A handful of London Sinfonietta players have just returned from Buenos Aires. They spent two weeks coaching young Argentinian musicians on Luigi Nono’s extraordinary 150-minute work Prometeo, culminating in a joint performance at the capital’s Teatro Colon. Violinist Daniel Pioro shares his tour diary below.
A note about Luigi Nono’s Prometeo (1985): it is a work written for four orchestras, choir, live electronics, five vocal soloists, solo strings, solo winds, glass instruments and two speakers (male and female). There are two conductors, one for the orchestra and choir and one for the soloists. Sounds from the vocalists and instrumentalists are, were and will be electronically manipulated.
From the moment Philippa Davies, Francisco Gomez and I landed in sunny Buenos Aires it was apparent that we’d have to adjust to a different way of working. Seeing Lionel Handy’s (cello soloist) name pinned to a board in the arrival’s lounge with no sign of a driver was a bit strange and when, twenty minutes later, the driver appeared and we were informed that we’d be getting going shortly (just after he’d had a catch up with his colleagues) I think we all understood the first few days would be as much for us to acclimatise to a slower way of life as to getting down to some serious work on Nono’s incredible Prometeo, the whole reason for our journey. At the end of two weeks we were to perform its Latin American premiere in Argentina’s majestic Teatro Colon with the Orquesta Nacional y Juvenil del Bicentenario.
The first week was spent working largely in a town called San Fernando, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Although the daily one-hour taxi journey was a useful way of seeing parts of the city we’d have never otherwise seen, the incredible traffic and the fact that very few drivers knew how to find the music school we were coaching in proved a bit draining after a couple of days. Thank heavens for Francisco! Whoever decided to send a Spanish-speaker along on the trip made such a wonderful decision. Taxi drivers from Buenos Aires do like to chat…
Meeting the Orchestra was something we’d been hugely looking forward to and – after introducing ourselves and giving what we hoped might be a rousing speech about the adventure we were embarking on – we divided the group into sections. Once we’d got used to taking sectionals in the school’s long stone corridors, a cacophony of randomly placed quarter-tones filling the air like some sonic haze, the size of our task in giving shape and substance to Prometeo became clear and every precise and measured entry was a small victory. Over that first week the piece took shape in a way that only playing violin lines, with no context, can. Learning to love and honour the quarter-tones, paying attention to every hint Nono gives in his music, was something that was our goal for that first week, our time set aside to introduce new sounds and ways of playing to these very romantically-schooled players.
Personally, it was the first time that I had played a piece with seven ‘p’s as a dynamic marking and, in this, the strings excelled. Speaking to Philippa and Francisco in our wonderfully-catered lunch breaks it was clear that what I experienced with the string players wasn’t the same with their winds and brass, and that the hyper-relaxed way of working and scant attention to the score that seemed the norm was something we were going to have to try and change.
On the fourth day, when Baldur Brönnimann joined us with the soloists (Lionel Handy and Katherine Lacy from London Sinfonietta as well as viola, double bass, flute and tuba plucked from Argentina, Brazil and Germany) the promise of musical context was finally fulfilled and I think it was from that rehearsal that the orchestra began to understand the enormity and the sheer magnificence of the work that we would be performing the next week in the Teatro Colon. Baldur, who was conducting the orchestra, was at his charismatic best and – perhaps in part because he could speak Spanish – could convey his ideas in a way that my flailing arms and Spanglish simply could not.
For the next day’s tutti orchestra rehearsal – when Baldur’s taxi fell victim to the legendary traffic jams – I conducted the rehearsal from the full score. Dear reader, my eyes still see it when I close them… dots, bar lines, all squashed together like some terrifying painting, an ink-pot’s homage to chaos. Imagine my horror when I looked up after a good hour to see him watching me. I still cannot fathom how he did it nor how long he had to endure my beating.
I assume that my colleagues in the London Sinfonietta will be quite familiar with the issue of badly printed scores but, truly, the publishers outdid themselves with the soloists’ parts. Watching Lionel Handy and Katherine Lacy turning pages every few bars – paper scattering across the floor – brought tears to my eyes. It was inevitable that tempers would fray, and how beautifully they did, Lionel eventually announcing his disgust with the delivery of one of the great theatrical actors of yesteryear. I would have stood and applauded but it felt inappropriate. I regret this now. Lionel, if you’re reading this… you were… amazing.
After that, the week passed as it had promised, our visits to San Fernando punctuated by blackouts, sumptuous cuts of beef in Argentina’s finest steak houses and long winding walks through sunny, confusing and dusty Buenos Aires. Prometeo began to take shape and it seemed as if, maybe, we would be able to perform Nono’s work as it should be heard. Over these first seven days Philippa, Francisco, Lionel, Katherine and I forged a true bond that we knew could only be broken by a return journey to London.