CORIGLIANO: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy; Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Three Hallucinations; Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus.” Gazebo Dances (3 CD’s)

by Walter Simmons



CORIGLIANO A Dylan Thomas Trilogy • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Nashville SO and Ch • NAXOS 8.559394 (66:48)

CORIGLIANO Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Three Hallucinations • JoAnn Falletta, cond; Buffalo Philharmonic • NAXOS 8.559331 (52:21)

CORIGLIANO Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus.” Gazebo Dances • Jerry Junkin, cond; University of Texas Wind Ensemble • NAXOS 8.559601 (52:54)

One of the most widely praised and highly regarded American composers of his generation, John Corigliano, now in his early 70s, is currently enjoying significant attention from Naxos’s American Classics series. The three recent releases discussed here represent a broad survey of his work, drawn from all periods of his composing career. Corigliano’s early pieces reveal a strong affinity with the sensitive, nostalgic music of Samuel Barber. However, as he was approaching the age of 40, he transformed his creative identity, embracing the general approach known for a time as the “New Romanticism”—a style associated during the 1970s with the music of Jacob Druckman and others who were struggling to free themselves from the aesthetic straitjacket of serialism, but without regressing to traditional tonality. The proponents of this style attempted to impress listeners in more spontaneously visceral or emotional ways than serial music typically did, by creating richly orchestrated aural canvases, highlighted by strongly characterized gestures and striking juxtapositions, at times incorporating quotations of earlier music within the context of such soundscapes. However, Corigliano came to this approach from the opposite direction, producing compositions whose vivid flamboyance and unrestrained eclecticism greatly appealed to listeners who were favorably inclined toward the innovative, but nevertheless sought some measure of immediate sensual gratification. By the 1980s he had settled into a broadly based and highly flexible approach of his own that rejected nothing on principle, while tailoring each composition according to its own specific requirements. Perhaps what is most characteristic of the mature Corigliano is his attraction to novel, provocative conceits that generate interest in and of themselves; this he shares in common with, for example, Dominick Argento. In fact, the program notes to one of these releases states, “For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material.” Long series of numbered sonatas or string quartets are antithetical to his nature. The results of his approach have proven to be spectacularly successful: Corigliano has won the Pulitzer Prize and the esteemed Grawemeyer Award—perhaps the two most prestigious awards available to the serious composer; his opera The Ghosts of Versailleswas commissioned and produced by the Metropolitan Opera, and subsequently elsewhere as well; of two filmscores, the first (Altered States) was nominated for an Academy Award, while the second (The Red Violin) actually won the award. And he has drawn praise—even if begrudgingly at times—from listeners and commentators representing all points on the compositional spectrum.

The most important of the works discussed here may indeed prove to be Corigliano’s magnum opusA Dylan Thomas Trilogy. This composition, completed in 1999, was nearly four decades—and several stages—in the making. If I have had a complaint about Corigliano’s work over the years, it is that he seems to focus more on elements that will make an impact on his audience than on searching for and expressing his own inner life (yes, how hopelessly sentimental and old-fashioned of me). But this work, occupying the composer as long as it did, comes close to being a personal autobiography in music. Corigliano had long been strongly drawn to Thomas’s poetry, and found much in the Welsh poet’s expression that he could relate to his own life; his selection of poems written at different times in the poet’s life, and the settings he composed at different times in his life created a natural parallel between the two. The trilogy began in 1961 with a setting for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra of Thomas’s Fern Hill, which attained considerable success as an independent work. This was followed in 1970 by Poem in October, also an independent work, for tenor and chamber ensemble. Almost as long as those two sections combined, Poem on his Birthday followed in 1976, this time for baritone soloist, with chorus and full symphony orchestra. This completed the trilogy, as presented at that time as a full evening in recognition of the American Bi-Centennial. But Corigliano was not satisfied with the result. The first two sections owed much to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Summer Music, although Poem in October ventured into a pan-diatonicism somewhat more prickly than Barber might have employed. Both evoked a peaceful, playful past, recalled wistfully. The third section reflected the poet’s state of emotional turbulence at the time of his 35th birthday (he was to live only four years more), with fiercely extravagant imagery to which Corigliano responded with the full range of his recently-liberated musical imagination. But he was not convinced that the juxtaposition of incompatible musical styles really worked. Not until the late 1990s did he come upon the idea of creating a framework that would supply the necessary coherence. Turning to Author’s Prologue, one of Thomas’s final works, he found what he was looking for—a selection that captured the poet’s untamed earthiness, while providing the retrospective posture of an older, more seasoned protagonist. Drawing upon musical material used in Poem on his Birthday, Corigliano set this passage for baritone soloist against a backdrop of chorus and orchestra, using a largely atonal, and at times spoken, declamation. The first portion of this Prologue serves as an introduction to the entire work, while the second half is inserted between Fern Hill and Poem in October. This re-shaping treated the two earlier pieces as “flashbacks,” reflections on the innocent past from the perspective of the turbulent present, the transitions occurring naturally and convincingly. With a few other adjustments, such as changing the mezzo-soprano to a boy soprano in Fern Hill, and expanding the scoring of Poem in October to match the rest of the work (though retaining the harpsichord, which creates a wonderful effect), he finally achieved the coherence and integration he had sought. The result, which spans the majority of his compositional career, is not only a convincing structure, but it is also a very moving work—more so than in any of its previous incarnations. It is not an “easy” work by any means—not something one can expect to enjoy in the background: It requires a good deal of concentration, as well as close attention to the texts, in order to derive its full meaning. But it may prove to be Corigliano’s greatest, most deeply personal, and most emotionally sincere work. The performance here is extremely fine: The vocal soloists are excellent, and Leonard Slatkin directs a fully sympathetic and convincing performance. My only complaint is that the choral rendering of the text is barely intelligible, even for one who is following it in print.

