New works come and go -- are given premieres, then forgotten. Lamentably, those with some chance of lasting value often end up in the same pile of unperformed works as the flops and near misses.
Luciano Berio seems happily to be in a different situation. Even if his large-scale works are not as often performed in this country as they ought to be , there are recordings available to the curious so they can familiarize themselves with one of the durable greats of the second half of this century.
His newest work, "CORO," is being given its US premiere with a series of concerts. It is clearly one of the great works to come out of this era, and surely one of Berio's most fascinatingly theatrical and lyrical.It is even accessible -- the best word to describe music that is challenging yet also rewarding for the attentive, receptive listener.
The series starts with the Cleveland Orchestra in their home town, to be followed by apperances in Boston (Oct. 21) and New York (Oct. 24). In conjunction with the premiere, DG records has released the composer-led performance by the chorus and orchestra that commissioned "CORO" in the first place, the Cologne Radio Orchestra and Chorus.
Such is the complexity of the work that the Radio Chorus travels around the world to give performances of it. They will be in the US, as always under the direction of Herbert Schernus, when Lorin Maazel leads this series of US premiere performances.
Cleveland's is an ambitious, noble undertaking.To tour anything contemporary is to ask for trouble at the box office. To tour a piece that is expected by the composer to stand alone on a program -- as it must, even though it lasts barely an hour -- is to increase the challenge. Yet anyone truly interested in the state of contemporary music should not be allowed to miss this event. And if the Cleveland will not be in your area, try picking up the DG recording (2531 270) and play it at least two or three times before making any sort of judgment.
"CORO" is not an easy work (how often has that been said by writers searching for some way to begin to describe the spectacular canvas of an elaborate musical journey?). It does not reveal itself on merely a casual listen. Nor for that matter does the recordiong help in sorting out all the textures and lines of the scoring -- at times deliriously complex yet always compellingly effective, never so dense as to be merely noisy.
And throughout, there is the constant problem of language -- much of the text to "CORO" is in English, with some Spanish, French, Hebrew, and German. Almost consistently the soloists in the chorus get the inflections and even pronunciations so wrong as to render the text syllabic gibberish.
Berio was at the Berkshire Music Center in 1952 and has since been no stranger to these shores. While at Tanglewood (home of the BMC) he studied under Luigi Dallapiccola and numbered among his student peers Christoph von Dohnanyi and Lorin Maazel. On a recent visit to Boston to discuss this and other projects, Berio noted that Maazel was asked at the last minute to step in and conduct the first performance of Berio's "Due Pezzi" at Tanglewood that summer. In less than a day, the conductor, then a violinist, had fully memorized the work -- as Berio says, "An amazing memory, and such an ear!"
Berio reconizes his most popular work to be "Sinfonia," a piece known more to record colectors in this country, and then in truncated form, since he has now written a fifth and concludiong section to it. As with "CORO," the work was "in progress" when given its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Berio's direction in 1968. But "CORO," premiered in 1976, was completed and revised in 1977, and it is this version that has been published by G. Schirmers in this country, and recorded by DG records.
Half jokingly, the composer referred to "CORO" as his Jerusalem, because like that ancient city, "CORO" is built of old stones -- folk tunes. It is a continuation of the grand passion of Berio's musical life -- transcriptions. The third section of "Sinfonia" overlays onthe third movement of Mahler's Second Symphony, a virtuosic study of textures and musical quotes from other composers that come out of the Mahler effortlessly and wittily, while over that is an ongoing whimsical patter and litany from the Swingle Singers (that part is usually taken by a chorus in this post-Swingle Singers day).
There is nothing quite so recognizable as the Mahler in "CORO," but many of the ideas -- moments emerging from others, forming something altogether new, and the use of words and phonetics as musical ideas in themselves -- are similar.
Berio cities one of the most arresting moments in his listening experience as the moments in his listening experience as the moment that the kernel of "COCO" began germinating. He was listening to a friend's tapes of African drum music. That friend had been chronicling the music not for historic purposes but ion an attempt to discover the source of the incredible rhythmic accuracy and variety the drummers consistently displayed. A basic theme or motif was completely fragmented, yet when they all played their intricate parts together, the mosaic of that melody or motif became perceptible, even though no one player was actually "singing" it.
Berio was intrigued, particularly sionce, in his words, even the best of Western jazz musicians cannot keep the thread of too complex a beat alive for too long. And so "CORO" was nurtured -- "like a mosaic of rhythms that make the melodic piece," or, put in another way, "I wanted the melody as a hidden presence, I want the sensem of the melody to come."
He likened "CORO" to his new house in Tuscany, which was in poor shape, broken down. "But we rebuilt it with different configurations, using the old stones as the basix. The folk tunes are the stones, hence the Jerusalem analogy -- since Jerusalem is built of old stones.
Berio cites the emblematic nature of the words in this score -- words that have to be blazingly simple and direct because their use and treatment is so complex. To Berio, the two polarities of "CORO" are the images of love and of blood in the streets (found in the Pablo Neruda poem that recurs in fragments throughout the 60 minutes of the work). The images start at either side of the musical and emotional spectrum, and through a labyrinthian path they come together.
It is the quest of that labyrinth that should draw any and all to any available performance of "CORO," live or on disc.