Friday, March 04, 2005

Of Rage and Remembrance (Revisited)

In my post on the upcoming Kennedy Center season, I note Leonard Slatkin's announcement that the National Symphony Orchestra will be performing John Corigliano's First Symphony, and that the NSO had won a Grammy award for its recording of that work several years ago.

I dug into my archives and turned up my review of the NSO's premiere of the Corigliano symphony, written in November 1995. It was only my third piece as The Metro Herald's entertainment editor, and my first attempt at music criticism. That said, I thought it might be interesting to revisit that article in light of the NSO's plans to revive Corigliano's First Symphony as part of its 75th anniversary season.

The article also mentions some other works that may or not be featured in the NSO's new season.

Modern Music Brightens NSO's Future
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

For conductor Leonard Slatkin to choose John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 as the first piece he records with the National Symphony Orchestra speaks volumes about Slatkin's views about modern music and the direction the NSO should take. It suggests a dedication to modern, and to American, music that should undergird the NSO's entire mission.

Slatkin, who remains Music Director Designate until next year, explained before the Kennedy Center Concert Hall premiere of the Corigliano work that "music through the ages has traditionally been the abstract," but this composer works from the concrete. The symphony, he noted, had its "genesis" in the composer's response to two things: the AIDS epidemic and the famous Names Project Memorial Quilt, which serves as a vivid reminder of those who have lost their lives -- often very young lives -- to AIDS.

Strangely enough, the Corigliano First Symphony has been played by every major orchestra in America, in over 600 performances, since its commissioning by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra five years ago [1990]. Of the country's major orchestras, only the National Symphony waited until now to perform the work for Washington audiences.

Corigliano has written a piece for a huge orchestra. The string sections are full, the horns and woodwinds are double and triple their normal composition, and the percussionists are busier than one ever sees them. The symphony calls for three piccolos, three flutes, three oboes, six clarinets, and three bassoons. The percussion section alone could fill a music store, with some instruments that are positively odd (yet add much to the totality of the work): The percussionists must play rototoms, temple blocks, crotales, a whip, a flexatone, a metal plate, a tam-tam, a brake drum, chimes, an anvil, and a police whistle. Corigliano has also written parts for two pianos, one onstage and one offstage.

Written, as symphonies are, in four movements, the third and fourth movements slide into each other imperceptibly. The first movement ("Of Rage and Remembrance") serves as an introduction of the themes that will predominate throughout the score. The second movement is manic in its form, which technically is a "tarantella," a wild folk dance of Italy. It is meant to represent the slowly building dementia suffered by so many people with AIDS. The third movement, by contrast, is far more lyric. It is dominated by a cello solo (with a bass continuo) that was inspired by a 1962 recording by the composer's good friend, Giulio, who died of AIDS-related causes. The fourth movement returns us to the themes that have been woven throughout the piece, and with "sonic waves" provided by the brass section, the solo cello continues, in dialogue with another cello, ending in a diminuendo that terminates the symphony on the same note with which it began.

The performances of Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 on November 9, 10, and 11 were recorded both by National Public Radio for future broadcast and by RCA Victor Red Seal. In a few months, we will be able to see whether Slatkin's interpretation of Corigliano will stand up against the premiere recording, by the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.

Accompanying the Corigliano work in this set of concerts were three other pieces: Samuel Adler's organ fanfare, "Festive Proclamation," Henry Purcell's Chacony in G minor (orchestrated by Benjamin Britten), and Hector Berlioz's "Les nuits d'été," a song-cycle performed by Dutch mezzo-soprano Jard van Nes.

Slatkin's selection of the Britten/Purcell work is an indication of his tastes in music, too. Britten is seldom performed in the United States. Slatkin, however, has recorded several Britten works as director of the St. Louis Symphony, including the opera A Midsummer Night's Dream (which is available in a video recording in the Kennedy Center gift shop). Britten fans in the Washington area have much to look forward to, as the National Symphony has not offered much of the 20th century British composer's work in recent years.

Adler's organ fanfare is one of 25 fanfares commissioned for the NSO this season by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund. Its driving rhythm, strong contrapuntal technique, and use of all the registers of the organ (including some significant pedalpoint work) will bring this work into the mainstream of organ music. Though written specifically for the NSO's organist, William Neil, it is not hard to believe that this composition will quickly find its way into the repertoires of many church organists throughout the country. It would be appropriate for weddings, ordinations, special celebrations, and even secular events such as theatre dedications or presidential inaugurations.

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