Corigliano title TK

By Charlie Richards

Originally published on Advocate.com March 09 2009 11:00 PM ET

A world premiere
recording of a major new work by one of America's best known
openly gay composers is certainly nothing to ignore, in fact to
do so would seem almost criminal. While John Corigliano's 3rd
symphony, "Circus Maximus" may not be the best thing he has
ever penned (my vote would be for his opera
The Ghosts of Versailles

,) it is worthy of attention, and well worth hearing, even for
those who are uninitiated in the world of contemporary
classical music.

Corigliano, who
celebrated his 70th birthday last year (and still looks as
young and attractive as he's ever looked), has been a major
figure in the world of contemporary music for over forty years,
and the music seems to flow as easily and effortlessly from his
pen as champagne from a crystal decanter. His style has always
been varied and hard to define - in fact it would be almost
impossible to pinpoint what the distinctive "Corigliano
Style" is. The publication of his 1st Symphony in 1991,
dedicated to and inspired by many of his friends who has
succumbed to the AIDS virus, could be seen as an official
"coming out" of sorts; since then he has been an active
member of the gay community and has been profiled by and
interviewed in many gay publications, including
The Advocate

. To a wider public, he's probably best known as the composer
of the Oscar winning score for the popular film
The Red Violin

.

His Second Symphony,
published in 2001, earned him the Pulitzer, which makes it a
tough act to follow indeed. His third, subtitled "Circus
Maximus", followed in 2004, and receives its world premiere
recording here. In a sense, it is a bit of a let-down after the
intense and grandiose second, but it still has moments of great
beauty and originality.

Much shorter than his
first two symphonies, the third is scored only for winds, brass
and percussion - there are no strings in this work at all. This
gives the symphony a definitively brash and peculiar sound,
which is very much in keeping with its theme. Corigliano calls
the work "Circus Maximus", but it is not really an
"historic" depiction in sound of what the ancient Roman
entertainment arena was like. In actuality, the work explores
the aggressively violent, manic and schizophrenic world of our
own contemporary tastes in entertainment - from reality TV to
cable, and contrasts them with the very similar Roman
amphitheatre.

The most startlingly
original aspect of the work is how the orchestra is laid out.
The instruments are not placed in the hall in the traditional
way - in fact, the layout mimics that of the Roman Circus
Maximus, complete with a separate marching band that makes its
way from the back of the hall to the stage. A complete diagram
is provided in the CD booklet - it makes for a fascinating
study.

The work is organized
into eight relatively short movements, all played without
pause. The 1st, called "Introitus" (Latin -
"Introduction") begins, as one would expect, with a fanfare
which becomes rapidly more and more dissonant - even violent. A
trombone solo accompanied by wood blocks introduces a rather
sinister episode, which is followed by the original fanfare.
The second movement, "Screen/Siren" is dominated by a
seductive melody played by saxophone quartet, sometimes
undulating passages in the winds interject giving a sense of
languorous movement. This leads abruptly to "Channel
Surfing" - which sounds exactly how you might think a musical
depiction of this common activity might sound. Various themes,
from a romantic TV Western-like melody on horns, to a wild
Mambo, to a fantastic "Sci-Fi" wind theme, take their
turns, on-and-off, back and forth. Our contemporary dwindling
attention spans have never been captured so precisely. The
movement dies out with wailing brass.

The mood of "Night
Music I" could not be more different - tranquil, beautiful,
mysterious, and just a trifle ominous. Is this the Circus
Maximus at night, after the crowds have gone home? The weird
animal calls depicted by the wind instruments seem to indicate
this. The serenity of "Night Music I" is immediately
contrasted with "Night Music II", a portrait of
contemporary city nightlife, brash, jazzy and sleazy. This is
followed by the work's climax - "Circus Maximus" in which
all the previous themes conjoin into an odd mélange
that miraculously never descends into cacophony. This is where
the marching band makes its entrance - very reminiscent of the
music of Charles Ives.

A beautiful
"Prayer" rounds off the work - is this a prayer for
humanity or for our current civilization? A lovely theme grows
into something truly majestic and noble - followed by a coda
"Veritas" ("truth"), which brings back the opening
fanfare and ends with a (literal) gunshot.

The "filler" on the
disc is Corigliano's orchestration of an early four-hand piano
piece, "Gazebo Dances" (1972), and the mood is very
dissimilar from the more recent work. This is a light set of
very endearing dance pieces, and they do refresh the palette a
bit after the heavier symphony. The orchestration is charming -
reminding the listener a bit of Leonard Bernstein - not
surprising, as Corigliano's father was concertmaster of the NY
Philharmonic under Bernstein for many years.

All-in-all, "Circus
Maximus" shows Corigliano in a more playful mood than he was
in his earlier two symphonies, which may make the third appear
more lightweight than it actually is. In a sense it kind of
takes its place in Corigliano's output that Beethoven's lighter
4th or 8th symphonies do in
his

and this is no mean comparison. The University of Texas Wind
Ensemble do the work proud, but as there is no other recording
with which to compare it, that's about as much as can be said
on that subject. The recorded sound is fine. The booklet is a
bit skimpy, but the notes are written by the composer himself,
and the aforementioned diagram of the orchestral seating
arrangement very helpful indeed. This is most definitely worth
listening to, and at the very reasonable Naxos price, should be
sampled by anyone with an interest in modern music.