Luciano Berio (1925–2003) is one of the great icons of New Music. Among the Italian composer’s towering works is Sequenza, a series of solos he wrote for individual instruments and voice. The sequenze are a throughline in Berio’s long and distinguished career. Sequenza I for flute was written in 1958, while Sequenza XIV for cello was completed in 2002, a year before the composer’s death. Each solo explores the fullest possibilities of the individual instrument.

wholenote winter 2012 altOn Jan 21, 2013 at Walter Hall, the entire Sequenza will be presented, all 3 hours and 40 minutes of it, as part of the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival. The concert also includes the poetry written by Edoardo Sanguineti that precedes each solo. This is the first time that the complete Sequenza will be presented in Canada, and the concert features an outstanding group of soloists. (Please see page 11.)

The artistic directors for the Berio Sequenza Project are cellist David Hetherington and accordionist Joseph Petric. Hetherington is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s assistant principal cellist and a well-known solo performer. Petric tours the world as a much-in-demand classical accordionist. (Both men will also be performing their instruments’ sequenze.)

The WholeNote had a lively, early morning, three-way telephone conversation with Hetherington and Petric about Berio, his sequenze, and the upcoming concert.

Click Read More for the interview.

How did you two meet?

Petric: It was at a Soundstreams Canada concert in 2008. Lawrence Cherney brought us together to perform Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Seven Words for cello, accordion and string orchestra.

Hetherington: After that we formed the chamber group Duo ConTempera where we play works written for cello and accordion, as well as individual solos.

When did you first become acquainted with the sequenza for your own instrument?

Petric: When I started my career, classical accordion was new in the concert world and I was always looking for pieces to program. It was an important event for the instrument when Berio wrote Sequenza XIII for accordion in 1995.

Hetherington: In 2007, I was part of a New Music Concerts performance with Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram. He performed solos and I was there to play duo cello pieces with him. One of his solos was Sequenza XIV which Berio had written for him. It incorporated elements of Sri Lankan music, like drumming on the top of the cello. It was such a fantastic piece and so approachable, that I wanted to do it.

What led to the Toronto Sequenza?

Petric: I was invited to play the accordion sequenza in 2000 at Tanglewood. The festival was mounting the complete Sequenza in honour of Berio’s 75th birthday. That performance triggered my motivation to mount a Sequenza in Canada. It was always at the back of my mind. After all, Toronto is a hub of new music.

Hetherington: When Joseph suggested it, I thought it was a great idea. Originally, we planned it for Bob Aitken’s New Music Concerts, but he couldn’t fit it into his series. We then approached Norbert Palej, artistic director of the U of T New Music Festival, and he snapped it up as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Berio’s death.

Petric: Between David and me, we had two of the sequenze. We just had to find 12 other musicians.

There are really 15 solos on your program, one more than the original 14 sequenze.

Petric: That’s right. We’ve also included Sequenza VIIb, which is the soprano saxophone adaptation of Sequenza VII for oboe. We felt it should be there because it was such a favourite of Berio’s.

Hetherington: In fact, many of the sequenze have been arranged and adapted for other instruments. Berio was keen to get his music out there. For example, Sequenza IX for clarinet has two adaptions, IXb is for alto saxophone and IXc is for bass clarinet. The cello sequenza has a XIVb for double bass.

I understand that there is some staging involved.

Petric: Our original idea was to have Graham Cozzubbo do the stage direction. He had staged the Tanglewood Sequenza, and he’s a Canadian director who lives here in Toronto. But when he looked at Walter Hall, he felt that because the venue is so small and the theatrical resources so limited, a full-blown staging wasn’t possible. Rather, he’s calling his work for us “creative animation for the concert stage.” We’ll still be exploring space and breaking visual lines to enliven the narration and musical presentation.

Hetherington: Most of the audience isn’t familiar with the work, so we didn’t just want to trot out 15 musicians one after the other, all doing the same routine. It’s better that the various solos be differentiated in some way to enhance emotional impact. We want to draw the audience in — to give them a sense of a theatrical event. To make it more than just a concert.

You mention narration. Berio frequently fused the spoken word and music together in his compositions.

