Composer John Corigliano: 3 Works to Explore an Epic Career

April 26, 2023

story by Kyle MacMillan
photo by J. Henry Fair

The Colorado Music Festival will pay tribute July 13, 2023 to John Corigliano, 2023 Festival composer-in-residence and one of this country’s most respected composers, with a program that spans five of the six decades of his lengthy and still evolving career. Music Director Peter Oundjian will lead the Festival Orchestra in three major works that showcase multiple facets of the 85-year-old composer’s distinctive, tonally centered music.

The line-up begins with one of Corigliano’s earliest works, Gazebo Dances (1972). The composer’s mother and a friend liked to perform piano four hands (two players side by side at the keyboard), so this piece was originally written for that combination, and each movement is dedicated to a different amateur musician Corigliano has known. “It’s a happy piece,” he said in a recent interview for the Festival. “It was a piece for friends I loved, and it’s supposed to represent a lot of joy, excitement and fun.”

In a very different vein, the program’s second work, One Sweet Morning for Voice and Orchestra, was written for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. “Ten years later,” Corigliano wrote in notes accompanying the work, “that day is more calmly remembered as just one in a continuum of terrible days. Sept. 11th, 2001, was discrete and specific, but war and its anguishes have been with us forever. I needed a cycle of songs that would embed 9/11 into that larger story.” The work consists of poem settings, including an anti-war ode by American lyricist and poet E.Y. “Yip” Harburg that gives the work its title. Serving as soloist here is Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, who devotes much of her career to contemporary masterworks like this one.

Rounding out the program is Triathlon, a saxophone concerto commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and premiered by noted soloist Timothy McAllister and that orchestra in April 2022. The Colorado Music Festival Orchestra will be the third group to perform Triathlon, and McAllister again serves as soloist. The work emerged from a hand-written letter that McAllister sent in 2016 to Corigliano, which the composer kept on his desk and eventually returned to in November 2017. “He is one of those dream composers,” the saxophonist said. “I’ve known his work my whole life.”

As with so many of his other pieces, Corigliano didn’t want to create just a standard concerto with Triathlon, choosing instead to write a work with each movement serving as a kind of challenge for a different member of the saxophone family. The first section, titled “Leaps,” provides big, leaping melodies for the soprano sax. The next section, which McAllister describes as “achingly gorgeous,” carries the title “Lines” and shows off the alto saxophone with long, serene phrases. The piece culminates with “Licks,” a section that offers musical fireworks for the deep-voiced baritone saxophone, which is typically heard less often as a solo instrument. “The baritone is in some ways the main attraction,” McAllister said. “The audience sees the baritone onstage, but it hasn’t been played yet. Everyone is kind of waiting for that.” Then, at the end, the piece returns to the soprano saxophone with a recapitulation of the opening theme.

These works are just a small sliver of the lifetime output of this still-active composer, but they span 50 years and offer a representative taste of the inventiveness, vibrancy, and substance that are likely to keep musicians performing his compositions well into the future.

Read our story “John Corigliano: A Closer Look at a Legendary Composer” > 

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