Corigliano’s Third Symphony gets a local debut with maximum impact

Sat May 15, 2010 at 10:41 pm

By Bryant Manning

Two companionate but ultimately competing American classical traditions knocked heads locally on Friday night: that of the celebrity performer and that of the venerable creator.

While one of America’s most celebrated living composers, John Corigliano, began his multi-week residency at Northwestern, the Venezuelan firebrand Gustavo Dudamel was also conducting his anticipated L.A. Phil concert downtown. One was the hottest ticket in town; the other could be experienced for a few dollars.

So it was heartening to see a substantial crowd turn out at Pick-Staiger Hall for opening weekend of the John Corigliano Festival, a comprehensive celebration that will feature master classes, post-concert receptions, a Millennium Park performance and even a rare staging of his only opera The Ghosts of Versailles.

The 72-year-old Mr. Corigliano, who could pass for 55, sat graciously among colleagues and NU students near the front row as two of his works—Gazebo Dances and Circus Maximus—received lights-out performances from the Northwestern Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Band. Adding to this immersive occasion, Corigliano spoke on stage about each movement from his Circus Maximus symphony (No. 3), which earned its explosive area premiere on Friday night.

Petty musical details aside, Circus Maximus is outrageously loud. Much of this has to do with the arranging of instruments in the hall, with trumpets and drums filling out all areas of the balconies. This was music that literally moved “up and down, forward and back,” as Corigliano recently remarked. No corner of the auditorium remained unmanned.

Its eight continuous and raucous movements satirically foretell the doom of our decadent society as we drown ourselves in hi-tech amusements like iPhones and internet porno. (The Roman equivalent was chariot races, hunts and battles.) There is a channel surfing movement that is hilarious, effectively capturing our collective ADD through quickly changing musical collages. And the apocalyptic chord that resounds in the sixth movement (“Circus Maximus”) was so severely deafening that this critic’s ears are still ringing from it.

Writing of the premiere of Corigliano’s Second Symphony in 2000, Bernard Holland argued that the work “is so many things that one longed for it to be one thing. It has the feel of a collection.” Which is certainly applicable to this symphony too, although Corigliano would be the first person to tell you that’s the point. But the scatter-brained scoring eventually moves from compelling to cold, and charming to trivial. There’s only so much investment one can lavish on a pyrotechnical freak show.

Still, its many crazy fragments were so expertly crafted that it was hard not to be immersed in their grip. These include, among others, a gorgeously intoxicated sax quartet, a clangorous marching band, and an exclamatory gunshot from the terrace. As sheer sonic spectacle, Circus Maximus is top notch. But given that it’s far more convenient to stage this music with school ensembles, one wonders what professional players will band together and advocate it moving forward.

Mallory Thompson

Pianist Raechel Kerr and harpist Christina Jehle were notable contributors, along with the many shared solos from various wind players. Conductor Mallory Thompson, who would spin 360 degrees to lead the players behind her, was excellent.

Corigliano’s more modest Gazebo Dances originated as four-hand piano music before he arranged it for concert band. With an Ivesian outdoorsy feel, conductor Ryan T. Nelson drew a spirited performance that nicely bottled the many stylistic talents of its composer.

Led by Thompson, Richard Strauss’s biting brass fanfare Festmusik der Stadt Wien (1943) opened the program with real brio. NU’s stellar gang of trumpeters, trombonists, duo tubas and timpanist rendered the difficult score with ease, dispatching those double-tongued darts like gunslingers. The bold, burnished tone in the low brass was the highlight of this antiphonal back-and-forth.

The John Corigliano Festival runs at Northwestern through May 30.; 847-467-4000.

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