CORIGLIANO: Symphony No. 2. The Mannheim Rocket

CORIGLIANO Symphony No. 2. The Mannheim Rocket • John Storgårds, cond; Helsinki PO • ONDINE ODE-1039-2 (56:02)

John Corigliano has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of any American composer of his generation. Now in his mid 60s, he began more than forty years ago as a talented scion of the Barber-Bernstein axis, producing works characterized by ingratiating showmanship and lyrical warmth. But that was during the 1960s, when accessible lyricism could relegate one to the American aesthetic equivalent of Siberia. Not temperamentally suited to an impoverished life spent beating his head again the wall in the name of artistic “truth,” Corigliano assessed the musical climate and calculated how he might turn his talents to profitable use. What he arrived at during the mid 1970s was an unabashed eclecticism: Rather than renounce the neo-romanticism that was his birthright, he surrounded it with virtually every new compositional “ism,” including extended instrumental usages, aleatoric techniques, atonality, exotic multi-culturalism, quotations from earlier music, surrealistic soundscapes of the sort associated with Gyorgy Ligeti and Jacob Druckman, and, later, touches of minimalism. This placed him within the movement Druckman termed, “The New Romanticism,” referring to those composers who felt that the innovative techniques that emerged after World War II needed to be placed in the service of poetic or expressive aesthetic objectives. While the term “New Romanticism” never really took hold, the approach itself has proven to be one of the more fruitful compositional movements of the late 20th century, and includes most of those figures who are neither die-hard serialists, die-hard traditionalists, minimalists, or explorers of the more recent postmodern tributaries. It is probably safe to say that Corigliano stands today as the most celebrated exponent of this approach, having earned the most prestigious awards and commissions available to the American composer, even including an Academy Award for his soundtrack to the film The Red Violin.

Initially Corigliano’s work in this vein was characterized by a sort of manic “kitchen-sinkism,” with incongruous elements of all kinds thrown together to produce dazzling entertainment spectacles that flattered the audience’s desire to appreciate “new music” relatively painlessly. But during the course of the past thirty years or so, he has matured as a creative artist, and seems in his recent major works to be aiming toward deeper levels of expression. This is not to suggest that Corigliano has joined those composers for whom music is a revelation of one’s “inner heart and soul”; rather, he is one of those who prefers to present a “show,” and probably always will be. But some of his recent “shows” have been more serious in their aesthetic content.

These reflections are prompted by this remarkable new release: a Finnish production devoted to first recordings of two of Corigliano’s most recent compositions, in performances by the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, who has been active throughout Scandinavia as a violinist as well as conductor. As I listened to these two pieces, the Symphony No. 2 (2000) and The Mannheim Rocket (2001), it occurred to me that Corigliano’s approach has moved toward that pursued by Dominick Argento, who uses music to develop “concepts” rather than to bare his “heart and soul” (see Fanfare 27:4, pp. 96-100 for further discussion of Argento). In fact, although it is a third again as long, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2 is remarkably similar in impact to Argento’s In Praise of Music (1977). Both works are designed to illustrate intriguing concepts, both fulfill them with remarkable ingenuity and in a way that is clearly perceptible to the attentive listener, while both produce a sense of satisfaction that is more intellectual—though aesthetic—than visceral.

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. Comprising five substantial movements lasting some 45 minutes, it is a revision and adaptation for string orchestra of his 1996 String Quartet. The first movement begins in near inaudibility, as disparate threads of sound eerily coalesce into cluster textures, then achieve a sense of concord, before gradually dwindling away. The second movement is a dissonant scherzo in which wild, slashing gestures surround a “trio” passage of gentle serenity. The third movement, a mysterious and terrifying nocturne inspired by a night in Morocco, is the lengthiest and most impressive movement of the work. This is followed by a most unlikely fugue, relatively active, but not contrapuntal in the conventional sense, and quite dissonant. It too achieves repose in a central oasis. The final movement begins darkly with some microtonal textures, and builds to a climax of intense severity before subsiding into mystery, ending the symphony as it began. 

Despite the evocativeness of the concepts on which the work is based, and the imaginativeness of the musical treatment, the symphony is quite demanding of the listener, largely because of the long duration and slow rate of activity of each movement, and the nearly complete absence of tonal melodic contours and regular rhythmic pulse. In fact, knowing the way Corigliano offers his work in multiple packagings, I suspect that at least some of these movements—especially the central Nocturne—will be authorized for individual performance. Indeed, they may be more effective in such short doses than joined together in full-length form.

Corigliano composed The Mannheim Rocket for the National Theater Orchestra of Mannheim. The title refers to the familiar device developed by the early symphonic composers who flourished in Mannheim, Germany, during the 18th century, whereby a movement is launched by a theme in rapid ascent (e.g., the fourth movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony). However, Corigliano joins this musical meaning with a more literal, yet fanciful, concept, suggesting a space vehicle gradually ascending through musical history until it reaches a timeless aether, before making its inevitable descent. Corigliano fulfills this intriguing notion through an ingenious application of evocative imagery, combined with the cleverest and most effective use of quotation-collage I can recall having heard. The result suggests such pieces as Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Villa-Lobos’s Little Train of the Caipira, but in 2001 style. The listener who takes the trouble to understand and follow the program as it plays out will be rewarded by a brilliant 10-minute tour-de-force of pictorial orchestral imagery.

Both works are performed with the astounding proficiency and polish we have come to expect from the major—and some of the minor—Finnish orchestras. The sound quality of the recording is notably superb.