Music Director Peter Oundjian Interviews Composer-in-Residence John Corigliano

June 21, 2023

Music Director Peter Oundjian sat down with 2023 Composer-in-Residence John Corigliano to discuss his composition career, his background, and the music for our July 13 program. Learn more about this concert and Corgliano’s composing process.

Peter Oundjian: John, welcome. We are so delighted that you are going to be in Boulder this summer and be our composer-in-residence. The big performance of your works is on July 13th [2023]. And I’ve always been a huge admirer of your music, as you well know. Let’s talk a little bit about the whole idea of having an entire evening of your music, and then let’s get to the pieces. So, how often have you had an evening entirely dedicated to your orchestral music?

John Corigliano: It’s happened several times. It’s happened in San Paulo and in Sydney where the orchestra did an entire concert of my music, and it’s very exciting.

Peter: Wonderful.

John: Those events were wonderful.

Peter: Absolutely. That is tremendous. And of course, whenever there’s one of your operas performed, the whole evening is dedicated to you as well. So, we had some conversations about which pieces to choose, and I was kind of very keen to do the Gazebo Dances because it represents a very early Corigliano and it’s such a wonderfully spirited contrast… beautiful way to invite people into your world… At least your world of the early 70s. What are your memories of writing that piece?

John: Well, Gazebo Dances was originally written as a series of piano four-hand pieces for people who I love who play the piano and are involved in music, but not professional performers. For example, the first movement is dedicated to my mother and her best friend. They used to play piano four-hands all the time. And so I wrote a series of four pieces, much as Samuel Barber did in Souvenirs where he wrote for friends and piano four hands. And it’s a highly spirited work, there’s one adagio, but basically it’s high tempo and a lot of fun. And reminds me, when I orchestrated it, of the gazebos in the towns that play these bands, that play gazebos, and all the people spread tablecloths and sit on the grass and listen to the music, this kind of outdoor music. So I’ve named it Gazebo Dances for that reason.

Peter: Wonderful. Images of your youth in Connecticut, of course.

John: Yes.

Peter: All those little towns have the gazebos on the Village Green. Yes. But it’s absolutely beautiful and as fun as it is and spirited as it is already, that adagio has great depth. I mean, your music for me is always deeply moving. But already at that point, I think it’s almost as if you couldn’t write even a fun piece without saying something profound. I hope you love that as much as I do.

John: Oh, I do. Thank you so much for saying that. It is a dear adagio for me and it was written a long time ago, and so I treasure the feelings I had when I wrote it.

Peter: Absolutely. So then we had the conversation and I very much wanted to program One Sweet Morning, which you wrote just over 10 years ago, maybe. Oh, it was 12 years ago probably now.

John: Yeah.

Peter: Yeah. And it was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, correct?

John: That’s correct. The New York Philharmonic commissioned me and Stephanie Blythe sang it with the New York Philharmonic. What I did in that piece, they wanted a remembrance, but not a literal remembrance of 9/11, but something about the aftermath and what it meant. And I picked four poems of four different centuries and also four different locations, all about the war, the idea of war, and destruction. And the last one, One Sweet Morning, is about the idea that peace will come one day and it will all be over. It’s idealistic of course, but that person who wrote that particular poem, One Sweet Morning, is Yip Harburg who wrote Finian’s Rainbow and The Wizard of Oz and many musicals. And people think of him as a show composer, and yet he wrote this extremely deep and beautiful poem about the rose that will bloom one day over the soldier’s graves and it will pass, that will be over, that time will be over. And he says, “Peace will come one sweet morning.”

Peter: Right it’s so beautiful and the music that you’ve written to express all of that is just stunningly moving. I mean, it’s hard for me to think of it without getting a little bit teary. I mean, this is going to be really quite a profound experience. And that’s what I kind of love about this program is that we’ve got the Gazebo Dances that’s so full of joy and wit.

And then a piece that is extremely intense actually, and features some of your chaotic music, if you don’t mind my calling it that, where you let people go freely. And it’s really such an interesting challenge for a conductor and for the orchestra because it’s going to be different every single time you do it, but you intentionally create a kind of clamor of chaos, it seems like.

John: Oh, the second movement is from The Iliad of Homer and it’s Patroclus and his battle, and the battlefields in ancient Greece and Rome were situated in different places, and I situate the three trumpets in different places when they play these battle calls.

