Corigliano Goes Wireless

No strings attached — except for harp and piano

John Corigliano, Symphony No. 3: Circus Maximus — world premiere

Georg Frideric Händel, Music for the Royal Fireworks

Donald Grantham, “Baron Cimetière’s Mambo”

Aaron Copland, “Emblems”

University of Texas Wind Ensemble

Jerry Junkin, conductor; Robert Carnochan, guest conductor

16 February 2005, Bass Concert Hall, University of Texas at Austin

Reviewed by Lindsey Eck

Austin may be in decline as a center for live, popular music but its appetite for new concert pieces remains undiminished. I am often amazed to read of the conflicts among serious New York composers and musicians over Uptown vs. Downtown esthetics, and of Gotham sophisticates rejecting both modern atonality and postmodern experimentalism in favor of aging classics. Here in the sticks, I’ve witnessed audience enthusiasm for seemingly radical works of concert music and theater that — according to press reports — might meet with stuffy dismissal in Manhattan. I ascribe Austin audiences’ tolerance to two factors: the city’s history of accepting popular artists who don’t fit neatly into national radio formats (from Asleep at the Wheel to Los Lonely Boys), and the fact that what happens in a provincial flyover town is certain to be written off as irrelevant to smug, blue-state America (where the big media live). That is, New Yorkers, as trendsetters, are suspicious of endorsing any piece of art for fear of encouraging the next wave of national excess, while Austinites can simply enjoy a piece for what it is.

Thus New Yorker John Corigliano found a sympathetic venue for the world premiere of his third symphony. Of course he did not choose Austin for its audience, but rather because of the technical proficiency and heartfelt interpretive abilities of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble. The result was a superb performance of an entertaining and difficult piece that exceeded its goals in technical execution, emotional resonance, and entertainment value. The inclusion of other pieces on the bill and Corigliano’s own program for the piece limned larger parameters, though, and the degree to which Corigliano rose to his own challenges is what interests this reviewer, quite apart from the symphony’s enthusiastic reception by its audience.

The other works chosen for the program invited comparison. Händel was there to represent the origins of European band music in the Baroque; UT composer Donald Grantham offered another band piece, a brief attempt at crossover (based on the mambo beat) that served to prepare the audience for the raucous, loosely structured esthetic of our postmodern period; and Copland was on the bill in the role of the apotheosis of American modernism. Of the three, Corligliano’s symphony showed deep affinities with the Händel and the Grantham, while the Copland pointed up the ultimate incompatibility between modern earnestness and postmodern irony, despite their proximity in time.

The Wind Ensemble’s reading of Music for the Royal Fireworks was technically adept if short on roman candles, more restrained than regal. The student to my left slept through nearly the whole piece, as did another undergraduate in the row behind me. (The Grantham lulled a different student off to dreamland. Hmmm, what depressant is the drug of choice on campus this year?) Though the suite is fat with spectacle and pleasure, it is lean on intellectual or emotional content (and thus perfect for our decadent age — Baroque in wealth and spectacle and barbaric in its hostility to the life of the mind — and comporting well with the Corigliano’s stated program to come). Even allowing for the primitive brass of its time, Music for the Royal Fireworks’ unchallenging tonality and predictable modulations demonstrate why Händel is a lesser composer than J.S. Bach. Placing it on this bill seemed to demonstrate, not only the strengths of the Wind Ensemble, but the potential weakness of a work that depends for its entertainment value on spectacle and hedonism, but that is empty of provocation or serious thought. Since hedonistic spectacle and ironic contempt for musical verities are hallmarks of contemporary composition, would Corigliano be able to transcend these difficulties?

Grantham’s mambo only underscored these issues. The insistent Latin beat proved the unifying force for his brief, overture-like opus, but this attempt at crossover that might seem radical within the symphonic tradition sounded retro to ears used to rock, jazz, or genuine Latin music. For example, the polyrhythms of Little Feat’s half-serious stabs at mambo in the early 1970s were more astute than the monorhythm Grantham chose as the backbone of his piece. Big Band plus mambo does not equal contemporary. The ensemble managed the difficult task of keeping up a tight rhythm among a huge band. While exciting in many places, and full of tonal complexity, the “Mambo” is nonetheless a slight work, probably just long enough to exhaust its simple musical idea, and (though impressive in performance) it probably will not bear many listenings as a recording.

Copland’s “Ensembles” (1964) is a late piece, from the end of his career and the near-end of the modern period. Though that period lacked a single, unifying esthetic, it was almost invariably a time of deep seriousness, and Copland offers the listener a surfeit of meanings that contrasted mightily with the preceding two works. While a deep reading of “Ensembles” would be out of place in this review, its forays into atonality offered a bitter commentary on the optimism and nationalism of Copland’s masterpieces of decades earlier (“Fanfare for the Common Man,” Appalachian Spring, Rodeo). His inclusion of the hymn “Amazing Grace” (harmonized with an unsettling, dissonant counterpoint) — which Americans can’t help but connect with abolition and the struggle for civil rights — coupled with our knowledge of other political struggles taking place in 1964, invites a wealth of sociopolitical associations that were lacking in the Händel (at least in the ensemble’s non-aristocratic rendition) or the Grantham. Significantly, this piece was the one the band handled least successfully. Perhaps its modern earnestness is alien to a generation immersed in spectacular but insubstantial entertainment. There were less-than-crisp note onsets, and very slight deficiencies of tuning. Dissonances of, say, a semitone fail when executed as a 5/8 tone. That’s not to say the performance was weak, merely that here the band sounded like the collegians they are; on the other numbers they came off as professionals.

