The next Tuesdays at Monk Space concert will feature a unique opportunity to hear almost all of Luciano Berio‘s famous Sequenzas – all in one place! Berio wrote these solo pieces throughout his life, starting in the 1950s up until his death in 2003. Numbering fourteen in total, they speak to the unique possibilities of almost every orchestral instrument. The concert will take place in the warehouse at Monk Space, with a simultaneous performance happening in the Annex across the hall. Audience members are invited to move between the halls at their own pace (and maybe stop for some wine in between).
An all-star cast of performers will be lending their talents to these works, and are graciously donating their performances to this fundraising concert. I asked some of the performers about their challenges, triumphs, and overall experiences with these pieces. Here’s what they had to say:
Elizabeth Huston – Sequenza II (Harp)
I find it fascinating how Sequenza II uses nearly every known extended technique for the harp, while simultaneously making the piece cohesive using thematic material. Often, when composers use too many effects and bizarre techniques, it comes off as just a showcase of weird sounds, not a thoughtful piece of art. This is not the case with Sequenza II, however, which really showcases Berio’s skill as a composer. I also find it incredible how many new rhythmic, melodic, and dynamic themes I find every time I practice the piece. It’s incredibly dense.
I first performed it on my own showcase of all the Sequenzas. Like any piece with this level of complexity, you can practice it indefinitely and it always has room for improvement, which is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. It’s very significant to me because the challenge of putting together the showcase was, like the piece, incredibly frustrating and rewarding, and resulted in one of the most fun projects of my life. The research put into all of the pieces to create a cohesive show made me really understand the incredible thing that is the Sequenzas, and how the evolution of the Sequenzas in many ways maps the evolution of western music as a whole. I applaud Aron for taking this on!
Stacey Fraser – Sequenza III (Voice)
I think the most interesting and challenging thing is that you need to remain humble and continue to revisit the score despite the number of times you may have performed it! There really are so many notes, subtleties and nuances that it is essential for one to continue to study the score, vocal and silent practice are critical. This is not an improvised piece, Berio notated every note and every vocal gesture. I have been singing the piece since I was a student in the late 90’s and I think the fun thing for me is to see how the piece has matured in my voice over the last 22 years. I have the technical facility to do a lot more in the way of actually making tone yet the “young me” somehow still emerges every time I take the piece out to practice. Those were the days of rock and roll – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and BERIO!
I first performed the piece on the stage of Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music on February 25, 1995 as part of their annual Festival of New Music. I was the first act on the program and the concert closed with Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios and he was indeed in attendance, I of course had no idea who he was at the time. Not only was it my first time performing the Sequenza III but this also marked my New City debut. I was a young soprano from Nova Scotia, Canada having just completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. I found myself enrolled in the Master of Music program at MSM and among a sea of 90 amazing sopranos, graduate and undergraduate combined. I figured out within my first month that if I wanted a solo opportunity in my first semester at MSM, it would likely only happen if I sang music that the other 89 sopranos would not be so interested in learning. I hoped and prayed that that my U of T training would allow me to tackle such a challenging work. Claire Heldrich, percussionist and Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble entrusted me with the piece, she hadn’t even heard me sing but somehow my passion for new music convinced her that I could do it.
A few days before the concert I came down with sinusitis/laryngitis but by some miracle I was able to sing – I didn’t realize until my teacher Cynthia Hoffmann called me the following Saturday morning to tell me that a photo of my performance and a favorable review by Allan Kozinn was gracing the front page of the Arts Section of the Saturday edition of the New York Times. Although not a new music aficionado of contemporary music herself, Ms. Hoffmann was proud and felt that the piece was the key to me opening up my operatic voice; I believe she was correct. It is always fun revisiting the work, and I can’t help but feel like that 20 something year old naive soprano from Canada is somehow reflected in even my latest rendition of the piece.
Mari Kawamura – Sequenza IV (Piano)
This piece casts of variety of small sections with different characters that are sequenced one after another, and this demands of the pianist a great deal of concentration and delicate control. As the section move on, you have to change the technique immediately: the touch, speed of attack, amount of body weight…these constant shifts are the most difficult thing about this piece.
I first performed this piece last March, so our relationship is rather new. The more I learn it, the more charming and playful I find it to be.
Matt Barbier – Sequenza V (Trombone)
For me the most interesting parts about the trombone sequenza relate primarily to it’s place in the canon. It’s really the first piece in the trombone repertoire that asks a player to redefine their relationship with one’s instrument. It also has an interesting, and somewhat dubious, history, but I suppose it’s best to leave somewhat off the record. The biggest challenge for me is picking the sequenza back up as these moments arise. I always find it an interesting dichotomy when I return to the piece because the it’s ingrained on my memory for the view of a much less skilled trombonist, so my return visits always find me questioning if I’ve made the musical choice I’m remembering to cover a lack of skill or to embrace a past vision. I always enjoy trying to access my 22 year oldish brain and try to sort what was going on in there.
