I remember a desperate phone call to Universal Edition, back in March 2015, asking the publisher for the fastest way to get a copy of the score of Luciano Berio’s Coro to Teodor Currentzis, who had just flown to Athens after a concert with his orchestra MusicAeterna in Berlin. We knew he was only in Athens for a few days and this would be the only quiet moment in his schedule for quite some time. So we knew this was the best chance for him to look through the score and give his final “yes” to the idea of performing it with the MCO and his MusicAeterna choir in the Räsonanz Stifterkonzert in Munich on 1 April 2017.
At the time, that seemed like a very far away date.
On the phone, they told me the score could be had in size A3 or A2; there was nothing smaller. We had an A3 sent to him and an A2 sent to our office. A few days later we had his reaction: he was fascinated and ready to do it.
This giant A2 format score lay on my desk for a few months back then in 2015 and paging through I saw the sketch of the stage setup, which calls for different levels of podiums and a very specific arrangement of the 40 singers and 44 instrumentalists in which the individual players and singers are distributed among each other in a patchwork of sounds. I read through the texts Berio used in the piece: texts in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, from different cultures around the word, alternating throughout with lines from Pablo Neruda.
And I thought: can you imagine a piece better suited to the MCO? Different languages threading and crossing through one another; different groupings and pairings of musicians in ensembles, duos, trios, matched with individual singers or accompanying the entire choir. Each musician playing his own individual role in a mash-up of languages, colors, sounds, techniques.
Berio himself wrote about Coro: “It is like the plan for an imaginary city which is realised on different levels, which produces, assembles and unifies different things and persons, revealing their collective and individual characters, their distance, their relationships and conflicts within real and ideal borders.” For me, this is a description not of an imaginary city, but of a very real and live Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
George Edelman, our collaborator and friend at Ferrara Musica, heard about the Coro idea and immediately offered us the chance to rehearse and give the first performance in Ferrara, our long-time Italian residency and the closest thing the MCO has to a home.
So this project began to grow, from the seed of a daring artistic pipe dream into an unusual, striking, exotic plant with stems and vines going every which way, adorned with leaves of all shapes, bright flowers, thorns, and here and there showing the attitude of a Venus flytrap.
The MCO by itself is already a complicated being; add to that a choir based in Russia and one of the busiest conductors of our time, concerts in 5 cities in 3 countries, two different programs, and you have a project that can catch the attention of even the MCO production office, which, when faced with strikes, Easy Jet group flights, or USA visa applications, usually doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
Fast forward two years, and finally we are about to take off to Ferrara and make this thing happen. We are nervous – we don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out. The piece is not only very long but also quite difficult for all involved, requiring enormous concentration, adjustments in how the musicians listen to one another and play together from their new roles and positions on stage. Plus there are other pieces to prepare – Bach, more Berio, Ligeti, and Claude Vivier’s otherworldly Lonely Child with soprano Sophia Burgos. When, in the week before rehearsals were set to start, we got word that everyone in the choir had a visa in his passport and that Teodor’s flight to Bologna had been booked, we started to believe that this was actually going to work.
As soon as you arrive in Ferrara at the start of spring, you know that life is great and can only get better. The sun was out, the trees were exploding with green, we did a lot of squinting and smiling.
The mood in the theatre was thrilling. This fantastic, idealistic, warm-hearted choir from Perm brought their special energy to the stage; Teodor showed the orchestra all of the intimate details of the piece, how it is raw, haunting, powerful and sweet. From the first notes of soprano and piano to the last murmurs of “Come and see the blood in the streets”, the intensity that this piece requires, with its length, the grip of its words, its exploration of different ways of combining text with music – this intensity was completely present.
In between rehearsals, everyone went outside and stood in the courtyard in the sun, drank exquisite cappuccinos, jogged along the old city wall, ate cappellacci and steak, drank wine at Brindisi bar, gathered in the terrace in front of Settimo each evening.
New friendships were forged; plans were even hatched to bring the MCO to Perm.
The evening of the concert came, and I sat in the audience hardly able to believe this was actually happening. The choir sang Bach Motets in the first half, another powerful synthesis of words and music.
And then came Coro, pulling the audience into its realm for a full hour, every moment exciting.
Before the general rehearsal, Teodor had asked one of the choir members to read the complete texts of Coro out loud to the group of players and singers. The poems come from, to name just a few, Peruvian, Sioux, Croatian or Persian traditions, and they speak of themes from human life. Berio wrote, “The texts of Coro are set on two different and complementary levels: a folk level based on texts about love and work, and an epic level on a poem by Pablo Neruda (Residencia en la Tierra) which puts in perspective that very love and work.”
OK… so who better than the MCO, particularly in combination with Teodor and MusicAeterna Choir, to perform a piece about love and work on an epic level??