(written in 2003 for the Brugge Concertgebow)
[Focus Berio - Laborintus 2]
As one of the central focal points throughout the whole of our first season, the concertgebouw will pay tribute to the music of Luciano Berio. Besides his stage works and the soli we want to pay particular attention to a number of pivotal works in Berio’s oeuvre that are less commonly performed. One large-scale project we want to set up focuses on Laborintus 2.
Luciano Berio wrote Laborintus 2 in 1963-’65 on a libretto by his friend, the Dante scholar Edoardo Sanguineti, who in 1956 had published a first poetry collection Laborintus. It is scored for tape, three female vocal soloists, a mixed choir of eight, a narrator and an ensemble including a jazz drummer. The piece, about 35 minutes long and consisting of two parts, besides the texts by Sanguineti uses additional materials from Dante (Divina Comedia, Vita Nueva et. al.) , the Bible, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, protesting usury and employing the concept of the "catalogue" as its principal formal reference.
The work was jointly commissioned by the French and Italian Radios to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, but according to publisher Universal Edition was first performed in Brussels (1965) under Berio. Others, depending on source, claim first performances in France or Italy, with the first acknowledged full concert performance at Mills College, Oakland, California, again under Berio, in 1967 (the year in which Berio also happened to appear on the cover of Beatles album Sgt. Peppers).
It was precisely at Mills College, during an intense period of teaching, that Berio had begun writing Laborintus 2 in 1963. This Californian period seems to have been exemplary for the diversity of his activities and the width of scope of musical influences. He not only would teach, but also engaged in political debate, enjoyed cruising the sunny boulevards in his white Buick convertible and socialising with his students at avant-garde and jazz concerts, even attending a rock conference hosted by Mills college and engaging in musical experiments with his ex-students in the Grateful Dead. It was at Mills too that Berio met his second wife Susan Oyama, then a psychology student, who wrote the text used by him for Traces. Notwithstanding his divorce from Cathy Berberian, Berio continued to have a fruitful professional relationship with her, which resulted in numerous important vocal works around that time, including Folksongs (1964).
Laborintus 2 is a typical Berio no-story opera. Far from being mere verbal or vocal expression, it draws strongly on Berio’s sense for the Italian operatic tradition. The beat-like cut-up of text lines produces a number of central themes including memory, usury and music itself. The music is at times highly dramatic but can easily twist in a light-hearted jazzy or even funky swing feel not unlike a cheap sixties’ Italian police movie, complete with nervous walking bass motives. The narrator and the singers often relate to each other like actors and choros in a Greek tragedy, at other times both are swallowed by the abstract framework given by short patches of Cologne-style Elektronische Musik.
How Berio conducted Laborintus 2 can be heard on Harmonia Mundi HMA 190764 (musique d’abord). This quintessential account of the piece’s history has Sanguineti himself as narrator, and including soprano Christiane Legrand, now jazz-hero Michel Portal on clarinet, Jean-Pierre Drouet on drums and legendary jazz bass player Jean-François Jenny-Clarke.