Franco Donatoni has always been the odd man out of post-WWII Italian music; in his native country he wasn’t as influential as Berio, as revered as Nono, as coolly idiosyncratic as Maderna. But Donatoni has been, among the twentieth century’s composers, the greatest alchemist: the composer himself explained his creative process as being similar to alchemy – always ready to surprise you, to create the most beautiful transparent sounds, the quickest changes of pace, of mood. He was the Harry Potter of classical music, ready to turn children’s voices into a flight of hummingbirds, a single saxophone into a scary monster, a double bass into the sound of the end of the world.
It does not surprise that so many composers – among them Magnus Lindberg, the late great Giuseppe Sinopoli who is still missed so deeply, Esa-Pekka Salonen – have been Donatoni students in their youth. Donatoni, his former pupils are happy to tell you, was a generous teacher, full of humor and surprises as his own music was.
Tuesday night at Teatro alla Scala, Donatoni’s city, Milan, had the chance to listen to his final work, commissioned by Salonen in his LA Philharmonic days, a piece that debuted after the composer’s death in the summer of 2000. Its title? “Esa (In Cauda V)”. A work for orchestra that astonishes you with its clarity, its force, the transparency of the orchestration – with the simple, stunning beauty of its voice. Because in Donatoni’s music, everything reminds you of the human voice – Donatoni was one of the most human composers, too. Donatoni’s heartbeat is all over “Esa”, as is his sense of humor, his joy – and this is all more heartbreaking when you think that the piece was completed by Donatoni when he lay dying in Milan’s Niguarda hospital, with his assistants taking dictation. Salonen deserves so much credit for so many things, but his generosity in promoting Donatoni’s work is among his greatest merits: he conducted the piece at Scala Tuesday night in its Italian premiere the way you might imagine someone would conduct his father’s work, with tenderness and admiration and a son’s love. Salonen said back in 2000, before the piece’s premiere in LA, that he considered “Esa” to be "my old teacher's message to me, something like 'Carry on, son, it will be OK.'" The Finnish conductor returned from intermission to conduct the work, wielding his baton that he had left behind for the first half.
One is grateful that Franco and Esa, father and son, shared their talent and mutual admiration and love with the audience last night. It turned Milan’s gloomy rainy winter into spring.