Composer John Corigliano Visits Cleveland as CityMusic Commemorates His 80th Birthday Tonight

click to enlarge PHOTO BY J. HENRY FAIR
Photo by J. Henry Fair

It’s been about three decades since a major work by American composer John Corigliano has been heard in Cleveland.

Corigliano will be in town Friday evening to hear CityMusic Cleveland perform his “Red Violin Concerto” with soloist Tessa Lark and conductor Avner Dorman at Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Slavic Village. The concerto is based on material from his score for “The Red Violin,” which earned him an Academy Award in 2000. He was nominated almost 20 years earlier for Best Original Score after scoring the cult psychodrama Altered States, which starred actor William Hurt in his first major role.

The concerto’s main material was written before any of “The Red Violin” was shot. The idea was that the actors should have music to pantomime-play on camera. When shooting began in the summer of 1997, Corigliano adapted the material into a standalone piece which Joshua Bell — who played on the film’s soundtrack — premiered with the San Francisco Symphony. From there, the original single-movement “Red Violin Chaconne” evolved into a full-fledged, three-movement concerto.

“I always felt (the Chaconne) was incomplete because it only showed one side of me,” Corigliano said. “I have a wilder side I wanted to demonstrate.”

Corigliano, whose honors also include five Grammys and a Grawemeyer award, is turning 80 years old in February. Among groups like the New York City Ballet and Juilliard Orchestra planning concerts to honor the composer, The Cleveland Orchestra is a notable exception.

“They don’t play my music,” Corigliano said. “I’m sorry about that because they really are a great orchestra.”

The concerto is perhaps the culmination of Corigliano’s long and at times complicated history with the violin. Corigliano’s father was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony (as it was called back then) for 23 years. Far from encouraging his son to pursue music, Corigliano, Sr. actively tried to deter him.

“He thought I would starve to death, first of all,” Corigliano said.

Modernism in music was at its height when Corigliano was studying with Otto Luening at Columbia in the ‘50s.

“(Otto) said to me, ‘Why are you writing this kind of music in this time? It’s so out of date, and it’s so wrong.’”

Corigliano replied, “Because I think it’s beautiful.”

As Corigliano’s father saw it, audiences and musicians alike were being increasingly alienated by the prevailing expressionist style. Commission checks, if one got paid at all, were typically meager.

“My father said, ‘Why do you want to go into a world where nobody likes what you do and you don’t make any money?’”

Corigliano’s father went so far as to enlist the help of composers Vittorio Giannini and Paul Creston to turn his son away from a career in music. Fortunately, the plan backfired.

“He had them give me a lesson and wanted a report back that I should stop composing,” Corigliano said. “Neither of them said that.”

The discouragement didn’t end there. Corigliano’s first major hit was a violin sonata he composed in his 20s. It earned an award at the Spoleto festival in Italy and was championed in Boston by the renowned Roman Totenberg (the late father of National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg). Corigliano dedicated the sonata to his parents, hoping they would play it.

“My father didn’t look at it,” Corigliano said. “It was very sad for me.”

Corigliano stopped writing for a while. In fact, he’s stopped several times since then.

“Now is another one of those times where I just don’t think I’m going to write any more music,” Corigliano said.

But Corigliano has managed to keep himself busy whether he’s writing or not. Long before “entrepreneurship” became a tedious cliché at music schools, Corigliano kept himself busy producing for television and radio, starting his own business, and doing music festivals all over the world. He spent 13 years working with Leonard Bernstein on the popular “Young People’s Concerts.”

“I did lots of things to earn a living,” Corigliano said.

Years after the initial rejection, his father finally picked up the piece and learned it.

“His friends were saying to him, ‘Aren’t you going to play your son’s sonata?’” Corigliano said.

Corigliano’s father eventually gave the sonata’s New York premiere and recorded it with pianist Ralph Votapek for the CRI label.

“It wasn’t a happy experience until he finally saw the music for what it was,” Corigliano said. “He played it really for the rest of his life.”

By the time Corigliano’s father died in 1975, he had impressed on his son the seemingly endless potential of the violin as a solo instrument.

“He would practice a lot and I would hear him doing things, feeling what feels good on the violin and what doesn’t,” Corigliano said. “I feel like I have a knack for it, and I owe that to him.”

As part of his composing philosophy, Corigliano typically steers clear of writing for instruments that already have seemingly too much repertoire to choose from. He feels his music is more useful to players who need it.

“My other concerti are for flute, oboe, clarinet, guitar, percussion,” Corigliano said. “They’re all for more unusual solo instruments.”

He even blushes at having written a piano concerto, even though it was an early commission. And Corigliano says he never would have made a violin concerto if he hadn’t had to write music for “The Red Violin.”

That’s not to say the result was a typical violin concerto.

“I’m melodic and lyrical, but I’m also kind of sonoric and adventurous,” Corigliano said. “Very often that involves new notations, new ways of playing to get different sounds.”

For example, the soloist in the concerto executes what’s called a “crunch,” in which the bow is pressed firmly against the string and drawn about an inch to create a scratching, percussive noise. Or, Corigliano will draw a box around a pair of notes, indicating that the violinist should play a kind of fast tremolo.

Corigliano’s violin concerto acts as a point at the end of a through line that extends back to his violin sonata.

“I noticed in the last movement a gesture that I used at the end of the violin sonata,” Corigliano said. “There are things I do because they’re part of my natural style, the way I compose.”

Corigliano dedicated the concerto to his father’s memory.

“It’s the kind of concerto I hope he would play,” Corigliano said.

Yet Corigliano also stays true to his adventurous, wild side.

“I know he would rebel about the ‘crunches.’ He’d probably say, ‘I’m not going to do that,’” Corigliano said.

“The rest of it he would like a lot.”
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