I first performed it in the fall of 2007. For me it’s gone from a piece that I thought would, at one point, be a repertoire cornerstone, but, as my relationship to traditional new music has changed, has really become something I view as quite old (it’s 51 years old). As something of that age, I came to feel that it’s important to know, but ultimately something to be moved past. Now my relationship with it is primarily in teaching it as a jumping off point with students who are more interested in exploratory techniques. That said, the piece does have a very nostalgic place for me as when I started to learn it I ended up having about ten days to do so for a master class with Mike Svoboda. That moment laid the foundation for our relationship and Mike has been an incredibly helpful resource as I’ve found my own creative path.
Trumpet player Daniel Flores has his mentor’s copy of Sequenza X, with handwritten markings from Berio himself.
Daniel Flores – Sequenza X (Trumpet)
For me, Sequenza X represents a unique blend of both technical challenge, and an opportunity to express oneself in a freer manner than one might find on a standard piece of trumpet literature. As you can hear throughout the different sequenze, Berio offered both a consistent set of textures and effects he wanted created, ranging from trilled notes on one pitch, frantic scale runs, and extreme dynamic contrasts, to more instrument native ideas. In the case of Sequenza X, Berio had both the great jazz trumpeter’s Miles Davis and Clark Terry on his mind, and really, jazz was certainly on the mind of Berio throughout. Whenever you hear the interval of a minor third from D natural to F natural in the first gesture of the piece, you are actually hearing Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” sang by Nancy Wilson in 1964! So, what I find most interesting about Sequenza X is the blend and balance of the evolution of Berio’s original ideas, coupled with the taste and information of what makes sense in the trumpet tradition.
I first performed this piece in 2015 at the Chosen Vale International Trumpet seminar, which was quite a year! I had the opportunity to learn the piece from two very special artists, the great Thomas Stevens, former principal trumpet of the LA Philharmonic, who premiered the first iteration of the piece, as well as the famous Italian trumpet soloist, Gabriele Cassone. In fact, I had to perform the piece in masterclass for both of them, which made me quite nervous, but things seemed to work out! That night, Thomas Stevens gifted Berio’s manuscript of the third iteration of the piece, which we play today, to Gabriele…what a special night that was!
So, Sequenza X has a very close place to my heart in that my teacher in Italy, Gabriele Cassone, worked directly with Berio in the recording studio, to create what many of us consider to be the benchmark recording of the piece. In fact, the score in front of me on stage is a copy of Gabriele’s part with Berio’s personal hand markings, as well as penciled in meters that were the genesis of what would become Chemins VI, otherwise known as Kol-Od, which Berio wrote specifically for Cassone.
I would definitely consider myself a 2nd generation student of Berio in that the information Cassone received was directly passed to me, and my relationship with the piece certainly has evolved from one of understanding the basic architecture of the work to that of being able to interpret the piece on a much more personal level, really striving to play it from the heart…to not worry about being surgical with the technique, but to play each and every gesture with as much freedom as possible. It never will sound the same twice, and in my opinion, that is the beautiful result of Sequenza X!
Mak Grgic – Sequenza XI (Guitar)
I find that the most interesting characteristic of the Sequenza written for guitar is also its biggest challenge. This might be the case with the others as well, but amongst the plethora of notes used in all the crazy permutations, which sometimes seem a bit repetitive, there is a clear progression and pathway from one “tonal” center to another. These tonal centers are sluggish to shift, as each lasts for a few pages easily. Battling through all the virtuosic material with grace while underlining such a global progression of musical mass is what intrigues me most with this piece and is also a very tasking thing to do well.
I performed this piece for the first time at Jacaranda Series, and had less time to prepare it than I would have hoped for. At that time, which I believe was a year and a half ago, I had told myself that it will be impossible to land every single of the notes, so I went for “the gestures”. The performance was just as nerve wracking as it was successful. Now, a year or so later, I have had the opportunity to play it a few times around, and have grown fond of its intricacies, which I hope will speak with grace and vigor at the performance on Tuesday.
Ashley Walters – Sequenza XIVa (Cello)
As a kid, I grew up playing both cello and percussion and I think part of why I love this piece so much is because it allows me to play both! In many ways, Berio set the precedent for composer/performer collaboration making the unique characteristics and capabilities of each dedicatee a central theme in many of his Sequenzas. In the case of this final Sequenza, Berio incorporates these Kandayan drumming cycles, which were shown to him by the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram. I first learned this piece 10 years ago and it has been a staple of my repertoire since.
Tom Peters – Sequenza XIVb (Double Bass)
Sequenza XIVb is a re-imagining of the cello Sequenza, by double bassist Stefano Scodanibbio with the blessing of Luciano Berio. The most challenging part is learning Stefano Scodanibbio’s crazy pizzicato harmonic techniques, something he was famous for. This will be my first performance of Sequenza XIVb.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about this event.