Of all the unusual compositional conceits that Corigliano has devised, perhaps none is more provocative and unlikely than Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Explaining that Bob Dylan’s career as an iconic folk poet during the 1960s totally passed him by, the composer was prompted by a colleague to look at Dylan’s song lyrics as a possible source of texts. (I must admit that the notion that Corigliano might have lived through the 1960s without ever having heard, say, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” strains my credulity to the breaking point; but for the moment I’m willing to take it at face value and let it go at that.) Convinced upon examining them that many of these texts had some merit, Corigliano decided to set a selection of seven to music—but without any knowledge of or reference to their original melodic settings, and without any attempt to evoke the style of folk or popular music. He explains with admirable clarity in the program notes: “Folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody: reflecting the emotion or the sound of the words is simply not what folk music tries to do. Whereas concert composers … often change the melodic and accompanimental settings of the words to reflect the particular colors and sounds, as well as the feelings and meanings, of the text. Obviously I belong to this latter category of composer, and this is reflected in what you’ll hear.” Composed for soprano and piano in 2000 at the request of Sylvia McNair, the cycle was orchestrated in 2003, now calling for an “amplified soprano.” Corigliano writes, “I wanted a fully-trained virtuosic concert singer who could still perform in a more ‘natural’ voice. I didn’t want her to need to give an ‘operatic’ performance of texts so antithetical to that cultivated sound just to project over the orchestra.” The premiere of this version was given by the Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann, who performs it here.

“Listeners familiar with Dylan’s music for these songs will no doubt be surprised at these settings,” writes the composer. As someone who lived through the 1960s and was well aware of Dylan’s own versions of about half of the texts selected, I can tell you that that is a tremendous understatement! I cannot deny that my reaction upon hearing the first minute of Corigliano’s setting of “Mr. Tambourine Man”—which serves as a prelude to the cycle—was to laugh hysterically at the preposterous incongruity of the basic conceit. Checking upon the reactions of several friends and colleagues who are contemporaries of mine, I discovered that most responded roughly as I did. However, the difference was that some of my consultees could not get past the absurdity and simply bailed out; while others, such as myself, were able to calm down and try to experience these settings on their own terms. I am forced to conclude that the result is largely successful, and—whether or not Corigliano truly never heard “Blowin’ in the Wind”—he has managed to create musical settings that a) bear no resemblance whatsoever to Dylan’s music; b) capture the spirit and meaning of the texts, and do so with remarkable imagination; and c) form a satisfying song cycle that meets the standards of a serious concert work. It is presumably for reasons such as these that this work won the most recent Grammy Award for Best New Classical Composition—the third such award Corigliano has received. My only reservation about the songs is that Corigliano’s music offers little melodic interest of its own; there is nothing “catchy” about these settings. As with the ambitious Dylan Thomas work, no one can expect to relegate this cycle to background music. Each song is a work of serious art that must be followed with close attention. Finally, what I would truly love to know is the reaction of Bob Dylan himself (who of course had to grant permission for this endeavor), assuming that he has heard Corigliano’s settings. And if he has not bothered to hear them, he loses a lot of stature in my mind. 

Soprano Hila Plitmann seems to render the songs with just the qualities the composer was seeking, while the Buffalo Philharmonic realizes the extraordinarily varied orchestrations brilliantly. And for those baby-boomers who are interested, the other songs whose texts were selected are: “Clothes Line,” “Masters of War,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and, as a postlude, “Forever Young.”

For a long time I felt that the music Corigliano supplied for Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States was his best work. And even as a fervent and unashamed Russell enthusiast (who saw the film the day it opened), I asserted that the music was the most impressive component of the film, which struck me as rather a potboiler. When the soundtrack album was released shortly thereafter, I raved about it in these pages. Several years later the soundtrack was reissued on CD, but I gather it is no longer available. With a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States is a science fiction film in which a research psychologist attempts to discover the essence of life by reversing his own human evolution through immersion in a sensory deprivation tank, and later by indulging in Indian rituals involving hallucinogenic mushrooms. Corigliano’s score was one of his early ventures in the aforementioned “New Romanticism” style, and the result achieved a degree of flamboyant extravagance that left Druckman and his cohorts far behind, and might be likened to Le Sacre on LSD. Corigliano subsequently extracted from the score a 15-minute “concert suite,” entitled Three Hallucinations, which seems to have developed a pretty successful life of its own. These selections certainly provide a representative sample of the film music—eerily ominous and wildly psychedelic—although a dreamlike treatment of fragments of “Rock of Ages,” as refracted through elegiac and mysterious cluster-harmony, gives undue emphasis to one of the weaker ideas in the score. It is performed here with considerable zest. However, serious admirers of Corigliano’s music are urged to search out used copies of the complete soundtrack, which can be found on the Internet.

