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The Washington Post, May 2009

JoAnn Falletta, the conductor who is music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, led the National Symphony Orchestra in the recent Kennedy Center Spring Gala celebrating women in the arts, a theme close to her heart since she is still, unconscionably in this day and age, one of relatively few women in her field. A prolific recording artist on the Naxos label—her recording of John Corigliano’s “Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan” won two Grammys earlier this year—she is looking ahead to a cornucopia of new music in the coming season, including the world premiere of a cello concerto by John Tavener in Virginia in January.



Walter Simmons
Fanfare, May 2009

CORIGLIANO, J.: Dylan Thomas Trilogy (A) (T. Allen, T. Jackson, J. Tessier, Nashville Symphony and Chorus, L. Slatkin) 8.559394
CORIGLIANO, J.: Mr. Tambourine Man / 3 Hallucinations (Plitmann, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta) 8.559331
CORIGLIANO, J.: Symphony No. 3, "Circus Maximus" / Gazebo Dances (University of Texas Wind Ensemble, Junkin) 8.559601

One of the most widely praised and highly regarded American composers of his generation, John Corigliano, now in his early seventies, is currently enjoying significant attention from Naxos’s “American Classics” series. The three recent releases discussed here represent a broad survey of his work, drawn from all periods of his composing career. Corigliano’s early pieces reveal a strong affinity with the sensitive, nostalgic music of Samuel Barber. However, as he was approaching the age of 40, he transformed his creative identity, embracing the general approach known for a time as the “New Romanticism”—a style associated during the 1970s with the music of Jacob Druckman and others who were struggling to free themselves from the aesthetic straitjacket of serialism, but without regressing to traditional tonality. The proponents of this style attempted to impress listeners in more spontaneously visceral or emotional ways than serial music typically did, by creating richly orchestrated aural canvases, highlighted by strongly characterized gestures and striking juxtapositions, at times incorporating quotations of earlier music within the context of such soundscapes. However, Corigliano came to this approach from the opposite direction, producing compositions whose vivid flamboyance and unrestrained eclecticism greatly appealed to listeners who were favorably inclined toward the innovative, but nevertheless sought some measure of immediate sensual gratification. By the 1980s, he had settled into a broadly based and highly flexible approach of his own that rejected nothing on principle, while tailoring each composition according to its own specific requirements. Perhaps what is most characteristic of the mature Corigliano is his attraction to novel, provocative conceits that generate interest in and of themselves; this he shares in common with, for example, Dominick Argento. In fact, the program notes to one of these releases states, “For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material.” Long series of numbered sonatas or string quartets are antithetical to his nature. The results of his approach have proven to be spectacularly successful: Corigliano has won the Pulitzer Prize and the esteemed Grawemeyer Award—perhaps the two most prestigious awards available to the serious composer; his opera The Ghosts of Versailles was commissioned and produced by the Metropolitan Opera, and subsequently elsewhere as well; of two film scores, the first (Altered States) was nominated for an Academy Award, while the second (The Red Violin) actually won the award. And he has drawn praise—even if begrudgingly at times—from listeners and commentators representing all points on the compositional spectrum.

