“Circus Maximus” to open two-week Corigliano Festival with a blast

Sun May 09, 2010 at 11:50 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

John Corigliano

The music season may be waning but Northwestern University has managed to deliver a substantial May treat for aficionados with an intensive festival devoted to works of John Corigliano. Opening Wednesday with the acclaimed composer leading a composition master class, the two-week series presented by the Bienen School of Music will include Corigliano’s choral works, two performances of his opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, and his Red Violin Chaconne among other works.

But one of the most intriguing events will take place this Friday night with the Chicago-area premiere of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 3 Circus Maximus, part of a program of music for wind band.

Corigliano, remarkably youthful at 72, stands as one of our finest and most original composers. His Symphony No. 1,  premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during his tenure as composer in residence, is a powerful and deeply felt homage to friends the composer lost to AIDS  and remains one of the great symphonies of the modern era. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 2 for strings, a retooling of his String Quartet, is an equally rich and probing work.

Circus Maximus is reflective of the composer’s style with its audacious scoring, pointed social commentary and extreme and unorthodox challenges for musicians as well as conductor. In many ways, it’s a singular work in Corigliano’s canon, originating with his desire of “revitalizing the concert hall.”

“In Beethoven’s day the only way you could hear his music was in a concert hall,” says Corgliano. “Now you can jog while you’re listening and look at the sunset. It’s a very different world.

“So I wanted to take that particular space and think what could happen here with 2,800 people that can’t happen in your living room? And the answer, is I can be spatial for the whole piece.”

Utilizing the concert venue in an offbeat way is not entirely new to Corigliano’s art. His Clarinet Concerto arranges instrumentalists about the hall and the Pied Piper Fantasy is scored for children to play toy instruments in the audience and for the flute soloist to make a theatrical entrance and exit.

Circus Maximus takes this to another level with a 75-member wind ensemble, including 11 trumpets spread out through all levels of the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, with the distancing and varied sonic perspectives a key element of the performance. The work also calls for marching band and is capped by some of the most deafening passages one is ever likely to encounter in a classical venue, including a two-minute sustained chord that makes Shostakovich’s climaxes seem like a Haydn string trio.

Apart from the spatial element, the other inspiration came from Corigliano’s love of ancient Roman history, particularly the vast entertainment hippodromes like the Roman Coliseum and the titular Circus Maximus. He sees firm parallels between the gladiator battles and Christian sacrifices of Rome and the electronic bread and circuses served up by our own plasma TVs, iTune downloads, and unsavory popular culture like The Jerry Springer Show.

“I walked through it and around it,” says Corigliano of the ancient Circus Maximus site. “Now it’s just a field. It’s enormous. But for a thousand years it was daily entertainment for Rome for 400,000 people a day. The government wanted to keep the people amused between the Coliseum and Circus Maximus And they didn’t realize things were crumbling until they finally fell. We don’t have arenas of 400.000. But we do have television, and the internet and the blogosphere and all these things are ways of getting our entertainment.

“We are besieged by entertainment. We’re just saturated with information, if you look at a news broadcast you’ve got the crawl on the bottom, you have the newscaster talking and in the right-hand corner you have a picture of something else. So many different activities have to happen at the same time today. And there’s a shorter attention span because we’re multi-tasking like crazy. We’re able to do five different things without doing anything neatly.”

Corigliano says he’s just as guilty as anyone else but sees personal and political dangers in the fact that the plugged-in accoutrements that make contemporary life rewarding also make it more tense and unsettled. “I can’t say I don’t like my iPhone because I love it,” says the composer. “I don’t want to give it up. I love the technology: my plasma flat screen TV and my computer.

“But the same technology that brought us our iPhone is also the technology that can bring about our destruction. With one bomb our world will be over. If New York City goes up, everything’s over, kiddo. So Circus Maximus is a piece that celebrates all of this wildness and craziness and yet is terrified of it.”

That influence is clearly felt in the third movement, appropriately called “Channel Surfing.” Different groups of instruments are spread throughout the hall each with their own music to play. With a remote-control click, we switch from dance music to pathos to cartoons in an instant. “Nothing lasts more than a minute because you get bored,” says Corigliano. “The interruptions become faster and faster.”

Most challenging for the players is the “Circus Maximus” movement, which concludes with a massive single chord, a “super-saturation” that, Corigliano says, is likely “the loudest noise ever heard at Carnegie Hall.” A “Prayer” follows that tries to make sense of all the cacophony, but the music again grows louder, wilder and more frenzied. Finally, the work ends with a violent shock, a shotgun blast that symbolizes for Corigliano what the stakes are of the current world situation. “That’s the only way I could think of ending a piece like that,” he says.

Corigliano continues to be one of the most performed and recorded of living composers, with nearly all of his works and all three symphonies available on recordings, many in multiple performances. He’s also one of the few living composers to have a performing string quartet named after him. “I’m touched and amazed that they asked me,” he says. “I’m very honored.”

Corigliano hasn’t yet begun work on his fourth symphony but he already knows exactly what form it will take and has set himself a challenge: a work written entirely for large chorus singing sounds but no words. “It will be more than vocalise,” he explains. ”The voice can do more than just sing. So if you can orchestrate what the human voice and body can do and you have a hundred people it can be a very interesting piece. But I have a lot to learn about the chorus before I can write that.”

The John Corigliano Festival runs from May 12-May 30 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and other venues. Circus Maximus will be performed 7:30 p.m. Friday at Pick-Staiger with Mallory Thompson leading the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band. http://www.pickstaiger.org/component/content/article/34-info/153-john-corigliano-festival

Portions of this article appeared previously on South Florida Classical Review.com

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