It is most often the anniversary of a composer’s birth or death year that spawns a flurry of tribute concerts. So when an ensemble decides to celebrate an artist’s achievement “just because,” it is a refreshing change.
On October 13, Axiom, Juilliard’s newest performing ensemble, will do just that, presenting “A Tribute to Luciano Berio,” the first of three concerts by the group this season. Jeffrey Milarsky, a Juilliard alumnus, faculty member, and Axiom’s music director, will conduct the ensemble, which largely focuses on the “classic” contemporary works of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Milarsky described the origin of the concert as “obvious,” especially considering Berio’s residency at Juilliard as a faculty member from 1965 to 1971 and his founding of the Juilliard Ensemble. Milarsky felt that Juilliard had not yet properly celebrated the composer, who, in Milarsky’s words, is the “most important musician of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
“For me, Berio is someone who has taken his music and made his own musical language,” Milarsky explained in a recent interview. “He has done that through his work with electronics, through his work with the voice, and his work with text—whether it is E.E. Cummings, Martin Luther King, or simple folk-song settings. His mind was always expanding, taking everything he could and rolling it around in his brain to make his own language. It’s kind of incredible.”
Berio (1925-2003), who is considered by many to be one of the most prominent and influential Italian composers after 1950, wrote extensively for solo performers and ensembles of all sizes, in both acoustic and electronic idioms. The Axiom concert will present six Berio works that exemplify his wide-ranging musical interests. Three core works for larger ensembles, Corale (1981), Circles (1961), and Points on the curve to find (1974), will be separated by three of Berio’s works for solo instruments, used as “connective tissue.” The soloists for these pieces, known as the Sequenzas, will be placed around the Peter Jay Sharp Theater to eliminate the need for stage changes; spotlights on the solo musicians will enable the concert to flow uninterrupted between the solo and ensemble works. “It is my idea that there shouldn’t be any intermission,” Milarsky elaborates. “There is definitely a bit of theater, which is my bit of respect and honor to Berio, and I’m sure he would love it. There was always theater or some dramatic idea in his music.”
Berio’s Sequenzas comprise a notoriously difficult cycle of 14 pieces, which he composed for various solo instruments, ranging from piano and clarinet to accordion and guitar. His work on the Sequenzas spanned a majority of his career, from 1958 to 2002. The Axiom concert will feature his first and last Sequenzas, I for flute and XIV for cello, as well as VII for oboe (1969). These pieces focus on creatively exploring the fullest range possible on the instruments, by synthesizing extended techniques with dramatic and virtuosic elements. They often take a very simple idea and develop it to a phenomenal degree. Performing a Sequenza demands a combination of technique, flexibility, innovation, drama, and musical imagery.
Berio later orchestrated a few of these solo pieces into more expanded works, in which an ensemble would complement the solo instrument. An example is one of the core works on Axiom’s program, the orchestrated Sequenza VIII for violin, renamed Corale. In orchestrating a Sequenza, Berio was able to expand it further, achieving more colors and timbres. As Milarsky asserts, the pieces are “focused on making the instrument live beyond just the particular instrument, and orchestrating them is a further extension of the solo.” For example, with the violin, Berio was able to experiment with all of the individual colors and extend them into the string section. Milarsky jokes, “It’s like Sequenzas Plus, or Squared, if you will.”
Perhaps the most famous piece on the concert, Circles for solo female voice, harp, and two percussionists, was one of the first to bring Berio to the fore. The work is based on poems of E.E. Cummings and was important for Berio because of the way he deals with text. According to Milarsky, “The work of E.E. Cummings in its own right is an experimentation of language. I think there is no better poet than him for Berio.” The composer also uses the voice in unusual ways; as an experimental instrument, the voice imitates the sounds of the percussion and harp, while also later having very traditional elements.
Milarsky calls the last work on the program, Points on a curve to find, “Berio’s Flight of the Bumblebee, a real tour de force for the pianist.” The piece, which is for solo piano and 22 instruments, is not often done in the professional world, which Milarsky attributes to the monetary expense of performing such a work. The piano part is full of “incredible melismatic and very digitally difficult lines.” Eventually, however, Milarsky says, “it works into its own color itself. It’s not about the notes, but about the timbre and the planes of tessitura.” In Points on the curve to find, Berio exploits his knowledge of acoustics and physics to achieve an electronic sound without any electronic means. As Milarsky explains, “He was so fine-tuned to electronic sounds, timbres, blends, and pitches that he could create them acoustically.”
While such a complex and difficult program might be daunting for some, Milarsky urges young players to be uninhibited when it comes to learning contemporary music. In his mind, you must approach new music in the same manner as other classical works. He compares the experience to learning a piece by Mozart. “No matter what it is,” he explains, “you try to investigate the phrase structure, the sound world, the timbre, the color, the proper phrases. And it is really no different with Berio. It’s just a little bit more difficult to find. Once you get into it, I think it reveals itself very quickly. I find that whatever you do, if it’s imaginative, with real desire to get to the heart of the composer, you can’t lose. If you’re beautiful in your essence, I think it actually works.”