The most important of the works discussed here may indeed prove to be Corigliano’s magnum opus: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. This composition, completed in 1999, was nearly four decades—and several stages—in the making. If I have had a complaint about Corigliano’s work over the years, it is that he seems to focus more on elements that will make an impact on his audience than on searching for and expressing his own inner life (yes, how hopelessly sentimental and old-fashioned of me). But this work, occupying the composer as long as it did, comes close to being a personal autobiography in music. Corigliano had long been strongly drawn to Thomas’s poetry, and found much in the Welsh poet’s expression that he could relate to his own life; his selection of poems written at different times in the poet’s life, and the settings he composed at different times in his life created a natural parallel between the two. The trilogy began in 1961 with a setting for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra of Thomas’s Fern Hill, which attained considerable success as an independent work. This was followed in 1970 by Poem in October, also an independent work, for tenor and chamber ensemble. Almost as long as those two sections combined, Poem on his Birthday followed in 1976, this time for baritone soloist, with chorus and full symphony orchestra. This completed the trilogy, as presented at that time as a full evening in recognition of the American bicentennial. But Corigliano was not satisfied with the result. The first two sections owed much to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Summer Music, although Poem in October ventured into a pan-diatonicism somewhat more prickly than Barber might have employed. Both evoked a peaceful, playful past, recalled wistfully. The third section reflected the poet’s state of emotional turbulence at the time of his 35th birthday (he was to live only four years more), with fiercely extravagant imagery to which Corigliano responded with the full range of his recently liberated musical imagination. But he was not convinced that the juxtaposition of incompatible musical styles really worked. Not until the late 1990s did he come upon the idea of creating a framework that would supply the necessary coherence. Turning to Author’s Prologue, one of Thomas’s final works, he found what he was looking for—a selection that captured the poet’s untamed earthiness, while providing the retrospective posture of an older, more seasoned protagonist. Drawing upon musical material used in Poem on his Birthday, Corigliano set this passage for baritone soloist against a backdrop of chorus and orchestra, using a largely atonal, and at times spoken, declamation. The first portion of this Prologue serves as an introduction to the entire work, while the second half is inserted between Fern Hill and Poem in October. This reshaping treated the two earlier pieces as “flashbacks,” reflections on the innocent past from the perspective of the turbulent present, the transitions occurring naturally and convincingly. With a few other adjustments, such as changing the mezzo-soprano to a boy soprano in Fern Hill, and expanding the scoring of Poem in October to match the rest of the work (though retaining the harpsichord, which creates a wonderful effect), he finally achieved the coherence and integration he had sought. The result, which spans the majority of his compositional career, is not only a convincing structure, but it is also a very moving work—more so than in any of its previous incarnations. It is not an “easy” work by any means—not something one can expect to enjoy in the background: it requires a good deal of concentration, as well as close attention to the texts, in order to derive its full meaning. But it may prove to be Corigliano’s greatest, most deeply personal, and most emotionally sincere work. The performance here is extremely fine: the vocal soloists are excellent, and Leonard Slatkin directs a fully sympathetic and convincing performance. My only complaint is that the choral rendering of the text is barely intelligible, even for one who is following it in print.

Of all the unusual compositional conceits that Corigliano has devised, perhaps none is more provocative and unlikely than Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Explaining that Bob Dylan’s career as an iconic folk poet during the 1960s totally passed him by, the composer was prompted by a colleague to look at Dylan’s song lyrics as a possible source of texts. (I must admit that the notion that Corigliano might have lived through the 1960s without ever having heard, say, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” strains my credulity to the breaking point; but for the moment I’m willing to take it at face value and let it go at that.) Convinced upon examining them that many of these texts had some merit, Corigliano decided to set a selection of seven to music—but without any knowledge of or reference to their original melodic settings, and without any attempt to evoke the style of folk or popular music. He explains with admirable clarity in the program notes: “Folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody: reflecting the emotion or the sound of the words is simply not what folk music tries to do. Whereas concert composers…often change the melodic and accompanimental settings of the words to reflect the particular colors and sounds, as well as the feelings and meanings, of the text. Obviously I belong to this latter category of composer, and this is reflected in what you’ll hear.” Composed for soprano and piano in 2000 at the request of Sylvia McNair, the cycle was orchestrated in 2003, now calling for an “amplified soprano.” Corigliano writes, “I wanted a fully-trained virtuosic concert singer who could still perform in a more ‘natural’ voice. I didn’t want her to need to give an ‘operatic’ performance of texts so antithetical to that cultivated sound just to project over the orchestra.” The premiere of this version was given by the Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann, who performs it here.

