Deep Diving into Mascagni's "Intermezzo" 

February 29, 2020

          I must have heard the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana hundreds of times and I can never get enough of it. It is one of those pieces that sweep you away and awaken unacknowledged longings. For the first minute and a half, the music, tender and gentle, cajoles you and lures you in, its delicate phrases touching your soul lightly here and there until you can no longer stand the teasing of those strings that pull at your own strings, of the heart. It is then that the music bursts open and you are lost, but there is nothing that you want more in the world at that moment than to be lost. You let yourself ride those phrases, gliding over rolling hills, over open valleys combed by vineyards, over villages nestled in the cliffs of low mountains. For those who know the Cavalleria plot and location, this music may evoke the landscape of Sicily’s wine country, for some it may trigger visions of the heartbreaking final scene of The Godfather III. For others, it may have nothing to do with images, but simply be an irresistible invitation to soar and yearn.

          Among many conductors’ versions of this piece, it is Riccardo Muti’s that has always thrilled me with its variety of nuances, dynamism, tension, and clarity of rhythm. Recently, I have come across another rendition: by conductor Jason Tramm with the MidAtlantic Philharmonic Orchestra at Merkin Hall on February 22. In a concert focused on operatic arias by dramatic voices, I felt everything come to a standstill when Maestro Tramm conducted the Intermezzo. When he led the orchestra into that emblematic musical avalanche at minute 1:40 or thereabouts, the sweeping momentum that he and the orchestra created was so visceral that its intensity almost hurt somewhere in the depths of the solar plexus. This was an earthy interpretation that stretched emotions to an unbearable and addictive degree. Maestro Tramm uncovered a dimension of the Intermezzo that I had never perceived before. It is easy to think of this piece in terms of swelling and caressing waves of music. But when you slow the tempo down slightly and dive deeper into the structure of those phrases, as this conductor did, what surfaces are musical outbursts of primal emotion, laden with a kind of fatalism in front of a merciless and elusive destiny. In his interpretation, tragedy revealed itself, eternal as the Greeks have created it, ancient, alluring, and overpowering as the land of Sicily itself, and fundamentally condemned to the inextricability of love and death that those of us who know the opera’s story might inevitably sense.

          Maestro Tramm’s interpretation does not take the easy way out, because, for him, it is not about playing a recognizable, crowd-pleasing number. His rendition of the Intermezzo runs deep and leaves you breathless, not so much because you get swept away by the music but because, in the stretching and deepening of phrases that he manages to achieve without dragging, he connects you to more profound meanings of this piece. The realization of those meanings is individual to each listener, and whether one knows the plot or not becomes irrelevant. The Intermezzo conducted by Jason Tramm will make you feel and long at a deep level, leaving you suspended, delighted, aching, and awed by the ungraspable and ravishing beauty of Mascagni’s music.

(Photos: Maestro Jason Tramm; image from the province of Caltanissetta in Sicily; view of the Sicilian town  Ragusa-Ibla)