Omaggio – A Celebration of Luciano Berio

Written by: Colin Anderson

Now that the twentieth century can be viewed from without, the musical upheavals that occurred within it are more objectively determined. Instead of denigrating those composers considered Modernist and finding them all similarly dissonant and cerebral, their individuality can be discerned and celebrated.

One such is the Italian master, Luciano Berio, who died last year aged 77. Talking to Gillian Moore, the Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta, who is heavily involved in the South Bank Centre’s “Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio”, and who was with him not long before his death, I suggest that this festival will have a bittersweet quality to it. The plan was that Berio would be a busy participant. “He was determined to be here. He was clearly ill but he had extraordinary energy. He did an interview with us (for a film being shown on the 18th in the Queen Elizabeth Hall), and then we had a long planning meeting in which he was completely in charge. Then he went into another meeting with the unions – he was Artistic Director of the Santa Cecilia concert hall – he was really on top of things and wanted to know every detail about the festival. It was a big shock that he succumbed so quickly and a great sadness that he won’t be here. We’ll miss him terribly.”

Gillian says that Berio saw himself “as a musician rather than a composer, that being a musician was a way of being in the world. He was a composer, a conductor and an organiser; he said that a musician has to be an organiser and not be precious about being a composer. He also talked a lot about his love for music of other traditions; he saw no boundaries between classical music and folk music, and between high art and popular culture.”

Such a liberating attitude is found in Berio’s music, not least Voci, a masterpiece of a viola concerto, which uses Sicilian folk music, and which is heard in the opening concert (15 April, QEH). It has “one of the most beautiful tunes ever. The viola becomes a mandolin and guitar and there’s the hot flavour of the Mediterranean.” Gillian adds “Sinfonia and Folk Songs, or Laborintus II even. They sum up the excitement of the era, the second half of the twentieth century; in Sinfonia you can feel the danger and excitement of being alive in 1968 – you hear texts from the barricades, political slogans, and you hear the history of music. It’s a rich tapestry.”

Gillian cites another aspect to Berio’s art. “There’s a great beauty to the surfaces of much of his music – glittering, shiny and ravishingly beautiful. The other thing is the constant awareness of all kinds of music – in Sinfonia you hear Mahler coursing through it like a great river. In Laborintus II you hear Monteverdi, and texts of Dante; there’s all sorts of references – an exciting, tightly organised musical structure that makes sense of the world at that time. It’s extremely communicative. I think of all the avant-garde composers that burst onto the scene after the second world war, Berio is the one who communicates with the widest audience – he didn’t cut himself off from musical history or popular culture. Berio saw himself as part of a musical tradition and inhabiting a very broad musical world.”

So, a two-week adventure lies ahead – with concerts at the Royal Academy of Music and on the South Bank: lunchtime events, films, and study days. Expect some Berio arrangements of Weill, also his very last piece, completed just two weeks before he died, and a Haydn symphony. There’s also music from composers currently associated with the Royal Academy of Music. As Gillian says, “Berio was a musical composer, not into gimmicks. He said it’s what you do expressively with an instrument that matters. He was fiery and also had a huge sense of humour. He was an inspiring figure, a warm and passionate human being.”

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