So it’s coming from the right side, the left side, the back side, et cetera, so that you get the feeling of the chaos of war, of what happens when these chariots are with shields and swords and spears are running into each other.

And this fantastic dialogue of Homer about the death and destruction and the glory of this one man in this particular chapter of The Iliad. It’s very forceful music. And you get the feeling of the war in that movement.

Whereas the next movement after that, which is called “War South of the Great Wall,” is by Li Po in the eighth century. So we have ancient Greek eighth century, and it’s about a war on the Great Wall. And the thing that is so interesting there is it’s told from the vantage point of a woman who sees her husband and children fighting in the distance on the Great Wall where people are dying and things are toppling.

And you get this mother’s view of what it’s like to have your loved ones fighting a war. And almost like ants, she calls them, in this rosy red cauldron of war.

So all of these poems relate to this idea of war, but in different ways. The first one by Czesław Miłosz was written in 1944 during World War II in Warsaw, Poland.

Peter: This is the first song you’re talking about?

John: The song on the end of the world. And this is about the idea that when the end of the world comes, we will not know it. We will be enjoying our garden, we will be watching children play, a bumblebee, et cetera. And we will not believe it. There’s no herald angel that’s going to say it’s over. It’s just going to be over. And this old man who binds tomatoes is saying, “There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world but this,” in other words.

So they’re all different centuries, different countries, different ideas, but they all have the same unity of the idea of war, what it can do and the hopes for peace. And that was what I wanted to do in this work.

Peter: Now there’s one last thing I’d like to ask you about this, because I think everybody would be wondering this. When you’re asked to write a piece like this, you come up with a concept in your mind at a certain point, and then you have to seek the poetry.

John: Yes.

Peter: And I mean, these are such disparate concepts and ideas and periods and so on. I mean, it’s just incredible to me. So I’m just wondering how long it takes you and how you go about that process of finding just the right poetry to inspire you?

John: I went to the 92nd Street Y. I already had One Sweet Morning. I knew I wanted that as the ending, but I wanted these other texts from other centuries and other times and places. I went to the 92nd Street Y that has a vast poetry collection. And I spoke to one of the people there and asked for some suggestions to give me works to look at. And he gave me pieces, various poems to look at and a variety. And I said, “I want a variety of all times from all cultures, but I want it all to be about this idea of war.” And I chose these after looking at hundreds of copies of different poems, but I chose these four.

Peter: Fantastic. Incredible. Well, it’s just the creativity behind all of this is just astonishing and it’s a very inspiring experience. And I think everybody who comes to Chautauqua is going to have a little bit of a rollercoaster experience because we start with a lot of fun and some beauty.

But then we go into this very, very deep, deeply felt and very moving experience with One Sweet Morning and then a much needed intermission, I would say.

And I’m hoping that… By the way, although we’re talking about it now on video, that we’ll introduce each piece just a little bit in the concert. If you’re agreeable to that, I think that’d be lovely. But then in the second half, we have really one of your most virtuosic pieces. I mean, you have a lot of virtuosic music actually, for somebody who can write such stunningly beautiful, slow music.

You also on the other side, like your violin sonatas, so incredibly virtuosic, and not to mention your clarinet concerto. And I mean so many of your works have great virtuosity. And Triathlon, tell us about this written for Tim McAllister, the wonderful saxophone player, and tell us about creating that piece.

John: Well, it was very interesting. I had not been accepting commissions because I tend to be very wary of taking on two… several commissions at once. I only take one. And I finished composing at one point and I said, “I think I’m really done.” And then I started sitting in my room, and sitting in my room and I thought, “I don’t know what to do.”

It so happened that Tim McAllister wrote me a letter several years before that I had on my desk in a bin, saying, “I would love it if you would consider writing a piece for me, any kind of piece. It would mean so much to me and the saxophone community. We never have a lot of composers writing for us, and you were the one I would like to write.” And so I contacted Tim and said, “Well, what would happen if I wrote you a concerto?” He said, “I would be thrilled to do it.”

And then the San Francisco Symphony came in and commissioned it. We let them know about it, and they commissioned the work officially and made a premier date and all of that. Now, I still didn’t have a title for the piece, but I knew that I wanted to do something that’s quite unusual. Saxophonists actually play all the saxophones. It’s not like other instrumentalists.

Violinists don’t play viola necessarily. And clarinetists can play bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet but you’ll find that the first clarinetist in the orchestra does not do that. That’s usually a third player or a second player who does that sort of thing.

