The San Francisco Symphony hosts the ensemble The Swingles (who used to be known as The Swingle Singers) this week to perform a work that was written for them almost 50 years ago by composer Luciano Berio: his Sinfonia for Eight Solo Voices and Orchestra. It’s a piece that blends spoken word and quotations from other composers, and draws on their special vocal skills. It’s on a program celebrating a history of Italian music at Davies tomorrow through Saturday nights.
There’s more information about the concert at the San Francisco Symphony website.
The piece was written in honor of the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary, in 1968, a few years after The Swingles‘ early popularity with jazzy versions of Bach. Since then, it’s been a staple of their repertoire, handed down to successive generations of singers in the group. “We’ve all been in the group for different lengths of time,” soprano Joanna Eteson says, “but have always performed the piece quite regularly throughout that time, so… I’ve been in the group for ten years, this will be my 31st performance of the piece.” With all of the quotations, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, to Ravel’s La Valse, Debussy’s La Mer, and lots of Mahler, tenor Oliver Griffiths describes it as a quintessential music nerd’s piece of music. “And I think one of the biggest joys of it is that the more you sing it, the more you see and find in it. It’s such an incredibly well crafted piece of music with so many references that we just all geek out over it.”
It’s a very complex work, not least because of some of the special notation Berio used to create special choral effects. Here’s a photo of a section from the score, when the singers are only using consonant sounds: