New music by old friends

As 20th-century Italian luminaries in new music, Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio were not so much collaborators as traveling companions. A new ECM album “Now, and Then” showcases their strengths in differing areas — Maderna as a rank-breaking re-interpreter of traditional classical scores, Berio as a master of fever-dream soundscapes that, as he once put it, were more “transcriptions” than compositions.

Yet the album also serves as a reminder that they held each other in the highest regard, and exerted backand-forth influence that enabled them to push boundaries far beyond what many contemporaries were able or willing to do.

Though Maderna and Berio have passed away, Dennis Russell Davies is a fitting choice to lead the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana. Davies recalls that as a young aspiring conductor in his mid-20s at Julliard, he had the “unbelievably good fortune” to meet and work under both men.

“I loved and admired them for their generosity personally and musically, and was especially taken with their commitment to letting their works be heard in the context of the great Italian Renaissance tradition,” Davies says.

Born in Venice in 1920, Maderna was a child prodigy, taking up violin at age 4 and taking the stage as a conductor and violinist with the La Scala orchestra at age 7.

Maderna began an international career as a conductor in 1950 at the age of 30. As The Guardian wrote in 2013 on the 40th anniversary of his passing, “Bruno Maderna was a musician who couldn’t write or conduct a note without wanting to communicate something essential, and essentially human.” In fact, Maderna loved to emphasize that “music is an expression of emotions,” a conviction conveyed in his groundbreaking arrangements of 17th and 18th Century music featured on “Now, and Then.”

Berio, five years his junior, learned piano from his father and grandfather, but switched to composition after a suffering a gun-related hand injury on his first day in the Italian army during Work War II. He became a close associate of Maderna and the two co-founded the Studio di Fonologia Musicale, a Milanbased electronic music studio, in 1955. They also served as conductors of Italian state radio RAI’s Incontri Musicali from 1956 to 1960.

Around this time, both were key figures of Germany’s Darmstadt School, taking new music forward through a technique called serialism, which involves patterns in composition — rhythmic, melodic or harmonic — repeated over and over.

Berio made his mark in electronic and experimental music, and when Maderna died of cancer in 1973, he wrote a piece in his honor, “Calmo,” for voice and orchestra. In similar fashion, Maderna had dedicated his 1955 piece “Quartetto per archi in due tempi” to Berio.

On Maderna’s death, Berio (whose original typewritten essay is reproduced in the album booklet) wrote: “His participation in music has always been that of a whole and complete man.” There’s little doubt Maderna would’ve said exactly the same of his friend.

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