Following intermission it was time for the Big Show. To supplement the framing provided by the three preceding works, Corigliano himself appeared on stage (coincidentally, it was his birthday) and explained his schema for Circus Maximus: It is meant both to evoke the sanguinary spectacle of the Roman circus and to offer an ironic commentary on our own times as similarly obsessed with spectacle (perhaps to the detriment of humanity and dignity; I'm extrapolating here). The division of the piece into eight sections with evocative titles (“Channel Surfing,” “Prayer,” etc.) set up a program in the manner of the Romantics. To me, the other pieces on the bill and Corigliano’s own announced program posed two questions beyond the success of the work as hedonistic spectacle: (1) Could a work steeped in postmodern irony, with a heavy reliance on parody and sonic quotation, transcend the nihilism of our times (as Grantham’s work did not do) and achieve something of the intellectual depth of the Copland? (2) Could a work relying on these techniques live up to its programmatic aims? That is, even without knowing the putative story we are likely to understand the pastoral implications of Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the heterosexual implications of marches vs. dances in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, or the military power of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie.” Absent the composer’s lecture and the program leaflet, would the listener get the allusions to the Roman circus and our own “circus”? That is, can a piece that attempts to illustrate meaninglessness through parody achieve a meaning not present in what is being imitated? The answer to this question may not matter to the success of this performance, but it might determine how future generations will evaluate the piece (as we draw rich historical associations from the Copland, while the Grantham seems designed for disposability).

Corigliano’s symphony strives to illuminate the nature of spectacle by presenting one. Though he is certainly not the first composer to make use of the entire space of a concert hall to position musicians for call-and-response effects, his cunning stationing of brass among the aisles allowed for blasts of sound across the seats and not incidentally called on the trumpets to deliver intricate parts without a flaw. (Their victory was without blemish.) Nobody slept through this symphony! Corigliano had conjured up a sometimes joyous, sometimes sinister noise employing paraphernalia such as a panoply of percussion. “Channel Surfing” deployed mutually interrupting motives to convey fragmentation, while throughout the piece there appeared the kind of polyrhythms I missed in the Grantham in addition to technically difficult rhythms that clashed rather than complemented. At the symphony’s climax in section VI, a uniformed marching band streams through the aisle playing a parodic tune that owes little to Sousa. The work ends with the firing of a rifle (or shotgun, couldn’t be sure) onstage. The composer stage-manages the emotional content in the manner of a shameless Romantic (in a solid, Mahlerian fashion devoid of overweening Wagnerian nastiness).

Corigliano mentioned that one of his reasons for choosing a university wind band, rather than a symphony orchestra, to premiere his new symphony is that the band could devote weeks of preparation, whereas a professional orchestra can only practice a new work for a couple of days beforehand (with predictable results). The grinding rehearsal time — combined with the habit of tightness against the drumbeat that comes naturally to wind players who often double on jazz, rock, or pop in this musical town — showed in the exuberant and accurate way the Wind Ensemble delivered Corigliano’s baby. (The screams were deliberate.) Bass Concert Hall, nearly full, rang with the long applause of a standing ovation at the end, the preponderantly 20-something audience giving the lie to the oft-stated idea that young folks won’t sit in a traditional-style concert hall to hear contemporary compositions. (On the way in, I chatted with a student who only regretted she couldn’t fly up to New York to see the work at Carnegie Hall.)

By making such heavy use of the musical equivalent of filmic FX, Corigliano has deftly instantiated an era of spectacle, noise, violence, and disorder. It may seem that he has merely offered a montage of somewhat uncoordinated motives, yet the contemplative sections IV “Night Music I” and especially VII “Prayer” imply a sincere and humane alternative to the flashy but brutal world of the Spectacle. With iconic bites of sound and theater such as the all-American marching band, the police siren (in its slow, American howl as opposed to the rapid European), the fanfare (always redolent of Copland), and of course the good old frontier equalizer, Circus Maximus employs the sonic and theatrical language of American popular mythology while offering a sometimes ironic, sometimes loving commentary on that very mythology and contrasting it with another American sonic treasury — the pastoral legacy of a rather different Copland (Appalachian Spring). Thus Corigliano can be said to have largely, if not perfectly, achieved his program if perhaps at the cost of a neo-Romanticism that plays wonderfully in Texas but might be problematic for the arch critics in the Northeast. We’ll see how they take it in Manhattan.

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