NEW WORLD CELEBRATES MUSICAL JOURNEY OF A VISIONARY CONTEMPORARY ICON
By Lawrence Budmen
Composer Luciano Berio is one of the most arresting musical voices of our contemporary era. From his pioneering work in electro-acoustic music at the RAI in Milan and IRCAM in Paris to his conducting career with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra Regionale Toscana (Tuscany), Berio has been on an ever evolving musical journey. His musical personality is constantly changing. From enfant terrible of the avant garde to arranger and curator of the musical masters (Brahms, Monteverdi, Puccini), he has never lost his ability to write with a unique musical voice - provocative, unsettling, fascinating, and always brilliantly original. On February 22, 2003 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, the New World Symphony's "Sounds of the Times" concert celebrated Berio's visionary sound world.
Berio's "Sequenzas" for Solo Instruments (written in the 1950's and 1960's) represented the experimental musical laboratory period of the composer's development. He envisioned a new virtuosity for each orchestral instrument. Boldly pushing aside 19th century instrumental conventions and mechanical limitations, he challenged the musicians with new techniques of playing and phrasing. "Sequenza 1 for Flute" brings echoes of Stravinsky ("Le Sacre de Printemps") and Debussy ("Syrinx"). He treats the flute as an acrobatic instrument with a continuous musical flow rather than a melodic line. The work is daringly original, rhythmically daunting, and austerely elegant. New World Symphony flutist Marisela Sager gave a suave toned, balletic performance. This was playing of a high technical quality that is rarely encountered.
"Sequenza 5 for Trombone" is an early example of "performance art." It is a tribute to the Swiss clown Grock, who asked "Why?"(the meaning of existence.) Imagine Charlie Chaplin playing the trombone with a plunger mute. The trombone growls, snarls, and provides a myriad assortment of new sounds and technical stunts. The performer must dance, clown, speak, sing, and finally collapse. Beneath the showbiz glitz lies tragedy. (Chaplin would have loved this work.) The performer must be an instrumental virtuoso and a real comic "ham." Richard Harris played the pyrotechnics with ease and flair, as if they were child's play. His clowning was both funny and touching - a unique performer!
Most striking of all these works was "Sequenza 2 for Harp" (1963). Here Berio turns the sweet toned harp into a percussive instrument. The player strikes the strings, hits the body of the instrument, and pedals furiously - a series of effects both brilliant and disorienting. There also are traditional harp glissandos but in an atonal form. A laboratory piece to be sure, but a musical experiment by a genius. This music requires a harpist like no other. The New World Symphony's Yumiko Endo Schaffer was simply extraordinary! She met every technical challenge and turned the composer's musical brutality into beauty - a remarkable performance! This superb musician has a bright future.
In 1987 Berio wrote "Formazioni for Orchestra" for Amsterdam's world famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. By then he had an active conducting career. His electronic music experimentation was now wedded to his hands-on knowledge of instrumental ensembles. He rose to the challenge with a typically path breaking work. At times every player must play a different line simultaneously. Antiphonal effects (a la Gabrieli) bounce across the stage from the divided orchestral forces. Familiar themes by Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini are deconstructed with wry humor. While much of this music is extremely loud, it is filled with bright, shrill delightful sounds. The witty decomposition of thematic motives and of the orchestra itself is managed with a modern Baroque elegance that surprises and delights the ear. All that Berio asks for is the ultimate virtuoso orchestra and conductor. Michael Tilson Thomas led his New World players in a colorful, kaleidoscopic performance. Wind playing was sharp and clear. Brass blared gloriously. String intonation was right on the musical pitch. To paraphrase the words of Ira Gershwin - what composer could ask for anything more? This was a one of a kind orchestral performance - a triumph.
During the 1970's Berio turned to music education. To help equip young music students with the techniques to play avant garde and contemporary music, he wrote a series of "Duets for Two Violins." One part was to be played by a teacher or mentor. The less complex part was to be played by the student. Each duet was named after a musical luminary. Thirteen of these wonderful vignettes were performed as this concert. Berio has always had great reverence for the musical past. For all his determined modernism, he keeps referring back to his own memories of musical tradition. In these pieces, we hear waltzes, salon music, references to Tchaikovsky (for Lorin Maazel), and Hungarian folk music (for Bartok). There is a humorous take on ballet music for Rodion Shchedrin and fierce modern harmonies and counterpoint for Bruno Maderna and Pierre Boulez. In the tradition of the composer's original concept and purpose, 12 members of the New World's violin section were joined by 12 highly gifted students from Miami's New World School of the Arts. The final duet (for Edoardo Sanguineti) was played in unison. The young students had the honor of being conducted by Tilson Thomas. He led a sonorous cacophony of violin sound.
Throughout the evening Tilson Thomas provided enlightened commentary about the composer and the music. He has had a long and musically productive friendship with Berio. The playing at this concert set a new high standard for South Florida. Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony provided a challenging exploration of one of music's true creative originals - Luciano Berio, a contemporary icon!