Interesting how artistic ideas come around every few years. Coming of age in the Havana of the mid 1950’s I became acquainted with the works of Eugene Ionesco, whose The Bald Soprano and The Lesson were given in a double-bill in Spanish in 1958 in a tiny theatre on Galiano Street. I recall that Cuban premiere took place not long after both those plays had received their world premieres in the equally tiny Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris.
The works of Samuel Beckett came into my hands sometime later, when I was already going to college in the United States. Oh how I grappled with the seeming obtuseness of Waiting for Godot and Endgame both of which I struggled to make sense of until it dawned on me that making sense was not the intention of their terminally sad Irish author.
Earlier, the mocking Rumanian expatriate Ionesco made a little more sense by making one laugh, even though I was not completely sure of why I laughed at the desperate and futile attempts of the English family in The Bald Soprano to communicate, or the implacable teacher in The Lesson to reach his recalcitrant pupil through language.
Words failed Becket’s and Ionesco’s characters. Eureka! I had finally gotten it!
Half a century later I am encountering the musical-textual labyrinth of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia and I can safely assert that, yes, I get it. The Italian avant-garde enfant terrible of mid-century serious music is deadly serious about using a mélange of words and sounds to convey the decline and fall of human communication. When neither language alone nor music written in the same manner in which it has been written for a millennia works for him, the creative musical artist must put to work anything within reach to give his creation to the world.
Berio utilizes a mix of human voices and orchestra juxtaposing extensive quotes of Mahler, Debussy, Beethoven, text from Beckett’s The Unnameable, and words from a number of languages atop each other.
As was the case with my youthful encounters with the Absurdists my recent one with Berio’s Sinfonia led me not to question its meaning, since Berio meant nothing other than to write a piece of music, take it or leave it. That openness further led me to actually enjoy the experience, so much so that I listened to the entire composition more than a couple of times.
At the risk of contradicting myself, let me say that Berio composed the first version of Sinfonia in 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That means that the composition may not be meant to signify this or that, but, it is unquestionably a cri de coeur by an Italian artist in response to a quintessentially American tragedy.
The Seattle Symphony, under the baton of Ludovic Morlot, has just released this CD containing three different compositions, recorded live on three different occasions. Berio’s Sinfonia was recorded live over two days in 2006. Pierre Boulez’ Notations I-IV for Orchestra was recorded, also over two days, in 2013. Ravel’s La Valse was recorded in 2015.
Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV for Orchestra has had a long shelf life, first conceived as a student work, then expanded from a piece of chamber music to a symphonic composition, then augmented by a couple of movements. It is vintage Boulez but by no means old wine in a new bottle. Intellectually rigorous, complex, impassioned, aggressively dissonant and deafeningly percussive at times, the work also contains passages laden with a profound melancholy.
Nothing much else can be written about that Maurice Ravel’s apotheosis-in-music that its composer sardonically titled La Valse than it has not already been said. Seemingly a homage to a Vienna quickly disappearing, the work is instead and past its brittle surface of tunes in ¾ time, a brutal dance on the edge of the abyss that Europe had sunk into after the Great War.
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s dedication to contemporary music is evident in the care given to the performance and recording of this CD and to the insightful liner notes that accompany it. The Seattle musicians are a force of nature, delivering virtuosic playing bar after bar, whether navigating the dense sonic minefields of Berio and Boulez, or the Gallic panache of Ravel.
Maestro Ludovic Morlot now in his eighth season in Seattle is fully in command, eliciting world class playing from his musicians. The superb Roomful of Teeth Vocal Ensemble dazzles with its off-the-wall virtuosity in the Berio.
We look forward to future releases by both the Seattle Symphony and Roomful of Teeth. This one is absolutely stunning.
Rafael de Acha