The Philharmonic Points a Trippy Kaleidoscope at the Past

Posted May 25, 2018 11:01 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “Yes,” someone says near the middle of Luciano Berio’s teeming “Sinfonia,” “I feel the moment has come for me to look back.”

And look back Berio did. “Sinfonia,” written for the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 1960s, has at its center an explosive collage of past music: Mahler (a lot), Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Strauss. Woven in with texts academic, poetic and everyday, the sounds rush together in an exuberant bouquet of fragments. The feeling is of dancing atop, and within, a trippy kaleidoscope pointed at the past.

“Sinfonia” — dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic’s music director at the time of its 125th anniversary, the occasion for Berio’s commission — is written for eight voices and a grand orchestra. It’s an early icon of affectionate postmodernism: a vision of history as bulwark, not just burden, and an attempt to render the unrest of its times explicitly as the outgrowth of what came before.

Chaotically elegant and joyfully bubbly, but unwieldy, the work doesn’t get uncorked all that often. So there’s ample reason to get to David Geffen Hall this weekend for a set of performances by the orchestra that played it first. (Through Saturday evening only: Get on it!)

Led here by Semyon Bychkov — a longtime friend of Berio, who died in 2003 — “Sinfonia” isn’t all whimsy. Apart from that riotous patchwork third of its five movements, it’s often more soberly unsettled in feel. Within its erratic textures, the vocal octet (here the flexible Roomful of Teeth, in its Philharmonic debut) makes chattering, drooping, bending sounds, and speaks texts by Samuel Beckett and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In the second section, “O King,” a slightly earlier work repurposed by Berio, the singers softly, unintelligibly enunciate the phonemes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s name, punctuated by instrumental stabs. Written as a tribute, it became, after King’s assassination, an elegy.

“But now it’s done, it’s over, we’ve had our chance,” one of the vocalists says in the third section. “There was even, for a second, hope of resurrection.” That captures both the witty and wistful sides of the work: It’s simultaneously a wink at Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, which “Sinfonia” quotes extensively, and, perhaps, a poignant admission of the darkness into the which the ‘60s had by then fallen.

The Philharmonic gave a tight performance of the sprawling piece, set — in an inspired pairing — alongside Strauss’ similarly larger-yet-more-compressed-than-life tone poem “An Alpine Symphony,” an evocation of a mountain hike that moves with dizzying facility from boisterous energy to autumnal glow to pummeling darkness. Bychkov led an easygoing, unpressured — indeed, often delicate and poised — voluptuous performance, though the Philharmonic’s most distinctive sound remains a hotly screaming super-loudness.

During the performance, the orchestra honored four members who have now served for 25 years, and four retirees: Mark Schmoockler, Vladimir Tsypin and Daniel Reed, all violinists, and Barbara Haws, the longtime archivist.

“This is the night where the present honors the past,” Haws said from the stage. Berio concurred.

Event Information:

‘New York Philharmonic’

Through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.