Semyon Bychkov is rounding out a fortnight's stint as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic with two works he has long championed. Also on this evening the Philharmonic honored four of its musicians for twenty-five years’ service as well as several retiring musicians and staff members, an apt occasion for Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, commissioned by the Philharmonic to celebrate its 125th-anniversary in 1968, now reaching its own fiftieth as we mark the centenary year of its dedicatee, Leonard Bernstein, then the Philharmonic’s music director.
Sinfonia is tied to its time, referencing the philosophical, political and social, and artistic turmoil of the 1960s through recited and sung texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss (in French) and Samuel Beckett, as well as a tribute to Martin Luther King. The Philharmonic’s history and musical traditions are reflected in the middle movement, a collage based on the third movement of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony of Gustav Mahler (the Philharmonic’s conductor in the last two years of his life), onto which Berio superimposes quotations from Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, and others. Soon after the premiere, Berio added a fifth movement that draws upon elements from the original four.
Members of the excellent Roomful of Teeth surrounded the podium, reflecting the specifications in Berio’s score, which divides the violins into three separately seated sections and calls for three groups of percussion as well as piano, electric harpsichord and electric organ. The amplified voices came through with clarity and in dynamic balance with the orchestra, the words and quotations flying past as Mahler’s music faded into and out of the foreground. Bychkov drew out Berio’s dazzling colors as well as tender and mysterious moments, the musicians responding perfectly to his direction.
Bychkov gave Alpine Symphony an enthralling outing. Rather than approaching it as episodes representing a day of hiking in the Alps, Bychkov treats the ostensible program as a metaphor for a human lifetime – pleasure and pain, triumphs and tribulations, and ultimately fading into the infinite. This outlook informed the performance in which the music moved smoothly forward in symphonic fashion. The Philharmonic played brilliantly – strings radiant, brass resplendent – especially when the mid-point summit was reached.