Ever since its world premiere in Austin, Texas, by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin, in February, 2005, followed later that year by a performance by the same forces at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Corigliano’s Circus Maximus has become something of a sensation within the band sub-culture. Completed the previous year, on a commission from the Texans, the work is predicated on the notion of a spatial conception—i.e., a work in which the audience is surrounded by the players, whose physical placement is clearly and precisely specified. Those specifications, which call for a band on the stage, a smaller marching band, and another ensemble placed at various points throughout the hall, are clearly indicated on a diagram included in the accompanying booklet. However, the recording at hand, as fine as it is in conventional terms, is a standard two-channel recording. Therefore, the listener is left to his imagination in attempting to conjure this all-important aspect of the work’s structure and—more important—sonic impact. The title of the work and its point of reference, both of which came later, concerns the brutal entertainments enjoyed by the ancient Romans during their period of “high decadence,” and attempts to draw a parallel between that time and our own, what with our relish of vulgar “reality” shows and public scandals. As apt and intriguing as this concept may be, instrumental music is simply not a suitable medium for social commentary. Furthermore, nothing in the music actually creates a connection with the title concept; indeed, any number of other concepts would be equally plausible as correlates to the music itself. Therefore, the extra-musical “message” of the work is an enticement that doesn’t really deliver, while the fundamental premise of antiphonal spatiality is compromised by the limitations of the recording technology used, although it may be quite effective in a live performance.

So the somewhat deflated reality that confronts the listener to this recording is a 35-minute work subdivided into eight connected movements of contrasting tone, scored for large wind ensemble. But this is not to suggest that there is anything routine about the music itself. It has been said that Corigliano’s primary compositional concern is to make a tremendous splash on his audience, but to accomplish this at a high artistic level. I will avoid the temptation to raise the question as to whether there isn’t an inherent contradiction between the two portions of that objective, but will state unequivocally that this piece makes one helluva splash! The work opens in a state of intense alarm, and introduces the primary motif, an exceedingly frightening, siren-like idea that seems to herald an imminent crisis of immense proportion. This motif recurs at various points throughout the work. Corigliano seems to possess a limitless imagination for creating musical “special effects,” and Circus Maximus, not unlike Altered States, provides the opportunity for him to give full rein to this gift. After the sense of distress created by the opening “Introitus,” the second section, “Screen/Siren” provides some relief, as a saxophone quartet evokes a mood suggestive of a nocturnal urban street scene in a detective show from around 1960 (not that there’s anything wrong with this). The third section, “Channel Surfing” presents a series of brief, contrasting musical images, including some really striking effects that shift rapidly from one to the next. This is followed by “Night Music I,” which suggests another nocturnal scene, but this one taking place in some isolated area untouched by human beings, so that time seems infinite, the only motion resulting from natural phenomena. “Night Music II” is intended to evoke “the hyper night music of the cities,” and calls forth sounds and gestures associated with jazz. This culminates in the sixth movement, “Circus Maximus,” intended to be the high point of the work, “a carnival of sonoric activity,” the composer writes. It is wild, as all that has come before seems to be happening at once, leading to a climax that truly shakes the rafters. “Prayer” follows—a quiet, hymnlike melody that unfolds against a simple, triadic accompaniment that is not, however, always in the same key as the melody. Perhaps the most simple and direct portion of the work, it was not as affecting emotionally as I had anticipated. This section leads directly into “Coda: Veritas,” which returns to the disturbing music of the opening section, mounting in intensity, and finally ending with “a 12-gauge shot gun” firing a “full load-black powder ‘popper’ made by Winchester.” I think it is apparent that music this strikingly vivid might be associated plausibly with any number of different scenarios. But what is also apparent upon reflection, as one listens repeatedly to the work, is that one’s first couple of auditions make the strongest impact; after that one’s interest begins to pall.

Filling out the CD is the composer’s arrangement for band of his Gazebo Dances from 1972, one of the last works of his “early” period. Although it was originally conceived as a work for piano, four hands, its title points to “the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the American countryside, where public band concerts were given on summer evenings early last century.” The work also exists in a version for orchestra, but the band arrangement is clearly the most effective. Very slight in aesthetic weight, it might be said to fall somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento and Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture

The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, under its conductor Jerry Junkin, perform the Gazebo Dances suavely and with panache, while they bring to Circus Maximus an explosion of well-controlled power.