katrina Seiffert gave the piece a dramatic character like the figures on the Tomaso frescoes. Adding layer upon layer over the Hildegard, the concert also included works by the baroque composer Schütz, a twentieth-century piece by Schoenberg and contemporary Italian, Romanian and Australian works.
Like the church of Santa Caterina, Astra is deconsecrated. Though it may inspire spiritual reflection, the choir has a fundamentally secular mission. The museum status of the Santa Caterina church gave the choir a good opportunity to trot out Riccardo Vaglini’s Viatico. Viatico is a harmonically very traditional piece of choral writing based on an absolutely obscene text. The piece was composed as a response to a critic who said that Vaglini was deficient in basic musical skills (see? I said he had a mean streak).
The church was also ideally suited to Astra because it provided numerous spaces in which to perform, from the non-sacred sanctuary to the incredible chapel of the innocents depicting yet another mass murder. The concert began near the sanctuary, far from the audience. The Astra Improvising Choir made good use of the resonant chapel, singing shifting chords from Dan Dediu’s Stabat Mater. My favourite place in the church was in between the parallel rows of screens supporting the frescoes by Tomaso. It was as though we were singing directly to the figures in the paintings, the surfaces of which reflected and altered the sound of the choir. After exploring every corner of the room, the choir finally (and one has the sense, begrudgingly) came to rest in front of the audience and the church’s
towering split-key organ. In rehearsal, Kim Bastin took a cool ten minutes to adjust to the keyboard, which offers different tunings for enharmonics such as A# and Bb. He was then easily able to accompany the choir through Dan Dediu’s Exultate, Jubilate. Much shorter than the Stabat Mater setting that we also brought on tour, Exultate, Jubilate is “Dan Dediu light.” The setting is a catalogue of ingenious textures and tunes that got stuck in our heads until we were well settled in Bucharest.
Astra was performing in Treviso as part of the annual festival curated by the ensemble L’Arsenale. As the ensemble’s founder Filippo Perocco explained in an interview, L’Arsenale formed ten years ago from a core of young performers and composers. For the past three or four years, the ensemble has turned to the peculiar instrumentation of soprano, saxophone, accordion, guitar, piano, synthesizer and home-made instruments/lo-fi electronics. Unfortunately, Astra was not able to attend a concert by L’Arsenale, but we were able to hear the magnificent playing of the accordionist Igor Zobin in Inventario. At the beginning, Perocco asked friends to compose for the ensemble, but the ensemble has since reached out to composers around the world through their calls for scores and international residencies, including stints at Harvard University and in the south of France. Why is Treviso the centre of this remarkable musical activity? Simply because Perocco and other members of the ensemble are from there.
Treviso also provides the fortuitous link between Astra and L’Arsenale. Australia’s favourite musical impresario Sergio de Pieri is also from Treviso and was Perocco’s first music teacher, as Perocco explained:
My relationship with Astra goes back 15 years thanks to Sergio de Pieri. He was my first teacher of music and is a good friend. He invited me to Australia and, in the third week of my stay, he said “We will go and visit a friend of mine. He is a conductor who makes very interesting projects and programmes with his choir.” I met John McCaughey and I remember well that it was a very sympathetic meeting, from my point of view. Since that time I have had a very good relationship with him. I have composed two pieces for Astra and he has also performed other pieces of mine: A Question and Three Credo Fragments.
Talking in the echoing nave of the church, surrounded by sacred art in a deconsecrated space, I asked Perocco whether religious forms were still important to him.
They are not important to me, but they are part of me. They are part of me independently of my faith. I was an organist for many years and played at mass every Sunday. This kind of ritual and relation with sacred music was constant in my musical education.
So, when the opportunity arose to write the Kyrie setting that Astra sang in Treviso, he jumped at it. The crisp but resonant acoustic lent itself to both the piece’s strident monophonic cries and sparse, piano passages. Perocco wrote the piece as part of a collective project to compose a mass. A different composer wrote each part of the mass, which is called Missa Mosaica. Perocco’s influences also range well beyond sacred music.
The important influences for me has changed over the years. At the beginning I was thirsty for a lot of different music. I could appreciate a piece by Helmut Lachenmann, as well as a piece by Louis Andriessen, so two very opposite ways of thinking about music and two different aesthetics. This is still part of my attitude toward music. I like sincerity in music independently of its aesthetic. The matter of sincerity belongs not just to composers but also to performers. Performers and composers can sometimes be like athletes. When the athletic musical gesture becomes more important than music, it becomes a bit boring for me, whether this is in performance or composition. I don’t like too much self-confidence. I prefer something precarious.
Later that evening, as the choir counted their way through Perocco’s exposed entrances in front of a large and expectant audience, I wondered whether he had not found his ideal choir.
Matthew Lorenzon writes the Partial Durations contemporary music blog with support from RealTime Magazine.