You couldn’t come away from last night’s Seattle Symphony concert without a feeling that you’d been privy to a major occasion — a genuine historic moment for the orchestra, for music director Ludovic Morlot, and for audiences both longterm and new to the art.
The occasion was the SSO’s first time tackling Sinfonia, the Luciano Berio masterpiece that is simultaneously viewed as an icon of the end of the modernist era and as a template for postmodernism and today’s aesthetic of collage. Indeed, Berio’s project can arguably be described as a rebuttal of the main tenets promulgated by his colleagues Boulez and Stockhausen — rather as Ligeti likewise represents a powerful refutation. Even so, all of these composers are sometimes clustered together as “Modernists.”
Keep in mind that Sinfonia was composed for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary under the tenure of its dedicatee Leonard Bernstein, before the Pierre Boulez era there. A very different kind of “modern music,” in other words.
The smart thing is just to set the labels aside and recall that Berio earned a powerful reputation as a rare (at that time) contemporary “classical” composer who managed to bridge the divide between far-flung experimentalism and an apparent willingness and capacity to communicate with audiences.
His outlook was all-embracing, which, for Berio, meant a passionate conviction that music had to be intimately connected to all aspects of the surrounding cultural context. And the context of Sinfonia‘s composition, in 1968-69 — the “heavy” years of the 1960s, a time of revolution, confusion, and upheaval — still reverberates.
The SSO’s performance — the Berio occupied the second half of the program –was prefaced by a dramatic darkening of the house and a brief, wonderfully personal video introduction from Morlot, projected onto a screen. Just enough to set the mood for a taste of that context, with a mix of musical and political reference points.
Playing to what appeared to be close to a packed house, Morlot and the SSO were joined by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (for a contemporary updating of sorts of the role played by the group Berio originally had in mind — the Swingle Singers). The orchestra itself swelled across the stage, massively enlarged, with speakers placed downstage; the amplified Roomful singers were discreetly “embedded” in their ranks (I couldn’t tell what other elements may have been slightly amplified).
In his intro, Morlot referred to his initial experience of Sinfonia, to how hard it seemed to figure out what was happening in this music. And the sense of being inducted into a bafflingly unanticipated world drove this performance. It was irresistibly present in the opening gestures — the mysterious, almost atavistic summons from the tam-tam, which passes on to the seemingly disembodied voices of the octet.
[Boulez himself conducting Sinfonia]
From that moment forward, it was as if Morlot and the ensemble had set off sailing down a daunting, mythic river. Earlier in the week Morlot had led the Curtis Institute Symphony Orchestra in Sinfonia at Carnegie Hall, yet there was never an impression of neatly worked-out solutions and answers to Berio’s unprecedented challenges. Rather, much of the thrill came from sensing that everyone was out on a limb, unsure of how — or even whether — it would all work out.
“I think Berio’s music has inspired a lot of us to treat instruments in a virtuoso way that is nevertheless humane,” observes the composer Steven Stucky. “I mean both humane to the performers and humane to the listeners, a kind of friendly, Italian virtuosity…” For me, Morlot tapped successfully into this idea of virtuosity and complexity. Berio’s strategies came across as much more than technical adventures to be surmounted.
And the capacity of this music to shock, in a post-Rite of Spring world (the Stravinsky is of course part of Berio’s collage-scape), was in this performance also remarkable. For example, in passage where Berio isolates a gesture like a sforzando and exaggerates it through repetition, Morlot elicited a savage intensity of accentuation that suggested the struggle for a new kind of musical speech.
Much is made of the “overwriting” on the canvas of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony (in the pivotal third movement of Sinfonia). But a highlight for me was the apocalyptic “panic chord” from Mahler’s Third that also surfaces — a moment of awareness in nature, before the arrival of human consciousness, as Mahler construes it. In this reading Berio’s commentary and contextualization seemed to pinpoint the arrival of in surmountable despair, from which Sinfonia has to work out a “breakthrough” of its own.
Overall, Morlot’s account paid special heed to Berio’s interrogation of the intersection between instruments and voices, between words as purely “musical” melismas and as intelligible signifiers. The fine line dividing chaos/noise from musical sense is being renegotiated by Berio in a new social contract.
A contract that was rudely shredded by a cell phone in the row ahead of me cruelly timed to ring as accompaniment to Sinfonia‘s final measures — not a mere errant ring followed by an awkward silencing, but the entire cycle of rings, the owner of the device displaying not the slightest degree of concern over inflicting this on his fellow humans.
Certainly the solutions of ultra-programmatic music offered by a Richard Strauss were no longer viable. Which may be why, in part, I was rather unsatisfied with the concert’s opener, the early tone poem Don Juan. Or that may just be down to the somewhat ruffled ensemble from the strings.
Morlot brought a few intriguing ideas to the score, pumping up the opening with an adrenaline rush and lingering over the tender passages with surreal, stop-motion gazes — abetted by Mary Lynch’s glorious oboe solos and Jeff Fair’s rich, glowing horn. Some of it, though, felt like special pleading. Call it a moment of crisis, but I found myself growing impatient with Strauss’s tricks and poses.
It was delightful to hear the underrated Beethoven Second Piano Concerto in such a thoughtful, finely chiseled account — continuing Morlot and the SSO’s success with their Beethoven concerto series (the First, last October, was spellbinding). Soloist Yefim Bronfman’s restraint, bordering even on understatement, surprised those familiar with his stentorian keyboard presence — a quality he confirmed in a thundering encore of the scherzo from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Sonata.
One more chance to catch this program: Saturday 6 February at 8pm: go here for tickets.
–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.