Petric: That’s right. Berio had a great empathy for the literary component, and was always looking for texts he could incorporate with his music. In the 1960s, he worked closely with Umberto Eco, then a producer for the Milan station of RDI Italian radio. Eco, you might remember, wrote the novel The Name of the Rose. Both men were also involved with Gruppo 64 and Studio di Fonologio, both hubs of electronic music in Milan.

Tell me about the Sequenza poetry.

Petric: Edoardo Sanquineti was an Italian poet and a very good friend of Berio. In 1994, he wrote verses to go with the sequenze. In terms of presentation, they precede each solo. The poetry helps create a sense of an event. The words provide layers and moods to the music. We’re using the English translations by Stewart Spencer in the liner notes for the Deutsche Grammophon recording.

Hetherington: The inclusion of the poetry just shows you how open Berio was to broadening the horizons of New Music.

I’d love to hear samples of the poetry.
What about the verses for your own instruments?

Petric: Our instruments are the last two sequenze. Here’s the one for the accordion, Sequenza XIII. Berio subtitled it Chanson.

“… and so a chord consoles us, gently enclosing us, commonly; the catastrophe is within, in our hearts; but it remains confined, entrenched.”

And for the cello, Sequenza XIV.

“… Oh! Oh! What celebrations! And what laments to follow! And what dances! And what sweet sorrows! And what accidents! And rush, and rendings, and burstings! What parings, guttings, lashings! And then a dying fall …”

They’re quite evocative. What about a couple of retro ones that Sanguineti would have written long after the sequenze were composed?

Petric: Here are the first two. Sequenza I for flute.

“…and here begins our desire, which is the delirium of my desire. Music is the desire of desires.”

And for Sequenza II for harp.

“I have heard chains of colours, muscularly aggressive. I have felt your rough and rigid noises.”

Can you give me an idea of how Cozzubbo animated the music at Tanglewood?

Petric: He put me up on a riser with a beautiful young lady listening at my feet. When I finished with a page of music, she reached up and took it off the stand.

All my research talks of “extended technique” in connection with Sequenza. Just how difficult are the solos to play?

Hetherington: The cello solo is not all that adventurous in the playing technique. What’s important is how the music sounds. I mentioned before about the drumming. To play it, cellists need a notation we can understand, so the score has two staffs, one for the cello line, and one below with the percussive effects. You have to do both simultaneously — play the notes with the left hand and drum on the fingerboard with the right. There are other technical elements involved like glissandi and tapping with the bow.

Petric: I’ve played a lot more demanding pieces than the accordion sequenza, but the key here is Berio’s harmonic language which is entirely his own. He notated everything. You have to train your fingers to get around his gnarly notes, his beautiful moments of catastrophe.

Hetherington: The solos are filled with subtle and quiet effects. The bassoon, Sequenza XII, requires circular breathing which means never taking a breath. It’s like playing the bagpipes – you take the air in through the nose and breathe out through your mouth. Sequenza III for woman’s voice was written in 1965, and is fairly typical of the 1960s with its use of vocal effects. Nowadays, new music is much more melodic. The 1960s was the peak of the classically weird. Later contemporary music is much more listenable and accessible.

Petric: Berio also had a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sense of humour. For example, in the middle section of the accordion sequenza, after playing a bucketful of notes, you suddenly stop, and there is six seconds of silence. Will people think it’s a memory lapse, or will they clue in that it’s part of the piece?

I’m curious about something. Sequenza X is for trumpet and piano resonance. I thought all the sequenze were solos.

Hetherington: The pianist doesn’t actually play. She simply holds down keys so that when the trumpet plays into the piano, the depressed pitches resonate sympathetically. It’s still a solo.

What is the allure of Sequenza?

Hetherington: The challenge of the solos. Some of them are more “listenable” than others, but they all stretch the technical and musical possibilities of each performer. The goal of the performer is to engage the listener without drawing attention to their difficulties and, in some cases, quirkiness. Performing the sequenze is very rewarding.

Petric: Right from his early pieces, Berio was pushing boundaries. He was also very collaborative. Musicians are eager to try new things and Berio was part of the rising tide of technical challenges. Sequenza spans almost four and a half decades. I’m an interpreter, and through Sequenza, I can see the processes of a great mind — how he approached the artist and his art, what tweaked his interest to write each solo.

Was Berio a modernist?

Hetherington: Yes. Indeed he was. He experimented with the sonic possibilities of all instruments and the voice. He also wrote a lot of electronic music.

