Singular Sensation

Classic Arts Features   Singular Sensation
Violinist Erin Schreiber makes her St. Louis Symphony Orchestra solo debut, performing Berio's Corale (on Sequenza VIII), Nov. 18-19 at Powell Hall.


After David Robertson heard Erin Schreiber play Luciano Berio's solo work for violin, Sequenza VIII, at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in the fall of 2010, an idea for a subscription program began to fall into place. The St. Louis Symphony Music Director, who selects works to play in harmony with exhibitions at the Pulitzer, recalls. "I knew I wanted her to play Corale with the orchestra."

Corale (on Sequenza VIII) (1981), for solo violin and chamber orchestra, is the Italian composer's adaptation of his Sequenza VIII (1976-77). Berio (1925-2003) wrote 18 Sequenzas from 1958 to 2004. He wrote for flute, harp, woman's voice, trombone, guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet, to name a few. Berio's Sequenza series is known for exploring the fullest possibilities of the solo instrument.

The woman who will play Berio's Corale sits on a tall chair in Powell Hall's Met Bar. The St. Louis Symphony's Assistant Concertmaster, her long arms and fingers gesturing, describes the work at hand. "Berio created a work that sounds contemporary and also very old," she observes.

"Corale" is true to its name. A solo line proliferates through the chamber orchestra. "The accompanying violin part is the same as the solo part," Schreiber explains. "The other parts at times echo, at times repeat fragments, and at other times are at odds with each other."

That solo line, voices repeating a single note, a slight variation, a return to the first idea: this is music that has been made as long as human beings have gathered together to make it.

The solo violin begins, strident, assertive, and very exposed. "This piece is very virtuosic," says Schreiber. "It starts with these repeated 'A's. Everything grows out from the note A. Berio adds B natural, then whole steps and half steps. But the whole piece remains centered around that A." A whole world of timbres and attacks is created, while always maintaining that central idea, the insistent A.

"Insistent" is one of Robertson's words for this work, and like Berio's A, it serves as a connector to the program as a whole: the 17th century Chacony in G minor by Henry Purcell, Berio's Corale, and Bruckner's Seventh Symphony from the late 19th century. Robertson explains: "Purcell's Chacony... sets up the insistence of the violin in Berio and the insistent pulse of the Bruckner."

'"Insistent' is a very good word," Schreiber concurs. She points to a page in her solo part. "Aggressive fortissimo quarter notes are played for a few minutes," Schreiber says. "There is all this filigree between these chords: superfast, supersoft: interrupted by these fortissimo chords." And then Berio makes subtle changes in the series, creating six sequences (sequenze) that are played: sequence 1, then sequence 2, then 3 through 6, then in order, or disorder: 2, 5, 3, 2, 4, and back to sequence 1. "To remember this order is nearly impossible," Schreiber laughs.

If this sounds like a math problem as much as it does music, consider that all Western music is made of math problems, with varying degrees of difficulty. Schreiber admits that when Robertson made the offer to play Corale, "I was excited and a little frightened. It's a little bit daunting. I can't imagine trying to coordinate this work with a small ensemble: it is so rhythmically complex. But if anyone can do this David Robertson can."

In October, when Schreiber was interviewed by Playbill, she was in the process of transitioning from the solo version of the work to the composition for ensemble. "The first thing is to take a look at the score and see how all the parts fit with mine," she says, "how we may complement each other. I took liberties when I played it alone. Now with a chamber orchestra behind me I'll be practicing with the metronome. The other parts weave into one another. Individually it isn't so rhythmically complex, but put it all together...," her eyes widen.

"Looking at the score I'll be deciding how some phrases play off the other parts. There's more texture to explore. The individual parts are always such a tiny part of a much bigger whole."

Berio pulls out all the stops, and double stops, and triple stops. What does "fullest possibilities" mean for the violin? Schreiber gives one example: "There is this thing called a 'practice' mute. It is what musicians would use to practice in the hotel room. It mutes to an extreme degree. There are these repeated pizzicato notes, which give me time to put on the practice mute while plucking with the left hand. I really love the sound it makes."

Schreiber says there is some comfort in the realization that Berio knew the violin extraordinarily well. "He uses extended technique. He uses the instrument to the max of its capabilities. There are tricky double stops and triple stops, many very rapid passages. The way he writes the double stops, it's very clear he understands the instrument so well. He takes advantage of the intervals, the spacing between the strings. He understands the violin as a physical object, as a conveyer of sound."

Corale (on Sequenza VIII) has a somewhat clumsy name and begins somewhat rudely, commanding attention. But when it is over, one has experienced an amazing piece of music, and in November played by a singular artist celebrating her St. Louis Symphony debut as a soloist.

"I love it," Schreiber says. "I love contemporary music like this."


Eddie Silva is the External Affairs and Publications Manager for the St. Louis Symphony.

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