“Listeners familiar with Dylan’s music for these songs will no doubt be surprised at these settings,” writes the composer. As someone who lived through the 1960s and was well aware of Dylan’s own versions of about half of the texts selected, I can tell you that that is a tremendous understatement! I cannot deny that my reaction upon hearing the first minute of Corigliano’s setting of Mr. Tambourine Man—which serves as a prelude to the cycle—was to laugh hysterically at the preposterous incongruity of the basic conceit. Checking upon the reactions of several friends and colleagues who are contemporaries of mine, I discovered that most responded roughly as I did. However, the difference was that some of my consultees could not get past the absurdity and simply bailed out, while others, such as myself, were able to calm down and try to experience these settings on their own terms. I am forced to conclude that the result is largely successful, and—whether or not Corigliano truly never heard Blowin’ in the Wind—he has managed to create musical settings that (a) bear no resemblance whatsoever to Dylan’s music; (b) capture the spirit and meaning of the texts, and do so with remarkable imagination; and (c) form a satisfying song cycle that meets the standards of a serious concert work. It is presumably for reasons such as these that this work won the most recent Grammy Award for Best New Classical Composition—the third such award Corigliano has received. My only reservation about the songs is that Corigliano’s music offers little melodic interest of its own; there is nothing “catchy” about these settings. As with the ambitious Dylan Thomas work, no one can expect to relegate this cycle to background music. Each song is a work of serious art that must be followed with close attention. Finally, what I would truly love to know is the reaction of Bob Dylan himself (who of course had to grant permission for this endeavor), assuming that he has heard Corigliano’s settings. And if he has not bothered to hear them, he loses a lot of stature in my mind.

Soprano Hila Plitmann seems to render the songs with just the qualities the composer was seeking, while the Buffalo Philharmonic realizes the extraordinarily varied orchestrations brilliantly. And for those baby-boomers who are interested, the other songs whose texts were selected are: Clothes Line, Masters of War, All along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom, and, as a postlude, Forever Young.

For a long time I felt that the music Corigliano supplied for Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States was his best work. And even as a fervent and unashamed Russell enthusiast (who saw the film the day it opened), I asserted that the music was the most impressive component of the film, which struck me as rather a potboiler. When the soundtrack album was released shortly thereafter, I raved about it in these pages. Several years later the soundtrack was reissued on CD, but I gather it is no longer available. With a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States is a science fiction film in which a research psychologist attempts to discover the essence of life by reversing his own human evolution through immersion in a sensory deprivation tank, and later by indulging in Indian rituals involving hallucinogenic mushrooms. Corigliano’s score was one of his early ventures in the aforementioned “New Romanticism” style, and the result achieved a degree of flamboyant extravagance that left Druckman and his cohorts far behind, and might be likened to Le sacre on LSD. Corigliano subsequently extracted from the score a 15-minute concert suite entitled Three Hallucinations, which seems to have developed a pretty successful life of its own. These selections certainly provide a representative sample of the film music—eerily ominous and wildly psychedelic—although a dreamlike treatment of fragments of “Rock of Ages,” as refracted through elegiac and mysterious cluster-harmony, gives undue emphasis to one of the weaker ideas in the score. It is performed here with considerable zest. However, serious admirers of Corigliano’s music are urged to search out used copies of the complete soundtrack, which can be found on the Internet.

Ever since its world premiere in Austin, Texas, by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin, in February 2005, followed later that year by a performance by the same forces at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Corigliano’s Circus Maximus has become something of a sensation within the band sub-culture. Completed the previous year, on a commission from the Texans, the work is predicated on the notion of a spatial conception—i.e., a work in which the audience is surrounded by the players, whose physical placement is clearly and precisely specified. Those specifications, which call for a band on the stage, a smaller marching band, and another ensemble placed at various points throughout the hall, are clearly indicated on a diagram included in the accompanying booklet. However, the recording at hand, as fine as it is in conventional terms, is a standard two-channel recording. Therefore, the listener is left to his imagination in attempting to conjure this all-important aspect of the work’s structure and—more important—sonic impact. The title of the work and its point of reference, both of which came later, concerns the brutal entertainments enjoyed by the ancient Romans during their period of “high decadence,” and attempts to draw a parallel between that time and our own, what with our relish of vulgar “reality” shows and public scandals. As apt and intriguing as this concept may be, instrumental music is simply not a suitable medium for social commentary. Furthermore, nothing in the music actually creates a connection with the title concept; indeed, any number of other concepts would be equally plausible as correlates to the music itself. Therefore, the extra-musical “message” of the work is an enticement that doesn’t really deliver, while the fundamental premise of antiphonal spatiality is compromised by the limitations of the recording technology used, although it may be quite effective in a live performance.