So the idea… The saxophonists on the other hand, do play all the saxophones. Lead me to think what would happen if I wrote a concerto for saxophonist and orchestra, not saxophone and orchestra. And the saxophonist plays three different instruments, one for each movement, and starting with the soprano sax and then going to the alto sax, and then the baritone sax.

I had to leave the tenor out because of several practical reasons. First of all, the concerto was already a 30-minute work, and I was afraid I would write too long a piece. But in addition, there’s a simple matter of transporting instruments. Saxophonists do play their own instruments, and you can have a saxophone case that will hold an alto and a soprano.

And of course, the baritone takes a big case of its own. It’s a very big instrument, but you can’t add a tenor because you would not be able to take it anywhere.

Peter: What a practical composer you are!

John: You couldn’t literally take it from one place to the other. You’d have to ship your instruments by freight or something. And also I felt that the baritone… I’ve always had a love the baritone sax. The alto is the most beautiful in its melodic contour.

And the soprano sax, like the clarinet, has this wild virtuosity in this astronomical range. So I felt I had what I wanted, and then I said, what would happen if I take three different aspects of music-making, and each movement is dedicated to one of them?

So the first one was called “Leaps”, and you will hear in the very beginning, he starts on a low note and jumps to the highest note possible with the [soprano] saxophone and goes off and the whole orchestra comes in with a crash. And it’s all about leaping. It’s about leaping from one note to another note.

Even the theme goes from high to low range of the saxophone of the soprano sax because it leaps so much. But it’s a theme. It’s a lyrical theme, but it leaps. And so the whole movement is devoted to the leaping.

The second movement was “Lines.” And in that movement I wanted to explore the lyrical lines of melody with the alto saxophone and write a completely melodic movement. There’s no dramatic section in it really… It’s basically all lyrical. It builds to a certain peak, but never really goes wild because the saxophone is all about lyricism and “Lines” are lyrical lines.

And so it’s very melodic and it has several melodies that can be remembered and I think sound very good on the instrument.

Peter: No question about it.

John: Then we go to the baritone. Now, I had originally… I didn’t know quite what to do with the baritone saxophone. I was trying to figure what I could do with “Leaps,” “Lines,” and “L-e-da-da-s.” I was trying to say, “Can I get a title for the last movement that will be five letters and start with L and ends with S?”

And I ended up with “Licks.” Licks are what jazz players do a lot and ornamenting going around and against a melody with licks that they play. These virtuoso licks. So the baritone saxophone is tasked with the process of providing these wild licks and wild flourishes, which he does. It’s actually a baritone sax that goes into the realm of the soprano sax. It goes so high that my publisher notified me and said, “John, you can’t do that. They don’t go that high.” But Tim McAllister said, “I can do that. You can go that high.”

So I told my publisher, “Well, my soloist says he can do it.” And he sure can do it. But it’s very, very, very virtuosic for him. He takes the baritone sax from its lowest registered to its highest register and it’s wild, that wonderful brassy sound of the baritone saxes. And in the high register, how beautiful it can sound. It’s really a very stunning instrument, and it’s a big movement and a difficult one. It’s the most difficult movement of the three, lots of rhythmic complexities in that movement.

Peter: I’ll make a note of that. [laughs]

John: Yes, yes. [laughs] It is a tricky movement.

Peter: Yes, but beautiful. I mean, it’s just thrilling. And you’ve got, of course, a soloist who has that very rare combination of the incredible virtuosity, but with stunning musicianship.

John: Oh, yeah.

Peter: He’s just a wonderful musician.

John: I can weep when he plays “Lines,” it’s so beautiful. His phrasing is so immaculate and so beautiful. He is a total musician. And it’s also important, this is the saxophone concerto because saxophones are starting now to come into the fore in classical music. The Naumburg Foundation had its first saxophone competition in history. I’m on the board of Naumburg. I did suggest it, but they did it. And we had two winners that were stunning saxophonists. And I hear that there’s a saxophonist and a young concert artist has a saxophonist on–

Peter: Steven Banks. Steven Banks is remarkable. Yeah.

John: Yeah. So these instrumentalists are starting to get recognized in field of, not jazz, but classical.

Peter: Well, it’s actually a beautiful concerto instrument as well, because it has such power…

John: It does.

