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Review: Circles & Sketches | Voices of Change | Caruth Auditorium

Circle in the Square

Voices of Change presents a 1960 Luciano Berio piece that has to be appreciated in historical perspective.

published Wednesday, March 14, 2012

One of the most valuable services that Voices of Change offers to the Metroplex arts community is the presentation of landmark musical compositions that have shaped the musical life of our time. On Sunday, VOC brought us a performance of just such a work: "Circles," Luciano Berio's 1960 work for mezzo-soprano, harp and percussion. 

Mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright gave an elegant reading of the complex and practically incomprehensible vocal part. Harpist Michael Maganuco was equally excellent. Drew Lang and Joe Ferraro managed the two large collections of percussion instruments with amazing skill and choreography.  Whether you like this bewildering composition, this was a virtuoso performance that was riveting from beginning to end. 

Here is a bit of over-simplified background: 

Music changed dramatically in 1889 when the World's Fair brought the Indonesian Gamelan Orchestra to the attention to Claude Debussy. Up until then, in the Western tonal system, one note was the tonal center (or the tonic) and the others arranged themselves in a hierarchy of importance, based on the physics of the overtones that a flute creates naturally. This is why it sounds so "right" to Western ears. Non-Western music used different scales, based on the overtones of non-wind instruments, and Indian ragas used even smaller intervals than our half steps. 

In 1921, Western music went a step further into the abyss when Arnold Schoenberg tossed out the whole business of fixed scales. In brief, Schoenberg said that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale should be of equal importance. After that, anything from instrumentation to rhythms, could be tossed out or re-organized according to anything from a series of numbers to trusting in chaos. For example, in 1991 Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote his Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet). A performance requires four helicopters (with one of the members of the string quartet in each). The copters must be equipped with a pilot and sound technician, television transmitter and three-channel sound transmitter. Further, a performance requires an auditorium with four columns of televisions and loudspeakers, a sound technician with mixing desk, and a moderator. John Cage tossed out the music altogether in his 4'33" from 1952. Here the performer (it can be on any instrument) sits in silence and stares at a stopwatch for the allotted time (4 minutes and thirty-three seconds). The audience noise makes the composition. 

Berio's Circles is fairly conservative in light of the above. He uses traditional instruments and writes traditional pitches for some of the vocal lines. However, he tosses out standard notation. He invents his own notation that leaves much music of the composition up to the players to improvise. The score looks completely different from any other musical score, more like a technical drawing. Many of the rhythmic patterns have note stems, but no note heads. This gives the approximate pattern of the rise and fall of the pitches with getting as specific as actual notes. An occasional standard time signature (such as a 2/4) and a series of actual traditional notation for the singer surprises when they appear. The printed score is a photocopy of Berio's manuscript and is artwork in its own right. 

Mercado-Wright read the text, three obtuse poems by e.e.cummings, poems before the performance, but hearing them did little to illuminate their meaning, or help us follow them in the music. These poems require study and much pondering to decipher. It really doesn't matter anyway. Berio deconstructs the text, so that the words are little more than syllabic "colors."  cummings doesn't help. Some words are written in unorthodox manners, such as "liGtninG". How that changes the word is up to the singer. One of the notes for the singer only offers an exclamation mark as a text. What do you do with that? Shout? Squeel? Laugh? Berio doesn't really care. 

The impact of this work on composers at the time and ever since cannot be underestimated. 

All of this discussion is needed to appreciate what a spectacular opportunity Voices of Change brought to Caruth Auditorium on Sunday evening. The chance to hear such a seminal piece, magnificently performed, is a rare event indeed. Mercado-Wright and Maganuco recently performed it in New York City, with two different percussionists, and VOC brought it here. And this is hardly the first time that VOC has brought important performances to the Metroplex. It happens all the time. Thanks to them, if you want to keep up with contemporary music, both the now and the then of it, you can live in New York City or you can live in Dallas. 

The rest of the program was equally attractive, if not of the same historical importance. 

Fabian Panisello's Etudes - Chroma I,II,III,IV  for solo piano, presented two contrasting uses of the instrument. The first was impressionistic and diffuse while the second was very fast and all over the keyboard. Anastasia Markin gave it a breathtaking performance. 

John Luther Adams' Red Arc / Blue Veil, for piano, mallet percussion, and processed sounds, presented walls of sounds that rose from nowhere to dominate our consciousness, only to fade back into non-existence. The music started in the lower reaches of the pitch and then moved up relentlessly to an ear-ringing height then returned to where is started. The processed sound, a sonic roar, came over loud speakers. 

James Matheson: Falling, for a standard piano trio, ably demonstrated that the possibilities of a standard piano trio instrumentation have hardly been exhausted, as far as new sounds and techniques go. Violinist Maria Schleuning, cellist Kari Nostbakken, and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya played the complex score as if it was by Beethoven and this seriousness of approach made a great case for the piece's stature. 

Gabriela Lena Frank's Four Pre-Inca Sketches, uses the folk elements of Peruvian music dating back to 200 B.C. Helen Blackburn made an amazing variety of sounds with her flute, sounding like a panpipe at one moment and the desert wind at another. Kari Nostbakken's cello went from traditionally accompanying arpeggios to sounding like a strummed guitar.

The next VOC event is on April 15 (Sunday) at 11 a.m. It will be a Salon-Brunch at the Home of VOC Artistic Detector Maria Schleuning and Rick Giangiulio and will feature the music of Thomas Schwann.

Not to be missed. Thanks For Reading

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Circle in the Square
Voices of Change presents a 1960 Luciano Berio piece that has to be appreciated in historical perspective.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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