Fort Worth — If you asked most people to name a living composer, John Corigliano’s name is frequently on the very short list. This public reputation is mostly based on his Academy Award-winning 1999 score for the film The Red Violin. His Pulitzer arrived for his Symphony No. 2 and he also garnered five Grammy awards along the way. Quite a collection for a living composer of modernist classical music!
Texas Christian University invited Corigliano to Fort Worth for a week of concerts and lectures as part of their third Festival of American Song, curated by Angela Turner Wilson, an Assistant Professional Professor of Voice.
Unfortunately, the festival landed on a busy week so this review only covers the Wednesday afternoon concert of songs and conversation. Shields-Collins Bray, pianist with the Fort Worth Symphony, was the moderator. Bray frequently serves as moderator for such programs, including some for the Cliburn at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Bray’s presence turned out to be fortuitous in that Wednesday’s program only had a few songs, interesting as they were, so the program was filled out with a fascinating conversation about Corigliano’s life and his approach to composition.
The song half of the program contained some odd choices for a program honoring American songs. None were American, per se. We heard “Three Irish Folksong Settings” and a song that is a very clever musical in-joke: “Dodecaphonia” from Metamusic.
The Irish Folksong arrangements, written in 1988, present the songs themselves in a basically unaltered state. What Corigliano does with them is to add a flute, playing a pseudo-improvised filigree that weaves around the urtext version of the song. Thus, Corigliano sets up an effective dichotomy between the song and the flute obbligato. Either could exist on their own, yet bringing these two sonic worlds together, they are complementary, enhancing each other.
The three songs were each sung by different student singers: Francescia Mehrota, Audrey Davis and Naomi Worley. Their approach was a little too operatic for folksongs, but using three different voices, with different vocal sounds, gave each her song its own character.
Now, about the flute.
The Irish flutes, such as the Tin Whistle, have a very different sound from the modern flute that was played by flutist Carrie Green. They have more in common with the recorder family of wind instruments but have more of an edge than the mellow recorders. Corigliano makes no attempt to imitate this sound but he uses harmonic elements that are endemic to Irish folk music.
The second song on the program was one song from a cycle, Metamusic: “Dodecaphonia.” (Why the cycle is called Metamusic is a mystery that was not explained in the brief program notes.)
The song’s very clever lyrics are by Corigliano’s life partner and fellow composer, Mark Adamo, and are a send-up of the 12 tone system: “They call me 12 tone Rose.” He even sneaks in a dig at minimalism at the end: “miniminiminimini.” Joshua Friend delivered a marvelously mock serioso performance of the song with Janet Pummill at the piano.
An aside: 12 tone, sometimes called serial or dodecaphonic music, was invented by the German composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1921. Its purpose was to replace the diatonic scale, whose notes are arranged in a hierarchy of importance, with which we are all familiar. In its place, Schoenberg’s system uses an assembled and changeable arrangement of all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, called a row. (Thus the pun in the song on the name Rose). In this system, each note only relates to itself and none are more important harmonically. In strict 12 tone composition, each of these 12 notes must be used, and in the designated order, before any note can be reused. It became all the rage among composers, and the bane of audiences, up to the 1980s.
After the songs, Bray did an impromptu interview with Corigliano, which included a brief discussion of his life. He was born into a musical family. His father was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 26 years and his mother taught piano.
Corigliano’s telling of his life story was absolutely fascinating and full of oddities. For example, his father would move out of their Brooklyn house for the entire symphony season, taking an apartment near Carnegie Hall so he could practice all the time undisturbed.
It would be futile to relate any of his other stories here because his charming and deadpan delivery of such odd events, as well as career twists and turns, is impossible to recreate. However, for students of his music, this writer included, it was fascinating to hear.
» Read our interview with John Corigliano