Fifty Years Later, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia is Still Revolutionary

Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony perform Berio’s Sinfonia with Roomful of Teeth at Benaroya Hall on February 4, 2016. (Photo by Brandon Patoc)

Featuring Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, a new live concert recording with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will be released on July 20, 2018.

By Andrew Stiefel

Fifty years after the world premiere of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, the music still feels as vivid and contemporary as when it was written. Born of the social and cultural upheavals of 1968 and 1969, the music responds to the crush of the events surrounding it — the struggles, protests and hopes of the era are all given voice in the swirling textures of the Sinfonia.


The work’s enduring, modern themes are evident in a new release from Seattle Symphony Media, available worldwide on July 22. Featuring Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth with Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, the album provides a timely reminder of how music can respond to current events.

Dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, who commissioned Berio in honor of the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary, the Sinfonia began as a response to the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968.

Berio originally conceived his tribute as a small chamber work for voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, but, shortly after completing it, he created an orchestral version that he then quickly integrated into the Sinfonia. Entitled “O King,” the second movement is a keening lament filled with ringing points of light and haunting vocal lines.

But the Sinfonia is most famous for its kaleidoscopic middle movement, a collage of musical quotations and fragments of text from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. It also includes phrases written by students on the wall of the Sorbonne during the May 1968 revolts in Paris, which the composer witnessed.

With the scherzo movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 flowing beneath the accumulating layers of musical quotations from Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg and many others, the third movement evokes a wild, fractious argument between the past and present.

“I remember experiencing Berio’s Sinfonia for the first time. And I didn’t quite know what to make of it,” confesses Morlot. “But it creates something completely unique and individual. The music world was changed forever after this.”

In addition to the Sinfonia, the album includes Ravel’s whirling La valse, one of the many works quoted in the middle movement of the Sinfonia, and Boulez’s Notations I-IV for Orchestra, a stunning collection of short vignettes filled with elegant, radiant textures.

You can pre-order Berio’s Sinfonia on July 6, 2018. The album will be available through all major streaming services and online retailers on July 20, 2018.

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Posted on June 22, 2018