Petric: While many people consider him a modernist, I don’t necessarily do so. Berio valued history. He didn’t reject the past like the modernists. He respected the past, and that’s what set him apart. For example, for each sequenza he would take a look at the history and repertoire of the instrument before writing the solo. Berio was also not afraid to adapt pieces, like his Armenian folk songs. And look at his interest in literature. This made him unusual for his time.

Is there an Italianate element in Berio’s music?

Hetherington: I don’t perceive a specific Italian quality such as you might find in his contemporary, Gian Carlo Menotti.

Petric: I think he does have an Italianate sensibility which made him different. Italians have an inclusive way of thinking. They are very inclusive people, secure in their identity which makes them open to new ideas, a “Let’s try it!” mentality. For example, do you know that in Italy there is a publishing house devoted to translating only Canadian writers into Italian? Italians are also conjunctive thinkers. They just don’t say “Why?” They say “Why not?” Or, “If this is this, then what is that?” Berio had those qualities.

Do you think that Berio had a game plan in terms of Sequenza? That he knew it would be a series of solos when he wrote the flute sequenza in 1958?

Hetherington: I don’t think he began with a plan such as Hindemith did when he set out to write sonatas for every standard orchestral instrument. Sequenza wasn’t that deliberate. Berio wrote the solos when he was inspired by an interpreter or when he got a commission.

Petric: He must have thought about it, or else why produce solos that kept coming decade after decade, and why number them as they were written? On the other hand, I never heard that Sequenza was deliberate, but he must have felt an inner need to do it. Nothing a creative artist does is haphazard.

Where does Berio stand in terms of the lexicon of New Music composers?

Hetherington: I believe that he will last the test of time. Berio was unique and didn’t subscribe to any particular style, but his compositions command respect. His music isn’t for everyone, so he couldn’t be described as popular, although other pieces such as his folk songs are regularly performed. Certain works will always be in the repertoire, such as his sequenze.

Petric: Clearly Berio wrote music that will last. He’s been dead for ten years, but there is still a strong connection. Musicians relate to him, and desire to keep a relationship with his music. Audiences still respond positively to Berio, and as long as that respect is there, his music will be performed.

Any last words?

Hetherington: We should mention that a wonderful patron of the arts, Roger Moore, helped us out with a donation to put on the concert.

{Berio’s Sequenza will be performed at Walter Hall on January 21, 2013, as part of the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival.}  

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist. Her areas of special interest are dance, theatre, opera and arts commentary.

Berio Sequenza Project
List of Musicians and
the Dates of Composition
January 21, 2013, Walter Hall, 6:30pm

The impressive Sequenza soloists are all acclaimed recitalists and chamber music artists in their own right who have graced concert stages around the world.

Sequenza I for flute (1958): Robert Aitken (co-founder and director, New Music Concerts)

Sequenza II for harp (1963): Sanya Eng (freelance artist)

Sequenza III for woman’s voice (1965): Xin Wang (freelance artist)

Sequenza IV for piano (1966): Adam Sherkin (composer; artistic director, The Sixth Sphere contemporary music series)

Sequenza V for trombone (1966): Jean-Michel Malouf (conductor; artistic director of Choeur de métal)

Sequenza VI for viola (1967): Diane Leung (member, Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Sequenza VII for oboe (1969): Keith Atkinson (associate principal oboe, Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone (1993): Wallace Halladay (assistant professor of saxophone, University of Toronto)

Sequenza VIII for violin (1976): Mark Fewer (chair of the string area, Schulich School of Music, McGill University)

Sequenza IX for clarinet (1980): Anthony Thompson (freelance artist)

Sequenza X for trumpet in C and piano resonance (1984) Guy Few (part time faculty member, trumpet and chamber music, Wilfrid Laurier University); with Cecilia Lee, piano resonance

Sequenza XI for guitar (1988): Jeffrey McFadden (lecturer in guitar, University of Toronto)

Sequenza XII for bassoon (1995): Nadina Mackie-Jackson (principal bassoon, Toronto Chamber Orchestra)

Sequenza XIII for accordion “Chanson” (1995): Joseph Petric (freelance artist)

Sequenza XIV for violoncello (2002): David Hetherington (assistant principal cellist, Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

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