So the somewhat deflated reality that confronts the listener to this recording is a 35-minute work subdivided into eight connected movements of contrasting tone, scored for large wind ensemble. But this is not to suggest that there is anything routine about the music itself. It has been said that Corigliano’s primary compositional concern is to make a tremendous splash on his audience, but to accomplish this at a high artistic level. I will avoid the temptation to raise the question as to whether there isn’t an inherent contradiction between the two portions of that objective, but will state unequivocally that this piece makes one helluva splash! The work opens in a state of intense alarm, and introduces the primary motif, an exceedingly frightening, siren-like idea that seems to herald an imminent crisis of immense proportion. This motif recurs at various points throughout the work. Corigliano seems to possess a limitless imagination for creating musical “special effects,” and Circus Maximus, not unlike Altered States, provides the opportunity for him to give full rein to this gift. After the sense of distress created by the opening “Introitus,” the second section, “Screen/Siren” provides some relief, as a saxophone quartet evokes a mood suggestive of a nocturnal urban street scene in a detective show from around 1960 (not that there’s anything wrong with this). The third section, “Channel Surfing” presents a series of brief, contrasting musical images, including some really striking effects that shift rapidly from one to the next. This is followed by “Night Music I,” which suggests another nocturnal scene, but this one taking place in some isolated area untouched by human beings, so that time seems infinite, the only motion resulting from natural phenomena. “Night Music II” is intended to evoke “the hyper night music of the cities,” and calls forth sounds and gestures associated with jazz. This culminates in the sixth movement, “Circus Maximus,” intended to be the high point of the work, “a carnival of sonoric activity,” the composer writes. It is wild, as all that has come before seems to be happening at once, leading to a climax that truly shakes the rafters. “Prayer” follows—a quiet, hymn like melody that unfolds against a simple, triadic accompaniment that is not, however, always in the same key as the melody. Perhaps the most simple and direct portion of the work, it was not as affecting emotionally as I had anticipated. This section leads directly into “Coda: Veritas,” which returns to the disturbing music of the opening section, mounting in intensity, and finally ending with “a 12-gauge shot gun” firing a “full load-black powder ‘popper’ made by Winchester.” I think it is apparent that music this strikingly vivid might be associated plausibly with any number of different scenarios. But what is also apparent upon reflection, as one listens repeatedly to the work, is that one’s first couple of auditions make the strongest impact; after that one’s interest begins to pall.

Filling out the CD is the composer’s arrangement for band of his Gazebo Dances from 1972, one of the last works of his “early” period. Although it was originally conceived as a work for piano four hands, its title points to “the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the American countryside, where public band concerts were given on summer evenings early last century.” The work also exists in a version for orchestra, but the band arrangement is clearly the most effective. Very slight in aesthetic weight, it might be said to fall somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento and Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture.

The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, under its conductor Jerry Junkin, performs the Gazebo Dances suavely and with panache, while bringing to Circus Maximus an explosion of well-controlled power.



Graham Strahle
The Weekend Australian Magazine, March 2009

The pieces have a melodic sophistication and penetrating thoughtfulness that rivals even Dylan’s performances. The vernacular element in Dylan’s poetry triggers a wonderful freshness in Corigliano’s music. Mr Tambourine Man is transformed into a mercurial, will-o’-the-wisp invention that tumbles with kaleidoscopic imagery. Blowin’ in the Wind becomes a menacing, doom-laden elegy. Forever Young turns into a poignantly haunting lullaby. The performances are delicious. Israeli-born soprano Hila Plitmann sings with rare intimacy. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta also performs Corigliano’s richly atmospheric Three Hallucinations from Altered States.



