New interview with pianist Emanuele Arciuli – before his March 1 performance

Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli on “one of the ultimate piano works” – Frederic Rzewski’s hour-long “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Variations 

Mr. Arciuli will perform Rzewski’s Variations at the Italian Academy on March 1, 2023. It will be his ninth appearance here since his Academy debut in 2006. The event is free and open to the public; seats can be reserved here.

This interview was done in Winter 2023, just ahead of the performance.

When did you first hear the "People United Will Never Be Defeated" Variations by Frederic Rzewski? 

I heard about the Variations in 1989, when Alberto Barbero, an Italian composer, mentioned it, and that Rzewski had performed it in Milano. Alberto gave me an LP of Rzewski performing the Variations live in Milano. I still have this recording, it’s very precious (and collectors would pay thousands for it).

You've never played the piece in the U.S. Why not? How did it feel performing it in Italy? 

I’ve performed a lot of American music. And some of the most important piano works. But I never approached People United. It was thanks to [Italian Academy concert producer] Rick Whitaker’s proposal that I started to learn the piece. It took a long time (during the pandemic), and I finally debuted the piece in Italy in November 2022. So the Italian Academy performance in New York will be my first in the U.S. Just after that I’ll will perform at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, invited by pianist and composer Neely Bruce, then in Pittsburgh, where Ico – Frederic’s son – lives, at Ico’s invitation, which honors and moves me.

Do you feel sympathy with the thousands or millions of working people who have used this song as a warning and a protest in their struggle for economic and social justice? 

I am moved, of course, by the history of the Chilean protest song, as I was with Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, another Rzewski masterpiece. The piece was inspired, of course, by the struggle of millions of people. And that is impressive to me. But, on the other hand, People United is a big piece of music, and the quotations also (“Avanti Popolo,” “Bandiera Rossa,” etc.) are sublimated and become “pure music,” like the Goldberg Variations. Political commitment, no matter how noble and beautiful, is not enough to make a masterpiece. And People United is a masterpiece because of its musical and pianistic quality. 

The song is present in most of the 36 variations, but sometimes it’s totally hidden. It’s possible to hear some “related intervals” or something else, but it’s really hard to find it. Somewhere the harmony is very similar, so you have, if not the song exactly, at least some “familiar chords.” But People United is a trip; and when you travel with it you can go very, very far. But in the end, you come back home.  

Is it as difficult to play as I've heard it is?

Even harder than I expected. The most difficult piece I have ever played. And I’ve performed Barber’s Piano Concerto, Carter’s Night Fantasies and Ives’ Concord Sonata, just to mention a few.

Which recording(s) of it have you enjoyed most?

There are many recordings of the Variations that I really like. But, despite some mistakes and inaccuracies, I can mention the video that the late Fred recorded in Miami. We did a long recital together, I performed in the first half, he did the second. And I remember the emotion of that performance. 

I performed for sure Rzewski’s Four Pieces and something else (perhaps by Chick Corea). The emotion was very strong, because Frederic improvised a long cadenza, very contrapuntal and complex, and it was evident that he had overcome the step from “playing the piano well,” and “being a pianist,” becoming instead just a musician, or –better-- a human being made of music, with stories, emotions, weakness, and integrity. He was brave and proud. 

Sometimes I hear people complaining: “So sorry that I couldn’t meet Chopin, or Beethoven, or Brahms.” That’s true, but nowadays we have a lot of living composers that are geniuses. It’s so funny that the same people that regret that they never met Mendelssohn and Brahms, because they are long dead, persist in ignoring the great composers of today.

Is it fair to call the People United Variations the ultimate work of American virtuosic piano composition? Why or why not? 

American music, especially in the second half of the 1970s, brought a lot of masterpieces. People United is, perhaps, closer than all others to the traditional idea of “virtuoso performance,” unlike – for instance – The Time Curve Preludes by William Duckworth, or Five Chromatic Dances by William Albright. But along with Four North American Ballads, also by Fred, People United is one of the ultimate piano works not only of American piano music of the 20th century, but of all piano music ever. 

Did you know Rzewski well? He spent a good deal of his time in Italy: do you believe he felt a strong affinity with Italians? Is there anything about his work you would characterize as Italian? 

I met Frederic the first time in 1998, in Montiano, where he used to spend summer vacations. I went there with the composer Joel Hoffman, a close friend of his.

We started a friendship that never ended, but grew stronger every year. It was funny, he spoke perfect Italian, but with a very strong American accent. He had kids that still live in Italy, and one of his sons, Ico, lives in the States and speaks perfect Italian. But I cannot say that Frederic was “Italian.” His behavior was the furthest possible from the “bourgeois Italian way of life.”

His behavior as in his work habits, his way of life? 

Frederic was a kind of anarchist, and his best compliment to me was “Tonight you performed as a revolutionary.” He abhorred clichés and prejudices. I remember, one time, in Siena, where we played together a piece for several pianos (other pianists were invited too); he was looking at the wonderful (and celebrated) Duomo di Siena, and then he told me: “What an ugly church, it looks like a meringue pie!” Sometimes he was intentionally provocative, but in general he had a different view of the world. For instance, he always performed in very casual clothes, never wearing something elegant, never a tuxedo. I could tell dozens of stories about his way of life....

About the performer:

Pianist Emanuele Arciuli’s repertoire ranges from Bach to contemporary music, with an emphasis on composers from the United States. Round Midnight Variations, a group of 16 compositions that were written for Arciuli by composers such as Crumb, Babbitt, Kernis, Rzewski, Torke, Daugherty, Bolcom and Harbison, has sparked the interest of international critics. His recording of the variations, which was released by Stradivarius under the title ‘Round Midnight – Hommage to Thelonious Monk in May 2011, has likewise been celebrated by the international press. His numerous recordings (Chandos, Stradivarius, Innova, Vai, Bridge, Wergo, etc.) include Gates to Everywhere, the complete piano works of Berg and Webern, the world premiere of Bruno Maderna’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and a lot of American music. His CD dedicated to George Crumb was nominated for a Grammy Award, and his CD with works by Adams and Rzewski won the Italian critics’ award for Best Record in 2006. Walk in Beauty, a 2cd box just released by Innova, features music by JL Adams, Bresnick, Daugherty, Gann, Garland, Higdon, Ballard, and others.

His comprehensive book on American piano music, Musica per pianoforte negli Stati Uniti, was recently published in Italy.

In 2011,  Arciuli was awarded the Italian critic’s prize, the Premio Franco Abbiati. In winning this prize, he follows Maurizio Pollini, Radu Lupu, and Zubin Mehta. The jury stated, “This pianist from Bari has been an authoritative figure on the multifaceted horizon of all things modern for years, all the while preserving a connection to tradition.”