Pulitzer winner breaks boundaries

From concertos to rewriting Bob Dylan

John Corigliano is one of America's most representative composers, having just won a Pulitzer prize for his Symphony No. 2, a recent Oscar for his score to the film "Red Violin," and many other accolades.

But although Corigliano's works have received overwhelmingly favorable critical response - with only a few dissenters - for the past decade he has chosen to read no reviews of his work. "I'm a worried preacher all the time and need to work on my confidence," he says, recalling how his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, wept when Time Magazine once made fun of him as a composer.

The complex and contradictory Corigliano is indeed outwardly charming but inwardly anguished, as his lamenting second symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Seiji Ozawa, proved. Even his recent crowd-pleasing "Pied Piper Fantasy," written for star flutist James Galway, includes thorny dissonances amid a delightful parade of child musicians.

Corigliano comes from a musical family: His father, John Corigliano Sr., was first violinist and concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966. The son recalls, "At age 8, when he would play a concerto, I would buy the newspapers early the next morning and read what they said about my father. Then he would wake up and read it very furiously: There he was practicing all year ... and someone might say something nasty."

After working on Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts TV series, Corigliano made his breakthrough with his 1977 Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by his father's longtime orchestra and premiered by soloist Stanley Drucker accompanied by Bernstein.

Corigliano calls his work "a tense, histrionic outgrowth of the 'clean' American sound" of composers like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. In 1991, Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 was seen as his response to the AIDS crisis. It was performed by more than 100 orchestras worldwide and recorded twice.

The piece was dubbed "the AIDS symphony" by some. But 10 years further into the AIDS pandemic, Corigliano observes that the work can just "be heard as music."

"It was played in Kiev a few years ago, without program notes, and the Ukraine audience heard it as a tragic symphony and related to it as such. Two weeks later the San Francisco Symphony performed it, and the audience reacted to it as a specific AIDS tragedy," he says. "Either way is completely valid."

Last year, "Phantasmagoria," a revisitation of themes from his opera "The Ghosts of Versailles," was premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra. On the face of it, "Ghosts of Versailles" (which features Marie Antoinette and other French historical characters) and "The Red Violin" (his score for a film tracing a single instrument through many different places and eras) are both inspired pastiches - imitating widely differing musical styles from baroque to modern atonality.

But Corigliano stresses differences separating "Ghosts" from "Red Violin":

" 'Red Violin' is a more realistic score and movie, while with 'Ghosts,' I specifically asked my librettist to create a world of smoke for me. I wanted to go into the 18th century while remaining in our own time, juxtaposing worlds." Since "The Red Violin," Corigliano has stopped scoring films. "I decided not to do any more films because of complete lack of control a composer has in the dubbing room," he explains.

Instead, he's turned his energies to two Dylans. In last year's "A Dylan Thomas Trilogy," Corigliano reset his earlier rendition of poems by Thomas - "Fern Hill," "Poem in October," and "Poem on his Birthday." They now follow Corigliano's trajectory as a composer through different styles, a "memory play in the form of an oratorio."

"Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan," which premiered in New York's Carnegie Hall last year, set lyrics by folk artist Bob Dylan to new music - disregarding the original Dylan tunes. "His manager was really wonderful, although neither he nor Dylan got what I wanted to do at first," Corigliano says. "I told them if there is a great poem by Goethe, then Brahms, Schubert, and Wolf all set music to it, because the poem spoke to different people in different ways." Corigliano calls the results "a double crossover: Traditional crossover makes classical people sound pop, but I found something in a pop artist to bring into my world of classical music."

To date, no record company has shown any interest in recording "Tambourine Man," despite Corigliano's proven track record on disc. And there is still no CD of his "Ghosts of Versailles," though he hopes to issue an album of highlights from the opera. Certain to be recorded, though, is his new Pulitzer-winning symphony, which began as a 40-minute-long string quartet (1995) commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Cleveland Quartet's last performance. In 1996, the quartet's recording, like that of Corigliano's First Symphony, won Grammy Awards for Best Performance and for Best New Composition, making Corigliano the first composer to win twice in a single year in the history of that award.

The original chamber work "strained past the boundaries of the string quartet," he says. "I realized that if I had brass, wind, and percussion, then the tension of pulling the players beyond the limits of their instruments would be lost, so many changes were necessary when I drew on the quartet to write the Symphony No. 2."

Corigliano has an idea for a third. "It's a symphony for chorus with no orchestra," he says. "I'm fascinated with the idea of the human voice making sounds," he says. "In Bali recently I heard the local singing known as the 'monkey chant,' with remarkable exchanges and colors."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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