Philip Clark
Gramophone, January 2009

CORIGLIANO, J.: Mr. Tambourine Man / 3 Hallucinations (Plitmann, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta) 8.559331
CORIGLIANO, J.: Dylan Thomas Trilogy (A) (T. Allen, T. Jackson, J. Tessier, Nashville Symphony and Chorus, L. Slatkin) 8.559394

New takes on old Dylans—Thomas and Bob—fail to capture the originals’ spirit

Something’s going to have to be done about mainstream contemporary composers, without a Plan B of their own, freeloading off popular culture for street cred. For every composer who uses jazz and rock responsibly there are at least twenty who don’t, and now John Corigliano serves up settings of Bob Dylan lyrics about as authentic to their source as Bert Kaempfert’s Swingin’ Safari is a rigorous primer about the anthropology of African music.

For anyone who properly cares about Dylan and appreciates the depth of his achievements and innovations, Corigliano’s Disneyfication will be a bitter pill. To clarify: these are not arrangements or variations on Dylan’s original themes. Corigliano is under the misapprehension that “folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody”. But the lesson of Dylan, as he developed the heritage of early heroes like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, is that supple harmonic shifts can support a telling inference in the lyric, and that specific words allied to appropriate music conjure up a magical elixir.

Where Dylan finds clarity and individual expression, Corigliano creates vapid rhetoric and empty effect. As the soprano voice emerges from a portentous orchestral preamble filled with pompous chromatic polyfiller to declaim “Hey! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me”, the po-faced sincerity and woeful lack of historical awareness is beyond parody. Inevitably a wealth of association kicks in—the genteel whimsy of Dylan’s original guitar accompaniment; a perfectly constructed melody line that’s both catchy and allusive; that distinctive vocal lisp as Dylan enunciates the third syllable of “tambourine”. Sad to say, but the Corigliano take is as corporate and colourful as corrugated iron. And, in the finale, as the orchestra falls away to leave the soprano singing “Forever Young”, Corigliano hits his nadir. The “drama” in Dylan is in the fabric of his material and the manner of its performance—this is the great man reduced to high-camp Broadway.

Robert Zimmerman morphed into Bob Dylan because of his love of Dylan Thomas, and Naxos issue Corigliano’s Dylan Thomas Trilogy as a companion piece. Is it any better than the above? Could it be worse? Thomas Allen’s graceful delivery of Corigliano’s vocal lines is a plus, but does the trilogy get to the core of Thomas’s imagery? The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind…



William R. Braun
Opera News, January 2009

A listener who happens to be in a similar position to the one Corigliano was in (knowing only the tune for “Blowin’ in the Wind”) can admire the cycle on its own terms. Corigliano’s music, non-tonal and non-threatening, doesn’t stray far from the Bernstein-Copland axis. “Clothes Line,” with lots of open space in the textures and mostly even note values, could almost pass for something Laurie might sing in Copland’s The Tender Land. One interpretation of the text is that it is full of humor, irony and non sequiturs, but Corigliano’s version is certainly plausible. “All Along the Watchtower” and “Masters of War” have many moments of the withdrawal of a mad scene. Corigliano points up the way the latter text makes Dylan seem like an American Eichendorff in his deliberate indirection. The composer is more cautious with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song so familiar that some people think it is a folk tune. This setting is a steady dirge, appropriately enough, although the phrase lengths are irregular. Corigliano’s faith in the text extends to using Dylan’s “n” for “and”, which highlights the intended incongruity of employing a classically trained singer for this project.

