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Monday, March 18, 2013

Swingle Singers join MSO for Berio’s ‘Sinfonia’

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Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra, composed in 1968, captures the atmosphere of that turbulent year. It reverberates with the angst engendered by the war and the spirit of rebellion that arose in response. Its two opening and two closing movements resonate with the equally mysterious music by György Ligeti used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in theatrical release on April 4 of that year—the same day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

The second movement in Berio’s five-movement Sinfonia is an elegy for King. The opening movement uses excerpts from a Claude Lévi-Strauss book on Amazon Indian myths regarding the origin of water. Something like Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the first two movements seem to suggest the absurdity and tragedy of human turmoil amid the vast mystery of the cosmos.

The third movement is an amazing ride aboard the third movement scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. This was Berio’s response to having heard Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Second a year earlier. Berio embellished Mahler’s scherzo snippets with nearly two dozen other works spanning classical music history—from Bach, Beethoven and Wagner to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and beyond. It’s a simultaneous homage to Mahler and Charles Ives. The humorously incongruous text for the Sinfonia’s third movement consists mostly of excerpts from Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable.

One of the most innovative things about Berio’s Sinfonia is how it employs the human voice, somewhere between singing and speaking and sometimes just speaking. The success of the Sinfonia depends on the special sort of vocal artists its score requires, and on their audibility amid a large orchestra. The 1968 premiere performance and recording led by the composer with the original Swingle Singers—an a cappella group whose first hits were jazz scat renditions of Bach—was ideal.

At 8 p.m., March 22-23, Edo DeWaart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will present the acclaimed Swingle Singers in the Berio Sinfonia, preceded by Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 Violin Concerto No. 2 with MSO associate concertmaster, Ilana Setapen, and the suite to Igor Stravinsky’s delightfully tuneful 1920 ballet Pulcinella.
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