This Wednesday evening, the Yale Symphony Orchestra will present 20th-century Italian composer Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia.” The orchestra will be joined by the world-renowned vocal ensemble Swingle Singers, who will sing a capella pieces during the second half of Wednesday’s program.
“[Berio’s ‘Sinfonia’] is one of those landmark pieces that has changed the course of music,” said William Boughton, the YSO’s interim conductor.
This program, which is an addition to the YSO’s regular performance season, marks a rare concert appearance of the London-based Swingle Singers with a student orchestra in the United States. Boughton explained that the YSO was able to coordinate a performance with the Swingle Singers during their American tour this spring. Several musicians in the YSO told the News that they are looking forward to this unique performance.
“They’re an extremely talented group and they’ll be singing a cappella in the second half of the concert, which I’m personally really excited to hear,” said YSO horn player Mary Martin ’20.
YSO violinist Epongue Ekille ’21 considers “Sinfonia” to be “one of the most monumental works written in the 20th century.”
She noted the technical and musical difficulty of this piece for both the orchestra and the singers. She added that “the orchestra and the eight voices are on the same level, meaning that one is not more important than the other.”
“It combines the use of voices and orchestra in incredible ways,” said Boughton. “[The vocals come] out of the orchestra rather than the orchestra accompanying the voices — we’re equal partners.”
“Sinfonia” — which was commissioned for the New York Philharmonic in honor of its 125th anniversary and completed in 1969 — creates a unique sonic landscape in its five movements. Throughout the piece, which features eight amplified voices in addition to the orchestra, Berio incorporates whispered and spoken quotations. The text of “Sinfonia” draws from various writings such as “Le cru et le cuit” by Claude Lévi-Strauss and instructions included in the scores of Gustav Mahler.
Boughton described the orchestration as “very unusual” compared to symphonic works by earlier composers such as Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. In addition to the typical configuration of strings, woodwinds and brass, this composition features saxophone, electronic harpsichord, organ and a robust percussion section.
According to Boughton, the piece constitutes a “language that is completely new” to the musicians in the YSO. While the “harmonic and musical language” is “something that is totally outside of the normal repertoire,” Boughton said that the musicians of the orchestra have “risen brilliantly to the challenge.”
YSO cellist Alma Bitran ’21 agreed that playing the challenging “Sinfonia” has pushed the orchestra to a higher level of playing.
“The work is dense and cerebral, switching erratically between different styles of playing and requiring laser focus from the musicians,” Bitran said.
She added that moments of intensity lead up to moments of “immense emotional catharsis” which she believes will be felt by the audience and performers alike.
Boughton characterized the piece as “incredibly atmospheric music” that uses clusters of chords to create drama. He noted that the extremes of dynamics in “Sinfonia” range from “very, very loud with the whole orchestra, to just a whisper.”
“This Berio is particularly exciting because it’s completely unlike anything we’ve played before, and I think it pushes the boundaries of what orchestral music can be,” Martin said. “It has tons of complex rhythms, extended techniques, and references to other major classical works.”
The performance will take place in Woolsey Hall on Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m.
Allison Park | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, March 28: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that it is rare for the Paris-based Swingle Singers to perform in the United States. In fact, the Swingle Singers are London-based, and it is rare for them to appear in a concert with a student orchestra in the U.S.