John Corigliano: searching for a tune

The melody had to come first.  Until he had it, composer John Corigliano waited — about 12 years — before accepting percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s commission for a new concerto.

Corigliano admits that he’s a slow writer and that coming up with a fresh new tune isn’t easy.  But it didn’t really take him that all that time to string the notes together.

The real challenge was whether or not a lyric, sustained line could be achieved from the vast battery of percussion instruments that better are at exploding than at singing.  Eventually the composer did find his magical answer and the piece — titled “Conjurer” — premiered in 2007.  It will be performed on Saturday night by Glennie and the Albany Symphony Orchestra with David Alan Miller conducting at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.  The same forces will make a recording for Naxos.

“Like with any other concerto, I wanted people to come out of a performance and have a melody that they could remember,” says Corigliano. “But I just didn’t know if I could do that.  Usually after a percussion concerto I’m dazzled yet can’t remember any music, just flourishes and bangs.”

Corigliano recalls a decade or so of running into Glennie at various music festivals and events and how she kept pestering him for a concerto.  It was only after he thought of a new way of playing the marimba that he accepted.

The strips of wood that make up the marimba are typically struck with mallets of various sizes and weights.  But they can also deliver a haunting, ringing tone when a bow — the kind used by a violinist or cellist — is slowly drawn across the blunt end.

After coming up with the notion of striking and bowing the marimba at the same time, Corigliano tested it with some students at Juilliard where he teaches. Satisfied with the results, he finally began writing the concerto, which is about half an hour long.  The elusive melody arrives in the second of its three movements.

Corigliano may be best known for his opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” which premiered at the Met in 1991, and his score to the 1998 film “The Red Violin,” for which he won an Academy Award. He is the only composer besides Aaron Copland to have received an Oscar as well as the Pulitzer Prize.

Though one of today’s most popular composers, Corigliano is hardly a factory of hits.  He will write short things for fun or special occasions.  Examples are his current project to honor conductor Marin Alsop’s 20-year tenure at the Cabrillo Festival, and there’s also the set of three cabaret songs with comic lyrics by Mark Adamo, his husband and the composer of the hit opera “Little Women.”

But as with the percussion concerto, he accepts a major new commission only when the project posses a good challenge and he already sees a solution.

“I start from the beginning with, why are you writing this and what do you want to accomplish that’s a new fresh direction?” he says. “Then I map out an entire piece. I refine it and refine it until it’s like a blue print for an architect.”

Corigliano is no avant gardist — he has that fondness for a good melody — yet he’s gone in some surprising directions.  In 1997 he wrote a piece for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart.  Also in the late ‘90s when the New York Philharmonic commissioned a piece to mark the new millennium, he added a soprano and electronics to the orchestral pallet.  That piece, “Vocalise,” will be performed by the ASO on May 21 at EMPAC.

He’s also a dabbler, fixing and revising a piece until it’s just right.  That process has continued with the Percussion Concerto.  The orchestral accompaniment was originally all strings, but he’s recently added a compliment of 12 brass players to the finale.

“This is an unusual concerto, it’s intimate, not just all banging,” he say. “But in the last movement, when Evelyn really gets going on those tam tams and drums, she completely drowns out the strings.”

Again, always looking for solutions to musical problems, he added brass.

“A regular orchestra always has the brass players.  They’d just be backstage playing cards.  So why not have them come out and give the orchestra a boost?” says the composer.  Yet the sudden addition of brass became a major new budget item for the Albany Symphony Orchestra. “It’s not like the Philharmonic, where the brass are just there,” acknowledges the composer.

Corigliano’s first hearing of the revision will be in Thursday’s rehearsal. But there’s no guarantee it will be performed on Saturday

“If I don’t like it in rehearsal, we’ll cut it,” says the composer. “David Alan Miller will probably be livid because he had to hire all these extra people. So I hope I like it!”

Originally appeared in the Times Union, Albany, NY

Previously on My Big Gay Ears:

The beautiful, terrifying music of John Corigliano

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