Friday, 3 November 2017

Orchestre de Paris 50th Birthday Party - Berio Sinfonia flows free

The Orchestre de Paris, with Daniel Harding, click to enlarge -it's worth  it

Hugely ambitious concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Orchestre de Paris. The finest concert hall in the world,  and one of the finest orchestras too,  with new Chief Conductor Daniel Harding, and a programme showcasing the connections between sound and space.  Berio's Sinfonia, "a symphony that contains the world"  created so it constantly renews and adapts whenever it's performed anew.  A metaphor for the creative force that is music !  The concepts that make Berio's Sinfonia so innovative apply too to György Ligeti's Poème symphonique pour 100 métronomes, to Jörg Widmann's Fantasie, to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and to Debussy La Mer.   To assess this vast programme in conventional terms would be to miss its very purpose.  The Orchestre de Paris and the Philharmonie are astute, not stupid.  These works are hardly obscure.  Music doesn't have to be locked into straitjackets of form. Like the river that flows through Berio's Sinfonia, it flows onwards, absorbing many influences, fertilizing new areas, bringing renewal and rebirth.  As Berio explained, "One of my aims was to use the orchestration as a respectful and loving instrument of investigation and transformation". 

It's no accident that Berio references Mahler's Symphony no 2, with its themes of death and resurrection, and specifically to the movement in which the song  Des Antonius von Paduas Fischpredikt  resurfaces wordlessly, in orchestral guise.  Numerous other references, too, such as to Don, the first movement of Boulez's Pli selon Pli ( which means fold upon fold, ie, endless layers and permutations)(Read more HERE)  "Don" means gift, so this is like a gift  from one composer to another. What has gone before shapes what is to come, but absolutely central is the idea that music never ends.  Numerous other references, some musical, some cultural, some explicit, some so cryptic that they only reveal themselves on careful listening.  "For the unexpected is always with us!" a phrase that acts like a signpost in the vocal parts. Berio also experiments with levels of time, blending references to the past to the present and future.  "Keep going, keep going" and later "Stop!" but the music propels ever forward.

Thunderbolt ostinato, screams of protest.  London Voices supplied the archly Anglo tones that appealed to Berio's quirky sense of humour. So what if some audiences don't get everything, all at once ?  St. Anthony kept preaching to the fish, though they didn't listen and kept scrapping. 

 Berio also wrote music that would grow to fit each performance space. In the Philharmonie, the Sinfonia swelled to fit the vast space, where the acoustic  is so fine that it doesn't dampen fine detail. This time the whispers in the voice parts could be heard, imperceptibly, and tiny figures in the orchestration weren't lost  Though Berio uses a large orchestra, big blast is not the way to do this piece.  Harding builds up the layers of colour and texture so they shine . Much in the way Impressionist painters kept their brush strokes clear.  Thus the elegant symmetry of the programme, balancing Berio's Sinfonia with Debussy La Mer. Both pieces are impressionistic in the way details are built up without being muddied, individual cells kept clean and vibrant. La Mer was revolutionary because it marked a sea change in style. It thrives best when conducted like this, where the energy flows freely.  For French orchestras La Mer is a signature piece : the symbol of modern French style.  

In Sinfonia, Berio also makes references to Ligeti and specifically to Atmosphères.  Perfectly logical then to follow Sinfonia with Ligeti's Poème symphonique where 100 metronomes tick, each in slightly different ways. Ligeti's playing with time, and measures of time : the principles of music, where his "players" are usually the means by which music is regulated. More quirky humour ! In a long concert like this, it gave the regular orchestra a rest while the audience worked. If they understood, which they probably did since it's quite a well known piece. Again, proof that music exists in many forms ! Thus Widmann's Fantasie for solo clarinet, heard in March this year at the opening concert at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. The Paris Philharmonie is a much bigger space, but the piece adapted well,  as if the sound of the clarinet were moving around the hall, reaching out into its distances. If anything, I much preferred this new spatial dimension. It makes the piece intriguing, as if the instrument were exploring and responding to its environment.  Like shepherds of Ancient Greece, playing flutes whose sound carries over vast spaces.  Another connection to the themes in Berio's Sinfonia.  

Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, another hybrid form, blending the form of ritual religious music to orchestral style, at once ancient and modern.  It also combines orchestra with choir (the Choir of the Orchestre de Paris, Choirmaster Lionel Sow).  The ideas in Berio's Sinfonia again, but with the unmistakable austerity that would mark Stravinsky's later style. Huge blocks of sound, hewn as if from a rockface, yet moving forward with slow but monumental pace.  Stravinsky, Berio and Debussy, three very different composers but each creating new form.   In contrast,  Jörg Widmann's  Au cœur de Paris written for the orchestra's 50th birthday. It's a party piece,  tumbling different clichés of Paris together in merry profusion.  Yet another nod to Berio and his sense of humour ! 

Listen to the concert here (available for the next six months)


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