Peter: …on top of everything else. So you can rate quite freely and give quite thick orchestration, which usually we have to be so careful of. Either when you’re composing or conducting to make sure the balances are okay. But with the sax, it’s a little bit freer.

John: Right it is.

Peter: Tell me how the title came about.

John: The title came after I wrote the piece. I was going to call it Triple Play, like three strikes, Triple Play. And in the premier, I finally got the title. I was shaving one day, and this… just the word came over to me, “Triathlon, what is that? I know that word.” And I go and I Google it right away, and I say, “Triathlon, these virtuosic feats… Three different virtuosic feats of one person doing the same three feats, this is… The title is perfect.” But I had no title until I was really finished with the third movement. I was just basically trying to figure out a better title until it…

Peter: Talk about meant to be. It could easily have been that you thought of the title first and all of it came out of the title. But in fact, it was the other way around.

John: The other way around. It was the other way around. It came after. And I was very lucky to get it.

Peter: Yeah, absolutely. Let me just ask you one general question before I let you go, and thank you so much for taking the time.

John: Sure.

Peter: When did you first realize that you could create such beautiful counterpoint, i.e. that you could write a melody and then write accompanying lines that work so beautifully with the melody that they compliment it, but yet there’s… Because I find your counterpoint very unusual, very unique, and really your voice. When did that all begin?

John: I can’t say. I don’t know. It’s part of my composing. I started composing late. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a composer, but I hadn’t really written anything. And I wrote the high school alma mater, and my high school teacher she encouraged me to be a composer, unlike my parents. She did encourage me. I went to college as a music major, but I went to Columbia and didn’t have private lessons for composition, just group composition.

Peter: And your instrument was piano?

John: I had no instrument. I played the piano by ear and could play around, but I didn’t know the scales because my mother was a piano teacher and she gave me two lessons, and we had a fight, and I never studied the piano. I took up the clarinet and had three lessons, and it was stolen from my high school gym locker. And I was studying with Stanley Drucker, I might add. But I didn’t want to practice. So I got by in Columbia just by reading something on the piano halfway, but not very well.

Peter: To just point out for those people who… Stanley Drucker was at that time, and for many decades, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, and in fact, your father, John Sr., was the concertmaster for many years.

John: Yes.

Peter: Many years. Right? 20 something?

John: 26, 26 years.

Peter: 26 years. Okay. So in that environment where your mother is teaching the piano, and your father is a great violinist, you actually end up having two lessons at the piano and three lessons at clarinet.

John: That’s right. [laughs]

Peter: And you become one of the greatest composers of the present time or perhaps of any time. Quite extraordinary. [laughs]

John: Well, I wouldn’t say that. [laughs]

Peter: [laughs] But anyway, I really would want people to know what beautiful music this is, how wonderfully contrasting it is. When they see a program with just one composer on it, they might be thinking, “Oh, the same sort of music all evening?” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s all aspects of John Corigliano’s extraordinary creativity, and from many different periods. We’re talking about 72, I think for Gazebo Dances, 2010, ’11, whenever you wrote that for One Sweet Morning with a wonderful mezzo-soprano. And then what about 2018, ’19 Triathlon, something like that?

John: 20. I think it was 20.

Peter: 20. So it’s three very different periods like Beethoven. We can say that.

John: I guess we can, but it’s absurd. But you can say it. [laughs]

Peter: Well, I just did. [laughs] John, it’s such a pleasure to chat with you, and we are so looking forward to having you in Boulder. I hope you’ll love it. Have you ever been to Boulder before?

John: I have been to that concert hall once. They did the Pied Piper Fantasy, Michael Christie conducted many years ago. And they did the James Galway piece of the Pied Piper Fantasy. I wrote for him a 35-minute piece with kids and rats in the orchestra playing like rat music and children playing tin whistles and flutes that was played there once. It’s a beautiful place to play, I must say. It’s a fantastic place.

Peter: It’s one of the great atmospheres and great auditoriums anywhere, especially to have that in the summertime is very, very rare.

John: Yes.

Peter: Yeah. Michael Christie is actually coming back this summer and will be conducting his own program, so we’re delighted about that.

John: Good.

Peter: Great. Well, John, thank you so much and we will all look forward to seeing you around July 13th [2023], which is the night of the concert. So for everybody who loves to hear just beautiful music in a language that is completely original and completely individual, please don’t miss this opportunity to come and hear John Corigliano’s wonderful music. Thank you so much, John.

John: Thank you, Peter.

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