Berio’s rarely heard ”Sinfonia,” which was dedicated to Leonard Bernstein and borrows quotes from Beethoven to Schoenberg to Samuel Beckett, comes to the Seattle Symphony with vocal group Roomful of Teeth.
Close to a half-century after Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” for eight voices and orchestra altered the classical-music landscape, the masterpiece is finally reaching Seattle. Performed by the Seattle Symphony and the Grammy Award-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, “Sinfonia” caps a dazzling program that begins with Richard Strauss’ irresistible tone poem, “Don Juan,” and further seduces with Yefim Bronfman’s rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, whose New York Philharmonic commissioned its 1968 premiere, the five-movement “Sinfonia” is famed for its astounding middle-movement collage. Around and through partially intelligible spoken and sung text in multiple languages — including quotes from Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett — Mahler’s Second Symphony scherzo courses like a river through an ever-changing sonic landscape.
Simultaneously honoring the past while pointing to the future, the third movement also quotes bits and pieces from Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Bach, Berg, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, Webern, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Boulez and Stockhausen. With its second movement “O King,” dedicated to the slain civil-rights leader, and an appended (1969) final movement that weaves all that precedes it into another collage, “Sinfonia” is a work that SSO conductor Ludovic Morlot found “transformational” when he heard David Robertson conduct it in Boston close to 20 years ago.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Luciano Berio’s ‘Sinfonia,’ Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Strauss’ ‘Don Juan’
With Ludovic Morlot conducting, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 4, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $29-$121 (206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org).
“At first I didn’t know what to make of it,” Morlot confessed by phone while preparing to present “Sinfonia” in Philadelphia and at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “I thought it was a little bit of a joke, hearing snippets of all this music I know. But what I remember vividly is the impact of the mix of the voices with the orchestra. The ‘King’ movement maybe isn’t one that would normally impact as much as the scherzo — but, for me, it created a very unique sound.”
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Brad Wells, founder of Roomful of Teeth and artist-in-residence at Williams College, has similar memories. “I first heard ‘Sinfonia’ in college,” he said. The way Berio fractured and layered Mahler’s scherzo, Wells explained, led to a personal revelation about classical music. “There’s energy, brilliance and vision there,” he said. “I had no idea what to make of it, but I knew I was enraptured.”
One thing that helped Morlot find his way into “Sinfonia” was his realization that the title does not refer to the traditional, symphonic form. Berio, he said, “referenced the word sinfonia’s (ancient Greek) etymology as ‘sounding together.’ That’s really what the modernity in this score is about: the voices, the text, the music that we know and the music we don’t know all mix up together to create a unique language that embraces tradition and moves it forward. It’s a classic that the Seattle audience has been waiting to hear and discover.”
Wells, who notes that “Sinfonia” is an exciting departure for Teeth — an ensemble that has almost exclusively performed and recorded music written for it — acknowledges the work’s many-layered opportunities and challenges. “What Berio does with the orchestra and subtly amplified voices opens up rich and inspiring languages of expression that embrace different vernaculars,” he said. “His collage effect is something not to work very hard at; it’s just to listen to, wonder at and make whatever connections you can.”