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Music through the Generazioni

Paul Salerni (at piano) rehearses with his son Domenic (playing violin) and students from Murray State University.

Fifteen years ago, while teaching in Vicenza, Italy, Paul Salerni used to go running with a friend in Parco Querini, a park adorned with statues, gardens, a peacock and a pond.

Enchanted by the park’s baroque ambience and by the nearby Bacchiglione River and the baroque Church of the Aracoeli, Salerni, a professor of music, composed a piece for solo violin called Autumn in Parco Querini.

Musically, says Salerni, the piece takes inspiration from the 20th-century French popular song Autumn Leaves and from the “Chaconne” in Bach’s Partita in D Minor for unaccompanied violin.

Recently, a festival presented in Salerni’s honor began with a performance of Autumn in Parco Querini by Salerni’s older son, Domenic, who is first violinist of the Vega String Quartet.

The festival, called Generazioni, was held at Murray State University in Kentucky and organized by Mike D’Ambrosio ‘96, ‘97, an associate professor of music at MSU.

The title Generazioni, and the choice of Autumn in Parco Querini to begin the festival, underscore the importance of family to Salerni’s musical career.

A three-part legacy

The festival concluded with a piano-violin duet between father and son of Salerni’s piece Toddler Riffs. The piece describes a day in Domenic’s life at the age of two: constant play time, repetitive tantrums, and eventual sleep.

“It is quite meaningful to have the actual subject of the piece become the kind of violinist who can actually perform the piece!” Salerni said. “And it’s very meaningful that we play it together.”

Generazioni also showcased Salerni’s three-part legacy: his Italian heritage, his family and his musical lineage. In addition to Salerni’s music, it featured works by D’Ambrosio, his former student, and by Earl Kim, his late mentor.

Salerni put together a similar festival 24 years ago for Kim, a Korean-American composer. That event, titled Earthlight after Kim’s musical theatre piece, also featured music by Kim’s students.

“I just love these ironies,” says Salerni. “I was 39 years old when I had Earthlight in Earl’s honor. Mike is 39 now, and he just had Generazioni in my honor.”

Kim received considerable recognition for his vocal and musical theatre compositions, many of which use the 20th-century Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s texts as a basis.

Salerni, the NEH Distinguished Chair in the Humanities at Lehigh, has also found inspiration in a literary contemporary, American poet Dana Gioia. Generazioni showcased a new song cycle, For Love or Money, on poems by Gioia.

“I have been a very true translator of Dana’s words into music,” Salerni says. “If I were to allow myself a moment of immodesty, I would say that of all the composers who have set Dana’s words, I am most faithful to the music inherent in his words. I like to think I am to Gioia what Kim is to Beckett.”

Salerni has traveled all over the world—to Korea, to Italy, to the Kennedy Center and to the Aspen Musical Festival—to perform and lecture on Kim’s compositions. Besides Kim’s family, he says, no one knew Kim better.

“Earl was always angry with me that I was spending too much time on his music and not enough on my own,” he says, “but I still have this Italian guilt about not yet writing his biography.”

A struggle and a joy

The importance of composing to his musical life, says Salerni, is topped only by seeing his children, Domenic and percussionist Miles, perform.

As a composition teacher, Salerni says that although certain technicalities of composition can be taught, every composer has to find their own way. A composer’s style can be designed through the mindset of how to reach the audience.

“Earl was loved at Princeton for that reason,” he says. “Some of the professors there wanted to impose their compositional styles on their students. Earl would instead free students up in a way that other teachers wouldn’t allow.”

Though Kim’s music can be described as “quiet and sparse” while Salerni is dedicated to a lively Italian sound, Kim’s mentoring continues to shine through Salerni’s composition. Salerni considers patience as one of Kim’s most important teachings.

“It’s hard to discard something you love,” he said. “Composing is about finding that moment when you see the complete architecture of the composition, and having to sacrifice the rest for it. It is a struggle and at the same time a joy.”

When asked where he sees himself in the larger spectrum of the musical world, Salerni points to his three-part legacy: a champion of Kim’s music, the facilitator of a growing family of musicians and composers, and, of course, his own music.

His definition of success, he says, extends further than the mark he’s made on the music community.

“When I think about success, I think about the personal relationship I’ve had with music.”

Salerni has planned a follow-up to the Murray State festival. On Jan. 25, 2015, at Lehigh, a concert titled Four Generations will feature works by Arnold Schoenberg (Earl Kim’s teacher), Kim, Salerni and D’Ambrosio. The Vega String Quartet will be in residence that weekend giving two cabaret concerts on Jan. 23 and performing again on Jan. 25.

Story by Jaime DellaPelle '14

Posted on Friday, June 06, 2014

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