There is a real attempt to make a coherent cycle of the poems. “Mr Tambourine Man,” implying the overall idea of a dream sequence before turning to Final Alice-like nonsense acts as a prelude. The sixth song, in which the “Chimes of Freedom” are sounded quite literally in the orchestra along with snatches of Ivesian half-remembered melody, steals directly the finale. Here “Forever Young” is sung, mostly a cappella, as if by someone older and chastened, to the younger self after surviving some sort of cataclysm. Soprano Hila Plitmann performs the songs with amplification when she sings them in concert, so she is able to make them moodier and more intimate than she could in an acoustic performance. She certainly has microphone technique. For the recording, she was dubbed in on top of the prerecorded orchestra track, which makes it hard to evaluate conductor JoAnn Falletta’s contribution. Even with a bonus of some of Corigliano’s Altered States soundtrack, this recording barely cracks the fifty-minute mark. It would have been interesting, and most likely pleasurable, to hear Plitmann in some of the music from The Ghosts of Versailles, which never got a commercial recording.



David Williams
Charlestown Gazette, December 2008

I am about five years too young to have cared about Bob Dylan’s music or his notorious switch to electric guitar. So if John Corigliano wants to separate Dylan’s lyrics from his music and compose a piece with them, I say, “Go for it.”

And I am glad he did. The opening piece, “Prelude: Mr. Tambourine Man” is a tour de force in how to make a modern orchestra, whether thundering or whispering, work with voice. The obligatory tambourine solos are seamlessly thrown in, teasing the ear. If Corigliano’s melody hasn’t the ingratiating hook of Dylan’s, it still moves with athletic grace.

“Clothes Line” comes off like a 21st-century version of Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and is just as lovely. “Masters of War” is compellingly brutal and nasty. “All Along the Watchtower” (has Corigliano seen “Battlestar Galactica”?) is subtle and intense through its shifting tempos and textures.

What modern composer doesn’t love bell sounds? “Chimes of Freedom” is full of them, aided by chimes and vibraphones, harps, brass and strings. The finale, “Postlude: Forever Young,” is graceful, even though Pittman has to negotiate some large intervals in the melodies.

The only piece that I have doubts about is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which sounds overworked in the third verse.

Pittman sings beautifully, ranging from simple, almost vibrato-free passages in “Forever Young” to richly colored pianissimos in “Clothes Line.” Her fortes and fortissimos in the angry “Masters” and “Watchtower” are apocalyptic. Best of all, she never drifts into operatic excess by over singing.

“Three Hallucinations” sounds like an afterthought here. Anyone who knows Corigliano’s concertos for oboe, clarinet or flute will recognize the terrain.

Falletta’s conducting is first rate and the Buffalo Philharmonic plays faultlessly in both pieces.  While this is my pick for the best recording I have heard this year, you should know that it is headphone music. Some of it is so subtly recorded that I did not pick up its details until I listened with headphones. Boy, is it worth it.



Howard Goldstein
BBC Music Magazine, December 2008

Performance: 
Recording:

These world premier recordings of major vocal works by John Corigliano both share a ‘Dylan’, making a double review irresistible. [CORIGLIANO: Mr Tambourine Man 8.559331 &
CORIGLIANO: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy 8.559394]. A Dylan Thomas Trilogy consists of works dating back to 1959 (‘Fern Hill’), 1970 (‘Poem in October’), and 1976 (‘Poem on his Birthday’). By 1999, Corigliano had transformed these into a full-fledged oratorio for three soloists, chorus and large orchestra. Mr Tambourine Man (2000) sets lyrics by Bob Dylan for amplified soprano and orchestra. Having never heard the original songs, he created a unique example of ‘reverse crossover’, responding to the texts with the same intelligent approach to word painting, text alteration, and formal shaping that he provided the other Dylan.

The progress of Thomas’s voice from boyhood to maturity in the chosen poems is mirrored in the evolution of the composer’s, where the most recent music contains a welcome dose of acerbity. ‘Poem on his Birthday’ is thus the culmination of the trilogy, where the poet’s raging against, and eventual acceptance of, middle age inspired the composer to create a musical language quite different than any he had used before.

