July 13, 2023: John Corigliano: Living Legend

May 23, 2023

Gazebo Dances

John Corigliano (b. 1938)

Gazebo Dances was originally written as a set of four-hand piano pieces dedicated to certain of my pianist friends. I later arranged the suite for orchestra and for concert band, and it is from the latter version that the title is drawn. The title, Gazebo Dances, was suggested by the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the countryside, where public band concerts are given on summer evenings. The delights of that sort of entertainment are portrayed in this set of dances, which begins with a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio and a bouncy Tarantella.

One Sweet Morning

When Alan Gilbert asked me to write a work commemorating the 10th anniversary of “9/11”, I frankly had no idea what to do. I did know what not to do, and that was to write a piece of abstract orchestral music.

Alan wanted a large-scale work – approximately a half hour in length. While I could see writing an orchestral meditation, I could not see extending that to a half-hour (Mahler notwithstanding.)

And if I wrote a work that had meditative sections, but also dramatic and extroverted sections, then I would fall into a terrible trap. So many in the audience of this piece will have images of the frightful day itself—jet liners crashing into the World Trade Center, people jumping to their deaths from the top of the buildings, and the final collapse of the towers themselves—burned into their retinas. How can one hear music of any dramatic surges without imagining these events accompanying the music—or vice versa? Inevitably, the piece would become a tone poem of that unimaginable day – something I never intended and did not want. Yet how could I instruct the audience to ignore their own memories?

Obviously, then, I needed to write a piece with words. I needed other images both to refute and complement the all-too-vivid ones we’d bring with us into the concert hall. But which images: and how would they pertain to the subject, as well as each other?

The answer was as obvious as it was dispiriting. Ten years later, that day is more calmly remembered as just one in a continuum of terrible days. September 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. So I chose four poems (one of them part of an epic poem) from different ages and countries.

The first poem— Czeslaw Milosz’s “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw in 1944— sets a tranquil scene: a vista of serenity that still hints at the possibility of chaos to come. The poet’s descriptions of everyday matters turn chilling when he notes, “No one believes it is happening now.” My setting for these words is hushed and motionless, never rising in volume and intensity.

Shattering the calm is the second poem: that portion of Homer’s Iliad chronicling a massacre led by the Greek prince Patroclus. Each kill is described in detail; the music, too, strives for the brutal and unsparing.

“War South of the Great Wall,” by the 8th century poet Li Po, follows. Its cool, atmospheric language views a bloody battle from a great remove: warriors seem to “swarm like armies of ants.” The narrator’s poise collapses only when she reveals “my husband – my sons – you’ll find them all there, out where war-drums throb and throb.” Her anguish, and the battle that is its cause, surge in an orchestral interlude, climaxing with the orchestra alone meditating on the narrator’s themes.

The orchestra, diminishing in intensity, introduces the poem that gives the cycle its name: “One Sweet Morning,” by E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, a name that might surprise audiences who know it principally from his sparkling lyrics for such plays and movies as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” But Harburg also wrote a few volumes of light and not-so-light verse, and it was in one of those that I came upon this deep and tender lyric.

“One Sweet Morning” ends the cycle with the dream of a world without war – an impossible dream, perhaps, but certainly one worth dreaming. In this short poem, Harburg paints a beautiful scene where “the rose will rise…spring will bloom…peace will come….one sweet morning.”

Triathlon

The virtuosic possibilities of the soprano sax — rivaling those of the clarinet — inspired a first movement entitled “Leaps” that is buoyant, acrobatic, and optimistic. An orchestral introduction of jumping woodwinds and a long-lined melody leads to the entrance of the soloist who, after a few virtuosic turns, sings the melody introduced by the orchestra. This melody utilizes the entire lyrical range of the soprano saxophone, and leads to a slower section that extends and develops the melody. But the joyous opening returns and the movement ends as it began — with a leap.

The second movement features the alto saxophone, and is entitled “Lines.” Lines, in music, describe the horizontal motion of notes, or, as we know it, melody. And, indeed, this entire movement is totally melodic and serene. The only dynamic climax in it is one of intensity, but it, too, is composed of purely melodic material.

I have always loved the sassy, gravelly sound of the baritone sax, so it had to lead the last movement of my concerto. “Licks” is a jazz term, and means small improvisational moments in a piece. While this is not a jazz movement, the idea of small ornamental turns appealed to me, and provided me with the inspiration for the solo writing.

The movement starts with an unaccompanied cadenza. In it, the soloist explores many of the remarkably unusual sounds that the saxophone family can produce. At the beginning, we hear soft key clicks, which are done without breathing into the instrument. This soon develops into a technique called “slap tonguing,” in which the performer literally slaps his tongue against the reed. It is a totally delightful and rude sound, and both these devices alternate in the body of the cadenza.

After the saxophone plays a giant harmonic glissando, the orchestra enters with a soaring dramatic theme totally at odds with the soloist’s strange sounds. The soloist then enters, playing material with slap-tongue technique, which the orchestra constantly interrupts. Finally, the soloist joins the orchestra in some highly ornamented licks, and the movement barrels forward. The soloist, playing in perpetual motion and in extreme registers, leads us to a central dialogue between him and the woodwinds. The dramatic material returns, building to a climax at which the soloist retrieves his soprano saxophone, and leads the orchestra to its spirited conclusion.

I could not have written this work without the support of a couple whose help in commissioning composers is legendary. This concerto is dedicated to Michèle and Larry Corash, with love and admiration, celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Program notes provided by the composer