Vocal group Roomful of Teeth performs Luciano Berio’s rarely heard “Sinfonia” with the Seattle Symphony in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic performance.
What a mammoth undertaking: Luciano Berio’s complicated, intentionally impenetrable “Sinfonia” in five movements that create a sonic spectrum unlike any other. The Seattle Symphony’s current production — and production is indeed the word — brings together the full orchestra, plus extra players and the virtuoso vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, for a performance that may entrance, bewilder and even irritate. But you won’t forget it.
The performance was preceded by another innovation: a short film, displayed on a huge screen above the stage. In the film, conductor Ludovic Morlot explains his views of “Sinfonia” and its musical elements that build up layers and textures of sound and voices that meld with the instrumental fabric.
Among Morlot’s points: Berio’s use of vocal text is like opera (“You know the story, and the words don’t matter so much,” a statement that drew some laughter, possibly from listeners who think that the words in opera do matter). The film is a good compromise measure, allowing the conductor to prepare and express his thoughts on this remarkable score without the pressure and distraction of live performance.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
With Ludovic Morlot conducting, piano soloist Yefim Bronfman and vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, repeats 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $36-$121, (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
For the performance, the eight singers and their microphones were positioned inside the orchestra, producing sounds that ranged from mere whispers to moments of unearthly beauty.
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There’s just about everything in that score: syllables of text from Beckett’s “The Unnameable,” exhortations to “Stop!” and “Keep going!,” a spoken thank-you to the conductor, an eloquent and otherworldly memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The most remarkable section of “Sinfonia” is probably the third. It is composed atop Mahler’s Scherzo movement from his Symphony No. 2, incorporating so many musical quotations that it’s a “name that tune” fest for orchestra fans: snippets of Ravel’s “La Valse,” Debussy’s “La Mer” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” among many others. A veritable ocean of sound, it rises and crashes and is full of musical undercurrents.
Ever since the work’s 1970 premiere, it’s always been a question — what to program alongside the vast kaleidoscope of the Berio “Sinfonia”? For this concert’s first half, Morlot and the Symphony presented two works from preceding centuries: Strauss’ heroic “Don Juan” tone poem (1889) and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1795).
The Strauss had a few uneven entrances, but splendid spirit and fine solo work from many of the featured principals (including acting concertmaster Elisa Barston, oboist Mary Lynch, flutist Jeffrey Barker, clarinetist Ralph Skiano and hornist Jeff Fair).
Pianist Yefim Bronfman was the evening’s soloist, in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2. The composer once wrote in a letter to his publisher that this concerto was “not one of my best,” but you’d never know it from this performance.
Bronfman, who is famous as one of the mightiest keyboard technicians playing today, demonstrated finesse instead of thunder-power, performing with revelatory delicacy and nuance. An enthusiastic ovation brought him back to the stage for a jaunty encore: the second movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2.