Sunday, September 26, 2010

Went and Saw the Blood on the Streets

I’m writing up this concert with a bit more distance between it and me than the first couple that I reported on. Not for any particular reason, other than not really having the time to do it (or, more accurately, since these posts don’t really take all that long to write, I haven’t had the confluence of time and desire necessary to make these concert write-ups happen). But this turned out to be one of only two more concerts that I made it to, of the Musikfest Berlin this year. The concert being Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Luciano Berio’s Coro, and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.

This one happened on the Friday after the Monday concert of Stanze. Stanze, as already reported, was immediately one of those peak concert-going experiences that one might accumulate in one’s life. I was about equally excited for Coro and Stanze before the Stanze concert, but having experience it, I can admit that I was slightly less excited about Coro, if only because it’s a much older piece (shouting all the way back to 1976), and I don’t think as sublimely crafted as Stanze. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t still mega-stoked for Coro. I definitely was.

I already, before these concerts, held Berio in very high esteem. Ever since Jack first came home from Swarthmore while I was in my senior year of high school and played for me the Sinfonia (though, oddly, here in Berlin, I without much thought at all skipped the performance of Sinfonia (which I think is the third time now that I’ve skipped seeing a performance of it (once in Boston, once in New York, as well)—I don’t really know why…), and then, once I went to music school and spent valuable time poring through the music library’s collection of recordings of Berio’s music, his ideas have had a strong influence on my own aesthetic. But other than his Folk Songs, I hadn’t heard any of his music performed live until now. Which, as any of you that have encountered any of his music, live or recorded, well know, makes a huge difference.

On my PC, I still have, somehow saved through two subsequent machines and three or four hard drives, the original .mp3 file that my freshman-in-college self ripped of Berio’s Coro from CMU’s library CD recording of it, at some awfully low compression rate. But even through that digital information-lost mess, it was still a piece that mattered to me. And hearing one of the world’s finest orchestras perform it, of course, I was not disappointed.

Unlike György Ligeti (another composer, originally introduced to me by Jack (and/or Stanley Kubrick’s films), whose music carried a rather profound affect on my own musical development), I haven’t actually studied Berio’s music much at all. I’ve read through the score of Sinfonia a couple times here and there, and gathered some general information about the man and his methods, but I really don’t know very much. But I’m curious as to the extent of influence that Stockhausen had on Berio, because of the way Coro (and Stanze too, for that matter) works spatially. (In general, though, in Europe, one is reminded that Stockhausen existed—he looms way larger here than in the States (where, for instance, in my music schooling, my 20th Century music teacher said, of Stockhausen (this was the spring after September 11th, 2001), “He said xyz about the World Trade Center, so we’ll be skipping him.” (this in the same class that started with two weeks of Wagner)).)

There are 40 singers and 44 instruments, intermingled on the stage. So, where, for instance, with Webern, you can track rows and lines from instrument to instrument, but you’re mostly just hearing the color change of the sound, and noticing it spatially only insofar as you can place the sound back to the instrument that made it, sitting in its expected place, with Coro, those kind of movements from one place on the stage to another are planned and prepared, so that even motions within a single color still have a spatio-sculptural aspect unavailable to traditionally seated orchestras.

So that’s one of the main ways that Coro works to such effectiveness. I’d also mention, after Stanze, that Coro is a deadly serious (at least to me) piece of music. Maybe there’s some humor in there, but it was mostly lost on me if it was. Not only because the piece is built around the slowing growing fragment of Neruda, building to “come and see the blood on the streets.”

But I’m burning out on technical or aesthetic things here already, and not really interested in doing much more descriptive writing. So mostly: Coro is awesome. Go hear it live sometime, if you can. After hearing several concerts of Berio’s music, I’m renewedly sad at how conservative most of the world’s orchestras are with their programming. Props to the Berliner Phil for nailing this one. I think they really had to work at it. My seat was to the left side of the stage, so I had a clear view of Rattle the whole time. I think the piece really pushed him. He looked like he felt lucky to have made it through at the end of the piece. And the orchestra too, at completion, reacted in a way that I’ve never seen them do before, as if they all kind of collectively wiped the sweat from their brows.

Rattle did his greatest work with controlling the dynamics of the piece. I think there’s a temptation, when listening to a recording of Coro, to crank the volume and sort of rock out with it. But the Philharmoniker brought an incredible precision to the swoop and range of their dynamics, which of course has a huge impact on the color of the piece as well, particularly fun to hear in a hall as crystal clear as the Philharmonie. There are some big-some gigantic-sounds in that piece, but it was never blown out, never too loud, often stirringly just-quiet-enough.

The second half of the concert was Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The only thing of note was that one of the dudes singing one of the parts was the same guy I saw sing as the Mime in the first Act of Wagner’s Siegfried, when Rattle and BPO did it back in 2008. He’s a good singer. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella is a waste of time. Put up against Berio’s incredible grasp of strange-making across musical contexts, Stravinsky’s orchestrationing is bared open as the vapid, flat, non-thing that it was.

It’s the same dilemma as always, though, since it’s easy to imagine most of the people in the concert hall (almost full, since it was Rattle and the BPO, but still not sold out) preferring the Stravinsky. And most of these people are old and rich or tourists (I find myself a bit saddened, rather disappointed, at the small number of excitable young people like myself at these concerts—I’d have hoped that in Berlin there would be more overly-excitably 20th/21st Century art music nerds), so who am I to tell them what they should get out of what piece? (Though of course, these questions only come after that fact, ‘cause there’s no Charlie Brown-ing (“Actually, all is not well. What am I doing here, at one o’clock in the morning?”) during the music itself. We each take our own path through the world, I suppose.

I’ll leave it with one of the pieces of text from Coro (translated into English from the Zuni), ‘cause it just about says it (not knowing what):

When we came to this world

through the poor place

where the body of water

dried for our passing.

Bring shower

and great rains

all come

all ascend

all come in

all sit down


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