Corigliano is especially sensitive to Thomas’s violent, often musical imagery, filled with birds, ghosts, and stormy seas, and one hears a lightweight version of this new style in the Three Hallucinations from the film Altered States that appear on the other disc [CORIGLIANO: Mr Tambourine Man 8.559331]. Slatkin and his Nashville forces are persuasive advocates, and Sir Thomas Allen contributes a harrowing performance, but, overall, Corigliano’s invention does not quite measure up to that of the poetry.

The Bob Dylan cycle also charts a progression from innocence (‘Clothes Line’) to the ‘victory of ideas’ (‘Chimes of Freedom’). Here Corigliano’s gifts shine more brightly whether in the jerky, nursery rhyme setting of the title song, the haunting passacaglia that shapes ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or the simplicity of ‘forever Young’. While there are no overt references to pop music, Corigliano still follows the outlines of the original songs, with mostly strophic settings and clear-cut melodies. Hila Plitmann, with equal experience in opera, film and musical theatre, has exactly the right kind of natural, microphone-friendly delivery, although her overdubbed performance lends the recording an artificial perspective.



Howard Smith
Music & Vision, November 2008

I’d dearly love to know what Robert Allen Zimmerman (also known as singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan) would make of Corigliano’s settings of seven seminal Dylan lyrics. It seems an unlikely conjugation—Corigliano (70) and Dylan (67); but why not?

Both are extraordinarily gifted. In 1986 Corigliano won the BAFTA Anthony Asquith Award for his Revolution. His Symphony No 1 gained the Grawemeyer Award (University of Louisville, Kentucky) and the 1999 Academy Award for an Original Music Score went to The Red Violin. The Symphony No 2 bagged a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Dylan has been showered with accolades. His records have earned Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards, and he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1999 he was included among TIME Magazine’s ‘100 Most Important People of the Century’ and by 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him No 2 in its ‘Greatest Artists of All Time’

Several times Dylan has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and this year (2008) he landed a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his ‘profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.’

Popular music defined and charted the 60s and 70s as we listened to landmark songs; American Pie, A Whiter Shade of Pale, Eleanor Rigby, Mrs Robinson, Let it Be, Where do you go to my lovely, We shall overcome, The Times They’re A-Changin’, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Ode to Billie Jo, Bohemian Rhapsody and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds among the most memorable.

Singer-songwriters Don McLean, Paul Simon, Peter Sarstedt, Keith Reid and Freddie Mercury are all represented above yet other than Lennon & McCartney no-one proved more influential than Dylan, the boy who came out of Hibbing, crucible of the Mesabi iron ore ranges; Minnesota.

And now we hear him kitted out as never before.

Corigliano chose not hear Dylan’s music and worked solely from the lyrics. ‘A Prelude : Mr Tambourine Man in a fantastic and exuberant manner redolent of the 60s, precedes five searching and reflective monologues that form the core of the piece, and A Postlude : Forever Young makes a kind of folk-song benediction after the cycle’s close,’ the composer explains.

As it turns out A Prelude : Mr Tambourine Man has characteristics that bring to mind sections of Sir William Walton’s Façade (1922) to the ‘rap-like’ words of Edith Sitwell (1887–1964). And Jerusalem-born soprano Hila Plitmann comes across as an excellent choice for the Naxos initiative.

Track 2, Bob Dylan’s 1967 Clothesline Saga, sometimes referred to as ‘Clothes Line’ ( Dylan ‘The Basement Tapes’), is a parody of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 ballad—the conversational, enigmatic, Mississippian Ode to Billie Joe.

‘Ode’ was a massive number-one hit in the USA, and a big international seller. Gentry’s first person narrative reveals a quasi—Southern Gothic dialog of the narrator’s immediate family at lunchtime on the day that ‘Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.’

Papa said to Mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas
‘Well, Billy Joe never had a lick o’sense, pass the biscuits please
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.’
And Mama said it was a shame about Billy Joe anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe McAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

Roberta Lee Streeter (also known as singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry—born 1944; Chickasaw County, Mississippi); was one of the first US female country artists to write and produce her own material—drawing on her Mississippi roots to compose vignettes of the Southern United States.

