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The Italian Muse Touches the San Francisco Symphony

September 27, 2016

San Francisco Symphony

If you think that Italian music is all one thing, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony were on a mission last week to show you different. They presented an eclectic selection of music by different Italian composers from the last few centuries — and the disparities couldn’t have been any greater.

On the one hand, last Saturday night’s Italian program included the avant-garde experimentalism of Luciano Berio’s cerebral Sinfonia for orchestra and eight amplified voices. On the other hand, there was the unbridled, dramatic lyricism of opera arias by Verdi and Donizetti, in which the protagonist (tenor Michael Fabiano) sang about love, virtue, and valor, plus Verdi’s gripping Te Deum, a grandiose setting of the Latin hymn for double chorus and large orchestra.

Luciano Berio (1925-2003) wrote his Sinfonia in four movements as a commission from the New York Philharmonic in 1968, but he added a fifth movement one year later to balance out the first four.

He named the piece “sinfonia” in the classic Greek definition of the word, meaning “sounding together”; it is a combination of textures, layers, sounds, and voices, and includes a large number of musical quotations from several centuries of music history: Bach and Beethoven to Boulez and Stockhausen.  

Berio’s Sinfonia has become a signature piece for the Swingle Singers, the vocal ensemble that sang the premiere in 1969 and is still involved in many, if not most of its performances. The eight vocalists don’t always sing in the traditional sense of the word, but also speak, whisper, and shout, using lyrics from writers like French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) and Irish novelist Samuel Beckett (1906–1989).

The composition itself defies description. The first movement uses short excerpts from a book by Lévi-Strauss about Brazilian myths and the origin of water; its second movement is a tribute to Martin Luther King, in which the voices recite parts of the phrase “O Martin Luther King”; and the third movement is a tribute to Gustav Mahler and includes extensive musical quotes from the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection,” in combination with fragments from Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnamable.

This third movement was perhaps the most accessible part of the Sinfonia, especially for those familiar with Mahler’s Second. In some way or other, the Scherzo is constantly present, quoted literally or in persiflage, being pushed aside by a snippet from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or disappearing behind a few bars from a waltz from Der Rosenkavalier.

The other parts of the Sinfonia are harder to grasp on first hearing, but the entire piece becomes retroactively more interesting as you reflect on it and get to know more about its multiple layers. The composition still oozes a forward-looking, 1969 spirit, but at the same time it sounds dated; like a vision of the future from 50 years ago.

The rest of the Italian program had a more immediate appeal. With his enormous stage presence, American tenor Michael Fabiano didn’t need more than his voice and a few gestures to capture the audience’s attention and make a convincing, passionate Gabriele from Simon Boccanegra (Verdi) or Nemorino from L’Elisir d’amore (Donizetti).

Prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin, the ever wonderful San Francisco Symphony Chorus rounded out the Italian program potpourri with Verdi’s truly delightful Te Deum. There is not a Verdi chorus that doesn’t tug at my heartstrings and this Te Deum was no exception.

Eugene Izotov opened the concert as soloist and leader of a baroque-sized section of the orchestra in the oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello (1669 – 1747). Joyful and sprightly, Izotov emphasized the lyrical aspects of the concerto over its virtuosic passages, not only introducing the concerto to the S.F. audience, but also entering the spotlight as the SFS’s newly appointed principal oboist. 


Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.