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The Glorious Puzzle

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/30/2008 -  and 01/31, 02/01, 02/02
Luciano Berio: Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4

Synergy Vocals, Micaela Haslam (director)
New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (conductor)

Forty years have passed since the New York Philharmonic Orchestra gave the world premiere of Luciano Berio’s remarkable Sinfonia – yet people still walked out of Avery Fisher Hall in horror. What on earth could they possible fear from a work which is as reminiscent as a series of popular works, as puzzling as a Rubik’s Cube, and, with the Synergy Singers, the rightful heirs of the Swingle Singers, still perfectly gorgeous.

Oh, Berio, a prime product of the Italian intelligentsia from the last part of the 20th Century, had his reasons, which would hardly be evident to those not open to deconstructionist writing and European Leftist politics. But one didn’t have to be aware of the complexities of language and music to simply sit back and relax and be aware of something wonderful happening.

It certainly happened last night. Lorin Maazel is not reputed for this kind of music, but he didn’t lose a beat of the complicated work. The Synergy Singers, sitting among the stage-left players, were cued in to their words, sounds, hums and chords without a moment’s hesitation, while the Philharmonic offered the texture and counterpoint. With the exception of the third and fifth movements, all were short, sharp and so endearing that one would have liked to have heard the words. But this was not the purpose of the piece, Berio took the words of the revolutionary anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the name of Martin Luther King and mixed them into a stew of music and sounds which were attractive without any knowledge at all.

The third movement is based on the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, but that theme itself is based on the satirical song of Saint Anthony of Padua, who preaches a sermon to the fish, who listen and swim away. But Berio goes much much much further. He revises the theme, he plays with it, quotes a dozen other composer (some in fragments, some for several measures), and accompanies this musical feast with the words of – who else? – Samuel Beckett.

I had never heard the fifth movement, which was written after this original Sinfonia, but here too Berio uses themes of the past (the past four movements) and sums them up in one bundle which looks nothing like the original. The reasons are too complex for this column, but the performance was stunning.

Those who walked out, presumably re-entered after the intermission for Brahms Fourth Symphony, which sounded, frankly, a little stodgy, old-fashioned, without syncopation or evervessence. This was not Maazel’s fault. He has conducted it a thousand times, and his scoreless performance was reliable (save for some sluggish playing in the finale). It might have been the wrong second piece, its only commonality that the New York Philharmonic gave the world premiere of the Berio and the New York premiere of the Brahms some 80-odd years ago.

For those who still can’t get enough of the multifarious genius of Luciano Berio, this Saturday, the entire day will be devoted to the composer at Lincoln Center, commencing with a film and symposium, finishing with all the Sequenzas. More than an homage, this can only be called a festive celebration.

Harry Rolnick



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