Dylan’s ‘Clothes Line’ lyrics focus on routine household chores; its equivalent shocking event buried in all the mundane details is the revelation that ‘The Vice-President’s gone mad!’ Corigliano’s setting is notable for its unruffled langour.

The next day everybody got up
Seein’ if the clothes were dry.
The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed,
Mama, of course, she said, ‘Hi!’
‘Have you heard the news?’ he said, with a grin,
‘The Vice-President’s gone mad !’
‘Where?’ ‘Downtown.’ ‘When?’ ‘Last night.’
‘Hmm, say, that’s too bad !’

Blowin’ in the Wind, the anthem of a generation, becomes a passacaglia-lament while in graphic contrast Masters of War is shot through with passion, anger and outrage. Corigliano describes how the hammered ostinato explodes into a raucous undercurrent for All Along the Watchtower which in turn dissolves into the bell sounds of Chimes of Freedom.

The economical serenity of Postlude : Forever Young brings this uniquely rewarding cycle to an eloquent, optimistic conclusion; a creative triumph and a testament to the enterprise of Naxos and unflinching artistry of soprano Plitmann, conductor JoAnn Falletta and members of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Corigliano’s Mr Tambourine Man was originally for voice and piano and performed by Sylvia McNair at Carnegie Hall in March, 2000. The orchestral version with ‘amplified soprano’ was premièred with Ms Plitmann and the Minnesota Orchestra (conductor, Robert Spano) in October 2003.

Three Hallucinations (from Ken Russell’s 1981 film, Altered States) is already available on an RCA soundtrack recording with conductor Christopher Keene; also known for his recordings of Il Trovatore, David Diamond’s 5th Symphony ( with the Juilliard Orchestra), the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha featuring the New York City Opera and New York City Symphony Orchestras, Anthony Heinrich’s Ornithological Combat of Kings and Gottschalk’s Symphony No 1: La nuit des tropiques, both with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.

I’m not at all familiar with the 1981 realisation of these excerpts but unless the film studio players are of stellar quality the Buffalo ensemble, recorded 2007, must be a firm recommendation. ‘The three pieces—Sacrifice, Hymn and Ritual—are interrelated motivically and melodically and the outer two movements are exactly as they were in the film,’ writes Corigliano. Images of ‘Sacrifice’ and death are followed by fragments of the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’; re-introduced in the central Hymn. In the concluding Ritual the full orchestral forces are reinforced by two sets of four timpani each.

A resounding hurrah for Naxos engineers Tim Handley and Tom Lazarus. Titanic, zealous stuff.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

Using the words of the folk singer and songwriter, Bob Dylan, John Corigliano has created the first major American orchestral song cycle of the 21st century. Never a fan of folk music, he had been persuaded by a friend to read the words to some of Dylan’s songs and found he had empathy with their content. Born in New York City in 1938, the son of the New York Philharmonic concertmaster, Corigliano belongs to that group of composers who work within tonal and melodic music while using aspects of contemporary influences. The roots of Mr Tambourine Man go back to Italian late Romantic opera with a hint of Mahler, yet always with American composers of the Copland era as the major influence. Whimsical, disturbing and finally at peace, the songs were originally for voice and piano, a colourful orchestral accompaniment later added in 2003. The soprano was then defined as an amplified voice to avoid the need for a singer of operatic proportions. It is a score that I find deeply moving, readily attractive and standing shoulder to shoulder with the famous song-cycles of the previous century. You do need the booklet’s printed words, Hila Plitmann’s diction not always squeaky clean, but her vocal quality and tonal shadings so ideally encapsulate the essence of the songs. The disc is completed by Three Hallucinations, using material from his film music for Ken Russell’s film Altered States. They are cast in the form of religious distortions and require considerable orchestral virtuosity. Throughout the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnne Falletta are in superb form, the fabulous recording quality conveying the inner clarity of their playing. Corigliano was the Producer for Mr Tambourine Man, so we are assured the performance forms a benchmark.






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